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Whenever some new technology comes out, companies want to find ways to market their product. The best way to do it is to show it off. This usually happens in the PC hardware world where graphics card vendors put out tech demos to show it off. Or in an environment that's limiting such as video game systems, smartphones, and tablets, a proof of concept to show that hey, that piece of hardware really can do it.
And what a better way to show off the technology by having users interact with it in a fun way. This is where the Tech Demo Game comes in. It can be loosely described as a tech demo disguised as a game. But this isn't unlike an Obvious Beta, the developer tried in earnest to make a fully functional game that plays relatively well. The problem though is that most of the time the technology they're trying to show off is hardware based, which limits who can actually play it. In a video game console setting, this isn't such a problem unless the hardware in question is the latest peripheral. In the PC gaming world, this becomes a problem as the game expects nothing less than bleeding edge hardware.
Note that this trope has nothing to do with the respective quality of a game in itself, and many games started with the motivation of being a tech demo end up as extremely well received classics for much more than just their technical aspects.
Compare Wreaking Havok.
- I, Robot provided a demonstration of 3D raster graphics. It even had a minigame Doodle City.
- Hard Drivin is seemingly the first 3D racing game. The 3D board it featured was actually quite huge, looking like several modern-day computer motherboards stacked.
- Virtua Racing, Sega's first 3D arcade game, was originally designed as a proof-of-concept demo for the state-of-the-art polygonal graphics hardware which (with some upgrades) would go on to produce such hits as Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA.
- Crysis. When released, only a handful of computers could actually handle the "High" setting at 1280x800. Even fewer could run the "Very High" setting at 1280x800 above 10FPS. Yahtzee summarized it best, saying that the game must have been designed for some ultra high-tech supercomputer from space. Although the lower settings could perform well and still look better than most games at the time. Computer Shopper still uses it to bench-test new hardware.
- This had the unforeseen additional effect of lots of people pirating the game just to use it as a tech demo, just because they "didn't want to pay for the whole thing" (and didn't think to check if Crytek had released a demo version).
- SCP Foundation-062 is a highly advanced quantum computer, believed to be from the future.
Yes, it is fun to joke around about whether or not SCP-062 would be able to run Crysis. However, if I find any more bored guards trying to install the damn game onto SCP-062 one more time… You just don't want to do it. Okay?—Dr. Tong
- CryTek almost averted this with Crysis 2, until they released a patch that enabled Direct X 11 functions and all new "Ultra Detail" mode. Now it's back up here.
- Far Cry was actually a tech demo first for NVIDIA's GeForce 3 cards. Later patches added Shader Model 3.0 features like HDR lighting that could only be utilized by the then-newly-released GeForce 6800 cards.
- Battlefield 1942. In order to take advantage of the large draw distance (which was unheard of at the time), one needed 1GB for maximum draw distance. The trouble is, RAM was expensive back then, and most of the world was fine on 256MB.
- Cryostasis had extremely advanced fluid simulation on release, although even recent computers can have trouble running the game thanks to a lack of multi-core processor support.
- Supreme Commander has much greater multi-core support than most games, with performance scaling heavily with the number of cores.
- Somewhat less conspicuously, it is also one of the few games that can accomodate multiple monitors in a useful way.
- Despite being at least seven years old now, Sim City 4 actually stresses modern (as in 2010) midrange systems if one attempts to run on maximum settings. In fact, even though the game is completely 3D (or so Word of God claims), the reason why there are only four perspectives is because the amount of processing it would take to keep the detail that good in a 360 view would make the game unplayable from a performance standpoint.
- To note, if the game runs a whole lot smoother if you turn off shadows completely.
- Just about every single one of Id Software's games has started off (before further development) as an excuse to show off whatever piece of technology John Carmack had just recently mastered:
- Commander Keen was made to show off the smooth-scrolling graphics engine, which was once thought only to be possible on the Nintendo Entertainment System, and was previously used to develop a proof-of-concept game resembling Super Mario Bros 3 (that was never released).
- Wolfenstein 3D and Doom were made when Carmack decided to one-up Looking Glass Studios and their Ultima Underworld series' 3D visuals.
- Quake was the company's first fully-3D game, and explicitly demanded to be run on the recently launched Intel Pentium processor.
- While Quake was primarily designed to run only on the CPU, its experimental support for hardware accelerated graphics was one of the major factors driving the introduction of graphics cards to the consumer market.
