The Trouble With Demos

By Alec Meer on May 22nd, 2008 at 6:14 pm.

The demo stands alone. In all of entertainment, with the possible and fairly rare exception of novel samplers, there’s nothing quite like it – it may be based on the same principles as a movie trailer or a single, but the execution and the eventual effect is entirely different. A movie trailer is a mash-up of the film’s best moments – often to the point that the film itself simply can’t measure up to that ninety seconds of concentrated bombast. A single is, in theory at least, the most immediate track from an album, the song that demonstrates that artist at the height of their abilities.

A demo? It’s got to do so much more than simply look cool or sound catchy.

It needs to convince you that this is what you want to spend 10, 20, 100, infinite hours playing. It’s got to be fun, it’s got to be challenging, it’s got to be aesthetically impressive. It’s got to make you want to spend $50 there and then.

And yet, so often, it’s just a slice from the front of the game – the slow bit from the start, the tutorial that tells you how to look up. Unless the developer’s created a custom level – a very rare practice – they don’t have much choice on the matter. Watching a film or listening to music is primarily a passive experience (for the sake of supporting that argument, I’ll not mention how often I have to draw my curtains so the people at the bus stop outside my window can’t see me dancing in my chair whenever itunes shuffles up something wondrous), something easily made to stand on its own, but most every game involves escalation of difficulty and complexity. It’s a deadly gamble to dump some middle or late-game content into a demo as a) without a few hours of prior context, it may prove entirely inaccessible and b) you don’t want the player to feel he’s seen everything and thus not bother playing the game.

I hear tales that people still play the Battlefield 1942 and Quake III demos online to this day, as they included enough of the games’ best weapons and maps to satisfy a number of players until, apparently, the end of time. Whoops. More recently, I’ve no idea how many people honestly didn’t buy Crysis because the demo inadvertently included every weapon and vehicle in the game, but I really can’t imagine it helped sales.

There are plenty of good, exciting demos that encouraged me towards the full thing. Bioshock’s a fine recent example – while I was immediately disappointed by its linearity, witnessing the plane crash, the spectacular first sighting of Rapture, inside and out, and those haunting strains of Django Reinhardt made for perhaps the most profound omigodomigodmustplaythisnow moments a demo’s ever given me. This says more about Bioshock than anything else – there aren’t many games that set so strong a scene, so quickly. Its demo was an introduction to its world, a true teaser. So many other demos are all tutorial and no trousers. And that can hurt them.

I’ve a specific, if very unlikely, recent game in mind: Timeshift. It certainly wasn’t A Great FPS. It was only sometimes A Good FPS. But it was, eventually, Quite A Fun FPS Regardless Of A Boatload of Missed Opportunities And Genre Stereotypes.

I smiled wryly when I spotted Yahztee picking on it as an example of an FPS that tries too hard during his recent Painkiller re-review. His stance was that Painkiller was refreshingly undiluted man-shoot fun in an age when every other FPS took itself too seriously. I personally felt Painkiller was too damned bland to achieve even that, but if it scratched his itch, fair enough. Timeshift, late last year, achieved exactly that effect for me.

There were a lot of terribly clever FPSes out or due out last Autumn/Winter, and Timeshift’s absolute simplicity – while finer control was on option, those time control powers boiled down to a single, context-sensitive button to be pushed in the event of either disaster or puzzle – proved to be something I swallowed up happily in spite of myself. And so I mentioned that I’d had fun with it down the pub, and several people regarded me with something like horror. What was wrong with me? Timeshift was clearly a piece of shit, they thought.

This theory was based on their having played the demo. So, confused, I played it myself, despite having already finished the full game. Immediately, I saw what I’d forgotten. The game’s first hour or two were terrible. The worst kind of FPS cliche, all corridor-crawling and firmly-bolted fake-doors, miserable grey walls and shameless Half-Life 2 plagiarism. If I’d have played only that, the red mist that so often comes for me would have had me deem Timeshift a 4 or a 5 out of 10. (I went 7 in my review, but I can entirely understand why others would go for a 6).

