I played 143 game demos in a weekend and now I can see the future (of PC and indie gaming)

Like many gamers out there, I have a tendency to misjudge the amount of time I spend playing games. Indeed, it’s often this suspension of normal time that I am looking for when I escape into a virtual world. My self-judgment may over-estimate how many dozens of hours I’ve pumped into a lengthy JRPG, whilst my outer voice will try to convince my wife that I’ve only been playing for half an hour (honest!). I both love and loathe the time logging feature on my Steam account for its often damning indictment of how I choose to spend my timee.

During the recent Steam Game Festival, though, I set myself the challenge of playing as many different demos as I physically could with no hard and fast rules about time. This approach meant that I played some of the many, many free game demos to completion, with a few clocking of them in at over an hour, whilst others were judged and rejected in the space of less than 10 minutes. Some of these games will end up with individual previews if they left me with an itch to get my hands on with the full version, but such a foolish endeavour needs to be documented somehow and this is my overall response to a frankly ridiculous number of gaming experiences.

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First up, let’s talk some numbers. The 143 in this blog’s title isn’t hyperbole; I have a full list of every title I played and my Steam history reminds me of my life choices. In addition to jotting down my thoughts, I also began with the intention of logging download sizes for posterity, but quickly got so caught up in the rhythm of downloading and playing that this went by the wayside. Suffice it to say, I hammered my broadband connection constantly and was generally in the process of downloading 20 demos at a time whilst I was playing the previous batch. This ensured that there was little dead time and worked around the limitations of my available storage. Individual demos ranged from as little as 20MB all the way up to gargantuan 31GB downloads, but size often gave no real indication of quality or length (oo-er missus).

Overall I would hazard a guess at this taking at least 40 hours of full-on gaming over the four days or so – not behaviour I would recommend, particularly as I was also homeschooling and doing housework alongside. I saw 4AM pass each morning and paid the price for such distorted sleep patterns over the days that followed. Basically I’m saying that humans aren’t designed for this level of extreme game immersion.

I began by downloading demos in alphabetical order, but soon abandoned this approach as it became increasingly clear that there were just too many for one man to get through. Instead, I used Steam’s frustratingly unclear interface to simply queue up the next 20 that took my interest in any fashion. I then had to go back and check against my growing list, as Steam’s algorithms changed the order of their lists every time I checked. Yes, I probably could have found a useful alphabetical list, but to be honest this whole process was a badly thought out mistake, so I just went with the flow. I tried to balance out games I may have heard of with ones that were completely unknown, often going by a combination of genre, the thumbnails, and just randomly clicking on install.

While not scientific this approach did give me a huge range of experiences and ensured I didn’t just stick to my usual genres. So, what did I discover?

Metal Mind

Well, it’s safe to say that the roguelike is still dominant in game design. Whether used as the mechanic behind a 2D platformer, strategy game, hack and slash, or twin stick shooter, this design element appears to be here to stay. At its best, as seen in iconic titles like Hades, the roguelike offers the potential for endless variety and replayability, but at its most frustrating it becomes a simple matter of hoping for the gods of RNG to smile at you. It became quickly evident that this mechanic doesn’t lend itself well to the demo form, as the range of playthroughs was limited either by range or time. Standout demos here included Metal Mind, Orbital Bullet, Shady Knight (which still has a demo live), and Loop Hero (which also has a demo and is out in early March).

I was surprised by the number of twin-stick shooters of varying genres and flavours that came up too. Whether abstract and retro like Rainbow Laser Disco Dungeon (demo available), or graphically complex like Mad Devils (demo available) or Zombie Soup (demo available), this approach showed the flexibility of the PC with both controller and mouse and keyboard setups proving effective. Personally I prefer a controller for these games, but most seemed to offer the option of the more traditional PC control system.

Mad Devils

Another unexpected grouping was the retro horror title. Now, this is one of my typical gaming happy place so there may have been a selection bias, but there are a lot of games coming to Steam that used to be more the preserve of itch.io or the late Desura. Within this grouping, VHS-styled thrillers like Stay Out of the House (demo available) and Happy Humble Burger Farm (demo available) stood out. The original Resident Evil clone Alisa combines the tank controls and PS1 graphics to create a memorable experience whilst Hidden Deep (demo available) plays like a reverse Carrion as you control a bunch of very fragile humans trying to survive deadly alien lifeforms.

There are many other interesting titles, but the intent here isn’t to list them all, rather to give you a broad impression. In general I found that approaches to demos themselves varied massively. Some spent most of their playing time giving tutorials, others threw me straight into the action. Some wore their influences clearly on their sleeve, others were so oddball and unique that they were difficult to classify.

Alisa

What really stood out to me, though, is the sheer range and breadth of the indie gaming scene. In part this is due to the availability of software like Unity and the Unreal Engine and I lost count of the number of times I saw these logos at the beginning of games. It is also a rare positive aspect to Valve’s typically hands off approach to the games made available on their store. There were a few games that were little more than asset flips or meme based single jokes, but on the whole the number of completely different gaming experiences was frankly dizzying.

In conclusion, would I recommend anybody follows my lead? No, and the fact that there are so many demoes still available after the Games Festival concluded means you can still get a taste, but I’m perversely glad I did this. I consider myself pretty clued up on the indie gaming scene, but this marathon reminded me that there is such a ridiculous wealth of gaming goodness out there that even if the big budget mega-corporations bore us with their identikit sequels and reboots, there will always be space in gaming for the new and the weird.

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Written by
Just your average old gamer with a doctorate in Renaissance literature. I can mostly be found playing RPGs, horror games, and oodles of indie titles. Just don't ask me to play a driving game.

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