Last week Alec Meer over at RPS contemplated the demo. Largely, he was interested in examining why, for the PC, the demo seemed to be in a long, drawn-out death phase. Many publishers, if they provide a demo for PCs, take their time about doing so (considering that a large focus is on consoles, I suppose this can be expected when some franchises also get a delayed port). While he concedes that they will likely always be around, for PC gamers, they seem to be coming the exception, not the rule.
I have been mulling it in my head ever since, because the arguments for a demo can be pretty compelling, though I rarely used them myself. As the picture I've selected to accompany illustrates, the only demo I can fondly recall was that for Diablo 1, which allowed me to try the LAN version with my parents. After all, for PC users, it allows you to check to see if the game actually runs on your rig. For any gamer, it gives you a taste of what the game could be like and whether you might enjoy it. The latter point is where it gets tricky though, as the demo could potentially turn off players, or be misrepresentative of the game. This can be due to poor selection of what to highlight, a wholly different team creating the demo, or any number of reasons.
Of course, it can also help with smaller, indie games, especially when done right. For this I would look back to Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale, which showed you the first part of the game, allowed you to then purchase it, and keep the progress you had made.
On the other hand, you have games like Dragon Age 2, which strangely tried to make the entire demo affair into a game itself, offering bonuses that unlock if a certain number of people downloaded the demo through their registered BioWare Network account. It also offered bonuses for just completing the demo. The goal was to get you to play the damn demo, for whatever reason. But the progress one could make wasn't saved, and since it was the intro to the game, albeit without the character creation, it just felt a bit redundant.
Yesterday I received a press email from Ubisoft advertising the somewhat underreported, at least that I have thus far seen, Might & Magic Heroes VI. The gist was offering to allow players who pre-order to participate in the beta. The concept is a bit bizarre to me, but every time I have participated in an alpha or beta, I tend to treat it as such, and do not really see it as a chance to try the game and see if it will be indicative of the experience I will finally have. Perhaps that is my problem though.
With the news of the upcoming Diablo 3 beta, for instance, I contemplate my stance, and wonder if I really want to play it. Part of me wants to see, but the other part does not feel like testing a game and waiting to have a fresh experience unmarred by quite as many bugs. On the other hand, it can be useful to indie developers like Indie Stone and their Project Zomboid (and considering their string of bad luck--no, really--they could use a little help). Taking pre-orders allows them to shore up their cash to finish the project, and giving access to a beta then allows them to give something back to the fans early, as well as helping the final product. Then there's the elephant in the room, whom I expect companies to try emulating soon, Minecraft. A game which still hasn't technically released, and which is enjoying quite a bit of success.
Part of me wonders where this practice started, and my initial reaction is to look in the direction of MMOs, where I can recall participating in my first betas. When Sierra's The Realm went from version 2 to 3.0, my mother and I readily jumped in and tried to break as much of the game as we could, to find loopholes, and to generally enjoy playing around, specifically asked to try and see where we could find errors, and type a quick bug report. While there have been betas around for quite some time, I do wonder if the mass appeal of MMOs helped usher in a desire to try out a beta for the purposes of seeing the game.
For games that rely on people clogging their servers, even just having a large amount of people accessing the game was an effective stress test, and therefore, everyone is contributing, whether they find any particular bugs or not.
As Meer said in his article, demos are likely not going away. They seem to be focusing their attention to consoles. What PC gamers seem to be getting more of is access to alphas and betas in various degrees, seemingly as a gift to people who are loyal. While I don't buy the perception of it as a gift, I don't see anything inherently wrong with a larger group of people doing some QA testing if they so desire--I certainly want less buggy games. As a demo? I'm still not sure I buy that a beta gives me the information I would expect from a demo. Perhaps I am growing old-fashioned in some regards, or perhaps my view of this is all myopic. What are your thoughts?