Harmony, The Fall of Reverie, video game, box art, featured, gods, Polly

Video game demos: how long can we go on?

I spent last weekend playing a lot of video game demos.

LudoNarraCon made its return for 2023 and brought with it around 40 titles for fans of narrative experiences to enjoy. While I was a little disappointed there weren’t more point-and-clicks on show, the line-up encouraged me expand my gaming horizons and try a few adventures which were a little different.

Even though the industry has changed so much in the past 50 years, demos remain important. For players, they give us a chance to see gameplay and help us determine if a game might suit our preferences. For developers, they generate interest in upcoming projects and increase sales. Previews like this also provide an avenue for feedback, allowing creators to fix any issues and make improvements before their big release.

The earliest demos I remember were those on floppy disks attached to video game magazines in the 1990s. They were often short and buggy, but you played them repeatedly since releases were nowhere near as frequent back then. The situation is very different nowadays. Events like LudoNarraCon and platforms such as Steam mean we can easily access numerous previews at the click of a button. They’re also much more polished, offering a glimpse into a game’s full potential.

This glimpse often comes with an extended length. It’s a trend I noticed while playing through 16 demos last weekend. Previews like this used to last between 15 and 30 minutes several years ago and could be completed without getting up off the sofa. But here I found myself spending over an hour with each one and sometimes needing to stop for a quick break in the middle. Instead of being a simple marketing tool, they felt more like short games in their own right.

Let’s look at a couple of examples to back this up. People Can Fly provided a demo for RPG shooter Outriders in February 2021 which covered a significant chunk of the first part of the title and took two to three hours to complete. Much of the content could be repeated over and over in the hope of bagging a powerful item which would then be carried over into the full release. It’s crazy to think that a particular player managed to sink over 250 hours into the preview in just 15 days.

While not as big as that for Outriders, the demo for interactive adventure Harmony: The Fall of Reverie by DON’T NOD was the longest I experienced during LudoNarraCon. Coming in at a little under two hours, it consisted of the three chapters which make up the first act and introduced the player to eight characters along with several mechanics. The first chapter alone took me 40 minutes to get through and to be honest, this would have been more than enough for me during this first experience of the game.

So why are longer previews becoming the norm? By providing players with more time in the game world, developers are offering them an immersive experience which allows for exploration of the narrative start and gameplay. This increased exposure can create a stronger connection with the upcoming release. Having more demo content can also encourage discussions among fellow gamers, leading to increased awareness of a project and perhaps boosting its future sales.

However, there can be drawbacks to longer demos too. Creating a comprehensive preview requires additional development time and resources, which can divert effort from the developer’s work on the full game and negatively impact its release date. The increased length may also make a demo more susceptible to issues and bugs, escalating the risk of damaging the project’s reputation and even reducing the interest generated in its eventual release.

For players, a longer preview may reveal significant portions of a title’s storyline or gameplay and potentially spoil the surprise that comes with starting a new game. There’s a danger that players may feel they’ve already experienced too much and lose interest in purchasing the full version once it becomes available. Extended demos can also set unrealistic expectations about a game’s length and content, leading to disappointment and negative reviews upon release.

An example of this is Eggnut’s noir point-and-click Backbone. The free prologue published in April 2019 received ‘overwhelmingly positive’ reviews on Steam and confirmed my satisfaction in backing the Kickstarter campaign the previous year. However, the experience was quite different when the full game was released in June 2021. The following content failed to match the same level of narrative quality and puzzle design, and several mechanics noted in the campaign were missing. The game fell short of the expectations set and led to disappointed players and mixed reviews.

My main problem with longer previews is player fatigue. With limited free time to devote to gaming nowadays, it seems pointless spending it on repeating content I’ve already covered during a two-hour demo. This feeling hit me several times during LudoNarraCon and I ended several games early because they felt as though they were dragging on. It’s important for developers to strike a balance between offering extensive previews and respecting the time and attention span of their audience.

Technology has moved us away from short experiences on floppy disks to bigger demos covering a game’s first chapter. As it continues to advance, it will be interesting to see how previews evolve in the coming years. Perhaps we’ll see more frequent releases throughout a game’s development cycle and have the opportunity to experience a title as it changes over time. And with the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), maybe there’ll be personalised previews tailored to a players’ preferences and gameplay style.

A perfect personalised experience for me would be nothing longer than 20 minutes. I really don’t want to spend several hours completing a demo, even if it’s enjoyable, knowing I’ll have to experience the same content again when the full release is available. It’s far more satisfying to get a captivating glimpse of something special and then come away with eager anticipation for a project. A shorter but meaningful taste of a game’s potential holds far greater impact.

My favourite demo from this year’s LudoNarraCon was that for Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical by Summerfall Studios. Its brief duration and varied content certainly helped form my positive impression. Clocking in at under 20 minutes, it provided enough insight into the full game while leaving me wanting more. Highlighting two different sections rather than the first chapter alone allowed me to see how the story and gameplay evolved while not revealing any spoilers.

How do you feel about video game demos? Do you play them and, if so, do you prefer longer or shorter experiences?

7 thoughts on “Video game demos: how long can we go on?

  1. I tend to struggle to make time for demos just because the list of full games I’ve got in my library and haven’t gotten around to tends to rival them! I agree that demos that are too long do put me off because I’ll usually have to replay it when the full game is released. You’re right that the sweet spot is probably around that 20 minute mark!

    • I struggle to focus on a demo for longer than half an hour nowadays, because I’m either worrying about having to replay that content or seeing too much of the game. They’re definitely still useful for those releases where I’m unsure whether to make a purchase. But if it’s something by a developer I’m keen on, it’s nice to keep the surprise for the full game!

  2. Demoes definitely have their place, and I’ve most often used them on Switch. Just feels easier to pick up and play a demo for 20 minutes or so on handheld.

    Recently the Sea of Stars demo was most effective for me. I was interested after seeing footage in a Direct, but the demo completely sold me!

    • Oh yeah, demos still have their place. There are certain games I’ve really enjoyed playing but wouldn’t have considered if a demo hadn’t persuaded me. Although I wasn’t sure at all about the premise of Stray Gods, within five minutes of trying it during LudoNarraCon it was on my wishlist!

      I’ll look forward to your Sea of Stars review in a few months then. 😉

  3. I wish more games had demos especially since the average new non-indie title is now $60+ and I’d like to know what I’m getting before I commit to that amount of money, but I agree with finding that perfect length. Harvestella, Square Enix’s Final Fantasy/FarmVille game pulled that off brilliantly. It only gave you 15 in game days to play and after that you were done. It was enough to give you a taste of all the mechanics and I wound up pre-ordering it as soon as I was finished. They did something similar with Octopath Traveler, and I believe with both the demo progress transferred over, which is a big motivator so you’re not replaying what you’ve already done.

    • I’m really surprised that more games don’t have demos, particularly those showcased during digital events like the Steam Next Fest. It always feels strange when you visit the page and there’s nothing to see besides the trailer (which you could watch at any time). I guess it’s not so bad if there’s a stream of the developer playing the game, but I’d much rather give it a quick try myself.

      • Right?? I’m guessing demos aren’t easy and/or cheap to make so I can get why indie devs might not have them, but the bigger ones? It’s also the complexity of wanting people to get an idea of your game but not spoiling too much? I don’t think I know enough about the industry to be able to say, so I can only give the “end user” opinion because it would make me more than likely to buy more games if I could try them out first.

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