The Demoralizing Decline of Videogame Demos



  • Videogame demos are a staple of mine and many gamers' childhoods. The glee of buying a magazine that contained a case with a disc inside packed with samples of the latest videogame releases was an unequal pleasure to behold. Demos were the ultimate opportunities to grab a salivating taster of upcoming games before the full-fat versions were unleashed unto the market, providing a slice of what to expect, giving us the ultimate power to decide whether to plonk down the cash to buy the full feature. Demos were packaged free with whatever games mag you bought with no strings attached, meaning they were scrutinized by the public before they reached store shelves.

    Today the game demo is a rarity, often reserved for lesser-known prospects or otherwise provided by a few publishers months after the game’s release, enough time after the maximum sales had been accrued. This sad state for game demos demonstrates the decline and refusal to allow players to try before they buy, presumably out of the fear that exposing the game early to eagerly awaiting audiences will result in lesser sales, and with today’s money-hungry and greedy videogame publishers, it’s no surprise.

    Some of the coolest games were shrunk down and bundled with others on a demo disc courtesy of the Official Playstation Magazine. PS1 demos invited us to give games like the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, TEKKEN 3, Crash Bandicoot, Die Hard Trilogy and Metal Gear Solid and umm Spice World by the immensely 90s girls pop group The Spice Girls...along with many more besides. With this level of diversity and the ability to play a snapshot of these games for free, there really was a greater concern for the consumer back in those halcyon days. The fact the DVDs came with eye-popping menus and immersive music to draw you in, it made every single demo disc a magical merry-go-round of videogame excess with the privilege of being able to access a smorgasbord of games.

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    The PS2 kept the traction going with the likes of Burnout, SSX, Freedom Fighters, Ratchet & Clank, Jak & Daxter and a myriad of other well-loved games and franchise entries receiving demos. If anything the PS2 demos were far bigger and better than they were on PS1, containing a deluge of titles you could play for a brief period that today would cost $60/£49.99 and would not receive a demo or trial for you to try out before spending money.
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    Then PS3 demos came along, little did we all know it would be the last generation with demos that came on a disc. The demos came in a sleeve instead of a case too, a foreboding devolution that hints at the end of the traditional physical demo. Also there weren’t as many big games on the demo besides Uncharted: Drakes Fortune and them FIFA games. The face of the industry was changing quickly, so from the time the PS3 released in 2006/2007 and the time PS4 came out in late 2013, the focus was on big triple A games that stood by themselves without the chance for the mainstream public to test them out.

    Around this time the emphasis on “good graphics” became the empowering force, convincing developers and publishers to focus more on showing us the visual quality of games whilst hiding blemishes as much as they could. They wanted you to pre-order their games and the best way to hook you in was to show you how good the game will look through trailers. Yes, there were gameplay trailers, but you couldn’t feel the gameplay, so these games were shielded from scrutiny and what you paid for was what you got.
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    It’s easy to think that developers and publishers are rife with fear about putting their games out there in demo form. It’s understandable, they are worried about losing money if the reception to a demo isn’t good, but when there are a small selection of demos floating out there on the digital storefront by creators who have the gall to put their games out there to be judged before they are released, then there really is a feeling that the big wigs are gun shy about giving us a free slice.

    Without free demos to comb over it’s difficult to know what you’re going to experience after you lay your money down to purchase a game. As a result knowing what’s really worth your money is made much harder unless you go by is how it looks in trailers. These days gamers buy highly anticipated titles such as The Last of Us Part II, pay 60 bones, find out about how the story unfolds-then they bundle together in a vitriolic community to spew their hellfire about it. If there was a demo for The Last of Us Part II, there would be an insignificant part of the story attached to gameplay that shows off the game’s mechanics without spoiling the high-octane moments.

    Demos have always been a great way to bring exposure to lesser-known games and they continue to do their job but without the power to lean on bigger games that are bundled on a disc. It’s plausible to believe that indie developers who put their game out there in trial form are lost in the herd with others that have done the same thing, but without the big triple A game demo there is a reduced chance for those games to get noticed.

    The decline of videogame demos isn’t too surprising when the advent of digital consumption grew and grew. Afterall why should we go out and buy a game when you can order it on Amazon? Yes, the game might take a day or few to get to you, but you don’t have to move anywhere or exert yourself in any way. You can now keep a huge library of games on your system, no more memory cards are needed, and storage is seismic. Instant access is the future, and the future is now.

    It’s a case of give and take, take away most of the free demos but give bigger and more diverse experiences with technologically awe-inspiring and impressive design. Games are larger and more epic than they have ever been and while demos are missed greatly their marginalization isn’t in vain. Those late 90s and 00s days were special and demos deserve their place in time as vestigial remnants of a cherished bygone time, but now is what matters and we have it greater now than ever before generally speaking-even if a few more demos out there in the ether would be nicer.