Truly, the landscape of gaming has changed tremendously from the early nineties, in which most games required trips to the store to purchase expensive cartridges which plugged into much more expensive electronic boxes that, themselves, needed to be plugged into even more expensive television sets.
There are advantages and disadvantages to these approaches. In today's world, for the same price that a customer would have paid for five games in 1992, she could easily snag five hundred games of comparable or even higher quality (via Steam sales, Humble Bundles, App Stores, etc.).
On one hand, this puts more games in the hands of more people, and opens more customers up to potentially taking risks on a strange or unfamiliar title. It is unlikely that gems like Little Inferno or Valiant Hearts could have existed in the old model. This gives creators room to experiment on smaller titles without contending with the costs of producing physical cartridges or discs.
On the other hand, games are more disposable now than they were back then. If I find the pacing of Ni No Kuni to be a bit slow for my tastes, I can bin it and move on to one of a thousand other games I have on my backlog. It was free from PlayStation Plus, so I'm not really losing anything by ignoring it. Compare that to the old model. If you spent $60 on Metal Gear Solid, by god, you figured out how to play the game, no matter how bad you were at it. It was the one game you had to play for the summer.
The history of demos
With each purchasing decision being comparatively weightier back then, demos played an important part in our gaming lives. Demos built a bridge to new experiences, allowing us to get a taste of what a game was like without investing a lot of money into it.
This was especially important when introducing audiences to new IPs or even genres of games. In a time before online videos really took off, screenshots and sometimes commercials were the only window that you had into a game, and sometimes this is woefully inadequate. What does something like Ape Escape feel like to play? Kula World? PaRappa the Rapper? Katamari Damacy? Screenshots and even written descriptions struggle to convey what these games are. Some games that aren't all that eye-catching have an almost immediate mechanical hook that has to be felt first-hand to be appreciated, like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater.
The preeminent medium for demo distribution was the demo disc. Often included with monthly gaming magazines or given away as promotional items, the demo disc is the sole reason why many of the hits from the PlayStation, PlayStation 2, and Xbox gained traction. Demo discs were a curated collection of demos for upcoming games, delivering playable levels and non-interactive videos to customers the world over.
Not having a lot of disposable income in the 90s, I treasured each demo disc that came in the mail. It was just as exciting as getting a new game. I would pore over every little bit of included content, playing each demo dozens of times. I memorized PaRappa the Rapper's encounter with Chop Chop Master Onion. I mastered the tricky canyon race from Jet Moto. I ... tried really hard to understand what was happening in Metal Gear Solid VR Missions... (I was just a kid).
You know what else? Everyone else did as well. The latest and greatest demos were the talk of the schoolyard. People were finding secrets in the Ape Escape demo, or finding ways to squeeze more content out of the Resident Evil 2 demo. Being such a self-contained and immediately digestible nibbling of content meant that everyone could talk about every detail and be sure that everyone else knew what they were talking about. The glass room above the halfpipe in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater's hangar was ubiquitous knowledge, far more than any single detail from a 60 hour game.
To evidence this, the ubiquity of their demos went on to shape the enduring legacy of many of the featured games. "Superman" by Goldfinger is synonymous with Tony Hawk's Pro Skater not because it is the best song on the soundtrack, but because it was the song that played on repeat in the demo.
The beginning of the decline
But things began to change with the advent of the Xbox 360. Adhering to the values of the previous generations, Microsoft (at first) required that all games sold on the Xbox Live Arcade also be given a free playable demo. It was a try-before-you-buy program. Although this was a consumer-friendly practice, it was not without its detractors and detriments.
Some games did not translate well to demos. Geometry Wars, for example, had a famously generous demo. So much so that very little was not included in it, leaving myself and many other potential customers satisfied with our Geometry Wars experience without even purchasing the game. Other games, did not segment quite as cleanly, so developers released what was essentially a full game, just with a time limit imposed upon it.
Furthermore, developing demos was costly and time consuming. Particularly in cases in which the game does not demo well, a problem experienced by episodic content (Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse), point-and-click adventure games (The Secret of Monkey Island, King’s Quest), and RPGs (Tales of Vesperia, Eternal Sonata). This was seen as an unfair requirement that developers had to oblige. In many cases, creating a demo was almost like creating a second game, particularly when developers also had to juggle beta builds, QA builds, promotional videos, and demonstration builds for E3 and other trade shows.
Since game demos were freely downloadable from the console marketplaces, the choice of whether or not to download and play a demo was entirely on the shoulders of the player. Previously, demo discs came packed full of content that I never would have engaged with on name alone, but I ended up loving because it was given to me. Now that no one was providing recommendations any longer, it was much easier to ignore games that might not appeal, especially since there is some level of quantifiable cost to obtaining these demos (download bandwidth used and console hard drive space, to start).
Furthermore, demos were no longer scarce. Players had access to hundreds of free demos and a plethora of inexpensive full games from the digital marketplace. A demo disc's five or six demos were no longer the only content that players could engage with. This made each demo less special, and it did not necessarily play into the spirit of getting the most out of a demo.
