Deconstructing Gaming Demos

The recipe for a perfect gaming preview

What Makes A Great Game Demo

Whatever happened to game demos? Those little vertical slices of goodness that gave you a teaser of great times to come in the final product. In a world of delays and impatience, as a console gamer, I’ve often felt like we’re not seeing as many AAA demos for my favorite titles. There have however been other avenues for people to share their projects, especially indie developers, with demos finding a new home digitally through events like the Steam Next Fest. While we’re not living in the glory days of computer games inside cereal boxes, modern demos have definitely come into their own. 

They are still an integral part of the consumption of games as entertainment. Whether it’s signing up for the latest Call of Duty beta weekend, or EA Access Early Trials, demos have taken on different forms of presentation in modern times. Today I want to talk about why they’re important and what makes a great demo experience. Hopefully, I can evangelize the subject enough to inspire any of you up-and-coming developers reading this!

What is a Demo? [The No Finger Discount]

Compared to my wonder years (I’m a 90’s kid, get used to it), the demos you whippersnappers are getting are practically a steal! If I could play something like the Stoneshard: Prologue demo back in 2003, you would have to clean pieces of my ten-year-old brain off the wall. What I mean is that there’s a broad definition of what is considered a video game demo these days, so I’ll give you a firmer definition.

Game Demo 

Demos can be recordings of gameplay, shown off for promotional or demonstrational purposes for investors or at tradeshows. Gameplay Demos however are a free slice of a game distributed prior to launch that contains a playable portion of the final product with limited functionality and often constrained by a time limit or milestone of progress. 

Back in my day (that’s right I’m gonna talk about the ’90s a lot, get used to it) we had something called shareware which was slightly different from a demo. Shareware actually had the full functionality of the final product despite the time or level restrictions applied when you were playing it. You usually had the option to unlock the full game by submitting a code (sounds familiar right?). 

Why Create A Demo?

You’ve got a choice ahead of you; to demo or not to demo. 

If you’ve already got a vertical slice of your game that you play around with as a proof of concept, and pitch to publishers and investors then you’re halfway there, and if you’re not even there yet then you’ll need to evaluate your situation a bit. Should you have a demo for your game and why?

Well as I’ve previously mentioned, demos exist to provide potential consumers with a sneak peek of your unreleased game. While demos are generally free teasers that exist as playable samples, they are not to be confused with early access trials, which are paid previews of upcoming games. If you have to pay for it, it’s a product and not a demo! 

The main reason for releasing a demo is the potential for feedback. If you’re not quite ready for launch but want input from future players to help hone your build, then you’ll want to think about creating a demo. Setting expectations is important, being conscious of the current state of your development, you’ll want to consider whether you feasibly have enough content that’s playable to share. So that’s a conversation you’ll want to have with your team, or could be a brainstorm session in the making for all those solo developers out there!

Other reasons to release a demo include marketing and advertising your product. If you’ve developed something with a unique or fun concept or gameplay mechanic that you think will light the world on fire, then that’s a perfectly good excuse to release a demo. There have been quite a few successful games that hooked players with great demos, Minecraft is one of the best examples. Back in 2009, Minecraft Classic hooked its first players, and has since grown into a behemoth of an IP! 

What To Include In The Vertical Slice of Demo Pie

Excited? Good, I told you I’d get evangelical about this.

Before you start calling yourself “the next Notch”, you’ll need to choose the scope of your preview and get started. Demos can vary in length as well as the content included and the faster you can hook an audience with your game the better. Remember, retention is a big deal; you want players to not stop at just trying your demo, you’ll want them to stay hooked for the main event!

In terms of gameplay, a good demo is a playable elevator pitch for a game. Designing an engaging tutorial has always been a good way to demo upcoming games for consumers, and building from that basis, a finely curated first level where the main tenets of gameplay are best demonstrated can be a great preview of your game. Preparing players for the full game with a demo to build fundamentals, especially with fun gameplay, is always a hit, especially in sports games, or titles that require a specific skill set.

You could also go the opposite route and create a sandbox where players can experiment with the opportunities that your game design may provide. It’s a great way to demonstrate physics, gameplay, and game engine features, by putting the player's creativity at the forefront of their experience.

For plot-heavy games, demos are an opportunity to establish context. Without being too heavy-handed, demos can be an opportunity for you to set the tone for your upcoming epic adventure. Creating a sizzling first level for a demo can draw in players who are left with a teaser at the end of the preview, building hype for the full game.               

While it’s not mandatory to preview your game publicly, having a strong public demo is one of the best ways to get your game out there on your terms. Getting external feedback is important in any creative process, and hopefully, I’ve given enough guidance here to get you started, or at the very least helped give you the kick in the butt needed to get your demo out there, putting your best foot forward in the gaming marketplace!

Published October, 14 2022
Last updated October, 14 2022
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