Among the unending horde of teasers, trailers, and ever-annoying parody advertisements from GameStop, demos stand out as a unique way to promote a video game. Instead of flaunting an image or video specifically tailored to garner attention, game demos place a piece of the actual game in the player’s hands, allowing them to get a feel for the style and flow before actually purchasing it. This should, in theory, dodge the bias inherent in marketing material, in that it is designed to be marketed. Unfortunately, it’s not a bullet-proof system.
A game demo is equivalent to an excerpt taken from any text: It’s a brief portion taken from a larger work that isn’t necessarily representative of the final or complete product. However, this effect is minimized by the interactivity of gaming because players do more than simply look at gameplay; they experience it firsthand. Regardless, demos cannot be taken as an indicator for the entire game, largely because the remaining portion could easily be worse or entirely different.
A timeless example of misleading demos comes from Aliens: Colonial Marines, the botched FPS project that came out of GearBox, developer of the critically acclaimed Borderlands series. Before crashing headlong into a wall of negative reviews (and only after an outsource-ridden development cycle), Colonial Marines showed off a brief press demo. Not only was the demo level created outside the domain of the core project, but it never made its way into the actual game. As such, it showed a product that was in no way related to the absolute nightmare that the game proved to be. However, that demo is also the only reason the game sold more than a handful of copies.
The issue of misperception extends to other promotional media as well. Pre-ordering, for example, is a practice entirely built on consumer expectations. The same can be said for Kickstarting, but to an even greater extreme, since Kickstarter backers are putting their money toward an unseen product, but also investing a project that may or may not exist at all. Realistically speaking, this is inevitable; products, and derivatively, video games, will always be promoted in a manner that condones purchasing. Luckily, the coming era of next-generation consoles is poised to draw the veil off the purple prose and hollow promises of video game advertisement, particularly in the case of demos.
The obvious drawback in the structure of current demos is that they are singular units. Gameplay demos are scarcely seen as a series of showcases, but are instead one brief trial run. This system, while cost efficient, fails to provide any sort of context. However, the advanced networks of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One which Sony and Microsoft so adamantly laud could support a more stable system of demos in the form of episodes, chronicles, or what have you.
Now what game used an episode system to great effect… hmm…
By expanding beyond the concept of a demo, developers would be able to more accurately portray their games and provide a genuine glimpse at things. A string of demo levels, ideally showcasing a varied palette of features and in-game locales, would amount to a broader understanding of the game in question. More effective still would be to pair each installment with a bit of developer commentary, if only through a brief text log. A description of the intention behind X enemy’s behavior or how area Y compares to the rest of the game would be leaps and bounds above “Hit X to Play.”
Consequently, the shoddy releases of the industry would invariably be spotted as sub-par through their presumed avoidance of such a system. Win/win, right?
Better still, the rise of Cloud computing and storage would alleviate the strain of hard drive space, which demos so infamously devour. Eliminating, or simply expediting, the process of getting to a demo would improve activity for the practice, thereby furthering a game’s promotional success. With any luck, the “play as you download” slogan would be slapped onto the things, removing accessibility issues from the equation entirely.