Traveling to Electronic Arts for an exclusive preview of Dead Space shows just how far EA has come, yet how far the company — and industry as a whole — still has to travel. As the driver of the black Audi Quattro slowly pulled away from DailyGame, he casually asked what we’d be doing in the Bay Area. “Previewing a new sci-fi survival horror game from EA,” I replied. “It’s called Dead Space.” With one confused glance in the rear-view mirror, the driver told us all we needed to know about our beloved industry.
Dead Space marks a big step forward for EA, a company often labeled as the biggest victim of “sequelitis” and one that lacks innovation. A brand new IP and new genre for EA, Dead Space will mark new ground for the industry’s second-largest publisher when it ships this fall for PS3 and Xbox 360. To its credit, EA is taking a big gamble with the game, but the company knows that in order to maintain a leadership position, it can’t afford to keep resting on its Madden NFL laurels.
But outside of the game industry and investment circles, our driver’s reaction begs the question: does anyone even notice EA’s big changes?
As we travel the short distance from DailyGame to the airport, our conversation with the driver spans two cities, five publishers, six years of DailyGame history and, dare we say it, a cultural divide that we didn’t expect to encounter from a guy in his early 30s. “We just got back from E3,” we told the driver, “and already we’re headed to California again for a gaming event. EA invited us to their Gamers Day next week, too, but we just can’t afford to be out of the office that long.”
Again, a blank stare.
“E3 is an industry trade show,” I explained.
“Oh, OK.” He paused. “So was it busy?” At least he was trying to make conversation.
We explained that E3 was different this year, but it definitely kept us occupied and introduced us to some games we’re really looking forward to. We told him how EA, the company we’re visiting for the next two days (again, just to make sure he was tracking the conversation) used its E3 press conference to demonstrate a surprising willingness to tread new ground, with no fewer than four new franchises — Left 4 Dead, Dead Space, RAGE and Mirror’s Edge — representing a significant leap of faith for a company known more for its year-in-and-year-out sports games than its IP innovations.
By the time we got to the airport, our driver had probably talked more about games than he had during the past six months. “Hey, have fun while you’re down there,” he said as he opened our door.
“Thanks, we’ll do our best,” we said.
What our driver didn’t know, and what few people outside the industry seem to care about, is that our visit to EA to play Dead Space should be fun. That’s not something we could have said two years ago, when EA was battling perception and employment-practices hurdles and exuding — at least publicly — an almost holier-than-thou attitude. During the span of the past 24 months, however, EA has undergone some significant changes, resulting in not only an improvement in public perception, but an arguable improvement in product quality. Along the way, it also found the strength to break out of its sequel-heavy shell and introduce new IPs.
Which brings us to Dead Space. EA is trying to make a big splash with its new sci-fi horror game, as it’s created a series of comic books, videos and events like this to drum up attention for what it hopes will be a successful franchise. On one hand, EA faces an uphill battle, as gamers clamor to learn what makes the game truly different from DOOM and similar dark-corridor-filled space-based shooters. On the other hand, there’s a sense of excitement about Dead Space as we talk with people who have shown up early to this event, with people almost impressed at EA’s dedication to try something new.
Yet as we wait for the two-day event to start tonight, for EA to dim the lights in its on-campus auditorium and show two classic horror films in high definition, I can’t help but think back to this morning’s ride to the airport. “Dead Space.” It garnered nothing but a blank stare from our driver. Those of us at the event, and those of you reading this article, know what Dead Space is. We, and you, are eager to see how the game’s shaping up. We, and you, know how much EA has changed during the past two years. But those outside the industry? They’ll give the same blank stare as our driver.
Videogames as an industry may rival Hollywood, but individual games themselves still have a long way to go. Mainstream consumers know Warner Bros., Fox and New Line. They know individual movies and upcoming films. Ask them to name a game company, though, and you’ll probably just get “Atari” and “Nintendo,” and the game will be “Mario Bros.” — which technically isn’t even a game.
The fact that EA has stirred excitement among those of us here and those of us in the industry is remarkable, but it’s important to balance that with “and it’s really only noticed by gamers.” Now, does that even matter? With so many gamers in the world, probably not. Yet as EA strives to “go big” with its new franchise, what exactly does “going big” entail? If it means having Dead Space become a household name, EA — like everyone in the industry — has a long way to go. But ask any of us here, and any of you reading this article, and the game’s “mainstream” status really doesn’t matter. We just want it to provide a good experience and an entertaining time. Because really, that’s what got us into games in the first place, and it’s what will keep us playing games for years to come.
— Jonas Allen