JASON VS THE ENTITY: AN ASYMMETRIC RETROSPECTIVE

Why did Dead By Daylight succeed whilst Friday the 13th: The Game floundered?

_FEATURE.   it’s about _GAMING.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
feat. titles _DEAD BY DAYLIGHT., _FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE GAME.

October 28, 2021

images © Warner Bros. 2021

As we prepare to reach peak Autumn, before the steady, inexorable descent into advent calendars and mince pies (seasonal analogies pinging so much better with food), the gaming community welcomes its usual slew of Halloween-themed offerings.

Scream’s Ghostface has just popped up once again in, of all places, Call of Duty (seriously). Supermassive’s Dark Pictures Anthology just birthed its third of currently eight (!) planned instalments with the Iraqi-themed House of Ashes, and survival horror just got a vintage offering in the form of Tormented Souls on Steam and consoles. And, of course, there’ll be the inevitable straddlers only just getting round to taking on the brilliant Resident Evil: Village from earlier this year in time for the ‘ween.

But nowhere is the season more anticipated and celebrated within videogaming than perhaps amognst the booming online community for Behaviour Interactive’s Dead By Daylight.

Now pretty much synonymous with asymmetric online gaming (and not just of the horror variety), it seems difficult to recall a time when Daylight wasn’t one of the more popular and ubiquitous online multiplayer franchises. True, its roughly 120,000 monthly average player count is still dwarfed by the heaviest hitters in the genre – see, for instance, Fortnite, which hovers around the 40 million mark – but it would be churlish to call Dead By Daylight anything other than success.

Rewinding back to its launch in 2016, when it arrived with a comparatively minuscule roster of three completely original killers (and five survivors for them to go up against), it’s important to remember that neither Dead By Daylight’s cast nor title boasted anything in the way of brand power or recognition.

Conversely, indie develoers Illfonic were busying away preparing to release a similar ‘one-versus-many’ online showdown within the year that would bring with it one of the most iconic figures and titles in the history of horror – Jason Vorhees and Friday the 13th.

Behaviour’s response – pre-meditated or not (though it is worth pointing out that Friday the 13th: The Game had been a known entity since October 2015) – was suitably brutal. Initiating their first license agreement (a move that would come to burst the dam of potential Daylight had), October 2016 saw the equally iconic Michael Myers, of Halloween fame, arrive on Daylight in time for that year’s spooky season.

IllFonic responded to this gaunlet throwdown with something of a promotional splurge of their own – releasing a flurry of developmental footage, behind-the-scenes content, mo-cap tests and other marketing goodness, and pulling out coops like announcing original Friday composer Harry Manfredini would be returning to score the game, but both the player base and popularity of Daylight were steadily growing, and suddenly Friday the 13th: The Game’s eventual landing spot in the market looked a touch overcrowded.

As Behaviour settled into a routine cycle of releasing new killers and survivors in a roughly three-monthly cycle for Daylight, they shrewdly settled upon presenting players with characters both licensed and wholly original, and, in some cases, getting as close to licensed as possible where rights were perhaps unavailable or prohibitive. See, for instance, the distinctly Shimizu stylings of ‘The Spirit’, the vengeful spectre of a murdered Japanese schoolgirl who looks lifted straight from the likes of The Ring or The Grudge.

Shadows of the Past: a bitter legal rights wrangle between original Friday the 13th screenwriter, Victor Miller, and its producer, Sean Cunningham, has had lasting repercussions for the franchise, and not least of its recent videogame adaptation.

By the time Friday the 13th: The Game landed in May 2017 (initially as a digital exclusive) only Myers’ Halloween chapter was live in terms of Dead By Daylight’s pre-established faces, but not only were there now 7 other killers for players to choose alongside him, but Behaviour had cannily lined up their aces and had come prepared. Within the first six months of Friday’s launch, licensed killers from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Saw franchises were all released on Daylight. It remains, to date, the only time Behaviour have released three licensed killers consecutively, and suddenly Friday’s lone Vorhees looked like a very small fish in a shrinking pond by comparison.

Facing off against Daylight’s increasingly impressive roster was one challenge, but satisfying players and critics alike proved another altogether for Friday the 13th: The Game. It released to deeply mixed reviews, with many complaining about the glitchy nature of the gameplay, frequently buggy graphics (all notably worse on console), and comparatively slight content. Gamespot’s Peter Brown blasted it as “an unfinished game that shouldn’t have been released in its current state” in his scathing, 4 out of 10 review.

But IllFonic pressed on, releasing a series of refinements, extra content, patches and updates, and announcing new game modes such as the ultimately never-to-be-seen ‘Paranoia’, a sans-Jason mode set to take inspiration from the fifth film in the Friday film series (and be a spiritual precursor to the likes of Among Us) in having players attempting to deduce who within their group of counsellors could in fact be a killer.

