The Vertical Slice Confusion and How Being Different is a Good Selling Point

“…But that’s not what our game is actually like when you get to play it” is one of the most infuriating things a developer can say about their game after it is shown at a press event. With the stealth and horror genre being bastardized by not being “sellable,” each has tried to go down a heavily traveled action path to become something more attractive to a wider audience. It’s the same every time. We see a game that had a stake in its genre, the demo gets shown and features more explosions, the fans get understandably and predictably pissed, and then the developer cowers down and tries to douse the flames. It’s a cycle that should stop, especially if the industry knows what is good for itself.

A few upcoming titles have recently fell victim to this charade. Splinter Cell: Blacklist has been heavily criticized for its demos, with a strong, unwanted focus on action, with almost zero stealth. Airstrikes, unsilenced weaponry, and plain sprinting across the battlefield were shown to fans and the Internet almost unanimously decided to express their apathy or distress for this direction.

Ubisoft has responded to fan reaction with this recent statement: “Everyone can make kneejerk reactions to a vertical slice of the game that are really uninformed as to what the whole experience is like,” said director David Footman.

Uninformed? Not necessarily. When all you show are explosions and other non-sneaky actions, it is only right for fans to assume that because that is what you, Ubisoft, are choosing to put out in the abyss of the Internet. You can’t show us ten pages of guns and expect us to assume that the rest of the chapters are filled with ninja. Show us brief previews that evenly amalgamate each aspect.

Footman says “vertical slice” but I don’t think he fully understands what that really means. A vertical slice is exactly what it sounds like: a portion of completed cake with all the filling, cake parts, and icing representative of the final cake. Ubisoft may have shown a more action oriented piece, but calling that a vertical slice means either your whole game is like that or you are misusing the phrase. Dead Space 2 had a brilliant vertical slice at E3 2010, showing the tense walk through the freezer before exploding into a boss battle. It showed everything game was about (horror and action) in a fifteen minute clip, a perfect vertical slice.

Speaking of Dead Space, Dead Space 3 has eerily gone through the same scrutiny over the past few months. During E3, Dead Space 3‘s demo was full of loud drills, titanic behemoths, and duck-and-cover firefights without the slightest hint of tension. Unsurprisingly, the horror fanatics scoffed in disgust at the ostracized attitude towards the survival horror roots.

Visceral seems to have noticed this, as evidenced by what EA stated a few months after its shaky E3 debut. EA doesn’t want to “piss off its fans” and said they will be “going to be releasing more assets over the coming months that show you how deep the horror is.” Sounds like damage control.

Later previews, like this one from Joystiq, also stated that “executive producer Steve Papoutsis tells me the demo wasn’t intended as a response to the mixed fan reaction garnered from the third entry’s action-focused E3 2012 reveal.” But we all can read between the lines here. They knew what fans were upset about and decided to show something I thought they considered “less showable.” Splinter Cell: Blacklist did something of that ilk, releasing a “ghost” playthrough of that same demo, complete with more sneaking and less things on fire.

Ubisoft and Visceral have one more disgusting thing in common. When asked why they chose to show something away from the roots, they gave a similar repulsive answer. Footland of Ubisoft said “What we showed at E3 was very explosive, very violent. That kind of stuff tends to get shown,” while John Calhoun from Visceral stated they focused on “big battles at E3 because it makes for a more bombastic presentation.”

I ran those quotes through my bullshit filter and came up with: “We want to sound like and compete with everyone else.” An attitude such as this is facepalm worthy because not only does it sell their game short, it puts them in a more crowded space.

Shhh! We’re being “sneaky.”

Again, let’s read between the lines; they want to compete with Call of Duty and make that CoD cash. This is almost destined to backfire because once you desire to emulate CoD, you start directly competing with it, which isn’t a great idea. Year after year, Call of Duty sells millions upon millions of copies to almost division of console owners. It has a prominent foothold in that space, while Dead Space and Splinter Cell had a bigger mindshare their respective, more niche genres. They’ll stand out because they look different, not sell more because they are more like something else.

It also sells Ubisoft and Visceral short of their own talents. Both studios have earned a reputation because of what they’ve done to differentiate themselves in their genres. Instead of honing in on that specialty and making a better stealth/horror game, they are choosing to walk a more open road and homogenize their games for the wrinkled hope of more cash.

Metal Gear Solid 4 was a successful game that found the perfect balance.

Big wigs don’t see it that way, as evidenced by the “these games don’t sell” nonsense company heads like spurt out. Capcom has stated that “the market is small [for survival horror], compared to the number of units Call of Duty and all those action games sell. A “survival horror” Resident Evil doesn’t seem like it’d be able to sell those kind of numbers.”

He has a point, Resident Evil won’t sell over twenty million, but why does it have to? Almost no other franchise ever does! Old Resident Evil games sold fantastically, and those were almost as survival horror as you can get. Also, lowering the budget and making more realistic expectations might alleviate that problem. Recent horror cult hits like Amnesia and Slender have shown that less is truly more, whilst scaring you and creating a compelling experience in the process (on a side note, go download Slender for free on PC if you want to experience true terror).

However, these two games do have a directed sense of focus, something the last two Resident Evil games have drunkenly stumbled upon, falling sloppily across a myriad of conflicting ideals. Failing to deliver a satisfying experience on either side of the fence is the exact problem Resident Evil 5 ran into, being utterly unsuccessful at stepping far enough in any direction, wholeheartedly dissatisfying almost everyone. Resident Evil 5 (and, from recent reviews, RE6 as well) should be the red flag of the creative bankruptcy that comes hand in hand with selling out and trying to please every crowd possible. It is possible though. Metal Gear Solid 4 was stealthy game that controlled well and Dead Space 2 was a tense shooter with a dense atmosphere, but judging by the pure action demos of Dead Space 3 and Splinter Cell: Blacklist, it’s easy to become a little worried. (Just a note, I’m not as worried about Dead Space 3 now because of the spookier stuff shown, but I’m still a bit skeptical.)

Needs more fire. Or at least some grenades.

In the same vein, EA’s Frank Gibeau said in reference to Dead Space 3 that it needs to sell over five million units because it would be “quite difficult financially” to sustain it otherwise.

I feel like EA has been trying to slap too much makeup on Dead Space, throw it out there, and demand that it do more with less. Dead Space 1 and Dead Space 2 sold an estimated 6.25 million units combined across all platforms. They expect a sequel that has already has angry fans to sell as much as both games in the series? Even if fans aren’t angry, that’s still a ton of copies. I wouldn’t be surprised (if this five million units thing is actually serious) that EA fails to sell that exorbitant amount because they chose to homogenize it, thus repelling fans and lowering sales. This dreaded, unobtainable benchmark puts an unwanted pressure on Visceral and seems to be driving the business side way too far into the creative side of game development.

“Carver, you’re only here for a broader appeal.”

Splinter Cell producer David Footman had a similar sentiment about his respective game saying, “We’ve gone from being a big game to a monster game. If you want to come out with a big Hollywood movie in the summer time, if you’re not a big blockbuster — you’re not going to get seen.”

Is that last sentence a stab at how it isn’t as stealthy anymore? I have a feeling that if it keeps its current bombastic energy, the only place it won’t be seen is on store shelves and players’ minds.

Like your kindergarten teacher always said when you tried to act like the cool kids, just be yourself. All of these franchises are trying to imitate something they have no business trying to copy, diminishing a once-pristine identity in favor of a more generic one with an illusion of more success. Sometimes the best way to beat them is to not compete directly with them, making a better impression in something different that you are actually good at. If the industry knows what is healthy, they’ll take heed to that advice.

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