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The Return of the Game Demo

It's been a long, long, time since I sat down to write about the game industry as a whole. So while we wait for a Kimura restock (it's coming, I promise!) I was browsing the newest games on Steam and had a thought: What's up with all the games with demos lately?

Going Back in Time

For this question to make sense I need to go back to my early days in the game industry. I started in 2003 and it was, essentially the final days (years) of the game demo. I worked with several publishers over the next 3 years and all of them eventually adopted the same policy: No game demos ever.

Rock Paper Shotgun, 2011 article covering the lack of game demos

Why? Well there are a lot of reasons but here are the big ones:

1) Designing a demo takes time and resources that could be put towards making the game better.

2) Making a good demo is hard. Like, really hard. It turns out when a customer spends money on a game you're more likely to give it time, learn systems, and find enjoyment. When it is free you have the attention span of a gnat and need immediate gratification. This was especially crippling for complex strategy games and similarly difficult-by-design games.

3) Your imagination of what the game could be is usually greater than what the game is. Shady, but it made economic sense. In short, game demos were actually resulting in fewer sales for most titles.

Put all these and several smaller factors together and the industry realized that game demos were bad business. In a weird way this "no demo" life peaked at the apex of Kickstarter funded games; which is basically the exact OPPOSITE of a demo.

Gradually since that Kickstarter apex the demo has been making a slow and steady return. In fact 43 demos have been released in the last 9 days. That's over 4 demos per day and does not include "prologue" or "first day" or whatever silly title people give a "full release" free game that is actually a demo.

What changed?!

In a way, everything. The technology of the world is vastly different from where it was twenty years ago. Here's my take on why we're back in demo land.

1) The big one: Refunds. In the "old days" you simply couldn't get refunds easily for a game being bad unless it was truly a catastrophic failure. Steam and others implemented refunds, vastly changing the landscape. Essentially ALL games are now 2 hour demos, so why not make an actual demo that showcases the game with minimal barriers to entry. No credit cards, no hassle of returns or accidentally going over the time limit.

2) Competition has increased to an absolutely insane level. In the late 2000s there were a couple hundred new games per year on Steam. For example 434 in 2012. Ten years later in 2022 there were over TEN THOUSAND (10,963 to be exact) games released. Yeah that's right, my rounding error is more than twice the size of ALL the games released 10 years ago. As a result developers are trying to do more to make their game stand out. A demo is another lever they can pull to attract a potential customer.

3) Streaming, YouTube and the general "public review" of games has also increased tremendously. Every positive response you can get is more valuable than ever to set you apart from the endless detritus of junk games out there. It turns out having a demo or a "prologue" is directly correlated to higher review scores. Go find a game that has one of these prologues and compare review scores to the actual release and you'll see what I mean. Find any game with a demo and find just ONE review that references said demo in a positive review. It won't take long and I can not stress this enough: Every review matters now more than it ever has. A 75% review score average is essentially a deathblow to a game, and 85% is barely tolerable.

What does this mean? Good? Bad?

Games like most things are cyclical in nature. 20 years since I started in games and we're nearly full circle on this topic. There's no particular good or bad about this. I believe the game demo will become more popular over the next few years before it becomes so commonplace it no longer impacts review scores and attention from customers, at which point it will be abandoned once again because it still takes time and energy away from development. 

Over 8,000 demos (in English) and counting!

In short, enjoy the demos... or just buy it and return it in two hours. The most important thing is to review games (and microphones, wink wink) you really love. Believe it or not, it makes a huge impact.

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