What happened to game demos?

Alec Meer at Rock Paper Shotgun laments the slow demise of decent game demos.
Demos still exist and probably always will, but they've become the exception rather than the rule. Even in the last couple of years, the decline has been rapid - it's a relative rarity to post about one on RPS now. Publishers seem to have settled on marketing and heavy, heavy promotion (often including bewildering ARGs) as the alternative - a surer way to drum up interest in and expectation for the game, and one that does so without the dread risk of a gamer discovering that, actually, they don't like this all that much. For some really big games, the norm even seems to be not releasing a demo until weeks or months after the full release, presumably to help drum up those few stragglers who somehow resisted the pervasive trailers and advertisements.
I still have some Amiga cover disks somewhere around here... The Slow, Strange Death Of The Demo [Rock Paper Shotgun]


  1. Probably has some correlation with the decline in quality games in the past decade.

  2. Yeah, a few days ago I went looking for the Portal 2 demo, which I assumed would exist, to see if the game would run on my laptop.

    Guess I’ll never know!

    1. It’s a source engine game. if any source engine game works on your computer, then Portal 2 will. But you knew that already.

      1. >Portal 2 doesn’t exist yet.

        Well that’s funny because I already finished it, in the middle of the the co-op game and I’m tinkering with the level making tools.

        Also, dude who didn’t buy it because couldn’t check if the demo runs on your computer – uh, just read the minimum system requirements that has been included with like every game since the beginning of time….

  3. As far as I understand, Onlive will let you play any game of theirs absolutely free for 30 minutes, it’s not a demo, but the whole thing, but time limited. I can’t play myself because you need a more open network and I don’t have access to our router so I can’t forward ports. But I hear it’s all the bees knees for the young’uns these days.

  4. Could be because they know we will just pirate the game and only buy it if we like it.

  5. You don’t need that many demos for retail games when so many of them are sequels and repurposed engines. Reviews, marketing, and the strength of a creator’s name will take care of any questions someone has.

    On the other hand there are demos for every single Xbox Live Arcade game, so I’m certainly playing more demos overall than I used to.

  6. has this person not heard of the new demos on psn and xbl every week? as well as all the ones on steam? and every arcade games for psn or xbla has a demo attached to it….

    i think the demo scene is stronger than it was back in the ps2 era by a long shot

  7. Having worked as a producer and designer in video games for the past 9 years, there’s a lot of reasons for the lack of demos, mostly having to do with money and/or time.

    Depending on the game, it can be anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 MONTHS of time to get a demo ready, and then possibly fixing all the things you had to hack into place, in order to get the code back to a usable place for the project as a whole. (This doesn’t always happen, of course, but it does happen.)

    Generally, if you’re planning for a demo, and PROPERLY planning the project, you need to budget out about 3-4 weeks for most of the personnel: Design time to figure out what is and isn’t going into the demo and then that implementation, programming time to put it all together, testing time to make sure it’s acutally useful as a demo, etc. The art and audio teams aren’t often hit real hard with demos, as (usually) everything needed from them for a demo is already part of the main project, but sometimes special UI screens or special maps need to be created for a demo.

    Now, a month of time is a HUGE chunk of money. For a small, 7-person team, that’s upwards of $50k, depending on salaries, etc. And that only gets more expensive as you increase the team size.

    (I used to despise the Electronics Entertainment Expo, because it usually meant “losing” a month of development time due to demos.)

    Now, is the time and money for demos actually worth it? Well, that’s where it gets interesting. As much as some people hate it, marketing actually works. So, do you put $50k into a demo or put $50k into a billboard campaign (or some other marketing plan)? For the most part, marketing campaigns will actually get you a lot more customers coming in the door than a demo, AND you don’t lose the development time…

    Now, a really excellent demo can bring in a lot of customers from word of mouth. However, let’s be honest. A lot of the “AAA” games released these days are still basically not that good, no matter what franchise they’re tied to. So no matter how good the DEMO is, it still should be showcasing some of the gameplay, and if the gameplay boils down to “I run around and shoot a bunch of dudes” then it’s just not gonna get people excited. A marketing campaign is way more worthwhile.