Friday wasn’t without its admirers and supporters, either, and would even go on to pick up a handful of publicly-voted for awards over the coming months, perhaps most notably IGN’s ‘Best Multiplayer’ People’s Choice award, beating out heavy hitters including PlayerUknown’s Battlegrounds, Star Wars: Battlefront II and Splatoon 2 in the process, and garnering an accolade Dead By Daylight hadn’t even made the shortlist for twelve months prior.

Dead By Daylight‘s ‘Saw‘ chapter arrived in January 2018, seeing out a trifecta of licensed releases for the game that perhaps not so coincidentally aligned with the release of IllFonic’s Friday the 13th: The Game.

With a physical release for Friday following in the tail end of 2017, new costumes and incarnations of Jason’s being added to the game in the hopes of countering Daylight’s triple-dip of Freddie Kreugers, Saw pig ladies (her name is Amanda, Kyle…) and Leatherfaces, as well as the promise of new game modes and other surprises, and 2018 looked set to be something of a duke-out between the two burgeoning horror bloodbaths.

The scales, however, were set to tip inexorably in Behaviour’s favour.

2018 brought with it a series of extraneous and fatal blows for IllFonic. Only a month into the new year, Friday’s publishers, Gun Media, announced the anticipated ‘Paranoia’ mode would be put on indefinite hold to instead focus on sorting out technical and server issues.

“We don’t get out of bed everyday to produce an average product,” Wes Keltner, the games co-creator and CEO of Gun, claimed on a blog post on the official Friday the 13th: The Game message boards, “I don’t want to give you content that doesn’t live up to the standards we have tried to deliver throughout this journey together. You not only deserve better than that, you also deserve this type of transparency.”

Sadly, it was to mark the beginning of the end for Keltner, Gun and their time at Camp Crystal Lake, as just a few months later another curveball – this time a long-running legal dispute between the original Friday film’s writer and producer coming to a head – threw a fatal spanner into the works. The longstanding legal tussling offered enough potential complexities and pitfalls to that, by June 2018, it forced development team to announce that all future content plans for Friday the 13th: The Game were, much like the doomed ‘paranoia’ mode, put on indefinite hold.

Although maintenance patches and upkeep were promised irrespective of the devolving copyright situation, by September 2018, Keltner and Gun were off the project entirely, with Japanese-based Black Tower Studios, who had formerly assisted with a handful of maps and content for the title, taking over development of the project entirely.

And it wasn’t long before the future ban on any new content saw Friday begin to haemorrhage players. On Steam, for instance, the game’s average monthly player count for August 2018 dipped to a measly 342, a far cry from the 5-6,000 of its launch months just a year prior.

Despite being now regarded as amongst its weaker killers in gameplay terms, the ‘Trapper’ (depicted above in Natalie Lesiv’s stunning fan art) remains Dead By Daylight‘s mascot and logo star. Could a more-than-passing resemblance to a certain iconic screen slasher have been behind this original decision? Go check out this article’s top banner again…

Perhaps sensing blood in the water from the June news, Behaviour delivered a coup de grace when Dead By Daylight – now proudly boasting no fewer than thirteen killers and fourteen survivors – became one of August’s free PS Plus games on the PS4, skyrocketing its install and delivering one of the sharpest nails yet into Friday’s coffin.

Sure enough, Friday the 13th: The Game followed suit and attempted to entice some new players by taking the same ‘Free on PSN’ gambit a couple of months later, but irreparable damage was had seemingly already been done.

Dead By Daylight, contrarily, continued to boom, and it’s perhaps telling that after its initial triple whammy of licensed killers that just happened to be perfectly timed to coincide with Friday’s release, it would be another 18 months before Behaviour returned to the licensing tree. This time round was Scream’s ‘Ghostface’ character, although, ironically, it was to be a release that brought some curious copyright and licensing issues of its own, meaning the actual ‘Scream’ title, branding and characters were nowhere to be found. The expected presence, for instance, of Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott or Courtney Cox‘s Gale Weathers came up empty and, unlike with other licensed killers who adopted the identity and backstory of their filmic counterparts, Daylight’s killer behind the ghost face mask had to be written and depicted as a wholly original character. Even the signature black robe and feathered sleeves of the character had to follow later on as optional DLC; the default costume for the killer being a slightly more urbanised compromise to avoid any copyright entanglements.

Friday the 13th, meanwhile, limped along, with very little by way of updates or changes coming in the ensuing year or two, save for an ill-judged Switch ‘Ultimate Slasher’ edition in August 2019 that only served to exacerbate the title’s technical shortcomings and poor uptake.

