I Miss Demo Culture

A few days ago, the always controversial (but never boring) Jim Sterling discussed developer Arkane Studios’ approach to its demo distribution of their game Prey. The latest Jimquisition episode examines the ludicrous practice of not offering a demo version of the game for PC users, as they can obtain a full refund from Steam anyway if they’ve played the game for less than two hours. While that situation itself is worthy of an entire discussion, Jim covers it about as well as one can, so I don’t have any interest in putting the studio under further scrutiny. The video did make me realise just how non-existent the culture of playing video game demos is in this day and age though. It’s not that demos have ceased to exist altogether (although offering demos for games has become a rarity as time’s gone on), but the entire quadrant of gamers whose playing experiences were shaped by them has disappeared completely.

The featured image for today’s post illustrates my point perfectly in regards to demo culture. In 2001, Zone of the Enders was released and became the sixth best-selling video game in North America for the month of March. Such a high chart position for a brand new intellectual property that wasn’t particularly aimed at a Western audience is an impressive feat. However, the game’s success came with a rather large caveat, a caveat so large that there were people who bought the game and never even played it. I’m of course talking about the fact that Zone of the Enders was packaged with the demo disc for Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, one of the most hotly anticipated video games of all-time. Three years removed from Hideo Kojima’s stealth action masterpiece Metal Gear Solid, the sequel had an ungodly amount of hype surrounding it. So much so that people were paying full price for a game they had no intention of playing, all so they could have access to the first level of MGS2.

Casting my mind back to those early 2000s days of gaming and I’m filled with a sense of nostalgia. I know that it’s all too common to criticise the current state of the video game industry in favour of championing classics from our childhoods, but I feel like this organic and natural level of hype is more subdued nowadays. Now that we’re all older, with our own jobs and personal income, the magical veneer of video games has worn off for us. I bought Mass Effect: Andromeda not because of excitement, but because it was the new thing that was out and I wanted to be distracted for a while. When I think back to being younger, it starts to resonate with me just how much of a part demos played in my life. I didn’t have much money growing up, so my gaming growth was a little stunted as it’s such an expensive hobby. I was always one generation behind, I was making do with my PS1 when everyone else was revelling in the digital playground of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas on its successor. By the time I got a PS2, everyone had yet again moved on to the seventh generation. Hell, I didn’t get my first current gen console until last year.

This lack of funds I feel humbled me as a gamer, relishing what I did have and learning to be grateful. This is why demos were so integral. My parents couldn’t afford the hottest new game out, so I’d have to use my imagination. Every month, a new demo disc would be released, containing a library of samples for upcoming games that contained so much content that I could make it last as long as the real thing. Even though I would only be playing a snippet of something, to me it was my training ground. Even though I knew that each session would be cut short once I reached a certain point, I would replay the same sections over and over until they were burned into my brain. Through constant repetition, I was playing the game in a sense. While I wasn’t making any story progression, I was mastering the mechanics and understanding the level design of each title. Now, the vast majority of these games were never played in full and I’ve long forgotten what most of them were, but every once in a while, I’d get to have my very own copy of one of those delicious samplings.

Playing the full version of a game that I’d already devoured in short form felt almost like using cheat codes. Like I’d been spying on another team’s training sessions so I knew exactly what they’d do before the big game. The element of stress in learning how to play a new video game had disappeared as I breezed through each level, every mechanic and AI attack pattern committed to muscle memory. The further I progressed, the easier it became as my arsenal was only bolstered via character and weapon upgrades if it was a game with such systems. All those hours spent slaying the Hydra in the God of War demo almost made me feel like a god, only I was omnipotent to the extent of murdering bundles of pixels as opposed to running the universe.

In a way, I’m glad that I can cherish these memories with such fondness. There’s a romance to it all, I was part of a generation that engaged with video games on an entirely different level. I can talk to friends in my age range about picking up the latest magazine and what demo disc was attached to it, as if we’re Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson reminiscing about when everything was shot on 35mm film. It’s an era that I truly miss in video games, and one that is sadly not likely to return anytime soon. However, I’ll always be able say that I experienced it; and if you love something, sometimes you have to let it go.

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