For these reasons, demos were no longer ubiquitous. Players couldn't count on their friends being exposed to the same demos as them any longer. These factors hurt the games as well. This statistic is far from being grounded in hard data, but, conversationally-speaking, just about everyone I know that played the Vanquish demo bought Vanquish. That is a game that demos incredibly well, and a game that does not do a great job of selling itself by name, cover art, or written description. It is truly something that has to be felt first hand. Were it a generation earlier, I have no doubt in my mind that Vanquish would have been one of the best-selling and most fondly-remembered games of its time, maybe even spawning an entire genre of similar titles. Drowned out by the plethora of other choices, lack of meaningful curation, and spotty word-of-mouth, though, Vanquish still sits in relative (undeserved) obscurity.
There were, of course, some exceptions to the rule. Batman: Arkham Asylum became an overnight sensation due to the strength of its demo. A licensed superhero game that no one was expecting a lot from (due to the genre's spotty past) impressed players with a hard-hitting and expertly-polished demo, near perfectly-executed. Though the overwhelmingly positive word-of-mouth would have eventually caught up to the game when the reviews hit (as we would later see happen for Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor), the fact that players had the opportunity to discover Arkham Asylum's brilliance first hand made that day feel special.
During this decline, though, market research and talk within the industry began to suggest that certain game demos may have actually hurt sales. A presentation by game developer Jesse Schell at DICE 2013 gave some data to back up the notion that game demos severely undercut sales figures for certain titles. Arguments surrounding this data began to emerge. Schell proposed the idea that a part of what sells games is the mystery and build up that consumers have no way of satisfying short of buying the game. Opponents of Schell's criticism of game demos argued that a decline in sales due to a game demo reflected a game's poor quality, and demos served as a protective factor for potential customers, as they get the best possible sense of what a game is like by actually playing it rather than being fed vertical-slice videos and artificially curated experiences.
As online videos became more ubiquitous, they became an increasingly viable way to effectively demo a game. First impression videos, full playthrough Let's Plays, and Twitch streams give audiences a chance to engage with a curated selection of new games, often guided by a trusted internet personality. These slower videos demonstrate gameplay mechanics, in-game visuals, and the pace of the game far better than game trailers or expo demonstrations ever could. The running commentary also helped bridge the gap between watching and playing the game, as viewers were given insights into the thought processes of those actually playing the games, giving them a sense of faux interactivity.
Videos do a great job of showcasing unique and personal playstyles for games that support creative play, such as Rocket League and Hitman. A detriment of this format, though, is that it is better at communicating established genres and conventions than more innovative and "gamefeel-centric" experiences, such as Sound Self, Dark Souls, and Luxuria Superbia.
Some games even began building features into their infrastructures that complimented video demonstration. The Five Nights at Freddy's series has benefited from YouTube community involvement immensely, and Undertale even changes some of its content if it detects that it is being streamed or recorded.
Perhaps the most direct stand-in for the demo in modern times is the open beta. This serves as a mutually-beneficial release for developers and consumers. Developers will use betas as an opportunity to stress-test their servers for online multiplayer matches. Though less common now, developers used to seek Q & A feedback from those participating.
Betas are live for limited time frames, usually over a weekend or a week, so they do not serve customers who are discovering games months or years after their release. Constraining the beta to a time limit does turn it back into an event, though. Game news sites will report on these betas, and it is likely that more players will engage during the time period due to the impermanence of the opening, creating scarcity. When a demo lasts forever, people may download it and put it on their lists to get to eventually, but if a demo has a definitive end date, it will add a certain urgency to engaging with the content, as we have recently witnessed in the successful demo for previously unknown samurai Souls-like game Ni-Oh.
One downside of betas is that they serve established franchises more than unknown titles. While players may be excited to engage with the Overwatch beta, that level of success and attention is less likely to be given to unknown games. In that sense, betas may be marketing themselves most heavily towards those who are already more likely to buy the game already.
One recent development, most famously employed by Ni-Oh is rewarding players for engaging with betas. Ni-Oh offered free DLC for the full game to player who managed to beat its demo during the timeframe when it was active. That DLC will remain exclusive for those who engaged early. It is just an aesthetic touch, but it does add a sense of immediacy and urgency to engagement with the beta.
Popularized by the iOS and Android marketplaces for mobile phones and tablets, free-to-play games serve as effective demos. These can serve as functional standalone games, giving players a chance to engage directly with the software, but they typically gate off certain amounts of the content or lock certain conveniences behind time limits or advertisements.
This model can have its advantages and disadvantages. It can give players a la carte purchasing models, allowing them to buy only aspects of the game that they want while not being financially burdened by features that they will never engage with. Also, getting games into the hands of potential customers can hook them in. Threes' developers lost out on a huge amount of business due to not making their game free to start, which is why the similar and inferior 2048 swooped in and took so much of their business that Threes would not even appear in the top search results on the App Store if you searched for “threes”, specifically.
