The Flare Path: Hurls Demo Charges

Demos are a digital wargamer’s Predator drones and PR Spitfires. They allow us to scout new battlefields safely and smartly. They furnish us with the information reviews, AARs and Let’s Plays can’t provide. I wouldn’t be without them, yet, these days, often am thanks to the questionable policies of sector-dominating militaria-mongers Slitherine/Matrix Games.

Want to know if my Flashpoint Campaigns Wot I Think washes hogs or my Command: Modern Air Naval Operations assessment wallops cod? You could peruse other reviews, seek out Let’s Plays, and scour forums for clues. The one thing you can’t do is test-drive the software yourself. To discover whether my ‘fun’ is your ‘fun’, and my ‘frustrating’ is your ‘frustrating’ you’ll need cold hard cash and plenty of it.

Slitherine/Matrix, the world’s biggest and busiest wargame publisher, routinely fails to trial its most interesting and expensive releases. Command: Modern Air Naval Operations, Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm, Civil War 2, España 1936, Commander: The Great War…  demo-devoid titles have come thick and fast this past twelve months. In combination with relatively high prices and restrictive distribution deals, the sad shortage of samples has to be scaring off potential punters.

In recent times the company’s stance has been justified with various arguments. There’s the cost-benefit one:

“[Demos] can serve a good purpose, but only in rare cases. Overall, they are a time sink for the development team with little positive result. I understand why they are popular among customers but we’ve found that other methods of showing and explaining the game are less costly and do a better job of informing. As always, YMMV and one size does not fit all, so there are gamers for whom a demo is the best way to decide about a game, but this does not seem to apply as a rule to most gamers.”  Erik Rutins, Matrix Games

…which, in its most extreme form, implies demos actually damage sales and mislead punters:

“For the majority of our games, demos have no net advantage… They cost a great deal of time, effort, and money – while failing to really give most players the answers they want, and in fact misleading some. There is even new data which suggests that demos actually lower sales (although the statistics are pretty rough and hard to control for) – but even the suggestion does tend to go against the existing wisdom (mine included, in the past) that demos help convince people to buy a game.” Philip Veale, Slitherine 

And then there’s the ‘Gamers are too lazy to grapple with complex trials’ one:

“Demos for these huge games don’t work well. The reason is that these games take a lot of effort to get you going. You need to put in the time to get something out but when you do you’re rewarded with an extremely deep and fulfilling experience. When you pay for something you’re willing to invest that time and push through a certain amount of frustration. When you get something for free you are much more likely to give up at the first hurdle or point of frustration as you’ve lost nothing. Someone who would enjoy the game if they paid for it, does not enjoy it if they get it for free as they never get into it enough.” Iain McNeil, Slitherine

Expensive, sometimes damaging, often pointless… listening to Matrix/Slitherine describe demos you can’t help wonder why other companies persist in producing them. Are Battlefront, Paradox, Graviteam and the like, all masochistic idiots, or is there another side to the demo debate? I thought I’d attempt to find out.

Having read, heard, and accepted variations of “Demos are costly distractions for devs” countless times over the years, it came as a bit of a surprise to hear diligent demo deliverers Paradox and Battlefront talk about the work that goes into their code canapés. According to Johan Andersson, the power behind the Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis thrones, “For us, it is not very time consuming. Usually, when you make a demo, you cut away code and features, which makes it very cost-effective to do. On average, the actual development time for a demo for our games is between 4 to 8 hours of work, and then we add QA time to that.”

Battlefront were similarly dismissive describing the process as “very inexpensive and quick, and that’s even though we ‘manually’ produce demos. What I mean by that is that we compile special subsets of code to create a demo with specific features, and rip out what isn’t needed. There are even easier ways to do demos nowadays, as many companies offer full versions packaged as trials that run for a limited time only, so they don’t even need to recompile (and retest).”

Are BF and Paradox just reaping the rewards of years of demo design experience? Possibly. Novice demo-ists 2×2 offer a different perspective. Fashioning a Unity of Command tempter was, according to Tomislav Uzelac, “definitely non-trivial which is why it took us a few months to create one.”

Graviteam’s Vladimir Zayarniy also admits there was toil at the beginning. “Once upon a time, it was a long, hard process but over time we have automated the assembly process and now it takes only a few hours. Testing and downloading to the site takes longer!”.

