I used to be a hoarder of demo discs. When I was a bit shorter and lot less grey than I am now, I snatched up any magazine offering some slices of impending games—hardly a cheap habit, but cheaper than the full thing—and played them to exhaustion. I would have slept on them if the cases had been comfy enough.
These demos were how I kept my enthusiasm up during those long, dry spells between birthdays and Christmases where I could only dream about new games. Now I have too many games, which I could never have imagined, but there’s still something tantalising about demos, especially collections of them.
Demo discs are long gone, and for a time it looked like demos had been supplanted by betas and early access phases. They’re everywhere again, however, and there are even groups of devs trying to capture the magic of the old discs with oddities like Haunted PS1 Demo Disc, a digital anthology of horror games.
With developers unable to use E3, Gamescom and other events to show people what they’ve been working on, more and more have been using demos as an alternative. No queues, no (or at least fewer) awkward presentations, you don’t have to go to a convention centre—clearly we should do this every year. But only if Steam chills the hell out.
900 demos. When the Steam Summer Game Festival started, the astronomical number seemed impressive rather than ridiculous, but as the final days of the event approached, my enthusiasm plummeted. A lifetime of demos, a week to play them in, and Steam’s typical lackadaisical approach to curation was a perfect recipe for stress.
Even without the time limit, dumping that many demos onto the store at once seems like a good way for countless games to get lost in all the noise. That’s the same size as my actual Steam library, which is only that full because I have a weird job. While Steam’s made some strides in how it presents games and makes them easier to discover, it wasn’t remotely up to the task of helping me parse the deluge of new demos.
The deadline then turned it into work. I tried to figure out how many I could play a day. I created but—and I really want to emphasise this—did not fill out a spreadsheet. I had a couple of days off, which I planned to fill with demos. And then I played maybe five? As I looked for more the names all started to blur together, so I hit up Twitter to browse for recommendations, of which there were many, and then I went for a lie down.
Yeah, the sheer number of demos was overwhelming, but the limited-time nature of the event was a great idea. I had a sense of urgency to actually play these demos immediately instead of deciding to get to them “later,” which would probably really mean “never.”‘ So I wound up playing quite a few! Nuts, Solasta, Starmancer, and several more. Knowing they wouldn’t be around for long gave them priority over everything else I’m playing. With no time limit, I’m sure they’d still be sitting in my library untouched. —Chris Livingston
Having an endlessly deep bag from which to pluck demos from sounds fantastic, but I’d much rather savour a handful than gorge myself or spend hours rummaging through them to find something. It’s a chore, and an impossible one. In the end, I did manage to savour just a few, and maybe you can argue that means it worked out, but there’s a long list of things I regret not taking for a spin now that I can’t, and a lot of demos that didn’t get a chance to make an impression.
It just seems like an iffy deal for the devs and a poor way for people to find cool new games. It replicates some of the problems with the store itself, and weirdly E3, too. There’s no convention space to rent, no trips to book, no physical logistics to worry about—so why try to cram the festival into such a short space of time? Summer isn’t nearly over yet.
When E3 is cancelled next year because we all realise we’re better off without it, I hope we get plenty of Steam demos again, but it would just be nice if there was some structure to it. A batch a week? Themes? There are loads of ways to shine the spotlight on different kinds of games. Anything’s better than just tipping them out of the bag.