Back before YouTube and Twitch and always online DRM, developers needed more effective ways of marketing than just relying on word of mouth. This resulted in shareware, demos and demo discs, free slices of playable content that spawned one of the most interesting phases in the gaming.
This feature originally appeared on Kotaku Australia.
The earliest roots of the demo as we know it can be traced right back to the computers of the ’80s and ’90s. An entire industry built itself around the idea of giving people freely distributed packages, to convince users to buy the full product.
Shareware was the name, and it was arguably one of the most inventive forms of distribution for games and software. Remember, we’re talking about a time with no internet, next to no distribution on a small to medium scale that wasn’t a couple of people doing labour labor by hand, and computers not being as popular as they are today. And when it was difficult to share around software without physically handing out floppy disks, it’s no surprise that shareware took off.
Originally invented as a counter to freeware, shareware programs gave users time or content-limited demos, with instructions to order usually provided in the package. If you ever used software in the MS-DOS and Windows 95/98 days, you probably saw splash screens like DOOM’s bright-red call to action.
Fittingly, shareware titles often told users to share the software anywhere they liked. So naturally, many bullet-board systems, file servers and workstations held massive stockpiles of free-to-try programs.
The business model worked especially well for games. Developers would often split games into episodes, with a shareware release containing the first and the rest available for a bit of cash. Used by the smallest of indie devs to recognisable names like iD Software and Epic Megagames, this method took off hard, and came back with many, many profits.
One of my favourite facts about this era is that the shareware episode of Doom was installed on more computers than Microsoft Windows, a feat that no piece of software had managed before, and one nothing will likely accomplish ever again.
In the late ‘80s to early ‘90s, there was a market of European home computers that was winding down. The ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC and others enjoyed massive popularity in their heyday, vastly outstripping the foreign NES and Master System for years.
This computer market was an early pioneer in coverdiscs, but rather than CDs they were distributing cassette tapes instead. Audio cassettes were cheap to produce and distribute in comparison to the expensive floppy disk, and cartridges had an even higher price, making the choice obvious for the budget-conscious manufacturers of the time. And this was at a time when computers were more expensive than some cars.
Covertapes were a special, once in a blue moon event. Sometimes they would have entirely unique games from known developers, titles exclusive to the tape that were never separately released in stores. They’d also feature demos, public domain programs and other amusements like poke programs, which were the same concept and execution as the Game Genie cheating system.
But one day, a ZX Spectrum magazine shipped a full retail game as part of their covertape. Naturally, competitor magazines followed suit. It started an arms race, and before long every magazine covertape would feature several games, with some programs on the side. It actually got so bad that a consumer oversight committee stepped in and told magazines to slow down — developers were concerned at the time people would just buy the covertapes, and not the actual games.
The war was eventually settled in the early ‘90s as the magazines eventually died alongside the systems they covered. Other European microcomputers would graduate from covertapes to floppy disks, like Amiga Format, but these were pretty basic lists of programs at the time.
To put this into a modern perspective, imagine picking up the Official PlayStation Magazine today with a Blu-Ray cover disc that had Horizon: Zero Dawn, Rocket League, the Uncharted collection, Battlefront 2 and some other indie games for a few bucks with no strings attached (such as a PS+ subscription). It was a wild time, and a fascinating stop in the history of demos.
Demos for the early consoles like the Atari 2600 or the NES weren’t possible back in the day thanks to the overwhelming cost of producing cartridges. So most presentations were at major events like the Consumer Electronics Show or places like your local stores. With the invention of the compact disc though – large on space, cheap on storage – developers started coming up with more creative methods of advertising.
The shareware market got a pretty big boost off the back of the CD. Someone had the idea to take a bunch of the previously mentioned shareware from every BBS, FTP and website they could reach, throw it all on a CD, and send it out to a printing press to charge a few bucks for it in a corner shop.
They were largely filled with stuff you’d never use or need, and had plenty of content available elsewhere on the web. But with dial-up internet struggling to match the storage powers of a freshly invented CD-ROM format, for the smallest moment in time, this content had an audience.
