Dead Space as a metaphor for a flailing and directionless EA

The Dead Space series is a weird one for me. As I’ve said before, I am a total wimp who doesn’t like horror anything but for some reason, Dead Space interested me from the moment it was announced and I’ve always been a big fan of it. Maybe it’s because it takes place in a sci-fi setting, maybe it’s because the story is mature but not terribly serious, maybe it’s because it’s not really a psychological horror title, I have no idea. The first game was a very pleasant surprise for me, the second game wavered a little bit but was still generally excellent. I also thought Dead Space Extraction was really good, if quite a shift in direction. Then came Dead Space 3 which I just finished last week. While I am looking forward to doing a New Game+ run in co-op (yeah, it has that but more on that later), I was generally very disappointed with Dead Space 3 as an entry in the series. While still generally well put together as a game, so much of it didn’t feel coherent with the hallmarks of the previous two titles and it feels like many of the elements I didn’t enjoy were just bolted onto a franchise where they really had no place in an effort to broaden the audience. Capcom had a similar problem with Resident Evil 6 and if sales of both of these games are to be believed, not only was the audience not broadened but it actually shrank as those who were already invested felt that the series had moved away from what they liked.

The more I’ve thought about this, the more I see the Dead Space series as a metaphor for Electronic Arts as a whole. This is a company that’s had a very turbulent few years. They went from being hugely profitable to losing buckets of money. Now they’re treading water again but only by wildly flailing from trend to trend in the hopes of catching onto what’s cool but never really succeeding in the long run. This culminated with the recent “resignation” of CEO John Riccitiello after yet another financial misstep and a series of embarrassing flubs such as the SimCity launch and the epic failure of Star Wars: The Old Republic. Yes, they were also voted Worst Company In America for the second year by The Consumerist readers but I’m not giving that any credit. Internet polls are dumb, The Consumerist is a site with an agenda and if you voted for EA over American banks and oil companies, you’re either ignorant or stupid. Nonetheless, this was also a black mark for them.

Everyone from gamers to critics to the handful of analysts that actually have a clue have one common theme among their reasons for EA’s troubles: They are a company that’s lost focus. There is certainly a lot of evidence to support that. They’ve been on an acquisition bender for several years now, buying up numerous companies in the casual, mobile and social game spaces for often hugely inflated prices just to secure them before competitors could. Most of these acquisitions have not worked out very well. PopCap has announced one new game and put out nothing new since they were purchased and EA seems to be rapidly exiting the social space as that bubble quickly pops, something the collapse of Zynga foreshadowed. Their mobile stuff is doing fairly well as far as I know but I suspect that may also change as that bubble begins to pop too. They are madly flailing their arms around in all directions, hoping that they smack their hand into a hit. I think this is no better demonstrated than with the Dead Space series.

The story goes that Dead Space was actually conceived as a skunkworks project inside EA. A bunch of developers were working on other stuff and had this idea for a AAA sci-fi horror game. They worked on a prototype for a while and when they thought it was ready, showed it to the top brass who decided to give it a shot, created the Visceral Games team and gave them the budget to build their title. This was right around when John Riccitiello joined EA as CEO, promising to change the company’s much maligned past ways with a big push into new IP and creative ideas. This seemed like a great idea and Dead Space was one of the first things released with this mindset.  The whole story behind is was great and sounded like the start of a great creative endeavour. It was generally considered a very good game, though some die hard horror fans thought it was a little light on the deep scares. Personally, it was the perfect blend of horror and unique action that was needed to peak my interest and get me to pick it up. It didn’t sell great but placed very respectably for a new IP in the horror genre and well enough for EA to green light a sequel.

Dead Space 2 was still very good (some actually consider it better) but there were signs that it was veering a little ways off the course set by the first game. The protagonist suddenly found the ability to speak and there was a lot more character interaction and direct exposition, rather than just more organic, environmental storytelling. Combat became a greater focus and the scares became more obvious and less frequent. One big improvement was made in that the environments varied a fair bit more but there were also more than a few clichés thrown in, such as having to make your way through a creepy, abandoned nursery where you are introduced to the Crawler enemy which is essentially a mutated baby. Perhaps most jarring of all, a competitive multiplayer mode that exactly no one asked for was added. It was janky, unbalanced, half-baked and generally just not very fun. Worst of all, it was hidden behind EA’s stupid Online Pass paywall. Needless to say, the community for it withered quickly.

A lot of these changes (in particular the multiplayer) felt a lot like EA needed to check a certain amount of bullet points in a list in order to make sure Dead Space 2 was getting to as big an audience as possible. This was a time where every big publisher thought every title had to have multiplayer as a means to prevent people from trading games back in. It took a while but some eventually realised this doesn’t work. It still happens occasionally today (Tomb Raider anyone?) but more publishers are realising the key to keeping single player games in consumer’s hands is compelling DLC, rather than multiplayer no one wants.

