Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Case for Case: Zero

I've made no secret of my love for the original Dead Rising. Naturally, I've been following the development of the sequel with some interest. And a bit of trepidation.

When Capcom handed the franchise's reins to Blue Castle Games, a Canadian studio known primarily for The BIGS games, I wasn't sure what to think. On one hand, Dead Rising did seem to suffer from a little too much Capcom-ness: the controls were (probably intentionally) awkward, hit detection was spotty, and that damn save system - the much-maligned single slot - felt more like a middle finger to the player than a clever structural obstacle. And despite its best efforts to appear thoroughly Western, there was something indelibly Japanese about the game, that peculiar sense of artificial difficulty that seems to permeate Capcom titles. (Call it the Resident Evil syndrome.) Maybe a North American developer was just what the franchise needed to ratchet up its over-the-top combination of gore and absurdity for the sequel. Even Keiji Inafune, producer of the original, says it's time to inject more Western blood.

On the other hand, dudes had only made baseball games.

So releasing the prequel chapter of Dead Rising 2, Case: Zero, on Xbox Live in August would be either a stroke of genius or a suicidal plunge for the franchise - and for Blue Castle. 500,000 downloads later, I think we can safely say it turned out to be the former. Reviews have been favorable, Capcom bought Blue Castle, and Dead Rising 2, which had lost some momentum this summer after its release was delayed, appears to be firmly back on track.

I was one of those 500,000 downloaders, of course, and while I enjoyed the game, what's most interesting about Case: Zero is not the game itself - although it was a lot of fun - but the gamble of the "Pre-LC" model. There were, after all, any number of factors working against this strategy:
  • Risk to goodwill. The mere mention of DLC these days seems to send a certain vocal contingent of gamers into a tizzy. Not only are we bombarded with additional content that too often feels like blatant money-grabbing, but we're being nickel-and-dimed like never before with the piecemeal removal of features. Those $60 games we buy are really more like $80 games when DLC is factored in. And now the publishers want to sell us content for a game that's not even released yet? Could feel like a slap in the face.
  • The myth of the "paid demo." It's silly to call Case: Zero a paid demo, as many people continue to do, since you can actually play at least some of it for free. Still, Capcom had to know they were taking a big risk with public perception, since that vocal contingent would almost certainly intentionally misinterpret Capcom's strategy.
  • Undercutting the retail game. Having played Case: Zero, I can say this isn't much of a concern; if anything, I think it'll work in reverse. But there was certainly a possibility that consumers could have simply bought the DLC and forgone buying the retail game, having already gotten their zombie-killing fix. This little appetizer could become the main course.
  • Sabotaging the retail game. Paying for an unknown quantity is a tough proposition, and Dead Rising 2 is not as safe a bet as most sequels, given the change in developers. The above point assumes that Case: Zero is a good game. What if it had sucked? This gamble could have sunk Dead Rising 2, and by extension, Blue Castle Games.

But since we know the Case: Zero experiment was a success, let's look at what it got right:

  • Price. Which should be written PRICE. Because for $5.00, this game is a fantastic value. I've blogged before about how "value" is a tricky proposition when it comes to DLC, but this is an easy call. The low point of entry largely dispels the risk of paying for an unknown quantity. If it sucks, you're only out a large coffee.
  • Scope. Because Case: Zero served double-duty as a demo and a prequel, it had to get the actual content-to-teaser content ratio just right. And here is maybe its greatest success. The "campaign" is just long enough, at a few hours, to give the player a good sense of the core mechanics and ethos, but not so long as to discourage the player from buying the retail game. It hits the beats it needs to hit: the new weapon-combining and shopping mechanics, the psychopath battle, the multiple simultaneous timed missions, the survivor escorts, the absurd costumes, the item-hunting, and, of course, the freedom to just screw around killing zombies.
  • Modularity. Again, I've written before about how this is a crucial aspect of good DLC. Case: Zero's narrative, such as it is, can be encapsulated in a sentence - stuck in a zombie-infested small town, Chuck Greene needs to find his daughter Katey a dose of Zombrex before the clock runs out - and is thoroughly inessential, I'm guessing, to the actual narrative of Dead Rising 2. Case: Zero and the recently-announced, unfortunately-titled epilogue DLC Case: West, bookend the retail game nicely, without making any pretense that they are essential pieces of the Dead Rising 2 experience.

I doubt there's an effective way to track this, but it would be fascinating to see how many of Case: Zero's purchasers follow through in purchasing the retail disc. My guess is it'll be a fairly big percentage. And if Capcom can score that high conversion rate, the implications for other publishers get real interesting.

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