Surviving against the odds in Dead Space 3

EA's horror survival title moves the action to an ice planet.

While EA has a habit of releasing yearly updates to its sports titles, the publisher has also shown a willingness to experiment with new IP. EA may not always have had a sure fire hit on its hands, with Mirror’s Edge coming to mind, but that only made unique games such as Dead Space stand out even more. By blending cutting edge graphics, memorable weapons and terrifying enemies, Dead Space and its sequel showed that third person shooter can be as intelligent as they are fun to play.

We spoke with Visceral Games producer, John Calhoun, about the development process of Dead Space 3.

Does Dead Space 3 max out the current generation of consoles?

Visceral Games producer, John Calhoun (JC): We’ve definitely pushed it further than anything we’ve built in the past. I would never say we pushed it to one hundred per cent, because if the Xbox 360 is still around in three years and we’re making games for it, I think we can still push it further. So have we maxed out the consoles? Yes. Is there still room to go? I think so, and I’m really proud with what our engineers have been able to do to really make this game look like it is future generation and not current generation.

How does the game innovate on a technical level?

JC: We’ve done a lot of innovative technology changes in our engine, which can be immediately seen when playing the game. We have also really improved the look of the graphics and stability of the gameplay. There is dynamic rendering in regards to depth of field, as well as on the PlayStation 3 if the performance starts to lag for any reason. So rather than dropping frames, the game starts to selectively turn off filters and other artistic layers that we’ve put on top of the game to ensure that it is running at peak performance.

How do you maintained the scare factor?

JC: We have our weekly team meetings, where everyone on the team, whether they are an artist, animator, designer. In production, we really need to throw out ideas out there to make it really scary. We asked what movies we saw that kind out knocked us out of our seat. So we have entire libraries of ideas, looks and images that we come up with in the very beginning of the production cycle. Then we prototype these ideas, such as what happens if all of the lights go out? But if all of the lights go out, how do they affect the player? So it’s scary, but it’s a tricky one that you can’t repeat too often.

How did the inclusion of co-op affect the development process?

JC: We asked ourselves what happens if someone plays co-op and one player sees something the other player doesn’t see. That was an idea and it turns out that it was really innovative. So we decided to apply that to our co-op campaign, and it’s just one example of where ideas can come from the most random places. A sound designer might come up with a trick that plays with your mind in terms of innovation, and an engineer might come up with an audio trick. It all comes from the creative team that we work with on Dead Space 3.

What type of graphic content gets excluded or included?

JC: It’s really up to the executive producer to decide what goes in and what doesn’t. But our team is pretty good about knowing where the envelope is. We kind of have a sixth sense when it comes to “how far is too far.” When we’re making the game, in terms of the gore and graphic violence, the truth is that we often go too far initially. It is easier to make something too big, and then scale it back as you go through the production cycle. The same think has to do with gameplay. We make the game too difficult, as it is easier to remove enemies or add ammo at the last minute, than it is to make it harder in the last minute.

What are your thoughts on violence in video games?

JC: There is a fine line between just showing violence and gore for the sake of shock to showing graphic content because it affects you. The truth is that the less you do, the more is unseen, the more effective it is. So the first pass of any new feature that has a graphic element, whether it is a new enemy, attack or cinematic, is always the most extreme we’re ever going to see, and sometimes it ships that way. Most of the time we’re going to decide to pull it back because we don’t like it or it’s over the top. We don’t want to be gratuitous but thrilling.

Was motion control support for Dead Space 3 considered?

JC: For motion support, the answer is no. Primarily, this is because it is a feature we have done before. I’ll speak for the engineers here in that they like to do things that are new. So while we have done motion support, we have not done voice support. Even though I see the Kinect as a motion sensing device, the truth is our engineers really saw it as a voice supported device, since we had already gone down that path before. So we really explored the opportunities for using voice commands for both the single player and co-op campaigns. In fact, Dead Space 3 is the only game to feature co-op specific voice commands. So you can share ammo or health packs with your friends, or if you get lost you can find your partner. Little things like that really eliminate going into menus and slowing down the game while you’re just trying to survive.

What feature of Dead Space 3 stands out for you?

JC: I’m most impressed with our approach to co-op. It is a stretch to call it innovative, but it is really unique in the way that the story and gameplay change dynamically as player two drops in and out. We are not doing two completely separate stories. There is one story with one resolution, but the tone and storytelling is radically different in that it has a different feel at its core when you’re playing co-op. When you are playing alone, the protagonist doesn’t really speak much, because fans don’t want to hear a “chatty cathy.” In Uncharted, Nathan Drake will turn a corner and say something. He’ll then look up and say something else. It all takes you out of the immersive experience, as you realise it is a voice actor in studio having fun.

How does this change in co-op?

JC: Dead Space 3’s protagonist only speaks when it is relevant to the player’s experience. All of this changes in co-op, as you have two people moving next to each other. It doesn’t feel immersive if they are silent. If they solve a crazy puzzle, it would make sense if they would acknowledge that and feel relieved that they survived. So there is a lot more dialogue when playing co-op. The tone of the game is so different that it is something I am really proud of.

Any consideration for a PlayStation Vita edition?

JC: The Vita didn’t really come up in discussions. We have an engine that is so perfectly suited for the current hardware that is out there, that we really wanted to make sure that the game came out giving our all. With a lot of AAA games coming out, we joke around internally that we want to create a AAAA game. The only way you can do that is to stay razor focused on one game and not try to dilute the gameplay or technology by having a smaller scale, especially on handheld. I love the Vita and I’m not knocking it, but we would have to consider how to implement touch and motion sensing into the game, and that would have taken resources away from making the core game all it can be.

Can we expect a third Dead Space film with the release of the game?

JC: There will be no animated film, but we are doing a graphic novel, called Dead Space: Liberation. It is a supporting piece of media coming out on the game’s launch, and it is done by the same artist and writer that did the Dead Space 2 graphic novel. The graphic novel is really cool because it is all about Carver. I mentioned that Carver was not just an afterthought, and his back story and archetype is something that we’ve been developing for quite a while, but never found a way to put it into the game. Co-op was a perfect opportunity, because we could add to the game instead of subtract from it. In order to tell his backstory, we had to use the graphic novel for that.

Any interest in doing a sequel to 2010’s Dante’s Inferno?

LC: [Laughs] I didn’t work on Dante’s Inferno but I know people who did. All I can say is right now is focused on making Dead Space 3 as a good a game as it can be. Even though it is out, we’re working on supporting it online, via QA, and on forums. We wanted to make sure that people have a quality experience from the moment they put the disc in to the moment they are playing the game and showing it to their friends. Only after Dead Space 3 is fully supported can we talk about the plans for the future.

Want to read other video game interviews with key figures from Sony, Microsoft and more? Then check out Good Gear Guide's complete interview archive.

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Patrick Budmar

Patrick Budmar

PC World
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