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Dead Space iOS dev: Future is mobile

by Phil Hornshaw

It’s a big day for iOS gaming, with the release of Dead Space, easily the biggest game of the year for the iPhone and iPad thus far.

A survival horror title, Dead Space is a gory, scare-filled trudge through a monster-infested space station. As a lone engineer, players use futuristic mining equipment to slice the limbs off deadly creatures, all the while stumbling through hallways littered with bodies and trying to escape with their lives.

Iron Monkey Studios, the developer behind the title that’s published by EA Mobile, has worked very hard to make the experience as strong and frightening as possible. They’ve done a pretty great job: Dead Space has some amazing graphics and sound.

It’s an intense experience, and I hate to say this, but it’s true -- it’s an intense experience especially for an iPhone game. Dead Space is one among very few titles that really hits the tone it’s going for and does it on the iPhone. Games on the platform are always improving, but this numbers among the few that comes off the same way as bigger video games on more traditional platforms.

You’ve heard this before: that developers (especially iPhone developers) and early adopters are pointing at the sudden proliferation of mobile gaming and the money it’s making, and talking about the “future of gaming.” Jarrad Trudgen, lead designer for Dead Space iOS, made similar comments to Time magazine’s Techland blog when talking about the game, calling the current era a “golden age of gaming.”

With more games like Dead Space, he may be right.

The most interesting thing about this game is that it’s a big release in its own right, but it also bleeds into the world of traditional console gaming. Dead Space is actually a series of games that span all the major home console gaming platforms, and Dead Space 2 was released today on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC to rave reviews. Dead Space iOS is an independent game meant to bridge the gap between the original and the new sequel, and Trudgen and his team worked closely with the company making Dead Space 2 to ensure the two experiences would mesh as much as possible. The result: a successful expansion into a new platform.

More than a tech demo, bigger than a casual game

This certainly isn’t the first foray of big developers and big franchises onto the iPhone, but Dead Space is one of the strongest. There was Infinity Blade late last year, a graphical powerhouse of a game from ChAIR Entertainment and Epic Games, which also received very strong reviews -- but Infinity Blade is a relatively simple, short and repetitive game. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s not especially large or engrossing.

Another big gaming player, id Software, dropped RAGE Mutant Bash TV on iOS players last year as well. A tie-in with its upcoming RAGE first-person shooter for consoles and PC, the iOS game was an on-rails shooter that looked great, but functioned more like a short tech demo than a full-on release. It’s a game that brings RAGE to iOS and is fun -- but it’s a small supplement rather than a large, standalone offering.

Dead Space is different from both those releases and remarkable because it’s a game that is gaining a lot of attention from the more traditional segments of the gaming community -- and it really shows off what’s possible on the platform.

Trudgen might be pointing at the platform as the future, but he works on it. Valve Software founder Gabe Newell, a big name in the industry and a leader in the company that created the Half-Life series, has contended that PCs are still the center of gaming innovation. He might not be wrong -- social gaming and massively multiplayer online games still attract more players than any other platform or game out there.

But Trudgen’s on to something as well. Those spaces that Newell is referring to when he points to PCs as big players (somewhat defensively, it seems, as the decline of the PC as a platform has been declared for some time by various sources throughout gaming) are routinely being absorbed into the mobile platform, as well. Sure, you can play FarmVille on Facebook -- but you can also play it on your iPhone.

And then there’s Dead Space -- a game that’s not just pushing the envelope of the platform, but actually working to show traditional players its value and bridging the gap between the two platforms, blurring the lines in exactly the same way the lines are being blurred between social mobile gaming and social PC gaming. Dead Space isn’t perfect, but it does show that the mobile platform can and should be taken very seriously in gaming. It might not be the exact “center” of innovation, but it’s definitely very, very close.