What is a demo? Who are demos made for? What should a demo show? We have been creating and distributing game demos since the age of the floppy disk, and yet we rarely take the time to deconstruct the concept of “demo.”
That’s likely because we think of “demos” as self-explanatory. It’s right there in the name! “Demo” is short for demonstration, thus a demo is a demonstration of a final product. But there are lots of different types of demonstrations, and that’s where things get complicated.
Demo as Advertisement
The most basic form of demonstration is the advertisement. In the classic demo days, demo software would take users through a specific portion of their representative game. This allowed users to get a small taste of the game and, hopefully, compelled them to buy the final product.
A certain level of curation was expected in these advertisements. Many showed you chapters from the middle of the game and unlocked nearly all of your character’s abilities. The idea was to show the user a distillation of the final experience. If you looked at the tasks the user performed in the demo, it would be functionally identical to the tasks they would perform at any other random point in the game. A good example of these in the modern era would be the recent demos of Sonic Mania. The stages players were taken through were, essentially, finalized portions of the game.
However, the advertised demo has become rarer and rarer as our technology has become more and more sophisticated. Instead, our demos have shifted to show off technology. Tech demos frequently run the user through scenarios that won’t even exist in the final product. Instead, they are meant to show off a game’s systems or engine. As an example, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s tech demo brought Link through areas of the map that would be vastly altered in the final game. The U.I. would eventually be changed, environmental textures would be completely revamped, and enemy placement would be shifted around. However, it was enough to give us a feel of the open-world gameplay Breath of the Wild had to offer.
Then we have the beta, which has also taken the place of the advertised curated demo experience. Betas (and in some circumstances alphas) showcase a game that isn’t yet complete. While many now serve to hype up their fanbase, their original purpose was to get feedback in order to make the final game play better. The gameplay of a beta is taken with a grain of salt. A few major flaws are permissible, provided that they are patched out of the final version. Final Fantasy XV’s demos are a good example of betas.
That leads us to the topic at hand: Mass Effect: Andromeda. EA and Origin Access members got their very own demo of the latest Mass Effect game. It was a 10-hour trial of, basically, everything (up to a cut-off point on the game’s first proper planet). It was a fantastic idea on paper. EA would give users the purest form of demo there is, the game’s opening hours without any changes or removed content.
The issue turned out to be that this 10-hour trial did not actually perform the duties of any of the demo types we talked about earlier.
How Not To Demo
Let’s examine the trial’s intent. Obviously it was supposed to be a sample of the game, much like an advertised demo. Unfortunately, the trial was not curated. In fact, that is one of EA’s big advertising points for trials like this: no one is holding your hand, you can just experience the game whatever way you like.
Unfortunately, the first 10 hours of Mass Effect Andromeda are not representative of the final product, especially when you’re unable to progress the story past a certain point. Andromeda is a massive game which can easily take over 40 hours to complete. The game is a slow burn, building up to major gameplay changes and plot revelations over time. The portions of the game that the trial put front and center were the creepy doll-like character creator and the dull tutorial levels. By the time the core “game” began the trial would run out, leaving players to regard the experience as shallow.
The trial wasn’t advertised as a beta, but for all intents and purposes the game wasn’t complete. The game has seen a number of patches in the weeks since its launch which have cleared up graphical issues and bugs. The trial game experience was not representative of the final product, but players entered into the demo experience expecting it to be. Once again, this caused a backlash when there didn’t necessarily have to be one.
Finally, the trial also failed because many of the best gameplay elements and systems couldn’t be reached inside the 10-hour limit. Trial players never even got a chance to see the more advanced systems of Mass Effect: Andromeda in action. Anyone expecting an authentic demonstration of the full game would come to feel that the first ten hours ware all the game had to give, when several of the game’s core mechanics aren’t even revealed to the player in the first ten hours.
You might be thinking, “Well that’s the point… right?” Show the player a limited amount of gameplay and force them to buy the final game in order to see the rest. But the problem with that is that it doesn’t feel like an authentic demonstration. It feels more like an extortion or an exploitation. How are players supposed to know if the rest of the game will live up to their expectations? There’s no way they can. They just have to purchase the final product on blind faith, which is exactly what demos are supposed to help consumers to avoid!
The Demo That Should Have Been
Andromeda’s 10-hour trial was a failure of marketing for several reasons, the least of which being it failed to demonstrate the game. Granted, EA never used the term “demo” in their marketing materials, but any trial of a game is going to feel like a demo to the gaming community at large. Demos are what we grew up with and demos are what we expect. Alphas, betas, prototype builds, test builds, QA builds, they all just register in our cultural consciousness as “demo.” You aren’t going to change that cultural consciousness overnight, and when your trial doesn’t fit comfortably into our definition of demo we are likely going to receive the final game negatively.
To make a trial like this work you need to give the user a taste of the final game before letting them begin the game proper. For an example, look at the recently released Persona 5. It is an extremely slow burn, slower even than Mass Effect: Andromeda. It’s not uncommon for players to pass the first five hours of the game without encountering a single combat. If you packaged this first five hours as a demo, the response would be phenomenally negative. Users would call the game boring and tedious, and not inclined to believe you when you say, “Well, just wait until it gets good, then you’ll be impressed!”
Atlus knew this, and decided to revamp the way the game started when they gave Japanese fans a chance to try out a demo. Before Persona 5 begins, players are treated to an excerpt of the dungeon from the end game. It drops you right into a dungeon, loads you up with cool powers, and tells you to go for it before taking you into the game proper. So during the five-hour slow burn of the game’s intro, you know what to expect. You know what game systems await you on the other side.
That’s exactly what Mass Effect Andromeda should have done, and there was a perfect opportunity for it that was completely passed up. During the last confrontation of the tutorial area, Ryder’s father becomes the star of the show, loading up combat profiles and pulling out powers that no one else had seen before. Unfortunately, this entire confrontation has you looking down corridors to the left and right of a single defense point, which means you never actually get to see your dad use these cool powers.
Now imagine if the game allowed you to play as the father instead of your custom Ryder for these short sections of the game. You could have been taught all the same tutorials you were normally taught, except you would have the wealth of the game’s major systems to play around with. Not only that, but playing as the father would cause you to get attached to him, which would make the following scene where (SPOLIERS) he sacrifices himself for Ryder have more of an emotional impact. At that point, the game will have given users the taste of the final product they actually desired. Even though the systems would be scaled back for the rest of the intro, users would be better incentivized to purchase the final product.
To make a successful demo, you have to think about what your demo is intended to do, who it is for, and what reaction your demo will elicit. With a little forethought, early impressions of Mass Effect: Andromeda could have been far more positive than they eventually were.