Opinion: Does It Matter That Dead Space 3 Is Aimed At A Wider Audience?
A few days ago, I posted an article which quoted Dead Space 3 producer John Calhoun as saying that the use of micro-transactions in the forthcoming title was a move designed to appeal to smartphone gamers. “If we’re going to bring those people into our world, let’s speak their language,” he said.
The backlash from fans was swift and fierce. The frustration and anger aggressively tangible.
You see, while the introduction of micro-transactions into the game’s weapon-crafting system is controversial in and of itself, what really upset Dead Space enthusiasts was the suggestion that this next installment in the highly-regarded franchise had been designed not with them in mind, but for the benefit of people who – in the words of Calhoun – have “only played games on their smartphones”.
It’s not as if this discontent is some new development, of course: a palpable sense of indignant disbelief has been flourishing among the series’ fanbase for a good while now.
Ever since the very first trailer and gameplay demo landed at E3 last year, there was a feeling that this was no longer Dead Space as we knew it. Instead, EA were now aiming the franchise firmly at Gears Of War gamers and the Call Of Duty crowd; the introduction of cover-based shooting, human enemies wielding weapons, and co-op gameplay complete with macho,’dude-bro’ dialogue clearly aimed to cater the experience more readily for general shooter enthusiasts, and make it more commercially palatable for a wider mainstream audience.
EA talked about how they wanted Dead Space 3 to shift 5 million copies, and those who valued the ‘horror’ half of the games’ action-horror equation braced themselves for an adventure in which space engineer Isaac Clarke would now be engaged in combat-rolling shootouts and OTT set-pieces, rather more than he would be trekking down atmospheric corridors and investigating intriguing, tense environments.
If it feels like we’ve been here before, that’s because we have.
Remember the fuss around Resident Evil 6? Of course you do. Like Dead Space 3, it was dogged by accusations that it had sold its soul to appeal to a broader, action-hungry audience; with gung-ho blasting, melee mayhem and ludicrous ‘epic’ m0ments (like jumping off a roof on a motorbike, or running away from a tank through a collapsing building) reducing the once-seminal survival-horror series to something between a Michael Bay blockbuster and the trashy Paul WS Anderson directed B-movie saga it spawned from its own loins.
Indeed, one of the most audible arguments from gamers these days is that countless beloved franchises are being increasingly ‘dumbed-down’ in order to widen their audience and cater to the needs of casuals; whether it’s survival-horrors being transformed into full-on shooters, or RPGs being converted into hack-and-slashers and corridor simulators (I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy XIII).
Is this a problem for gaming? Does it matter that Dead Space 3 seems desperate to win over a type of gamer who would have had zero interest in the first two titles?
Some argue that it doesn’t. One line of reasoning is that publishers are in business, after all, and are inevitably going to look to increase their bottom line at any available opportunity. It’s an inevitable reality, therefore, that corporations like EA are going to seek to increase and build their consumer-base.
With Triple A development costs so high, they’re going to want future installments of franchises to sell more copies and produce bigger profits than before, and if this means adapting the series to broaden its appeal – so be it. If we actually want to see more Dead Space games, so the argument goes, we have to accept that certain concessions must be made to keep the IP economically-viable.
Those who espouse this view have been quick to point to the recent, sad demise of THQ: a company that produced a number of highly-acclaimed and reasonably-popular series, but nonetheless sank under the weight of its financial burdens. Sympathisers with EA’s strategy suggest that THQ went under because it actively failed to broaden the appeal of its franchises, with cult hits and modest commercial successes not enough to keep such a key player afloat.
But even if we accept this argument, and don’t just see the strategy as corporate greed overtaking the desires of fans, it’s hard to swallow the idea that every single non-indie mainstream franchise must somehow inevitably cater to the widest possible taste. If we go down that road, every single experience will be reduced to an FPS or third-person shooter, and the days of novelty or innovation in mainstream gaming will be gone for good.
That said, perhaps there is a middle way. Some have argued that it’s possible to cater to a multitude of tastes and preferences within a single gaming experience. For example, Mass Effect 3 allowed shooter enthusiasts the option of dodging dialogue trees and running away from RPG elements altogether by selecting ‘action mode’, while those who had little interest or experience in combat could select the ‘narrative mode’ to make the in-game action ridiculously easy.
