Please, bring back the video game demo

Do demos and public beta tests help or hinder game sales?

Resident Evil 7‘s playable demo, Beginning Hour, was a triumph when it was released in 2016.

Up until that point, Resident Evil 7 hadn’t even been on my radar. I’d been a diehard fan of the series since the very first game – its intricate map design and full-motion video sequences had blown my mind – but I’d bounced hard off the sixth instalment, mentally checking out once the franchise swapped its survival horror roots for bulging biceps and flamethrowers.

Resident Evil Village
Resident Evil Village. Credit: Capcom

Yet shuffling about in the Dulvey mansion, it was clear that RE7 was a deliberate repositioning of the series. While we now know that it still embraces the elaborate set pieces and bombastic boss fights so synonymous with the series, Beginning Hour instead placed an emphasis on careful exploration and puzzles. And though it didn’t skimp on carefully scripted jumpscares, RE7‘s environmental storytelling and corner-of-the-eyes tricks signalled a welcomed change in direction.

While it had obviously taken some lessons from Konami‘s outrageously successful PT demo, not all of its good ideas were cherry-picked from other games. Beginning Hour showed a refined maturity and a willingness to strip back RE‘s typically action-heavy trimmings back to the bone.

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that as we count down the days to the next Resident Evil instalment, Village, Capcom has dropped not one but three playable teasers. It’s been a slightly different approach this time around: originally they were time-limited, which meant players could only play within two very limited windows of opportunity. But that first in-game glimpse of Lady D had us chomping at the bit for more, once again proving that the right demo for the right game can make an astonishing impact on pre-orders and storefront wishlists.

Without Beginning Hour, I would never have played Resident Evil 7. The same can be said for the playable Destiny beta test way back in July 2014. They both worked in very different ways: Resident Evil‘s demo was a standalone experience, while the Destiny one showcased a vertical slice of the game and a full strike that we’d later play (again and again and again) in the final product. Yet they each demonstrated the power of letting players try before they buy.

People Can Fly‘s Outriders did the same, pleasantly surprising a number of players who up until their time with the playable demo had been firmly on the fence. You see, on paper, it just didn’t look like anything special – oh joy, another bog-standard shooter – but when you play it, you realise the combat is freakin’ sublime. Ensuring that everyone who participated in the demo could port their progress over into the full game was a genius move, too.

In my younger days, demos came taped to the front of gaming magazines. My love of Silent Hill grew from a disc popped into every PAL copy of Metal Gear Solid that I only managed to load up one evening when I was bored and broke and had nothing else to do. It may feel a tad hyperbolic to say that that demo changed my life but… well, it really did.

Sadly, it feels as though demos have fallen out of favour, particularly when it comes to bigger games. The opportunity to sample a title ahead of its release have now been given to YouTubers and influencers. And I get it: YouTubers and influencers reach millions, and it’s much easier to control a narrative if you control who has access to it. However, there’s a lot to be said for getting hands-on yourself instead of digesting someone else’s heavily edited and highly sanitised experience.

Because, let’s face it – gaming’s an expensive habit, and backing the wrong one can be a costly mistake. We already have some game makers breaking from the pack and justifying a next-gen price hike, but while it’s one thing to lose a tenner on a shit film or crap novel, it’s another to drop £70 on a game that you later discover you either can’t or won’t play. Beyond a handful of very, very select examples, most of the time you can’t even get your money back.

The problem’s been further compounded in the last year or so because of the pandemic. In the absence of consumer events like EGX, there is simply no other way for gamers to try before they buy. All we have to go on is cinematic trailers – teasers that might not even feature in-game gameplay – and the word of hashtag-sponsored-hashtag-ad influencers.

Yes, demos soak up a lot of time and money for studios. Yes, releasing a demo may risk turning some fans away. But at least developers that let gamers try before they buy are empowering them to make an informed decision. After all, what would you prefer: a potential lost sale, or an unhappy customer shrieking into the social media void for all to hear?

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