The Rise of the Stand-Alone Demo

Demos that tell their own story capture our imaginations better than almost anything else.

In 2010, Crytek CEO and Founder Cevat Yerli created a small stir in an interview with Develop, where he suggested that there would be fewer free gameplay demos in the future, due to their development being “prohibitively expensive.” Yerli, in the same article, also championed EA’s controversial proposal to release playable DLC that precedes a game’s release—a pay-for-play demo—which had been met with such public outcry that the publisher quickly put the idea to rest.

While he was criticized for these views at the time, Yerli’s prophetic vision appears to have come true. Gameplay demos have grown somewhat less common, largely replaced by marketing campaigns and gameplay betas. We’ve also seen a demo-like prequel experience in Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes monetizing the format, with a mixed response from the public. Yet, in the same timeframe Square Enix has started to publish free demos as standalone experiences. Why, in the face of such cost?

Standalone demos are stronger than "game excerpt" betas and demos; they create a novel gameplay experience that teases the final game without spoiling the content. Square Enix’s recent Final Fantasy XV Platinum Demo is a great example of this. Set in the dreams of the game’s protagonist, Noctis, the free-to-download Platinum Demo gives the player an introduction to combat and exploration, but without the party gameplay present in the full game. Noctis is a child for most of the demo, but transforms into an adult for the final battle, making it unclear when the demo takes place. On the whole it feels like a weird cross between a Monster Hunter title and Kingdom Hearts: Noctis’ dream shrinks him to miniature size, a la Kingdom HeartsAlice in Wonderland levels.

It’s a standalone demo, using the dream motif to tell a kind of side-story or prequel to the finished game, with a beginning, middle and end. Platinum obliquely references elements from the main game, like Noctis’ relationship with his father, locations like the cathedral-like skyscraper, The Citadel, and summoned monsters. However, on its own it tells a short story about a boy trying to escape from his nightmares with the aid of a magical creature.

Final Fantasy XV also has a more traditional demo, Episode Duscae, that was packaged with sales of Final Fantasy Type-0 HD. In an interview with Dengeki, Type-0 and Final Fantasy XV director Hajime Tabata said that Episode Duscae was released to show fans the current level of development on the game. Though they didn’t release it seeking feeback, the response from players was later incorporated into an updated version of the demo, fine tuning the gameplay experience, functionally making it similar to a closed beta test.

Traditional Square Enix demos like Episode Duscae are not new to me; some of my favorite memories from the late ‘90s were the hours I spent playing the Xenogears and Final Fantasy VIII demos, over and over, until I got my hands on the finished games. There was a sense of privilege in playing a section of the game early. Later, demos reached such a level of ubiquity that Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games and a major virtual reality evangelist, gave a talk at the D.I.C.E. Summit in 2013 about how demos harmed unit sales. Schell’s slides, based on Xbox 360 sales figures, showed that games that were marketed with a trailer, but without a demo, performed almost twice as well.

Schell’s quick and dirty analysis suggests that withholding the gameplay experience from the player enhances an upcoming game’s desirability. The traditional demo or beta, which drops the player into an existing section of the game, removes the mystery of what it feels like to play that game. Standalone demos are more like film trailer teasers that increase the excitement for the final product, and traditional “game excerpt” demos are more like watching a ten minute clip of an action movie that gives away the best parts before the movie is released. The functional side of betas makes them slightly different, more like watching the action scene while the editing or effects aren’t finalized.

Timed open betas, and closed betas tied to financial incentives, are a popular way to get the public to try a game. As mentioned above, Final Fantasy XV had  Episode Duscae. Another example is the Square Enix-published IO Interactive Hitman beta, which was available in mid-February to those who had pre-ordered the PS4 or PC versions of the game. A beta, even one for prologue or early level narrative content, like Hitman’s, is as much a diagnostic tool for developers as it is for incentivizing purchase of the completed title.

Even though the beta debuted on the doorstep of the first episode’s release, IO Interactive received a host of amateur QA testers who paid for the privilege of doing the job. Creative Director Christian Elverdam told me at a Hitman preview event in March that IO made almost immediate changes to the game’s UI based on player feedback. Amongst other things, they made it more explicit that players could turn off the game’s waypoint system.

Betas are less indicative of final gameplay than a demo, stand-alone or not, but betas also put the player directly inside a chunk of the gameplay being developed for the final title. Standalone demos and betas have opposite goals: betas pull back the curtain on the game’s development, dropping the player into the game before it’s finished. A standalone demo, however, holds itself separate from the final game, and teases the player’s imagination of what it might be like.

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

Considering Cevat Yerli’s assertion that demos are too expensive, standalone demos must be even more costly, since they require so much additional development. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, which Hideo Kojima tweeted was “more like a tutorial” when compared with Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Initially released for $20-$30, Ground Zeroes is costly for a tutorial, but heavy references to its events in The Phantom Pain make it a must-buy if you want to get the whole story.

Square Enix’s standalone demos aren’t necessary to understand the story of their finished games, but they do enhance them by providing character background and insight into the world. Square Enix’s Bravely Default and its sequel, Bravely Second: End Layer have stand-alone demos. They are excellent, lengthy game experiences in their own right, and grant the player bonuses for completion if they transfer their saves over to the finished games.

 There are FAQs and guides that exist just for the Bravely Default demo itself, some of them citing that the bonuses make it worth playing, even though Bravely Default is already available. Though Final Fantasy XV’s Platinum Demo can be completed in less than an hour—much shorter than Bravely Default’s, and Bravely Second’s even longer 10 hour standalone demo—Platinum follows the same script: finishing the demo unlocks the Carbuncle summon in Final Fantasy XV.

Players of these demoes are getting a novel, self-contained experience, and a reward in the final game for completing them. It lets Square Enix avoid giving away too much about the final game, but it also rewards players for their time if they purchase the final game. It’s a smart, if costly strategy, that has paid off for Bravely Default. It might pay off for Final Fantasy XV, when it releases in September.