What happened to Demos?
In the last half of this console generation there has been a decline in the public demo. I started playing video games at the turn of the millenium and at there were a lot more demos back then than there are now. My first Playstation was packaged with a demo disc that included Metal Gear Solid, Spyro the Dragon and Soul Reaver to name a few. The majority of demo discs were bundled with gaming magazines; I still have a large stack of Xbox Magazine Demo Discs. There were demos everywhere when I was a kid. It seemed that it would only get better once the PS3 and Xbox 360 were released because they let you download demos off the internet, it seemed like demos would be part of the industry forever.
Then suddenly, developers stopped making them.
There are many reasons why demos aren’t around anymore. Firstly, Demos are not easy to make. I would guess that demos are more expensive to produce nowadays then they were back in 2001. I’m no expert on game design so that’s just speculation on my part. As an episode of Extra Credits pointed out, demos rarely lead to an increase in sales and most of the time it leads to the opposite. How could anyone expect a developer to put effort into making a demo if it doesn’t lead to increased sales? However, this issue still applied 10 years ago when demos were all over the place, so the question is, what changed between now and then?
While there may have been more demos when I was younger, the internet wasn’t nearly as popular as it is now. Demos were pretty much the only way to determine a game’s quality outside of buying the game. Sure, you could look up reviews on gaming websites but people just didn’t do that ten years ago. It may seem that gamers back then had it better because all the demos they could play but this isn’t actually true. When I was younger I wasn’t aware of even the most basic information. I didn’t know when games came out, I didn’t look up trailers or read any reviews online. If my younger self was living in today’s world, I would be much more aware of this information. This doesn’t explain, however, why demos have been phased out. It’s nice to have access to information, but this is hardly substitute for playing a demos.
Another possible reason demos aren’t around is the primary platform they were available on isn’t around anymore. Gaming magazines were the best way to get your hands on a demo disc, but a lot of them are dead now. However, demos were still available online even before gaming magazines faded away. Nintendo Power stopped only last year, demos were on the decline long before that. The decline in gaming magazines was likely a contributing factor as it’s possible that game-developers were aware of this decline before the magazines themselves, but this doesn’t fully explain why demos have vanished.
The primary reason demos aren’t around is because of marketing. The primary purpose of a demo is to bring a game to a player’s attention. This was necessary for lesser known games as marketing campaigns weren’t as numerous in the early 2000s. Video games have more marketing today than ever. While it’s difficult to determine how much money is spent on video game advertising an article by Forbes estimates that $3.1 billion was spent on advertising in 2011, and that figure will double in 2016.
Advertising was still a thing back then, but it few games got huge campaigns. I saw plenty video game commercials when I was younger, but it was always for popular games like Halo, Mario or even Metroid. Oddly enough, most of those games didn’t have demos; they didn’t need to. There was never a demo for Halo 2 (unlike the first game) because it wouldn’t have helped, people were lining up to buy that game regardless. Unless you were Zelda, Halo or Mario, you wouldn’t get the highway billboard, the 30 second TV spot or the cover of this month’s gaming magazine.The same principle applies today. The biggest games of the year, whether it’s Pokemon, Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto, rarely release a demo leading up to the game’s launch. The simple fact is, demos aren’t needed anymore, at least for bigger games and there’s a lot more of those around today.
The gaming marketplace is bigger today than it’s ever been. There are more fish in the sea and consequently more sharks swimming around. However despite their decline demos are unlikely to completely go away. The Xbox Live Marketplace and Playstation Store have allowed smaller games to prosper. Almost these types of games, from Braid to Geometry Wars, let you play the first level, or section before stopping the game and prompting you to buy the full thing to continue playing. This model has been used as recently as The Wolf Among Us, which came out last month.
Demo discs are dead, but demos have lived on. While it’s been sad to watch them fade away, it’s comforting to know that they’ll still be around by the time the next-gen actually starts to kick in. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a few demos to play.