Game Demos: Then and Now

Matt Barton's picture

One of the many aspects of gaming culture that tends to get ignored by the majority of critics is the game demo. No, I'm not talking about the "produkts" of the "demoscene" groups, but rather those programs that purport to offer users a "trial sample" of a commercial title. Who cares? Well, game demos have played (and continue to play) an intriguing and potentially vital role in the game industry--they expose gamers to new games, help sell game magazines, and might eventually become more important than the "full versions" they represent. Although I'm not prepared here to offer a full history of the phenemonon, I would like to mention a few important developments and hopefully raise some issues for discussion.

For those who haven't been keeping up with this earlier discussion, the subject of "demos" raises several points of debate. For instance, how closely should a game demo reflect the actual experience of playing the full game? Should game critics and reviewers be content just to play a demo before writing up a review, or should they always play the full version? Whose fault is it if the game demo gives a false impression of the game, whether positively or negatively? Finally, are game demos a bad development, since they drive up an already staggeringly high cost of development? We've all heard of those game companies who spend ungodly sums of money putting together demos and trailers--all of this expenditure may very well come at the expense of actual production.

But, anyway, here are a few points to consider. According to the Wikipedia, the game demo emerged from the shareware market of the 80s and early 90s. We all know how companies like Apogee and id relied on shareware to garner attention for their games. The concept worked like this: Release a "fully playable" game for free and encourage people to distribute it. In other words, actively encourage what most game developers fought so hard against--"piracy." However, this "piracy" had a nice twist--the "free" game was just a taste of what the "full" game had to offer. If you really enjoyed it and had invested time in it, you felt a powerful motivation to acquire the commercial version, which had more levels, more options, and so on. Although I agree that much of what we call "demos" comes from the shareware movement, I might also add the "attract" modes of arcade machines, which were copied in many home ports and other games. The purpose of the "attract" mode was to show brief snippets of gameplay, which allowed potential quarter-poppers to see if the game looked fun. Even though you couldn't interact during these demos, they at least allowed gamers to make an informed decision.

These early "playable demos" were important for many reasons, particularly for PC games. For one, unlike console gaming, there was never a way to rent games to try them out before making a full purchase. This might not seem like that big of a deal, but when you consider that games were costing $50 or more--not an impulse buy for most people--it was vital to have some way of trying a game before buying it. We might add to this that, then as now, many of the game magazines were directly funded by advertising from the same companies whose products they reviewed. This meant that you could hardly trust many of the magazine reviewers, since many of them were as "duly" hyping up the latest big-budget title as its publisher. Thus, since every game that came out was touted as a paradigm shift in game design, wary gamers could only trust "what they saw with their own eyes," and that meant more than just looking at screenshots (which were "revolutionary" in their day, of course, since the former practice had been to feature professional illustrations). In short, the game demo filled a vital need--it let gamers "try before they buy."

One stumbling block the early game demos faced was the media. Since producing specialty cartridges for game consoles was an expensive and cumbersome option compared to floppy disks and (later) CD-ROMs, the bulk of game demos were for PC offerings. Eventually, when consoles began relying on CD-ROMs as well, game demos were opened up to a much larger demographic. Many magazines began offering disks and CD-ROMs loaded with demos (as well as shareware and public domain programs) as incentives (though plenty saw the magazine itself as the incentive!). I can remember going to Walden Books in the 90s to buy Amiga demo packs that included up to three floppy disks full of demos and shareware--at a time when it was impossible to buy commercial software for the Amiga anywhere else in the city (Monroe, LA). These packs were sold on the magazine racks, even though the "magazine" was actually just a glossy magazine-size insert with a few images and descriptions of what was on the disks. Generally, these disks would include a range of apps, games, utilities, and "meds" or "mods," which were music files that are still quite popular among many computer music enthusiasts.

Of course, one of the conflicts with these packs was the extent to which the programs were really functional. It was irritating to essentially pay for little more than an advertisement for a game or other program. One tendency was to restrict the program to such an extent that it was condemned as "crippleware," meaning that it was so stripped of functionality as to be virtually useless (and probably very annoying). Developers tried all kinds of tricks, such as forcing you to stare at a boring ad for the game for up to five minutes (or catching you as you tried to exit the program). Other playable demos would stop at a random point during gameplay or display an annoying pop-up. However, most of them were true to the spirit of the "demo"--you'd get a fair chance to try the game and evaluate it, then decide if you wanted to shell out the $40 or even $60 to get your hands on the real deal. It was a system that worked well for developers, publishers, and gamers.

One question might be whether game developers could put more effort into the demo and getting it "exactly right" that the rest of the game becomes mere filler. So, for instance, you release a highly polished and carefully designed level as the demo, then slap the rest together. This possibility seems likely enough, but I haven't heard of it happening--and obviously, if you didn't like the demo and didn't buy the game because of it, what's wrong with that? Isn't that the very point of playing a demo in the first place?

What are your thoughts on game demos? Do you find them useful? Have you ever bought a game as a consequence of playing a demo? (Or not?) Have you ever felt "cheated" when a game didn't live up to the expectations you had after playing a demo? Give us the scoop!