The Slow, Strange Death Of The Demo

By Alec Meer on May 26th, 2011 at 1:41 pm.

Floppies are cool, and you know it

I miss demos. I miss them so much. I wouldn’t be here, writing these words, if it weren’t for demos: how else could a sport-fearing, skinny young misery with only the slightest pittance for pocketmoney have found his way into playing video games? Once, my bedroom was littered with floppy discs, each and every one of which had at some point led to me standing outside a game shop, counting pennies with a quivering hand, praying I had enough.

Granted, magazines were the gateway drug back then, when there was no way to watch a trailer or scour Facebook for new screenshots, but later in life the web too seemed an infinite fount of sampled digital delights, and led to any number of purchases of those games that seemed the most absorbing – or simply because the demo ended, apparently expertly, at a point which left me urgently hungry for more. Those days are gone.

Demos still exist and probably always will, but they’ve become the exception rather than the rule. Even in the last couple of years, the decline has been rapid – it’s a relative rarity to post about one on RPS now. Publishers seem to have settled on marketing and heavy, heavy promotion (often including bewildering ARGs) as the alternative – a surer way to drum up interest in and expectation for the game, and one that does so without the dread risk of a gamer discovering that, actually, they don’t like this all that much. For some really big games, the norm even seems to be not releasing a demo until weeks or months after the full release, presumably to help drum up those few stragglers who somehow resisted the pervasive trailers and advertisements. (Not PC-related, but I noticed a demo for Halo: Reach came out earlier this week. Timely, eh?)

Adverts and trailers don’t tell you the truth, but so often they’re all we get to go on until embargoes lift and launch-day reviews land. In a very fundamental way, such marketing lies about the experience you’re going to have. The camera angles are rarely those you’ll see yourself, while the checkpoints and the chokepoints and the guy named CockLord12 and all the minor irritations (and indeed minor, personal pleasures) you’d experience bear no mention. It sells an idealised version of the game experience, and one that leans far too closely to the movie model – nothing at all to do with the act of playing a videogame. I couldn’t buy a game based on promotion alone, and to be honest I probably couldn’t buy it on reviews alone – I need to try it myself, see whether it lights up those strange pathways in my brain that entail not just passing enjoyment but complete fixation upon the experience at hand. I need a demo.

This has happened in my recent as well as distant past. King’s Bounty: The Legend is a game I would probably never have encountered were it not for its demo. It’s certainly not a game I would have ended up evangelising while most of the rest of the games industry studiously ignored it. There’s any amount of weird and wonderful and terrible and indecipherable games out there that we may never hear of, because there wasn’t a demo than anyone could play right away. Even for mainstream games the perks are there: while Bioshock may have ultimately struggled to live up to its hype in some ways, let’s not forget the sheer excitement around its pre-release demo. It was a happy frenzy, a global gamer’s talking point in a way that a trailer or a pre-order incentive could never be.

The value and the interest that can stem from a good demo launched at the right time (right at the point where you can go on to spend money on the full thing) is surely incalculable, but its perception seems severely diminished of late. Marketing can be controlled, but a demo, an increasing refrain goes, is simply giving away precious content for free. In my stint working for GamesIndustry.biz, I heard any number of publishers and developers claiming that there were too many gamers out there somehow assembling a fully gaming diet simply by bouncing from demo to demo and never buying anything. If they bounced, that was surely either because they couldn’t find anything they really, truly wanted to stick to, or that they simply didn’t feel they could afford many games anyway. Nothing is lost – but a resultant sale to those who are suitably enraptured is that much more likely.

The decline of demos probably too stems from the budgets and manhours necessary to turn out a modern, high-end video game – to pour yet more resources into a tailored slice of interactive demonstration is no doubt unappealing to a team beaten down by crunchtime. I’m deeply worried that publishers are calling the shots though, worried that a demo undermines marketing efforts – worried about gamers actually seeing the game, for fear a different message is sold. Call of Duty is an easy example – the hype and sense of event around what it’s going to be, what’s going to happen would perhaps be deflated by a demo’s concrete proof that beneath the clamour it’s just another high-budget shooter very similar to the last one. Which is not actually to malign CoD, but to comment on the fact that the promotion makes it into something almost mystical, something far beyond any possible reality. Bringing expectations down to Earth is probably the last thing the publisher wants.

Selling a different reality and avoiding exposing the reality can happen in more direct fashion too – take Brink’s splendid-looking TV adverts, for example. They suggest something very action movie, very glossy and very narrative-driven, rather than the solid, tactical and clever team shooter the game really is. As a result, we have a mixed message, but I’m convinced a demo finding its way to curious gamers would serve to strengthen their sense of, and hopefully interest in, Splash Damage’s thoughtful multiplayer game.

The other side of the coin is making the increasing rareness of a demo a promotional event in itself – the Duke Nukem Forever demo got its own announcement video, and will for a while be made exclusive to people who bought specific editions of Borderlands. It’s not about promoting the game, about letting people establish whether or not they’re interested in the game, but instead it’s treated as a reward to be fought and paid for, a product in itself: the polar opposite of the traditional demo. I don’t like having to beg to be marketed at. See also: Facebook Likes unlocking screenshots. Promotion becomes the reward, one we plead for rather than one we choose to assess.