Whether they take weeks, days, or hours to fashion, the fact is demos are developmental distractions. Why bother making them when one of the industry’s most experienced operators claims they usually have “little positive result” and might “actually lower sales”?

Well, maybe because not everyone agrees with Matrix’s extremely pessimistic market analysis. Johan again: “A demo is one of the single most effective things we can do to promote our games… When we release a demo, pre-orders increase. We can see sales statistics live on Steam and we can definitely see the connection. Demos drive sales”.

The Combat Missionaries also claim a direct correlation between demo releases and sales spikes. “Historically there is no doubt that the very first Combat Mission Beyond Overlord beta demo has been the most successful for us (It was the right time and the right place, and it has provided the base for Battlefront’s success in the years since.). However, the demo for our most recent Combat Mission Battle for Normandy series caused a big influx of new players.”

Even when sales stats are hard to come by or less convincing (2×2’s Tomislav believes only 14% of the players who installed the UoC demo ended up buying the full game), demos can earn their keep as confidence builders, publicity generators, and problem preventers. Johan described how demos helped restore confidence in the stability of Paradox products after a couple of rough releases, and went on to point out that they can lighten the burden on support teams by ensuring customers don’t buy software their systems can’t handle.

For Vladimir a trial is a tool for spreading the good news about engine upgrades. “We’ve updated the demo after every significant change to Graviteam Tactics – after the overhaul of the operational layer to feature more units, after we implemented wired communication simulation and added restrictions on orders frequency in tactical battles… Hopefully players that are not happy with aspects of the original game, will revisit and find something new in the updated demos.”

My correspondents were also keen to justify their trial releases on transparency grounds. “Buying a game without being allowed to try it is like buying a car without test-driving it or a house without seeing it yourself and getting an inspection. Of course, if a game is on sale for a few dollars, it may not be as important, since that amount of money may be trivial. But if you are debating spending 40€ or more on a title you are not 100% sure about, then I know that I´d definitely like a demo, before I spend my money.” Johan’s sentiments are echoed by Battlefront. “We use demos to make sure a game runs on a user’s computer, and to make sure people know what they are getting before they spend their hard earned cash.”

Whether created for selfless or self-interested reasons (or – more usually – some indecipherable combination of the two) a demo can’t help but radiate respect. While some devs and publishers seem to believe we’re too lazy or impatient to properly engage with the demos of heavyweight games, others have enough confidence in us and their products to risk rejection.

Graviteam are plainly willing to accept that a portion of the people that install the generous
Graviteam Tactics: Operation Star trial will probably (and tragically) surrender after struggling with night battles and the blizzard of tutorial tips (Both of which can be turned off via Options!) and thus never reach the Tiger-infested Shangri-La beyond.

Paradox are probably aware that the genealogical genius of Crusaders Kings 2 only clicked for some users after hours… days of exposure, but that hasn’t stopped them letting the curious investigate investiture and inbreeding.

Combat Mission has got weightier and more intricate with each passing year, but BF are just as confident you’ll find yourself hopelessly hooked after spending an afternoon puncturing Panzers and storming sunken lanes.

Slitherine/Matrix, if you’re reading this, I urge you to give demos a second chance. There’s ample evidence that free fillips don’t have to be costly or counter-productive, and, more importantly there’s an army of uncertain punters out there eager for the sort of high-class personalised intel that only demos can provide.


The Flare Path Foxer

Last Friday’s quizbusting Quarrymen were SpiceTheCat, skink74, Matchstick, FuryLippedOctopusSquid, Showtime, mrpier and Mr-Link. For spotting the Beatles theme, Spice wins a year’s supply of semolina-pilchard flavoured Flare Path flair points.

1. Rice (Eleanor Rigby)
2. Krag-Jørgensen 1892 (Norwegian Wood)
3. Diamond Katana (Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds)
4. Upside-down Union Jack (Help)
5. Walrus-class submarine sensors (I am the Walrus)
6. Pepperbox pistol (Sgt. Pepper)
7. Ryde station, Isle of Wight (Ticket to Ride)
8. SR-71 Blackbird (Blackbird)
9. Slingsby Kite (Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite!)