They serve as a wonderful time capsule of whence they came, with some of these discs being discovered as treasure troves of previously unknown versions of software. Many people found coverdiscs were the best way to get a good sampling of demos quickly, but they weren’t the only ones.
The traditional “CD on a magazine cover” disc appears to have hit the PC first, with the earliest example I can find being PC Gamer’s monolithic December 1994 issue. The outlet continued to manufacture discs until the final quarter of 2011.
The disc above from April 2001 has several demos, some nice features like wallpapers, patches and even the magazine’s full review database up to that point. It’s a really nice package, and if I was gaming on PC even remotely seriously at the time, this kind of disc would be well appreciated in my computer.
I tried out a few demo discs from the period in a virtual machine and they all followed a similar pattern. They were well made packages, offering enough content to keep you entertained for hours, and at a good asking price to boot. In the age of dial-up, or worse, no internet in country Australia, it would have been a godsend.
There was also that one time in 1996 that someone played a little too much Myst and added a point’n’click adventure as a way to navigate the content on the CD. That was an odd one.
There were other PC based magazines that released discs on their covers in varied formats, including PC Powerplay in Australia. I don’t have the time to dig through all of them, but some fine people at the Internet Archive have built up a pretty sizable collection of cover discs from across the planet, demos included.
While they weren’t first to use CDs, the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn were definitely the first two successful consoles to use CDs. The low cost, high yield production rates helped millions of copies of games find their way into consoles worldwide. And the sheer variety of PlayStation demos on those discs in particular across different regions is especially nutty.
The Sega Saturn didn’t have quite as many demos, but what was there was neatly presented. The “Flash” series was bundled with magazines, but due to the Saturn’s short life, demos didn’t have as much time to thoroughly integrate themselves into the ecosystem. Dedicated wiki SegaRetro has a pretty good listing of demos if you’re curious.
One of the less common kinds of demos out there are the individual discs, ones that only have one demo at a time. A lot of the time, they were included as bonuses alongside certain games; Square Enix took a pretty big step by including several demos alongside their releases, such as Brave Fencer Musashi. Sometimes it was impossible to escape them, like the infamous Pizza Hut demo discs given out in North America.
Official demo discs from PlayStation direct, whether in the US or PAL territories, were far more impressive. Sony made an industry first move in including a demo disc alongside each sold PlayStation, instead of a bundled game. Sony also ran a magazine or two of their own, shipping demo discs on the side in each individual region, coinciding with an era where sales of mags with demo discs shot through the roof.
Here’s what’s really noteworthy though – I’m convinced the developers of the European demos, Powerline, were on some really, really good stuff.
These backgrounds adorn the official European demo discs as part of their Official PlayStation Magazine. You really shouldn’t stare at any one in particular for too long. They’re hypnotic. And that’s just the visuals; the music, too, is something to behold. Jumping into a European demo disc was like seeing the future through a techno lens. Europe was the most numerous when it came to demo discs; this incomplete encyclopedia has an absolute ton of demos listed.
It wasn’t just PlayStation themselves publishing discs. The UK, France, Italy, Spain and Germany all had their own independent publications pushing them out too. I’d like to take the time to talk about one particular demo disc; the PlayStation Zone line of German demos feel almost like a PC Gamer disc from back in the day. Not only did they have a sizable selection of demos and videos, but there were multiple sections filled with screenshots, a tip section, saves to download to your memory card, and even a review database. The only downside is that they’re German, so good luck reading them.
And this was just Europe! The American approach to these discs was much different. Instead of the crazy backgrounds, there were some FMV animations, well produced menus, and an impressive amount of polish. The usual set of content was included – demos, trailers, sometimes saves for your memory card. These demo discs came with the American Official PlayStation Magazine distribution, but the Americans actually got a second set of official, regularly published demos.
Sony ran a second magazine, one produced and published in-house, called PlayStation Underground. While it only lasted for 4 years, between 1997 and 2001, that means it was still around for a pretty significant portion of the lifespan of the PS1, and their demo discs? They were something else entirely; arguably the best content ever produced for … well, anything along the lines of this article.