Many indies know better, or at least know that because they lack the option of brute-force, high-spend marketing they have to use other means of letting people know what their game is like. Take a look at demo-hub GamersHell and there are so, so few game demos listed there – and of those that are, the vast majority are indie. Yet still so many indies resist – even most of the mails we get from indie devs simply contain a link to a trailer, with the lack of anything playable both complicating what we can usefully say about the game and the possibility of it capturing the affections of our readers. Frozen Synapse is out today, for instance. It’s ace, you should try it and see if you like it as much as I do. Oh, you can’t. Watch a trailer, I guess. Quite obviously, I have no empirical figures for any of my grandiose claims and if the industry’s moving away from demos they’ve probably found very convincing business reasons for it, but I can’t shake the nagging gut feeling that the loss of yesterday’s means of talking point leaves a huge hole in our gaming lives.

Of course, the rise of free to play may turn things more demo-wards in a way. The first hit’s free, kids, but cough up now if you want to play the rest. I’m actually more than fine with that model – it’s when you have to seperately pay for features or an advantage that the F2P concept makes me ill at ease. Have a go, work out if it’s for you, pay to unlock the rest has forever seemed an eminently sensible way to market a game. Unless it’s a game with a really boring beginning that’s mostly tutorial and exposition, of course, but that’s a whole other kettle of silly design decisions. (Which reminds me of an earlier post about demos, and why they’re so often very wrong and even misleading to focus on the first chunk of a game).

Demos: come back. They’re why we found games, why we experienced so much, and why we spent so damned much. You are not a relic of a more naive age, but the key to future discovery. We need you. The industry needs you.

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181 Comments »

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  1. Legionary says:

    Demos though were always misleading. I’d like quite like them back too, but more so I can judge the tech requirements of a game. They never reflected the trutth of the gaming experience, I think.

    • Calneon says:

      I think they reflected the true experience much more than trailers or screenshots ever could. In fact, I can’t remember a demo in which the actual game was much different at all to the demo. Usually it’s a level from the main game (HL2, Bulletstorm), a multiplayer demo restricted to one map (BF2, Crysis 2). Do you have any examples in which the demo misrepresented the full game?

    • mouton says:

      Misleading demo still misleads much less than a misleading trailer or some shill 9/10 review.

    • wcaypahwat says:

      Calneon: Half life. had the Uplink demo, which was a whole new level. Also Thief 2 had one based on an in game level, but with a lot of changes (it was actually better than the proper mission)

    • dysphemism says:

      At least one could be assured that a demo wasn’t some pre-rendered, Photoshopped affair that in no way reflected the reality of gameplay. Perhaps they showed off the best of what the game had to offer, and perhaps the rest of the game was more (or less) of the same, but it was still vastly more reflective of the product than the marketing of today.

      I, too, mourn the death of demos.

    • Commenter says:

      Age of Conan was one of those games if you count the open beta a few days before launch as a demo.

      You were able to play up to level 20 and complete the whole tutorial island Tortage. The whole island was a beautifully designed experience with full well-executed voiceovers, cutscenes and a stringent story that you could be part of as some kind of single player spinoff.
      Not only felt it like a well-rounded experience, it also was virtually bug-free and actually convinced many doubters to buy the game.

      Unfortunately, after completing the island in the full version of the game and leaving it, all characters suddenly went mute (literally even the first person greeting you after leaving the island didn’t talk), all cutscenes were gone, the huge main story turned into a boring optional side-story and the game was a buggy hellhole for several more months.

      It was a great marketing stunt but definitely didn’t show the true game.

    • MrPyro says:

      I remember the demo for Terror from the Deep being brutally hard; so that was quite indicative of the game.

    • Gonefornow says:

      Dark Messiah of Might and Magic had quite a splendid demo: the best area of the whole game.
      That implies that the rest of the game ain’t as good, but it sold it for me.
      Do I call it misleading? Not really.
      I have just been playing the same map over and over and over again..

    • anonymousity says:

      Fallout 1’s demo was misleading but more in a way that when I played the game it was way more awesome than the demo with it’s closed parameters had led me to believe.

    • viverravid says:

      Half life. had the Uplink demo

      Which was extremely representative of the game itself, without spoiling anything (seeing as it was based on a level they cut. Also, there was a limited release demo of Half Life that was the first chapter or two of the game). Same for the Theif 2 one, IIRC – not misleading, just not cut directly from the game.

  2. abigbat says:

    I’d love to see the return of shareware. A 15 demo is a nice way to check how a game performs on your system and give you a feel for it’s mechanics, but give me an hour or two of content and I’ll become invested in the world (pretty much guaranteeing a purchase).

    • icupnimpn2 says:

      Many of the developers that would have released shareware 20 years ago (hobbyists, amateurs, small studios) now make flash games and browser games that are no cost to the end-user. These are sustained now by ad revenue and licensing dollars. Why make a whole game, give away a third of it for free (Commander Keen) and hope the money rolls in for the rest? You can instead make a third of a game, let a game portal host it online, get some instant revenue, and then make another short installment if that does well.

