I’ve always loved a good demo. As a kid I looked forward to a game magazine being published more for the attached demo disk than the articles or features. With a limited library of games as a youngster, a disc full of small slices would open you up to more experiences. It gave you a great variety to play on top of the four or five games you owned. It was a great way of finding new genres or IPs and a good indicator of what games would go down on the Christmas list. In recent years the demo has fallen from favour. Whether due to budget constraints or time issues for developers I can’t say. However they do, once again, seem to be on the rise alongside the increasingly popular multiplayer beta or stress test. For a game’s success, I think a demo can really matter.
This piece originally started out as my impressions of the recent demo for Dragon Quest Heroes 2. I, however, got bored. Almost as bored as I was actually playing the game. I just wasn’t feeling the game nor my shitting on it after only experiencing a small part. What it did do was make me think more about the importance of a good demo experience and what that can actually mean for a game.
The DQH2 demo was short and had limited direction, unlike the recently released Mafia 3 demo which gave an extensive session with the game. I got around an evening’s worth of play providing story, a look around the open world and time with both the driving and combat elements. It didn’t rely on one note or one mission to get me hooked but used all of its tools to make an impression. Great, just what a demo should do. Oddly though this demo appeared around 6 months after the games original release. OK, the demo appeared just before the first story DLC came out but critically, Mafia 3 didn’t do very well. I think the demo would have been better placed a few weeks before the game released. I really enjoyed what the demo showed me and would have purchased the full game much closer to launch if I’d have had this experience earlier in the games market life. One successful demo could have been translated to, well, at least one additional sale.
Similar to Mafia 3, in that it has been released after the games original release, is Dishonored 2. The demo allows you to experience the first three missions with the option of carrying over progress on purchasing the full game. It screams to me that this is the perfect format for a demo but, again, placed so oddly in the games life cycle. A digital release of this, one week before the game’s launch would have given people the opportunity to experience the game and, in my opinion, be more inclined to continue a story already invested in. I was introduced to the characters, the world and the initial plot. I felt for Emily as she tried to understand what had happened and what needed to be done. And then it finished and I wanted more. And again there could have been another fully priced purchase.
This idea of being able to play a chunk of a game from the beginning calls back to my first experience with Doom, not the 2016 remake but the original 1993 game. I remember playing a decent amount of the game for free a couple of years after the game’s release. It was less of a demo and more a piece of shareware but it got a twelve-year-old to hunt down and buy the full game. I cannot remember from who I got this sacred Doom disk but I still have that floppy somewhere along with the full game. It was a tactic which resulted in a sale and seems clever of Bethesda to do something similar with Dishonored 2 even if the timing is a little flawed.
It also appears that more people are jumping back on the wagon and may feel similar to me in the importance of a demo. Telltale have just released the first episode of their Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy game and there, on the game page, it allows you to download a demo. Now I can’t attest to the quality of the demo as I haven’t started it up yet but it’s great to see the option available to people. It’s clever of Telltale to do this. If you feel like me, you may be a little burnt out on the Telltale formula. Getting to experience the opening where tone, story and characters are established is a smart way to pull people back into the Telltale way of storytelling.
Another episodic game Stories Untold, a text-based horror game, has released its first episode for free. The game is made up of four short stories and you can pick up the first one for free, free! Go now, it’s fantastic and only to be played in a dark room by yourself, as games should be. We do see more ‘indie’ developers using the demo to push their games. For an unestablished studio or game franchise, it’s an easy way to get people to play a small part of the game and pull in some sales which may have been completely missed.
OK, these aren’t huge budget releases pushing other big publishers to do the same but perhaps the rebooted Prey can help there. Prey is being released at the beginning of May, I know, firstly, where did that suddenly appear from, and secondly, it is getting a demo one week before release. This demo will allow you to play the first hour of the game. Not quite as much as Dishonored 2 but an excellent introduction to the game none the less. Prey, as a slightly obscure rebooted franchise, may need a little help in being noticed and getting on the radar. This demo is the perfect way to do that. Knowing that a demo is coming out has definitely gotten me interested in something I would have probably passed on. Until it appeared at a sale price at least. Initial impressions of the game suggest it’s moving away from the franchise’s original foundations and giving people the opportunity to experience the new direction before buying is the right strategy.
I should point out that other big budget games during 2016 did push out some demos. Both Doom and Final Fantasy 15 had demos but not without controversy. The Doom demo released after the main game and was only going to be available for one week during E3 2016, OK. This was extended due to its popularity and is still available to download now. Not too conventional but then neither was Episode Duscae and Platinum for Final Fantasy 15. Duscae was a slice of the main games world but after feedback, it was patched and updated. “Insanity!” I hear you cry! Well, the second demo, Platinum, was an experience which wouldn’t be in the main game at all and was only slightly representative of the finished product. Completing it did net you the exclusive summon, Carbuncle, but in my playthrough of FF15 it never appeared. An odd experience without the payoff. I’m all up for demos to be a place for experimentation and for those experiments to be updated and amended to try something new but I also want bigger budget games and known franchises to do the demo proud.
Things are looking up then for the demo in 2017 but alas back to Dragon Quest Heroes 2. The reason I’m writing this in the first place. DQH2 doesn’t take the same approach as Dishonored 2 and start at the beginning. Nor Mafia 3 and provide a wealth of experiences. I felt like I was thrown into a random section of the game. I’d had no exposition, no idea who the characters were and no clue what I was meant to do. I was pointed in a direction and left to my own devices. The DQH2 demo has been released at the right time and like Prey, is a great way to bring an unfamiliar franchise to people but at no point did it tell me I could continue the story from where the demo ended. It didn’t show me any more than limited combat and mechanics or give me anything other than a short, pretty boring experience. It didn’t seem experimental either unlike Final Fantasy 15 and more the finished product representative of the final game. The taster was neither enough for me to want to play more nor recommend to anyone to try out. However it’s short and free so costs nothing but time to form your own opinion. This is why demos matter.