What the demo didn’t show was what the game became at about the three hour mark, the stuff I had in mind when writing up the review – it relaxed, stopped taking itself quite so seriously, and turned into a vaguely Max Payne by way of Serious Sam giggleathon. Wideish openish spaces, hordes of enemies and explodey things and the ability to pause or slow-mo time made it into a playground – there I was, dropping grenades amidst large packs of frozen men, slipping away and slipping back into real-time to watch the fireworks. Or freezing the game, stealing a weapon from an enemy’s hand then sniggering as he cried out first in confusion and then in terror once reality resumed. The crossbow whose bolts exploded a couple of seconds after impact offered endlessly hilarious torso-splitting. There was even a quad bike you could use to sail off ramps and over cliffs in slooooooow moooooooootionnnn orathyperfastspeed.

Absolutely, 100% meat-headed, and my enthusiasm waned in the game’s last few hours, but I had a load of fun in the middle. I’d never, ever recommend Timeshift over COD4 or Bioshock or HL2E2 or Crysis, but as a stop-gap FPS snack – yeah. Perhaps, had the demo consisted of one of the better, later levels, the game wouldn’t have sunk almost without trace.

That demo, though… Horrible, horrible. I just couldn’t believe it was released to promote the game. Only a fool would want to buy Timeshift after playing just those twenty miserable, monotone minutes. Timeshift went through a fairly torturous development process, being redesigned at least a couple of times and switching publisher halfway through, and I can only presume those earlier levels were either leftovers from a poorer draft or a misguided attempt to stamp some kind of theme and atmosphere – i.e. one purloined from HL2′s vision of a dystopic future – onto a game that, later, didn’t really have one, outside of comedy killings.

So, why was that first, dreary level made into the demo? Well, because demos generally aren’t treated as movie trailers are. A trailer’s a whole piece of work in and of itself, a team of editors and producers finely constructing a couple of customised minutes that show the film at its absolute best. A demo, generally, gets made during the short time between a game’s development being completed and the game going on sale. Only the very rich or very motivated will be able to come up with something tailor-made for promotion (memorably, Half-Life: Uplink, for instance – which came out quite some time after the game itself) – and so they just slice a convenient chunk off the top, stick a Click Here To Order The Full Game on the end and bung it out there.

You could make a custom level that will show the game in a better light and enrapture the existing fans, but will it really pay-off? Most likely, the publisher isn’t paying you any extra money for it, and you desperately need a holiday. Tutorial, first level, done. Maybe a slightly later level if it doesn’t ask anything out of the ordinary from the player.

The Witcher, released in the same month, is similar – its demo was generously massive, but the early portion of the game it included was widely agreed to be significantly inferior to what came later. The devs couldn’t exactly slip in something from 20 hours in and expect players to work out what to do, however. What choice did they have, bar creating a whole new mini-adventure?

Even the Crysis demo, which had the good fortune of being from a game in which its first level was in some ways its best, smacked of time-pressured slapdashery – how did no-one notice it contained the entire game’s aresenal and script? Presumably, because no-one put all that much effort into the demo.

That this seems to generally be the case is a shame. It’s got to have hurt some games. Indeed, one of the points that some pirates used to justify their proclivities during the comments pile-on a couple of weeks back is that they don’t feel demos are representative enough of a full game, and so they torrent the full thing to establish whether it’s worth buying. Or so they claim. Do they really buy it if is? I dare not conjecture.

Their point seemed more that a demo can make a game seem better than it is, does not hint at the dozen hours of repetition and difficulty spikes that could follow a strong starting level, but I rather feel the opposite is true. COD4′s another good example – the aptly-named Bog level in its demo very much made it seem like Just Another Bog-Standard Modern-Day FPS, not even hinting at the artful 24 riffing of the narrative or the epic setpiece levels. COD4 proved to be a massive hit, of course – but I don’t think the demo played much part in that. Enormously positive reviews and word of mouth seemed to be the secret of its success. Indeed, so many of the most popular games go without demos at all – the Halo series, TF2, The Sims… I suspect if the demo is to remain a foremost motivating factor in purchase decisions, it may need to try something a little a different than the norm.