    • Brutal Deluxe says:

      I have to say, I really appreciate the way xbox live arcade works. Every game on there has an unlockable demo. As a result, they’ve gotten a lot of my cash over the years.

  3. CMaster says:

    It’s very, very rare for me to purchase a game without a demo.

    And often when I have, it was a mistake, making me less keen to do so again. It disappoints me that Valve have been so bad with demos, after the spectacular beginning that was Half Life Uplink.

    • Premium User Badge

      LarsBR says:

      Half Life Uplink is actually both a good and a bad example, seeing as it was released a full three months after the game, and contained levels cut during production. (That’s what they call “DLC” these days).

    • Daniel Rivas says:

      The half-life 2 demo convinced me to buy the orange box.

  4. HexagonalBolts says:

    I rarely go to the bother of downloading a demo. Reviews usually give me a better indication of whether something is good or not, and it’s a pain to download a massive file for a few minutes of playing that I will only have to play again when I get the full game.

    • unimural says:

      I agree fully.

    • Zeewolf says:

      Yeah, I agree. I find usually demos more of a hassle than they’re worth, especially since devs don’t seem to care about file size any more. So what if the demo only lasts for fifteen minutes, I still have to download half the content from the full game if not more, including five hundred megs of intro movies.

      Besides, I find that demos spoil the experience somewhat. If I play a demo containing the first bit of a game I really want to play, then when the actual game comes around I’ve already played the first bit and it’s not that interesting any more.
      So as long as I’ve got enough money, I just buy whatever I want to play and… well, play it. Sure, I waste a bit of money but I tend to shop around for good prices or wait for discounts anyway, so it’s not a big deal. And besides, I do read reviews and stuff, so it’s not like I don’t know what I’m paying for.

      Edit: Though to be fair, demos were massively important for me back when I was a kid and bought Amiga mags with coverdisks. They ensured that I got to try most of the big releases, and they provided me with a lot of cheap fun at a time where full games were both expensive and hard to find around here (there were places selling them, but the shelf space was limited).

      The thing is, though, that back in those days reviews and previews was something I _bought_. So I had one, at best two, reviews of individual games. That’s very important to remember, and it made demos much more useful than they are today, with reviews (and user reviews) freely available from dozens of sources.

    • Wandering_Mania says:

      To take a line from a game that got a really bad rep but is really enjoyable. “Sais the corprate tool”.
      The line is from Alfa Protocall and that game is quite fun but got rated low by alot of diffrent reviewers.
      Also he is right demos do send out good messages to let people know what the game is like. But depending on what the message is can make or brake a game. If the game itself is like what brink was (No diffrent than what looked like a slap togeather job that all the work and all you payed for was a new engine) then it could lose the game makers money because no one wants to buy it. On the other hand the olny reason I spent most of my youth from about age 13 to age 18 in Ever Quest was because of a demo I got off of a cd.

  5. Premium User Badge

    MerseyMal says:

    I agree, though I also miss games being released as shareware, that gave a large amount of the game away for free, to encourage you to buy the rest e.g. Doom.

  6. Premium User Badge

    AndrewC says:

    What’s the company that calls it Play4Free instead of Free2Play? It’s actually a rare good marketing decision. Treat those things like *really* big demos in which you can get a huge amount on content and a real game experience, and then if you like it, you pay money to get the whole thing. Free2Play gives the impression, especially with the entitled nature of gamers, that they get the whole thing.

    Play4Free is a bit of good demo news, only hidden behind not being called a demo. It’s not all bad news.

  7. Vexing Vision says:

    And on the other hand, you have Demos like Dragon Age 2, which I think did more harm to the games sales than anticipated.

    Demos are a risky thing. When we launched the GRID demo, it underwent at least three major revisions to make sure it’s the most polished thing of the whole game – that was a lot of additional work, and in effect, cost nearly more than a well-rounded marketing campaign.

    • Marshall Stele says:

      These are my thoughts. If I were a developer, I would avoid having anything to do with a demo, and ensure that no one else released a demo without my permission. But as someone who plays games, I desperately need them. I didn’t purchase DA2 solely on the basis of the demo.

    • NunianVonFuch says:

      But did it work? I bought GRID based on the demo, wouldn’t have been interested in it otherwise but the demo hooked me. There must be some data out there for who downloaded the demo and bought the full game, for the consoles where it’s all tied to your gamertag anyway.

    • Vexing Vision says:

      It worked, but it wasn’t certain that it would. I think for the dev costs of the demo, a full ad campaign would have increased sales.

      Though I personally enjoyed the demo, too. :)

    • Heliocentric says:

      I got grid on the back of the demo, full price on steam at release. Multiplayer in the demo was a genius move.

    • Flameberge says:

      The GRID demo was of massive import for me as well: it demonstrated that the keyboard controls on the PC version were, frankly, terrible. As such I instead bought it on 360, after enjoying the 360 demo. Without the demo I may have taken the plunge with the PC version, and then got frustrated and missed out on an extremely good game, as this was before I had the 360 controller dongle for my PC.

    • Tacroy says:

      And on the other hand, you have Demos like Dragon Age 2, which I think did more harm to the games sales than anticipated.