- Quake II showed off a brand new game engine with colored lighting, and like Unreal spurred more and more consumers to buy graphics acceleration cards.
- Doom 3 had extremely complex lighting.
- In turn Quake IV stressed processing power due to its more wide open spaces and more advanced shading than Doom 3.
- Rage is basically a demonstration of their new id Tech 5 engine, and especially its Virtual Texturing feature (an improvement on the MegaTexture technology developed earlier).
- Oblivion was a common benchmark in 2006. It can still easily overload the fastest computer systems on the market.
- Unreal's graphics were near-unparalleled at the time of it release and various set-pieces were intentionally designed to show-off things it competitors couldn't do. For instance, the first level was set in a crashed prison ship with the sort of dingy brown and grey textures you'd seen in the original Quake... and then you set foot out in the open world, with vibrant greens and blues and draw distances that surpassed anything seen before. It also played a major part in heavily increasing the sales of graphics accelerators.
- Strangely enough, the Unreal Engine series became such a flexible engine that the third iteration can be run on smartphones, all the way up to running such high visual quality (in UE3.5, 2011) that it in order to run it with maximum detail at 1080p smoothly, a setup of three GeForce GTX 580s are needed.
- Shattered Horizon has very advanced benchmarking tools. Not surprising when it's from the same developer responsible for the 3DMark line of benchmarks. On top of this, it requires Direct X 10, and by extension Windows Vista or later.
- IL-2 Sturmovik: 1946 can still drag high end systems built in 2010 below 20 frames per second with the graphics set to "perfect" mode. Quite a feat considering the game was first released in late 2001.
- Audiosurf is a less traditional demo. It shows off its developer's interactive audio visualizer.
- Ditto with The Polynomial - Space of the music.
- Serious Sam came with various attempts to show off its engine (there's even a built-in tech map, accessible from the menu, which is literally a gallery of the engine's graphic effects).
- Soldier of Fortune II was rather jerky at maximum detail even with the higher-end hardware of its time.
- Microsoft Flight Simulator X is sometimes accused of this. Nowadays, a budget gaming PC can run it on full settings with minimal lag. When it was released... less so.
- Deus Ex Invisible War, released in 2003, dragged down contemporary PCs and video cards to slideshow level on high resolutions. Like Doom 3 a year later, it used complex lighting and shading for its time.
- A lot of games by the defunct Rage Software really showed off the capabilities of then-current 3D technology. Expendable and especially Incoming were often bundled with graphic cards.
- Dwarf Fortress probably wasn't intended as one of these, but at least one reviewer has put it to work stress-testing a new laptop.
- Space Manbow showed off the graphical capabilities of the MSX2+, in particular its smooth horizontal scrolling.
- Mirror's Edge based its entire art style around the Beast global illumination software, which simulates indirect lighting to make colorful scenes look almost photorealistic. While the game itself sold poorly, GI later became a standard feature of Unreal Engine 3 and is used in games like Dragon Age and Infinity Blade.
- Vette!, being one of the very first true 3D PC games (and the first Wide Open Sandbox driving game), severely choked down hardware of the time at full detail.
- The sequel to Total Annihiliation, Kingdoms, was so sluggish upon release that the manual listed steps to increase game performance, finally suggesting that the consumer buy a faster computer. Especially bad because this was a 3D real-time strategy game without state-of-the-art graphics, and was fixed with a subsequent patch to be much faster after reviewers and gamers complained.
- Outcast had gorgeous environments, bump-mapping, great particle effects, and even very good-looking water...but it brought 1999-era computers down to their knees because since the terrain was voxel-based, it wasn't compatible with 3D accelerator cards, thus using a software-rendered engine that took a heavy toll on the slow CPUs of the time.
- Say what you will about Trespasser, but it had a lot of concepts that soon became standard for FPS games. As well as a tendency to make computers chug frame-rates down to the single digits when copious amounts of blood was on screen.
- Half-Life 2: Lost Coast featured the newly developed HDR and was specifically designed to show off these features with its shiny beaches, dark and light areas and bright sunlight.
- Playing with the developer commentary makes this even better, with real time demonstrations of the engine.
- Gyromite and Stack-Up were made to give ROB something to do at the NES's launch.
- Silent Hill 2 was, in addition to its better-known qualities, a demonstration of the Playstation 2's ability to generate volumetric fog. Given that Silent Hill had not really attained a great deal of wide popularity before the second game grew the beard, as much of the buzz surrounding Silent Hill 2 before its release was about its graphics and the fog effect as it was the monsters or characters.