    That said, I prefer demos, even though it’s a big chunk of time away from “real” devlopment. I think it’s vastly more fair to the players (the customers!), and I think it’s a good business practice.

  8. The problem is that demo’s these days are almost as large as the full game. That’s a lot of bandwidth.

    Plus games these days are all homogenous crap: Play the demo and you’ve pretty much played the rest of the game already.

  9. Urgh… I’m sick of hearing all these excuses about why they don’t release demos or why games are buggy beyond recognition at release.

    Money and time. Hmm, strange. The industry use to be much smaller quite some time back, and they managed just fine. Infact! They produced some damn solid titles.

    But hey! Gaming is all the rage now! So let’s cut out the substance and just continue making big blockbuster games that drum up huge day 1 sales then we’ll abandon it, then rinse and repeat!

    That DOES sound awfully familiar tho, doesn’t it?
    *cough* movie industry! *cough*

    They get to work on making a few crappy maps or a re-textured item pretty quickly so they can charge for it.

  10. Look into the Live Arcade and PSN, as mentioned elsewhere. EVERY game on Arcade has to have a demo version available. This is a large part of the reason most of my gaming purchase dollars get directed at Live Arcade nowadays.

    Also, since they’re smaller games less likely to break the bank if they don’t sell huge numbers, you’ll get to sample a game that is more likely to have been allowed to coalesce as the result of somebody’s true vision than the committee designed “Shoot At Bad Guys In Tan Cities and Jungles Some More : Iteration 27” type stuff.

    1. Shoot At Bad Guys In Tan Cities and Jungles Some More : Iteration 27

      Man I fckn loved that game

  11. A strong reason you don’t see demos anymore is that they aren’t effective in selling games. How this plays out depends on the game it self, but the investment to take a demo and the odds of positive sales are much lower than first glance.

    On the cynical side, you expose a bad game before someone makes a purchase. A sale that could have been make from someone interested enough in a title, but turned off by actually playing it. Certainly happens, and many gravitate to this as the reason. However, that’s not applicable to all cases.

    A more common case is someone plays a title, enjoys it, but not enough to buy the title. The buzz created on the title leads to playing a demo, but the buy decision is left with the memory of “finishing” the demo. The desire to make a purchase with the title is greatly diminished. The point of marketing is to create a desire to make a purchase. A demo kills the desire.

    A demo is a separate product to release. It’s not as simple as cutting a piece of video shorter like a trailer, a chapter of a book, music clip, or other piece of work. It’s a autonomous object that needs to be developed separately and can’t be outsourced to a different team. eain (reply #7) does a great job at explaining these complexities, so I will just point to that post for more info.

    It comes down to an investment that your primary development team has to do in addition to the real product. The data simply doesn’t support the investment, good game or not.

    BTW, this would be great for Freakonomics to cover!

  12. I used to love playing demos. Bought quite a few games based on the demo, back in the day. I also felt satisfied enough after playing some demos to not need to buy the game (generally this meant the game wasn’t great, just decent). Also felt very relieved, on many, many occasions, that I played the demo instead of rushing out to get a game I was anticipating because it ended up sucking (or wouldn’t run on my computer, or whatever).

    I can see how it’s a double-edged sword for the developer, since if your game sucks it’ll be obvious from the demo and no one will buy it… but not releasing a demo and hoping that people will get suckered into buying it is much, much worse, and will ruin the developer’s reputation.

    It’s obvious why demos are a little more scarce for AAA titles these days… the gameplay is mostly just recycled from last year’s version, and most players are on consoles, where it’s guaranteed to run properly. And people will buy the game (e.g. Call of Duty games) no matter what, so what’s the point of expending resources on putting a demo together?

