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On the Decline of the Video Game Demo

My big yearly article on small game developers is coming out soon, but there's something that came up in the course of my surveys and interviews that I think demands a little additional attention.

The video game demo has a long and interesting history that really warrants further exploration. From test consoles in toy stores to the demo disc given away with another game to drive sales, it has always been an essential part of the industry - that is, until the late 2000s. By this point, it had become extremely easy to disseminate game demos, and yet the industry started moving away from them and toward trailers.

At the time, there was a lot of consternation and mockery over this. It didn't make a lot of sense to anyone that a medium defined by interactivity would try and draw an audience via a noninteractive marketing tool. But as with every object of furor, people came to accept this.

Accepting the decline of the demo was a mistake, at least for small developers. I'll just lay this out plainly: If you're selling a video game and you are not offering some kind of demo, then you are hurting yourself. Here's what you're giving up:

  1. A demo makes it easier to understand what it feels like to play a game. This isn't always clear from trailers, no matter how many of them there are. A person who isn't sure that he's going to enjoy the act of controlling the game is likely to give that game a pass.

  2. Depending on how it's designed, a demo can actually give the prospective buyer a sense that he has committed to the game, if only his time. Someone who's put in an hour or two might feel compelled to buy the whole game if only to see it through to the end.

  3. A demo can be released well before the game's launch, which is a great way to generate early buzz - something which is very difficult for smaller teams without marketing budgets. Sure, a trailer can generate some buzz as well, but a demo that's on a computer or console hard drive is a constant reminder that this exciting new title is on the horizon.

  4. Demos are bound to increase appeal to content creators. There aren't a lot of people who specialize in indie titles, but the ones who do tend to cover a lot of games. Such people are attracted to demos because they provide a convenient, low-cost means to show off this wide range of titles.

Featuring a demo isn't a guarantee of success, but I've spent enough time studying the market to know that the more successful games are more likely to have demos. Clearly, this counts for something.

So why is it that so many developers forego the demo? There are several possible reasons. A demo requires additional time above and beyond the main development process, and for a very small team in particular it might seem worth it to get the project out a little bit earlier. Some indie titles are just too short to justify a demo, which is generally more effective on longer games. We've also lived in a post-demo world for so long that some teams may think exclusively in terms of trailers.

Potential hurdles aside, the majority of games are going to benefit from getting a demo that drops either alongside the game or in advance of it. It seems like the demo has made a return in the past few years, at least in the AAA world - here's hoping that the same thing takes root in the rest of the industry.

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