- Another feature that doesn't exactly get a lot of attention was that shadows were cast realistically by objects when the flashlight shined over them. Not exactly an easy to do feature.
- Shrek for the Xbox. Gameplay-wise it was pretty hard and repetitive, but Rich Geldereich managed to pull off some pretty impressive effects for a game of its time, as it was meant to be a showcase of what Microsoft's then-new console can do.
- Wave Race 64 was made to show off the water effects of the N64, particularly the undulation of waves, which was impossible on earlier consoles.
- Fantavision seems to have been made because firework explosions are excellent exhibits for the smooth textures and higher resolution of the Play Station 2.
- Ridge Racer was a bare-bones driving game that just so happened to show off the original Play Station's 3D effects spectacularly. (In fact, the original arcade version did a lot more - 60fps at 640x480 compared to the PS 1's 30fps and 320x240.)
- Name any first-generation Super Nintendo game. These games would show off the Mode 7 capabilities of the system. Some notable examples would be Super Mario World, F-Zero, Pilotwings and Super Castlevania IV. Star Fox was this for the Super FX chip.
- Pilotwings is a Tech Demo series. Whenever it is released it shows off the latest graphical tricks.
- Killzone 2 is arguably a tech demo for the Play Station 3. Heck, even one of the commercials for the game (the one where it tracks a bullet fired from the player character) can be downloaded and run on the system, in real time.
- The original Killzone was this even moreso.
- The original Donkey Kong Country was an effort to prove the aging SNES was capable of high-quality graphics.
- High Voltage's The Conduit provides a showcase of their Quantum3 engine, which can produce some pretty nice graphics on the Wii.
- Uncharted 2's developer Naughty Dog claims that the game is the best graphics the PlayStation 3 will ever get.
- And yet, two years later they've managed to improve on it for the third game.
- Lair appeared to be an attempt to show off the PlayStation 3's ability to do Motion Control and native 1080p graphics. It couldn't do either very well.
- Metal Gear Solid 4 Guns of the Patriots shows off all the PlayStation 3's hardware features. Surround sound, Bluetooth headset support for Otacon's codec calls, motion control for the Screaming Mantis battle, and most importantly, Blu-Ray for holding loads and loads of long-winded cutscenes (the latter point is even lampshaded when Otacon calls Snake and tells him to swap to the second disc, but then he remembers that the game is on Blu-Ray).
- Final Fantasy VII. Square really took the opportunity to show off some of the stuff they couldn't do on the SNES, like polygons and pre-rendered cutscenes.
- To test their graphics engine for Final Fantasy VIII, Square created Parasite Eve.
- Final Fantasy XIII was meant to be a PlayStation 3 launch title and spent roughly seven years in development because it was being developed with a brand-new graphics engine that will be used in all future Square Enix games.
- Wii Sports and Wii Play show off the Wii Remote's motion abilities. Wii Sports Resort and Wii Play Motion show off WiiMotion+. Wii Fit shows off the Wii Balance Board, however it has yet to be implemented well in any other game.
- And now, with the release of Playstation Move and Microsoft's Kinect, we're seeing variations on Wii Sports for those systems: Sports Champions on the PlayStation 3, and Kinect Sports on the Xbox360.
- Malice provided a demonstration of the X Box's bump mapping capabilities but ended up being released for both Xbox and Play Station 2 several years after people stopped caring about it.
- Backbreaker started as an attempt to show off Natural Motion's Euphoria physics engine with a simple "Dodge the tacklers" football game, but eventually was expanded into a full simulation.
- Luigis Mansion was this for the Gamecube. Fire effects, water effects, ice effects, transparent, glowing ghosts, Luigi's flashlight, the Poltergust 3000's wind tunnel, cloth effects... it goes on. It shows off the high poly count by repeatedly showing off how round it can make locked doorknobs. Heck, it even shows off the analog shoulder buttons and the c-stick, as both are integral to the game. It was even a test for 3D at some point in development.
- Pikmin was brought to life from the original GCN tech demo, "Mario 128".
- Perfect Dark required the RAM expansion pak to play the single-player campaign, and even then the framerate was horribly choppy. The XBLA Updated Rerelease was much improved.
- The N64 version of Turok 2 was one of the first games for the system to use the expansion pak for high resolution textures, and its framerate was also rather sluggish.
