PSXDemoDisc.jpg[In a new GameSetWatch-exclusive article, Zoran Iovanovici looks back with fondness on the era of the game console demo disc, examining the cultural and gaming biz trends that went along with on-disc game demos, and their gradual transitioning into digitally impelled obscurity.]

Getting an early gameplay demo of an upcoming game wasn't always as easy as turning on a gaming system and downloading it via an online service like Xbox Live or PlayStation Network.

Today, console game demos are distributed and acquired in a considerably different manner from years past. We won’t be examining the history of PC demos here (that’s another article altogether), but we will take a look at how console demos were distributed prior to the advent of online services like XBL and PSN.

Gamers from the 8-bit and 16-bit era can attest that the idea of a game demo was absolutely unheard of in the cartridge era. Unlike modern disc based mediums (CD, DVD, Blu-ray), cartridges were too expensive to produce for sake of a demo. The closest thing to a demo in back then was single game store kiosks that one might find on occasion at a toy or department store.

Gamers who were wise enough to send in the registration cards that came along with their games, systems, and magazine subscriptions were sometimes treated to preview videos (via VHS tapes) of upcoming hot games from major developers. Some of the more widely distributed preview videos like the Donkey Kong Country and Street Fighter II Turbo promos are currently archived on YouTube for anyone looking to indulge in campy 90’s goofiness.

Some publishers like Enix of America and Squaresoft (prior to their merger) sent newsletters out to fans and consumers of their products. While these newsletters were often PR material in disguise, they did provide early peeks and screenshots of upcoming games allowing great schoolyard bragging rights for anyone intent on staying on top of gaming news. At a time when monthly video game magazines were the only source of gaming info, newsletters were a real treat. It was also a nice way of reminding gamers that filling in those registration cards that came attached to game manuals actually paid off.

U R Not [red]e

It was the 32-bit era with the popularity of the Sony PlayStation that saw the mainstream rise of the console game demo. As CD’s are relatively inexpensive to produce, it was no longer a wasted investment to slap a single game demo onto a disc and the storage capacity of a CD meant that it could easily be stuffed with multiple demos and videos. While cartridge consoles often included a game right out of the box, Sony made a bold move by including a demo disc with preview demos and videos with every PlayStation.

It was a brilliant marketing idea: instead of packing in a single full game with every PlayStation console, just include a demo disc packed with first party titles that consumers could play and then purchase full copies of at retail. Like the videos and newsletters that preceded them; demo discs were the new wave of PR for game companies. And consumers loved it.

The PlayStation was a fresh new entry to the video game market and gamers were open to try out every new title they could get their hands on. These demos were not only great at showing off the PlayStation’s technical capabilities, they also introduced the gaming public to a number of unique IP’s like WipEout and Parappa the Rappa, games that otherwise might have been overlooked.

Meanwhile, third party publishers like Squaresoft utilized a certain practice to great success during the original PlayStation era. Intent on using every opportunity possible to promote their library of games, Squaresoft included demo discs of highly anticipated games with releases of their new IP. Perhaps the most infamous example is the Final Fantasy VII demo that came alongside Tobal No. 1. That was shortly followed up by the PlayStation Collector’s CD Vol. 1, a disc chock-full of demos and videos of upcoming Squaresoft games that came with copies of Parasite Eve.

Brave Fencer Musashi shipped with the PlayStation Collector’s CD Vol. 2, with many people scooping up the game just to experience the featured playable demo of Final Fantasy VIII. Even Vagrant Story contained a PlayStation Collector’s CD late in the console’s lifespan. The demo discs served as prime PR material for Squaresoft’s game library and were backed up by the fact that the retail games they came packed with were all quality games in their own right.

This practice was so successful that it carried over to the following console generation when the newly merged Square-Enix shipped Dragon Quest VIII with a demo of highly anticipated Final Fantasy XII. But Square-Enix wasn’t alone. Other companies followed suit, the most famous example perhaps being the Metal Gear Solid 2 demo that graced the original Zone of the Enders.

With Metal Gear Solid 2 due for release in the fall of 2001, publisher Konami knew the chance to play an hour long demo nearly six months ahead of time was too much for Solid Snake fans to pass up. Many attribute the high sales of Zone of the Enders to the demo, with critics and journalists upholding that the MGS2 demo was the real star of the package. There’s certainly some merit to this assertion considering that U.S. sales of the far superior sequel Zone of the Enders: Second Runner paled in comparison. Perhaps if Konami packed in a demo of Metal Gear Solid 3 things may have been different. Such was the power of the pack-in demo in those days.

PSXDemoDisc.jpgExtra, extra, get the hottest new game demos fresh off the newsstand

It may be hard for some to believe, but the newsstand was once the center of video game news and information, particularly during the 32-bit era when games were beginning to reach a much broader mainstream audience and shed their identity as mere toys. The allure of demos was well established with the gaming public thanks to the Sony PlayStation. Gamers only wanted more and magazine publications were eager to fulfill this desire.

The Official U.S. PlayStation Magazine (OPM) was one of the first to seize the opportunity. From the very beginning OPM included a demo disc with every issue. The demos that came packed in each issue were no pushover either. The OPM Issue 23 demo disc included a playable version of Macross VF-2, a game that mysteriously never saw release in the states. The demo discs were the biggest draw for most gamers and were undoubtedly a major incentive for subscribers.

