Friday, February 13, 2009

The Demo Dilemma

The advent of consoles with hard drives coupled with widespread broadband Internet access has raised the profile of game demos. What was once limited to PC gaming and the occasional promotion has become a major feature in the game industry and in gaming culture. It seems like many of today's games have two release dates: one when the demo drops and second when the final game hits stores. It is an interesting phenomenon, and I would like to find what effect, if any, it has had on sales. But that is a topic for another day.

I recently logged on to PlayStation Store and engaged in a downloading spree, sifting through demos new and old, from all genres. Hopping from game to game is fun, especially given that all the demos are priced at a very reasonable free-ninety-nine. Unfortunately, I have come to a conclusion that is disappointing to me and probably disheartening for game developers: After completing many games' demos, I feel little compulsion to play through the full versions.

Like Tycho of Penny Arcade, I enjoy deciphering a game's thesis. Whether it be simple or profound, every game has something to communicate to the player. Usually, I am also fairly disciplined about fallowing that thesis to its conclusion, i.e., the end of the game. Oftentimes I will see a game to the end simply to analyze how closely it sticks with its original claims. While this habit has led me suffer through some train-wrecks, I enjoy the historiography of gaming so much that it is worth it. Additionally, on some level I feel I owe it to the developer to experience their complete work.

Unfortunately, many demos seem to blunt my desire to play games that, had I started the full versions without playing the demos, I would have completed. F.E.A.R. 2, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, and The Last Guy, have all fallen into the doldrums; my interest in them has been satiated by a demo. The tragic thing is, if I had the entire games sitting in my house, I probably would be playing and writing about them this very moment.

Is this a problem? And if it is, what is the solution? Clearly, developers have a difficult task when constructing a demo: how much content to include and how long an experience to provide are tricky questions. From players' perspectives, having a demo that is honest in terms of content and presentation can greatly influence a purchasing decision. Perhaps a happy medium can be reached with "teaser" demos that are more limited than the status quo?

The point is, I am not sure how to rectify my demo dilemma, so I will throw it to you, kind readers:

-Players: How actively to you play game demos? Do they convince you to play more games in their entirety? Do you worry about spoilers when playing them (and remember spoilers do not necessarily have to be plot points, they can begameplay styles).

-Developers: How do you decide what to put in a demo? Do you worry about the kinds of assumptions people make when playing an unfinished version of your game? How would you change the current practices concerning game demos?

My recent experiences with demos has been a study in short term gain leading to long term loss. I jumped on the demos of games like Mirror's Edge, Dead Space, and Resident Evil 5, and enjoyed playing them. However, the demos seem to have been too effective in providing a satisfying experience, as I feel like I know enough about those games to be comfortable in leaving them on the back burner, all the while intending to return to them sometime in the nebulous "future" when I "have the time."

I fear that time and that future may never materialize.


  1. I think it depends on the game - or rather, the quailty of it. It works both ways - the demo for Penny Arcade OTRSPOD convinced me to buy the game, and I did so immediately after finishing the demo. On the other hand, Mirror's edge demo showed me that this would not be a game I would like. I might still play it at some point, but only as a rental.

  2. I'm only rarely persuaded to buy full games based on a demo. The only recent occurrence I can think of is Battlefield: Bad Company, which had a fantastic multiplayer demo.

    More often than not I'm completely turned off by demos. I hated the demos for Burnout Paradise and The Force Unleashed, but really enjoyed the full games. I suppose I really dislike the feeling of being artificially shackled within an open game world, and throwing the player into a mid-game situation destroys any kind of pacing.

    On that note, I hated the Resident Evil 5 demo, but I suspect I'll enjoy the full game.

  3. When I was a kid and pretty book I would sometimes steal the game demo discs from gaming magazines. When I had the time I didn't have the money, so the demos were a nice way to experience a game's core gameplay. Now I have the money but not the time, and it serves its same purpose for me.

    Most games that I buy I usually decide to buy before I play the demo and I stick to it. Demos or more how I go about playing the mediocre games that I can admit I'll likely never return to.

    That being said I can already think of games that break that rule. I really enjoyed the Braid demo and picked it up before really looking into it. I also heard the Maw was good but after playing the demo I decided its not for me.

    It is also interesting how developers see demos and how they are published. The Killzone 2 demo that requires a pre-order for example. What is that all about!? I say game demos should include pieces of the story as well as understanding the mechanics, or maybe even a game in and of itself. I would love to see a game demo act as a kind of prequel to the actual game.

  4. Michael:

    I love seeing the Penny Arcade game abbreviated ;-). I think the rental option undercuts the importance of demos for me: even if I don't like a game, using GameFly negates much of the cost. Therefore, demos aren't as important as an investment research tool.


    Funny, I just played the Bad Company demo and it was the single player that has made me interested in the rest of the game.

    I agree that demos so often feel like a poor representation of a game's world. As far as RE5 goes, it took me a while to remember how to play a RE game, but I eventually warmed to it. Local co-op with Jorge was fun as well.


    Don't get me started on the Killzone 2 demo debacle.

    I love the idea of a demo being a stand alone episode, akin to a prologue or pilot episode. I think it would be a good way of circumventing the limitation on the game world that Matthew was talking about.

  5. "It's better to not have a demo than have a bad demo. Don't play the demo, it's a misrepresentation of that level and the whole game."

    -- PR for THQ AU on Resident Evil 5, delivered over beer.

