Should unfinished games be demos?

Ever played a game demo before the game’s release that was preceded by a bunch of small type on a black screen saying, “…this is not representative of the final retail product…bla, bla, bla?”

Picture this: You’re sitting there on minute number 5 of playing the shiny new demo that took you 10 minutes to download and rather than throwing your controller across the room, you say, “screw this” and hit your reset button to exit the game. Miffed at the time you just wasted, you promptly delete it, never wanting to hear its name uttered again. Sound familiar?

It has to make you wonder what some developers and/or publishers are thinking as far as their priorities go. Is it worth pushing a game out the door in demo form before the game is ready to go gold? If a game is hurting enough that it’s worth an extra month of polishing before the final release candidate, what makes it okay to release it now as a demo?

The idea behind releasing a game demo is generally to attract customers who are curious enough to try it and show them why the final product will be worthy of purchase. The demo should take the limited time it has and make a player drool all over their controlling peripheral, never frustrate or bore them, and leave them begging for more by the time it’s over. If the developers can’t squeeze enough juice out of a game to accomplish this for a mere 5-10 minutes, what does that say about the remaining hours of content that will be in the game? I’ll tell you- it sends the signal that it’s a steaming pile.

Anyone who’s ever had much experience applying for a job, or even dating, knows that making a good first impression, while it sounds cliché, is extremely important and sets the tone for everything that follows. When a game demo is released to the open public that is not representative of the final product, the only thing usually being accomplished is making a bad first impression. If a game is not finished because it’s lacking fun gameplay or maybe it runs like garbage (bad frame rate, clipping, crashing, etc.) due to a lack of optimization, many of the potential customers that downloaded and played the demo are going to be convinced that what they’re playing IS representative of the final product (despite that fancy disclaimer they saw before the demo’s title screen). They will then quickly lose interest in the game before ever trying the final product.

As an example, let’s look at one of the newest games that may have been hurt a little by the slightly premature release of its demo.

Earlier this month, developer Codemasters released a demo of their upcoming racing game GRID for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC platforms. Many fans (and even a prominent game media site) were quick to jump on the PS3 version for having unpolished graphics, including problems with screen tearing and frame rate issues. Comparisons started flying around the interweb between GRID and everything else from the likes of Gran Turismo 5: Prologue to Need for Speed ProStreet.

Now, drawing closer to release, the game is starting to receive full reviews from various game websites and publications (our own review will be coming soon). So far, just about all of these reviews are overwhelmingly positive for every platform and Codemasters has acknowledged the graphics issues with the PS3 version that they say have been corrected for the final release (excellent move on their part). Many people are pleasantly surprised and some people (not all) really do feel that the game is a worthy alternative to the other racing games currently available; on the other hand, others are claiming that based on what they’ve seen, GRID does not deserve some of the review scores it has received for graphics when compared side by side with Gran Turismo 5: Prologue.

So the question should be posed, did GRID suffer in the eyes of some gamers due to its early demo release? If Codemasters had not acknowledged the PS3 issues and fixed them, the answer would definitely be a yes. Still, there may be others who will never know that Codemasters made an announcement and fixed the game, or some may not even care …and they simply will not buy the game for the PS3 because of that initial impression they had.

Would most games be better off not releasing a demo at all than releasing something unfinished? Or are you willing to try the retail version of a game even if the demo had major issues? What if the developer claims all the issues in the demo have been resolved, is this enough to convince you to purchase and retry a game?