The Demise of the PC Game Demo

For me, the PC remains the ultimate gaming platform. The potential power of a desktop, or even laptop, computer can leave even the latest generation of consoles in its wake. Add to that the limitless functionality of PCs – not least of all the ability to make games – and I start to wonder why it has apparently dwindled in stature over the years.

I’m not talking about big things, like missing out on exclusives or putting up with somehow-worse-than-the-original ports from consoles. These are issues for sure, but they’re well documented and, hopefully, going to become slightly less of an issue now that consoles have started to catch up in terms of hardware.

My gripe for today is about demos. Remember those, PC gamers? Let me refresh your memory.

Basically, when a game developer was excited about their upcoming release and had been building up some level of hype, they would reward the gaming community with a brief glimpse of the game in order to convince the devout fans and convert the non-believers.

Free PC demo CDs are becoming an increasing rareity.

These demos would often come on what, according to some ancient texts, were called CDs. These would in turn come with a magazine, often featuring a preview of the games in question. Of course, eventually, demos and game news became easier to access online, but for some years now I’ve noticed that, while articles, videos, previews, features and a whole range of other information and media about games is now plastered all over the net, reserves of PC demos seem to have dried up.

Or so I had thought until I began to do some research for this article.

It seems something strange and, from a business point of view, incredibly cunning is happening. What used to be free demos have become “early access”, “alphas” and “betas” or a combination of the two – “crowdfunding rewards”.

Now, as an aspiring game designer and former business manager, I totally appreciate both sides of this particular coin. While sceptics would argue that the term early access roughly translates to “the game isn’t finished yet and doesn’t necessarily work the way it should, but if you’d like to pay for it now anyway, that would be great”, others would insist that the correct meaning is “we can’t wait for people to play our game, but rather than simply hand out the first level to any old player, we want to grant our true fans full access to the game and the ability to aid in the final stages of the development process, all you have to do is pay now rather than later”.

Either way, you can see why the marketing teams usually just call it early access… it’s much more snazzy.

Of course, many publishers and developers – especially with regard to online games – periodically open up their titles to the public (or at least a select portion of the public) through free alpha and beta releases. Much like early access, these builds don’t represent the final quality of the game and, besides working as an extra bit of direct marketing, the primary goal is to test the game in “real world” scenarios or perform “stress tests” on servers, as opposed to the lab conditions games are typically tested in by a developer’s internal QA department. It also offers up the chance for the consumers to voice their opinion on the overall direction of the game, so that the designers and programmers can make any final tweaks to the interface or balancing systems as necessary.

Steam has been a major advocate for “early access” games.

Finally, we have crowdfunding and sites such as Kickstarter. This phenomenon often combines early access style pre-paying with alpha level, or even pre-alpha level, builds of the game. Some titles, such as the awesome sounding Hard West, even offer some fantastic perks for their more generous backers including the chance to work with designers of the game to create content such as levels, map areas, characters and weapons.

I must admit that the ability to get involved with the development of a game is exciting and certainly well worth it in many cases, but for those games where providing that sort of early access just isn’t feasible I would still like to see more simple demos being released. I appreciate that they can add more to the development process and the cost of production, but I’m sure if the game is worth buying, it will do wonders for it’s sales.

For example, I have bought a good many books through digital distribution systems – some of which will come up in my Behind The Curtain articles – having first downloaded the free samples; I doubt I would have taken the risk on half of them without the chance to take a quick look for myself. Every time you buy a car you get the chance to drive it first and you can even get two weeks to change your mind about your new contract phone before committing.

Similarly, my Xbox Live account and Nintendo DS’s eStore give me access to a whole host of free demos, with several new titles appearing every week. Again, I have made several purchases I simply wouldn’t have otherwise considered, based mainly on how much I enjoyed the demos.

So are PC game developers missing out? Perhaps the lack of demos is the real reason why PC games are often £5-£10 cheaper than their console counterparts? Perhaps too many of them fear showing people what their game is really like will do more harm than good?

You know what I think – but what about you? Comment below with your thoughts and any games you can think of which you bought having been swayed by an awesome demo! – DJ

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