Have you played the Rayman Origins demo? Blimey, it’s good. I’ve played through the demo about five or six times now, and I can’t get over just how much fun it is. It takes the framework of New Super Mario Bros. Wii and applies it brilliantly to the formula laid out by the original Rayman back in 1995. It’s beautiful to look at, too: lush, living 2D worlds that are stunningly animated. Lava bubbles, winds blow, and creatures live. As a gamer and an animation fan, it’s easy to feel a little giddy about it.
I’d read next to nothing about the game before playing the demo. I knew it was in development, and I’d seen Ubisoft promoting it at this year’s E3, but beyond that I hadn’t really been able to muster up the enthusiasm to really look into how development of the game was progressing. The excitement and anticipation I feel for this game has been generated almost entirely by the game’s demo, and that’s a rare experience.
Most developers these days consider demos to be something of an after-thought, if they even bother to think of them at all. One of the major drawbacks of the demo is that the play is generally limited to the first few levels. As these beginning levels tend to feature mostly tedious, tutorial gameplay or plot-driving narrative, the player finds themselves spending ten minutes learning to play a game they’ll only be playing for, at best, another five before they’re presented with a video reel of how brilliant the final product is, and a listing all of the reasons why they should buy it.
(As an aside, why do developers continue to use ‘beautiful HD graphics’ as a selling point? It’s 2011. It’d be like Warner Bros. promoting Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice as being ‘in color.’)
Making the potential customer play the beginning of the game, only to have them eventually replay it at purchase potentially saps enjoyment out of the experience. Certainly it diminishes the sense of accomplishment, not just in having to do something you’ve already done all over again, but in having purchased something; paying $60 for a product only to find you have to do the exact same thing you did in the, admittedly, significantly slimmer version you got for free can be disheartening.
Surely a great demo, even a good demo, should give the player a taste of what is to come by dropping them into a later section of the game. The demo for the superb and underrated PS3 rough-’em-up Heavenly Sword did this, giving players the opportunity to play a section from about an hour or so into the game.
Some developers have even gone so far as to produce levels exclusively for demos. Lemmings developer DMA Design—better known today as GTA developer Rockstar North—made a tradition out of this in the 90s, producing annual Lemmings demos from ‘91 to ‘94 consisting of four Christmas-themed levels. Empire’s 2004 racing game Mashed, released in the US as Drive to Survive, released a demo in the UK that contained three additional courses and actually served as an expansion pack for the full product.
These days game demos are an afterthought, with many demos coming out weeks, sometimes months after the game has actually launched. We’re still waiting on a demo for Batman: Arkham City, while the demo for its predecessor dropped weeks before the game’s release. Demos for Call of Duty games tend to drop some months after the game hits shelves, usually when Activision realizes that everyone who was going to buy the game probably has.
Many games don’t get demos at all, leaving the consumer to rely on carefully-edited trailers, hand-picked screenshots that may or may not be pre-rendered, and the PR efforts of whichever game journalist you’ve decided is the least untrustworthy. This may be why the demo has gone the way of the dodo. The internet has made it easier to disseminate trailers, so why go through the effort of making a demo so that consumers can make a decision based on their own gameplay experience?
It’s a fairly easy line of reasoning for a studio to follow, especially when making a demo is a time and money expense that, in their eyes and the eyes of their publishers, would be better put towards making the final game. That being said, taking the time to give gamers a taste of what’s to come can make all the difference.
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