The great disadvantage of the free-to-play model is the fact that it sets developers and customers against each other. Developers feel the need to make customers want to make purchases by worsening their play experiences. Customers want to see how much they can experience without paying. Developers and customers are opponents in this system, and feelings of animosity can spring from this exchange. For example, try playing Bejeweled for the iPhone. The ads feel immensely intrusive, and it’s hard to not feel angry at PopCap for creating such a sub-optimal experience.
To point to an example of a game that has absolutely nailed the free-to-play / free-to-start model, Double Helix’s / Iron Galaxy’s Killer Instinct reboot for the Xbox One and PC has been phenomenally handled. The base game is handled more like a platform that future content is built on top of. Players, for free, are given one cycling character per month, and other characters can be bought individually or as packs. Currently in its third “season” of content, the software is usable by free users while still politely inviting players to engage further.
Separate material designed specifically for demonstration purposes
Although this requires more work, creating standalone experiences using the engines and tools developed for a game can give designers a chance to give a taste of the final product without spoiling any of the content of the main game. This is particularly useful when the game itself does not “segment” nicely.
The infamously difficult-to-describe point-and-click adventure game Kentucky Route Zero could have been difficult to demo. It is a longer experience that, to be properly understood, should be taken in as full chapters rather than individual scenes. To give audiences a taste of the game before its release, Cardboard Computer released the standalone oddity Limits & Demonstrations, separate from the events and characters of the main game, that communicates the tone and style of Kentucky Route Zero in a more easily-digestible segment.
Perhaps most famous was the success of the recent P.T., the playable teaser for the ultimately cancelled Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro collaboration Silent Hills. As a standalone experience, it is still widely regarded as one of the strongest titles in the PlayStation 4’s library (praised in reviews, features, and even getting a handful of game of the year awards from IGN, Polygon, and Slate) . It incorporated a dense mystery that the community had to work together to solve.
The real strength of these separately-designed standalone gameplay experiences is that fans know that it is not a part of the game, so if they play it, they will not be spoiling aspects of the full game, and they won’t have to replay the same section within the context of the full game the following year. Games such as Bravely Default and Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast have had great success with their standalone demos, and even in the rare instances in which a standalone demo was monetized, such as Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, the controversy has drawn attention to the content.
Popularized on the Steam marketplace, the occasional free weekend can draw new players into (most often multiplayer) games. Though single-player content is most often locked out of free weekends, giving players access to the multiplayer content gives them a feel for the look and feel of the game, and, most importantly, it serves as an effective benchmark for PC players for how well their computers can run the game, something that, even when analyzing publisher-supplied system requirements, amounts to some degree of guesswork in the absence of playable demos.
There are a few disadvantages to this model. First, it best serves multiplayer games, as a weekend is enough time for truly dedicated players to blitz through an entire single-player game. Secondly, it is easy for players to miss out on the free weekends if they are otherwise occupied during those days, not giving interested potential customers the chance to demo the game. Third, those with slower internet connections could spend the majority of the allocated timeframe simply downloading the game content, giving them little time to actually play it.
One little advantage is that it opens the floodgates, so that inexperienced players are matched against similarly inexperienced new players rather than being overwhelmed by facing up against experts.
We have learned a tremendous amount about demoing over the past few years. Here are a few recommendations if you have a demo that you want audiences to notice.
Give specific challenges that encourage creativity and personal approach.
A multiplicity of playstyles that can be completed in showy and creative ways encourages folks to show off. Seeing some of the creative ways that people have accomplished their assassinations in Hitman has drawn audiences in. Showing off funny occurrences in Far Cry Primal makes the world seem open and inviting.
This encourages YouTube and Twitch community interest. People want to play it in front of others, and audiences are more inclined to watch these streams and videos. If the game does truly look different for each person who plays, audiences are more likely to engage with it.
Ni-Oh’s success was in its brilliant reward system. Players who complete the demo are rewarded with exclusive aesthetic content. This is more meaningful than preorder bonuses, because it implies a level of mastery. People who achieved it really had to work for it. The fact that the content disappears gives it a sense of scarcity which encourages urgency. Finally, if people want the exclusive content, players have to play the demo for themselves rather than just watching a stream or video of the demo playthrough.
Give it a time limit.
By this, I do not mean just slapping a time limit on top of a chunk of single-player content, like the Resident Evil 2 or Just Cause demos. Instead, put a time limit on when the demo is available or playable. If the demo is going to disappear, people will have to engage with it soon instead of letting it dwindle down their “to-play” lists. Urgency increases engagement. Furthermore, the community is more likely to talk about the demo and encourage others to play it if it is time-limited, as others may miss their chance to play it if they do not engage quickly.
Give it some level of mystery.
Though something as brilliant as P.T. might be an unrealistic standard to set for designers, including puzzles and mysteries too big for one player to solve can increase community discussion. As we have seen from the success of the Five Nights at Freddy’s series, the more that people have to talk about, the more unavoidable the game becomes in the public zeitgeist.
This also makes the demo itself into a game, in and of itself, that bleeds over into the real world. Solving the mystery is an alluring goal that competitive and curious players will want to accomplish. In the end, a demo should be a complete experience, but it should not feel finished. Ask questions that will be answered in the full game. Make audiences hungry for more.