This week on Cold Take, Sebastian wants demo culture to return and discusses why video game demos need more love.
Video Game Demos Need More Love – Transcript
There’s good games. There’s bad games. There’s bland games. I want a new category though. I want the weird games, freaky little things. I think that’s where I’d put most of my favorite games.
I’ve been waiting for a game called Viewfinder for a while now. It’s a perception-based puzzle game, similar to Superliminal. I can’t get enough of the stuff, so when the developers announced a demo for Viewfinder was available I sprinted out of the shower to download it immediately. And as I sat in my wet chair with a half-shaven mustache and conditioner still in my hair, I pondered what happened to the shooting stars of video game culture, their demos. Demos have seemingly fallen by the wayside. Maybe they take up too many development resources and diminish design flexibility. I think they’re still important. And due to the lacking presence of demo culture, I think now’s the best time to bring them back.
Admittedly, I am biased. I am the demo guy. I’ve probably spent more time playing video game demos than some people have spent on fully fleshed-out games. It’s how I stay only marginally behind the curve in this crazy industry. I’ve got eyes of steel that can spot out a half-hearted asset drop half a mile away. I’ve got a gold smelling nose like a truffle pig, shuffling through dozens of games at a time discerning between the bad stink and the good stank. Without sounding too conspiratorial, I imagine that’s partly why demos have been taken off of the marketing pedestal. They give too much power to the customer and create pressing demands during the development stage to always put the studio’s best foot forward. If you know a game is a trainwreck before you buy it you simply won’t. With that being said, a great game with a bad first impression demo might be its last chance to make a connection, like the Viewtiful Joe demo from 2004 that corrupted my cousin’s memory card and wiped his progress in GTA San Andreas. But for every developer that makes amazing consumer-friendly demos, there are dozens more that are doing a disservice to their own product or taking advantage of their audience.
Unfortunately for marketing departments, video game demos are a lose-lose-lose situation for game sales. If the public is good at picking out quality games from a simple snapshot then mediocre games struggle to sell before they hit their launch window. If great games flub the sample platter then sales suffer. Worst of all, if the demo is different from the finished product the sales will probably be fine, but now you’ve got slighted fans to worry about like in the case of Bioshock Infinite, Halo 2, or Spore. The cynic in me says a demo not being representative of its full version is a case for false advertisement worthy of gamer prison, but the politeness in me knows that sometimes plans don’t work out as intended– so not a hanging crime but maybe a few days in the drunk tank are in order.
The romantic in me would love to stare out the window, in moody lighting that frames my jawline detracting from the sleep debt I carry in the bags under my eyes, and question what happened to the days of video game demos. The melodramatic in me aggressively realizes that video game demos have never been more prominent. Demos are still around, more numerous than ever before. Given that a demo is a small part of a larger game that you may or may not buy, then one could also argue demos evolved and go by different names now. Free-to-Play. Free Trials. Free Weekends. Beta Tests. Games Subscriptions. Server Stress Tests. Steams’ Policy That Lets You Refund A Game (Provided That You’ve Played For Less Than Two Hours In Two Weeks.) But something feels off. Not necessarily bad, just off.
The fat kid in me holds the answer. If buying a video game is like buying a cake then demos are slices of the whole cake. With older demos, you never really knew what part of the cake you were going to get, but you knew you were having a party. One of the demo versions for Spyro 2 Ripto’s Rage served you up “Skelo’s Badlands” and “Sunny Beach,” two whole areas without context for you to ram and soar to your heart’s content. — It’s like getting the frosted flower piece of the cake. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention. The way to get this demo disc was through Pizza Hut, the sauciest of all retail game suppliers. The full version of Spyro 2 itself has a hidden demo of Crash Team Racing you unlock with a super secret input at the main menu. It was a lawless wonderland. By comparison, a plethora of demos these days feel like cupcakes.
For the purpose of this analogy, a cupcake is a dessert intentionally made with a smaller scope and a smaller ratio in mind. It is not completely representative of a cake that shares the same batter and composition.
There’s nothing wrong with cupcakes. One could say it’s a more personal and intimate dessert than being given a sloppy slice of a larger cake. Modern demos just feel a little too formal and manufactured for my taste. A vast majority of demos I play these days flood me with so much exposition and tutorialization that I don’t actually get to experience a game. That’s a lovely wrapper and a pretty candle, but I didn’t get much of a taste. The live service games with limited showings are possibly my least favorite, because on top of the tutorials and the lore dumps I’ll be shown the various currencies that my real money can turn into if I wanted to lessen the grind associated with the kind of free-to-play games that give the phrase a negative connotation like Disney Speedstorm. They feel hollow and lifeless, but functional. The bar of expectations is at the level of “look, this game works. Spend money.”
There’s a silver lining. Now is the perfect time to point the spotlight on video game demos once more. Because the bar is so low, video games with exceptional demos get my attention which in turn makes me want to share with others. By metaphorically passing the demo around, the odds of the game finding its right audience grows. The best demos aren’t the best demos because they come from the best games. The best demos show exactly what a game is about, draws in its target audience, and simultaneously filters out anyone who may not want to play the game. The key to getting an “Overwhelmingly Positive” rating on Steam is not to make everyone like your game–impossible– but to disgust everyone who might not like your game before they buy it.
At the time of making this video, Cultic has a phenomenal demo that showcases its dark cultist booming and shooting gunplay, but it doesn’t matter how many words I string together singing its praises or how many trailers, videos, and streams you see of it. You can feel it yourself by trying out a piece of the game even though it’s already released. Dredge, on the other hand, you’ll have to take my, or someone else’s, word. You can only wonder why it is held in such high regard. You’ll have to make do with trailers, streams, and Let’s Plays because the demo is gone now that the game is fully released. In a way it feels a piece of gamer culture has disappeared when demos are removed.
There’s an excitement I feel during the Steam Next Fest that’s on par with major releases. I create a spreadsheet of all the games I want to try out during the gathering of the demos Steam presents once every few months. It’s impossible to get to them all during the few days of the event, and many Steam pages take down their demos afterwards. It’s as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. Not quite that drastic, but it is a somber occasion to see a demo get delisted after a limited time. Especially if it’s a great piece of the whole that I want to share with others only for it to disappear when they turn their heads. I swear it was right here a second ago.
I’ll bring demo culture back myself if I have to. Rhythm game lovers, try the demo for Bits & Bops. Cozy grappling hook lovers, try the demo for Valley Peaks. Everyone else, try the demo for Yellow Taxi Goes Vroom. I don’t know what to make of this unholy matrimony between Crazy Taxi and Super Mario 64. With that in mind, every game I’ve called out has no choice but to keep their demos up forever. Otherwise that makes me a liar. Is this extortion? Why, I would never. I just want to be an active part in a piece of the video game industry that has the consumer in mind. I want developers to take pride in their work every step of the way. I want more demos to be more better.
Now get out of here. I’m running out of hot water.