Game Demos Are Making A Comeback On Xbox, PS4, PS5, And Switch

Byleth points a sword in Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Houses.

Nintendo made a demo available this week for June’s big release, Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Houses.
Screenshot: Nintendo

Once upon a time, game demos were ubiquitous. Hell, for a blissful but fleeting moment in the early 2000s, even Nintendo got in the habit of regularly releasing GameCube preview discs. The discs, 3.1 inches in diameter, would make a handful of trials available for buzzy games. But like Heelys, low-rise jeans, Blockbuster, George W. Bush, and other ill-considered relics of the era, the game demo faded into obscurity.

Over the past few months, though, it’s clear that gaming’s biggest publishers are re-embracing the art of the demo.

Today, amid a wave of Xbox news (including the announcement of Game Pass streaming for Samsung smart TVs), Microsoft unveiled a program that makes game demos available to Xbox Game Pass subscribers. Called Project Moorcroft, it’s still in development, slated to roll out some time within the next year. The idea, with gaming conferences going digital due to the pandemic and with E3 itself seeing its rapidly influence waning, is to replicate the act of testing out upcoming games on the showfloor at events like PAX and Gamescom.

“We said, ‘You know what, why don’t we take Game Pass and make it like the showfloor?’” Xbox vice president Sarah Bond said in a press briefing. “Why don’t we make it possible for developers to take a piece, a level of their game, release it into Game Pass, generate excitement for what’s coming, and also get that really valuable feedback?”

Developers who make games available as part of Project Moorcroft will reportedly receive compensation. Representatives for Microsoft told Kotaku That the payout will be a singular payment but declined to clarify exactly how it works—whether, for instance, the exact payment would be the same for all developers or calculated via a sliding scale based on, say, how many times a demo is played.

Either way, that’s a marked departure from how Sony, which is also betting big on the demo game, is handling things. This month, as part of the ballyhooed release of PS PlusSony will make game trials available to those who subscribe at its priciest tier (PS Plus Premium, which costs $18 a month or $120 a year).

It’s a boon for subscribers, yes, but developers have raised concerns about mandates reportedly issued by Sony regarding games developed for PlayStation. Any game over the arbitrary-seeming wholesale price point of $34 needs to have a two-hour demo. Those demos need to be available for at least a year. It’s unclear whether or not Sony will provide extra compensation for developers who have to put in extra work to create those trials. Representatives for Sony did not respond to a request for comment.

The Switch has also seen a wide proliferation of game trials recently. As of this writing, the Nintendo eShop currently lists 217 game—and no shortage of first-party games either. This year alone, Nintendo has made demos available for a number of its biggest first-party games, including the tactics RPG Triangle Strategythe adventure-platformer Kirby and the Forgotten Landthe soccer game Mario Strikers: Battle League (out this week), and the musou heartbreak simulator Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes. (The demo for Three Hopes will let you carry save data over to the main game when it launches later this month.) Last year was no different; Metroid Dread, WarioWare: Get It Together!and Bravely Default II all have demos.

Sure, the PC gaming ecosystem has always been more welcoming of game demos compared to the more strictly controlled storefronts of consoles. But, hey, fun point for this blog: Steam’s Next Festwhich makes hundreds of game demos available for a week, kicks off on Monday.

It is not lost on me how prohibitively expensive gaming is as a hobby, especially seeing how tight money is all around these days. Rent is skyrocketing. Inflation has turned basic necessities into luxury goods. Video games are rapidly moving toward a $70 standard, with even this year’s Call of Duty fully embracing the new price tag. And this is all while wages haven’t budged since the era of the GameCube preview disc. (The federal minimum wage of $7.25 has remained unchanged since 2009.) Game demos don’t make gaming any more affordable, of course, but they do offer insight into how you spend your money. Amid a financial landscape as hostile as this one, I’ll take it.