A game demo is marketing. It's meant to get you to buy the game.
The point of a demo is not to allow you to try the game. It's not meant to give you a taste of the whole experience. It's meant to sell you the game. It's a carefully culled slice of the game designed to leave you with a very specific impression of the game, one that may or may not match up with reality.
That's the problem with demos, whether they're something you play at home or something the press plays at a show like E3. They should not, but not always are, a representative piece of the game to give you a sense of the whole thing. The industry calls that sort of video or playable section a "vertical slice," a piece of the game that gives you a taste of what it is and what it's offering. It slices through all the layers and gives you a bit of each one.
You can get away with just polishing that little bit, right?
But it can be misleading, and one of my favorite meta-games while playing something that I've tried at a press meeting at E3 is to try to find the chunk of the game that was used for a vertical slice.
In badly made games it's the piece that suddenly looks and plays better than the game around it. Suddenly the enemies are perfectly scripted and the action becomes cinematic and dramatic. Then that section is over, and you're dropped into the rest of the game.
Imagine selling someone a produce and the customer could only see a small portion of it to make their buying decision. You can get away with just polishing that little bit, right? For all they know the entire product looks that good.
How this is getting better
It looks as if Microsoft will soon be offering 24-hour trials of certain games, and EA is offering a six-hour demo of the upcoming Madden with its for-pay EA Access program. Microsoft has yet to get back to us on the specific details of its program, but EA has told us exactly what to expect.
"Each game is different, so each game’s trial will be, too. In some titles you’ll be able to play one of the game's modes for a limited time, while other times you can jump right into the full game," the official page states. "And since you’ll always be playing the real game, any progress you make will carry over so you can pick up where you left off on launch day."
"Unlike demos, which are stand-alone chunks of the game meant to give you a taste but don't provide the full experience, when you play a trial through EA Access, you're playing the real game for a limited time, five days before the release date," EA's continued. "If you buy the game once it releases, you don't need to download or install anything; you can just pick up where you left off and keep playing."
There are games I can finish in a day
The bad news is that as a Gold or EA Access subscriber you're paying for this access, while we're used to getting demos for free. But a part of me is fine with that, because I'd rather listen to the first three songs on album rather than the best hooks and choruses from a song or two. Demos are marketing, what's being offered here is the ability to try the actual game for a day, warts and all.
Hell, there are games I can finish in a day, which is going to be a fun problem when customers order a pizza and try to power through their "free" trial period.
The important part is that you're playing the entirety of the game. You get to see the tutorials, you get to see how the "real" game looks on your equipment at home. You get to play to your heart's content and see how far you can go, and then when it's turned off? You can pay to keep playing. It's all right there waiting for you. That's something I'm willing to pay for, and in fact if it saves me the cost of buying even one game that I would have without a lengthy demo it would have paid for itself.
I don't think the game demo will ever die, and I think asking people to pay for early access to limited trials on a per-publisher basis could lead us down some really crappy roads, but I will say that the idea of the unlimited, timed game trial has a ton of merit.
These companies aren't asking for money to deliver something that has no value, an all-you-can-eat timed trial has immense value when you're struggling to make a purchasing decision. It leaves them little to hide behind when it comes to marketing the game; the product can either deliver in that day, or it won't.
Demos are marketing, but this is something better, even if you have to pay for it. This is information.