It was a similar case with the short lived Official Dreamcast Magazine in the U.S., which also included a demo disc in each issue. The Official Xbox Magazine followed suit with Microsoft’s entry in the video game market. Seeing this success, many other magazines began including demo and preview discs on a quarterly or seasonal basis. For good reason too; these issues often proved to be the most popular on newsstands.

Dark days a comin’

Ever quick to take advantage of a situation, Sony thought it wise to charge players for specially released demo discs at retail stores. During the PlayStation 2 era, the notoriously overpriced and underwhelming PlayStation Underground Jampack series sold for $9.99 and was simply a compilation of past demos that PlayStation Underground members got for free in the mail (once again a reminder that filling in those registration cards actually pays off). Microsoft followed suit with their Exhibition: Xbox Demo Disc series.

To their credit, Microsoft’s Exhibition series was cheaper at $7.99 and featured exclusive demos including the infamous Exhibition: Volume 2 demo disc that included the full Japanese version of Capcom vs. SNK 2. Whether this was done purposely or on accident is uncertain, but it was a major bonus to fighting game fans.

These days most gamers would be appalled at the idea of paying to play a demo or watch a preview video and the idea was certainly no less absurd back then. Still, both Sony and Microsoft must have sold a fair number of these discs considering that each company produced multiple volumes of their respective demo series. As gaming magazines slowly became an endangered species it seemed the days of the demo disc were slowly coming to an end.

PlayStation Underground members still reaped the benefits of free demo discs with their membership, but they too would soon lose faith after a glitch in the Holiday 2004 Demo Disc caused memory cards to be completely erased for anyone unfortunate enough to play the Viewtiful Joe 2 demo contained within. It was a holiday gift few would forget. Sony’s reputation with their loyal members took a major hit and the company’s nonexistent attempts to make up for the incident were utterly deplorable.

How about a free demo with your preorder?

While pay-to-play demo discs were proving to be a bust, another form of incentive based demo distribution was becoming prevalent around the same time. During the PlayStation 2 and Xbox era, it became common practice for video game retailers to offer demo discs with preorders of certain titles. It was a great pre-order incentive, especially for gamers who might have been on the fence about a game.

Both Sly Cooper and Ratchet & Clank saw this treatment immediately after their initial E3 debut. It was a sure fire way to draw fans to a new IP; give them a solid gameplay demo and they’ll be hooked instantly. At the height of their popularity it was possible to find new pre-order demo discs on a weekly basis during the busy holiday season. Pre-order demos were available for a wide range of genres from numerous companies for everything from well established titles like The Sims 2 and Resident Evil 4 to more niche titles like Kinetica and the .hack series.

PSXDemoDisc.jpgInevitable Obsolescence

For years demo discs were how the gaming public got to preview games before they were released. Friends would swap and share demo discs that they acquired from a variety of sources. It was a decent system while it lasted but it wasn’t long before the physical medium of discs would be rendered obsolete. It was Microsoft and their Xbox Live service that really changed the way gamers got their hands on demos. This is especially true with the launch of the Xbox 360 where Xbox Live became a robust premium feature and free downloadable demos were just one of the major perks.

Things are quite convenient now in the era of digital distribution thanks largely to services like Microsoft’s Xbox Live and Sony’s PlayStation Network along with the widespread availability of high speed internet. In fact, demo releases over XBL and PSN are major events these days, going so far as becoming major announcements and headline news on major gaming blogs and websites.

Microsoft and Sony even compete over timed exclusivity of multiplatform demos. The highly anticipated Resident Evil 5 demo stands as a perfect example. It’s also quite common for journalists to inquire on the possibility of a demo release when interviewing a developer of an upcoming game.

While online gaming services have become standard on current generation consoles and traditional disc-based distribution methods are somewhat inefficient in this day and age, there are still a few remnants left over from the old days of the demo disc. The Halo 3 Multiplayer Beta invite that came with copies of Crackdown was a yet another example of a demo promoting a new IP. The difference in this case was that the Halo 3 beta didn’t even come on a disc; it was simply an invite code that players could use online to sign up for limited time multiplayer gaming goodness. It was a perfect blend of an enticing old strategy (a pack-in style demo) and a new distribution model (an online service).

A more traditional throwback surfaced in Japan earlier this year when Square-Enix (yup, them again) packed a demo of the highly anticipated Final Fantasy XIII with special edition versions of the Final Fantasy: Advent Children Complete Blu-ray feature film. In fact, the hype for the Final Fantasy XIII demo was so tremendous in the land of the rising sun that Sony released a special edition PlayStation 3 console bundle that included the FF:AC Blu-ray film and FFXIII demo for fans who were finally ready to take the plunge and purchase a PS3.

It’s probably the first time a demo has been used as the main attraction to sell a console and it’s only fitting that Square-Enix, a company that’s been a core part of the demo scene, would up the ante of the pack-in demo to such a degree. Whether or not this stands as the swan song of the demo disc is something that remains to be seen. One thing is certain: game demos won’t be going away anytime soon.

[Zoran Iovanovici is a freelance writer and commentator - you can contact him at kitschy@graffiti.net. Thanks to Game-Rave for the top picture.]