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Dead Space 3: Fearing Fear Itself

July 22, 2012
Dead Space 3: Army of Lost Planet (Working Title)

E3 has come, disappointed and gone since my last post. Sure, it wasn’t all bad, but it seems like most of us had higher expectations than we should have had. Nowhere was this quite as clear as in the case of my own reaction to the announcement of Dead Space 3 and its inclusion of co-operative play.

I was totally fuming when I saw the big reveal of the game. It seemed like yet another tacking on of a checkbox feature that made absolutely no sense other than as an attempt to cater to anyone who could conceivably want to shoot alien monsters. But, as I say, this reaction on my part was based on unjustified expectations. Because what is co-op if not the logical continuation of the change in direction that happened between Dead Space and Dead Space 2?

I do feel as I should be forgiven for not connecting the dots quite so quickly. I say this because if Dead Space 3’s co-op mode was just another few steps down the same path that the previous game had already travelled, then the thesis I wrote in that one post had a pretty major flaw. That flaw was that I assumed that EA were still trying to make a horror game, and that their inability to retain the core components that made Dead Space a scary game came down to not knowing any better.

To be fair it’s really difficult to isolate any one perfect recipe for creating a scary game and this is made obvious by the fact that most fans of scary games seem to have a different idea of which game is the scariest and why. This applies to most, if not all, video game aesthetics in my opinion. However, as a reductionist game designer I strongly believe that there are certain design choices that directly counteract the ambiences and dynamics of a given aesthetic, and that excluding those “incorrect” designs is much more important than making sure that to account for all the “correct” or “neutral” ones. In that sense I still stand by my analysis of Dead Space 2.

What I no longer believe, though, is that the aesthetic shift of Dead Space 2 was anything other than purposeful on behalf of EA. The rationale they have presented for the co-op mode in Dead Space 3 more or less proves that. Basically EA learned that there were a lot of players that were more likely to endure playing through the first two games in the series when someone else was keeping them company. And to be honest there is nothing wrong with wanting more players to enjoy and, of course, buy your game. The one thing I do regret is that co-op wasn’t included sooner.

The reason I say this is quite simple. There is redundancy in the dynamics that co-op gameplay will bring to Dead Space 3. If the co-op is indeed the next logical step in a long-term roadmap that was established immediately after Dead Space was deemed too scary, then it stands to reason that the changes introduced in Dead Space 2 – the ones that I wish hadn’t been – represented some sort of halfway house towards the ultimate end.

This friend of Isaac’s looks scarier than the game’s monsters – which doesn’t exactly add to the horror value of the game

Now anyone who knows me also knows that I won’t shut up about the virtues of reducible complexity in game design and development. But for all the good it does in ensuring that progress is constantly being evaluated to ensure that it’s consistent with the ultimate goal of the project I really don’t think it’s a good idea to apply that same concept to the overall aesthetic or “feel” of a game. I’m all for being inclusive, but there is a fine line between inclusion and mutual exclusion (making something that is inoffensive, but ultimately bland, to everybody). Inclusion is for those times where there is no good reason to make a potentially divisive, exclusive decision. This is something that I think Dead Space 2 did poorly for my tastes, and it could have been avoided if the people who wanted someone to hold their hand while playing had gotten their co-op sooner. Maybe then all the other changes to the aesthetics would have been left on the cutting room floor. I would have had little problem with Dead Space 2 being a game where both extremes were represented, instead of a homogenized experience that wasn’t scary at all to me, but obviously still too scary for the people for whom co-op is now finally being added.

And the ultimate tragedy is that now that co-op is being added there is no going back for the single-player experience. The aesthetic shift inflicted on the single-player game with Dead Space 2 will in all likelihood remain in that same game mode in Dead Space 3 (not least because of the hot-joining, or drop-in-drop-out, nature of the co-op system). What this will amount to, I think, is a game that ultimately ends up satisfying fewer people than its predecessors. Those who, like me, were disappointed by the reduced scariness of Dead Space 2 won’t be reconverted by Dead Space 3. Those who thought that both Dead Space and Dead Space 2 were too scary may only take a chance on Dead Space 3 if they know it has co-op and if they have someone to play it with (this group may be very small indeed; it feels more likely that these people will have given up on the franchise altogether by now). Finally we have the group for whom the change in direction offered by Dead Space 2 made the game “just right” for their tastes. But judging by the sales difference between Dead Space and Dead Space 2 it would seem that this group isn’t all that big. Granted, my source for this is vgchartz.com – EA most likely have more accurate numbers, and theirs may well point in the other direction.

