June 01, 2017

Tales of Opinia: Demos

If you've paid any mind to the assault of Game Binges here lately, you've no doubt picked up on the fact that I'm no stranger to demos. And why should I be? Demos are an excellent answer to the problem of having some interest in a game, but not knowing if it's worth your money. I think demos have always been an awesome way to introduce gamers to your content and potentially sell your product.
That said... there's no shortage of absolute shit demos out there. You think it'd be pretty straight forward, but developers are often coy when it comes to revealing certain aspects of their game on the first date. And I suppose I understand, I'm not asking for a movie trailer containing all the best parts of the movie here, I just want to know what I'm getting into before I sink $60+ and countless hours of my time into something. So when I'm not 100% certain of a game, I look for a demo, and after so many years, I've noticed what it takes to sell me from one. Listen up, industry! I'm going to tell you what I think it takes to make a good demo!
I think I can boil this down to five major categories:

1. Tutorials
It's not 1990, people! Our controllers have more than two buttons these days. There's nothing worse than jumping into game you've never played before and being expected to just know how to fight, how to use unique equipment or specialized game traits. You need to teach me how to play your game!
True, there's something to be said for a game so cleanly designed that it doesn't require any tutorials (and they do exist!), but most games these days don't fall under that umbrella, and it would be foolish for developers or publishers to think their players "just know". I remember testing out the Wonderful 101 demo and finding few and/or very poor tutorials. It took me longer than I'd like to figure out how to play it and I was left so unconfident that I still haven't purchased the game. I know that just a few precise tutorials probably would have sold me on it.
You have a very short amount of time to convince me to buy your game, I don't want to spend it all just figuring things out, or worse, thinking your game sucks because I don't know how to play it.
But there's some finesse required here... you don't need to give away the entire gameplay experience in your demo, just explain what I need to know to get through it, and demonstrate the kind of things I can expect from the game as a whole. In other words: don't overwhelm me or bore me to death with tutorials.

2. Completed Gameplay
Something that always makes me grimace is when a demo is preceded by a screen that says it's not an accurate representation of the completed game. Then what am I playing it for?! I understand sometimes demos are released before the full game is complete, but this is pretty frustrating if the section you're giving me isn't an accurate demonstration of the real deal. I want to be able to transition from your demo directly to the full game without having to relearn how to do something I just mastered in your demo, or find out that you've completely rearranged the controller map. You want to give players a complete piece of the puzzle, so we understand what you have to offer. Then we can concern ourselves with building on it in the full release. If you haven't locked down the gameplay, maybe hold off on a demo.
I know the Resident Evil VII demos went through a number of iterations, and each was met with twitter discussions of "yeah, but this isn't what the game is going to be." I deleted the demo from my PS4. Never tried it. (Never will.)

3. A Full Level 
This sort of depends of the type of game you're making, but giving players a full level or quest is a big plus. This way, I can see the style and progression of the game in a coherent way, and really get an idea of what your full game has to offer. Especially when it comes to bosses! I can also spot certain potential offerings this way too, such a side quests. I'm pretty good at sniffing out where a side quest begins, but I don't expect you to include that kind of content in your demo. But I like knowing that it's going to be there! That's the kind of thing that might sell me on your game.
This means the first level of your game is often the winner. In most cases, the first level is practically a tutorial anyway, so you kill two birds with one stone. But that can also come back to bite you, as your first level is usually simpler than what's to come, and if I don't have an idea of what's to come, you're either over- or underselling your game.
Dust: An Elysian Tail handled this well. It set up the game the same way you would experience it in full, and then let me run around to my heart's content until I finally uncovered a boss. It made clear that I was going to learn new special moves to use in the full game, and I saw there were areas of the map I couldn't access yet, but I knew I would in the full release. One blast through the demo and I was sold!

4. Time & Pace
I sort of touched on this already with the tutorials bit, but there is a sweet spot in terms of what's too long or too short a demo. Obviously, you want to give players a good hard look at your content, this isn't a teaser, you're trying to sell me this thing. Conversely, if I've been playing your demo for an hour and still don't know what's going on... that's not a good sign either. Pick a spot in your game that packs a mean punch in a reasonable amount of time, and still gives me an idea of how long your levels (and therefore your game) might typically be. 
I had an interesting experience with the Mercenaries Saga 2 demo. It's rather long, and showcases many levels. On paper I may have told you this was a bad idea, but in fact it's what sold me on the game. I clocked an hour in the demo alone, over many levels with an expanding cast. I had so much fun that I completely forgot I was playing a demo! When it finally ended, I immediately shifted to the eShop to buy the full game. They gave me just the right amount, and it moved a great pace for a strategy RPG.

5. Clean Administration and Accessibility 
For starters, your demo should always be free. Secondly, there should not be a timer on your demo. I understand putting a limited amount of uses on a demo - I mean, c'mon, if you're going to play it 23 times... just buy it already - but I don't like timed trials, I don't need any more anxiety in my life, thanks. Thirdly, your demo should be available always, and with no caveats. I recently had a very bad experience with the Triforce Heroes demo... it wouldn't let me play it. Not only does it require an internet connection (okay, I get it, it's a multiplayer game, but why do I have to connect for a demo?!) but the connection was only available for a short period of time... which I missed. There was no demonstration for single-player gameplay, not even with dummies. I got zero information from the demo except that I'm never going to buy this game. 
Lastly, there's been some funny business with demo interference. I'm not entirely sure who's at fault here, but I'll tell you why it's important. I once downloaded the demo for Mirror's Edge to show the game to someone. It went off without a hitch, and I eventually deleted it from my hard drive. A few daysweeksmonths later the game went on sale for an incredible price. I'm honestly not the biggest fan of the game but I thought I might give it another shot one day and went ahead to purchase the full game... but I couldn't. Because I had downloaded the demo, my account recognized that I already owned the game, so I couldn't purchase it. I guess it expected me to re-download the demo and then go through the unlock and buy it there? No thanks, got shit to do (and not certain I would have gotten the deal that way). Be wary of e-commerce details, my friends. 

Self-awareness - there's something cute and endearing when your demo includes jokes or comments on the fact that it's a demo. It's not really important, but I appreciate that it took some extra effort to craft the demo.
Character/story development - lots of games depend on narrative or great characters in order for you to fall in love. If you can show me a good chunk of the story or an awesome character in your demo, your odds of procuring my money increase.
Music - I mean, sometimes music alone can sell a game. Pick an excellent soundtrack for your demo (especially if it's a rhythm game) and if a song gets stuck in my head... I may just buy the game.🤔

Well, that's what I came up with. These are the major things that annoy or secure me when it comes to demos. Did I miss anything? Share your experience with demos with me!


  1. I remember playing a ton of demos back during the PS1 days. I know for sure there was one of the Final Fantasy ( 8 or 9 I think) and they did a good job of helping to sell the game. As well I am pretty sure it was the Parappa Demo where you got like the first and possible second level. I played it over and over again With so much digital content available there is no reason why companies should not release a demo to help sell people on games. I agree with the First Level / Tutorial part as well.

    1. I guess I never really needed to be sold on a Final Fantasy game, but the PS1 did sort of solidify the demo world, didn't it? They had some crazy good demo discs! I played the Parappa remaster demo on PS4! Was a little disappointed with its length (that's what she said) but it's such a charming little game!