Dead Space 3: interview with John Calhoun

00:02, Jan 29 2013

Dead Space 3 is the third game in the successful survival horror series from EA that features deep space miner Isaac Clark facing off against unspeakable horrors called the necromorphs. He can shoot their limbs off with a variety of weapons and tools as he explores dark nooks and crannies. Dead Space 3, though, is the first of the series to introduce cooperative play to the mix.

Whether Dead Space 3 will be as scary as the original game and whether co-op adds to the experience I'm not sure, but I hoped producer John Calhoun, over the phone from Sydney, would have the answers. We touch on what Visceral Games wanted to achieve with the game, how the cooperative play worked and the thinking behind microtransactions for in-game resources.

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Gerard: What was the overarching goal for Dead Space 3? What were the most important things not to screw up, I guess?

John Calhoun: There were two important goals for us. Firstly, that we had a game that would appeal to our fans who played Dead Space 1 and Dead Space 2. They're basically our evangelists: they're our hardcore, they're the ones that if we can appease them we know that we're going to have a hit on our hands. In fact, our development team would be included in that category, right? People who like science fiction, people who like action horror. So make a game that speaks to those people. The next thing we wanted to do was make sure that "Hey, those people have friends who maybe haven't played Dead Space. How do we get those guys to bring their friends into the fold?" The more people that play Dead Space the better, so we wanted to add some features that wouldn't change the DNA of Dead Space but would allow us to grow in a way that would appeal to a few more people. So we did things like add drop-in/drop-out co-op and also weapon crafting, which we think will appeal to a large section of the population out there.

GC: I want to talk about the weapon crafting in a minute, but how does the co-op work? I'll put this scenario to you: If I'm playing the single player campaign then a friend comes along to play some co-op, what happens when they leave the game? Do I pick up the single player game from where I left off? How does the whole thing work?

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JC: Actually, it was the biggest challenge - trying to figure out how drop-in/drop-out co-op was going to work. And it works exactly the way you describe. Let's say you start the game from the beginning and you're going to play as Isaac Clark, it's that really classic isolated me-against-the-world premise that you're expecting out of Dead Space. You play for a couple of hours then you hit this place on the Lost Flotilla that's either too hard or too scary and you're like "I want a friend to join me" so you pause the game and invite a friend to play and when he shows up the game instantly adjusts dynamically according to the presence of one or two players.

It manifests itself in a couple of ways. Obviously the game play becomes harder [in co-op]. With twice the firepower the necromorphs have to be comparably strong but the story also alters dynamically. Isaac, who is pretty silent up until now, all of a sudden has somebody to talk to; somebody to bounce ideas off of, someone to get into fights or arguments with, to celebrate triumphs with, and every cinematic now has to take into account an additional character in it. Getting that right was really difficult.

Now, let's say you and your friend have played for 30 minutes and you decide "I'm done. I'm ready to go back to single player or friend has to leave," you will continue playing exactly where he left off. The game will adjust to now there is only one player and the best part is, that your buddy who has just played doesn't lose any of his progress in that experience as John Carver [the name of the co-op character]. Anything that he may have found - whether it was resources or weapons he had created, or trophies or achievements  he has got - those will be persistently saved in his game and will be available to him when he plays as Isaac Clarke or John Carver later. So there are no penalties for experimenting with co-op.

GC: What has the feedback to the co-op been from players who have played it?

JC: The feedback from players who haven't played the game has been sceptical but once they get their hands on co-op [especially at press events and people have played it through in its entirety] the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. It's hard to describe the idiosyncratic development quirks we had to do to make co-op work but once you've played through it yourself all the scepticism goes away.

GC: The original Dead Space was pretty scary. Do you think the addition of co-op will make the series less scary?