…Which is all a very long-winded way of saying I’d love to see someone at least try the movie trailer, hyper-edited approach, just to see what happens. It could very well end up like ROM CHECK FAIL, of course.

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77 Comments »

  1. tentacleraep says:

    Reselling used PC-games on e-bay is usually actually illegal, at least if you have accepted the EULA, or as it says in some EULAs, in any way sidestepped the EULA and installed the game anyway.

    I usually install every game I buy so I can’t resell the ones I didn’t like.

  2. Gap Gen says:

    I bought CoD4 on the strength of the demo. CoD is about shooting, and the demo did that really well. In fact, all the CoD series demos have convinced me to buy the games, because they give you a perfect 15 minutes of shooting fun that I kept playing over and over. They’re not clever and don’t push the envelope like I keep insisting games should do, but they are very fun. Damn their eyes.

    Incidentally, I’m not sure about game trailers. Some do it really well, but many are just lame – interviews are particularly bad, because no-one wants to hear some nerd talking about a game when they could see it, really.

  3. Paul Moloney says:

    “Reselling used PC-games on e-bay is usually actually illegal”

    Well, since eBay have a specific category for used PC games, I can’t imagine it’s illegal enough for them to be concerned.

    And I doubt EULAs allow you to sign away basic legal rights. I mean, you could sign an EULA saying that in the event of you uninstalling the software, you have to murder your first-born, but I doubt it would stand up in court. I’d like to see something specific on this rather than hearsay.

    P.

  4. Ian says:

    @ Paul Maloney: I am, however, waiting for Bill Gates’ lackeys to turn up with a copy of the Vista EULA and claim my house or internal organs or something.

  5. Paul Moloney says:

    “I bought CoD4 on the strength of the demo.”

    Maybe I’m getting old, but CoD4 was the equivalent of having a man shouting in my ear “RUN OVER THERE! NOW RUN OVER THERE! DIVE! JUMP OFF THIS ROOF! NOW SHOOT THAT BLOKE! NOW RUN OVER THERE….”

    The CoD games have always done the “frantic action on rails” thing, but the CoD4 demo was like a gabba maniac on speed; I just wanted maybe 5 – maybe even 3 – seconds quiet where I could think about what I’m doing rather than just constantly reacting to events.

    P.

  6. cliffski says:

    surely the cod 4 demo was the worst one of the series. it *almost* put me off the game, but the actual game was phenomenal. They basically picked a bad level to show off. And tbh, the article is right, they should have picked moments from 3 or 4, but again, that then bloats the filesize :(

  7. Dinger says:

    On the legality of reselling software on Ebay, permit me to make a Point of Information.

    On demos: they are what separates amateurs from pros. Doom was a wild hit because of its demo. Operation Flashpoint‘s Demo underlies its huge success.
    And their approaches were completely different. Doom just cut off the game early. But wow — when the demo came out, I remember going into a Silicon Valley Fry’s electronics, and seeing every computer in the place running the Demo. And I remember seeing a lot of amazed people. It looked like nothing before. Gameplay? Tutorials? A distraction.

    OFP took the opposite approach (the developers getting extra time at the end): a mission not in the campaign, and a tutorial that showed you some ropes before sending you over the ridge and into a firefight. Again, the impact came from the shock. “That helicopter flying overhead isn’t possibly really simulated”, you think at the start of the mission…. At the end, it’s not a surprise that you’re boarding a helo.

    As the philosopher says, all knowledge starts with wonder. A demo doesn’t need to make us understand the game; it needs to make us seek that understanding.

  8. Gap Gen says:

    I dunno, I liked the demo. I like the adrenaline thing – maybe United Offensive raised my immunity to chaos and big shouty men. I didn’t feel like I was constantly about to die except when you defend the tank – unlike the mission where you search the village for Al-Asad, which I had to try several times to get right. It’s not the best level, but then I’d be pissed off if (as with many film trailers) they’d blown the best bits in the demo.

