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Game Demos and the Art of the Vertical Slice

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Credit: Unsplash

In the last few years, I’ve noticed game demos are really starting to make a comeback. This is a good thing; it’s one thing to read a bunch of press about a game you’re interested in, but it’s something else entirely to really get some hands-on time with it at no cost. I especially enjoy Steam’s Next Fests, which are crammed with a metric whoa-ton of demos to give you lots to look forward to.

However, there’s a mildly annoying trend in these demos that I’ve been noticing, something that I feel didn’t happen as much in previous console generations. These new demos have forgotten the art of the vertical slice.

Game Demos and the Art of the Vertical Slice

If you’re not up on gaming industry jargon, a vertical slice refers to a portion midway through a game that’s snipped for the express purpose of being shown off. You know how you cut a vertical slice into a cake to show all the layers in the middle? It’s the same thing. Now, vertical slicing is still common practice in games today, but mostly for the sake of promotional material like gameplay trailers. Back in the days of the PSOne demo discs, you could play a demo that’s a good few hours into the game’s supposed runtime to give you an idea of how the game will feel once it’s properly up and running.

A lot of newer demos have stopped doing this, however. Instead of a vertical slice, they just give you the first 30 minutes to an hour of the full game before cutting you off, maybe giving you just enough time to finish a basic tutorial before you’re cut off. First of all, that’s not a demo, that’s a trial. It’s not the same thing.

Secondly, putting your demos in that format presents a couple of problems. For one thing, when you make me play through the first hour of your game for a demo, that means I’m going to have to play through the first hour again if and when I play the full thing. That’s especially annoying for something like a visual novel or otherwise text-heavy game because it means I’m just going to have to quickly click through the first major chunk of content that I’ve already seen, and that’s no way to start a game.

Additionally, in many games, particularly action/adventure ones, the way the game plays even just a few hours in can be exponentially different from how it plays when you’re just starting out. Oftentimes, that first hour of gameplay isn’t actually indicative of the game as a whole, which can be an incredibly frustrating thing to discover after you’ve already bought and started playing the full version. The purpose of a demo is to get you excited about a game concept, not to mislead you. Or at least I want to believe that’s the purpose.

What’s the Solution Here?

cake slice

Credit: Unsplash

Cynicism aside, I do understand why this format of demo has become more common. It’s a lot easier on the developers to just copy and paste their first hour of gameplay rather than having to worry about properly balancing and tutorializing a vertical slice set several hours in. I’ll be the first to admit that developers are overworked as it is, and it isn’t fair to add more work to their pile for something that won’t make them money.

At the same time, though, demos are a form of advertising, and proper advertising needs to be indicative of the finished product. If you’re not going to do it properly, I think I’d rather it just not be done. Perhaps the matter could be alleviated by releasing more minute-to-minute gameplay trailers instead of highlight reels or pre-rendered cinematics. After all, all I really want here is to see, and if possible, experience, how a game actually plays in both its up moments and its downtime. If a demo is nothing but introductory buildup with no immediate payoff, that doesn’t tell me anything about the game. It’s just an hour of my life I don’t get back.