Pssst. I don't know if you've noticed, but game demos: they're kinda back? No no, don't say it out loud, or they might go away again. Let's just enjoy them while they're here.
The realization hit me over the weekend as I was playing an excellent demo for the upcoming System Shock remake: I sure am playing a lot of demos these days, and they're often very good. The games themselves aren't always winners, but the value of demos has never felt higher. That System Shock demo gives players full rein on the entire Medical floor of the Citadel Station, easily 60 to 90 minutes of game if you stop and smell the roses. And I did, across three playthroughs, in fact.
Just a few days earlier, I was knee-deep in Outriders' meaty 22GB demo. I played through the entire opening of the game, chose a class, played a few missions, explored the open area, and promptly had my fill. The game wasn't great, but I was impressed to learn that those planning to pick up Outriders when it releases will be able to transfer their progress into the full game. Players get to completely sidestep the annoying norm of replaying the early bits you've already seen so you can get on with the rest of it. If that's not a perfect use for a demo, I don't know what is.
I'm also a total sucker for the 'surprise demo' that drops at the same time as the game's announcement. That's exactly how FPS throwbacks Ultrakill and Gloomwood got me to finally start using my wishlist after 11 years on Steam. Did you know that with a single click you're notified whenever the stuff you want goes on sale? It's pretty neat! Both demos clocked in under an hour, but they ruled so hard that I couldn't stop thinking about them and now they're two of my most anticipated games. I can feel myself falling under the same spell with System Shock. I'm suddenly obsessed with the remake of a game I've never played before, all thanks to a well-constructed demo.
Timing can also affect my curiosity. A free demo that drops a few days or a week before the final release is nice. Playing a game six months or a year before it's out is thrilling. Not only is it handy for developers to get early feedback that they can react to, but getting in early on something really good is like joining an exclusive club. "Oh, Gloomwood? Yeah, it is pretty great, I played it all the way back in 2020."
What brought demos back?
Our best guess? Algorithms.
Gloomwood's developers would probably be very happy to learn that I wishlisted after playing the demo, because wishlisting is pure gold for an unreleased game on Steam. Not only do developers count on wishlists to gauge interest in their game before release and predict how much it'll sell in its first few weeks, but Valve's recommendation engine loves games with a ton of wishlists. What's safer to recommend than a game that thousands have already endorsed? As GamesIndustry.biz Academy writer Marie Dealessandri points out, wishlists can help games get featured on the front page of Steam if Valve so deems it worthy. Increasingly, developers are using demos in a similar way.
A recent trend that may be fueling the demo's return, as industry expert Simon Carless pointed out last year, is the "demo" that's technically classified as its own game on Steam (you might've noticed this with Resident Evil 3 Remake last year). Why? Traditionally tagged demos don't get the same prominence on Steam, so a faux-demo is a free second shot at promotion. Steam has also made a habit of holding limited-time festivals to showcase upcoming games with a broad selection of demos. February's Steam Games Festival produced a demo for Loop Hero, an RPG we love that has since taken off on the platform in its full release.
Strictly speaking, demos never went away, they just fell out of fashion. New ones still crop up every week for smaller indie games, but only recently have they returned in a big way for higher-profile releases (outside of multiplayer betas). The jury's still out on why demos lost popularity in the last decade. It could have to do with the extra development time required to develop a new build just for a demo. The rise of Early Access surely had an impact. We don't consider them in the same way, but sometimes an Early Access game begins small enough that it's effectively a demo that comes with your preorder.
Another theory is that people stopped playing demos because they found faster ways to gauge interest, like watching a YouTuber play a game instead. I did this a lot around 2011. For a long time, a ten-minute Let's Play had a larger impact on my purchasing decisions than actual hands-on time with games. Influencers continue to have a major impact on what games catch fire, though I'd argue that as YouTube culture evolved to favor heavily-edited montages of "funny moments" over straight-up presentations, the value of a Let's Play as demo replacement diminished. Regardless of the marketing motivations driving our little demo resurgence, it's definitely a good thing for the average player.
Demos are an invaluable perk of playing games (especially on the PC). Be they downloads or the physical discs that we used to package with our magazine, the ability to try out games for free is a tiny miracle that no other visual medium can match. I can't watch the first 15 minutes of a movie unedited or taste test everything on the menu at Red Lobster (they threw me out for insisting I could). We have '90s shareware like the original Doom demos to thank for establishing the free vertical slice. I don't want to take that for granted anymore. I'm making it a habit in 2021 to check in on Steam's demo catalog, and not just for the big stuff. Worst case scenario, I know what not to buy.