As Dead Space 3 trades terror for cover mechanics, and Resident Evil 6 gives up all pretense of being a scary game, it's becomes ever clearer that mainstream publishers have no faith in horror games. Developer Cliff Bleszinski agrees, claiming the $60 retail market just won't accept such experiences anymore.
"In the $60 disc based market horror doesn’t fly -- it’s the ultimate 'Campaign Rental' that's played for 2 days and traded in and I’m sure EA knows this," said Cliffy in a blog post. "When we're fully digital we’ll see more true horror games coming back. (Look at Amnesia and Slenderman on PC.)"
The trouble is, I don't think digital is going to truly solve the issue, because I don't believe it's a "retail" problem. The problem, as I see it, is the continued bloating of development costs and marketing budgets to the point where every single game needs to be a mass market success or else considered a failure. Horror games can be successful, but only if you have a realistic expectation of what success actually means.
Electronic Arts made headlines last year when it revealed Dead Space 3 needed to sell five million copies to secure its future. Likewise, Resident Evil 6 failed to meet Capcom's expectations despite shifting almost five million copies itself. This is ridiculous. It's absolutely fucking ludicrous that games selling over one million copies could be considered a failed project, under any circumstances. The sheer extravagance of game development has painted publishers into such a corner that their ambitions are now far exceeding reality.
While digital distribution cuts costs of physical manufacturing and makes it easier to get games into the hands of customers, I don't think major publishers will seize that opportunity to create horror games, or any other kind of niche title. If they were prepared to, they'd already be trying it. Instead, they're just going to continue to put out PC ports of console games and charge $60 for digital copies. They've evidenced their belief that, to them, digital is not a way to take more risks, but a way to simply make more savings on the same old shit they've been pulling at retail. The problem is not the constraints of the retail market, it's the constraints of an executive's brain.
Amnesia and Slender are successful not through sheer virtue of their digital nature. They're successful because they weren't obsessed with beating Call of Duty. They had realistic goals, and they met them. This is evidenced in retail just as much as digital, too!
Look at Demon's Souls. That game was a success because it had a humble budget, a decent (but not indulgent) marketing push, and Atlus manufactured copies to meet demand. With such reasonable expectations, the game's performance was cause for celebration. It's also interesting to note that, as a reader reminded me, Sony originally meant to publish Demon's Souls and got cold feet. Cue a smaller publisher with less lofty goals sweeping in and making treasure of Sony's trash! Major publishers can't be happy with that kind of success though, and they're not interested in games that can't become major rivals to Call of Duty and the like. I somehow don't think that mentality will disappear in a far-flung digital future.
Once Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, and Activision all move fully into the world of incorporeal distribution, it'll just be the same game on a different playing field. They'll still be fighting tooth and nail to beat each other, and thus remain too afraid to stray too far from their comfortable boundaries. There's not actually much evidence that interest in horror games suddenly disappeared overnight. Resident Evil was still doing just fine before Capcom panicked and turned RE6 into Mainstream Videogames: The Official Videogame. They're simply not guaranteed to be THE most popular item right now, and it seems publishers want the whole cake, or otherwise reject even a sizable slice.
So it is that independent developers and smaller publishers are left to pick up the slack, and continue making games that aren't the most successful in the world, but still successful -- provided you're not short-sighted, greedy, and obsessed with dominating your market, rather than simply doing well in it.
Horror games won't fly in the retail space for one simple reason -- publisher clipped their wings before they were given a chance.