Back during the golden age of gaming, it was pretty common for players to get discs in the mail to try out the latest titles. When rental services came into the picture, that made it even easier to try out a game before buying. And of course who could forget going with your friends to huddle around a store kiosk to play a game none of you owned at home? Indeed, trying out games has always been a commodity, but things have changed. The question is—why?
It’s still possible to give a game a try before picking it up; rental services still exist (like GameFly, for example) and demos can still be found on basically all platforms. Even so, rental services are not available everywhere, leaving demos to be the only way for some folks to be able to test out a game. As already stated, demos are still around, but not to the extent they used to be.
There’s no better way to decide whether a game is for you or not than actually playing it for yourself. That’s why demos were created in the first place; in addition to basically being interactive advertising, they also gave consumers a chance to judge a game without first making an investment. So, why have the amount of demos decreased when distribution methods have gotten so much better? Well, it’s arguably because developers and publishers have gotten more greedy.
Because demos are free, that means consumers get a chance to play a portion of a game and the developers make no revenue from it. So, if the potential buyer ends up not enjoying the demo, chances are he’s not going to buy the game. That essentially turns into a lost profit for the devs/publisher. Without demos, consumers are almost forced to buy the game first, thus giving the companies exactly what they want—your money.
By having a lack of demos, consumers are almost forced to purchase a game in order to experience it first-hand.
I remember when I was a kid, I would play all sorts of demos on PC. Games of every variety had demos: simulators, platformers, racers—you name it. Just thinking about it brings back some pretty fond memories of trying out all kinds of games. It’s like going to the food court in a mall and each restaurant is offering free samples; you have a variety of different restaurants, and you want decide which one tickles your taste buds the most. Likewise, trying out a ton of game demos gives you the opportunity to see which game you really enjoy, thus making it easy to decide which one will get your hard earned money.
Gaming is a very expensive hobby. With the average AAA-title costing $60 USD, it can be pretty hard to decide which one to get. Of course there are sales, but even then there are still folks whose funds are too limited to buy more than one game. When it comes to physical copies, in many cases it’s a one-time deal: some retailers typically don’t allow you to bring a game back just because you don’t like it. So, unless you can resell it, you’ve lost your money on something you don’t want. Even if it was only $20 or $30—that’s still money that could have been saved or used on something else. Digital games are even worse, since some e-storefronts do not offer refunds. This is why demos are important.
Today, we have massive online media platforms like YouTube and Twitch. Before, the only time you ever got to see gameplay and trailers was via short TV commercials. Now, people can watch others play a game from beginning to end. This allows developers to gain the benefit of free advertising for their games. On top of that, some people love their favorite YouTube/Twitch personalities so much that they will buy a game just because they saw that specific person playing it. All the developers/publishers have to do is hand out a few free copies of their titles to big personalities; the game will be shown off to a massive audience, and the rest is taken care of without any sort of extra effort or resources on the part of the devs/publishers. True, this can sometimes result in a game getting a bad reputation if its quality isn’t that good, but that’s still marketing that did not have to be paid for.
The rise of sites like YouTube and Twitch have made it easy for game companies to advertise their titles with almost no effort.
With game prices not getting any lower, the importance of demos remains high. Especially when it comes to totally new IPs, people are even more apprehensive to make the purchase. Some games offer closed and public betas, which are essentially online-only demos. These are great, but it’s not something that is done for every title out there.
When it comes to PC specifically, one reason why many have admitted to pirating titles is because of the lack of demos. PC players aren’t just concerned with whether or not they like a game, but also if it will run properly on their specific set of hardware. At least console owners have the benefit of knowing that the games are already optimized for their platform. Since you can’t judge a game’s performance on specific hardware just from a Let’s Play video or a trailer, some PC players resort to piracy in order to determine if the software will run on their rigs. I’m not justifying piracy, but that is arguably a somewhat sensible reason to do it. Ultimately, the problem would be minimized if devs started making and distributing demos for their games once more.
Every major platform has access to an online storefront, thus making it simpler than ever before for developers to distribute demos. Instead of trying to give consumers no choice but to buy the games first, we should instead have the opportunity to properly judge a game from our own experience before buying it. Even if it’s just one 5-minute level—that’s still genuine hands-on time with the game and something that YouTube videos and Twitch streams cannot offer. And until every e-store and physical shop follows in Steam’s footsteps and offers the option to refund a purchase if it’s within a time limit, then demos should definitely accompany every single title.