This week, I downloaded almost ten different demos at Steam Next Fest, a mountain of hobby homework that would have made me sweat in previous years. But this time, I felt neither stressed nor compelled to play through them all. Don’t get me wrong—I played them all and have plans to play a few more before the weekend ends—but this year I discovered that, while each Next Fest has an expiration date, the overall game demo trend shows no signs of slowing down. Demos aren’t just back, they’re thriving.
Steam held its first Next Fest event in 2020, sharing hundreds of game samples with gamers in response to the cancellation of major in-person gaming conferences due to Covid. I spent hours going through the store looking for games to try among the pile, yet I still felt as if I had missed something fantastic. It’s understandable that some of us felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of it all.
It was such a success that Steam continued to host Next Fests throughout the year, and in 2021, we triumphantly declared that demos are back, baby! Now that game conferences have mostly reopened, the demo trend is only becoming stronger.
Steam Next Fests remain a rallying point for demonstrations and a convenient time to reveal gameplay or release dates, but the proliferation of demos has spread far beyond the confines of these weeklong events. There are already over 13,000 free demos available on Steam, which is thousands more than the festival accounts for. We’re living in a true golden age of game demos.
It’s not just a torrent of low-quality demonstrations. We are often given to hours of amazing games that we were already looking forward to. As in the good old days of shareware, we sometimes get the optimal demo experience: Finding infinitely replayable joy in a small portion of a larger game.
Sky: Children of the Light, a small MMO developed by Journey, made its PC debut as a Next Fest demo in October of last year. Assuming it might leave again, I hastened to link my account from my Nintendo Switch copy and spend some time testing the PC port. Making a mockery of my hurry, that demo is still available—and has been for the duration. Nominally, I’m still waiting for Thatgamecompany to release Sky in early access on PC, but with the demo still available four months later, it’s effectively already there.
Moonlight Peaks, an Animal Crossing-inspired vampire game, launched its initial demo over the same Next Fest week. It was a brief, curated peek at the game, focusing on designing your home and yard. That demo ended with the Next Fest, but the developers returned just two months later with a new demo. Not a remake of the old one, but a completely new, updated demo with its own patch notes detailing improvements to keyboard controls and character image.
These are the types of things we’ve grown accustomed to seeing developers accomplish during an early access period in which we’ve previously invested. Now it appears that some are doing it for free.
Polishing and publishing a demo has traditionally been a dangerous proposition, as it involves diverting development resources to a version of the game that does not instantly translate into a sale. I’ve begun to fear that the large demo explosion is an unsustainable trend—and it may still be—but something here must be working for developers. As we suggested in 2021, the feedback loop of Steam’s ecosystem could be the driving force behind the recent growth of demos.
During the major Next Fest week, Steam offers participant demos, which are relatively simple to download and start playing in a few minutes. Almost every demo I play includes a button on the main menu that prompts me to add it to my Steam wishlist, if I haven’t already. Indie creators, in particular, have long emphasized the importance of wishlist numbers in a game’s continuous promotion on Steam. So the Next Fest has become yet another, and possibly the most reliable, tool to recruit and retain new wishlisters.
The potential payoff has also increased dramatically, as demos can now go viral. Last year, we were surprised when the demo for the fantasy extraction game Dark and Darker jumped into the top ten games played on Steam. Despite the trials and tribulations that Dark and Darker have had since then, a demo breaking into the top concurrent gamers on the platform was wild.
So don’t worry too much about fitting everything into a single week of Next Fest. With no end in sight and a tendency toward never-ending and updated demos, we’re receiving more playtime than ever from new titles.