Was Bundling The Best Way To Distribute Demos?

Free Demos

In the past few weeks a couple of high-profile demos have appeared for DOOM and the remake of System Shock. This is understandably getting some people nostalgic about game demos and contemplating their almost total disappearance from the big publisher scene.

I believe I’ve gone over the business reasons why demos are a lot less common these days. If I haven’t, just watch this video basically explaining that there are few situations where a demo is actually a net positive for sales. I still don’t 100 percent agree with that but it makes a good excuse for publishers.

Kotaku’s Patrick Klepek recently put up an article decrying how rare demos have become these days and in response someone tweeted a June 16th article about what’s happening to demos. The one from a couple weeks ago brings up a point I’d like to talk about: demo discs, or the old way of distributing demos, which when you think about it may have been more effective at advertising some games.

In the article, Ryan Hamann states the belief that “the demo disc is the sole reason why many of the hits from the PlayStation, PlayStation 2, and Xbox gained traction. Demo discs were a curated collection of demos for upcoming games.” This reminded me of how much I used to play demo discs when I had little else to play. “Not having a lot of disposable income in the 90s, I treasured each demo disc that came in the mail. It was just as exciting as getting a new game. I would pore over every little bit of included content, playing each demo dozens of times,” Hamann writes. In my own personal experience I first discovered Ico because my cousin didn’t have any money to buy a new PS2 game so he just got a cheap demo disc instead. We initially had no idea what it was but eventually spent all night trying to figure out the puzzles in that demo.

Compare that with how demos are distributed today. “Since game demos were freely downloadable from the console marketplaces, the choice of whether or not to download and play a demo was entirely on the shoulders of the player,” Hamann writes. “Previously, demo discs came packed full of content that I never would have engaged with on name alone.” Basically, the advantage of demo discs was that they were not only curated by game or magazine publishers with credibility among customers, but bundled with things the customers already wanted to buy. On PSN or Steam, every demo stands alone. Then you have demos that were bundled with full games, sometimes to sell the game being demoed, sometimes to sell a lesser-known full game. The most famous example of the latter of course is the original Zone of the Enders which came with the Metal Gear Solid 2 demo. I guess publishers still do that with betas being bundled with lesser-known games (Crackdown and the Halo 3 beta), but those don’t mean anything for people who don’t care much for multiplayer.

For a little while now I’ve been wondering if some digital equivalent to demo discs could ever emerge. The main purpose would be bundling otherwise unknown demos with known properties people already want, or at least just curating them and pushing them further into the spotlight. The demos involved in this would almost certainly be mostly for indie games. Most demos you see these days are for indies, and USGamer’s article on the new System Shock demo begins to explain why. The developers making them don’t have the same credibility that a big publisher might, so they need to put out something playable to prove they’re capable of making functional games. It doesn’t seem all that complicated to simply have some people from a game publisher or publication to do some kind of editor’s choice of indie game demos, but somehow I see itch.io being the group most likely to ever try something like this. What if the new EA Originals initiative started piggybacking indies on top of its bigger games?

Discoverability is still one of the biggest problems facing indie games in general. A lot of people have been trying to figure out how storefronts can do it, but what if publishers and other big companies really are the answer. Devolver Digital has already stated to prove this.

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