      I think that’s exactly why large companies don’t make demos any more. They’re a no-win situation, so why bother?

      If the game sucks, a demo will kill your sales.

      If the game rocks, word of mouth will do more for your sales than a demo ever would.

      If the game is only so-so, a demo probably won’t change your sales figures by much.

      So essentially, from a business perspective, releasing a demo is at best a waste of effort and at worst will hurt your sales. At that point, why do it?

    • Urael says:

      Tacroy, Word of Mouth can be generated by a demo. Way back when, the demo of unreal Tournament (99) not only gave me my first taste of offline deathmatch but also introduced me to the wonders of Instagib. That didn’t just convince me to buy that game but the next two releases as well (2003, 2004).

    • Lightbulb says:

      Why release a demo?
      Stop people pirating it…
      You may say who will do that? I say… …people I know.

      Put it another way. A hell of a lot of games have unofficial demo’s on bit-torrent. The problem is once you have such a demo why bother to buy it?

      I won’t pay £30 for anything I cannot play before I play it a bit. Since I don’t use bit-torrent I just don’t buy them until they are incredibly cheap.

      I can’t be the only one.

    • bob_d says:

      Trailers cost less and apparently do a much better job of selling games:
      http://multiplayerblog.mtv.com/2008/04/14/study-publishers-shouldnt-release-demos-just-trailers/

  8. Premium User Badge

    Darkelp says:

    I agree, I miss demos, I miss freeware that let you play the first chapter of a game for free, as many times as you want!
    The only reason I bought Duke Nukem 3d and Doom was because the demo whet my appetite to play more.
    Demos also got me into games, they were something I always looked forward to, and the lack of demos has certainly stopped me from buying games. At least on release day, no demo generally leads me to buying the game when it’s about £2 on Steam.
    I also find it funny that pre-owned is cited as a big issue at the moment, but many people will buy a game, not like it and trade it in. Surely this issue could be fixed by releasing a demo for people to judge before putting money down?
    Perhaps that’s just too logical….

  9. pakoito says:

    Brütal Legend Demo. I rest my case.

    • dalziel86 says:

      Brutal Legend had a *great* demo. And then the game was great. I loved it. I don’t understand what you’re saying here.

      • belgand says:

        The demo WAS great. I’d been following the game’s story for a while and looking forward to it for a long time since it really hit all of my pleasure centers. Then the demo came out and it was just wonderful.

        The problem is that shortly thereafter when the game was actually released it was stated that, well, the game itself wasn’t really much like the demo at all. It was showing the opening of the game and apparently wasn’t trying to be intentionally misleading, but the game turned out to be a lot more of an RTS rather than the 3d action-platformer we saw in the demo.

        Sometimes a demo does the opposite too and fails to highlight the best aspects of a game. Perhaps this was the mirror universe where Psychonauts was a terrible game that sold amazingly well and the action-platformy bits weren’t very good while the RTS was great and we never got to see it in the demo.

  10. KikiJiki says:

    Who here remembers the Quake 3 demo?

    I spent 5 hours hogging my family’s 56k connection to get it.

    Good times!

    • Gnoupi says:

      It ran every evening on the limited allowed space we had on the university computers.
      Good times.

    • Quinnbeast says:

      That was one of many for me.

      I think my biggest on dial-up was a 10 hour/150mb slog in the form of the Deus Ex demo, took damn near a week (and a very effective download manager) in short bursts to get hold of that sucker. I probably spent as much in phone bill as I did buying the full title.

    • adonf says:

      That was actually a tech demo, they call those ‘open beta’ these days…

    • Flameberge says:

      The demo I was most proud of downloading on a 56k modem, before I had heard of download managers was the race to download the 19mb(!) Monster Truck Madness 2 demo within the two hours between dial-up and automatic disconnect. It took three attempts as I remember.

    • Uglycat says:

      I spent 6 hours on a 14.4k modem downloading 9mb demo of Dark Forces somewhere in 1994. Had to reset the modem to silent because it woke the whole house up otherwise, and had to set an alarm because the line would drop every 2 hours.

      Good times.

  11. Wunce says:

    I remember a few demos that I played and went “multiply that by 4 hours and now I don’t have to buy the game”. Hey yeah, I just noticed that we can’t have demos of modern shooters because you’d play half of the game for free.

  12. a.nye.123 says:

    The PC Gamer demo disc was actually the only source of PC games that I had for a while, thanks to a meagre pocket money rate. That and the Sold Out range.

  13. Ertard says:

    If the game is a console port and it doesn’t have a demo, I’ll pirate it first and see that it isn’t completely jacked up.

    If the game is a PC exclusive (like The Witcher 2) I just buy it if I trust the developer. Would be nice having demos for everything though, and one thing that really annoys the hell out of me is when devs bother to do demos, and then just release them for consoles.

    Why is that so hard to port, really?

  14. mandrill says:

    Demos still exist. They’re just called betas. They are still simply a marketing tool used to build hype around a title and allow those who particpate in them to feel like they are a part of the development process (which in some rare cases is actually the case, Minecraft for example, but these are indeed rare).