Released 4 times a year over the span of 4 years, the 16 demos included were actually two CDs, packed to the brim with content: a metric ton of demos, commercials, behind the scenes features, cheats, downloadable saves, interviews, celebrity cameos, contests, and they even went so far as to hide extra content in one issue’s disc, that they would give you a cheat code to unlock in the next issue. The level of production for a simple demo was beyond impressive, even if it is somewhat cliche today.
The series ended 17 issues in, just after the release of the PlayStation 2. If you’re interested, there’s a Giant Bomb page detailing the entirety of the magazine’s run. An odd aside: They also did small, paid demo discs for $US5 that contained the demos from Underground called “Jampacks”, but most people didn’t like the idea of paying for demos at the time. Fair enough!
And I haven’t even talked about Japan yet.
…maybe I shouldn’t.
Kidding. But frankly, I’m not even sure where to start. There’s 5 magazines in Japan that have demo discs that have more than 10 issues. The menus are not only not in English, but have a kind of campy presentation that make them almost impossible to talk about, mainly because you need to see them yourself. Also, the intro to some of these demo discs is terrifying.
The practice of demo discs was more than happy to continue into the future with the 6th console generation. It isn’t anywhere near as overcrowded in the market now, so we can tackle each console individually. The downside is no one console had a massively notable effort like Underground; it’s all well produced, enjoyable, but rather tame demos.
- The Dreamcast is arguably the most vanilla of the 4, with a few series of discs, both pack in and in magazines, with demos and videos. Nothing too out of the ordinary, not even any save downloads, although a free game was given out on one volume of Dream On. Fun note for Australians: when the Dreamcast launched here, the demo disc we were supposed to get with it didn’t get through customs in time. People had to go back and get it later.
- Sony’s official output was more or less the same as the last gen, with Dengeki PlayStation covering the Japanese side of things and Official PlayStation Magazine for the rest of the world. Demos, trailers, behind-the-scenes videos and save downloads were the usual fare.
- Xbox joined in the fight with their own official magazine and demo discs. Microsoft also tried the Jampack idea with the “Exhibition” series of paid discs. Notably, the age of downloadable content started with the original Xbox; some demos would often include things such as extra levels for Splinter Cell, roster updates for sports games and game types for Halo 2. Combine that with music videos and DVD (as in, actual movies ala Napoleon Dynamite) previews and there was certainly a different feel to the Xbox discs.
- The one notable exception was the GameCube. Since the mini-disc format wasn’t as cost-effective to produce as CDs or DVDs, the traditional demo disc sent to the people rarely happened from the Big N themselves, instead sending out proper DVDs with nothing but game trailers. The only proper “demo discs” from Nintendo that were ever released were the Interactive Multi-Game Demo Discs for GameCube kiosks in stores. They often shared the usual set of demos and videos you’d expect. They’re all now preserved and playable through Dolphin without much issue.
It took the 7th console generation before the sands really started to shift. The internet had become ubiquitous enough to be proper features of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 generation, and the demo availability changed to match. Demos weren’t distributed as discs near as frequently (although the magazines kept it up), instead being offered as one-off digital downloads in most circumstances. As a result, more games offered downloadable demos onto their newly integrated hard drives, which was a nice touch for someone looking to do something with their new hardware on Christmas morning.
This shift also affected the DS and the PSP, but it actually happened in a surprisingly cool way for them. The DS had “DS Download Stations” that could download demos to your DS, that you could hang onto until you turned the power off. The handheld also came with a demo for Metroid Prime Hunters. The PSP was a bit different; it could download demos directly to its memory, and a fair few were hosted on the PlayStation Network akin to its big brother.
The really cool thing on both consoles was the ability to share demos to other systems; either single player demos (mostly PSP but one or two DS titles as well) or lightweight multiplayer demos that could be shared across multiple people. Playing Mario Kart DS with 8 friends from a single cart was awesome, especially for cash-strapped kids. (The 3DS continued supporting demo sharing for one more generation, but Nintendo would later remove the feature from the Switch, and the Vita never supported it at all.)