- Battletoads can be noted for its fast paced gameplay, virtually no slow down or flickering, and then advanced effects, such as the waving fire in Volkmire's Inferno and the rotating Dark Queen's Tower.
- Super Mario 64 not only showed off the N64s graphics, but it was also meant to show off the controller. This brought to light a direct flaw in the N64's controller, in that it seemed at first to be built solely with Mario 64 in mind and no other game. (Why would a 2D game need camera buttons?) But then developers figured out how to use the camera buttons as action buttons. For instance, they provided the classic 6-button layout for fighting games, and Zelda famously used them for quick access to your inventory.
- Super Demo World, a Rom Hack of Super Mario World, was created to show off the abilities of Lunar Magic, a rom editor.
- One of the major selling points of The Force Unleashed was its use of the Euphoria animation engine, the same one used for Backbreaker and Grand Theft Auto IV, enabling fluid character motion and physics based on Force powers.
- Sonic Adventure did this for the Sega Dreamcast. You know you wanted to play that game once you saw Sonic running from that killer whale in the commercial. The whole reason that Chaos was made of water was because they wanted to show off the system's capabilities - this is especially apparent in the cutscene where Perfect Chaos floods Station Square & bursts out of a building.
- Sonic Unleashed was the first game to use the Hedgehog Engine, which not only provided prettier backdrops and more consistent lighting through baked GI light probes (to amend complaints that Sonic stuck out like a sore thumb), but it could simulate Sonic's trademark more accurately (and incredibly) than previous games. The engine was reused in Sonic Generations, to arguably even greater effect. Unfortunately, many of the engine's innovations were being developed by other companies around the same time (like DICE and Studio Liverpool), limiting the Hedgehog Engine to Sega's own studios.
- 2006's Rockstar Games presents Table Tennis Demonstrated the Rockstar Advanced Game Engine (RAGE), which is later utilized in Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption.
- Zone of the Enders was treated by Kojima Productions as a warm up to see what they could do with Play Station 2 hardware before tackling Metal Gear Solid 2, which used to same engine (and the demo of which was a major selling point for Zone of the Enders). It shows, too: The game doesn't take very long to beat, and many of its environments look like they're straight from the PS 1 era.
- Drakkhen is a very, very early example of a partially 3D video game.
- The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time 3D. The biggest selling point of this game aside from being a re-release of one of the most beloved games of all time was the fact that the graphics had been updated.
- Arguably, the original N64 title fits this trope, displaying several graphical effects unseen before and a (then) large overworld with plenty of side-quests.
- Rayman Origins is the first game to utilize the UbiArt Framework, which smoothly integrates artwork into the game and easy animation of 2D characters. It shows in the huge amount of Scenery Porn and cartoony characters.
- Hydrophobia was created with the purpose of showing off HydroEngine, the engine behind its pretty sophisticated fluid simulation effects.
- While the Dual Shock had been out for a while before its release, Ape Escape was designed specifically to push sales of the controller by splitting movement and actions between the two joysticks.
- The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was pretty much a huge advertisement for how accurate the WiiMotionPlus is, while still being comfortable for long playtimes. Heck, a good chunk of the development period was dedicated to deciding on a control scheme.
- Super Smash Bros Melee and Brawl could serve as one to their respective consoles. The amount of action that goes on in the game and yet it never dips below the buttery smooth 60FPS is an impressive feat.
- Yoshi's Touch and Go for the Nintendo DS. Super Mario 64 DS probably counts too.
- Steel Diver for Nintendo 3DS.
- The Nintendo 3DS had a bunch of these built in. There was Face Raiders and a handful of AR cards to show off its 3D camera and Augmented Reality capabilities, and Find Mii and a puzzle game for its StreetPass mode (the puzzles are small 3D animations originally demonstrated at E3 2010).
- Gunstar Super Heroes had a lot of gratuitous rotating things just to demonstrate how much of a 2D powerhouse the Game Boy Advance was.
- Infinity Blade is the first Unreal Engine 3 game on handhelds, and thus was designed to be a showcase for the engine, making use of the iPhone's biggest strength (its console-quality amount of RAM) for photorealistic baked lighting. Some consider it a Dancing Bear.
- Shadowgun, which came out shortly afterward, was similarly designed to show off the rival Unity 3D engine. Both it and Infinity Blade are used as demo programs for their respective engines.
- Aralon is the same deal.
- Team Bondi's LA Noire was a showcase for their facial animation technology. It did work pretty well considering that you'll have to judge the suspects' statements based on their facial expressions.