  9. Gap Gen says:

    Yes, I really wanted to know what would happen after you were shot down in Op Flashpoint’s demo. They had a similar mission in the actual game (not in the campaign) but they removed the bit where you were shot down.

  10. K says:

    The last demo which made me buy a game was the “Shogun: Total War” demo. It came in its own piece of cardboard and everything.

    Also, episode one is now a full purchase instead of free.

  11. Jonathan says:

    I only use demos to check my system can manage it. Good reviews and the word on the street (bitch) is what gets me to buy it. Generally I already know whether I’ll want it based on the genre/developer/review equation.

    The exception are obscurer games where the demo may be the only media out there for it.

  12. Okami says:

    @Dinger: I hate nitpicking (that’s a blatant lie, by the way), but Doom didn’t have a demo; it was shareware. So you got the first episode free and could pay to get the whole game. I think the main difference between the shareware version of a game and a demo is, that shareware games tend to be designed around the concept of getting roughly a third of the game for free, demos on the other hand mostly get developed as an afterthought.

  13. Paul Moloney says:

    The last demo that converted me from a game I wasn’t particularly interested in to one I bought immediately was, I have to say, World of Warcraft. Once my trial was over, I went out and bought it the next day retail (unusual for me, as I’m normally loath to pay the ridiculous retail prices charged here – example: RE4 (Wii) which I just bought – €32 online, €55 in Irish shops).

    P.

  14. Alaphic says:

    I can’t believe you didn’t deign to mention the portal demo in your article. It’s probably the only demo that I found worthwhile in a long time. While at first I thought it would be a cop-out first-few-levels thing, it ended up skipping around a bit and showing off some of the things you could do later on, without ruining anything for you when you got the game. While most people who were going to get it had already gotten it by the time the demo came out, I still think it was a great effort.

  15. Phil says:

    I suppose the question is when does a beta actually become a demo?

    For me Mount and Blade seems the benchmark for best ‘demo’ ever – from jumping into some epic quick battles to grinding up through the early levels, you get a complete flavour of the game.

    Its also a fantastic way of funding game development – with the price of the serial number necessary to unlock the full game increasingly incrementally as they add more stuff to each version of the demo.

    Though OK, maybe Cannon Soccer had it’s merits too.

  16. Andrew Farrell says:

    Fortunately Stephen Spielberg unbeknownst to himself designed a perfect demo level for Lego Indy 25 years ago.

  17. RichPowers says:

    Reselling PC games on eBay isn’t illegal, in the US at least, thanks to the first sale doctrine.

    However, DRM schemes (like limiting the number of installs) are technological means to circumvent the first sale doctrine.

    I buy the vast majority of my PC games on eBay for $10 or so because that’s the most I’m willing to pay. Therefore, I don’t always need a demo because I can live with a $10 loss if the game is crappy.

  18. alphaxion says:

    rich: that’s not mentioning the issue of companies not selling you the software but selling the license to use the software and declaring in your eula that the license is non-transferable.

  19. Gurrah says:

    I don’t work in the industry, but would it be so difficult and expensive to tell a small part of the team to put together a level/map/stage that shows a little bit of everything and is specially tailored to whet the players apetite? And all of that should happen DURING the development process, not 2 months after the game has been released. The biggest problem with all those games getting deeper stories and narratives is giving away too much in the demo, why not make it more or less essential to play the demo with bits of storyline that accompany and complement the final game. This way you can get players hooked on the story.

  20. Darius K. says:

    The finest demo of all time is the Jagged Alliance 2 demo. It was a custom level (or rather set of levels) that showed off several key systems of the game. It was entirely contrived, you’d never run into that combination of location types and weapons in the real game, but they made it work and even gave the level its own unique narrative arc. The demo was released a full year before the game, and yet I must have played through it once a week for that entire year!!

    You can still get it here. Although I haven’t tested the download itself, it was added in 1998 so I’m pretty sure it’s the right one.

    By the way, don’t confuse this with the Jagged Alliance 2 “demo” that’s the full game with a 2-hour timer. That was released by Strategy First a few years back.