Finally, on November 10, 2020, the dedicated servers for Friday the 13th: The Game were shut down permanently, leaving its existence solely in the hands of peer-to-peer matchmaking. Whilst not a completely comatose title, its monthly player count now bobs somewhat pathetically around the 200 mark, meaning that, unless you have access to a sizeable group of friends ready, willing and able to take a dive into it with you, you’ll probably struggle to get into any real decent or lasting games.

The ‘Ghostface’ chapter of Dead By Daylight proved Behaviour weren’t immune to licensing hurdles – the expected Scream movie trimmings wound up nowhere to be seen.

But let’s push aside the winding, complicated history and competitive jostling between Behaviour and IllFonic (and arguments of how direct or intentional these may have even been), and consider whether more integral elements at play helped Daylight soar in adoption, whilst Jason struggled to even keep his head above the waters of Camp Crystal Lake. The extraneous and contextual factors were undoubtedly key here – particularly the creative paralysis that the Cunningham-Miller lawsuit inflicted on Friday – but what about the actual experience on offer in the games themselves?

It’s important to remember that Dead By Daylight’s road to popularity hasn’t been without incident or problems, either. Behaviour have hit more than their fair share of technical hiccups and problems, and there’s almost universally an imbalance with newly released killers who more often than not slide awkwardly towards the extremities of being either over or underpowered. Intense competitiveness and toxicity have plagued the fandom, too, with Daylight’s developers forced to tackle near-gamebreaking issues such as an over abundance of items or perks that can end games too quickly (Keys! Moris!).

With that all being said, much of this is a somewhat unavoidable bi-product of the game’s own success and subsequent bloat. With a now staggering twenty-five killers available to choose from, each of whom bring their own unique gameplay elements, special powers and gameplay altering ‘perks’, coupled with Daylight being playable on everything from base PS4s, speedier next-get consoles and even mobiles, and Behaviour’s balancing act becomes increasingly more difficult with each ‘chapter’ they release. It has led to an atrophy of the game’s abilities system in particular, with an increasingly small number of must-have, meta ‘perks’ and, by extension, an increasingly overstuffed garbage dump of relatively useless ones.

So yes, Dead By Daylight is today a much more overstuffed affair than it once was, a problem that each new release only exacerbates. Friday the 13th, by comparison, was far more singular and focused in its approach, and yet despite all this, it’s probably fair to say Daylight has always technically and gameplay-wise offered a much simpler, more accessible and, dare-I-say given the levels of toxicity within the fandom, forgiving a gaming experience.

Friday the 13th threw a number of objectives and gameplay mechanics at players who took on a ‘survivor’ role (fittingly named ‘counsellors’ here). You could try and locate fuel and a car in the hopes of driving out of the map to safety, or pull off a similar move by way of boat. Alternatively, you could comb the environ looking for weapons and, if you were particularly lucky and/or coordinated, could set out to bring down Jason the old fashioned way. Or maybe you wanted to repair the phone lines and call in series’ hero Tommy Jarvis, randomly giving one of the survivors this much more beefed up and broomstick-wielding counsellor to distract or even take out Vorhees for you. Or, of course, you could just hide it out under a bed, in a cupboard or by barricading up a cabin and turning off the lights in the hopes you’d go unnoticed.

This plethora of options at play in Friday the 13th made each game a much more considered balancing act of options and on the spot decision-making, for survivors and Jason alike. The best laid plans of either side could become shattered in an instant (though this was far more frequent for survivors, usually courtesy of a certain pesky masked madman appearing…), and when its pieces aligned in a satisfying fashion, it could lead to nerve-shredding, satisfying and even hilarious results; I’ll never forget finally escaping Vorhees after a prolonged cat-and-mouse in a barn, only to be accidentally ploughed down on the road by a fellow survivor attempting to escape by car.

It also made the game wildly inconsistent and unpredictable, though. The entire game pivoting on so much randomness, coupled with Vorhees being both a keen hunter and appropriately fatal encounter, meant games could be over within a matter of minutes. Throw in long load times, the abundance of options and objectives that could be somewhat obtuse to newcomers, and the fact that, unlike in Dead By Daylight where a player will consciously opt to play the killer, the role of Jason is randomly assigned to a player, and Friday could be a messy, disorientating and unwelcoming title to try and find a footing into.

Rin Yamaoka, or ‘The Spirit’, is one of Dead By Daylight‘s original killers, but as seen above in Christophe Young’s concept art, it isn’t difficult to see how her design work draws from the world of Japanese horror cinema such as The Ring or The Grudge.

By contrast, Dead By Daylight at its core keeps things much simpler. There is one, singular objective – repair five generators and then power up one of two exit gates – that all survivors must work together to complete. The killer, conversely, must dispatch said survivors before they complete this goal, almost always by way of downing them and hanging them off of various ‘hooks’ dotted around each map.

