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Dead Space: Extraction was released on the Wii to critical acclaim but only achieved low sales figures. Is there a reason for this disconnect - and if so, why wasn't this picked up by the reviews? (CAUTION: potential spoilers ahead)

Jamie Mann, Blogger

July 26, 2010

5 Min Read

Released in late 2009 and acting as a prequel to the earlier release of Dead Space on the Xbox 360 and PS3, Dead Space: Extraction was mired in controversy from the day it was announced.  The reason for this was two-fold: first, it was being brought out on the Wii, which is less powerful than the consoles which the original Deep Space was released on and is perceived to be non-viable for mature/hardcore games.  Secondly, it was going to be a light-gun game, which many believed to be a significant step back from the third-person shooting action of Dead Space (and quite possibly directly due to the Wii's lack of processing power).

Arguments aside, when Dead Space: Extraction was released, it was to some glowing reviews:  GameRankings has some 58 reviews for the game and an overall average score of 83.8%, placing it firmly in the top-twenty Wii games of 2009. However, this acclaim didn't help with the sales figures: Wikipedia states that it shifted less than 10'000 copies in the US during the first week of release and the (oft taken with a pinch of salt) vgchartz website claims it sold a total of around 250,000 copies in total, a far cry from the 2.2 million copies of Dead Space which flew off the shelves or the 690,000 units that Sega's equally mature (if not more so!) HOTD: Overkill managed.

So: what went wrong? Is the Wii marketplace really that hostile to mature games? Was the lightgun genre already saturated? Were there issues with marketing? Did the reviews miss something?

It's possible to point to all of these items and identify arguments for and against each - but I'd like to focus on the last one: did the reviews miss something?  Virtually all of them scored the game highly (give or take gripes about the duration of the game) and the comments pages for each review are filled with people clamouring to agree.  Indeed, I personally rate DS:E highly: it's well designed, technically excellent and highly polished. 

However, I still think there's a point that all of the reviews and comments missed - and it's something which may have been a crucial factor in DS:E's commercial failure.  It's a fairly simple thing too: DS:E isn't really a game.  It's an interactive movie - and one where success in progressing the plot generally results in a negative reward.  As a result, DS:E has very limited replayability - and marginal multiplayer appeal.

To take the first two chapters as an example (and using Youtube videos for timing information):

The first chapter sees the player taking on the role of Sam Caldwell, as he helps to excavate the Red Marker. This lasts for approximately 25 minutes: of this, roughly five minutes is spent fighting off perhaps twenty enemies while his artefact-induced hallucinations become stronger. At the end of the chapter, Sam is killed and is blamed for all of the deaths which have occurred, thereby making the player feel like a victim and indirectly responsible for murder (or from a less emotional viewpoint, making their actions effectively pointless).

The second chapter follows a detective as he gets caught up in events. This chapter is approximately 27 minutes long, and the player actively shoots things for roughly 7 minutes. As with the first chapter, enemy head-count is somewhere around twenty - though at least this time it ends with a feeling of hope: there is a route to escape, if the player can survive...

It can be argued that the first level is a tutorial, and that the difficulty (and hence number of attackers) can be turned up. However, this doesn't change the fact that on a player's first experience of the game, they will spend 45 minutes of the first hour watching the game play itself, while shooting just one enemy a minute on average! Compare this to HOTD:OK, where the first chapter is about 18 minutes long, contains three 90-second (and easily skippable) self-contained cut-scenes and the zombie count is probably above a hundred.  And the player isn't stitched up with a plot-twist at the end.

Which would you rather play?  More importantly, which would you bring out when a friend comes over for a beer or two?  If the answer is DS:E, then you have some very patient friends; unfortunately, I suspect the majority of the people who bought DS:E decided to fire up something else, and without this "free" word-of-mouth promotion, there was no real chance for DS:E to pick up additional sales.

In any case, there's a further question: why wasn't this picked up in reviews - I only found one review which explicitly touched on this - and it was treated as unimportant, with the slightly odd phrase "gamers looking for a gameplay oriented shooter should look elsewhere". After all, who wants a game with gameplay?

I can't help but think that maybe this shows up a blindspot for game reviewers. DS:E appears to have been assessed on the basis of how well it managed to implement its interactive-movie experience - but this is only half of the equation. The other half is "will people want to play this", and for the traditionally multiplayer-orientated lightgun genre, the answer "once, in singleplayer mode" isn't the answer which is needed!

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