  21. Gurrah says:

    I do remember that demo Darius, it was awesome! There were so many facets to it. I was still young and fairly new to gaming so it took a few, and by few I mean at least 20, tries and restarts before I was actually able to get into the cellar. I don’t know if it was because of the demo, but JA2 is still one of my favourite games, there is nothing like it out there. Thanks for reminding me of that wonderful piece of my gaming history :)!

  22. Dinger says:

    Okami — granted, but these days, we don’t call games that give you their first levels free “shareware”. We call them demos with content that can be activated. And yeah, to nitpick, the distinction is that shareware can be freely copied and distributed, while the games these days have distribution schemes in place that make swapping files kinda silly. Anyway, business model aside, the Demo Scheme is the same: develop a game, give away as demo the first part. It’s quick-n-dirty, and it only works with some games.

    I don’t work in the industry, but would it be so difficult and expensive to tell a small part of the team to put together a level/map/stage that shows a little bit of everything and is specially tailored to whet the players appetite?

    Yeah, it seems obvious. But videogames are weird. First, it’s a creative field with shifting technology goalposts. Second, it’s one where there are relatively few “old hands”, and those that are there, grew up in a different era.
    So development times grow longer, often longer than even the vets (if you have any) predict. (Well, sure, it’d be nice to have some folks whose job it was purely to predict, but if you could afford them, you’d rather spend the money paying that person to tell you whom to hire).
    If you’re not established, you usually have to get money from somewhere, and that involves selling your soul to a deadline nobody can predict, but that economics require be sooner rather than later. And, if you’re not established, that’s where a demo really matters. So often companies are screwed: by the time the product is mature enough to build a demo, they don’t have time to put together a good one. The result: no love for the demo; players have no love for the game.

  23. Grandstone says:

    I’m with Zeno. I download demos to make sure if I can actually run a game.

  24. Rockeye says:

    Some of the best demos that I remember were:

    Command & Conquer: Three levels from the GDI campaign, the first mission, the commando mission and a later base building mission that gave access to a fair amount of the tech tree. I played it to death, then bought the game. I liked how the demo missions were slightly different from the actual in game ones.

    Jedi Knight II: A custom level just for the demo that introduced the good parts of the game that a standard first-level-of-the-game demo wouldn’t have had (force powers, lightsaber battles). I played through it after completing the actual game because it was new content.

  25. Kris says:

    I dont agree with (much) earlier comment that game without demos arent likely to be good. There’s far too many counter examples to list. But aside from that, I was really impressed with the (please don’t shout at me) Wind Waker demo. But I guess Zelda game mechanics – give ability, present immediate practice of it – lend themselves to a demo. Plus giving away one cool use of major tool is a great tease to inspire full purchase.

  26. malkav11 says:

    I’m not sure that the majority of the essential issues with demos can be fixed, at this point. It would certainly help to design the game with the intent of being able to easily splash out a demo at the end of the development process, but even so, with the size of today’s game assets and so on, I have a hard time seeing demos for 8-12 gig games that are going to clock in at less than 4-6, y’know? And that’s just way too much downloading for the snippet of content demos generally offer. If it’s substantial play for the size, that’s great. But how do you offer that if the game itself is under 10 hours? (as so many of the enormous installing games are…something I appreciate, actually, as it means I can more quickly reclaim that space.)

    At the same time, one really does need to be able to try the game in advance of purchase. Reviews help but aren’t going to address your unique set of tastes and hardware setup. So yes, for some people, the solution they’ve hit upon is piracy. Obviously that’s not one that’s very industry-friendly. What I’d like to see is a PC gaming rental option similar to console rental outfits like Gamefly (or the in-store rental options of places like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video). Better still, integration of PC gaming rentals with the console gaming rental plans. I’m more than happy to pay 15-30 bucks a month to try a number of games at once and then purchase the ones with staying power.

    Of course, the obstacle is piracy. So I don’t know what to do, frankly.

  27. Anonymousity says:

    I think one of the best demos I ever played was the fallout 1 demo 10 years ago I hadn’t heard of the game but as soon as I played the modified with it’s own little cosmos of quests junktown map I was hooked