As the Switch eShop library continues to grow, so too does the number of available demos. And hey, demos are great!
This convenient way to try before you buy has got us hooked on many a game that we may never have otherwise picked up, and with a number of demos offering the chance to carry your data over from the trial into the full version, playing through introductions increasingly feels purposeful instead of ‘ugh, I’m going to have to play all of this again in the full version, aren’t I?’
The range of demos now on offer has got us rubbing our chins in ponderation (yes, it’s a real word) about what makes a really good demo. Playtime is one thing, for sure, but what about the content? How much should we get to see of the game, and how much should be kept a secret? And what about features? Should everything be available to us with a chunky vertical slice, or should there be a much richer experience hiding behind the paywall?
If you’ve ever wondered the same about a demo, or perhaps you are a game developer that is looking to launch a demo of your own and happen to be reading this for inspiration, allow us to give you our personal thoughts on what goes into making a good ‘un (and let us know your own thoughts in the polls at the bottom of the page). We’ll kick it off with the obvious…
Transferable save data, please
Thanks in no small 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 to the main game, should we choose to purchase. For any demos of around an hour or more in length, this is quickly becoming a must-have feature to make us tap download in the first place.
No matter how good your game, how much fun that opening hour might have been, and how quickly we ran to the ‘purchase’ section of the eShop after finishing it, nobody wants to immediately repeat that opening hour, especially given how tutorial-heavy they typically are. Time is precious and we want to feel like the past 60 minutes meant something. This is impossible if instead of seeing the corpse of the E.M.M.I. that we have just managed to kill in the Metroid Dread demo, we are instead thrown back to the opening cutscene of Samus approaching ZDR as if the life-or-death struggle we somehow survived never happened.
And this isn’t to cast shade on Dread (as if we ever could); many, many demos are guilty of the same crime. While it’s not quite as annoying with the shorter trials out there, surely we can all agree that carrying over the save data can only ever be a good thing?
But how long?
Now this is an interesting one, because there is no set answer. A brilliant demo is a brilliant demo almost regardless of its length. If the game is captivating enough to have us hooked within 10 or 15 minutes, then why should the demo be any longer? But if the game is all about spending time with a mechanic until you really crack it at the two/three-hour mark, then surely that’s the length of time it should run for.
Ultimately, the demo needs to stick around until it gets the job 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 charged with the objective of introducing the experience, teaching us some fundamental controls, providing a little sense of accomplishment when we do something right, and then saying “money pleaseee” just as we think we’ve got the hang of it.
But the length of time that this takes people is going to vary on a case-by-case basis. The full 15 minutes of the Sonic Frontiers demo barely gives you time to get past the “Press A to jump” message before kicking you out, while all ten hours of the Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age – Definitive Edition demo is about building your understanding for the game’s mechanics so that you can go into the full version as ready as you’ll ever be.
Perhaps instead of asking “What’s the correct length for a demo?”, we should be asking “How long should a good demo take?” Not all trials need to have a timer constantly ticking away behind the curtain when objective-based tasters are just as fulfilling — you take as long as you need, but it ends once you pass a certain milestone.
We see this regularly in anything from Dragon Quest Treasures to Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, and it is a neat way of letting the player blast through the opening chapters in a swift 30 minutes if they want to, or sit back and explore every nook and cranny over a matter of hours. Haven’t we all collected every coin in a demo level and then felt smug with the idea that we have somehow cheated the system by getting more out of a single-level trial than the developers intended? Take that multi-million dollar studio!
Showcasing the best #content
This leads us nicely onto the final aspect of a good demo: the actual ‘content’. We’ve already cleared up that we want a decent amount of time to play, so the tutorial and first couple of levels seems a good length. But this isn’t to say that we need to see everything. It’s even possible that a non-linear approach might work best. Is the beginning always the best place to start? Depends on the game, of course. But perhaps a miniboss battle from Stage 2 could give curious players a better flavour of the experience without bogging down a non-captive audience with early-game exposition.
Like a good movie trailer, a demo should show you just enough to make you think “yep, this is for me”, but not too much that you are put off going back for more because you can already see where it is going. Are we talking about censoring the game in its demo phase to make the full-length experience all the richer? Maybe! Sea Of Stars does just that with how much it actually tells you about the story and it works remarkably well.
Of course, there is also the incentive of unlockables to make us come back for more — “play through the demo to unlock X in the full game!” This is a nice way of bypassing the issue of demo length as it makes the experience feel worthwhile since you have added something to the full game that otherwise might not be there. We have seen this in Pikmin 3 Deluxe‘s “Ultra Spicy” difficulty mode and even Kirby and the Forgotten Land‘s Present Codes amongst others, and it never fails to make us feel a sense of accomplishment from having done nothing more than play a demo. Come on, who can say no to even more free stuff?
The fact of the matter is, putting a demo together is a tough balancing act. Too short and you don’t have enough time to hook the player in, but too long and that same player might overstep the mark and feel done with the game before it’s even begun.
The one thing that we need more than ever, though, is that precious save data. If you’re still reading, dear game developer, please don’t make us replay the content of the demo. Above all, even with a free download, it’s imperative to respect the player’s time.
Unless your game is just so good that we’d gladly play the first hour again. But how many games are that good, hmm?
So, what do you reckon? Is longer playtime the way to go, or should demos keep it short and sweet? Or perhaps the bigger question is, do you even bother with demos at all? Fill out the following polls to give us your thoughts.
Why not take to the comments to let us know some of your top demo experiences (we’ve even made a handy guide for some inspiration below).