When we released Episode 2 of our new internet show, TPG Cast, we briefly discussed our favorite PC demos. This got some other members of TPG thinking about their favorites and what developers should be bringing to the table when they do release a PC demo.
I have not played any demos in the past few years as I have developed a pretty keen sense of what a good or bad game looks like simply from its fledgling attempts at marketing. I know, it sounds awfully pretentious, but let me preface this with the fact that I have not purchased a game that I did not like in the past 10 years by using this method.
To begin, there have been some truly great demos that have driven me to purchase the product on release day. F..E.A.R. did an excellent job of this by stitching multiple portions of the game together to better represent what was possible in such a ground-breaking game. What better way to say “Our game is great from start to finish” then to bake small portions of it together into an awesome pie? Going beyond the “snapshot” ideology that has been prevalent in-game demos since the early 90’s opened a door of possibilities that I have not seen emulated by any other game since, unfortunately.
The timed demo, a-la Just Cause 2 was also something that suited the genre so perfectly. In a game that encourages players to truly take hold of a no-holds-barred design, nothing can top the ability to play the full version of the game for a limited amount of time, Crackdown 2 also employed this theory with moderate success.
But the main reason that I tend to avoid demos nowadays is because of how much they can misrepresent an experience by presenting only its absolute strong points by masking a fundamentally flawed experience. A good example of this would be the Lost Planet 2 demo, which forced everyone to take part in multiplayer, which was certainly not one of the strong points of the series. While Capcom reaped a healthy amount of face time by riding the wave of the multiplayer-only demo trend, they also alienated a large portion of the player base that enjoyed the original for the single player experience.
I became skeptical at this point, seeing as there should be no reason that a developer would hide the meat of their game from the anticipating public unless there was something very wrong. Not to mention, some of the first true marketing Capcom did stateside was the stunt in which they dropped copes of the game, frozen in ice, in major cities around the U.S. My BS detector started to go off and I knew that something was wrong with a situation like that. The only reason that a game company would need to pull stunts like that is to pull in a wider audience that would not be privy to the fact that Lost Planet was a new IP that did not build its success on its multiplayer alone.
While the game did turn out to be a moderate financial success, a large majority felt cheated in the fact that the single-player had some pretty game-breaking bugs that should have never made their way past Q&A. I have to say that I was very, very surprised to see Lost Planet 3 make a pretty impressive appearance this year with multiple videos focused on characters and story. Maybe Capcom has learned their lesson. Maybe.
Demos have very much evolved into an effective marketing tool that have been cleverly disguised under different names in the past few years. The younger generation of gamers now get sucked into the mystique of being a part of a “Beta Test” while being unaware that a developer is simply using it as a way to market the game to players who like to feel like they are a part of an exclusive club. The best part of calling your game a “Beta” is that any problems or misgivings you have about your experience can quickly be chalked up to an “unfinished” experience, rather than a fundamental flaw in the core gameplay.
While I am in no way saying that this is what developers are trying to do, I have seen the trend of “Beta Tests” being a way for a company to use the masses as crowdsourcing to fix problems that stem at the developmental level, instead of presenting a polished experience that does not suffer from damning problems that will carry on into the finished product no matter how much feedback is given.
I don’t play demos, because demos lie. They are, at their hearts, marketing tools: carefully designed to show off the best parts of a game, like a whore’s high heels and higher hemline. Almost every game I’ve bought based on the demo has turned out to be horrible, because the full game either goes on for too long, or has aggravating difficulty spikes, checkpoints instead of real saves, or any number of other poor design choices that the demo didn’t reveal. The only reason I download them these days is to see if the game will run on my system, but otherwise I rely on research and instinct when it comes to making that final purchasing decision. That said, one demo does stand out over the rest: Defender’s Quest.
Reading about the tower defense/RPG hybrid didn’t inspire me to buy; I liked the art style of the story segments, but the game itself didn’t seem like something I’d be interested in. I was curious about the execution, however, so I grabbed the demo.
It wasn’t the actual gameplay that sold me on Defender’s Quest. It was the accessibility options. The demo showed me that I could adjust the difficulty of the game without losing access to stuff. By setting the XP rate gain to 300%, I would be able to play through the game with ease, thus immersing myself in the story without losing out on cool gear (which most other games reserve as “rewards” for those stupid enough to play on harder difficulty levels) or having to endure a repetitive grind.
And that’s why Defender’s Quest’s demo is great: it demonstrated that the developers had a tremendous amount of respect for their players by letting us choose how we wanted to experience the game without being penalized for it. That’s a lesson a lot of game designers should really learn.
