Elden Ring is out now, the latest in the critically acclaimed but often esoteric Soulsborne genre. From Software’s notoriously difficult games tend to be love-or-hate affairs, but several notable voices in games say this one is more accessible and less off-putting, and deserves a chance even from those who’ve struggled. to get in Soulsbornes before. As someone who fits that exact definition, I’d love to try Elden Ring and see if it’s finally the game where it clicks, but there just isn’t a simple, consistent way for players to sample a game – Elden Ring or whatever – that they may end up regretting not buying. It’s time for that to change, and the platforms themselves should lead the way.
Again, this is not an issue unique to Elden Ring, but the game serves as a useful example. More than most games, Elden Ring is likely to frustrate some players, feeling impenetrable from the start. Some will overcome this initial frustration and find a rewarding experience on the other side, while others will quickly assess that this is just not the game for them.
The ways to try before you buy have slowly faded away. Rental options have become fractured and inconsistent. It’s harder to share games, and downright impossible to share digital copies on consoles. In the case of Elden Ring, a trial of the game would help players like me, who feel compelled to try it out, have an avenue other than looking for a rental or potentially wasting $70. Even as an adult with a stable income who can afford it, it’s a big ask, and there are many more potential fans who don’t even have that luxury.
At the same time, I can’t fault From Software, or any other developer, for not releasing a demo. Creating one takes time, which puts additional pressure on studios that are already facing a crisis. The result is the status quo: a hodgepodge of studios and publishers sometimes offering demos as promotional tools before release, sometimes long after, sometimes with progress trickling down to the full game, sometimes without, and without rhyme or reason between them. It is, to be frank, an absolute and unnecessary waste.
This is unnecessary as the platform holders – Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Valve and Epic – should take the lead on this issue. In the age of always-on-line consoles, there’s no reason for developers to have to create custom demos. Instead, consoles and PC platforms might just allow you to download a full game and play for a set amount of time. If piracy is an issue, this feature can be disabled if you try to play offline.
Rather than creating bespoke demos for each game, developers could simply choose the length of a playthrough. For shorter games, a playthrough can only last half an hour. For a longer game like Elden Ring, From Soft might decide you could use a few hours in the world to really figure out if the game is for you.
In fact, we already know that this technology works because platform holders are already using it. Free Play Weekends happen regularly on PlayStation and Xbox, where you download a full game and try it out for a limited time, and EA Play offers longer trials as a standard feature. Any security issues with such a system have apparently already been ironed out to the devs’ satisfaction, so all that remains is to give them the ability to trial a feature for individual players. Similarly, Steam already has a fairly generous return policy, which some players treat as a trial system. Why not completely remove the artifice?
Removing the difficulty of offering a demo-like service would likely increase developer participation. Granted, some developers may opt out altogether or choose to create custom demos that show off a particular slice of their games. They may want to move on to a later point when your character has more abilities, or avoid trial players discovering a particular plot point. This option can and should still exist, but it could be associated with the broader Universal Gaming Trials.
The philosophy is similar to one Xbox executives often cite when promoting Game Pass: when you make games more readily available to try, more gamers find the games they’d like. The reverse is also true: fewer gamers feel annoyed by wasting money on the games they do not do love. This ultimately causes many players to be cautious when it comes to buying full games, only spending safe bets that get the most bang for their buck. When games are so ubiquitous, it’s easy to pass up games if you’re not sure you like them. It’s a sale that Elden Ring and similar games could have had they given us an on-ramp. Additionally, Soulsbornes tend to create very ardent devotees; giving their uncertain friends a chance to sample the latest game could lead to more sales and more fans.
When Microsoft launched the Xbox One, its always-on console in 2013, it was widely and deservedly derided. Microsoft tried to precipitate a vision of the future that consumers didn’t want and that the Internet infrastructure of the day couldn’t support. The pros on offer might have been enticing, but they were outweighed by the cons. Technology has continued to advance and we’ve basically reached this point organically. Many gamers are treating their consoles as if they’re always online anyway, which means it’s time we started reaping the benefits that this vision of the future offers. Players shouldn’t have to guess what games they’re going to play and hope they haven’t wasted their money on a game that just isn’t for them. The technology is already there to prevent this outcome forever. We just need to tell platform holders to start using it.
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