This year, we got Dead Space 3 and it couldn’t be more of a departure for the series. Eyebrows were immediately raised when EA Labels President Frank Gibeau (who I’m convinced actively dislikes his company’s customers) came out in the press and basically issued a threat, saying that it had to sell 5 million copies in order to justify itself. That’s more than the entire series sales to date combined according to some estimates and anyone with half a brain knew that was a ridiculous target, especially for the third entry in the series that was largely using the same engine and assets. Why EA set such an unrealistic target is unknown but it screamed that they were setting this title up for “broader appeal” which is corporate speak for “shoehorning in every feature we can think of.” Did they ever deliver on that.

Dead Space 3 takes most the series existing concepts and dumbs them down, while adding more elements no one wanted. Ammo became far more plentiful and was turned from weapon specific to universal. The levels were designed so you always knew exactly where enemies would pop out, removing any essence of fear or tension. A bunch of boring side missions were added, almost all of which used copy/pasted environments. The story went from cheesy sci-fi to face palmingly stupid, with an ending that seemed final (if completely batshit insane), only to be opened wide for another potential sequel in the DLC. Instead of competitive multiplayer, they added full campaign co-op, removing what few fear elements the game had left. This addition felt like it was made at the last minute as the story conceits to justify it make little sense and the character created to be played by second player has about as much depth as a teaspoon. Ironically, the story and environments are so lame that I actually think playing co-op would be more fun. Lastly and most contentiously, microtransactions were added to this full-price, $60 retail title. To be fair, they were not required to have a full experience and only served to benefit people who basically wanted to play overpowered but having a “Press Y for Downloadable Content” prompt appear on every single workbench in the game was immersion breaking to say the least.

In the end, all this added up to make Dead Space 3 a soulless shell of an entry in an otherwise great series. It was no longer scary, it was no longer unique, it was just another dudebro-friendly, cover-based, third-person action shooter. Nothing of what attracted me to Dead Space in the first place was here. What we got was a creative series that had all the sharp corners sanded down and which was asked to fill out a bunch of checkmarks on some executive’s feature list, whether they were appropriate or not because “broader appeal” is somehow what they thought would guarantee it 5 million sales. Instead, what always happens when executives apply this stupid and misguided strategy is what we got. They didn’t attract any new players and many of the original lovers of the series were turned off. So far, Dead Space 3 has sold worse than even the first game and is by all accounts, a commercial failure, even if you apply more realistic sales goals to it. Yet another once great franchise with loads of potential was ruined by EA’s meddling and their attempts at obtaining “broader appeal” having the exact opposite effect.

This isn’t the first time EA has done this and likely won’t be the last. But you can look at the evolution (or de-evolution as it were) of the Dead Space series as very much a parallel metaphor for this company as a whole. They start off with something good and instead of iterating on it with new instalments, trying new things but doing smaller iterations and experimentation with new design ideas (see Ubisoft with Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry for great examples of this or better yet, some of Take-Two’s recent efforts), they try to make radical changes to it that make no sense, not attracting the new players they want but also driving the devoted fans away. Then they set sales targets that anyone with a brain could see are unrealistic, then blame the developers and kill the series off when it doesn’t work out. This isn’t how you run either a creatively or financially sustainable business. Change is good, iteration is good but it has to be done in a way that fits the product you’re trying to make, complimenting and enhancing it, not mutating it with elements from everything else that worked somewhere else before. When you do that, you just get this blob of indistinct sludge with no soul to it. That’s what we got with Dead Space, it’s very nearly what we got with Mass Effect (though it could still happen with Mass Effect 4) and by all accounts, EA has learned nothing from this and it’s what they’re going to continue trying.

The companies that succeed the best over the long term are ones that understand their market, know what numbers something can realistically sell and cater to those markets with the best products possible, letting the creative people be just that. For all the deserved stick I give Apple, this is something they understand very well. EA is a company desperately trying to fill every niche in the hope that one will be so big that is will justify the investment in all the others. Rather than excelling in a few core areas, they’re doing at best mediocre in every area and that’s not how you create happy customers, which are ultimately what you need to create revenue for you. Given their years of losses and how they’re hanging onto profit with the skin of their teeth right now, you would think the undoubtedly large number of smart people at EA would realise this. Instead, we have a fired (sorry, “resigned”) CEO and if anything, EA doubling down on this failing strategy.

EA has a lot of talented developers who have demonstrated they are clearly capable of making great games. They need to pick a market, let their creative people make interesting things for that market and for the love of everything, stop trying to be all things to all people. No one can do that and trying to go after everyone ultimately leaves you with no one. When you let creativity rule the roost, money will often follow, though it may not be immediate. EA can and once did make the Dead Space that we the fans want. What we got was the furthest thing from that. If this is how they plan to treat everything going forward, they are not going to survive and I dare say, maybe they don’t deserve to.

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