Game Demos Have Become Way Too Uncommon

Game Demos Have Become Way Too Uncommon

There’s a free demo of id Software’s excellent Doom revival right now. It was supposed to be removed already, but it’s proven pretty popular. This brief taste of Doom was announced at E3 and treated as news, but since when did a demo become something to be celebrated?

When publisher Bethesda Softworks revealed Doom was getting a demo, they made a reference to shareware. In the PC community, shareware was shareable versions of software — with limitations. For the original Doom, the shareware version featured a single episode with nine levels. The new Doom demo only features one level, but it’s still a great look at the game.

Anyway, point being: demos have a long history in video games and PC games. Growing up, receiving demo discs from PC Gamer and various console magazines was the highlight of my month. Given that I couldn’t afford many games at a time, demos were priceless, an opportunity to play games that I might never, ever try or experiment with otherwise.

I played the crap out of the demos for games like BioForge and Crusader: No Remorse, which quickly became some of my all-time favourites. And how come I fell in love with Tobal No. 1? That magical Final Fantasy VII demo.

Game Demos Have Become Way Too Uncommon

Even in the absence of demos, my parents used to drop me off at the local FuncoLand, a gaming chain long since purchased by GameStop, where the associates would let you try any game on the shelf. Though this was a time before the Internet allowed people to watch trailers and Let’s Play videos, there was something fundamentally different about playing.

People forget some of the fascinating policies that Microsoft deployed for Xbox Live. It used to be the case that every game featured in Xbox Live Arcade needed a trial version, aka a demo. (I believe some non-Arcade games also had trials, but it wasn’t a standard.) Some demos were better constructed than others, but regardless, you could count on a chance to actually play the game you were being asked to pay money for.

That’s no longer the case in 2016, with demos replaced by highly controlled marketing campaigns, Let’s Play videos, and streaming. Granted, two of those options provide a decent look into the quality of games, but each lacks the fundamentally important experience of playing.

When I looked up the demo section on Xbox One today, it has 33 demos. On PS4, there are 83. Some of them, such as Far Cry 4, are actually exclusive to PS4. That’s how far the demo has fallen: it’s now an exclusivity bargaining chip! Steam has more than 1,000 demos, but that obscures the point: you can’t rely on demos as a way to gauge if a game is any good.

It’s why the addition of refunds to Steam’s service has proved so important. Sure, it can be abused, but it fills the gaping hole where demos used to be. I’ve seen plenty of players talk about how they use Steam’s refund service as a means of trying out games and I can’t blame them.

When I’ve brought this idea up to developers over the years, I’ve heard the arguments for why demos have been quietly killed. Besides the additional work required to build one, lots of developers fear a demo could be all a player wants from the game. If the demo is enough, why pay for it?

I get it, and it’s likely demos are a thing of the past, something to be trotted out as a surprise. That doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it.


  • Yeah, when research ended up proving sales went down after releasing a demo they stopped doing it.

    The only ones that do are companies who can leverage the demo’s properly, selling a unique point or stopping the demo at a cliff. (or an indie trying to get momentum)

    • Releasing a demo when the product already exists is fatal to sales, cause the option to buy and play it right away isnt a hook… but by any other name or model where it is released weeks or months earlier… an open beta or early access is vastly successful cause the shopper can get hyped about it leading to release encouraging sales.

    • If a demo leads to loss in sales. It means you game is shit, And people dont want to buy it.

  • The problem with demoes is they can be a larger download than most games. Doom’s demo was 6 gig for what amounted for 20-30 mins of play.

    I’m all for more demos, but the size is a big factor.

  • Demos have been replaced by betas and early access. *shrugs*

    If you cant get into (closed) betas or don’t want to pay for early access (never done that myself), then watch 10-15 mins of the of the game being played on youtube or twitch. These options are easily good enough for me to decide if a game is worth my time.

    • But these are typically for multiplayer or online orientated games.

      I remember being more excited for The Last of Us demo included with God of War: Ascension, than I was for the actual game I was paying for.

      I think demos are more relevant on PC as a means of testing compatibility and performance ahead of your purchase, but Steam is slowly working around that with refunds, as the article states.

      • See I didnt have to play a demo or beta of TLOU to know i wanted to play it. I watched freaking pewds play it for an episode or two, then stopped, went out and bought a second hand ps3 from cashies for like $70 and then to eb and got them to price match target (or somewhere). The video was enough for me to decide.

    • Demos have been replaced by betas and early access

      That’s not really much of a replacement, though. Given that many betas / early access games are barely functional to begin with, there’s also the problem them they tend to be short-lived. By the time the game actually comes out, they’ve disappeared. If you’re considering buying the game a few weeks after launch, they’re not available anymore. In addition to that, betas are nearly always there purely to test the online functionality. If it’s a single player game (or the single player campaign of a game with multiplayer), you’re not usually going to get to try that in a beta.

      i’ve sworn off betas / early access games completely. I’ve tried a few and never found it particularly enjoyable even when I have actually been able to get into it (that’s the other thing that sh*ts me about betas – often the servers are only live for a few days, and sometimes only during very limited hours across those days). I’m not really interested in testing their unfinished software for them, but I am interested in trying out the finished product to see if it’s worth my time and money.