    Don’t be fooled by the change of name. Betas are Demos. Calling them a beta simply allows the devs to rush out slightly unpolished and unfinished code to the end user.

  15. Premium User Badge

    tomeoftom says:

    Hear, hear!

  16. I LIKE FOOD says:

    If Brink had a demo it would sell less, especially on the pc.

    • yhalothar says:

      Actually, I downloaded a “demo version” to check it out, and after a couple of hours, went out and bought a legit copy. I would’ve probably never bought it if I were to trust popular opinion on the Internet or most reviews.

    • I LIKE FOOD says:

      There are exceptions of course. But generally people would not buy Brink after a demo.
      http://imageshack.us/photo/my-images/855/hyhtht.jpg/

    • Droniac says:

      Nonsense, Brink would sell much better, especially on the PC, if they’d release a one-map multiplayer demo.

      Its intelligent team-based multiplayer gameplay appeals to a large audience that’s been starving for a good multiplayer shooter to play for the better part of a decade. The people who liked Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, Tribes, Savage, Natural Selection, Jedi Academy, or even Quake Wars. Even just people who like competitive multiplayer FPS gaming, which has been pretty much dead these past few years. Brink is easily better than Quake Wars, which makes it the best game of its kind since Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory.

      The silly negative reviews that all seem to focus on the poor singleplayer and how it’s not CoD are turning off loads of players who would actually greatly enjoy this kind of game. It’s much better than any other recent multiplayer FPS, with sole exception of Bad Company 2 if you prefer large-scale warfare with vehicles.

      It’s also clearly designed as a PC FPS game, for PC FPS fans, with the PC version as the leading platform. The PC version is easily the most polished one with far fewer problems than the Xbox 360 version. In fact, nearly all the main complaints leveled at the console versions (texture pop-in, long loading times, no lobby, lag) are practically non-existent in the PC version. On top of that it had dedicated servers, a server browser, config files to tweak, anti-cheat functionality, proper PC controls and settings, etc.

    • Premium User Badge

      RobF says:

      It’d probably sell much better if I could buy it, never mind play a demo ;)

  17. icupnimpn2 says:

    Eh, I lived by the demo as a kid because I was never going to afford a $50 game. I ignore the demo as an adult because so many excellent games are $10 or less.

    The last demo I downloaded was for SPAZ. It says your progress can’t carry into the full version. Something I don’t like about demos is investing time into the game and then having to start over. Even for a great game, that makes my patience wear thin.

    • Gormongous says:

      Especially for SPAZ, where the demo is effectively the extremely hand-holding tutorial of the “full” game.

  18. Rond says:

    The pirate bay, for all your demo needs.

    • Premium User Badge

      Snidesworth says:

      Piracy does often seem to be the only plausible way of trying out a game before you buy it these days, both so that you can see if you like it and to ensure that your computer can run it. It might even be possible that we see less and less demos because people believe that those who want a demo experience will simply pirate the game instead.

    • Commisar says:

      eh, Demonoid ftw, members only so it isn’t loaded with viruses and spam

    • anduin1 says:

      shhh dont talk about demonoid

  19. Nim says:

    That Duke Nukem Forever Demo won’t be exclusive for very long though. A week at most.

  20. groovychainsaw says:

    I really like the demo availability of thing on (non-PC alert!) the xbox live arcade. The fact that every game on there has a trial that you can play for a bit, with the achievements and progress held hostage, but can be freed by buying the full version is a great one. I’d love this to be the norm on all digital distibution. Play the first 15-30 minutes of the game, then pay to unlock the rest (kinda like shareware of old, now i think about it).

    Without this, with demos, some games were killed for me after enjoying an hour of the demo/tutorial but then not wanting to face playing through all that again (Maybe thats a weird ‘me’ feature ;-)). Of course, there have also been games that were getting hyped and i was excited about and the demos put me off them – I can understand completely why publishers wouldn’t want a demo in this case.

    I remember when demos were all we had, too, the only way we’d find anything out about a game was the first time we played on a floppy disc. I had no money to buy games, so would play demos to death (worms springs to mind).Those were the days. I feel old. :-S

  21. KauhuK says:

    Frozen Synapse is released? I haven’t gotten any emails from them about it.

  22. Tony M says:

    The most frenzy inducing demo was the Wake Island map for Battlefield 1942. But that game/demo had the advantage of showing something truly new. There was no danger of people playing it and thinking “yeah I’ve seen this before”.

  23. Scythe says:

    I’m fairly sure I played more MP_BEACH in the RTCW multiplayer demo than I ever did in the full version of the game. I can think of a number of games of that era which had demos that largely removed the need of buying the game. Especially as a young teenager with zero spending money and a high tolerance for repetition, demos can scratch that itch pretty well. I remember playing through the Jedi Knight: Dark Forces demo literally, no joke, hundreds of times.

    That said, I think releasing demos does more good than harm overall, but I can see why developers put them by the wayside during crunch time. The project is being rushed to completion by the end date, not the demo release date. A demo should be sliced off the block once the game has gone gold, but by that time the development team are soaking their scabbed hands in salt water baths, wondering whether they’ll ever be able to code again. Releasing a pre-gold, buggy demo would do FAR more damage to a game’s reputation than not releasing one at all.

