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Recently I wrote a blog post detailing my impression of the Dead Space 3 demo. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it. There were some tense moments, though I wasn't ever truly scared. That said, the sequel does seem to be making some earnest steps forward to improve the Dead Space formula. But not all of those steps are for the better. Here, I wanted to play devil's advocate and explore some of the missteps Visceral and EA may have made with their most recent instalment into the franchise.
The Loneliest Number
One of my biggest concerns about Dead Space 3 is its co-op feature. Yes, it's optional, but that doesn't mean that it's not the better option. You see, if one makes a drop-in, drop-out co-op campaign, they essentially have to make two campaigns. On the one hand, if they make a single player campaign, then simply add co-op to it, the cooperative play feature is going to end up feeling tacked on and as a result, it won't feel as fleshed out as it should. What's worse however, is building a single player experience around cooperative play. If I jump into the game solo and it feels like something missing, or that I'm playing it wrong, then you've screwed over those people. I shouldn't have to dig through my limited friends list just to see who has the same game as me, and hope their schedule synthesises with mine. If these modes cannot be equally represented, then solo should always be superior, because that is the path of least resistance for the player.
What also worries me (although admittedly, much less) is how this will affect the story. Will there be two versions of the Dead Space 3 canon? Will the story be told in two different ways? Since it's drop-in/drop-out, how will this be handled? If this isn't done with finesse, it could end up harming the game's since of immersion, which is a shame, because that sense of seamless immersion is my favourite thing about this entire franchise.
Another Way To Play
Also, as a side note, since John Carver gets his own unique versions of different suits, what if we could play as him? Resident Evil 5 let us play through the entire story as Sheva Alomar, though that game had an AI partner at all times, so playing as Carver would likely be a non-canon titbit, like the Hand Cannon. Well, it's something to think about at least.
Though most of my fears were quelled when I played the demo, I still have to worry about the big picture here. This franchise has always prided itself on scares. It wasn't always the best in the horror department, but it still managed to build a genuinely creepy atmosphere in some places, and certainly did manage to scare the pants off of me a few times. That said, by trying to appeal to a mainstream, has Dead Space 3 lost its original target market?
Frank Gibeau has already stated that Dead Space 3 needs to move a whopping five million copies just to justify its very existence. First off, isn't that a little high? How bloated is this budget exactly? Have development costs really gone up that much? I can't believe that. Honestly, it sounds more like EA wants more money, but doesn't really need it. Either way, this franchise is on a precarious precipice, and I don't want to see it reach its nadir.
That said, my main fear is that EA and Visceral may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy here. By trying to hit that magical mainstream that everyone wants to appeal to so badly, they may in fact be losing customers. We've seen it all before with Resident Evil 6. By trying to homogenise their game, they lost their niche. They turned off their target market completely by de-emphasising the survival horror aspect (you know, the genre that they invented?) and instead focusing on ridiculous, over the top action set-pieces. Essentially, Capcom was trying to make their game more like Call of Duty by pandering to their constant need of ADHD action and constant explosion, but still maintain an atmosphere of horror. The game was pulling in two directions at once, and as a result, it pleased no one. The action-packed gameplay was held back by the game's survival horror holdovers, and the actual horror was completely watered down. The game was a homogonised marketing mess with no vision, and no identity. And you know what? The reviews were mixed at best and its sales were worse.
Back to Dead Space. Remember when EA told us they needed to appeal to a wider audience? I'm more than a little worried that a pattern has started to emerge here. In an effort to make even more money, publishers try to appeal to everyone, and in the process, forget their game's identity. Still paranoid about losing their original target market, they still try to cling to the original idea, albeit whilst still watering it down. The result? No one is happy. The mainstream isn't interested, and the niche that were all but guaranteed to purchase a copy were scared away. These publishers are essentially the Icarus of the industry, and we as consumers are Daedalus, forced to watch helplessly as they fly high on ambition, only to have their sales plummet into the ocean. Yeah, I'm not great at metaphors, sorry.
Thing is, when that announcement was made, when people noticed that emphasis on action, they were immediately turned off. Whether their fears are justified or not, whether they're assumptions or correct or incorrect, many have likely already made up their mind, consciously or subconsciously, whether or not they are going to buy. I have no doubt that are plenty of die-hard Dead Space fans who have already given up on this franchise for the very reasons I've listed above. Question is, how many?