  6. It's funny I was just talking about this very thing with a friend of mine. I really need to start my own blog!
    I've downloaded the demos for six PS3 games. Each of those demos represented games that I fully intended to purchase. However, once I played the demos, I found that I either didn't like the game, or simply didn't find it intriguing enough to continue playing. The demos were promptly deleted and those games scratched off of my to-buy list.
    Like you, had I bought the games, I would have definitely still played them to the end, and probably enjoyed them. However, the demos gave me a glimpse of what I was NOT really missing.
    Still, I hate to think that I am missing out on a much greater experience simply because the demo didn't impress me. In time, it's entirely possible that I will purchase the games (probably used) and I may or may not enjoy them. It's also possible that I will wish I had bought the game sooner, but I'm not sure how likely that is.
    While demos have turned me away from a purchase, I have yet to play a demo that actually turned into a purchase. Yes, I might be missing out, but at $60 a pop, I have no choice but to be cautious with my money.
    If a game company wants my money, they may have only two options: make the demo amazing, or simply don't offer one.

  7. "I would love to see a game demo act as a kind of prequel to the actual game."
    Considering demos do not make money, this seems like a financially irresponsible move(which may explain the killzone deal).
    The fact that these demos do not prompt further play might simply be an indication of how lousy the market is. From the last 5 years I cant name even 10 games I absolutely loved.

  8. Daniel:

    Can't really argue with that quote: seems honest and logical. Now if only all the industry PR reps would have a few "honesty" drinks before making their statements. ;-)


    Sounds like you and I are basically on the same page. Have you ever returned to any of those "maybe some day games?"


    Maybe the prequel-demo idea is a blue-sky dream, but who knows what the future might hold? How about a limited-time prequel (like a temporary open-beta?) or a $1-2 price point?

    Out of curiosity, what was the last game you loved? Do you think the medium has grown stagnant, or have you simply not been struck by anything?

  9. I talk about this topic a lot. I love demo's and I very rarely buy games from XBLA or PSN without a demo unless it is critically acclaimed. However, I do suffer from the same problem when I play a demo I feel like if i get that is all the game is then I don't want to buy it. Mirrors edge was a good example as it was critically acclaimed but after playing the demo i realized not for me. I think Braid and Pacman ME was the only time I had not heard of a game, played the demo and bought it right there and then.

    It is a very delicate balance. In the game I am working on right now, I have no idea if I should make a demo version. I don't know what the balance is between showing too much and not showing enough.

    I think what gets me to buy a full game the most is when I know there is a multilayer aspect to the game that I can not get too without the full game. That way if I like the game and want to play with others, then I have to pay. This is the model behind xbox gold and silver and it seems to work.

    In regards to the Resident Evil demo, I had the opposite feeling as you guys. I HATED it and am now very on the fence about the game that before playing the demo I would have bought midnight day one(it has been pre-ordered for almost a year now).

    Good topic as always guys.

  10. "How about a limited-time prequel (like a temporary open-beta?) or a $1-2 price point?"

    The prequel idea is interesting but demos are typically a waste of developer time unless they are an actual chunk of the final game. Even if it's free and great a demo might only add marginal sales and in fact, like Scott said they can actually hurt sales. The only demo that has really made me interested in a game was Resident Evil 4's at E3 because it made something familiar new again and in many ways better. Publishers have become prone to regurgitation and sequels(count the number of God Of War clones last year alone) and dont seem to have many alternatives to releasing demos. As a developer myself they have been nothing but a hindrance to the end product except in one instance.

    "Out of curiosity, what was the last game you loved? Do you think the medium has grown stagnant, or have you simply not been struck by anything?"

    Little Big Planet is the only recent game I absolutely adore. It, too, has flaws but they are minor in comparison to say, MGS4's navigation or dialogue or most aspects of its' play.
    It's not that the medium has grown stagnant. I think publishers are too scared to experiment and feel they HAVE to have a demo. The market is also too eager to accept flawed products. We've hit a pop culture wall, imo, where popcorn gaming is king and people dont care that punching in GTA feels like dogshit.
    The only bright spot with the market the way it is are the retro games coming back. megaman 9, sf hd remix, sfIV, bionic commando rearmed, etc. Goddamnit i want a blaster master update.

  11. Andrew:

    I truly do not envy your position. I always appreciate it when games have demos, since it helps ensure against buyer's remorse. However, I also understand the danger of putting out a demo and actually driving people away.

    I'm starting to think that perhaps a limited time demo is the way to go. If you can only play the game for a few minutes, it will give the player a sense of the rules and mechanics, yet not give them that feeling of completion that will allow them to move on (as the Mirror's Edge demo did for me).

    Another idea is to offer a basic level as an introduction and then follow it up with a teaser movie showcasing some of the more advanced gameplay scenarios (giving players a reason to want to come back).


    I'm with you all the way on the LittleBigPlanet endorsement, as well as the fondness for "retro" games in general. One of the best developments of this console generation has been the renewed interst and availability of "the classics."

    Still, I often wonder to myself if I'm just being an old curmudgeon when I launch into a "kids these days don't know what a real video game is!" rant... ;-)

  12. There are two major schools of thought on demos:

    1. A demo lets you "try before you buy".

    2. A demo gives you a taste of what's to come to get you to buy the full game.

    As you've noticed, there are few games that will survive from a "try before you buy" model because once you've played a representative sample of the game, like a good news soundbite, you don't feel like you need to know the rest of the story. It's a basic cognitive error that leads us to think that we know everything we need to know about the situation because we have the basic gist of it.

    However, if a demo can convince you that you have just seen the tip of the iceberg, then you've got a demo that might even suck you into buying an otherwise crappy game. Demos can get you to invest in them if they are smartly developed. You might have save points that make you feel like you can pick up where you left off. There might be a cliffhanger that makes you want to see the rest of the story to its completion. There might even be some montage of cool film footage that shows you just how much you will be missing if you don't buy the full package. The marketers just need to get smarter about how they make their demos, or they probably shouldn't make them.

  13. @csecrist

    Sounds like the game developers would be served well by keeping some psychologists on staff! ;-)