Rise of the Video Game Demo

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In the 1990’s, the popular method of distributing a video game was shareware, a business model that blew up within the PC gaming market. It allowed players to receive a portion of a game, free of charge, and then pay a small fee to receive the full version. Developers would encourage their fans to share their game around, hence the name shareware. It was a fast way of getting your game seen and ensued consumer interest and demand for the full game. Shareware would be one of the first methods of distributing a video game demo.

It was implemented to great success by id Software, being pivotal in reaching as many people as possible, allowing their violent first-person shooter Doom to become a massive hit. Doom would be one of biggest gaming success stories of the 1990’s and it paved the way for a plethora of imitators, desperate for a slice of Doom‘s success.

Picture of Doom's Shareware, early video game demo
Doom Shareware was delivered on two floppy disks. Floppy disks of the time only held up 1.44 Megabytes of data.

With the explosion of CD based gaming and the high success rate of home consoles, such as Sony’s PlayStation. Video game media outlets were dedicated to bringing you the latest taste of upcoming releases, in the form of demo discs, which were usually slapped on the front of their respective magazines. The PlayStation, for example, is famous for being bundled with its own demo disc, Demo One which offered up a taste of what to expect from the system with titles such as; Die Hard Trilogy, Kurushi, Oddworld: Abe’s Odyssey and Ridge Racer.

photo of the Demo 1 cardboard sleeve
Demo 1 would be the introduction to what the PlayStation would become and for many was the first commercially released video game demo.

Gaming magazines would continue this with bi-weekly and monthly demo releases throughout the fifth generation of game consoles. For many, myself included believe that without demo discs, gamers around the world would not have discovered the games that truly shaped consoles such as the PlayStation, it really gave new titles a boost in exposure. The Metal Gear Solid demo, in particular, was a generous slice of one of the biggest games of the late 1990’s. Metal Gear Solid was the game you needed to get a PlayStation for and we all knew it thanks to that demo. Growing up in to gaming, demos were pivotal in shaping my childhood, especially when I had only a few games to choose from.

Demo discs would become a fledgling marketing move for developers throughout the sixth generation of consoles. They would be bundled in with current Triple-A releases, for example Capcom included a demo of Devil May Cry with their release of Resident Evil: Code Veronica X and Konami’s now infamous demo of Metal Gear Solid 2 bundled with Zone of the Enders, both on the PlayStation 2 respectively. I happily purchased Zone of the Enders, just for the privilege of playing Metal Gear Solid 2 early, it was a genius marketing move. It helped that Zone of the Enders was pretty great too!

Zone of the Enders cover with MGS2 video game demo
Box art for Zone of the Enders advertising the exclusive Metal Gear Solid 2 demo.

Unfortunately, by the time the seventh generation came around, physical demos were beginning to phase out in favor of digital content across online platforms such as; Microsoft’s Xbox Live service. Games media would eventually stop including demo discs altogether, if a disc was included, it would contain non-playable features, for some of us, the demo discs were the only reason we were purchasing the magazines to begin with, they were the attraction and the incentive. The digital era had begun and with it brought the end of physical, on the disc demo releases.

That brings us to today, as far as video game demos go, we have the open and closed Beta Tests and the Early Access and Game Preview platforms. The latter allow consumers to pay to play a title that’s deep in early development. They encourage customers to take part in the game’s development by reporting bugs and submitting their own suggestions for the game, of course they have access to the title before anyone else. The difference Early Access has to a traditional demo is that it’s a privilege you have pay for. The Beta Test on the other hand is common with online multiplayer titles. They allow consumers to play the online portion of a title, free of charge, usually for a limited time, players have a few days to get in on the action before the Beta ends. Still not a video game demo in the traditional way but a good enough glimpse into upcoming releases.

Recently we have been given demos for huge titles such as Mario Tennis Aces and Valkyria Chronicles 4. Going back to last year, obscure titles such as Neir Automata had a very impressive and generous demo. Arkane Studios’ Prey also had a generous demo, giving us the first hour of the game to play and gamers could determine a verdict on the title without paying a penny. This is where demos excel; allowing the player to have a taste of what’s on offer without putting any money down. As consumers of video games we deserve this much and nobody wants to put money down on a product sight unseen (even if today’s pre-order culture says otherwise) it’s always best for the consumer to wait for the reviews and vote with their wallets, but demos allow us all to make crucial purchasing decisions weeks or even months prior to release.

The Video game demo is lovingly pro-consumer and show us that the developer and/or publisher truly believe in their product and we need more of them.