Do Game Demos Hurt Gamer's Expectations?

Demos are an odd feature of the gaming industry. Some say that demos give us that early tease of a game we’re looking forward to or help us decide whether a game is for us or not. Others argue that game demos don’t show enough of a game to give the player the right idea about the game, or worse they give away too much and make the game feel obsolete. Think back to your times playing demos, if you do, and think about how many games you’ve purchased after playing the demo. I know that personally I’ve only bought one game in recent memory after playing the demo. Often times I don’t play demos of games I want to buy and the demos I do play are usually games I’d never buy in the first place. But what about games like Spec Ops: The Line or Dragon’s Dogma? The first game has a very specific reason as to why some gamers love it, a reason that can’t be explained in an hour long demo. The latter game is a RPG that takes dozens of hours to complete, surely a demo can’t fit a RPG into such time constraints. Demos have been around for a long time, but perhaps their purpose is slowly waning. Back when PC gaming was on the rise and gaming magazine subscriptions were strong demos were majorly popular. Websites like FilePlanet offered PC gamers demos of every new game and first party magazines often shipped with a demo disc for subscribers. These methods allowed gamers to play games before they were released and the demos acted as a teaser tool for many companies. Playing the new Deus Ex game before anyone else made my friends insanely jealous and having that gorgeous demo of Shenmue before I had any idea what the game was about made me feel special. These demos were often the first or second level of a game and offered little in the way of story or context. A gamer could plow through the demo and have no idea what was going on in the story but still get a taste of the gameplay. For a time this seemed to work because many games didn’t try to tell emotional and gripping stories. However, over the past decade or so things have changed quite a bit.

Demos were used as a way to get people into a game who may have not known about the game beforehand. That seems like a great idea but games today have a lot to lose by doing that. As mentioned before, Spec Ops: The Line is the first game to come to mind. The game chronicles the tale of a military squad in a not-so-friendly country. The first few hours feel like a typical military shooter with cover mechanics and fancy guns. However, as you get deeper into the story you begin to see what makes the game special. A story such as this can’t be told in a thirty minute demo or explained in a quick playthrough. Gamers who play a demo for Spec Ops: The Line will only see a basic shooter with nothing interesting to warrant a buy. Is that the games fault for having a build up? Or maybe the gamer’s fault for not doing research? Or perhaps it is the fault of the developer for making a demo that can’t possibly capture the essence of the game.

Think about it, if someone gave you a demo for World of Warcraft and what you played was a handful of hours in the game, would you be satisfied? You trot around Azeroth for ten levels or so and then you’re done. Now, for some people there may be an itch to jump back in and keep going but for many people the feeling will be either one of apathy or one of curiosity. The apathy comes from the game not living up to the hype, which is impossible in such a condensed format, and the curiosity is the feeling of “that’s it?” you get after playing a demo. RPG’s that last hundreds of hours may truly suffer from demos as the story and the character development has no chance to shine. Gamers play an hour or so and if the demo doesn’t impress, then what?

Possibly the worst turnout for a demo is that of satisfaction to the gamer. Demos should leave a gamer wanting more but some do just the opposite. Personally, I’ve had this experience many times with demos and the most recent one being with Dead Space 3. In the demo you’re given a ridiculous amount of resources to create some seriously awesome weaponry. With this arsenal you walk through the level destroying enemies and feeling like Darth Vader in the beginning of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. You’re turning corners and destroying enemies and you feel completely awesome, and then it’s over. After some internet digging I found out that at no point in the game is this possible, often times you’ll be close to that strength towards the end of the game but that’s about it. Why go back into a game and struggle your way back to what the demo freely gives you? It’s an odd question to answer because as gamers we want to beat games, get all the power-ups, and collect everything imaginable. But when a demo gives us everything at the start, ruins a story beat unexpectedly, or fails to capture our attention we feel as though the game is not worth it.

Racing games, sports games, and multiplayer shooters typically have a better shot at succeeding with demos. But there have been times where the demo is not indicative of the final product. Games like Dark Sector showed off beautiful graphics and some fun moments that were unlike anything else at the time, only to have the full game stumble over itself with clumsy gameplay. Who is at fault if a demo is buggier or, even worse, better than final product? Demos have the ability to increase our expectations but they also can hamper them quite a bit.

Can Far Cry 3’s expansive world be iterated in thirty minutes of gameplay? Can Bioshock’s memorable moments be conveyed by a demo? And can a player even scratch the surface of Ni No Kuni during the first hour or two? The answer to all of these questions is no. Demos offer a tease, a small bit of gameplay that does not explain or convey the meaning of the entire game. Often times the demos keep the story out of it altogether but sometimes the story is the enticing factor of a game. We as gamers need to be smart when it comes to games we wish to play. Demos are certainly a great way to get a feel for a game’s base gameplay, such as the DmC demo, but the final product will always have more to offer in the end.