Developers should do this of their own volition before self-serve refunds make it happen anyway.
Bethesda did a great thing last week by releasing a version of Prey that allows everybody (on consoles, at least) to play through the first hour as a free demo before they decide whether or not to buy the full game. Unlike some other questionable policies at Bethesda, I hope this is one that continues for all future games – and not just from this publisher, but from everybody. Sure, you can watch the first hour or more of a game you’re interested in on YouTube or Twitch, but that’s never as good as playing it yourself.
Offering a truncated version makes a lot of sense. One of the factors that contributed to the demise of the golden age of demos in the 2000s (during which Microsoft even required all Xbox Live Arcade games to have demos) was that developers didn’t want to take time out of development to create a demo version, which would often be a fork of the main game. By simply allowing people to play the first hour of the full game a week ahead of launch, after it’s been through certification, you might eliminate the majority of the need for separate development – and given that many games now allow you to start playing the early levels before they finish downloading the later ones, limited trials could be easier to implement than ever.
There are practical benefits, too. Why, for instance, should we have to download a full game just to play the opening hour? In the case of Prey, the First Hour version requires 13GB compared to 20GB for the full version (according to Steam’s install requirements), which saves 35%. With bandwidth caps becoming a bigger and bigger concern that’s important, especially when games are regularly exceeding 50GB in size. Besides which, Valve, Microsoft, and Sony would certainly prefer to not bear the server load if they don’t have to.
If developers aren’t confident gamers will want to play more than an hour, they have big problems.
That approach should work to many games’ advantage because those opening hours often contain the most polished and flashiest moments of a game. Long ago, developers learned from tracking achievements that a surprising number of players never see the end of most games and began concentrating their efforts where they knew it would be seen by everybody. Granted, the opening hour is often mired in tutorials and some take several hours until you get to the point where you earn the abilities and gear that really sell a game. Really, though, if developers aren’t confident people will want to keep playing after the first hour if they haven’t already irrevocably spent their money, that’s something they should address.
The other commonly trotted out cause of the death of demos is that there’s evidence that allowing gamers to try before they buy can cause significantly decreased sales. That may well be the case because forcing people to buy before they try and then saying “Sorry, no refunds” even if they immediately regret the purchase is a good way to hold onto cash. It’s also a very unfriendly practice for consumers. However, that practice is already effectively dead in the vast majority of PC gaming, and the end may be nigh on consoles.
Two years ago Steam implemented a policy that allows you to return a game after less than two hours of play time within two weeks of purchase, and many gamers are already using that as a demo system (as well as to test to see if a game will run acceptably on their PCs). Recently, Microsoft signaled that it may soon follow suit on the Xbox’s marketplace. If that happens it’s only a matter of time before Sony is forced to do the same with its digital purchases in order to remain competitive. Who knows? Maybe Nintendo would even do the sensible thing and jump on board, too. And in a world where everybody can get a full, no-questions-asked refund for any game after trying it out, it’s in the best interest of developers and platform owners to formalize and streamline the process into an actual demo period instead of making people treat it like an exploit.
Dan Stapleton is IGN’s Reviews Editor. You can follow him on Twitter to hear gaming rants and lots of random Simpsons references.