Finding Value in Free Demos - tonyadpx Blog -
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Finding Value in Free Demos

I grew up extremely poor, to the point where if I wanted to be a gamer I needed friends to get the games I wanted to play. When a new system came out, that Christmas it became the gift for not one, or even two, but all three boys within my household, and generally the only game we got were the ones released with the system. Of course, the practice of including games with systems has since disappeared over the years (short of promotional packs), which is essentially how I discovered demos. You see, I got the Playstation way back in '97 and the only thing that came with the system was a demo disc. 

I did not allow this to discourage me. Instead, this would start my love affair with the medium known as demos. Over the years I would learn to use demos as a way to save me more money and while I eventually ascended from the lowest poverty level and games became easily accessible for me, I still enjoy demos as a way to remind me of my roots.

This blog isn't about any of that though. In fact, who cares about my childhood, upbringing, and so on. It's not like it's a rare story. No, this blog is about finding value in free demos, definitions of the types of demos, and what to look out for in each demo that could tell you of a game's credibility.

For years, when demos came out, they were generally the very beginning of a game and it often ended after the first major plot development. Nowadays, demos can be at any point in a game with scenarios that will never be found within the actual release title. Other games, like sports titles or fighting games, give you one game mode for you to try out. To me, the demos that have always offered the most value were the ones that started at the beginning of the game. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning recently released it's demo, and it follows the "From the Beginning" idea. The pros of this type are that it gives you exactly what the final product gives you. It allows you to decide immediately if you can like a title like this, and adds a kind of cliffhanger effect by making you want to experience more of what the game has to offer. The cons of this type of demo is that it's limited and you don't get to truly experience all of the game's features. Using Amalur as an example, you only get to experience five of the nine types of weapons, and the game itself pushes battle. Sometimes, that extra hook is needed, even it means not representing what the game is actually going to be.

The other type of demo, which I like to call the "In Media Res," just plops you into a moment in the game that usually offers tons of excitement and best represents what the game can be. The demo for Asura's Wrath did this. You're placed into two action-packed scenarios that fully express what to expect from the game. The pros of this is that it gives you the best and instantly catches interest. Often, you get weapons, items, or power-ups that you won't get at that actual point in the game. This allows you to experience a little more of the game just in case that extra push is needed. The cons of this is that it's actually false representation. You're getting something that you're not going to get in the finished product. I remember playing the God of War 3 demo way back when it was released with the God of War Collection, and it popped me right into an intense building hopping section of the game with weapons and powers you don't actually get until much, much later in the game. While I knew I was buying God of War 3, I found the demo a bit jarring. It seemed as if they were just making the demo over-the-top, on a franchise that it's fans already understand, and it's new fans needed to discover. They didn't actually need to give the extras as at that moment in the game, tons of actual game material would have been provided, including different weapons and spells. However, this may be good for Asura's Wrath, which is not a franchise but a solitary release....

Recently, however, the Mass Effect 3 demo released and it followed both of these types of demos. It gave a scenario [I believe to be] from the beginning of the game, a kind of tutorial of sorts, and then thrust you into the action at a point later in the game. This, I felt, was very intelligent. For one, I had never played any Mass Effect titles previously, so having the tutorial was nice, but to actually experience the gameplay uninterrupted gave me a chance to get a better feel of what the final product was going to be. Not only that, but it gave playstyle options (action, RPG, story) and a full options menu. It actually made me not only want to buy Mass Effect 3, but to go back and experience the first two games.

Then, of course, you have those demos that give you one tiny aspect of the game. This way you don't form any final impressions. This can be good too. Fighting games have been using this formula for years. You get two characters to choose from, and the one you don't choose you fight against. After that, you may do this again as often as you like. While you can eventually master the demo, there is no chance to master the game because you're just not given enough. And if you can play multiple matches from the demo, then chances are you may like what the final product can be.

Or not....

One extreme example, while not actually free or considered a demo, was Gran Taurismo 5: Prologue. It gave you only the arcade version of the game, not the simulation that many play Gran Taurismo for. Many don't actually even play the arcade mode at all when they buy Gran Taurismo games, as it doesn't represent what Gran Taurismo is. And to make matters worse, they charged people for this. Many fell for it, and as the actual game continued to be delayed year after year, bitterness at being duped into buying what was essentially a demo only grew.

Granted, everyone has their preferences, but the value of demos is that preferences can be ignored due to the fact that demos are free. PSN and XBox Live are invaluable resources for discovering games through their demos. I enjoy the "From the Beginning" most, as it offers the most realistic example of actual gameplay. But using "In Media Res" type of demo allows a developer to sell their title by giving what is a movie trailer of sorts; the most exciting moments jammed into a very short experience. Each offer their own benefits, and each have a couple drawbacks. For the most part, however, demos are positives even if they represent a bad game, or are flawed themselves. A demo can save you money, or give a chance to find the next greatest title.