I was at PAX Prime this past weekend, and had the chance to demo two games; one tabletop, one video game. Though some of the logistics are different between the two in terms of presentation, I want to unpack some of my feelings about demos. Ideally, a demo is a positive experience. Even if the game isn’t for you, you can walk away from that demo saying “It’s not really my bag, but if you like ____ you would dig it!” Because the experience was positive, it isn’t as likely that you’ll have a toxic reaction to the game.
The video game demo I got to play was one of my best demo experiences. Though the booth was packed, people who worked on the game were keeping an incredibly attentive eye on the crowd. After I’d spent a few minutes pointing out the game to my partner and delightedly watching, one of the game artists asked if I’d like to play. He’d managed to register my interest, step in the moment someone was exiting the demo, and seamlessly get me into the booth to play. He handed me head phones, gave me a sincere “Have fun!” and stepped back into the crowd. I was able to play, enjoy and explore without being hand-held or talked down to, two experiences that often occur during demos when the player is a woman. I had a lot of fun and plan on getting the game.
As for the tabletop demo I tried out during the con: it was terrible. I’m continuing to have a hard time separating my negative to the point of toxic reaction to the demo from the game. If I’d had a sour experience at the video game demo I’d likely have told friends more about the low points of the experience than anything positive or negative about the experience I had with the game. It seems simple to say that a good presentation of a game is crucial to hook players, but it’s true. I also need to unpack what I mean by the tabletop demo being terrible.
The GM was pointedly rude about their disdain for another company’s combat rules. You can express that something isn’t to your liking, or that your product is different, without being a jerk about it. To trash another company while giving a demo isn’t just unprofessional, it’s incredibly risky. Gaming is a small world, and as chance would have it, a staff member of the very company being trashed by the demo GM was sitting at the table. They pointed out that the world is small and trash-talking is unnecessary, and then introduced themselves to the GM. I want to note that this didn’t stop the GM from continuing to get in digs about other game systems for the rest of play. It only slowed down and decreased the intensity of their expressed disdain for other systems. Whether you’re a part of a company or a volunteer, this kind of behavior during a demo can alienate your players. Your opinions could be mistaken for the company’s opinions, and trashing someone’s favorite games or fandoms is a great way to enrage not just that person, but their fellow fans.
Do not talk about your home campaign. Do not talk about your home campaign with other people unless it is actually relevant. Want to tell me about a house rule you came up with to balance something system wise? A neat errata interpretation you and your players came up with? That’s actionable, often useful data. If it’s relevant to the conversation, I’m often happy to hear it. If it’s you gushing about how awesome your home campaign is, I don’t have anything I can do with that information. If you are burning time during a demo talking about your own home game, you’re yanking me out of the demo and wasting player time that should be focused on experiencing the game.
I had such a sour time in that demo I don’t know if I even like the game. I’m going to give the system a chance by playing it again, hopefully sometime soon, with a more professionally responsible GM. I prefer to give most games a chance, but the climate at the table left me with a poor impression of the game and company.
Be professional, be relevant, and don’t brag about your characters, demo GMs. Those three things will take you a long way in your demos.
Have advice or conduct tips from your own demo experiences for demo GMs? Leave it in the comments!