When it comes to gaming on a budget, one of the most important things to maintaining the hobby was the demo. Demos came in different formats, but the important part was how players had options to try games before they bought them. While demos are still around, they nearly vanished for a while, and even then sometimes they’re only available for a limited time. Meanwhile, things like piracy have exploded. Are demos almost dying out related to piracy or crummy business practices, or are they the result of challenges within development?
Back in the halcyon days of the demo, you could get demo discs in the mail sometimes if you signed up for official newsletters, and they always came with magazines. Demo discs would often contain little slices of multiple games, which was often the best way to try ahead of a purchase. As games began to go digital, downloading demos was also a popular option. In fact, the early days of the Xbox 360 were awesome for demos, as nearly every game (especially those on the marketplace) offered demos. But then they started to become more scarce.
Other than the occasional demo, most major games just dropped after massive marketing campaigns and preorder pressure. But unless you were in the press, you didn’t really get time to play a game before release unless you got lucky. Demand was definitely there for demos, but a lot of the time they just didn’t happen. Some alternatives did appear, such as Sony’s initiative to give PlayStation Plus member time-limited full game trials. That very solution, I think, exposes the problem with demos. It seems like it’s more of a technical issue, rather than a logistical or business one. We can look at recent, timed demos for more proof of that.
Games such as Monster Hunter: World or Tetris Effect, games that would have benefited greatly from more public play ahead of their release (although Monster Hunter has done just fine), had pre-release play. However, both were available in a limited capacity. Tetris Effect only had a playable demo for a single weekend, giving interested parties a tiny window in which to decide if they would enjoy the game enough for a full purchase. But that demo was, essentially, the full game with a few things turned off to prevent progress. It was similar with Monster Hunter: World, and an upcoming demo, now that Capcom is trying to get more people in ahead of an expansion, will also be a limited version of the full game. Progress in that case will even carry over to a full purchase.
I could be wrong, but I would wager that creating a demo before a game is out, which feels like an actual demo, isn’t as easy as it might sound. Games, like other software, comes in “builds,” and that stuff requires resources. Perhaps there is data out there that suggests, based on the time and money it takes to create a limited build of a game, that the return in eventual sales doesn’t even out. Perhaps some games are so weighty and complicated that making sure putting a timer on it doesn’t break it. And in some cases, looking straight at the Yakuza series here, doing a timed demo opens the game up to human error or hacking. Most individual developers would probably love to have demos available for their games, but at the end of the day it’s probably an issue of manpower and priorities that prevent them from being as commonplace as they used to.
That said, demos today are more common than they were a few years ago. If you take a look at the Nintendo Switch eShop for example, there are tons of demos (although again, most of the major, AAA releases don’t have them). If you’re interested in indie games in particular, it’s not hard to find several games to try out ahead of a purchase. But for the most part, you have to rely on things like preview coverage, streams, and word of mouth to make informed purchases. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? It’s hard to say, but it does feel representative of where video games are as an industry.