Game Picks

Game Picks: Free-to-play demos

CorrespondentApril 18, 2013 


Upside, downside of demos

It’s something that the retail executives don’t want to think about, but the era of the $59.95 video game disc is going away.

As with music on CD and, increasingly, movies on DVD, video games are gradually transitioning to a digital distribution model in which no physical media is required. Pretty much any game you can find on the shelves at Gamestop or Walmart you can get on your Internet-enabled console system or PC.

The three current console systems – PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii U – all have dedicated online marketplaces for directly downloading new games, classic games, indie games, exclusive games, what-have-you. The next generation of game systems will be built directly around this idea of downloading or live-streaming games, in which content is delivered on-demand as needed. As we move into the constantly connected mobile device era, old distribution models are falling away.

One of the many upsides of all this, for the humbly endeavoring gamer, is that you can get instant access to hundreds of video games for free.

Well, sort of. What you actually get is instant access to hundreds of game demos – free versions of titles in which you’re given a sample slice of what’s for sale. In the days before digital distribution, game demos were sometimes distributed on disc or floppy, but they were hard to come by. You either bought the game or you didn’t.

Navigating the world of downloadable demos can be tricky. Each game demo title has its own combination of free-to-play elements and locked content, with a dizzying array of potential add-ons, mini-packs, subscription plans, etc. Some games may impose a time limit, for instance, while others might restrict you to one or two of the game’s many sequential levels.

The idea, of course, is to entice you with just enough of a gaming experience to leave you hungry for more. The idea behind that idea is as old as the marketplace itself – to convince you to part with some of your money.

I recently spent an afternoon scrolling through the current state of game demos on PlayStation 3, by way of the online PlayStation Store. It’s interesting to see how companies and designers take different approaches to the idea of game demos these days.

Fantastic ‘Journey’

Sometimes the proposition is relatively straightforward. The popular 2012 indie game “Journey” – it won a truckload of awards last year – offers a free-to-play demo version. The deal is simple: You download the demo and can play through the game’s first tutorial level. But if you want the journey to continue, you must pony up the full $14.99 price via the PlayStation Store.

I’ve been trying to make time for this game for a year now, and the demo finally convinced me to take the plunge. “Journey” is instantly hypnotic. You’re dropped into the game as a robed figure in an endless desert. (The vibe is somewhere between Star Wars’ Tatooine and Arabian Nights.) The game has no text, instructions or speech of any kind. Everything is communicated by subtle visual cues and ambient sound.

As a demo, it’s entirely successful. You can wander around that first desert level as long as you like and get a feel for the game. The model has worked out pretty well so far. “Journey” is the fastest-selling game ever released on PlayStation Network.

Other games in the demo area are labeled as free-to-play full versions, but aren’t really. I downloaded the PS3 version of the popular mobile game “Jetpack Joyride” and found it to be fast-paced and enjoyable, as advertised.

But like so many mobile games, “Jetpack” relies on in-game purchases if you want to unlock new missions, gadgets or vehicle upgrades. You can earn those virtual coins through weeks of game play, or just put another $2.99 on your PlayStation tab.

And some demo strategies are just frustrating. “Zen Pinball 2” is another game billed as a free download, but in fact you’re only given access to five of the 26 available pinball tables, and you’re under a time limit even on those.

The phenomenon of the downloadable game demo is good news for gamers, in concept if not always in execution. And hey, it’s one less reason to get off the couch. That’s one to grow on, kids!

New This Week: DC Comics fighting with “Injustice: Gods Among Us” (PS3, X360, Wii U), Japanese RPG action with “Pandora’s Tower” (Wii) and the new DLC pack “Dishonored: The Knife of Dunwall” (PC, PS3, X360).

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