Opinion: Demos are evil

Steve Boxer on the case against demos

Now that the so-called Noughties are over, and we can look back at them (with relief that they've gone), it's clear that the main thing they contributed to human society was relentlessly to assault us with stuff that was crappier than stuff we had in previous decades.

Such as reality TV (cheap to make, and appealing only to morons), poisonous gossip rags, compressed music (sounds even worse than CDs, which themselves sound worse than vinyl), New Labour (neither left-wing nor conspicuously able to distinguish between their arses and their elbows), electric cars (I'm sorry, ecomentalists, but hydrogen fuel is the post-fossil future), Twitter (Facebook Status plus the worst search engine ever) and Al Qaida (even the IRA didn't propose returning humanity to life in the Dark Ages). If videogames hadn't had such a good decade, we'd probably all have killed ourselves.

But even videogames haven't emerged completely unscathed from the Noughties. During the decade, one utterly crap subset of games, in true Noughties fashion, assumed vast importance despite completely lacking merit: the demo.

Working in games journalism has its perks, chief among which is the ability to play games before release, and thereby ignore the very existence of demos. The very most you can hope for from a demo is that it gives a vaguely accurate impression of a small part of any given game, and even if it manages to do that, it will still leave you feeling unsatisfied. Fair enough, if a game is completely broken, there's no way in which a demo will be able to disguise that fact. They can, and often do, make fundamentally flawed games look good - games, say, which swiftly become repetitive, or which suffer from wildly inconsistent level-design or some other intermittent flaw. Like, say, Tomb Raider Underworld, which seemed fine at first, but the longer you played it, the more all-over-the-place the camera became.

Then there are the instances in which demos made perfectly decent games look dreadful. I enjoyed Resident Evil 5 enormously, but it tanked due entirely to an appalling demo. Dead Space at least found success after overcoming a similar handicap. In both cases, Capcom and EA would have done themselves a favour by refusing to put out a demo.

It's easy to envisage the factors that conspire to make demos go bad, chief among which has to be a developer struggling to finish a game in time for its designated release date. If you've still got levels littered with placeholder art and nothing but Japanese voice-acting, and your publisher was hassling you for a demo, you'd get the tea-boy to make one so you could concentrate on the important stuff. We all get annoyed when games suffer release-date-slippage, but when that happens they at least tend to get a sensible polishing period, during which developers can actually put together decent demos. Mind you, that's when those demos can end up making games look better than they actually are.

Legendary developer Jon Hare, now development director at consultancy Nikitova but once one of the main men at Sensible Software, confirms those suspicions: "If you're rushing to finish a game but the control systems or user interface are not fully realised, getting a demo out a month or two before release can be problematic - making a demo does interfere a bit with the production process." Nevertheless, Hare is broadly in favour of demos, "Particularly when the game is quite mature-a sequel perhaps." He recognises their value as a marketing tool, but adds; "The problems comes when games at a demo stage are not tuned properly - a lot of tuning goes on at the end of the development cycle."

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