As the generation carried on, things started to look a bit dire for those who wanted to try before they buy. The turning point was a limited time multiplayer beta of Halo 3 in Crackdown on the Xbox 360. It was a “beta”, and absolutely played like a beta, but people bought Crackdown in droves just to get their hands on it.
The longevity of demos were no longer a permanent object you owned; now, they were digitally limited. The 3DS was a notable proponent of this, with every demo having a hard limit to the amount of times you could play. Now that demos are mostly distributed digitally these days, it can often be on a whim of the publisher as to whether or not they remain playable – just ask the people who pay hundreds of dollars for a PS4 with P.T. installed.
Even then, all developers need to do is make a demo reliant on a server and cut that off: after a few days, the demo is gone.
On top of this, actual demos started appearing less and less. It was seemingly proven through things like market research that releasing a demo actually hurt game sales. And that wasn’t the only industry change: the rise of video and streaming sites gave even the most impatient customer a good, long look at any game they might be interested in before buying. With Twitch and YouTube, the logic is sound: why ship a demo when you can hire an influencer, guarantee positive coverage with cash, and convince players to buy the game anyway?
All of these created a kind of miasma where for several years, demos were a dead concept on consoles. We got very little proper hands on time with games before we were able to buy them. And that’s not to mention the rise of a certain set of design mechanics – loot boxes, RPG mechanics in everything, and games as a service that are always online and reliant on first-or-miss-out psychology — all run counter to the concept of demos. If they can’t get you on that treadmill for long enough, they won’t let you play!
Thankfully, one platform that has stood strong against this tide was the PC, especially among independent developers and communities. Demos never truly died on the mouse and keyboard; Steam has picked up thousands of demos over the years, smaller individual groups have released their own bundles of demos like The Haunted Disc, and it’s even gone so far as for Steam to introduce the Steam Game Festival, an event where indie devs put out demos for their upcoming games, bringing hundreds of playable experiences to new players.
Along with the rise in virtual experiences and conventions — which was accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic — demos have started to be produced in volume again. Microsoft hosted their own Game Festival with numerous demos on the Xbox One, games from Ubisoft (Immortals: Fenyx Rising), Square Enix (Bravely Default II) and even Nintendo (Pikmin 3) have been giving generous demos, Devolver Digital stands out amongst the gaming industry’s indie labels with a playable virtual expo, and one segment of the gaming industry in particular has managed to get a good amount out of the concept.
Virtual reality can be an incredibly hard concept to sell; it’s impossible to know exactly what it can be like to inhabit and interact with a virtual world without actually trying it out first, and thankfully, every major VR headset maker and developer knows this all too well, resulting in lots of demos.
Steam has a ton of individual demos for many different VR experiences. The Oculus Quest lineup of standalone headsets come with 5 demos installed on them as soon as you take it out of the box, so you can dive right into a virtual world.
And while the PlayStation VR does have some downloadable demos on the PlayStation Store, the best part is included in the box – an honest to god demo disc. Just like the old days, a physical disc with great presentation and tons of demos on it for you to play. The original release had a demo disc so generous that it put some of the old PlayStation 1 discs to shame, with 15 titles to dig into. They also released revisions of the headset with updated versions of the demo discs, but you can still download all (as of now) 3 discs digitally if you want a good smorgasbord of VR demos to play, which I find to be the best of both worlds.
That’s pretty much the end of the history of demos, shareware, trials and any other instance of giving part of your game out for people to try. They were incredibly important to the beginning of the industry on places like computers, giving people the little taste that they needed in unproven markets, and they’re still important today in some market segments.
It’s a shame that we’ll probably never have such slickly designed and thoroughly beefy demo discs like PlayStation Underground again. but we can still remember the sheer effort that went into things like them and remember them fondly. Booting up an emulator and chucking in a random demo disc is still the best way to experience a fair few console libraries quickly. It’s worth doing if you need to find a new game to play, and if you’re not drowning trying to parse the latest demo deluge from the Steam Game Festival.