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We're in a golden era of game demos

Cryptmaster - a wrinkled alien creature wearing a crown in all black and white
Cryptmaster - a wrinkled alien creature wearing a crown in all black and white

This week I downloaded more than 10 different demos during Steam Next Fest, a pile of hobby homework that would have given me the sweats in past years. But this time I found myself neither stressed nor pressed to play through them all. Don't get me wrong—I did play them all and have plans for several more before the weekend is out—but this year I realized that even if each Next Fest has an expiration date, the wider game demo trend shows no risk of petering out. Demos aren't just back; they're booming.

Back in 2020, Steam ran its very first Next Fest event sharing hundreds of game demos with players as a salve for the cancellation of big in-person gaming conventions during Covid. I spent hours scrolling through the store hunting for games to try amidst the pile and yet still felt like I might have missed something great. It's no wonder some of us felt overwhelmed by the volume of it all.

Lightyear Frontier
Lightyear Frontier

It was such a hit that Steam continued running Next Fests throughout that year and in 2021 we triumphantly celebrated that demos are back, baby! Now, game conventions have mostly reopened, but instead of the demo trend washing back out to sea the tide just keeps rising.

Steam Next Fests are still a rallying point for demos and a convenient moment to reveal gameplay or release dates, but the proliferation of demos has expanded well beyond the walls of these week-long events. There are over 13,000 free demos available on Steam right now—thousands more than just the festival accounts for. We're in a bona fide golden era of game demos.

It isn't just a deluge of questionable quality demos either. We're routinely being treated to hours with great games we were already anticipating. Like in the good old days of shareware, sometimes we even get the ideal demo experience: Finding infinitely replayable joy in just a tiny slice of a full game.

Sky Children of the Light - three characters in bright capes walk together pointing towards a mountain with light shining into the sky
Sky Children of the Light - three characters in bright capes walk together pointing towards a mountain with light shining into the sky

In October last year, the cozy MMO by Journey's developers, Sky: Children of the Light, arrived on PC for the first time as a Next Fest demo. Assuming it would leave again, I rushed to link my account from my Nintendo Switch copy and get in a bit of time sampling the PC port. Making a mockery of my haste, that demo is still available—it has been this entire time. Nominally I'm still waiting for Thatgamecompany to launch Sky into early access on PC, but with the demo still up four months later it basically already is in early access.

Demos aren't just back; they're booming.

Animal Crossing-like vampire game Moonlight Peaks debuted its first demo during that same Next Fest week. It was a short, curated look at the game that focused on decorating your house and yard. That demo did end with the Next Fest, but the developers came back only two months later with a new demo. Not a return of the old one, but a totally different, updated demo with its own patch notes about improvements made to keyboard controls and character art.

These are the kinds of things we've long been used to developers doing as part of an early access period where we've already bought in. Now it seems some are just doing it for free.

Demos are the meta now

Polishing and publishing a demo has long been a risky prospect that involves siphoning development time off to a version of the game that doesn't directly translate to a purchase. I've started to worry that the big demo boom is an unsustainable trend—and it may yet be—but something here must be working for developers. As we speculated back in 2021, the feedback loop of Steam's ecosystem may be the biggest factor in the explosion of demos over the past several years.

Indika looks upwards at a towering factory interior.
Indika looks upwards at a towering factory interior.

During the big Next Fest week, Steam promotes participating demos, which are incredibly easy to download and start playing within a couple minutes. Just about every demo I play has a button on its main menu reminding me to add it to my Steam wishlist, if I've not already. Indie developers especially have long been reminding us the importance of wishlist numbers and how critical they are to a game's continued promotion on Steam. So the Next Fest has become yet another way, and I would hazard a guess the most reliable way, to attract and retain new wishlisters.

The potential payoff has skyrocketed too, because demos can go viral, it turns out. This time last year, we were shocked when the demo for fantasy extraction game Dark and Darker shot up into the top 10 games being played on Steam. Trials and legal tribulations for Dark and Darker since then notwithstanding, a demo breaking into the top concurrent players on the platform was wild.

So don't stress too much over cramming everything into a single week of Next Fest. With no end of them in sight, and the trend towards unending and updated demos, we're getting more playtime than ever with upcoming games.