When did Demos die on PC? When did it go out of fashion to show your prospective buyers how your game looks, let them play it for themselves before they buy the product? It used to be almost absolute that a game would have a sample releasing before the actual retail product, but nowadays only a handful of games have them and most are indie. More confusing still is how developers and publishers release demos on consoles but not for PC, even if the game is multiplatform.
In the 90s Shareware were common, partial releases of games with the option of purchasing the thing and play the remaining ‘chapters’ or ‘episodes’. Shareware were the first generation of Episodic games and its widespread availability—often coming bundled in magazines—was instrumental in the success of games like Doom or Wolfenstein 3D.
Demos came later on, significantly shorter than the shareware titles and often self-contained. Buying the full version didn’t let you use your demo saves or progress, as they weren’t even connected.
Money, Money, Money
With the current—and perhaps overblown—game development budgets, perhaps demos vanished because it represents a business risk. In the past years with the review code and embargo practices we’ve seen how scared publishers and developers are of users knowing how bad (or good even) their games are in advance. Under such a mentality, a game demo, a piece of their software ahead of the full release, would seem like the craziest thing to do. What if a given gamer doesn’t like the game? It doesn’t matter if it’s the game’s fault or the gamer in question isn’t a fan of the genre, it’s likely he’ll tell his friends and they in turn will do the same with their friends and those are hundreds if not thousands of dollars down the drain. It’s an extreme case of course, but not unreasonable…at least not to a publisher,
The bigger and more powerful the company the greater their need to protect the investment will be. But it’s come to a point nowadays that not even indie developers release demos, not unless we’re talking about Early Access, the practice of charging customers the full game price for a product that is still in development. It’s something I’ve yet to wrap my head around, because no one would do something like this for other software. You wouldn’t buy Windows for full price and only get a chunk of the OS. But this is another topic entirely.
Another point of note and which influences that feeling of risk that makes companies shy away from demos is quality. In the past year alone we’ve seen shoddy development after another hit retail, to critical panning and commercial flunking, and which make companies scramble to plug the leaks, cover the holes. Imagine how bad it would’ve been for Ubisoft if they released an Assassin’s Creed Unity demo. If we had seen how bad it was in advance of the release date, it would’ve been a commercial disaster. Imagine what it would’ve meant for Warner Bros. if PC players got their hands on an Arkham Knight demo, it would’ve been a disaster from the start—though it would’ve saved them a lot of their current problems.
But it’s not to say that demos have completely disappeared, they’re just mostly gone from the PC gaming universe. Nowadays you can find demos on consoles, often as part of some premium subscription service, and even then, they are rare. But once again, it’s a money-in-advance system, where you pay before you get the game. Sure, you’re paying for a subscription, and the demo comes free under that subscription, but you’re still paying for the right to play.
Sure, there are exceptions. Nintendo releases a fair share of demos but with limited uses, but at least they’re free. Bravely Default’s demo even plugs into the main game and gives you goodies. But that’s a separate thing because it’s not truly a demo, more akin to a side-story expansion.
In this topic it’s funny to realise that one of the most evil companies in the world—at least according to polls—does still release demos for its main products. Electronic Arts often offers demos through their Origin service. Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age titles have all had their samples, as do many other of the publisher’s titles.
That isn’t to say they release a demo for everything, but when they’re confident the quality of a game is good, they don’t fear putting it out, and in this fear-of-loss-driven industry, the fact they actually take that financial risk is surprising. In fact, it’s even a bit inspiring.
Perhaps we should’ve seen the decline of the demo coming. E3 and other announcement events or venues have long since stopped being about showing live running games and more about a promise of a game, of how good it could be under frankly imaginary circumstances. Downgrades, false advertising and many more accusations have been flung at developers during these conferences, for showing only trailers running on impossibly powerful computers.
If the industry—as a generalisation—doesn’t’ want to show games running in real time during the events in which they should, then it’s not surprising they don’t want gamers to have the chance of testing things on their own.
If they do let you in on a ‘demo’, they’ll disguise it as a Beta, using buzz words like “Exclussive Access” and “VIP Membership” or any other phrase that makes it seem like they’re doing you a favour for letting you play the game. And by disguising it as a beta, they can give you a demo with a cop-out excuse for why the game isn’t working properly. And if you don’t like what you see, then as a beta tester they can collect your feedback and improve many of the game’s potential faults.
We call this the Age of Information, but for the videogame industry it’s the Age of Misdirection, of Misinformation. Nothing is what it seems, and in fact when it is, we have a hard time recognising it, because we’ve all become cynical and learned to mistrust, to not believe the demo is actually a demo, but something with strings attached.
As a reviewer—and let’s say indie games journalist—I have the fortune of getting preview copies of games. For me they are demos, but they come with the usual phrasing of “work in progress,” even so close to the release date as a couple of weeks. If something is wrong, no one wants to admit it until it’s out there and there’s nothing to be done.
Demos kept the industry honest, by giving gamers a chance to test something before they spent their money on it. I miss them, especially in this era of broken promises and pre-recorded ideal gameplay demos in events. A friend and colleague from a another site said he was cautious of every E3 announcement this year because he expected them all to be rushed shoddy products with pushed-up embargo dates and impossible review times—as we have seen in the past few months. It’s because we share this point of view that I feel strongly about the return of demos.
The videogame industry is in a helpless circle of shoddy workmanship, deceit, apologies and empty promises. Demos could do a lot in breaking that vicious circle and help us go back to a more honest path. But it’s not likely to happen, because in the end it’s all about the money, and as long as you fear losing some of it, any risk will seem too high to take.