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“We need to make changes so that there can be a Dead Rising 5, 6 and 7”

Capcom Vancouver discuss fan fury, Black Friday consumerism and why triple-A studios should support indies

It is quite easy to underestimate Dead Rising.

After all, this is a series that prides itself on its simplicity. It is a game designed entirely to satisfy that urge that lurks within us all to build nonsense weapons and then decimate thousands of undead.

So when Joe Nickolls, studio head at developer Capcom Vancouver, started talking to us about the social horror of Black Friday, the impact of consumerism and the desire to represent and discuss that in the upcoming Dead Rising 4, we were taken somewhat by surprise.

"We had three writers on this project, and that's three times as many as we've ever had before," he tells us whilst showing us the game at a recreated living room in London.

"We're talking proper video game writers that knew exactly how to weave the story. Our lead writer worked on the most recent Deus Ex.

"I don't want to speak ill of anyone, but the writer we've had in the past was someone who had done some creative writing, was working at Capcom and wrote us a story. This time we got a proper video game designer/writer. Anyone, theoretically, can write a story, but writing a story that makes sense and that you can play, that's a real skill. Right down to getting behind why these characters are doing this, why would that guy snap and wear that stupid costume? Those are the sorts of questions we're asking. 90 percent of the consumers who play this game, they don't think as much as we do about these things, but for the 10 percent that do want that depth, we've got it."

Dead Rising 4 is based around Christmas and Black Friday

"The message behind the game is around consumerism and Black Friday, and we're asking: who is the monster? The zombies running around or is it what caused everyone to fight each other and demand these products and services? I often say this is not the thinking man's game, but there are some messages in there that might make you think a little bit more than usual."

Three years ago, the TV series South Park told a similar story, where a zombie-like crowd of shoppers rip each other apart to get their hands on the new Xbox One and PS4 over Black Friday. Having made their statement on the evils of consumerism, the South Park writers wryly end the story by promoting their upcoming consumer product, the video game South Park: The Stick of Truth. I had to ask if Capcom Vancouver is embracing that same deliberate, comical hypocrisy, on one hand condemning how Christmas has become about buying things, whilst simultaneously making a game for people to buy that comes out just before Christmas.

Nickolls hesitates: "Well, the game is based on that message but... you're the first reporter to ask me that. From a business sense, this is a good time to release a game. It just happened to coincide with the fact that the game is ready. It just so happens to also be a game about consumerism and Black Friday. We didn't set out to do that.

"I think a lot of people will miss the whole consumerism thing. They'll say: "It's a Christmas game with zombies" and they won't go that deep."

The writing is just one of many things that Capcom Vancouver has changed for Dead Rising 4. There are new zombies, the time limit has been (mostly) stripped out of the main game, there are new customisations options and the control scheme has been tweaked, too. The core gameplay of killing zombies remains the same, and with its festive theme, that now includes Candy Cane crossbows and exploding Christmas ornaments.

"Sometimes we need to take some risks. That means some people will be upset with what you did, but the only way to truly tell if we made the right choices is to play the game."

Bryce Cochrane, Capcom Vancouver

Yet not all of these changes have gone down well with certain sections of the fans.

"Video games is a tough business. It is a tough crowd," says Nickolls. "The internet has allowed everyone to become a critic, and everyone is equal on the internet. I think the way that Capcom, and our studio in particular, wins is by talking to them.

" The timer... some people don't care about the timer, some people hate the fact that it's not in the game, some people hated the timer and love the fact we've got rid of it. So what do we do? Well, we put the timer in multiplayer, and then put it back in towards the end of the game, where we think it matters."

Executive producer Bryce Cochrane jumps in: "One of our goals is to really make a product that means we can make Dead Rising 5, 6, 7. That involves expanding and changing the franchise, and therefore sometimes we need to take risks. That means some people will be upset with what you did. The only way to truly tell if we made the right choices is to play the game."

Nickolls again: "Bryce and I have been doing this for such a long time that we remember the very first time that a second analogue stick came out. I remember working at EA and they were making NHL, which was the first sports game to use the right stick. And people were like: "I hate it. I'm not using it." Now everyone uses it.

Bryce Cochrane (above) and Joe Nickolls (above right) have faced some fan criticism around Dead Rising 4 over the removal and addition of new features

"Steve Jobs said it best when he said: "A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them"."

