Electronic Arts held a "Community Event" for their upcoming sci-fi survival horror game Dead Space at their Redwood City headquarters yesterday, inviting bloggers who cover video games, horror, and science fiction for a full day of presentations, discussions and, yes, strategic dismemberment. And we learned about a crucial change the developers were forced to make to the game, which amped the adrenaline levels massively. Our impressions of the event - including some creepy concept art, screen shots, and the game trailer edited by Saw filmmaker James Wan, under the jump.
A survival horror game set in outer space, Dead Space puts the player in the shoes (well, clunky metal gravity boots, actually) of engineer Isaac Clarke, tasked with exploring the USG Ishimura, an enormous mining ship that has lost communications with Earth after coming into contact with an alien artifact. This being a science fiction video game, Isaac encounters horrific alien hybrids bent on tearing apart everything they see and, since it's also a survival horror video game, a watchful eye on resources and exit routes is mandatory (and, in real life, bladder strength is a must) if the player wants to make it to the next level.
Springing from Executive Producer Glen Schofield's love for the horror and science-fiction genres, Dead Space spent more than two years in development with a small "rogue" team of designers and creators. During the course of the afternoon at the Community Event, members of that team talked about Dead Space and the choices they made in creating it. Art director Ian Milham walked us through the design of the physical environment in Dead Space and its basis in gothic architecture. Ben Wanat showed the evolution of his concept designs for the monstrous creatures, and lighting lead David Blizard gave an info-dense talk about the differences between Dead Space's dynamic lighting system and traditional lighting approaches in games that had some listeners clutching their head in confusion and others scribbling notes in a state of near-religious ecstasy. Each presentation took another aspect of Dead Space and showed the steps undertaken to deepen that aspect as fully as possible.
But as enlightening as many of the presentations on the game's technical issues were, the talks given about the design choices in creating the game became the ones most directly relevant to my understanding of the game. Creative Producer Brett Robbins spoke on the big decisions made early on regarding player immersion, and how the eschewing of a HUD led to specific design elements (Isaac's lighted spine, which represents his health, and the ammo counter holographically displayed when a weapon is open). Another immersion choice which had been the source of some minor online controversy recently - not to pause the game when the player opens the inventory and map screens - led to other design adjustments in the size and shape of those screens.
In a related presentation, producer Rich Briggs talked about scripted events and explained how the player immersion meant a lack of cutscenes in the game and dictated the approaches to the flow of events. "Some players are going to see some scripted events," Briggs explained, "and some are going to miss them. So there are some events that will never be seen by a single player playing a single game, and that's cool. But when you have a game with no cutscenes, you have to have very, very tight level design for times when the player has to see something."
Briggs also talked about focus testing, the most extensive ever done for any EA game. "We were focus testing the game every single week, almost from the very beginning. Sometimes the sessions would just be half an hour - we would give the players a ton of credits and tell them 'go to the [in-game] store, and just buy stuff,' just to see if the store worked the way it should. Other times, we had people playing for six hours just to see what happened, where they lost focus. And a lot of feedback came from that which influenced how the game developed." For example, the design team for Dead Space insisted that Isaac not be able to run, the measured pace of a character being a staple of survival horror. "But by the third time we got feedback saying, 'Yeah, Isaac moves really fucking slow,' we couldn't keep our heads buried in the sand any longer," Briggs admitted. "And so we changed that, but it had ripple effects throughout the entire game. Suddenly the monsters' AI was no longer effective. They seemed stupid because they couldn't react quickly enough to a character running around them. We had to lengthen the hallways because the level wouldn't stream quickly enough when the player was running. Everything had to be adjusted. And I was really proud because the team swallowed that pill, and the game was stronger for it."
This willingness to adapt the game to maximize the play experience echoed something Robbins said about his resistance to a quick access heal button: "I was really resistant, but the day after we put it in, I was playing a level and stuck in a tight spot, and I used the health button and I loved it. It was the first of many times we swore we wouldn't do something, and then we did it, and I loved the result."
In addition to the presentations, attendees spent 90 minutes playing levels in Dead Space and the general consensus was that we too loved the result. While I took a perhaps too-skeptical eye to the ongoing claims of originality on the parts of the game's producers and marketing people (the gradations of difference executive producer Glen Schofield used to separate Dead Space from Doom 3, Half-Life and Half-Life 2 and System Shock seemed razor-thin to me), I couldn't quibble with the buttery-smooth gameplay—the fear of fleeing powerful attackers and the fun of strategically dismembering advancing beasties were easily available in equal doses. (In the interests of full survival horror disclosure, it should be noted I'll pick Resident Evil 4 over Resident Evil every time. But Dead Space does a very strong job of highlighting the player's vulnerability in an unsettling, frequently hostile, environment—the staple of classic survival horror.) Dead Space is currently scheduled for release on October 27, 2008. If the ending Schofield briefly discussed in his roundtable is as powerful as he says ("We spent a lot of time, a lot of energy, on the ending, and we didn't even show a lot of our own guys the ending until recently") and if the strong playability I saw is consistent through the game (with a healthy amount of playing time for the price tag), the development team's long, vulnerable exploration through the unsettling environment of original IP game development should be more than amply rewarded.