Who remembers demo discs? There used to be an era when releasing a demo for an upcoming game was standard industry practice, giving players a small chunk to play for free to let them know whether they wanted to purchase the full game later down the line. Whilst you'll regularly find demos for smaller indie titles, the number of freely available demos for new triple-A blockbusters has fallen, and the concept has become so foreign that most large publishers don’t even bother with demos anymore.
There are outliers that still choose to release a demo or a short trial, but nowadays they’re used either to promote a certain platform or as an incentive to sign up for some kind of subscription service. Resident Evil Village is a prime example, a game that has had multiple demos over the past few months, all of which have been in some way tied to PS5 exclusivity. Similarly, Immortals: Fenyx Rising had a short demo that was temporarily exclusive to Google Stadia, and EA allows for free trials of certain games as long as you’re signed up to EA Play.
However, there’s one publisher out there that would benefit more than most in releasing a demo or two for its games: Sony. Despite being fairly unpopular amongst fans, Sony has increased the price of its first-party games to counter the vast amount of money that the publisher spends making them. Titles like Ratchet and Clank: A Rift Apart and Returnal have seen a 17% increase in price in America and a 40% increase in the U.K.
Whilst it’s not just Sony that has started increasing prices, the publisher was the first to announce it would be doing so, starting a chain reaction across the industry. Even though I don’t mind paying more for Sony titles personally, it’s a little odd that Sony would be the one to pioneer such a movement, seeing as though it stands to benefit the least. Sony is one of a handful of publishers that likes to release an experimental title every now and then, with the upcoming release of Returnal and 2019's Death Stranding being just two recent examples. Creating a new IP is risky and requires more resources and investment to be successful, something which PlayStation CEO Jim Ryan claimed last year.
By increasing the prices of most of its first-party titles, Sony risks stopping its new IP from flourishing. For most people, $70/£70 is a lot of money to gamble on a game hopefully being good, and many will stick to established franchises they’re familiar with rather than buy an expensive game they’ve never heard of before. For example, more people will be willing to buy the next installment in the Ratchet and Clank franchise than Housemarque’s new IP Returnal. However, that’s where demos come in.
By offering potential customers a slice of gameplay or story, they’re more confident in a full purchase. If someone doesn’t like what they’ve played, it saves potential heartbreak and hours on the phone trying to get a refund. You could argue that most demos give an unrealistic view of a game as the developers will try and make a demo as entertaining as possible, but demos still give the customer a much better picture of what a game’s like than a review, YouTube video, or the vast amount of pre-release trailers that can also give someone a warped idea of what a game is like. Killzone 2 and Watch Dogs are prime examples of how marketing can be incredibly misleading.
Hands-on experience is an invaluable source of information as to whether you should buy a game or not. Reviews are important as well, but potential customers will have to go through the process of finding a reviewer who has similar preferences, and even then, they might still get burned because not everyone has the same taste in games. A customer can use a review in tandem with a demo to get a true picture of the game they’re interested in buying.
And it’s not like there aren’t any tried, tested, or massively popular ways in which Sony could possibly release demos for its first-party properties. Square Enix is one of the very few publishers out there that uses demos as not only a way for players to see if they like a game, but gives players an incentive to play the demo as well. The recently released Outriders had a demo available more than a month before the game's launch and allowed players to carry over their progress into the full game. Similarly, Balan Wonderworld also had a demo, and whilst the game was critically panned upon release, the demo did its job and gave those that wanted to cancel potential pre-orders ample time to do so.
Even story-driven games that can’t give players a gameplay loop to play through have also managed to release what are essentially demos. Episodic games like Life is Strange 2 and most of Telltale’s older titles give players the first episode for free to see if they enjoy the story before buying the full game. Not only that, but the developers of these games also have the benefit of using cliffhangers to entice people.
Even Sony’s biggest competitor Microsoft has a system in place that allows its users to try a game before committing to a full purchase. Xbox Game Pass is often praised for its ridiculous value for money, and that’s true, but it often gets overlooked as a way for Xbox users to try out a game before buying it. I know a few people who prefer to buy physical copies of games, but also have a Game Pass subscription to see if a game is worthy of taking up a place on their shelf. Nine times out of 10 it’s a resounding no, but Microsoft gives players that option in a way that is still incredibly beneficial to both the customer and the company.
Sony hiking up the prices of its games whilst simultaneously having no way to see if you like it beforehand feels like a disaster waiting to happen. Couple that with an abysmal review policy that only offers people a refund in the most extreme of circumstances, and Sony risks punishing its customers for supporting its more experimental titles. By utilizing demos, Sony has more of a leg to stand on when it starts charging more for its games.