Back in the 90s – the heyday of classic shooter games such as DOOM or Duke Nukem 3D, the usual strategy for getting these games to sell was, surprisingly enough, not to sell them outright, but offer a shareware version that was distributed physically with other games, or in a few cases downloaded for free from the internet (such as the DOOM shareware episode). This strategy was a success in many cases, as players who loved the shareware content would then call the developers to order the full game via mail.
It didn’t take long for this practice to be adopted into what is commonly known as demos; time-limited or content-limited teasers of the game released to ramp up hype or in some cases to test the game and see how well it performs on your device. They were included within magazines or newsletters and were an easy way to try out a bunch of games (and get you to subscribe to said zines, of course). In some cases, they were even included within other full games, such as the Spyro the Dragon games containing demos of the Crash Bandicoot series, accessible by inputting a cheat code!
The Decline and Return of Demos
AAA game companies shifted from offering demos of their games to outright stopping the practice, making them less commonplace in the early 2010s. This could be attributed to many reasons, such as the shift to more aggressive forms of marketing or the increasing complexity of games. Up until midway through the indie rise of the last decade, demos were seldom seen. The lack of demos had a small subset of people resort to piracy as a means of “demoing” the game, while their presence was generally received with praise.
However, in just the last couple of years, it seems that videogame trials are slowly reemerging and becoming prominent again. Relatively recent AAA games like Final Fantasy XV included a demo, and in the indie space, they got a massive boost. I believe this goes down to two things.
First, the rise of in-development, early access games. As part of the process of marketing a game while it’s still in the earliest stages of development, early access has gone hand-in-hand with playable demos showing a sample of the game. For example, Decline’s Drops and The Outbreak Story remain in-development, with demos that you can download, play right away, and offer feedback and bug reports for.
Second, the rise of new events held by big storefronts like GOG and Steam shows that even to this day, demos are a viable and effective way to get more eyes on your games. My only problem with these events is that they’re time-limited, with the demos being unobtainable after some time, and both storefronts engage in this artificial scarcity, much to my dismay.
I don’t try demos much, but I always found them to be helpful whenever I played one. Part of what got me interested in playing Hello Neighbor was the demo, showcasing the extremely ruthless AI of the neighbor. Demos also give me a good idea of what a game looked or felt like in an earlier part of development (for example, the neighbor was much harder and smarter in the demo than in the full game, and the background set pieces substantially different). But thanks to these developments in the games space, I’m able to find more games on itch.io with demos included than before.
It’s hard to say whether AAA studios will keep embracing demos as indie developers did in recent years, and honestly, I don’t expect them to stick around much in that regard, but I foresee that free trials will remain relevant in the indie games scene without fading out.
Interested in other opinion pieces? Just a small sample:
My Recent Experience with Controllers – The Implications of “Disable Copyrighted Music” Features – Device Price Wars – Why are mobile games cheaper?