      • I’m with you! Never touched an early access game on steam and hopefully never will. Not so fussed about betas though. Not saying I like it… it’s just the way it is. You have demos on steam for every game now with refunds like you said, so now they don’t need to make them…
        I dunno, if my specs barely match the min or recommended specs now I just leave the game alone until I can buy better hardware.
        I guess I’m a bit of a defeatist when it comes to things I have no control over (topical: election tomorrow).

  • Its pretty obvious why right? Games are hyped by media/publishers to extreme levels and they all exaggerate heavily about features – whether it’s graphics or gameplay – shit just look at any ubisoft trailer vs actual release. A demo would nip that in the bud real quick and bring people back to reality.

  • Publishers would rather you buy the game to “Try it”. of course you can look up gameplay footage for it but sometimes demo can be useful to see if it’ll work on your PC and to see if the game feels good to play for the individual.

  • You have Jesse Schell to thank for that.

    At DICE 2013 Schell did a presentation detailing his findings that releasing a demo can cut a game’s sales in half. He backed his findings up with statistics from Xbox360 game sales and it the numbers spoke for themselves. “The thing is with no demo, you’ve gotta buy it if you want to try it”.

    Notice that game demos started to become scarce after 2013? This presentation was the reason why.

    It’s harsh for us from a consumer sense, but from a ruthless business perspective it’s a no-brainier unfortunately.

    • Can’t watch that at work, but is he talking about halving sales in terms of units or total dollars?

      If there’s a game I’m on the fence about buying, a demo can make the difference for me. If I try the demo and like it, I might go out and buy the game right away at $80 or $90. If there’s no demo then I won’t take the risk and I’ll pick it up on sale later for maybe $30. So yeah, they’ll sell that unit, but it’ll be for less than half of what I might have been willing to pay for it a few months earlier if I’d been able to try it.

  • Demo’s are more development time, time that could be better spent actually developing the game. They are also counter productive a lot of the time in that a badly done demo could actually drive away sales. I don’t truly miss them at all, as watching gameplay footage is usually enough for me

  • And I honestly think lack of demos has a major impact on people pirating. I pirate most games especially expensive AAA games, if I play for more than an hour I purchase, if not, I dont. Luckily there was a demo for Doom as even though I grew up playing 1 and 2 I played the new one and thought it was average. Yes you can get steam refunds but in the case of doom you needed, before the sales, $80US which is ridiculous. Too many times over the years since demos became rare have I been burnt on the purchase of a game and found it actually wasnt for me. Despite reading reviews, watching trailers etc. Eh just bring back demos damn it…

  • I bought Doom after playing the demo.

    Other games I was on the fence about but then bought after playing the demo include: Infamous 2, Just Cause 2, Crysis 3 and probably some others. Having a really good slice of the action can definitely help turn around a person’s perspective of that game, by giving them a little taste of the best bits.

    • I did too. I’m sure the research is solid but it wasn’t until I actually played Doom, Rise of the Tomb Raider (EA Access), and Metal Gear Solid 2 back in the that I decided I needed to have the game. Nothing like interaction to define a gaming experience.

  • it’s shame demos are no longer a thing, i don’t find let’s play videos to be remotely effective in telling me if I like a game. I always compare it to buying a car, all the reviews and youtube video doesn’t work for me, I have to go do a test drive before I would even think if the car is worth me buying it.

    i’m ok with admitting I pirate to demo games. my newest addition is battlefleet gothic armada. I played it for half an hour. thoroughly enjoyed it and then hoped on steam to buy it… and yes I know i probably could buy it cheaper from gmg or virtually any place except steam

  • I think my strongest memory of a game demo was a Kellogs promotion where they gave you the Age of Mythology demo in the packet – played the hell out of it, bought the game because of it.

  • Do they still do relatively frequent demos on the eShop, or is it only the occasional big-name title now (with the whole invite-only codes thing)? I know I used to collect all of them on 3DS back in the day, and they successfully saved me from buying MGS3, Crush3d and Rhythm Thief. Also more recently, the Pokken demo on Wii U did the same. So in that sense I can totally understand them not bothering to put out a demo.

  • Game reviews, Let’s Plays and walkthroughs make up a good majority of YouTube’s content. If you can stomach the odd obnoxious commentor, these videos give you a good feel for the game.

    Sometimes the file size of a game demo is the same size of the full game because it is in fact the full game but with restrictions. The restrictions can more often than not be overridden with a crack.

  • Theres plenty of demo’s. They’re just not called demo’s.
    They’re called beta’s.

  • And dooms demo copped heaps of criticism because it’s a timed demo. It expires after I think it’s a week.

  • I played the Doom demo yesterday, I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. Was disappointed there wasn’t a boss fight at the end though 🙁

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