Only the marketing department would give guns to Necromorphs

I guess we’ll have to see how it all turns out in the end. But it’s very saddening that horror seems to be so hard to sell. Not only that, it also seems like nobody even wants to try to move the genre forward. Whether they are right or wrong, the only way that EA could imagine making more people want to play their horror franchise is by making it less scary, and that’s essentially an indictment of the whole horror genre. Yes, there are still brave souls out there who are making less-expensive horror games that can afford to be niche because of better profit margins. But I quite like the big-budget, futuristic, Alien-y aesthetic of the Dead Space franchise, and if even EA – with all their resources – can’t figure out how to make that kind of game viable, then there is very little hope that anyone else will want to try either.

So here’s hoping that Dead Space 3 falls flat on its ass, and that it’s demonstrably because of the inclusion of co-op and the toned-down scariness. If that happens, EA might reconsider their pandering ways. Granted, they might also cancel the franchise, but I’m willing to risk it. Because if Dead Space 3 is a massive hit I can’t help but think that the next logical step is for Dead Space 4 to feature carjacking, bullet time and Nolan North.

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8 Comments
  1. Survival horror is a hard sell to players because it puts characters in control of “weak” antagonists who often have to run away. Resident Evil has moved from survival horror to action horror because action horror – you’ve got a gun, a lot of bullets and can take control of the situation – has shown to be more popular with the broader market.

    Having read your interpretation of Dead Space 2, I agree that although the sound FX were still excellent, the addition of action music told you that a necromorph or two were around so not to relax. There wasn’t the tension of something nasty lurking around the corner because the band was (mostly) silent.

    I’ll play Dead Space 3, but I’m not thrilled by the addition of what will likely be cover shooter mechanics.

    • I think Resident Evil actually nailed a really good formula with the first games. In the first few RE games you were incidentally quite powerful, but there was a lack of bullets, so you needed to make the fight-or-flight decisions – often very quickly. I quite liked that, and I think Dead Space retained much of that same dynamic even though it managed to introduce a lot of the stuff from RE4.

      I understand quite well that a horror game isn’t as profitable, return-per-asset-wise, as for example an action shooter. I just wish someone would figure out a nice way to simply… accept the profit margin, and maybe prefer to cater to a smaller crowd that’s starving for quality content, than to try to compete in the blood-red oceans of the action game genre.

      After all, action was more profitable than horror even when DS1 was released. So there seems to have been at least some acceptance of facts even going in, as it were.

      • EA’s said that Dead Space 3 has to sell 5 million copies for the franchise to survive (http://www.cinemablend.com/games/EA-Says-Dead-Space-3-Has-Sell-5-Million-Survive-43629.html) which is more than both of Dead Space 1 and Dead Space 2 sold combined.

        So I’m guessing EA isn’t going to accept that they are behind a niche game. ;-)

      • Good find.

        One wonders how this business plan has evolved throughout the franchise’s lifetime – if they ever thought DS1 would sell those kinds of numbers. I’m pretty serious when I say that I think they must be doing something wrong to not be able to sustain the franchise on the sales they’ve been getting so far; it’s ridiculous. But, as always, there’s stuff behind the scenes only they know about.

      • I believe that Dead Space underperformed against sales expectations for the first (sold 1m) and second (sold 2m) titles, while the spin-offs (Dead Space: Extraction for the Wii, the book and movie) didn’t go anywhere.

        If I were to guess, I’d say that the EA who greenlighted DS2 is very different from the one looking for a hit with DS3. And EA really, really wants some good news in the near future.

        To an end, if DS3 is the last DS title, it’s had a good run.

      • Where’d you get those numbers from? VGchartz – not the best source admittedly, but the only one I could think of – has DS2 as selling less than DS.

  2. I think I’ve had two comments eaten here, so I’ll try one last time and give up:

    Looking around: Dead Space sold 1.4m (http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/91487-EA-Happy-With-Dead-Space-Sales)

    Ahh, here’s an article talking about EA’s approach to DS and how DS2 got over 2m sales around launch (http://www.gamesabyss.com/dead-space-2s-strong-sales-vindicate-eas-ip-cubed-strategy/).

    Looking at VGChartz, I think if you sum up sales on all platforms DS2 is about 2.5m units sold.

    • I’m getting 3,61 for DS on VGChartz. 2,56 for DS2. Though your other sources do indicate that could be incorrect.

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