As the Switch eShop library continues to grow, so too will the number of demos available. And hey, the demos are great!
This convenient try-before-you-buy way has got us hooked on many games we might never have picked up, and with a number of demos offering the chance to carry your data over from the trial version to the full version, playing through previews looks more and more intentional in instead of ‘ugh, I’m going to have to play this whole thing again in the full version, aren’t I?’
The range of demos now on offer had us rubbing our chins in pondering (yes, that’s a real word) over what really makes a good demo. Play is one thing, sure, but what about content? How much of the game should we see and how much should we keep secret? And what about resources? Should everything be available to us with a robust vertical slice, or should there be a much richer experience hidden behind the paywall?
If you’ve ever wondered the same about a demo, or perhaps you’re a game developer looking to release your own demo and are reading this for inspiration, allow us to give you our personal thoughts on what goes into making a good game. ‘un (and let us know your own thoughts in the polls at the bottom of the page). Let’s start with the obvious…
Transferable saved data, please
Thanks in large part to the excellent demos released by Square Enix (the Octopath Travelers and Live A Lives of the world), we now live in constant hope that our demo save data will carry over into the main game, should we decide to buy it. For any demo that’s about an hour or so long, this is quickly becoming a must-have feature to get us tapping download in the first place.
No matter how good your game is, how much fun that opening hour might have been, and how quickly we rush to the ‘buy’ section of the eShop after finishing it, nobody wants to immediately replay that opening hour, especially considering how tutorial heavy they usually are. Time is precious and we want to feel like the last 60 minutes meant something. This is impossible if instead of seeing the corpse of the EMMI we have just managed to kill in the Metroid Dread demo, instead we’re thrown back to the opening scene of Samus approaching the ZDR as if the life-or-death struggle we somehow survived never happened.
And that’s not to cast a shadow over Dread (as if we could); many, many demos are guilty of the same crime. While it’s not quite as annoying with the shorter tests, surely we can all agree that loading your save data can only be a good thing?
But how long?
Now, this is interesting, because there’s no set answer. A brilliant demo is a brilliant demo almost regardless of how long it lasts. If the game is captivating enough to hook us in 10 or 15 minutes, why should the demo be any longer? But if the game is about spending time with a mechanic until you really break him at the two/three hour mark, then surely that’s the length of time it should last.
Ultimately, the demo needs to stay until the job is done. What is this ‘job’ exactly? Well, to get us to buy the game, of course. But this isn’t simply a case of just showing us the best bits before popping up with a “give us £60 to find out more” message, oh no. Instead, the demo is intended to showcase the experience, teaching us some fundamental controls, providing a small sense of accomplishment when we do something right and then saying “cash please” when we think we’ve got the hang of it.
But the time it takes varies from case to case. The full 15 minutes of the Sonic Frontiers demo barely makes it past the “Press A to jump” message before kicking you off, whereas all ten hours of the Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age – Definitive Edition demo are about build your understanding of game mechanics so you can move to the full version as quickly as possible.
Perhaps instead of asking “What is the correct duration for a demo?” we should ask “How long should a good demo last?” Not all tests need to have a timer constantly ticking behind the curtain when objective-based tasters are so rewarding – you take as much time as you need, but it’s over when you pass a certain milestone.
We see this regularly in anything from Dragon Quest Treasures to Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, and it’s a cool way to let the player get through the opening chapters in 30 minutes if they want to, or sit back and explore every nook and cranny. and nook in a matter of hours. Didn’t we all collect all the coins in a demo level and feel smug at the idea that we somehow cheated the system by getting more out of a single level test than the developers intended? Get that multi-million dollar studio!
Featuring the best #content
This brings us to the final aspect of a good demo: the actual ‘content’. We’ve already clarified that we want a decent amount of time to play, so the tutorial and first few levels seem to be a good length. But that doesn’t mean we need to see all. It’s even possible that a non-linear approach works better. it’s the beginning ever the best place to start? It depends on the game, of course. But perhaps a Stage 2 miniboss battle could give curious players a better flavor of the experience without bogging down a non-captive audience with early-game exposure.
Like a good movie trailer, a demo should show just enough to make you think “yeah, that’s for me”, but not so much that you’ll give up coming back for more because you can already see where you’re going. Are we talking about censoring the game in its demo phase to make the full experience even richer? Perhaps! Sea Of Stars does just that with how much it really tells about the story and it works really well.
Of course, there’s also the incentive of unlockables to keep us coming back for more – “play the demo to unlock X in the full game!” This is a good way to get around the demo length issue as it makes the experience worthwhile as you’ve added something to the full game that might otherwise not be there. We’ve seen this in Pikmin 3 Deluxe’s ”Ultra Spicy” difficulty mode and even Kirby and the Forgotten Land’s Present Codes, among others, and it never fails to make us feel a sense of accomplishment for having done nothing more than play through a demo. . Come on, who can say no to even more free stuff?
The fact is, putting together a demo is a difficult balancing act. Too short and you don’t have enough time to hook the player, but too long and the same player can overshoot and feel like the game is over before it even starts.
The one thing we need more than ever, though, is precious saved data. If you’re still reading, dear game developers, please don’t make us replay the demo content. Above all, even with a free download, it is essential to respect the player’s time.
Unless your game is so good that we’d like to play the first hour again. But how many games are what good, huh?
So what do you think? Is longer playtime the way forward, or should demos keep it short and sweet? Or maybe the bigger question is, do you care about demos? Fill out the following surveys to give us your opinion..
Why not use the comments to tell us about some of your best demo experiences (we’ve even made a handy guide to some inspiration below).