    Which is not to say that there aren’t any demos, because there are plenty. And also I don’t mean to imply that AAA titles shouldn’t have demos – I was unsure about Red Dead Redemption, as an example, and ended up not particularly liking it (though I like open-exploration type games, and westerns, so it greatly appealed to me) – I would have known from a few minutes of a demo that I wouldn’t want to buy it (luckily I didn’t buy it myself, a roommate did, though it’s my PS3). As far as I know there has never been a demo for it. Of course, I understand that there are technical reasons for there not being a demo for games like that and the GTA games (though I seem to recall playing a demo of the original top-down GTA game).

    1. There was a demo available for Just Cause 2, which means there’s no technical reason for not having a GTA / Red Dead demo, though in in the case of Rockstar, I can see why they wouldn’t bother – they’ll be going straight to the top of the charts regardless.

      Halo: Reach is an interesting one – the demo for that only just appeared, and again, that was a guaranteed blockbuster when released – with all the media attention it was getting, a demo would have been redundant. But now it’s out of the limelight and MS are hoping to sell it as a digital download (for silly money – I got an email offering me it at a ‘discount’ of £40 – their regular price is £50, and I can get it for £14 new on the high street), and a demo is suddenly useful.

      Halo pricing aside, I agree that Live is very good in terms of ensuring every Arcade game has a demo. I mostly use Steam for gaming at the moment, and I’ve found plenty of great demos on there – I just checked, and the first three pages of their demo store alone ought keep anyone happy for a long time (with the fantastic Spacechem I’ve bought the full game but still haven’t finished the demo). For the most part it’s the small independent titles that get the demos, but that’s fine because that’s where the good stuff is. So as far as I’m concerned, demos are fine. They’ve sold me a lot of games. Where demos seem to be flagging or lacking, I suspect it’s symptomatic of how the games they’d be demonstrating have changed.

  13. Another big reason is that demos are often obliged by the publisher “wrap” their game in the copy protection of the final game.

    Software pirate “release groups” have in the past used this as a sneak preview of sorts to aid them in circumventing the copy protection of the final release when it comes out.

    1. I just want to facepalm. It’s a demo, you’ll be giving it out free, you want as many people as possible to play it, why are you bothering with copy protection?

  14. Rock paper Shotgun writes (amazingly well, I might add) about almost exclusively PC gaming and PC games. That’s why there’s little mention of PSN and XBL in the article.

  15. Given the increasingly large amount of DLC that’s in games these days, we still do have demos. You just have to pay full price for them.

  16. They probably have – they’re probably just older than you and remember when gaming magazines came with cover disks (both 3.5″ and CD) that had anywhere up to 30 demos on them, and games that didn’t release demos didn’t succeed commercially.
    I still remember spending an entire summer on the demo -alone- for Battle Isle.

  17. On the money! As always, well-written and certainly 100% true. Thanks for the great advice

    1. On the money! As always, well-written and certainly 100% true. Thanks for the great advice

      It’s like they’re not even trying anymore.

  18. And no-one commenting on how the author is actually ALEC Meer?

    Anyway, the article is quite true with regards to PC games (which is RPS’s purview after all). The amount of demos on Steam for actual, recent, AAA releases is slim. Very few big studios release demos anymore. I feel that ALEC touched on some good possibilities.

  19. I agree. I want demos, not flimsy excuses about budget and time. And I want stunning graphics, AAA grade that runs on any PC (you can’t seriously expect me to upgrade my PC every year, nor can you expect me to miss out on the latest and greatest!). And I want super intelligent AI, flawless physics, hundreds of hours of super exciting gameplay, stunningly innovative features that feel really familiar and not rinse-and-repeat of old formulas. Multiplayer has to be in, full customization, level editor, mods, dlc for free. The game has to have artistic sophistication, but still be easily accessible, but challenging, with 0 learning curve, but stellar difficulty that I can easily mater, because honestly, it’s about fun after all (it’s a GAME!!!!). The characters need to feel alive – no, need to BE alive – in a living and breathing world that’s completely open, and with wonderful and moving non-linear storylines with emotional depth and a gazillion endings, with any of my decisions in-game having a deep impact on everything. And don’t give me the bullshit of years of development and stellar budgets, because that’s just that, corporate bullshit. And get the damn demo out, so that I can try it, but don’t expect me to buy it unless I really really like what you have done, and should you miss on any of the above then I will rate your crap 0% on any forum. Oh, and I will of course pirate your game, because honestly you just want to trick me into buying it with your marketing and other evil corporate schemes and I’ll have none of it. And what do you mean $49??? Your game should be free to start with and with Angry Birds at .99, I will never pay more than that for a game, ever. And where is my damn demo?

