Game demos are a strain on developers. But as a consumer, they’re an incredible tool.
My family wasn’t particularly well off when I was a kid. I picked up my PlayStation from an uncle that had gotten bored of Tomb Raider and its sequels, and most of my games were inherited from family friends that ‘grew out of’ Digimon, or ‘didn’t have the patience’ for Final Fantasy. Shame on them. In a small village somewhere on the outskirts of the UK’s grey, drizzly hinterlands (read: Derby), I relied on games to entertain myself. But there wasn’t a steady stream of them available.
Enter Demo One. If you’re about 30-40 years old and from Europe, you’ll know Demo One: it was the first ever PAL PlayStation demo disc, packaged with the original launch model PlayStation. It was everywhere in 1995, and remained a staple until the early 00s. The version I had contained a fairly bizarre collection of Gran Turismo, Medieval, Kula World, Tekken 3 – as well as trailers for Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped, Metal Gear Solid, Spice World, and Spyro the Dragon. I’d wager the disc is the reason I got so into Tekken – something I’ve gone on to play in tournaments and take pilgrimages to Japan to play in arcades since.
The demos left an impression. My peers had different Demo One discs – maybe including Warhawk, Twisted Metal, Ridge Racer, or Wipeout – and to this day I see a similar imprint on them. Depending on which issue of Official PlayStation Magazine you pikced up – or which disc you nicked from a mate – you'd get another little window into the expansive PSOne back catalogue.
Back when getting a new game was a twice-a-year treat (at best), circulating demo discs and getting to play little slices of games was a life-saver. And, importantly for the developers, it would prompt me to go out and purchase the full title of whatever I’d been playing when I was able (thanks to a piss-poor paper round circuit netting me a massive £1.50 per day).Ah Tekken 3, the start of a fighting game love affair.
Fast-forward 10 years, and I’ve just traded in my PS2 and all its games to part-purchase an Xbox 360. I’m in love; it’s the first time I’ve played a console hooked up to the internet, and for some reason I’m getting called slurs on Halo 3. Cool! And what’s this? There’s a whole section on this fancy Xbox Marketplace app dedicated to demos. Awesome!
My love affair with vertical slices would continue on here; seeing what all the fuss is about in Just Cause 2, trying out Dead or Alive 4 to see if it’ll scratch that Tekken itch, wondering why everyone is jazzed about Lost Planet, honestly believing that Too Human may well be one of the best games I’ve ever played based on about 10 minutes of gameplay… those were the days! A job as an after-school sous chef was netting me enough cash to rent games via Lovefilm, so playing demos and then renting discs of the final product was a routine at this point – and being time-rich and cash-poor, this was ideal.
As a consumer, demos allowed me to try games for myself. Sure, Official Xbox Magazine and gamesTM might be telling me that Kane Lynch is good – but why would I have to believe the words of some crusty ol’ games journos when I could download the game on a pitiful internet connection and try (a bit of it) for myself? It was like I was at all the tradeshows myself, now, cycling from booth to booth and playing 10 minutes of a game and forming a decisive, ‘well-informed’ opinion about it all. Some publishers even cottoned onto that, and offered out E3-speicific demos (here's looking at you Capcom) to make you, player, feel like part of the in-crowd.Too Human could – should! – have been so good. Oh well.
Then something changed. Towards the end of the 360 era, and into the sketchy launch of the PS4 and Xbox One, game demos became a rarer thing. Fewer and fewer devs were uploading them to the various digital storefronts, and Early Access games or betas instead became the norm. Then, somehow, we all got tricked into paying for Early Access. Right now, the only demo I remember playing was for Final Fantasy Stranger of Paradise – and somehow that didn’t dissuade me from picking up the final product.
Demos have been slowly dying out for a while now, but rumours persist that PlayStation is basically forcing developers to provide demos for games on the PlayStation Plus Premium service. At the end of April 2022, an update to the PlayStation developer portal stated that all games with a wholesale price of $34 or higher to include a two-hour trial for PS Plus Premium members to play. These won’t quite be the demos of days gone by, but it’s probably the closest we’re going to get.
These demos will be required to be available within three months of the game’s release date – and must be available to consumers for a year. And this is Sony saying this. If you want to buy a game, the platform holder argues, you must be able to trail it first. It’s a lot more work for developers (but hey, demos always have been – you can’t just take a chunk of game wholesale from the middle of your build, right?) but it’s very good for customers.PlayStation Studios and third parties will need to provide demoes for PS+ Premium users.
Even though, right now, I’m in a position to afford more games than I could as a kid, I sort-of have the opposite problem than I did in the past; I am now cash-rich, time-poor. So being able to flip through the proverbial shelves of PlayStation Plus, choose some obscure Japanese game that sounds up my street and give it a whirl for an hour or so before making up my mind… that sounds dreamy! It’ll help me choose which games to pick up and which to bin off better than any discount or Steam Sale would. And I’d wager many other gamers are in the same boat.
Some of the initial reporting around the PS Plus demo situation seemed to stipulate that devs would have to manually create demos – proper vertical slices a la Demo One or the Xbox Marketplace – for their games. But, now that some things have been cleared up, it looks like simply giving you access to the start of the game will do. This feels like a good middle-ground between devs and consumers; it’s not too much more work for beleaguered staffers already crunching to meet an immovable Christmas-time deadline, and it lets players do a little try-before-you-buy, too.
My taste in games was formed, in no insignificant way, by demos. And I’ve found a couple of absolute gems through playing demo discs and downloading ‘fuck it, why not’ games via digital storefronts, too. I wrote a dissertation on Soul Reaver, and I probably wouldn’t have been so obsessed with it if I hadn’t had the opening and an early part of the doomed open world drilled into my head by an over-worked, worn out demo disc.
I’m hoping Sony’s insistence on offering demos to players via PS Plus Premium will help other players find equally important games for themselves, too. And maybe even give them the oppertunity to be as deeply incorrect about a game’s potential as I was back in 2008 when I was convinced from a shitty-but-pretty demo that Too Human would be an honest-to-God all-timer.