Casting aside the unforgiving misfortune of coming up against a high-ranking player early on, a plight that a recent matchmaking overhaul has tried to once again balance out, and anything outside of these two simple, singular goals mostly either aids the player in doing so, or hinders their opponent(s) from achieving their own goal. You can heal yourself as a survivor if you get injured, use flashlights and grenades to try and temporarily blind or distract a killer, or drop pallets in their path to slow them down, but the core objectives remain clear, distinct and accessible.

Daylight’s killers, whilst throwing up their own unique approach to hunting down survivors, are by no means an ‘easy’ mode, but neither are they impossible to go up against, either. Playing as Friday’s Vorhees can be fleetingly fun and hilarious as you hunt down and shred through counsellors with ease, but his implacable lethality can quickly become anticlimactic as you make short shrift of your opponents and draw the game to a disappointingly quick close for all involved. By contrast, the two-hit health system and ‘three strikes and you’re out’ (two if you get unlucky, one if you’re really unlucky) approach to killers and hooks in Dead By Daylight means a run in with a killer does not automatically equal instant death or game over. In fact, some of the game’s best moments are prolonged chase sequences or daring rescues of fellow team members from a hook, as the vengeful killer closes in on you.

In many ways, Dead By Daylight harkens back to the old adage of ‘easy to learn, difficult to master’, and indeed much of said ‘mastery’ and discussion within the Dead By Daylight community centres around which ‘perks’, items and optional add-ons coalesce into the most effective build for each individual killer and/or survivor.

It’s telling that even five years on, Behaviour have gone nowhere near adding new ‘modes’ or mixing up the core gameplay formula too majorly – the closest it came to doing so being a ticking clock element it added to its endgame in 2019 to redress balance at a stage of the game that had historically heavily favoured survivors over killers.

And although most Dead By Daylight players will bemoan the game’s approach to ‘balance’ (online gamers complaining about balance? – never!), Behaviour’s willingness to tinker with, and at times completely overhaul items, perks and even killers themselves to make them fairer and more viable (such as a complete reworking of ‘The Nightmare’ Freddy Kreuger in 2019) whilst keeping the core gameplay structure intact, at the very least demonstrates a keenness to offer as fair and accessible an asymmetric experience as possible.

So, did Friday the 13th’s almost paradoxical combination of being anaemic on content yet functionally overcrowded deter too many newcomers? Surely few would argue that Dead By Daylight has always been the easier game to get into (both in terms of gameplay and quite literally in regard to wait times for a match), but in fair countenance, there are those who find Daylight’s narrow field of options and objectives repetitive and dull by comparison to the far more cinematic, occasionally zany and distinctly play-your-own-adventure stylings of Friday.

The truth likely lies somewhere in between, and although the individual merits of each game can be argued ad nauseam, the truth is that much of Friday the 13th: The Game’s eventual downfall lay in situ before the game even entered development.

Licensing can be a mercilessly prickly area for video game developers, particularly when it comes to online multiplayers that rely on continued support, maintenance and updates, which, in turn, necessitates an ongoing relationship with any license holders. Behaviour have themselves felt the sharp end of this ownership and rights stick on more than one occasion – from the aforementioned ‘Ghostface’ complications, to the later Stranger Things chapter, which, for somewhat vague and nebulous reasons pertaining to its licensing agreement with Netflix (many hypothesise it being down to, of all things, an upcoming rival video game), will be removed from sale next month, for the first time seeing Dead By Daylight withdraw a killer and two survivors from its available roster (though those who have already purchased the Stranger Things characters will retain access to them).

Whatever the reason, as the dust settles on Jason Vorhees’ most recent grave, Dead By Daylight danced a merry jig over it as it recently welcomed the likes of Silent Hill, Resident Evil and Hellraiser into its horror-themed Battle Royale.

Whether fault for Friday the 13th: The Game’s demise was down more to the internal or the extraneous, few can definitively say. The lawsuit that undoubtedly delivered a crippling blow was in place before a single line of coding was complete, but could a better, more accessible title have weathered the storm?

Perhaps, sometime further down the road, Vorhees will bob back up from below the surface and off of the scrapheap of digital history in the much the vein of the final moments of the original Friday the 13th movie. Or maybe Behaviour’s genre power play and the legal to-and-fro plaguing the franchise will come to completion, and the character will simply find himself ultimately joining Dead By Daylight’s now-peerless and definitive lineup.

Either way, the bumpy road and ultimately unceremoniously short lifespan of Friday the 13th: The Game remains a cautionary tale for those tempted to dip their developmental toes into the enticing waters of not just Camp Crystal Lake, but indeed brand recognition and licensed content as a whole…

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