For this topic, I am reminded of Doom and Quake. Maybe this should extend to shareware in general, back when these awesome lengthy demos that would let you really sink your teeth into a game were more common. Id’s stuff really stands out because of how perfectly (at least in my opinion) they captured that balance between showing you a ton of super cool stuff while still leaving you wanting more. Doom, Doom 2, and Quake all had really amazing shareware episodes that would probably make 15 dollar DLC packs today. Thinking about that is really depressing and now I miss shareware.
I am going to cite the racing and sports genres for examples of great PC demos. The one that stands out above all is Burnout Paradise: The Ultimate Box. The only restrictions placed in front of the player was a 1-hour free range time limit. You could drive anywhere on the map and take on any of the beginner races. After the hour had expired, every 10 minutes you were prompted to buy the full game.
Sports demos, back when sports titles on the PC were as prevalent as military first-person shooters are now, also offered a nice taste of the full game. Usually you were given the two teams who made it their respective championship games from the previous year. In some cases though, the developers decided which two teams would make it. For example, playing the High Heat Baseball 2002 demo would have seen the Boston Red Sox and San Francisco Giants as the two playable teams. The demo was 6 innings long and you have full control over every aspect of the game. In Madden 2003, the New England Patriots and St. Louis Rams held the honor of being the teams offered up in the demo. You had four 1-minute quarters to do what you pleased. Tiger Woods 2004 also had a demo where the player was given the last three holes from St. Andrews to play.
Another demo which will never be forgotten in my eyes was the original Unreal Tournament. The demo weighed in at a now measly 53MB, but it took over 4 hours to download on my terribly slow 24.4 connection. The intro itself is one of the most iconic in PC gaming history After playing the demo for just a few minutes, I was hooked.
You know where we stand as writers and PC gamers, but what do developers think of PC demos? Below are a few direct quotes from PC gaming development studios when asked about PC demos from a AAA and indie standpoint.
Just resources really (on not releasing a demo). We wanted to spend much of our time improving the PC version. There are so many nice quality settings we can turn up on the PC and we wanted to take time with optimizing those. Also improving textures and adding new features like NVISION 3D and multiscreen.
I think that they (AAA) don’t release demos because they are afraid. Most of the players nowadays are casuals, who play for 15 – 20 minutes a day. This is roughly how long a short demo should last. Probably they think that people will launch the demo, have some fun and then postpone the purchase. We wanted Hard Reset to be oldschool – all the oldschool games had demos, so Hard Reset also got one.
Demos don’t work well for all game genres – especially RPG games like the Witcher which require some significant investment in time to really understand the game and get into it. A short demo wouldn’t have really done the game justice.
I think many studios are afraid of how the game would be received if they put out a demo. Indie developers have no problem with that as they put down all of their soul into their game, and they know that their game, and demo, will be fun, because they think it is fun. Releasing a demo for Magicka was a given, especially when we made a game that many people couldn’t quite define. We basically took the first chapter of the game and released as a demo.
Releasing a demo is a giant pain in the butt and nobody really wants to do it! The wrong demo can completely screw you over so it’s a gamble, essentially. We actually started looking at how people were reacting to the game, and also had a quick look around at other demos. The turning point, really, was that we believed people would be willing to accept a demo without multiplayer, which took away a giant technical hurdle. The results have been great – the conversion rate on the demo is currently rather astonishingly good so it seems to have been the right choice.
I think, for us at least, it goes back to the issue of getting exposure. There are a ton of indie developers out there now, and it’s not always easy to know what their work is like. When you buy from a major publisher, you generally can have a reasonable expectation of what you’re getting in the box. It’s not always so obvious from indie devs. Even more so, Orcs Must Die! was a new type of game for us entirely. Had we worked on an RTS, people might have had more obvious expectations. As we took the game around to various trade shows over the summer, we encountered a lot of the same sentiments – people were unsure about the game, but once they played it they were instantly hooked.
Providing a free demo gives indies an edge in distribution that they might not otherwise have available to them. If gamers can get their hands on a free trial of a game, it’s much more likely that more people will check it out and that helps increase the chance more people will buy it. They don’t have the userbase of a big name studio ready to follow them to buy into their next title, so in one sense, they have to earn their reputation with customers without a past track record. They often must rely on word of mouth and the best way to achieve that is to make their game as accessible and available as possible. A free download puts up no entry barriers for trying their game and so it’s a great way to promote it and help build interest.
What most of these demos have in common is to give a taste of the full game with limited restrictions on what the player could do from gameplay standpoint. In end, this is what matters most – giving the consumer an opportunity to legally sample your product to ensure quality and system testing. We know there are plenty of great PC demos not mentioned in this article so let us know your favorites in the comments section below.