If we gave you a chance to test a video game for countless hours even though you could only play through portions of it, would you be more inclined to splurge for the full game once it comes out?
Such is the question proposed to gamers back when demos used to be a thing.
Unfortunately, as the video game industry has evolved over the past few years, more and more developers have stepped away from providing video game demos. Instead, over the better part of the past decade, most developers have used alternative methods to get gamers interested in their games. Chief among them is broadcasting their titles live to the world, with only a handful being able to get a chance to play a game before its release, at events like E3 and PAX, among many others.
In 2021 though, something amazing is happening - the pandemic has essentially forced such events to go online, amd developers have slowly returned to the old ways of video game demos.
The most prominent example of this is People Can Fly. The up-and-coming studio released an extensive playable demo of their looter-shooter, Outriders, just a month before the game's actual release date. Although you could argue that this was the developer's way of appeasing fans after postponing the game's release twice, it has instead turned out beautifully for them in terms of generating free marketing for the game.
As it is, the world just can't seem to get enough of Outriders. Even though the developers are currently drawing flack for the game being unavailable to play for a lot of people as the servers crash due to the number of players trying to play it at the same, it's a good problem to have.
Thus, we can't help but wonder, why aren't more developers doing it?
The Case Against Video Game Demos
Games are becoming more and more expensive to produce and publish. Add the cost of marketing and advertising, then you've got quite the expensive endeavor. Case in point, Star Citizen has surpassed $350 million in funding and is still has yet to release. Of course, Star Citizen is an extreme example, but the point remains.
On the other hand, making video games is also quite lucrative. Again, going back to the Star Citizen example, people continue to back the game in 2021, which means that the funding for Star Citizen is only going to grow.
With that said, developers and publishers always think about themselves first. They need to make sure that their video games succeed and they get paid.
As of today, the most cost-effective way for developers and publishers to do this is through promotional demos. This is why they take to avenues like Twitch, Facebook Gaming, and YouTube. They take full advantage of gaming personalities to market their respective games to a broader audience, all the while making sure that it's showcased in arguably the best way possible.
You can't exactly blame them for going this route. Most gamers consume content through these said avenues. Using influencers and internet personalities is a no-brainer at this point. But, is it really the only way?
Why Video Game Demos Should Make a Comeback
Of course, just because using internet personalities and influencers has proven to be effective, it doesn't mean that the actual audiences shouldn't be given a chance to try out games before they're released. This is especially since companies now have the technical know-how and capabilities to do it without even putting in much effort.
Steam routinely makes demos of a majority of the games featured on their online-only festivals. Both Microsoft and Sony also have playable demos available for their respective consoles. The said demos or trials will often either allow players to try out a game for a limited amount of time, or to play through selected early portions of a particular title. However, trials and demos for big games very rarely exist for big AAA titles.
Even if a playable trial or demo is released, the content shown off is very limited. It'll give you around thirty minutes' worth of gameplay and that's it.
This is where Outriders is very unique.
By offering virtually countless hours via the free demo, People Can Fly has learned that releasing video game demos can coexist with the way the current video game landscape works. Anyone who's ever followed the game closely over the past month knows just how many influencers and video game personalities jumped on the hype train. This effectively gave People Can Fly and Square Enix free advertising for their shooter-looter.
As a result, Outriders is now widely considered the most successful Steam launch of Square Enix, the very same company that either published and/or developed big AAA titles like the Final Fantasy franchise.
The Future of Video Game Demos
At this point, we wouldn't put it past other developers to try and do the same thing that People Can Fly did with Outriders. By releasing such an extensive free demo, it was able to generate so much hype for not so much effort.
While we're well aware that Alpha and Beta tests do exist, those are a completely different story. Not everyone can get into them. A demo is completely different. It's the actual game, albeit, with limited content.
We can't deny that there've been a couple of games that most of us would have skipped on if there'd been a playable demo for it. The biggest and worst example of this is Cyberpunk 2077.
Can you imagine just how much worse the launch of Cyberpunk 2077 would have gone had CDPR released a demo? Cyberpunk 2077 was such a big mess upon launch (and still is), that CDPR refunded anyone who asked one with little to no questions. Those who bought physical retail versions even received refunds without having to return their copies. Sony also decided to pull the game from the PlayStation Store entirely and they still have yet to put Cyberpunk 2077 back up for sale.
While we do agree that asking for refunds for titles so much easier these days than before, it still puts the burden on players. The thing is, it shouldn't be the players playing the guessing game and investing their own money, just to see if a game is good or not. It should be the developers and publishers giving players a reason to buy the game and more importantly, a chance to try it out.
Sure, reviews, marketing students, and advertising can all help persuade the minds of gamers and they all work, but gamers should have a chance to decide for themselves.
Going back to the Cyberpunk 2077 example, releasing a free demo prior to the game's launch could have worked towards CDPR's advantage as well. Instead of dealing with a PR nightmare that persists to this day, they could have simply pushed back the game's release date after receiving initial feedback from the free demo.
As you can see, it's a win-win scenario for everybody, which is why it's even more frustrating that more developers and publishers aren't releasing free trials or video game demos.
By giving players a chance to trial a game, a video game developer or publisher can help gain the trust of gamers and make them more confident in making a purchase. These trials effectively allow gamers to experience titles for themselves and develop a connection to them. This is something that's quite easy to do just by watching other people play a game or let you know if it's good for you or not.
One good thing about demos is that developers and publishers don't even have to refer to them as demos. The game could simply just be made free to play for a limited number of hours. This way, instead of giving players a chance to ask for a refund, which may or may not always work, interested buyers can check it out to see if it's right up their alley, or so to speak. This also eliminates the added work of having to process a refund to see if it's legitimate. At the same time, it will remove the extra development time and funding needed for an actual demo.
Outriders is actual and living proof that video game demos have and will always work.
Sure, it's not a perfect game. It's currently having issues keeping up with the demand. It's also creating an entirely different discussion on whether a single-player game should be online-only. However, those are topics for a different day. Plus, as we've mentioned earlier, having servers crash due to a massive and unprecedented player count is not that bad of an issue to have.
Besides, the onus should be on the developers and publishers to win the trust, as well as the money, of gamers. So many times in the past few years alone has a AAA title release as unfinished messes with piss poor optimization. True, some of these bad games ended up turning things around. However, most have yet to do so and a lot never did.
While we do agree that seeing people laid off, fired, and quit or entire studios closing down is never a good thing, such risk is natural in any entertainment industry, including that of video games.
Besides, who knows? If developers and publishers knew that gamers are expecting to get their hands on a complete gaming experience, albeit a limited one, in the form of a demo, maybe they won't be as lackadaisical and might even make more of an effort to release a game only if it's completely playable?
Ultimately, what we're saying here is that gamers should have a choice. If a gamer prefers to watch someone play a demo or read a review to see if it's good for them, then so be it. However, as the Outriders demo proves, there exists a market for people who prefer to try and check out a game for themselves.