When FP was a lad, he played Top Trumps at the very highest level. The infamous brawl at the 1982 TTIO in Tokyo? FP threw the third punch!

Like many of his peers, his involvement with the sport began in the playground. He specialised in ‘Sumps’, a game variant where a contestant’s card knowledge and mathematical prowess are tested simultaneously, usually for money. On one memorable occasion during the stormy summer of 1979, he won £30 on a single twenty-card, five-pack accumulator. Heady days!

Try Sumps yourself by adding together the seven stats erased from the cards pictured below. Think that tank has a gun calibre of 88, that bomber has a wing span of 32.60, and that loco is a Type 47? Add the stats together (88 + 32.60 + 47 = 167.60) and move on.* The supplier of the first correct total will win a rare vintage Flare Path flair point made from Blakeys, Bazookas and bravado.


*Early Top Trumps packs were littered with factual errors but the stats scrubbed from these cards are all accurate.


  1. Napoleon15 says:

    If it hadn’t been for a demo of Close Combat 2, I’d never have gotten into computer wargames. A demo also sold me on the original release of Combat Mission Beyond Overlord. For me, the more expensive a game is, the more important a demo is. I can’t drop £40-60 quid on a game without some kind of benchmark to gauge it with, whether that be demo or prior games in the series. Watching a video of somebody playing or reading a review just isn’t enough, especially when reviews can be rather dubious. (Empire Total War, anyone? Nobody writing those glowing reviews mentioned it was Total Mess more than Total War)

    • beikul says:

      That pretty much sums up my thoughts as well. I love the idea of Command: Modern Air Naval Operations but there’s no way I’d be comfortable about dropping over £60 on it without trying a demo first.

  2. Palindrome says:

    Top left is a TOG II which according to wikipedia weights 81.3 tons. Below it is a Pz IV G which weighed 23.5 tones.
    The top right is a JU 390 with a wingspan of 50m
    The bottom right is a Wellington bomber which had a wingspan of 26m.

    • FurryLippedSquid says:

      Wrong tail assembly for a JU 390.

      • Premium User Badge

        Matchstick says:

        Upper Train is a Type 103
        Lower Train is a Type 2067

        According to Top Trumps the wellington wingspan was 26.20m

        Upper right plane is Blohm & Voss BV-222 “Wicking” with Span 46.00m

        Bottom Left Plane is Henshel HS-123 with output 880BHP

        • FurryLippedSquid says:

          Biplane is a Henschel Hs 123, with 880 HP. Is that the same as BHP?

        • FurryLippedSquid says:

          Call it then!

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            Matchstick says:

            I’m just trying to find the actual cards for the two tanks, I don’t think Mr Stone has restricted himself to just UK sets :)

            Got them (they were UK cards but were Ace Supertrumps not Top Trumps ;) )
            as expected Panzer Gun is 75mm
            and T.O.G. II weight is 80 t

            My Dodgy Maths makes that

            103 +
            2067 +
            26.20 +
            46 +
            880 +
            75 +

            which comes to 3277.20 ?

          • FurryLippedSquid says:

            Sounds good to me, let’s hope we aren’t supposed to add the money!

          • Palindrome says:

            Are we using the trp trumps weights or the real ones? The TOG is 80 imperial tons which 81.2 metric tones :)

      • Palindrome says:

        Aircraft are not my forte :)

  3. zachforrest says:

    is the wwII tank a panzer iv with a 75mm gun?

  4. JustAPigeon says:

    That Iain McNeil quote gave me heartburn.

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      phuzz says:

      If a game is complicated and free causes people to give up on them, how does anyone still play Dwarf Fortress? Slitherine just don’t live in the same world as everyone else.

    • Jason Lefkowitz says:

      Yeah, that was my reaction too. Not even for the demo logic — it’s kind of shocking how blithely he just accepts that “frustration” is a natural and inextricable part of the wargaming experience. He simply cannot grasp the idea that a complex game could be paired with a usable (or even an easily learnable) interface. Wargames equal frustration, full stop.

      I guess if you accept that premise the “no demo” policy makes sense, because a demo would only expose people to your twisted S&M philosophy of game design and drive them away. You don’t want them to find out about that until after you’ve got their money.