  20. My parents didn’t believe in video games when I was a kid, so until I had a real job and started making my own money, my entire experience of computer games was demos. That’d be all I played. First-level demos of every game I had the patience to download over a modem connection.

  21. There’s a dirty little secret here that publisher’s know — game demos don’t guarantee better sales for a game.

    Surprisingly, it’s actually the opposite in many cases – people will often play a demo, and afterward feel they’ve already experienced enough of the game, and don’t need to buy the full version.

    If the data showed overwhelmingly that games with demos led to higher sales, you can bet every team would try to work it in to their schedules. As it stands now, it’s actually somewhat of a risky move.

  22. It seems that it has a lot to do with the downfall of gaming mags. I would often play through demos before cracking opening PCGamer.

    Even with broadband, it still can take hours to download a demo. It seems silly to spend 10 hours downloading a demo and clogging my network to play a 20min demo.

    Also, I have a mac and a PS3 and no longer have time to play games that are not tiny wings.

  23. A demo?

    Oh, you must mean a crack.

    Although maybe not, because every game has a crack. You don’t even have to visit particularly dodgy sites to find them anymore.

    But yes, just download a crack, try it, and if you like the game, buy it.

    I do something similar for books as well. Publishing companies would have to be insane to think I’d blindly spend $20 or more on a book.

  24. I was actually pleasantly surprised at the Dragon Age II demo, both its existence and that I liked the game. That said if a game doesn’t have a demo I’m likely to pirate it. If I feel the game is 100% worth it, I’ll buy it. Unfortunately this doesn’t happen often, nowadays.

  25. I remember the magazine cover disk demo version of the flight sim US Navy Fighters, which was limited to one type of plane and two missions (or similar). Except… there was a simple hack which unlocked ALL the planes and the mission editor! Hours of fun for free!

  26. If you release demos, you’ve nullified the “pirating to try it” argument, which is probably the most used excuse for pirating.

    As someone pointed out, playing demos is more likely to have you realize that the game isn’t really that deep. And very few games in this stage are deep. Hence no demos.

  27. There aren’t any demos anymore because they release an online multiplayer beta instead. More to the point, a demo does take some resources to make, and someone who’s packing a tiny bit of the game into a little box for the kiddies is someone who’s not working on packing the entire game into a bigger box for the customers.

  28. I’ll admit I’ve been suckered into buying games just by watching trailers, but honestly, it’s no more than the purchases I’ve made after having played a game’s demo.
    Then again, I’m one of the few gamers out there who plays for the storyline as well.

  29. Don’t demos kind of tend to be shitty and unfinished compared to the actual release version of the game?

  30. If it weren’t for the Fallout demo (April 1997), I never would have gotten into a game series to which I now owe slavish devotion. Game companies, take note.

  31. I suspect part of the the key is that established companies have the money to throw at marketing to let people know about the game release, plus have the marketing edge of an established brand of adequacy; when people hear that FooSoft has another game out, they can presume it will be typical FooSoft quality. Indies and up-and-comers on a shoestring can spend time to develop a demo to show how cool what they have is.

    The difficulty for indies being that innovations in strategy, mechanic, or plot are outweighed by the grunt work of a play engine. The development (or licensing) costs for gaming engines may now be becoming a market entry barrier, reducing the number of indies who can make games that are sure to hook any player who tries it (at which point, making a demo to leverege aword-of-mouth campaign becomes a sensible investment).

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