    • OctaneHugo says:

      RtCW is my favorite multiplayer game ever, and Beach the first map I played – though not through demo. But my oh my, that was a fantastic game. I played Beach probably more than any other map despite my extensive playtime, simply because it was what servers tended to reset to when they crashed – but it’s one of the most fun maps I can think of in an online shooter, and I was always up for a round or two on mp_Beach.

    • Drovek says:

      You and I, we are the same.

      I played MP_Beach to death. I have many fond memories of playing it at my school’s library with some friends for hours and hours.

      And you know what? I ended up buying the damn thing! Because I really liked it! (And for the record: Yes, one of my friends had shared his game with me, so I did play the SP before, but even then I really felt like paying the devs for such a great MP game. And then jumping online, finding every server on MP_Beach… )

      Diablo 2? I bought it after reaching level 25 on the demo! (That’s insane, by the way, considering the small area that it shows.)

      You know what? Without a demo I’m more likely to wait until it hits bargain-bin in Steam, because I can’t try your product (word of mouth isn’t enough for me, unless it’s from people I really trust.) Specially when you consider system requirements stuff in modern games (GTA:ELC being my last offender: Thing runs bad and isn’t the most impressive looking thing. At least compared to the likes of Just Cause 2.) And with a demo I might consider games that I wouldn’t have otherwise (SpaceChem being the most recent one. I had hours of fun optimizing in the demo, so why the heck not? I bought it full-price, not waiting for a drop/sale.)

  24. Lewie Procter says:

    The Arkham Asylum demo is one of good examples of a demo that seriously sold the game to a lot of people.

    They even remixed bits from the main game, rather than just giving you a chunk of the game, so you didn’t know exactly what to expect when you played the full game.

    • Vexing Vision says:

      That is a great point. Batman is one of my favourite titles, but I wouldn’t have rushed to the shops on Day 1 if I hadn’t been blown away by the demo before.

    • Premium User Badge

      Monchberter says:

      I would have bought Arkham Asylum much earlier than I did if I had been bothered to play the demo.

    • Igor Hardy says:

      That’s weird because I hated that demo and lost interest in Arkham Asylum because of it for a while. But when I finally decided to buy the game after all during a sale, I was blown away by the full experience.

      It was not just that the demo could be better made, it would have to be considerably longer because at first you don’t seem to have almost any control over Batman’s fighting moves. It takes time to find out how it works.

    • grnr says:

      sadly the arkham asylum demo made my computer cry from the strain, simply letting me know that it wasn’t gonna run. sad times!

  25. Baggypants says:

    Torchlight had a demo and was exactly why I bought the game. Not only but also the progress you made in the demo could be continued in the full game.

  26. Premium User Badge

    Nero says:

    I do most of my purchases basing on reading about the game, seeing some (gameplay) trailers and generally just knowing beforehand that it’s something I want. But for some games which I think looks interesting but need to try it, a demo is worth very much. There have been some games where after just playing a minute of the demo and seeing that I want it. Silly as heck and some games has only demos on consoles and not on PC, maybe they know the PC version is badly optimized or something and just don’t want to show that.
    Speaking of demos, the Return to Castle Wolfenstein MP is probably the demo I’ve spent the most time with and also the one and only time I joined a clan (though didn’t last very long). That beach assault map was amazing… also flamethrower >:)

  27. winterwolves says:

    Well, time for you to support indies who always provides demos, like myself. You can play any demos you want on my site.

  28. Jorum says:

    Gaming must be the only media that now (for a large part) wants people to pay for something they have not sampled.
    If I like the look of a book or magizine I can have quick flick through before buying (even ebooks provide a few pages as samples thorugh amazon etc.). You know what an album sounds like before you buy it.
    The only borderline is movies, but at least the trailers are (supposed to be) actually bits of the movie, and the cost is smaller.

    But they want me to pay £30 for an product that is inherenlty interactive but that I can’t to interact with prior to purchase. And of course return of purchase for games is not straightforward or even impossible.

    • Premium User Badge

      JB says:

      “But they want me to pay £30 for an product that is inherently interactive but that I can’t interact with prior to purchase.”

      Hear, hear sir!

    • anduin1 says:

      very good point, how can you know you’ll enjoy it without trying? Even many of my friends who play consoles only will not buy games until there is some kind of demo to try on Live/PSN.

  29. bildo says:

    One of the best demo experiences I ever had was a NOLF demo on a PC gamer disc. Not long after, I bought the game and loved it.

    Another time I played a demo for Evil Genius. Thought the game was good from the demo, but after I bought it, I quickly stopped playing :X

    I’d like demos to come back, but not simply for the ‘hands on” that I’m sure most of you clamor for; The cinema aspect of their marketing is yet another element of film that is taking gaming down a peg or two each and every release it seems. I just wish film and games would finally diverge.

    • Giaddon says:

      I’m waiting…. and waiting… and waiting for NOLF 1+2 to show up on GOG.

      Great games.

    • MadTinkerer says:

      Oooh, yes please. I have a legit copy of NOLF2 and can’t get it to run on Windows 7. :(

    • Prosper0_cz says:

      Yeah, NOLF demo was the bomb! Loved it to death and played it at least ten times – even years after the game itself was long gone from my harddrive, just from melancholia. Well put together too, and representing the final product fairly precisely.

