Demo or Die: Game Industry Debate

Game demos were an important part of selling game for most of the 90s and early 00s. But as the Internet made the spread of information quicker, so did it make it easier for someone to find out everything there is about your game.

And today with more games going the early access route and let’s plays being free advertisements, we have a debate on whether or not demos are needed anymore.


Early, Early Access:

During the 90s, while the Internet was a huge deal, it was nowhere near the size and part of our lives as it is today. And the only ways to find out about the latest games were either through demos or from game magazines. Game magazines were especially important for the early consoles as there was no way to release and distribute demo cartridges.

As consoles entered the CD era, they caught up with the PC and the ability to play demos. Some companies released their own exclusive demos while others were bundled together for magazine specific demo discs such as the Official Playstation Magazine and PC gamer. The bundling of disc and magazine became a perfect way to show off your game as the demo could be timed to be included in the same magazine where an exclusive preview was featured.

There were not just a variety of ways to get demos but also how they were made. Some demos featured a single level, the first 20 minutes of play, a custom made demo level and more. Many developers just let the player download the entire game but gave the player a time limited demo, or lock the game to stop after a specific point.

That last one was used for great effect by Spiderweb Software, who make classic style RPG games.

While a good demo could sell a game, a bad demo could have quite the opposite. This in turn forced designers to dedicate time and resources to their demo, which could have been spent on the actual game itself.

Game Industry

Early games like Doom 2 were sold as shareware demos, giving players a taste of the game and then deciding right then and there if they wanted to buy it.

There is a certain art to making a good demo: knowing just how much to show, how long it should take to play, what should be in the demo and when to cut it off.

And that’s the funny thing about demos was that they became less important the longer the game was actually out for. As reviews, videos and enough impressions would eventually be released to give anyone a pretty clear impression on the game.

Taking us to present day where thanks to the digital age, you can find dozens of let’s plays and reviews for any given game on or close to the launch day. And with all this information available, many designers feel that dedicating resources to a demo seems like a waste of time.

Many big name games have special E3 or other trade show demos made to show off the game during a press conference. In these cases for the developer it can feel like building a second game due to the time and energy needed to make that demo good. One thing you don’t want is your game to look terrible in front of a room full of journalists.

There have also been cases where a demo came back to haunt the developer when it was revealed that content in the demo had no basis for the actual game.

Cases in point: The Halo 2 E3 demo that featured a battle through the city that never happened in the full game. And recently the Aliens Colonial Marine demo that looked better and played differently from the actual game.

As the market is continuing to be flooded by kickstarters, early access and simply many games being released with the promise of future content, some gamers feel that they’re going into a game blind these days.

A Sale in the Dark:

More and more games are being released these days, many of which are put out in the form of early access. Where gamers can buy into the alpha or beta of the game and play it up to and after the game is considered finished. But with games designed this way, there is no guarantee that the game will be finished or deliver on what the designers promised.

This is where many people feel that demos still serve a purpose, as they can educate someone on the current state of a game and if the game is as the designers have said.

And many gamers do have a point: Being able to try out a game is the definitive way of knowing if that game works for you or not. Let’s Plays are very helpful but it’s not the same as getting behind the controller or keyboard and actually playing the game. Another thing is that with games that are updated, let’s play may not reflect the current state of a game.

game industry

The strategy genre is a hard one to get a read on its quality just from videos and reviews, making demos very important.

But where designers are coming from goes back to game development and prioritizing content.

It doesn’t make sense to dedicate time to creating a demo for a game that is still in its Alpha or Beta state as the game is sure to change through development. And as we mentioned, making a bad demo or one that doesn’t show the game in its best light, can be worse than not having a demo at all.

This is a hard one to decide on as both sides have a point.  As a designer, you shouldn’t just leave it to fans to sell your game for you. But if someone is interested in a product, it’s only expected that they should do some research on their own and it’s very unlikely that there is a game that no one has done any let’s plays for.

While I’m pretty informed as a gamer, that doesn’t mean that I disregard demos; many of which sold me on their respective games. In my opinion there are two major circumstances where a developer should be required to have a demo ready before the game is released.

One, if the game has any kind of exclusive pre-order bonuses as it’s not fair to force gamers to roll the dice on content for a game that they have never played and don’t know if it’s going to be any good. Now this could fit into another debate on whether pre-order bonuses are a good thing or not which is another heavily debated topic.

Second, if your game features unique gameplay that has not been seen before: experimental games, one of a kind games or system heavy mechanics such as strategy games. Strategy games can be hard to figure out and each one has their own unique rules and mechanics and is one of the few genres where skill in one game doesn’t translate into other games in the genre.

Demos are a funny thing: As they can fluctuate between being incredibly important to selling your game, to insignificant and avoided and everywhere in between. At the end of the day, a demo is like any marketing tool for a designer and the choice between making one or not, is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly.