Horror games on mobile were once a dime a dozen. Following the explosion of indie horror game Slender, the early 2010s saw mobile app stores flooded with swathes of cheap horror games. However, it was also during this time that one of the best mobile horror games ever would be released: Dead Space Mobile.
Developed by Australian mobile studio IronMonkey Studios, Dead Space Mobile released in early 2011 for Android and iOS. The impressive mobile game has since been ripped from app stores, making it unplayable on modern devices. Nevertheless, its legacy lives on in the hearts of Dead Space fans.
Founded by console and PC developers at the turn of the millennium, IronMonkey Studios quickly became a go-to developer for portable games. If a studio wanted their game brought to Game Boy Advance or mobile, IronMonkey was called in to work on anything from Nicktoons to Star Trek.
However, after running around trade shows in the early 2000s pitching their skills, IronMonkey would enter a partnership that defined the studio - working for EA. They started by tackling conversions of Need for Speed games, The Sims and more for iOS. The studio reached newfound success, gaining confidence and pushing themselves to work on the publisher’s breakout IPs for mobile gamers: Mirror’s Edge and Dead Space.
“[Those games were] really important to particularly the three sort of core members of IronMonkey Studios, because you know, that that sort of represented,” IronMonkey art director and co-founder Daniel Tonkin told Stealth Optional.
After developing games such as SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Mobile Recon and Kung Fu Panda for JAVA phones, IronMonkey’s partnership and later acquisition by EA allowed the studio to bring a AAA mindset to Android and iOS. No longer was the studio limited to now-called “dumbphones”; the massive power-up available in 3D-capable smartphones allowed the team to create console-quality experiences on phones.
“We came from a proper gaming background, went back to mobile, but it took us like six or seven years to get back to a point of making games that we felt was more legitimate, you know?” Tonkin told us. “I remember that process extremely clearly because we were doing things gameplay-wise so much more ambitious than what we were doing with very simple mobile controls. And the sort of level of fidelity and the quality of experience we're giving the player was just so much better than anything we've done up to that point.”
After developing iOS ports of EA games for a number of years, IronMonkey was able to use its 3D mobile engine to create prototypes for a number of other EA IPs, some of which were unfortunately never picked up. The studio would proactively look at titles like Fight Night and create prototypes to seduce EA into letting them bring franchises to mobile. For Dead Space, Tonkin and other members of IronMonkey took it upon themselves to develop a demo of Dead Space, recreating protagonist Isaac Clarke in a dingy sci-fi corridor complete with flickering bulbs. Upon sending the prototype to EA, it was greenlit and approved for development.
IronMonkey would be acquired at the start of 2010, hot off the heels of the studio’s critically acclaimed Mirror’s Edge game that graced the launch of Apple’s first iPad. “Up to that point, we were just an indie studio working just under contract for them,” he says, referring to EA. “It was a fantastic relationship, our confidence grew, and I think we were able to deliver some really amazing work.”
At the time, Dead Space Mobile was by far the most ambitious project the small Australian studio had ever worked on. With Epic Games’ Infinity Blade blowing minds on mobile, Dead Space was IronMonkey’s chance to compete and bring a true console series to mobile. Working with the series’ original developers Visceral Games, the studio was able to craft an original story with new characters while also incorporating some of the original game’s iconic sound effects.
Dead Space on mobile was spearheaded by lead designer Jarrad Trudgen. Instead of making a close approximation of the Dead Space series on phones, Trudgen was dedicated to bringing everything that made the original interesting to mobile. Not only did the game have to showcase realistic horrific lighting, have Resident Evil-style third-person shooting and enemy dismemberment, but it also needed to have the same high-octane set pieces usually restricted to console games.
“We really wanted to mimic what the game’s big brother was doing. Have those psychological moments and try to freak out the player a bit.” Tonkin says. “[Jarrad] was really passionate about having these set pieces where the lighting would change and the soundscape would change.”
In order to bring the game as close to the console version as possible, IronMonkey Studios had to commit to lying, creating clever façades to emulate their game’s big brother. Dismemberment no longer detached dynamic objects from their bodies. Instead, doing enough damage would hide the original limb segment, draw in a blood splatter effect and throw a new dynamic limb segment in its place. The game’s lighting system doesn’t actually exist. Instead, the scenery is pre-baked and characters’ textures are darkened and lightened as they enter invisible boundary boxes.
“It's all just smoke and mirrors,” Tonkin explains. “We weren't doing anything particularly advanced on Dead Space; we were just very, very good at our craft, and we just knew how to manipulate the right kind of artistic tools to get results. There was a bit of tension between some of the engineers wanting to do some really clever stuff. There’s always this tension in game development where some of the engineers, to their credit, want to push technology forward, but sometimes it's at the cost of pragmatism. There were some attempts to make something really clever and then we sort of went back to first principles and sort of said, ‘Look, what do we need to happen? So we ended up going in a much simpler direction.”
Unfortunately, Dead Space Mobile is largely lost to time, and so is the market for premium mobile games. Tonkin, who still works on mobile to create games like Battle Hunters Zero for iOS, told us that the move towards free-to-play games is part of the reason he left EA behind.
“Need for Speed, The Sims, Real Racing, these games were very lucrative for EA in the mobile space,” Tonkin explains. “Dead Space suffered from its own success in that it was a “gamer’s game” on the mobile; it just didn't capture that casual market. We got a lot of critical acclaim, but commercially, it wasn't that amazing. We were able to flex our muscles and drop this great game on the market, but it didn't make financial sense to do another one. We were really disappointed, but then we went on to do Mass Effect: Infiltrator.
“[Nowadays,] if it doesn't say free, no one's gonna download it. It's a real shame, and that, for me, was the final nail in the coffin is understanding that the market has completely moved on now. This whole idea that you could treat a mobile phone like a games console, I just don't even think it's not viable from a cultural perspective anymore.”
There are still ways to play Dead Space Mobile though. In recent months, the Android horror game has been ported to the PlayStation Vita, and fans have made the game’s remastered version playable on more modern devices. However, EA is unwilling to bring the game back to phones, leaving it lost to time.
“Having a game pulled from retail, it's sad, “ Tonkin tells us. “But, you know, as a game developer, it's always a small victory just to get it actually out there in the world and to get it released. That's the sort of main victory. So anything after that it's kind of cream on the top”
It’s now been 12 years since Dead Space Mobile released on iOS. Over a decade later and the mobile market is far different, but fans still remember the days when portable Necromorphs were able to terrify us all in the palm of our hands, even if it was all done with smoke and mirrors.