The Importance Of PC Demos

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.

Mike Bezek

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.

Armaan Khan

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.

Phil Cordaro

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.

Adam Ames

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.

Remedy – Alan Wake

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.

Flying Wild Hog – Hard Reset

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.

CDProjeckt RED – The Witcher

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.

Arrowhead – Magicka

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.

Mode 7 – Frozen Synapse

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.

Robot Entertainment – Orcs Must Die!

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.

StarWraith 3D Games – Evochron Mercenary

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.

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19 thoughts on “The Importance Of PC Demos

  1. Of course, demo’s in the 90’s were of a different beast. As there was no web, you needed to buy magazines with cover Floppies/CD’s with demo’s, patches and even video reviews on CD versions (!). I had a game by Looking Glass called “Terra Nova: Task Force Centauri”, it never required any patches (Looking Glass games seldom did!), but Looking Glass released three mission demo’s, but not from the game, but NEW missions! It was a type of early FREE DLC for those of us that had the full game, and for those looking to buy, they got a tutorial mission a normal mission and a hard mission, in order to convey the full depth of the game!

    This was a mid 90’s game, by the way, that had first/third person tactical battles on an alien planet fighting the evil corporation. You and an AI NPC (you got to choose from a group by skill, based on the mission ahead). You could control this NPC and you both were in armoured jump suits that had multi LCD screens, rockets, lasers the ability to jump 40 feet and multiple other suit options. The gameworld was open, with day/night cycles, clouds reflected in water, shadows, hills and trees as well as harbours, etc. I can highly recommend it. A thinking-man’s shooter with excellent AI and that Looking Glass “something”!

    • Yes. I remember buying copies of Computer Gaming World and PC Gamer back in the late 90s just to get the demo disc. It was great for me because I had such a lousy internet connection.

  2. Well I was going to come in here and go full tilt boogie on angry rant mode if nobody had mentioned Doom. I spent months playing the first episode of Doom over and over eventually memorizing every floor plan to every level while giving myself added challenges by going through the whole game using just a pistol. When I finally bought the full game it was a lost weekend while enjoying all new content. Over the years I have purchased about 3 or 4 copies to replace the discs that got damaged, lost or stolen.

    One demo that always struck me as very interesting was the original Mount & Blade. You got the full game but only untill your character reached level 7 and then you had to enter the key code to continue. You then got to continue playing with the same character instead of having to buy then game and start all over again. When I hit that Input Key Code screen I ran to my other computer and bought the game, waited about 10 minutes for the code to be emailed to me then kept playing. The irony is that having spent 100+ hours on the game I can honestly say that the real fun, the good stuff, doesn’t start until about level 12.

    • You see Adam??? You have me to thank for not upsetting Steven. I’d like my bonus in one large check, please.

      Also I agree Mount and Blade was a really brilliant approach to this! It also reminds me of how cool that game is and kind of makes me want to go play it right now…

      • A Check? What kind of bonus is that? What you need is something more meaningful. I say Adam sends a case of hot dogs (American hot dogs) and potatos from KFC! (mashed not the fries)

        Mount &Blade is indeed a great game, I just wish it had better mod support. There are a number of great mods for it, but you can only really have one at a time. This means that if you are a modder who wants to work with M&B you’d better go big or go home because a player has to choose your mod over all the rest.

        Another point on demos. Before the birth of BlueRay they used to put additional content on movie DVDs, movie studios used these bonus features to help lure home video patrons away from VHS and to the more cost effective DVD format. One of the more interesting features I found were XBox demos. Played the Doom 3 demo that was on the Doom movie and the Chronicles of Riddick demo on one of the Chonicles of Riddick movies, I don’t remember if it was the live action film or the anime on. In both cases I enjoyed playing the game more than watching the movie and now have both titles on my PC. If you are going to torture your audience with yet another movie licensed game then at least this was a good way of showing that one will be much better than the other.

      • A case of Nathan’s dogs is on the way. KFC mashed potatoes are alright, but I think home made would be an even better choice. KFC used to have awesome Mac and Cheese, but they changed the recipe and now it is terrible.

      • Ugh..KFC Mac & Cheese is horrible. But I have to get it every time because that’s all my daughter wants to eat, a drumstick and mac & cheese. Homemade mashed potatoes are the best! My secret ingredient when making them is I use Half&Half instead of milk, makes them especially thick and creamy.

      • For research purposes – How long ago did they change the mac and cheese recipe at KFC? I haven’t been to American KFC in about a decade so I think I remember the OG mac and cheese and it was pretty good.

        Then again, I’m more partial to mac and cheese (and the food in general) from BBQ places. Oh man, BBQ. How I long for some pulled pork.

      • The change is relatively recent I believe, they used to make the mac&cheese in the restaurant but now they get it premade from corporate. In theory it is supposed to be the same recipe though. I’m thinking of just putting my foot down and announcing a no mac&cheese rule for my daughter, we go to like a Texas Road House (good BBQ) or Joes Crab Shack (good seafood) and all she wants is the mac&cheese. I’m not too thrilled about paying $7-$8 for a bowl of Kraft. My boy makes up for it though, he loves messy BBQ short ribs and the Crawdad bucket.

      • Dude Texas Road House is pretty sweet. Just went there for the first time earlier this year. Their chili is awesome too!

        We both know that a “no mac and cheese” rule would be a blatant display of child abuse for which your daughter would require decades of therapy. I would instead suggest some sort of compromise / trading system where she can get mac and cheese as a side but she has to order something else (preferably something bad ass). All this talk about food…you’re killing me, man.

      • You have fallen into the trap of being “in” PC industry. You can only see “piracy” as black and white. If you pirate a game, you play it and don’t buy it. Efe was pointing out how you could prate a game, play it for 20 minutes, decide it’s a good game, delete the pirate version and buy the legal version. But the industry just cannot get it’s head around gamers being that smart!

        If anyone who pirates is evil, then I am evil, as I have noticed, since around 2004, that the physical CD/DVD quality has gone down. as publishers use
        cheaper disks, paper for manuals (if there is one, and plastic case with a disk holder that always breaks and a clip that keeps the case closed seldom doing so! This means I quite often get a disk one or two (or three) that doesn’t read from my drive. Meanwhile mid 90’s games still load! I feel no worry about downloading that one disk replacement from a pirate site, burning a copy and putting it with my original disks. Why should I keep having to buy new copies (if available) or more often than not, buy another secondhand copy from ebay or somewhere!

        It’s the same with Megaupload. Many used this service to make available mods, unofficial patches,. indie game demo’s etc. Many of these files are now longer available, as the poster has not found another free service for him or the downloader! This is a tightening of the noose by Government and the industry and it is helping kill the PC as a home gaming/hobby machine as much a bad console conversions, or 5 hour gameplay games for $60!

        We have a couple stores in the UK that sell secondhand PC games, these sections have been getting smaller, I am convinced, because gamers are now hanging onto the games they buy, as they know subconsciously, there may not be many more decent PC games getting published.

      • If you read my article posted last year on this topic from a different perspective, you will see I have not fallen into any traps. I never even attempted to accuse anyone of being evil for downloading cracked games when there were no other alternatives to the PC gamer for testing the game on their systems. I think a good portion of the pirating debate would be gone if PC gamers were allowed to be refunded money for games that did not work. You can thank the antiquated EULA for this.

        Personally, during my early years of PC gaming (2000-2005), I always went after cracks to games because I did not like swapping CDs/DVDs. I also did this to keep my discs from being damaged.

      • My point was exactly like John said, as most AAA game developers don’t even bother to release proper demos it’s a good way to try out games with cracked copies. If you like the game you’ll buy, if you don’t then you’ll uninstall it in a few minutes anyway.

        I personally use neither cracked stuff nor demo/trial’s now, since I mostly purchase games on Steam, GamersGate, GMG and GOG sales, I don’t wanna waste my time/internet bandwidth to try something. Even if I don’t like the game, it’s dirt cheap anyway. Though there are “still” some PC games being developed which I want to get in day 1. I mostly buy them blindfolded.

        BTW have you guys ever used OnLive or Gaikai, it’s another good way to try games. But I only have a 3 MBit connection here, so streaming doesn’t work for me.

      • I tried OnLive a while back, but it was pretty terrible. The good side is you can look at game as if it were a demo. The downside is if this becomes the norm, PC gaming is pretty much dead in the water. OnLive takes away every conceivable aspect that makes PC gaming great.

      • Something like OnLive won’t work for the modding community. While it might be fine for the console people it is not for a good chunk of the PC crowd. The ability to tweak files, settings and hardware is the whole point of PC gaming. Whenever I see someone saying that OnLive is going to be the future of gaming I can’t help but wonder if that person has either just switched to PC gaming or is otherwise primarily a console gamer. While something like The Elder Scrolls uses modding as part of it’s marketing plan it is not the only type of game that can be modded. Every PC game in existence can be modded, I’m willing to bet that at least half the games loaded on any readers PC right now has mods available. So while OnLive may remain a viable option I doubt that Streaming Games will ever become a dominant force in PC gaming. Now if the next generation of consoles really does require players to wear a leash (Oh wait! I mean maintain a constant connection) then I could see some sort of Streaming service for consoles being hosted by someone like GameFly.

        The idea of using pirated copies as demos is one of the more valid excuses out there. The problem comes from someone who pirates their own demo and ends up liking the game and playing it a lot and beating it but somehow never gets around to actually buying the game. Or if they do buy the game it’s for 99% off during a Steam Summer Sale. In this case the well intentioned demo becomes a fully pirated game, buying it on sale for a dollar 1 year later doesn’t count in my book. Of course all this could be avoided if the developer had released a demo to begin with.

  3. Efe, I would rather you pirate a game to try and decide on it’s quality to buy the full price version, than wait until the games are cheap with no profit left for the publisher. if we all just bought at sales there would be no PC game industry! At least do it for the smaller publishers in Europe and elsewhere as if they have a decent game and you can see that through the pirate copy and you go out and pay full price, you will know the money is supporting proper PC games, not the console conversions that the big companies do.

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