With Dead Space 3, too, it has been suggested that concessions made to action-hungry CoD fans and non-console gamers won’t necessarily impact on the enjoyment of the hardcore faithful at all.
Calhoun has been keen to stress that the devs “don’t want to alienate our fans”, and ever since the first mutterings of malcontent stirred up online, EA and Visceral have been quick to try and address concerns and reassure fans that the horror is very much clear and present, and the game still true to its roots. In effect, they have suggested that they can indeed have their cake and eat it – reaching out to non-horror gamers, while at the same time keeping the core experience intact.
To some extent, their arguments make sense. The much-maligned presence of co-op – with its twin-gun blazing, cheesy quipping action – is entirely optional; the controversial use of micro-transactions, which many have put down to a greedy cash-squeeze, are actually aimed specifically at ‘casual’ players who want to buy themselves an easier route through the experience, while more seasoned Dead Space players who want a sound challenge can simply hunt for the equivalent bonuses as in-game collectibles.
However, while this may be true, it’s hard to believe that some of the alterations being made to Dead Space in the latest entry won’t completely change the nature of the beast – and not necessarily for the better.
As a passionate horror enthusiast who has seen a number of my favourite franchises completely lose touch with what made them great in the first place, I have to say I cannot personally overlook some of the changes that seem set to fundamentally disrupt the tone and feel of the series. And I’m certain that many fans feel exactly the same way.
Yes, I’ve yet to play the full-game. And yes, you can accuse me of ignorant, wanton speculation on that basis. But I’m sorry: the idea of rolling from cover-to-cover and trading shots with gun-toting enemies seems like the last thing I would ever want in a Dead Space game. And when I contemplate the sheer frequency of enemy attacks, gunfights and carnage that seems set to land, all I can say is that by far the weakest part of Dead Space 2, in my opinion, was the final few levels in which you had to simply carve your way through an increasingly-tedious procession of Necromorph-packed rooms.
As for the idea that co-op makes no difference should you elect not to go for it, I can’t actually agree with that. The whole scale, set-up and atmosphere of the environments has to change if you’re designing the title to be co-op friendly – from the size of the environments, to the nature of the challenges.
In my view the recently-released demo did little to allay my concerns on all of these matters. Dead Space 3 may turn out to be a perfectly slick and competent action game, but it might well not be much of a Dead Space game. And that, surely, is the whole point.
Perhaps the lesson EA need to learn is that alienating your core fanbase can actually be a sure-fire way of hurting your overall revenue, rather than boosting it as they seem to assume.
If we look at that most similar of stories from recent months, it makes for a compelling comparison. Upon release, Resident Evil 6 received absolutely brutal reviews from a number of critics. But, more importantly, the game’s sales fell well-short of projected totals. Estimates of 7 million were slashed to 6 million. Estimates of 6 million were slashed to an unspecified number. It was far from the big-money bonanza that Capcom expected.
The company were forced to revise their annual financial projections as a result, and it became clear that chasing the Call Of Duty crowd had not paid off for their all-singing, all-dancing blockbuster in the way that they’d hoped. When you consider that Resident Evil 2 sold 5 million copies on the first PlayStation at a time when gaming was no way near as popular as it is now, you have to say that assertions about survival-horror being too small a market for their franchise ring increasingly hollow.
When all is said and done then, the changes made to Dead Space 3 are something of a gamble for EA in terms of the future direction of the series. If they get the sales figures they were looking for, they’ll likely proclaim that they were right all along, and that broadening the appeal of the game by making it more action-oriented and commercially-palatable was an inspired strategy that completely paid-off. Literally.
However, for fans who were more into the slow-burning horror sections of the first two Dead Spaces, and hate everything about the notion of a cover system and constant shoot-outs, both possibilities for the the commercial outcome of Dead Space 3 spell potential heart-break.
After all: if the game is a huge success then the series seems likely to only further dilute its original focus in favour of all-out action. And if it turns out to be a flop, then well; mistake on EA’s part or not – perhaps we’ll never even see a Dead Space 4…
Mark Butler is the author of Interactive Nightmares: A History of Video Game Horror, available to download now for Kindle, PC, iPad, iPhone and Android.
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