      The obvious retort to this position is that if you’re making games whose demos drive people away, maybe the problem is more with your games than with the idea of demos. But Slitherine/Matrix seem to be well trained at avoiding this line of thought.

  5. TC-27 says:

    Matrix have lost hundreds of pounds of purchases from me because of lack of demos…..simple as.

    Gutted AGEOD has being pulled into their orbit.

    • killias2 says:

      I’m not sure AGEOD had much of a choice, as I don’t think things were working out with Paradox. Still, as someone who bought all of AGEOD’s old games, I’m rather uninterested in supporting Matrix/Slitherine. I don’t agree with their policies or their approach, and they seem perfectly content to dismiss me as a possible customer.

      • cptgone says:

        couldn’t agree more. i’d feel dirty if i bought a game from that lot.

        another superb Flare Path, by the way. always a joy to read.
        lovely Foxer, too!

  6. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    If it wasn’t for a demo of Naval Warfare: Arctic Circle, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to buy that game (at full price).
    That’s just one example, and I’m not saying I never buy games without a demo, but if it’s a game that’s not got many reviews because it’s quite niche, and the price is quite high, then a demo is about the only way I’m going to get to desire the game enough to put down the cash.

  7. Aaarrrggghhh says:

    Great article. Lacks pictures though.

  8. andy02m says:

    I hate admitting to my lack of knowledge, but what demos were featured in the article’s pictures?

  9. teije says:

    Those were some pretty specious arguments against demos for the Matrix/Slitherine guys. I’ve stopped buying games from them (and I bought tons in the past) due to high prices combined with no demos.

    Their prices are high compared to some, and so for their games, it would be even more important for them to provide demos as people don’t want to dump $$ without getting a taste of it first. I think they’re leaving substantial sales on the table with their approach.

  10. DuneTiger says:

    “There is even new data which suggests that demos actually lower sales (although the statistics are pretty rough and hard to control for) – but even the suggestion does tend to go against the existing wisdom (mine included, in the past) that demos help convince people to buy a game.” – Philip Veale, Slitherine

    This roughly translates to, “It makes it much harder to fleece people into buying your product when they are well-informed.”

  11. honkskillet says:

    Why are you calling out one specific developer when demos in general have lost favor among developers? While stats are hard to come by, the modern thinking is that demos often cannibalize sales rather than promote them. As such, making a demo could potentially represent both an opportunity cost (the dev could have been working on the next project) and a direct cost (the current project is undermined).

    • Baines says:

      Slitherine/Matrix have been vocal about the issue, and have issued other opinions that are rather anti-consumer as well. The combined package is why I’ve sworn off buying *any* Slitherine/Matrix game, no matter what praise it gets.

      Demos may be on the decline, but publishers like EA and Capcom still create them.

      • mariandavid says:

        I recollect buying several games on a Matrix sale – they were held through December. Have they stopped running sales?

    • Jason Lefkowitz says:

      The trend in the industry in general has also been towards smaller games at lower price points. This makes the lack of a demo less of a hassle; if a $10 game turns out to be a dud, you’re only out $10. So you’re more willing to roll the dice. And frequent sales mean you might get that $10 game for $5, which makes an impulse buy even more attractive.

      Slitherine/Matrix’s approach, on the other hand, has been to set high prices and then never, ever lower them. Their latest big release, Command: Modern Air Naval Operations, is priced at USD$79.99 for a downloadable version and an eye-watering USD$94.99 for a boxed version. And since they don’t do sales or lower prices as a game ages, it’s going to be stuck at that price point for a long time. That makes the lack of a demo much harder to swallow — $80 or $95 is a lot of money to gamble on a game that I might find dull when I actually get to play it.

      So the issue isn’t as much the lack of demos by itself as it is the lack of demos combined with the exorbitant prices.

    • farrier says:

      The question of product demos has been an issue with Matrix/Slitherine for a while, and Tim Stone generally only writes about simulations and wargames, so his focus was narrowed on Matrix/Slitherine’s claims and the rest of their industry. It would not have been fair to compare developers and publishers from other genres and industries to Matrix/Slitherine; Tim wanted to compare them to their direct peers/competitors. Unfortunately for Matrix/Slitherine, their position on product demos appears to be a rather lonely one.

  12. SuicideKing says:

    “and thus never reach the Tiger-infested Shangri-La beyond”

    Random fact: “La” means “pass”, as in mountain pass.