Cover Art Clichés and Consumer Controversies
This might sound like a nitpick on my part, but it's something that really grinds my gears, so I had to talk about this somewhere. We're all thinking it. Hell, Arin Hanson and Jon Jafari even pointed it out when they played the demo. It infuriates me to no end because, like Resident Evil 6, this is indicative of a lack of vision and identity. I'm talking of course, about the box art.
Take a look at the image above. Look familiar? I bet it does. It looks an awful lot like this. And this. And this. And this. And a little like this. And sadly, a bit like this. Starting to see a pattern here? This isn't so much a problem with Dead Space 3 as much as it is with the industry as a whole. These are the latest in a series of cover art stereotypes. You know, a serious-looking male protagonist striking a badass pose, typically in front of some rubble, or an explosion, or even a wintry scene. Even if you can't exactly articulate it, you can clearly see it. This in itself may not be a big problem (though I admit I am saddened deeply by the box art), but it is indicitive of Dead Space losing its identity, and that certainly is a problem. You know what other game had a lack of identity? Resident Evil 6.
In order to avoid these pitfalls that Capcom fell in, Visceral has to understand its target market. They need to get inside their customer's head, figure out what they want, and deliver that all in one $60 package. People don't want Call of Duty. If they want to play a Call of Duty game, they'll go play Call of Duty. You can't beat Treyarch at their own game. By finding their niche however, and understanding the target market, they can make a profit. You see, times are tough. Games are very expensive. And yes, I know that when you account for inflation, they probably cost less now. Of course, when you account for the world recession, the consumer's priorities change. I'm no different. I have to be frugal with my money in hard times like these. I can only afford to buy the best games. I'm not buying any Call of Duties this year; I'm buying the games that stand out. If I knew nothing about the Dead Space IP, but saw that box art, I honestly wouldn't be interested. It's completely uninspired and homogenised. It's engineered to tap the mainstream. Simply put, Dead Space 3 doesn't really stand out on store shelves.
Now, let's look at some of the box art for the previous two games.
Take a close look at both of those. Can you see how that would stand out a bit more? Consider all those other games I linked to in the first paragraph of this section. If you put the cover of Dead Space in there, it'd stick out like a sore thumb. That's because it wasn't afraid of its own identity. It had vision.
In fact, upon analysing it, I'd say that the box art for the original Dead Space is amongst my favourites. It's unique, touches lightly on the premise (Dismemberment. In space.), and gives you some idea of what you're getting into (a horror game). The cover of the sequel, like the game itself, is more focused on Isaac Clarke. It's simple, yet effective: a close-up of his badass helmet. It's not anything stellar, but it's certainly not cliché.
Going back to cover art for the first game, the thing I like most about it is how risqué it is. It's a disembodied bloodstained hand floating through space. It's audacious, brutal, and dare I say... visceral. This is what I always respected about Visceral, in an evil genius sort of way. They understood their audience. Remember the protesters EA paid to stir up controversy about Dante's Inferno? I know everyone remembers that "Your Mom Hates Dead Space 2" advert. These were risky sure, but they appealed to just the right audience. The marketing team knew what kind of people wanted to play their game, and they appealed to them. The marketing, and even the box art, all reflected this. This game was for people who were profane. This isn't for the light of heart. It's for those who like living on the edge. By contrast, the cover of Dead Space 3 just looks... safe. No risk, no reward. Based on what I've seen from Dead Space 3, I couldn't really tell you who they were marketing to. Honestly, my best guess would be fans of Call of Duty. And who plays Call of Duty?
Frat boys and five-year-olds.
When did free-to-play become pay now, pay later? Don't get me wrong. Microtransactions aren't that big of a deal in FTP online games. It's how they make money (along with ad revenue I suppose). It's the natural trade-off to getting in for free; you are exposed to microtransactions. But even then, there's a right and wrong way to go about it. Exclusive goodies and the coolest stuff? Sure. Paying to break the game? No, I don't think so. Take a look at Star Trek Online. For the most part, it does microtransactions pretty well, especially when it comes to buying new ships. Pay-to-play players don't necessarily get the best stuff; you aren't going to buy your way to the top and dominate the poorer players. The stuff you pay for is arguably cooler however, and that's what you should pay for. The stuff you want to buy. Not the things you feel you've been deprived of.
Which brings me to Dead Space 3. Yep, it has a microtransactions system. Surprised? You shouldn't be. This is EA, after all. Of course, that doesn't mean it's a bad thing... right? Right?
