Video games have come a long way since the flickering arcade displays of Computer Space and its kin, and there’s been no better indicator of the industry’s progression than the demos released alongside the games themselves. At the start of the eighth generation of home consoles, it may be time for developers to say goodbye to the demo, but not without something new ready and waiting to take its place.
In the golden age of the arcade, and even in the dwindling arcades of today, non-interactive demos displayed constantly on unoccupied cabinets to present a game’s visual flavour to a prospective player. Since then the use of demos has fluctuated, but as physical media plummeted in price – the compact disks of the PlayStation era were particularly popular – demos flourished becoming a key part of video game marketing.
Now, as video game distribution undergoes its biggest change since consoles firsts made their way into homes, the demo subsists as if on life support, with a handful of developers contributing the odd release on one of the many digital marketplaces. But as the concept of the video game demo falls away from the gamer hive-mind, the open beta flourishes, with a constant flow of participants to match their increasingly regular releases.
For those of you who assume that to play a game you have to wait until after its release, a beta test is similar to a demo in a number of ways. Like a demo, a beta test gives vigilant players the opportunity to try a game before they buy it, but with a far greater emphasis on before than any demo. Unlike most trial versions of games, a beta test is made available – and subsequently withdrawn from availability – some months prior to a game’s release.
The deal, in theory, is that beta testers are given access to a limited and unfinished version of a game under the strict qualification that the game they’re playing is a work in progress. In exchange, the developers are able to iron out any bugs and glitches and, most importantly, any issues with multiplayer servers which require large numbers of players, all online at once, to be accurately tested (as an increasing number of high profile developers are finding out to their chagrin).
Dylan Cuthbert of Q-Games is taking the process one step further by announcing a public alpha test, in the hope of getting his game – PS4 exclusive The Tomorrow Children – in hands of players as early as possible, but his reasoning is the same. When discussing the common misconception that his E3 trailer was prerendered, he told Edge Magazine that the upcoming alpha is “…mainly to test our systems and give people a taste.” As an interactive medium, there’s only so much you can exhibit in a noninteractive trailer.
But Smoothing rough corners and empowering players is only part of a developer’s reasoning for allowing early access to the game. As with almost every creative industry, marketing is a constant bottom line, and in video game marketing, hype is nine tenths of the law.
The best PRs are only too well aware that whether a game is any good or not is of little importance when compared to a strong lead up: If, through a series of interviews, strictly controlled previews, and some immaculately produced advertising, a company can raise the excitement surrounding a game to fever pitch, the battle for chart places is often already won. High expectations translate into sales just as often as high review scores, and if you don’t believe me, just ask the nice guys over at Gearbox how they managed to sell 1.31 million copies of 2013 coasterware Aliens: Colonial Marines.
In this regard, a good beta test strikes while the iron is hottest, giving a game a final shot of exposure in the arm before its release. Usually made available just a few months before a game hits shelves, it can effectively create an unavoidable wall of publicity, creating news, contributing to previews, and giving players some first-hand experience to discuss.
Word of mouth aside, searching for the B-word on any of your favourite gaming news sites results in a slew of recognisable results. Dates for their approaching availability, first impressions, and record participation numbers; betas provide no shortage of potentially newsworthy content for a video game news outlet and all within a very short time frame. A beta, unlike a demo, gives marketing and PR companies the opportunity for a united front of promotion, within spitting distance of their game’s release, and the timing couldn’t be more perfect.
The first day, week and month of video game sales are crucial to big game companies, and not only because these numbers are so easy to pitch to a boardroom. At the middle and end of a product’s life cycle, first hand game sales are likely to be cannibalised by second hand trade which, to the horror of developers everywhere, results in no direct revenue for them. The effect of pre-owned sales are often debated, but it’s fair to say that video games are affected by second-hand far more than any other medium, and that a fair few publishers would sleep a little easier without it.
A game demo, on the other hand, has no potential for pre-release hype. In most recent cases, demos have hit online stores many months after a game’s release, at a time when potential buyers already have a full range of objective(ish) criticism to read, gameplay trailers to watch and recommendations from friends and family. What’s more, outlets for pre-owned games like Ebay or Gamestop – Game in the UK – would stand to gain just as much from the exposure of a good demo than the publishers themselves. A worrying thought.
Taking one more step into the depths of developer paranoia, companies like Capcom seem to be under the impression that a Demo could detract from game sales directly, by serving as an alternative to buying the game.
When the demo for Dead Rising 3 was released, three weeks after it was first placed on store shelves, the 20 minute demo was limited to just two playthroughs per Xbox One. Presumably, this was to stop gamers playing the truncated experience repeatedly and never actually buying the game, although how often this scenario occurs is highly questionable. If players are able to get their fill of a game from such a short outing, that says more about your game than its demo, but that doesn’t stop this kind of thinking entering into publisher’s decision making.
With a well thought out beta, this isn’t a problem. A developer (or publisher), has complete control over how long a pre-release game is available – a timeframe usually measured in days, not weeks – and users expect their access to the game to be abruptly cut off at some point. But rather than minimising the number of participants, the limited nature of a beta makes it all the more exciting, as, at the end of a public beta, players won’t get a chance to play the game again until after release.
Participation is so enticing in fact, that Microsoft, among others, have added value to products by including access to an upcoming games’ beta with one of their less desirable titles. The recent inclusion of the Halo 5: Guardians Multiplayer beta with copies of the Halo: Master Chief Collection was predated by Halo 3: ODST and the Halo: Reach multiplayer beta (although ODST remains one of my favourites of the franchise).
Whether companies should use unfinished software as an added incentive to buy is another matter. Placing a monetary value on beta access may lead to harsh criticism if it ends up being unsatisfactory, but there’s no doubt that it’s effective as a selling tool when used sparingly.
Fortunately, most beta participants are fairly accepting of a game in its early form, rationalising that most, if not all of a game’s bugs will be fixed before the game’s release. From the developers point of view, it’s an excellent position to be in, with an audience that will remember a game’s positives, while forgiving anything the game gets wrong.
In reality, seasoned beta participants are a little more cynical than this, usually coming to the conclusion that the finished product won’t differ too greatly from the pre-release version, but it may still be a consideration when making a purchasing decision.
For the gaming public, informed beta participation is all a question of perception. There’s an innate danger to seeing early access to game as a special privilege, and making purchasing decisions based on admittance to the exclusive club of testers can be problematic, for both player and publisher. Moreover, if there’s a beta for a game you can’t wait to play, it may be worth holding on until the final, polished, potentially perfect product is released to make sure you get the full, undiluted experience you so desire.
Whether you have a deep-seated love for demos or are happy jumping in and out of Betas to get a taste of a game before purchase, it’s likely that the Demo’s glory days are behind it. It may be that the dearth of demos leads to less informed game purchasing decisions, and the subtle hand of the marketing men is unlikely to leave the shoulder of beta tests any time soon. But, either way, it looks like your trial period has ended.