Creating a good game demo is a fine art, and an important one. This, for many players, is the first point of contact with a game, and it’s crucial for developers and publishers to try and impress their potential audience. A demo is essentially our medium’s equivalent of a movie trailer – though game-makers rarely spoil the best bits of their work or condense the entire plot of their game into three minutes. They can be a significant outlet for generating interest in a game: a generous, well-crafted and timely demo can have a big impact, helping provide that all-important word-of-mouth factor that can often translate into healthy sales.
Of course, the flipside is that a poorly-conceived demo can have precisely the opposite effect. And the buzz following Capcom’s Asura’s Wrath trial could hardly have been any worse. A demo consisting of two levels featuring simplistic fight sequences liberally punctuated with cutscenes and quick-time events led many to wonder whether they were indeed playing a game or just experiencing a barely-interactive anime. As explained in IGN’s subsequent review, it’s actually a bit of both, but it’s also something weirder and more wonderful than that two-stage trial suggested. Either way, it’s fair to say that whoever at Capcom gave that demo the go-ahead almost certainly got a stern dressing-down.
It’s hardly the first demo to leave a sour taste. Back in 2006, Atari released two demos of Test Drive Unlimited in an attempt to show off just how enticingly different its open-world racer was, but with bugs galore and graphical inconsistencies it mostly ended up driving potential consumers away. With Dead Space, meanwhile, EA unwisely focused on its unique combat systems at the expense of the full game’s carefully-cultivated atmosphere, resulting in a demo that was schlocky and action-heavy compared with the nerve-shredding horror of the real thing. Sega’s Yakuza 4 demo also concentrated on combat, which did at least help to show off the increased fluidity of its brawls, and the different approaches of its four protagonists. Then again, it entirely ignored the idiosyncratic minigames and RPG elements that are key elements of the series’ unique personality.
The other side of the coin are the demos that leave you feeling warm and fuzzy when they come to an end but which invariably lead to disappointment when the final game arrives. Perhaps the best example of this is John Woo’s Stranglehold, a brilliant demo which showcased the game’s stylish slo-mo shooting in the best possible light. Unfortunately, rather than encapsulating the game in microcosm, it simply presented one of its highlights, and the finished game simply felt like the same idea reheated and repeated over its eight-hour campaign. Or how about Dead Rising? A terrific demo of a great game, it was nevertheless misleading in the sense that it entirely ignored the structural limitations of the full product, leading many to complain that the game was not what was advertised.
Then there’s the issue of giving away too much. The response to Bioshock’s demo was overwhelmingly positive, but by the same token, it spoiled one of the game’s greatest moments in the initial reveal of Rapture. For The Darkness II, Digital Extremes provided a taster that hops forward and backward through the game’s narrative, an appetite-whetter that may well leave an unusual aftertaste for confused players who will experience a very different opening in the full game. Many gamers were wondering whether they should play Mass Effect 3’s demo on the off-chance that the real thing is compromised by sampling the limited-availability teaser.
The trouble with demos is that making them can be a time-consuming process, often demanded at a time when many are already working unreasonable hours during a game’s crunch period. And as blanket marketing and the steady drip-feed of trailers and reveals take over as the PR tool of choice there’s perhaps little wonder that the industry seems to have lost the art. There are exceptions, of course – the generous and well-crafted taster for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning may well have played a part in it hitting the top spot in the charts on its release.
But as with any other form of marketing – which, let’s face it, is a demo’s primary purpose – it’s easy to be misled, whether intentionally or otherwise. While few demos will hoodwink gamers into buying a bad game, they can be every bit as deceptive as the hype campaigns that accompany them. And in the case of Asura’s Wrath, it may have unintentionally – but potentially permanently – dissuaded some from investing in the finished product.
We’re all encouraged not to judge a book by its cover, so surely the same argument applies for a game and its demo, right? Not always. Just ask Capcom.