Well, there's already an inherent problem with this system in a $60 game. You see, with a FTP MMO, you can get an arguably relatively inferior experience without paying a single cent. Premium players get the neatest stuff, but so long as your free players don't feel like their experience has been purposely road-blocked to pressure them into paying money, you're fine. That said, those people are playing for free. They haven't paid any kind of premium. We have. Consumers who purchase Dead Space 3 will have to pay $60 just to get into the game. Way back when, when you bought a game, you get the whole package. After all, if you buy a game, aren't you entitled to the entirety of its content? I think so. Here, we pay to get it in... and pay even more to get the best experience. There's something wrong with that.
Now, Visceral assures us that their microtransactions system is just for more casual players who want an easier time getting through the campaign. Oh, well that seems fair. I guess there's nothing wrong with ensuring everyone gets to have a fun time, right? It's fun for everyone, right? Wrong.
That might sound like a fine justification for it, but what many don't realise is that many games already do this. In fact, games have been doing this for decades. They're called cheat codes. In the original Dead Space you could enter in a series of button prompts to get you free air, an increase in health or stasis, nodes, and credits. These things all made the game easier. Whether you were a casual player who wanted an easier time, or someone who simply wanted to mess around and get through the game quicker, you had the option of entering in cheats. These have been around for years, and now we're paying for them. Are there going to be cheat codes in Dead Space 3? Doubtful. Why add more content and features in the game, when they can nickel and dime the customer for them instead? These dirty business practices turn me off to the game, and make me loath it as a product. It's not something I want to support. Well, I want to, but I feel guilty about it. I shouldn't.
The Day One Dilemma
All of this creates an uneasy dichotomy. On the one hand, I'm a huge fan of this IP. I love this franchise to death, and I desperately don't want it to die. At the time time however, I hate it for its dirty business practices and it's homogenised, watered down vision. What's worse however, is that I might just hate myself for buying it.
Consider how this game is being delivered to us. If you get the limited addition, you get two bundles, which will no doubt be sold as downloadable content later down the road. If you pre-ordered with GameStop, you get a sweet submachine gun. If you played Mass Effect 3, you get an exclusive suit of armour. Oh, and in case you didn't hear, the game is shipping with eleven pieces of day-one DLC. Add to all of that the microtransactions that don't even add content to the game. It's pay-to-win, and we're being charged for something that was once commonplace to simply include in the game itself. I hate to say it, but the closer this game gets to release, the more it epitomises everything that's wrong with the video game industry.
This is not how add-ons should be done. Really, when was the last time we got any substitutional downloadable content? Dead Space 2: Severed was the first and last. The problem aren't these things being sold to us individually, don't get me wrong. The N7 armour is a nice treat; it's a sweet bonus that rewards me for consumer loyalty. Hell, I wouldn't even mind spending a buck or two for a unique suit of armour. Again however, going back to Star Trek Online, it shouldn't break the game. It should be unique, cool, and interesting, but don't make us pay-to-win, and don't pressure us into microtransactions that add nothing to the game. Seriously, how can that even be considered downloadable content, when you don't get anything you didn't already have?
No, the problem with Dead Space 3 is its excess. Because it takes it too far, I'm afraid to support them at all, lest I encourage bad business. Let's use Borderlands 2 as an example. In addition to forgettable albeit neat bonuses for pre-ordering, there's four substantial add-ons that add a considerable amount of content for the game, for which you can purchase a season pass and save some money. Not only that, but they've also given us a few cool costumes to customise our characters with. They don't break the game, and they only cost a dollar. It's a perfect holdover, and you know what? I bought a whole bunch of them. I bought them because I wasn't sickened by the game. I didn't feel pressured into it, and I never felt like Gearbox was twisting my arm to make me buy it. I buy DLC for Borderlands 2 because I want to, and because it doesn't feel cleaved from the original experience. Oh, and did I mention that they give away free stuff on their Twitter page? Yeah, free. I would love to see a free suit or two in the PlayStationStore/XBL Marketplace. It's a sign of goodwill, and an investment. You give something small away for free now, and you win over the customer. Sadly, this doesn't seem to be EA's MO.
It pains me to see a franchise I love so much succumb to failing, misguided business tactics. I want to see this franchise flourish, but I don't see that happening with Electronic Arts at the helm. I want to love this game. I do. I just wish there wasn't so much to hate about it. Why can't I buy a product I feel good about?