  30. JackShandy says:

    “I couldn’t buy a game based on promotion alone, and to be honest I probably couldn’t buy it on reviews alone.”

    Doesn’t that rather put RPS out of a job, ignoring news?

  31. Berzee says:

    Hear hear! And not just in a selfish “I want to spend lots of hours playing free snippets of games” sort of way. People who rely on trailers instead of demos are silly. The sample should correspond to the product, like so:

    Car shopping — *drive* the car
    Game shopping — *play* demos
    Movie shopping — *watch* trailers
    Book shopping — *read* the jacket
    Food shopping — *taste* a sample in the food court at the mall, sometimes circling back two or three times in various disguises
    Pants shopping — *wear* the pants

    To be sure you can mix up your advertising to provide, say, trailers for games or cars or teriyaki chicken. But you should never leave off the main bit of sample content that lets you *use* the product in the way it is meant to be used.

    A game without a demo is like pants you can’t try on.

    • Berzee says:

      I WILL SAY IT AGAIN

      A GAME WITHOUT A DEMO IS LIKE PANTS YOU CANNOT TRY ON.

    • Rond says:

      Are videogames pants?

    • applecup says:

      Some videogames are.

    • Premium User Badge

      phlebas says:

      Reading the jacket is about the worst way of judging the book’s contents – it’s generally not even written by the same person, and will tell you more about how they’re trying to market the book than what it’s like. Like, say, a game trailer. Being allowed to look at a page or two inside might help, though.

    • Berzee says:

      Yeah, most book jackets are horrible. When I wrote that I was thinking of the book jackets that simply give you a representative, non-spoilery excerpt of the book on them. Those are the best kind =)

  32. Rii says:

    Superlative article. No sooner had I become aware that Mr. Meer once gave The Witcher 67% than does he expunge that mark upon his record with a piece both wistful and insightful.

    There are few games I’m willing to spend money on without having played them first. The decline of demos (coupled with the rise of arcane DRM schemes making piracy less effortless than I’d like) means that I play and buy fewer games today than ever before. I don’t mind so much as it means more time for film, books, etc. but the industry is hardly doing itself any favours.

    I’d certainly play a demo of Brink if it existed. RPS’ championing of the game has accomplished that much.

  33. Bhazor says:

    Ok everyone what was your all time favourite demo?

    For me it’s got to be Tony Hawks Pro Skater 2. I swear I spent so long on the airfield in Tony Hawks I could still draw you a map of it today. Never did manage to get a passing score though so even after playing the demo daily for about a year I still never reached the second map in the demo.

    • Premium User Badge

      JB says:

      Wake Island BF1942 demo. Large amounts of fun.

    • MrPyro says:

      I mentioned above the TFTD demo, which I spent a long time playing, trying to actually complete the mission (starting troops, starting weapons, Tasoths as the enemy with one capable of MC. It was hard). Due to some chronological confusion it led to me buying UFO:EU, which I played even more.

    • MultiVaC says:

      Far Cry 1 had a magnificent demo. It was one of the best levels of the game, with tons of different routes to play through. The jungles and ocean were also unbelievably beautiful at the time. But the best thing was probably the LUA scripting that could be done in the demo, letting you mod it to start you off in a glider instead of an inflatable boat (I don’t think the glider appeared in the demo otherwise, so that made it even cooler when you modded it in), remove the map boundaries and enemies to make a sort of tourist mode, or tweak the vehicles in crazy ways to let you drive a jeep on the ocean floor and such. That was such a great demo, I probably had more hours of fun in that little sandbox than I did in the entire singleplayer campaign of CODBLOPS.

    • Prosper0_cz says:

      Exactly – totally agree with you on the Far Cry 1 demo – the non-linearity and possibilities you could do were just amazing.

      Other great demos I played at least 5 times: Heart of Darkness, NOLF, Jedi Knight 2: Jedi Outcast(! – brilliant, that was actually a completely special level with cleverly used voiceover from the full game – I think I played it 20times…)… Hell, how could I forget Diablo – I was scared shitless just playing those first two levels of the game…

  34. Tater Po says:

    I remember the demo for Populous: The Beginning. I played it repeatedly. It even contained content that wasn’t in the full game.

  35. pepper says:

    Funny, I was thinking about exactly this last night after reading the dirt 3 WIT. Couldnt find a demo, so I grabbed the dirt 2 demo… which doesnt reflect dirt 3, or so I presume.

    • Premium User Badge

      Monchberter says:

      it’s closer than you think. The actual ‘feel’ of the driving is much the same in Dirt3 as it is in Dirt2, it just that 2 has much more obnoxious presentation.

    • pepper says:

      Aah I see. Unfortunately the demo seems to kick me to the BUY ME NOW PLZ!! page of Dirt 2 instead of actually starting the game. Unless offcourse I downloaded the Dirt 2 buying sim. They tend to get mixed up.