  13. subedii says:

    For those who’d like to know more about Close Combat, there’s a really good retrospective of it online as to what makes it so special and stand out from most other RTS’s.

  14. Stardreamer says:

    In the early days of gaming, the 16-bits and on to the PC’s golden years, not providing a demo was very quickly revealed as a tactic used by companies who had good reason for people not to see their products before they bought them. They needed hype and day one (or at least until the reviews hit the magazines) sales to shift the game, after which they’d usually walk away from the product. Things are more complex these days but I still tend to find a lack of demo suspicious.

    I have been put off games by demos, but equally I’ve been charmed into buying games by them as well. Whatever the result of my playing one I’m always pleased at having been given the chance to try a game before buying, and in my mind it reflects well on the company whose games I might try later.

    • Llewyn says:

      Agreed. On a strategy subject, I wouldn’t have bought CKII – at release price – without having enjoyed the demo (and wouldn’t have tried the demo without Adam’s writings). That sale of CKII also netted a sale of EUIV, and a general recommendation of Paradox strategy to the one friend I have who’s interested in that sort of thing.

      And I don’t think much has changed regarding demos in the last 20 years. At least, it’s still hard to avoid the feeling that companies which don’t produce them generally feel that they have something to hide.

  15. wodin says:

    Some of the comments from Slitherine are at times mind you enjoy a game more if you’ve spent alot of money on it??!! More likely you’ll expect more and end up even more disappointed. The again I find it odd that MWIF seems to be dogged with bugs yet you see very few complaints about it because maybe the people have spent so much money on it they can’t bring themselves to admit it maybe wasn’t time for release nor worth the money at the moment. I’ve even read comments form some buyers that it wasn’t a game they where buying but some books!!

    As for demos’ the only people put off are the ones who wont like the obviously Slitherine want them to spend their money and be damned if they like it or not.

  16. Llewyn says:

    Tim, I agree with you entirely on the subject of Matrine/Slitherix, but aren’t you going to take the OMSI boys to task over this issue as well? No demo, no sales, a single distributor and no apparent interest in swaying the undecided potential customer. Surely very much in the Matrix mould!

    • Tim Stone says:

      Fair point. If there’s no plans for an OMSI 2 demo I’ll kick up a stink.

      • Llewyn says:

        Excellent, thank you. I probably wouldn’t mind so much if you didn’t make it sound so appealing every time you write about it.

      • Skiv says:

        Yea, sadly there is no demo option available for OMSI 1 and OMSI 2… Although if you own OMSI 1 you get a discount (10€) while buying OMSI 2. Which is fine by me. OMSI 2 will be basically the same as 1 but with new bendy buses and new graphical goodness + multicore support and map editor changes and ohmy what not else..

  17. morbiusnl says:

    just want to mention that there is a sale coming at Matrix games website. it was planned the 21th but they ran into some probs, they hope to have the sale next week, before thanksgiving.

  18. MellowKrogoth says:

    There’s at least one game I bought because of its demo: Warlock: Master of the Arcane.

    Otherwise these days I rarely try demos out, mainly because games are so cheap and online review plentiful. Saves don’t always transfer to the full game so I don’t want to waste time on the demo only to have to restart the campaign. Of course with more obscure games that are also very expensive, it’s a different story.

    My algorithm for games with good reviews:
    – If price 15$ wait for at least -50% sale
    – Else If price > 15$ and no sale in sight torrent it and try to figure out if it’s worth gouging my eyes out for it. I usually never even install the torrented game though :P , too much trouble compared to trying something from my Steam library or just firing up World of Tanks.

    • hunsnotdead says:

      So you didnt buy many wargames recently huh? :D Apart from Paradox blowout sale strategy, not many Fort Niche devs like heavy discounts on their games. Graviteam Tactics series has -50% / -75% sale every few months, Unity of Command had a -75% recently, Battlefront has -50% discounts few times a year, and a few others lower their gates to the poor masses usually around Christmas.
      Even Matrix Games has deals around the end of the year, but -33% off on a 90USD title, is not what i would call enticing. But hey its Matrix, they dont want the wargamer community to grow, they want an elitist club where their mediocre game making skills are augmented by cognitive dissonance.