Whenever I get excited about a particular yet-to-be-released title, it’s hard not to salivate over the prospect of any chance to experience the game before its release. This is usually limited to screenshots, trailers and trawling the interwebs for previews (of the hands-on or -off variety) or behind-the-scenes interviews. If I’m lucky, I occasionally get involved in those latter items.
For every title outside of the ones I’m lucky enough to preview, the salivating gamer overpowers the games journalist and I find myself keen to hear or see anything new about an upcoming title that, for whatever reason, has caught my eye.
Occasionally, it’s possible to get into an alpha trial, but they tend to be closed-off affairs and come with their own strengths (e.g. getting to play the game ahead of time) and weaknesses (e.g. playing an inferior version of the game that may affect the desire to play the finished product). Betas may also be on offer, but public betas tend to be buggier versions of demos, which leads nicely onto the meat of this article: the role that demos should play in our current generation of gaming.
For a highly anticipated demo, I’ll want to get my hands on it just to appease the urge to play the game. The same is true for a title that has my interest but not my passion; except that I want to play it to see if it’s worth my money and time when the retail version is released. But demos, nowadays, tend to be released for games that aren’t terribly exciting, with the more common practice for AAA titles being to not release a demo at all. Or, arguably worse, to release a demo after the final version of the game has been released.
It’s a little different on Steam, though, where every other weekend seems to offer a chance to try a game—usually of the multiplayer variety—for a couple of days before deciding whether to cough up for it when the trial ends. But then, a trial of a full version of a game isn’t the same as a piecemeal demo offering.
I used to believe that every developer should aim to release a demo for their game because it was the gamers’ right to try before they buy. After my Engine Room interview with Brawsome—the duo behind indie title MacGuffin’s Curse—and other developers about the challenges of prepping a full section of game content for a trade show such as E3 or, in the context of Brawsome, completing an entire first level of MacGuffin’s Curse for Valve approval to host their game on Steam, my stance has changed.
Although not exactly the same as releasing a demo, the MacGuffin’s Curse example is prudent here because it highlights some of the technical limitations, from a dev’s perspective, in regards to creating and releasing a demo. The main challenge for Brawsome and their Steam-approval process was that they had to develop the first level out of order. That is to say, their process for designing a game was to advance everything to a workable point before starting the downhill run of finalising and debugging the game.
This means that Brawsome was able to focus on ‘drafting’ MacGuffin’s Curse, cutting levels, balancing puzzles and generally honing the game to a workable whole. To receive Steam approval, though, they had to complete and finalise the entire first level out of order of developing the rest of the game. Given how crucial the first level of any game is—particularly a puzzle game such as MacGuffin’s Curse—in terms of engaging the audience and teaching core gameplay mechanics, Brawsome had to employ some clever strategies to finalise the all-important first level out of order of their preferred development cycle.
Other developers have lamented over the difficulties of finalising similar sections of gameplay for hands-off or, even trickier, hands-on showcases at big gaming events such as E3. Obviously, it’s important for a developer to show a game off in the best possible way, but it also means deprioritising development on the core game to finish off a demo of the alpha, beta or final-code variety.
And this is where it’s a coin toss. Does the potential benefit of showing off a game combined with the ability for critical/consumer feedback outweigh the potential detraction of alienating critics/consumers and, further, decrease the amount of time that can be spent on polishing a game? Obviously, this logic is based on the belief that a particular title is tied into a specific, immoveable release date. But, let’s face it, a lot of these games bank on specific release dates and will get slammed for not meeting them. I think that, in a lot of cases, it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
A popular demo has a great chance of garnering more potential purchasers but, on the flip side, an out-of-context disappointing demo can scare potential purchasers away. While the latter example may not be out of context if it’s from a terrible game, a demo still has to offer a sense of satisfaction with playing the game, some sort of point of difference from everything else from its genre and leave you wanting more.
At the end of the day, I’d rather not receive a demo for a game if I know that the final product will suffer for the sake of pumping out a publically accessible preview snippet. I don’t think that demos are as important in this viral age, where even exclusive print reviews leak online ahead of time, where the gaming community is extremely vocal and, more importantly, quick to share their views; I believe it’s easy for a discerning mind to slap aside the subjectivity in an online rant and spot the facts.
Are the controls broken? Is it short? Has it evolved from the game before? Is it a buggy mess? Does it advance the genre or gaming as an entertainment medium? Within even the most vile-filled spiel, there’s still the possibility of spotting objective observations of strengths or weaknesses in a game.
The bottom line is this: I don’t think we need demos anymore. Do you?