That Steve Jobs quote was missing the first line, the bit where Jobs says it is hard to design products by focus groups. But Nickolls actually found focus testing useful when it came to implementing changes into a franchise that has such a dedicated group of fans.

"To toot Microsoft's horn for a minute, they have like 40,000 people ready to come in and test your game, I've seen the list. They get dozens and dozens of people to come in, sit in a little living room, with cameras that record every button press, and we watch them. Some of the feedback we had was on the food system, people were asking why they had to keep dicking around to find the food in the menus. So we decided to make it easier to use, just by pressing down on the d-pad. Some people didn't like that, they said it took things away from the original game. But everyone asked for it, it tested really well... we don't just do it and hope for the best."

"Often, the people that are the most vocal are the ones that have something negative to say."

Joe Nickolls, Capcom Vancouver

He continues: "Often, the people that are the most vocal are the ones that have something negative to say. It is always the way. We had some feedback from Microsoft where people thought Dead Rising 3 had a lot of sexual overtones, which they didn't really dig. They didn't want all that sex and off-colour stuff, and they challenged us as to why we painted that transgender person in a bad light. So we decided not to go that way with this game."

Cochrane adds: "It can also be a little heartbreaking. You think you have the perfect idea, but then you discover it didn't work. So we have to evolve and change. We even did this right from when we were starting the game and pitching the idea of Christmas, [returning lead character] Frank, what the story is... we focus tested that. As soon as we had versions of Frank up and ready to go, we focus tested that. We wanted to innovate and that will always mean some change, and sometimes that can be uncomfortable, but it can also lead to great things."

This extensive testing didn't just involve Microsoft, Capcom sought feedback itself, too. But there is a risk of over focus-testing your products, and stripping out great ideas or moments just because a small group of players didn't appreciate it.

"That's why you have to go with your gut a little bit, too," says Cochrane. "You have to be committed to the franchise, and you have to listen. But you also have to push through when you think something is right. So even if it doesn't test well to begin with, as you keep pushing and revising it, you get somewhere."

Capcom Vancouver has been known as the Dead Rising studio. It was handed the franchise following the success of the first game - which was made by Capcom's Japanese team. That game became a hit in the West for its weird, campy-style, which was something the development team wasn't actually aiming for. So it decided it would be best to let a Western studio handle the series from then on in.

Since then Capcom Vancouver has built six games in the franchise, and with Cochrane discussing the prospect of Dead Rising 5, 6 and 7, it looks like zombies will feature in that studio's future for years to come. But Nickolls insists that it's not all sequel making that goes on behind-the-scenes at the studio. The team does experiment with new game types, and even works with local indie studios.

"Gamers don't care how much we spend, they don't care how hard we worked, or how much overtime we've put in."

Joe Nickolls, Capcom Vancouver

"We do game jams all the time," he begins. "And we try to encourage indie guys to hang out a bit with us. There was a company that approached us a couple of weeks ago, and they are a studio of about eight people who are making a viking game. They called up and asked: "Can we do a viking raid on your studio?" We asked what that meant, and they said: "Can we set up in your lobby and show people our cool new viking game?" And we replied: "Absolutely". So they raided us and some of our staff went to play with them, and gave them suggestions.

"I think triple-A video game studios sometimes need to get over themselves. It's still a business, sure, but we are also just a bunch of guys making video games and we want to be part of that community and we want to support each other."

Cochrane adds: "We make games in Vancouver, Canada, and there are a lot of games studios there, but we are a tight-knit community. Joe and I worked at Electronic Arts together a long time ago, then we went our separate ways and worked at different companies before coming back together again. There's only ever like two points of separation between you and everyone else."

Nickolls once more: "It is really important that the video game community stays tight, because consumers are changing. They have different expectations of what a game could be. They don't care how much we spend, they don't care how hard we worked, or how much overtime we've put in.

"We are good buddies with all the guys at [Gears of War developer] The Coalition, they're really close to where we are. Between Bryce and I, we have worked with almost all of them in the past. It is a small industry. And they have been our biggest supporters. We need them to be, because video games are expensive and they're hard. People often ask us: "Who do you compete against?" I compete against everybody. This game needs to compete against Call of Duty, and it also has to compete against South Park. If someone has $60 in their pockets, they're not debating over which zombie game they might spend it on, they might not spend it on a zombie game. It could be a different game. Or a trip to the cinema. Or a book. It is our job to make sure our game is the one that they want."

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Christopher Dring avatar
Christopher Dring: Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who
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