Friday, May 27, 2011

OPINION: The Demo Filter

Having read this great article on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I started thinking about my relationship with video/computer games in general and demos in particular. It was only recently that I started getting into demos, and only then because I was gaming-funds poor and did not have access to free video games like I did as a kid.

See, my teenage life as a gamer was one that most teens would kill for: free games in the mail, free hardware (even esoterics like the 3DO and Jaguar), attending E3. It was good (still is!) to be the son of an electronic game journalism pioneer. Around 1999, my dad got out of the biz and the gravy train came mostly to a halt. When I moved out, I took my dad's neglected GameCube with me, and contented myself with (free-to-me copies of) Burnout, Need for Speed: Underground, SSX3, and Metroid Prime.

Then I got married to a non-gamer. My gaming dropped sharply at this point, relegated to times when my wife was working and I wasn't. Then we had a kid. Then another. Then we got a Wii (as a gift, even. I'm such a cheapskate. Thanks, mom and dad!). With my money and time even more occupied elsewhere, the Wii didn't get much use, although my oldest son started Wii bowling right around age 3 (he's 5 now). When I had a gaming itch, I tended to fire up The Ur-Quan Masters or Transport Tycoon Deluxe (both free) for a few minutes, nothing more. Then Nintendo restarted their Wii demo program in November of last year, and I played Fluidity.
The Fluidity demo (no longer available, what's your problem, Nintendo?) has to be the best demo I've ever played. It captures the game's spirit perfectly, doesn't take too long, and when it comes to an end, you want more. The Fluidity demo (and SpaceChem, too) were really the genesis of this blog, and since then, I've developed a sort of philosophy about video games. I call it "The Demo Filter". Bascially, if it ain't starting out free to me (a gift, play at a friends' house, or demo), I won't play it. Examples: I play my dad's copy of Gran Turismo 5 on my dad's PS3. I got Portal 2 as a birthday gift. I played Fluidity and SpaceChem as demos before rewarding their creators with my hard earned money. If all you got is a trailer, I'm not interested.

For large-budget, highly-hyped games, a trailer and many professional reviews may do, but for indie developers in particular, I feel that demos are very important. Alec Meer at Rock, Paper, Shotgun writes,
Many indies know better, or at least know that because they lack the option of brute-force, high-spend marketing they have to use other means of letting people know what their game is like. Take a look at demo-hub GamersHell and there are so, so few game demos listed there – and of those that are, the vast majority are indie. Yet still so many indies resist – even most of the mails we get from indie devs simply contain a link to a trailer, with the lack of anything playable both complicating what we can usefully say about the game and the possibility of it capturing the affections of our readers. Frozen Synapse is out today, for instance. It’s ace, you should try it and see if you like it as much as I do. Oh, you can’t. Watch a trailer, I guess.
I've heard good things about Frozen Synapse, but I won't play it until there's a demo. Most games cost more than a music album or movie ticket, and I can listen to audio snippets on Amazon and get my money refunded at the theater before the 30-minute mark of a show. Why should games be any different, especially when there's more money and time involved?
I use demos as a filter: if the developer has put some effort into a demo, I'm likely to put some effort into their game. When a developer releases a demo, it proves a few things to me: 1) the developer is being honest about its game, 2) the developer feels confident about its game, and 3) the developer is cognizant of the fact that many of its potential customers don't have dough to drop on or before release day. I like to reward developers that exhibit these traits, and I'm sad when I can't because I know that there is so much blood, sweat, and tears that go into many of these games and that peeps need to get paid.

Demos becoming somewhat passé is something that should worry all gamers. Quoth Alec Meer once more:
Adverts and trailers don’t tell you the truth, but so often they’re all we get to go on until embargoes lift and launch-day reviews land. In a very fundamental way, such marketing lies about the experience you’re going to have. The camera angles are rarely those you’ll see yourself, while the checkpoints and the chokepoints and the guy named CockLord12 and all the minor irritations (and indeed minor, personal pleasures) you’d experience bear no mention. It sells an idealised version of the game experience, and one that leans far too closely to the movie model – nothing at all to do with the act of playing a videogame. I couldn’t buy a game based on promotion alone, and to be honest I probably couldn’t buy it on reviews alone – I need to try it myself, see whether it lights up those strange pathways in my brain that entail not just passing enjoyment but complete fixation upon the experience at hand. I need a demo.
Amen, Alec. I'm right there with you on this one. I know one place where it is pretty easy to find a demo: Apple's App Store. PSN and Xbox Live Marketplace are pretty good, too. I wish Wii Ware was so endowed, and I feel terrible for great games like Fluidity that are trapped there out of necessity. Still, we could use more demos, especially for big-budget games.

So what can we as gamers do to help get more demos out there? We can download the ones that exist, to start. Then we can buy the full games that we like. We can take "The Demo Filter" to an extreme and refuse to buy games that don't have demos, however painful this might be (Portal 2, I'm looking at you, although I guess the Portal demo might suffice). I'm not necessarily recommending this, but it's an option. Also, if we ever decide to become developers, let's make sure to include demos with our games.

What's your relationship with demos? Do you use "The Demo Filter"? Ever played a demo so good it grabbed you by the collar and forced you to buy a game at your earliest inconvenience? Those are my favorite. Sound off in the comments!

--Demo Gamer

PS - Rock, Paper, Shotgun is probably my favorite gaming news and opinion site. You should read it often, as I do :D

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