JC: We thought about that and there's nothing we can do to stop two friends playing the game, chatting in their headsets, joking around and saying things like "Oh, my God I bet you're going to get scared coming up" - we can't control that but we can control what happens on screen so we thought about that problem and developed a system called asymmetrical dementia. What this means is that over the course of the game - and it doesn't happen very often - player one or player two will start to experience reality slightly differently. It becomes more warped and twisted the closer you get to your ultimate goal. But because you can't see the each other's screen the fact that you're seeing entirely different things isn't apparent until things start to get out of control. At that point we hope that people will compare notes and be like "Ah, I hear someone on the other side of that door yelling for help. Let's go and help them," and the other player might say "Ah, firstly, I don't hear anybody and secondly, I don't see a door there" - that's not a real example, just a hypothetical one - but when you realise the two of you can experience things in different ways, you don't know whether you can trust the person you've been playing with this whole time and it creates a real sense of tension in both players' imagination that is something we're pretty proud of.

GC: Let's touch on the weapon crafting. It was announced this week that microtransactions would be available for real-world money so that people can buy resources and weapons parts. Was this something that the team had to really think hard about introducing?

JC: Thanks for asking that question because it actually gives me a chance to talk about the microtransactions as they are actually designed. In the game there are resources - inorganic and organic resources like tungsten and other stuff - and everything in this game can be crafted from resources, whether it's a weapon part or a med pack. Resources are found throughout the game - they're dropped by enemies, they're found by looting lockers - and there are enough resources in the game to beat Dead Space 3 in the hardest setting in co-op. So taken in isolation there are plenty of resources in the game, but we know that there are some people who just want things now, right? They want instant gratification. So even before we had microtransactions we developed the concept of resource packs: things that you could acquire in-game to give you that little boost of resources should you think you need it, and in-game they're acquired with an in-game currency called ratio seals [they were used by personnel on the abandoned places you creep around in to buy things like cigarettes and food], kind of like they used in World War II. So Isaac and Carver find these ratio seals and exchange them for resource packs so that's the system in place ... OK, so microtransactions.

Late in the game we realised we're trying to be accessible and inclusive of everybody, and that includes people who play mobile games, and a lot of mobile games and mobile gamers have 10 to 15 minutes of play time. That's just how they approach video games. It might not be how a hardcore gamer approaches it but there are some people who approach video games in that fashion. So we wanted to make sure that if they only have 10 or 15 minutes to play, and they want to experience everything "now, now, now" we will give them the option to pay for one of these resource packs. They are entirely optional, and as I said before, you can acquire them through in-game resources and none of them are required to beat the game. Everything that you need is in-game, from the beginning.

GC: So, it's for those players that don't want to do that grind through a game? They don't want to search through every crate or every locker. They want that instant gratification ...

JC: Yeah, but I hate the word grind because I think it has a negative connotation but in Dead Space there's a lot of optional content - in fact there's entire ships that you don't have to visit but they're where some of the hardest challenges lie, so our hardcore gamers are going to have more resources than our more casual players. So it's kind of a way for everyone to enjoy Dead Space 3 on their own time and in their own way.

GC:Do you think that with this being the third in the series, there is still life in the franchise for more adventures? What is the thinking for Visceral on this?

JC: In regards to the future I can say this: we have a really deep lore in the Dead Space universe. Before we even started Dead Space 1 we wrote the type of universe in a story bible that we wanted the game to take place in and this story bible was written by our producer, who's been with the game since day one. The story bible goes back 200 years before the first Dead Space and 500 years after the events of Dead Space 3 - not because that's when it ends but because it took a long time to write.

When we're making a Dead Space game we just choose to tell a great story within that universe we've created, so is there a future in Dead Space? Well, there's a lot more story to tell but we haven't really decided on what we're going to do next, we're just focused now on making Dead Space 3 as great as it can be.

GC: Touching on that, are you happy with how DS3 has progressed? Is it the best that it can be? Is it the best in the series?

JC: I think so, yeah. I've been working on Dead Space for a long time. I worked on Dead Space Extraction (on the Wii) and on Dead Space 2 and now Dead Space 3 and I can honestly say that DS3 is the best game of the franchise for me. 

Dead Space 3 is out on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC on early February.

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