  36. Premium User Badge

    abhishek says:

    A lot of games get demos on the console networks (XBL and PSN). In fact, apart from the really big name games like Call of Duty or Halo, most console games have pre-release demos. Sometimes these demos come to the PC too, but more often than not they don’t. This tells me that developers/publishers still understand the value of having a demo to promote their game.

    So the question changes to – why do they still feel that releasing a PC version of the demo which they already put up on console networks is not worth it?

    • Deadend says:

      I recall reading part of the reason games don’t get PC demos is due to fear of cracks. That pirates can use the demo to then hack the full game. Which is true, except the pirates already hack games within 2 days of release anyhow. So it’s a very weak excuse.

      I don’t know what other reasons there are.. maybe something to do with how on the console you can get exact metrics of demos-> players of the full game.

  37. adonf says:

    I think it’s a natural trend of promotional material to give less and less information about the actual product. Remember when they used to show excerpts of films on TV ? Now it’s only trailers.

  38. Josmi says:

    After reading the article and the comments, I can’t help but wonder what everyone thinks makes a good demo. Is it a fun game (C&C3, imo, had a really fun demo, more fun than the actual game), does it just end at the right time or is it the most representative of the full game (which you can’t know without buying and playing the game)?

  39. fallingmagpie says:

    You know what had a demo recently? Just Cause 2. Played the hell out of that, over and over again. Then I bought the game as soon as it was out. That’s the best kind of marketing, surely – make a really good game*, then let people play a little bit so they want to play the rest? Easy.

    * tactic assumes you have made a good game.

  40. Giaddon says:

    As some have said, this is definitely a PC-only thing. I often google “[interesting new game] demo” and am initially excited by the first hits until I realize they are all about an Xbox Live demo.

    :/

  41. RogB says:

    there are several games where I’ve loved the demo but found that the final/full game has been disappointing.

    Arma was one.. we co-op’ed the demo mission at work hundreds of times as it was ludicrously hard. The final game didnt even have that mission, and we had to resort to trying to recreate it with the ingame editor. it just wasnt as good, and the other missions felt poor in comparison.

  42. Luomu says:

    On Steam, of 1298 games 353 have demos. So demos are only 73% dead.

    • Berzee says:

      How many of those are little games by little organizations? (just curious if you found out)

    • Luomu says:

      My very scientific investigation reveals 197 games tagged “indie” of which 102 have demos. That’s 51% demofication rate.

    • Berzee says:

      Aha! So for non-indie games, demos are 78% dead!
      The horror :(

  43. Ginger Yellow says:

    Call of Duty is an easy example – the hype and sense of event around what it’s going to be, what’s going to happen would perhaps be deflated by a demo’s concrete proof that beneath the clamour it’s just another high-budget shooter very similar to the last one

    Given CoD’s audience wants another high-budget shooter very similar to the last one, surely that would be good marketing.

  44. Premium User Badge

    Monchberter says:

    Crysis demo anyone? Many many people said that they didn’t bother with the full game after all the potential sandbox fun available just in one level.

  45. NunianVonFuch says:

    What about the streaming game services that offer demos of everything? Onlive allows you to play 30 minutes of any of the games on its service completely free. Gaikai does the same too, but with a more limited number of games as it’s not fully open to the public yet.

    Surely that’s the future of games demos since it requires $0 investment from the developer.

  46. mollemannen says:

    well it’s sad because i won’t buy a game before trying it. leaving me with the only other option besides demo.

  47. pyjamarama says:

    I can’t remember the last time I played a demo. Besides being time consuming, I could be playing the full version of a game I own, I don’t really feel the need, such good sources of information these days that by the time I buy the game I very confident that I will like it. As for technical reasons, games have patches demos don’t and the posted requirements let me no if I can play the game on my machine.
    While I think demos are a good thing and should continue to exist, I personally don’t take advantage of it anymore.

  48. Derpentine says:

    Quake 1 \Thief 2 \ Alpha Centauri – Best demos ever, I dont know how hours friends and I wasted on such gloriously limited games, usually released ahead of retail and resulted in more sales than any amount of paper advertising.

    PC-Zone were sadly, the finest CD/DVD demos, by a long way;

    • Malawi Frontier Guard says:

      I liked the Thief 2 demo level a lot more than its final version in the actual game. They wanted to show off a little bit I guess and made it very free-form with tons of secrets to find. That was just great.

  49. Premium User Badge

    Matt_W says:

    Re: PC Gaming, I don’t download and play demos to see if I’ll like the game; I download them make sure the game will run on my machine. I remember being pleasantly surprised when the Bioshock demo ran slickly on my aging (at the time) PC. I hadn’t intended to purchase the game at release because I figured there was no way I could run it, but the demo changed my mind.

    • Splynter says:

      This. I remember getting the BF2 demo to see how it would run on my Geforce 4 ti (or something like that, it was a while ago…). The game ran smoothly except for some graphics issues: Most textures were blank, and many objects were strangely rainbow coloured amongst other graphical artifacts and oddities. Regardless, I played that way for a month while saving up money for a new graphics card so I could buy and play the full game. Never would have happened without a demo.

  50. Teddy Leach says:

    Remember several months ago when I asked you all if you remembered demos and you called me silly?

    Now who’s silly? NOW WHO’S SILLY?!