The rise of digital media gave physical demo discs a permanent game over
Picture the scene, right. You’re me. Rough, I know, but stay with me here for a second. You’re me, and you’re bolting home from school, flimsy little Reeboks smacking the pavement with every step. What’s the rush? Mam’s doing chicken nuggies? New episode of Jungle Run? Nah. It’s PlayStation demo disc day, baby.
For the uninitiated (though I can’t imagine that is many of you) Official PlayStation Magazine used to give away a compilation of demos of upcoming releases throughout the lifespan of the PS1 and PS2, and most of the PS3. They contained short, playable bursts of anticipated titles in the run up to launch, and occasionally included trailers of other games and exclusive developer interviews. OPM wasn’t the only outlet to release demos on discs, but it’s the one I remember getting. Some of the demos I tried – games like Devil Dice, Kula World, MediEvil – I rinsed repeatedly until I could get hold of the physical releases, and there’s no way I’d have been so enthusiastic about them to this day if it wasn’t for those discs.
Not only did fans get an early opportunity to sample a big game before launch, a core part of the game’s marketing at the time, the demo disc played host to another important part of PlayStation’s history – Net Yaroze. The Net Yaroze development kit, which came with an incredible, clean, matt black version of the iconic console, allowed budding designers to craft their own games for the PS1. Now, simply making a game and popping it online wasn’t an ideal option, and so OPM often featured hand-picked playable demos from independent developers to include alongside the Spyros and the Final Fantasys, giving small creators a huge opportunity to have their games and skill recognised by the masses.
The iconic OPM demo ceased in 2013, just before the launch of the PS4. Back then, the idea of internetting everything seemed like a cool and funky idea and things like “The Metaverse” sounded silly. Back then, the interest in discs was waning and giving way to digital demos you could just download, Xbox Live Arcade was dominating the market, and games could actually be updated. To quote then-editor Ben Wilson: “You guys have told us repeatedly that the disc spends more time as a coaster than in your PS3.”
And with that, the demo disc is also a staunch representative of a bygone era – a snapshot in time where once projects went gold, that was it. Whatever state the game was in at the time was the state it would be launched, reviewed and remembered in, for better or worse. While it’s a pretty handy thing that games can now be patched more than your texts (look at the state of you), it does mean that earlier iterations of titles are lost forever.
As nostalgic as I am for the good old days of brilliant magazines and getting a physical demo disc, they simply don’t need to exist anymore. You can download a game in minutes, developers can distribute whatever they want, wherever they want, and, as much as it pains me to say, the printed press has less sway than it did back then. Games can be wildly successful without a crumb of spread.
That said, I would enjoy more opportunities to sample big releases before I buy them, much like the days of the demo disc. They’re pretty common in the indie space – Steam quite often holds events where players can try free builds of games, for example. But with current generation games fetching upwards of £70 per game, they’re a huge commitment for most players with a flimsy calendar and flimsier wallet. The option to have a bang on the latest Assassin’s Creed or a highly-backed and anticipated but ultimately disappointing game like Kena: Bridge of Spirits would go a long way.
Demo discs are just one of the things I constantly miss about a lost, analogue era of gaming, but it’s not just about having the physical copies clattered around my bedroom for the sake of it. I think they provided something more; a snapshot of preservation or an opportunity for a great project to be seen. But above all, they bottled the sheer excitement of barrelling round your mate’s house after school with your fresh copy of Winter Releases ’97 to show them the first playable level of Crash Bandicoot 2, and that’s a moment of joy that no amount of digital downloading can recreate.