The year was 2002. Or, you know, there abouts. I can’t precisely recall what the actual year was but starting with ‘The year was…” seemed like a good way to begin the article. Short and snappy, makes you want to read more, basically everything that this unnecessary explanation isn’t.
Uh, where was I? Oh yeah. The year was somewhere in the region of 2002. I’d just bought the latest edition of Official UK Playstation 2 Magazine which, now I think about it, is an unbelievably cumbersome name for a magazine. With this particular copy came a disc. On that disc were mystical things indeed, relics of a bygone age, demos of games.
Shinobi, one of the games featured in the fabled ‘demo disc’. Some say that very disc is buried in an ancient ruin, guarded by the restless spirits of games magazine employees. Others say you can grab it on eBay for three quid. The latter group are correct.
It was a fine concept – a try-before-you-buy deal that meant you were able to make better-informed decisions about which games you purchased. It was gaming’s version of trial systems used by almost every other industry. I say ‘was’ because, save for a few examples here and there, the concept of a game having a demo seems to have died by the wayside. Titles like Rise of the Tomb Raider, which let’s face it probably needs all the marketing help it can get, have turned to free demos to help get word out, but games like these are noteworthy outliers as opposed to the norm.
So what’s up with the demise of demos? (And why didn’t I use that far better snippet for this article’s title?) Well, if we’re to take a recent big release we at least find an attempt at an answer. When asking a marketing executive about the possibility of a Fallout 4 demo, one fan got a response of “No demo. Not possible to cut the game up into one small piece” which just doesn’t sit right with me. I mean, there’s not a bit that can be taken out to give a representative view of the game? Well, what about the pre-bomb bit? The bit that only involves character creation and running around. The bit that would give anyone a chance to test out how a game feels, how it runs and some of the mechanics while not spoiling any of the subsequent experience.
If you choose to play a demo of Fallout, it won’t be because you only wanted to play the bit before there was any actual nuclear fallout. That game would just be called something like Person in House When Things Seem a Bit Iffy, and it’d be shit. Utter shit. No-one is gonna play that demo and not buy the game purely because you’ve given up too much of the experience.
Because that’s what this is actually all about. The sales. The lucre. The fat, fat stacks.
There’s been a bit of talk about the negative impact demos have on game sales, as this Destructoid article covered in 2013. That article, alongside containing a picture of a scared corgi for some reason, references a speech made by Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games. In this speech, he talks about how game demos can cut game sales in half. His conclusion is thus: People who’ve played the demo will say “okay, I’ve played that game, I’m done” and not go on to buy, whereas without a demo “you’ll have to buy it before you try it”.
I certainly can’t debate that the scenario he offers is a scenario that has happened, and will continue to happen. I would question to what extent that exact scenario is a direct cause of reduced sales but, hey, I don’t have a graph! All that aside though, Schell’s line of thinking, while I’m sure displaying fine business sense, massively shafts the potential buyer. The ‘buy before you try’ approach may get you more sales, sure, but it massively fucks over the person looking to make a sensible purchasing decision, leading some to pirate a game just to test out the damn thing.
Boom, there it is. The P word. The spectre of the piracy debate has somehow reared its ugly head in my article, and that’s a particular hornet’s nest that I have absolutely no intention of kicking. I’ll wrap things up from here.
It’s a shame that demos aren’t anywhere near as widespread as they were previously. I think the experience that I had as a kid, when I first played a PS2 demo for Shinobi with bright-eyed wonder, just won’t be there in the same manner without handing over a not inconsequential sum of money first.
Having said that, I never did end up buying Shinobi, so maybe Jesse Schell has a point. Then again I was eight years old, so I was probably distracted by a cartoon, or a centipede, or a balloon. I wholeheartedly look forward to the next CEO’s speech about the rampant problem of easily distracted eight year olds.