In June this year, Valve decided to host the Steam Game Festival, which was a makeshift virtual festival that served to help fill the absence of a proper E3 event for lots of gamers. During the week-long event, over 900 developers working on upcoming games released free demos on Steam, all featured on the event’s landing page. Developers also participated in live Q&A sessions throughout the week, where anyone could tune in and chat with them directly, all using built-in functionality on Steam. For avid gamers on Steam, the event was a fresh idea and probably the most thrilling part of the E3 period this year.

But with all the buzz on social media generated by this event, an old topic was resurrected: the video game demo. Why do most game developers not release demos anymore? It used to be common fare, back when every gamer still had a magazine subscription. Almost every developer was releasing demos then, but that came to a halt at some point, and it became more infrequent despite everything going digital (which you would think would make releasing demos even easier and more appealing, but alas). To be fair, some developers do still release them — Steam has had a demo feature for a long time, for example, but most developers don’t bother using it. So, why is this?

Some gamers think that the reason is because publishers eventually realized that it was more profitable not to release demos for their games. The theory implies that most gamers buy games they don’t actually want to play and then don’t bother to refund those games, instead opting to play through them, and that this is why demos hurt sales. However, this answer is inadequate for two reasons: 1) it simply can’t be proven and can’t be measured in any useful sense, so there is no real basis for thinking that, and it borders on conspiracy theory due to this, which is practically grounds for ignoring the answer altogether; but more importantly, 2) it doesn’t even make sense because more or less all publishers were putting out demos for many years and weren’t losing sales on account of it as far as we know. Occasionally, you may have a smaller developer reporting that a demo hurt their sales, but this is an exception and was certainly not an industry-wide problem at any point in history. On top of this, some developers reported that the Steam Game Festival resulted in more gamers wishlisting their games on the platform due to the event, so there is clearly a benefit to releasing demos still.

So, why did most developers stop releasing demos for their games? My (hopefully reasonable) answer: the internet, and more specifically, video hosting and streaming sites, did away with the need for them.

Much like magazines, which eventually became defunct in the eyes of most gamers due to internet forums and review sites, demos became defunct as well when it became incredibly easy to watch someone play a game directly on your screen. Once watching videos online became a widely available option, gamers no longer felt the need to bother with demos, and developers knew it. Why boot up your console or PC with a gaming client and spend time downloading a demo and learning to play to discover what the game is about when you can just search for it on YouTube or Twitch and see it in action in a couple of seconds? This method is faster and easier, and you can learn everything you want about the game that way, and even watch any part of the game if you’d like to skip around and not be restricted to a very brief and narrow sample of the game that could very well be an inaccurate portrayal of the full experience (which some demos back in the days were, because they were often built from beta versions of the games that did not yet have final features, effects, or interface elements yet). This explanation also makes more sense because we can observe it in our own actions as gamers. How often do you feel the need to play demos for games anymore? Don’t you simply look up videos or streams for games you want to play and are considering to buy? The topic of demos was buried before Valve indirectly resurrected it, which I am willing to bet they only did on account of the pandemic forcing events like E3 to shut down for the year.

So, in the end, demos — like magazines — are less relevant to gamers now due to changes in technology. With near-instant access to video footage of a game that fills your whole screen at your fingertips, the need to be able to play demos yourself is basically non-existent. On the one hand, the event that Valve held on Steam was cool, because it made many gamers aware of new upcoming games that don’t normally get much exposure, and it generated a lot of buzz about a lot of different games, and as gamers we enjoy experiencing new games and discussing them, but ultimately, I believe the value of the event was overplayed. Nowadays, every day is a festival if you know where to look on the web. Every single day, and every single hour of every single day, you can find countless gamers streaming games and millions of gamers watching those streams and talking about them. There is no end to the party now, so an event like the Steam Game Festival shouldn’t be needed to generate any exposure for new developers. There are an endless number of ways developers could be marketing their games, an endless number of tools available to them. Demos really aren’t necessary anymore, except if you really want to try a game for yourself before it’s released.

So instead of lamenting the past, focus on the present. Sure, most developers don’t release demos anymore, but that’s not a problem, because we can look up anything we want about games before we buy them. We have so much technology at our fingertips these days that it’s no longer a concern. Not to mention, you can also refund games on Steam before you’ve put 2 hours of playtime into them and before 2 weeks have passed since the purchase date, which you can effectively use to demo any game on the platform you want. So, don’t let yourself get overwhelmed by rapid changes in technology; learn to ride the techno-wave and enjoy it.