The trend of the pathetic demo has been going on for a while now. Over the last few years, demos have become shorter to the point of being nearly momentary. I understand there's not much that can be done about that. Games need a lot of data, and there's only so much you can reasonably expect people to want to download. There are costs associated with serving up that much data, and it's no longer feasible for a demo to give us a third or a fourth of the total game like in days of yore. I understand this. My gripe is that the small morsel of the game we're getting isn't representative of the whole. Pizza Hut doesn't give out free samples of their pizza that are simply flecks of pepperoni on a stale saltine. I don't expect a full-length, full-featured game when I get a demo, but I do expect to get something that roughly represents the final product. And selfishly, I still expect to be entertained for my trouble.

This might seem petty. I mean, demos are free, right? Why complain? But I dislike this trend because it's a waste of developer resources that could be used to make a game better. The developer spends money making a demo which is nothing like the real game, and is worse in tangible ways. The player spends time downloading and playing it, decides it's not fun, and doesn't buy the full version because they don't realize just how much was stripped out of the demo. Everyone loses.

You need pacing if you want to immerse someone in a game. If you look at the first few minutes of a videogame, they usually offer a very carefully constructed introduction. The player meets some of the main characters. The threat is introduced. The player is taught how to (say) open doors, or pick up items. They're given a small, easily conquered threat to make sure they have a handle on the controls. Then the game begins gradually ramping up the threat level and difficulty as the player is pulled in. But you can't skip those early steps, drop someone into the game a half hour in, and expect to achieve that same level of excitement. The movie Alien was scary. But you couldn't make a one-minute highlight reel of random screaming and claws and teeth and expect the viewer to reach that same level of fright. Those sixty seconds needed the other 116 minutes to support them.

Demos are not all bad, but I don't think this trend of plotless combat demos is good for sales. I think we'd be better off with demos that perhaps showed less but took the time to draw the player in.

Amazingly, the longest and most entertaining demo I've played recently is the one I expected would be shamefully bad. The Crysis demo did a good job of showing off the gameplay, character, story, different combat situations, vehicles, and (duh) the visuals. It lasted about an hour, (which is epic by modern standards) and ended right at a major plot twist. I've been sneering at Crysis for months, but now I actually have a favorable opinion of the game. Yes, the plot is a cliche boilerplate tenth-generation mimeograph of space marines vs. the monsters, but at least it has a plot, which is more than I can say of most of the other demos I've tried.

Question: What's the last demo you played that really made you want to run out and buy the game?

Shamus Young is the author of Twenty Sided and the vandal behind Stolen Pixels. He might also play the odd videogame now and again.

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