FreePlay: The Art of the Demo

FreePlay

I find it relatively difficult to get excited for a new demo these days. I have a feeling that it’s largely to do with how easily we can access them via the Internet — they’re only ever a few clicks of a button (and a bit of thumb-twiddling while it downloads) away, whereas getting your hands on one in the ’80s and ’90s (and even the early part of the new millenium) involved actually making an effort and, in many cases, spending some money.

I’m alluding, of course, to the phenomenon of the magazine cover disc — something we don’t really have any more, largely because we barely have magazines any more. I have recently been re-reading some old issues of PC Zone, however — a UK-based publication that both I and my brother used to contribute to, fact fans — and it’s really struck me quite hard what a big deal for these mags having an awesome demo on the front cover was.

I have extremely fond memories of a number of different demos which were distributed in this manner. Chief among them was the demo version of Carmageddon, which absolutely enraptured my friends and I — who were all technically too young to play it at the time — for session after session. We’d take it in turns to play and set up our own little improvised challenges — which usually involved finding the one building on the map you could actually drive inside and get up onto the roof of, then fling our car off at high speed and see who could get the most amusing-looking wreck before the time expired. Good times.

Carmageddon

I count shareware in this category, too, though that’s arguably something slightly different from a regular demo version. It was a huge deal when magazines first published the shareware episode of Quake on their cover discs, for example, and the same for Duke Nukem 3D. At the time these games came out, high-speed Internet access wasn’t particularly widespread — not in the UK, anyway — and thus these monthly discs were the only practical means through which you could get your hands on these demos without racking up a huge phone bill and/or freaking out everyone else in your house when they picked the phone up and were confronted with that horrible WHEEEEE SKKRRRRRRRRRR FWWWRRRRRRRRR noise.

Some publishers got quite adventurous with these freebies, in some cases creating entirely unique content for the demo versions and distributing it for free as a means of building some buzz for their product. One of the most ambitious examples of this was EA and Origin’s Wing Commander Secret Ops from 1998, a promotional vehicle for Wing Commander Prophecy, one of the first ever examples of episodic gaming, and an impressive package that mounted up to 56 single player missions across seven completely free episodes in total. This was initially released exclusively via the Internet, but a number of publications, well aware that many gamers were still using 56k dial-up connections and thus were somewhat disinclined to download 150MB at an average of about 5K per second, decided to distribute these episodes via their cover discs. What heroes they were.

These days, of course, demos are still important, but their function has changed somewhat. In many cases, they’re used as a means of rewarding brand loyalty rather than actually giving people the chance to try out a game, in many cases before it’s even released. How many recent games have we had that promise access to a “multiplayer beta” or early access to a single-player demo if you’ll just preorder it, or play a different game from the same developer? If you believe you’re actually getting something exclusive and special when you sign up for one of these “betas” you are, I’m afraid to say, sadly mistaken — you’re essentially securing slightly earlier than usual access to a demo version that has been ready for months in many cases.

Brave Fencer Musashi

That said, this sort of practice is really nothing new; it’s actually been happening since the latter days of the PS1 era. The PS1 version of Final Fantasy VI, for example, bridged the generation gap by bundling a demo of Final Fantasy X in its jewel case. Brave Fencer Musashi was the only means of getting a demo of Final Fantasy VIII for a while. Zone of the Enders came with the infamous Metal Gear Solid 2 demo that sort of implied you’d be spending the game playing as Snake when, in fact, we all now know that isn’t true at all. In all these cases, there was a not-insignificant number of people who bought the games in question purely so they could play the demos — even knowing that said demos would probably be on the front of a magazine in a month or two. I can say with confidence that this is the case because in several instances (all right, all of them) I was one of those people. I even had to import an American copy of Brave Fencer Musashi to get hold of the Final Fantasy VIII demo, because that game never came to Europe. That’s dedication. Or stupidity. I forget which.

Anyway, with the dawn of always-online consoles, I find it quite a bit more difficult to get jazzed for a new demo these days. I’m not sure the inherent quality of demos has gone down significantly — though I’ll generally only play a demo once these days; a stark contrast to the months for which my friends and I played the Carmageddon demo — but the feeling that they’re something special and exciting (or a glimpse into the “future”) is no longer present. For me, anyway.

What do you think? Do you still get excited about new game demos? Or are they just something you use to help make an informed choice as to which games you might want to buy next?

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FreePlay is Games Are Evil’s weekly column about games that cost you nothing to download and get started with, hosted by GrE’s managing editor Pete Davison. Follow Pete on Twitter here.

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