The Trouble With Demos

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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