Dying Light Indicates The State Of Demos Today

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So a demo just came out for Dying Light and I think that’s kind of a big deal given the current landscape of demos. It’s also the one game I had recently wished had a demo. The way Techland and Warner Bros. handled this, and the way other companies do demos, is indicating a change in how and why companies release them.

Last year I noted how demos had become very rare for big-budget console games in this new PS4 and Xbox One era. Today not much has changed. It wouldn’t be absurd to say in that capacity pre-release demos are dying. When you look at the landscape of who does and doesn’t do demos anymore it’s probably more accurate to say not all developers need them anymore, or need them for the same reasons.

If you look at the business side it becomes apparent that demos are rarely a profitable investment for blockbuster games. They probably don’t draw in as many customers as the million-dollar marketing campaigns do, and might even draw away customers initially attracted by the marketing who didn’t like the demo (or game). I think you could say demos are for people not already swayed by marketing. If true, it might make more sense for a developer to do the demo six months after the game launches and sells millions of copies. At that point the most committed customers have already given their money. The profits have been made. If a developer can devote time post-launch to developing DLC, maybe it can devote some of that time to slicing out a piece of the already-complete game to try to reel in a few extra customers. This is actually exactly my personal situation with Dying Light.

Every time I looked at screenshots of Dying Light I saw the most generic blockbuster open-world game imaginable. The map with icons everywhere, the skill unlock system, the crafting, and the zombies all failed to communicate to me anything different from the new Tomb RaiderFar Cry 3, or really most of Ubisoft’s recent games. I couldn’t understand why multiple people whose opinions I trusted were so positive on the game, and then I started hearing comparisons to S.T.A.K.E.R. I don’t spend $60 on hunches like that though and I don’t have a PS4 on which to rent the game. I needed a demo.

The demo only let’s you play for an hour, but from that hour, y’know what, it kind of does feel like Techland tried to do a more American-looking Call of Pripyat for console players and then threw in some Mirror’s Edge. I’m still not hyped to play yet another game with skill trees, crafting components, zombies, and even a lock picking system shamelessly ripped from Elder Scrolls, but there’s something here I can understand people getting into.

Compared to S.T.A.K.E.R. or to PC survival and exploration games Dying Light has a much faster pace focusing on more physical console-style action. The consistently urban landscape keeps all the rooms, items, and enemies packed together for you to constantly run through. The sense of verticality granted by jumping and mantling onto roofs everywhere is the most immediately obvious unique “hook” here. Avoiding zombies and reaching places feels more three-dimensional and even adds a bit of strategy, as getting into or out of some places intact feels like a puzzle.

Someone told me Dying Light feels slightly less “polished” than the likes of a Ubisoft game that spends millions of dollars on perfect animations and cinematics to cover up shallow gameplay, and they might be right. It’s definitely not janky to the extent of S.T.A.K.E.R., but when I engage with certain elements like non-player characters, I notice theyact like Video Game Characters and not perfectly choreographed movies within the games. It’s as if Dying Light looks polished enough for the mass market but is still just janky enough to feel more down to Earth. It feels slightly less ashamed to be a video game than your usual fourth quarter blockbuster.

I think a post-release demo is at least better than nothing, especially for people like me who care less and less these days about playing games on day one. Developers and publishers outside the big western blockbuster space largely still do demos though.

The most obvious examples are indie games. I’d say they’re actually doing demos a lot more now than before. Half the time a kickstarter or Steam Greenlight campaign emerges it includes an alpha demo everybody can download two years before the game is done. I think this is because indies can’t afford huge marketing campaigns and their unorthodox gameplay pitches need playable proofs of concept.

The other big example though is I still see a lot of demos of Japanese games. Like I said last year they even seem to be rolled into the marketing campaigns for big releases like Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, as if the demo is an event in itself. If you look at the press releases and other marketing material for these demos, it feels as if they target people already hyped for the game more than those unsure about it. It’s like Japanese demos aren’t really samples for people who want to try out new food, but more like appetizers for people who already paid for the main course… except they’re still free most of the time. The ultimate manifestations of this approach have been Final Fantasy XV: Episode Duscae and Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, the former packaged with another game (Square has done this since the PS1) and the latter priced all by itself.

What we see here is a split in how different sectors of the game industry release public playable demos. I can only hope the big publishers see benefits in the practice of releasing post-launch demos.

BULLETS:

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