Visceral's John Calhoun on the evolutionary universe of Dead Space 3
GAME NAME: Dead Space 3
PLATFORM(S): PC, PS3, Xbox 360
GENRE(S): Survival horror
RELEASE DATE(S): 8 February 2013
A tag team of Stevivor staffers -- super hardcore fan Steve Wright and normal, well-adjusted gamer Nicholas Simonovski -- sat down last week to discuss Visceral Games' upcoming Dead Space 3 with producer John Calhoun.
In this interview, John addresses criticisms that the game has become less scary to appeal to more gamers, discusses how drop-in, drop-out co-op has brought some challenges to the game's development and speaks at length about how Visceral is expanding the Dead Space universe and how that means changing up the game in turn.
Oh, and John also lets you in on a little secret: your best friend in the game won't be Ellie OR your new co-op partner, John Carver.
Stevivor: This is the first Dead Space to have a good portion take place on a planet. It features drop-in, drop-out co-op. It's said that this sequel is meant to appeal to a broader audience, leading many to claim that the game is definitely not as scary as previous iterations. What is your reaction to those claims?
Calhoun: Co-op has not diminished from the tension or the thrills that make Dead Space what it is. That's in the game's DNA. We will never get rid of scary, long, drawn-out, tension filled set-pieces.
We've been telling people that to fully appreciate Dead Space, they need to play it for themselves. When they hear about the game, when they see snippets of the game, they're only seeing small, vertical slices of what the full game is all about.
In fact, co-op has allowed us to expand on the ability to scare the player. A great example is the way that John Carver will experience reality differently than Isaac the closer they are to their goal, and that is to destroy the Marker.
As far as the action goes, without action, you can't have any scares. You need to have moments of high intensity followed by long, drawn-out moments of nothing happening to keep players on their toes. If the intensity doesn't change, you'll become numb and immune to the experience. Every Dead Space game has had action; Dead Space 3 isn't more or less action-orientated than previous games.
That's not to say the scares aren't there, but that we're just trying to keep them as surprises for players out there.
Stevivor: What were some of the things Visceral did to make Dead Space 3 just as frightening, if not more frightening, than the past two titles?
Calhoun: One of the things we did is go back to the thing that has scared people the most: audio design. We've realised that what scares one person won't scare another, whether it's gore or psychological terror, or seeing people you care about in danger. What everyone seems to react to is audio.
We're really leaning on our audio engineers to come up with new ways to keep the game thrilling and tense. The icy planet that features in the latter half – Tau Volantis – is a good opportunity for them to try out new audio designs. We've had our game take place in tight corridors of spaceships – and we still do with an entire flotilla of derelict ships – but the truth is, once you go planetside, it's an entirely different experience.
You'll hear howling winds, the sounds of Necromorphs off in the distance that you cannot see. You'll hear the creaking of ancient arctic stations as they're being battered by the elements… all these things are new sounds, and a new way to experience Dead Space that keeps us right in the player's pocket in terms of what is scary.
Stevivor: The drop-in, drop-out co-op means the story will change depending on whether or not you're going at it alone. How difficult was it to design a game that would have to adjust to that?
Calhoun: It was actually one of the hardest things we've ever had to do.
It's more fair -- rather than to say the story is completely different -- to say that the tone is completely different. Ultimately, the game has one narrative and one objective, but how you experience that is what's extremely different from single-player and co-op. In single-player, we know how to make those kinds of games: we know how to make Isaac Clark move, fight enemies and experience moments. Co-op was really difficult, because we had to make sure it was optional. But, we didn't want to make two experiences that were completely unrelated to one another. So, you'll play the same campaign, yet the its tone changes tremendously whether you're playing co-op or not. Whereas Isaac will only speak when necessary in single-player, in co-op Isaac and Carter are actually talking all the time, because it's actually quite an immersive experience.
If you can think of two guys just trying to survive, they're not going to be quiet the entire time. They're going to be yelling at each other, they're going to be angry and getting on each other's nerves. They're going to be going through a lot of emotions, and it's that tone that you'll experience when going through co-op.
Making sure that we could keep that level of story-telling in both single-player and co-op was the real challenge for making this game.
Stevivor: There's also a greater emphasis on action in the game, with a cover system making its first appearance in the franchise, plus human enemies equipped with weaponry themselves. Can you take us through these new features, design-wise, and discuss how you ensured they'd work within the established game and its mechanics?
Calhoun: The addition of human enemies was because of the story of Dead Space 3. It's about a Unitologist faction that has taken control of Marker test sites, and is trying to start an apocalypse more or less… what they'd call a convergence.
That's not going to be a credible threat unless they have some arms to back them up; without guns, they're just religious zealots. Isaac has a plasma cutter, and if they were weaponless, they wouldn't be scary.
However, the game is not about fighting human enemies non-stop. You'll see a lot of them in the very early stages in the game, but you won't see them after that for a very long period of time. It just has to do with the story.
So, the way we integrated them with the design was to make sure they felt credible and like a real threat. In doing so, we had to change Isaac's abilities as well. You mentioned our cover system. We don't really consider it a system; we've just really tried to make it feel organic. So, Isaac can crouch on demand, which is a great way to avoid bullets, and he can take cover if you aim behind boxes. It's not something that we're putting on the back of the box and saying its new to the game. In fact, if players don't even realise there's a cover system, then we've done our job. We've designed it all to be subtle.
We had to give Issac these abilities, or else he wouldn't feel like a capable protagonist if he couldn't do what his opponents were doing. If they take cover or crouch, players would ask why they couldn't do the same thing. After focus testing, we realised we had to put it in the game, but we didn't want to change what is at the heart of Dead Space, which is strategic dismemberment and fighting necromorphs. So, we actually down-play those abilities, and like I said, if players feel like Isaac is doing the quote "right thing" by taking cover behind an object without ever thinking about a system, then we've done our job right.
Stevivor: We've heard time and time again that this the Dead Space game that explains the backstory of how the Markers came to be. How difficult was it to expand the lore of the Dead Space universe in this way and have it work with what's been established in Dead Space 1 and 2?
Calhoun: Actually, the Dead Space mythology is pretty well documented internally. Back in Dead Space 1, we had close to 100 pages of story bible written just about the Markers, the necromorphs and their morphology and how they came to be. Where we've stumbled is communicating that to our audience. The story doesn't always line up well with gameplay goals. Some important things have to become minor as we're making a game first and not just telling you how clever we are with our backstories.
There's also all the supporting media with movies and novels and whatnot, and they all rely on that story bible as well. But if you've only experienced some of those things, then it can seem like some of the story is missing. Dead Space 3 was really about putting all the sources together making a game where there are no holes in the details. In doing so, we'll answer the questions the fans may have with this universe.
Stevivor: A Dead Space game release usually means an animated film… which we're not getting with this iteration in the series. Is that because you've made a concentrated effort to explain the backstory of the Markers themselves in Dead Space 3?
Calhoun: Yes. The supporting media that we have is a graphic novel that goes into Carter's backstory, as well as a new novel that is really deep into the Marker lore. We didn't feel that it was necessary to make an additional piece of fiction that would perhaps deviate or just create more questions that we were already answering in the game
Also, our story producer who's responsible for all this has his hands tied with adding all the new content into co-op. He didn't really have an opportunity to think about how we would expand media when we were so focused on expanding the game.
Stevivor: Very recently we've been told that gamers with a ME3 save will be able to access a N7-styled suit. Will this have any special features or functionality compared to the other suits in the game?
Calhoun: The suits from Dead Space 3 don't have inherent buffs. We've divorced suit upgrades from the actual upgrade system this time around. So, if you invest in your armour or health, it's not going to be taken away depending on the suit you're wearing. So, the Mass Effect 3 suits don’t have inherent abilities apart from just looking super bad-ass.
Stevivor: What's your favourite feature in Dead Space 3 that you don't think is being talked about enough?
Calhoun: Oh, weapon crafting. Definitely weapon crafting. Partially because I was responsible for helping put it together, but also because it's a very deep system that can't easily be communicated with a quick demo.
To fully experience it, you have to enjoy that gameplay of finding weapon parts out in the world. By the end of the game, what you've found and created will be very different from what a friend has found and created. It's an hour-to-hour feature, unlike something like co-op which is experienced second-to-second, or human enemies which are minute-to-minute.
We've released our demo and it has a weapon crafting arena populated with most -- but not all -- of the parts that you'll be able to find. Be rest assured that all the crazy weapons you can make in the demo will not be available until you're WAY into the game.
The most rewarding part of the feature to me is that you'll be able to build crazy weapons, and they're only possible because of the choices you've made in-game and the parts that you've decided to craft.
Oh, and we haven't talked about the Scavenger Bot, have we?
While a minor feature, I like the Scavenger Bot just cause I think it looks like one of the coolest things we've ever built in a Dead Space game. You'll find it in the flotilla and it's an autonomous resource collector that you can hold like a gun to find resource caches. It has a little radar to help find them. When you've found a cache, you can place it on the ground and it unfolds to become a little robot. If you use the radar correctly, you're going to find a really rich cache of resources, and it'll do all the mining for you. On his own, he'll go and do all the mining for you, and the next time he sees you at a Bench, he'll deposit what he's found into your account.
This is important because there are no credits in Dead Space 3. We decided that credits were a fiction of the current Dead Space universe and not the Tau Volantis that was abandoned two hundred years ago. So we wanted to make sure that you were finding things that were real, like little ores of tungsten or semi-conductors, random scrap metal… and it's these elements that you can use to craft weapon parts or health packs or ammo, and they become extremely valuable.
Once you start to play the game for several hours, you start to realise that you're low on resources and you'll need to find some more ,and your Scavenger Bot is like you're little buddy who's got your back. You'll be happy to have him on your side. I love the little guy and can't get enough of him.
We'd like to thank EA, Visceral, and most importantly Mr John Calhoun for this opportunity.