Dead Space 2 PAX East InterviewBy Patrick Klepek - Posted Mar 29, 2010
Besides a magazine cover, Electronic Arts and Visceral Games haven't said much about Dead Space 2. All parties involved are quiet about a release date for the action-horror sequel, but it's largely expected that it won't be arriving until early 2011. PAX East marked a coming out party of sorts for Dead Space 2, however, with executive producer Steve Papoutsis, producer Rich Briggs and art director Ian Milham coming to PAX's east coast debut to talk with fans, discuss the future of the franchise, and tease a short piece of gameplay from the game. I sat down with all three of them at PAX East to discuss Dead Space, Dead Space 2 and more.
G4: We're at PAX. What is it like to meet with fans in person, rather than the traditional way of interacting with fans, which tends to be through the Internet?
Steve Papoutsis: Super awesome.
Ian Milham: I find it incredibly gratifying but also -- and don't take this the wrong way -- difficult because these are people that...they're big fans, they have played the game, they're really smart and they're dedicated and they can sniff out BS marketing very well, right? They know when you're not being honest, they know when you're just shining them on with sort of PR speak, so it is really authentic and great, but you have to really bring some tangible value to it. You really have to have an honest dialogue with them because they're probably the most sophisticated people we'll talk to about our games. It's incredibly gratifying, I love it, but I also have to feel like I have to be on my A-game because they know what they're talking about.
Rich Briggs: The enthusiasm is great. I love seeing fans come up who really enjoy the game and they appreciate what care we've taken to make it, and so it's great to see your work really appreciated in that way. It's nice to have a dialogue with them and they want to know what's going on for the future of the franchise, and they want to know what this element of the game meant, so it's just fun to talk to people and get their take on what certain elements of Dead Space meant and where we might take it in the future.
G4: Walk me through what you guys experienced at the panel. I know you live streamed it. What did you guys have a chance to show here at PAX?
Papoutsis: The whole idea behind the panel was to kind of do a refresher on the Dead Space universe, so we broke it into three segments. I did an intro, just top-level overview of Dead Space and the various extentions, focusing on Dead Space, Extraction, and just the general universe. Rich then took it over and went deeper on the terror, the horror elements, some of the backstory elements, and then Ian just totally rocked with tons of detail around the way he and the art team constructed Dead Space and just all the art components -- breaking down what elements made Dead Space. He talked about the UI, he talked about the environment art, the character models. He just really went through tons...what? Seventy slides or something crazy like that?
Milham: Typical artist -- seventy pictures in twenty minutes.
Papoutsis: Then, we rounded it out with what we thought was the most important part of the day: the Q&A, getting people to ask questions. The other part, as you said, was making sure that we could live stream it so that we could connect even more people. We're really interested and excited about where social media is going and how we can actually connect more frequently with people that are into what we're making. It's very inspiring for the team to be able to see and hear that people care so much and have opinions about what we do, so we're really interested in ways we can connect more with people like that, and we're doing that through Facebook and through Twitter and that live stream was something that was unique. I heard we were one of the few panels that did that, so we really wanted to do that. We wanted to make sure that the people on the west coast that couldn't come got an opportunity to see what we were up to, to see how Ian and Rich did on the presentation and then get to ask questions. That's kind of what we wound up doing today. Oh, and then showing the Issac suit, the new Dead Space suit. Then, we did some other shenanigans with the very secret special clip that we showed that we unveiled to those people that waited in line to see and talk to us.
G4: How much does this kind of interaction impact development? Now, you have a much better chance to get feedback in real-time, mid-cycle or even early-cycle, depending on when you show the game. How much do you balance between what fans are demanding and your vision?
Papoutsis: I think it's a delicate mix, right? The first thing I want to say is we're not going to the community because we don't have ideas on what we want to make. We know where we want to go and we're using the community as a sounding board a lot of the time to validate something. There were a lot of great questions today that came up that actually reinforced and validated some of the things we were planning to do. But sometimes there is a great idea that somebody might suggest or they'll voice their opinion about something they didn't like. Again, coming out of Dead Space and Dead Space: Extraction, we've done extensive focus testing and research to find out what people liked and didn't like. Rich has done a lot of work on just focus testing and connecting with people to understand what made Dead Space good or what people didn't like about it and those things...we're using the social media as a way to connect with people and let them know "hey, we're listening, we're interested in what you're doing." Making games is a challenge, you've got a lot of people doing that, but at the same time, we're asking people to pony up some serious money to buy them, so we want to make sure that what we're making is gonna hit the mark for those people that are gonna put out their hard-earned money to purchase the stuff that we put together.
G4: Has the role of focus testing changed now that people are spending less money and you can get a much more granular idea of what people did and didn't like about a specific game, i.e. Dead Space?
Briggs: We actually have a couple different motives when we're going out with the focus testing. There's a lot of testing that we do for the playability and the usability. We have a game mechanic or we have a certain element that we want to test so that we get it absolutely right, so that's actually where we do the majority of our testing. But then there's always bigger picture focus testing. That's what you're speaking of, where we're actually trying to gauge consumer opinion about something, or to Steve's point, what they liked about Dead Space so we can even take that to the next level and what they didn't like so that we can improve upon that whenever we have the chance. The role has changed in that it's become a lot more frequent. We really want to make sure that we're putting everything we do through the ringer because at the end of the day we have a vision, but we are responsible for building the highest quality product possible and we don't want to build a game for ourselves. We want to build a game that is true to the vision we have, but we need to build a game for the fans, so if the fans aren't in there playing it and telling us "yeah, you're on the right track with this" or "this needs work" then we're not going to build a game that everybody's going to want to play.
G4: A lot of that feedback loop is often related to the mechanics. Does the art ever get influenced by player feedback, or is that independent?
Milham: Usually, in terms of broad sylistic decisions, no. We have choices that we make...games take so long to make that we've made some stylistic decisions and that kind of thing very early on that take a long time to [build] -- we're going, man. In a lot of ways, though, when it comes to usability and overall clarity, do people have a good idea of where they're going, "Is it the right amount of scary?", for instance. Dead Space is kind of unique amongst other games in that sometimes the art is the gameplay. Like, the hallway before the room where it goes crazy doesn't have any monsters in it, it doesn't have any gameplay in the strictest sense of the word, but the art is telling a story in that moment and is trying to hit a certain emotional beat and that's the kind of stuff we work out with people. We ask them "How did it feel at that moment? Did that work out right?" And if it's not on-target, we'll adjust things, we'll make it even scarier, we'll do other sorts of stuff. It's definitely towards the end to see if what we are trying to hits, that's when we really start working on it from our perspective.
G4: I don't know if this quote was taken out of context, but I was given the impression that Dead Space 2 was going to pull back from the horror and focus more on the action. Would you say that's accurate?
Briggs: Oh, no. [smiles]
Papoutsis: Yeah, no. That's a big negative there. [laughs] Tango down, tango down. That's not what we're doing. Like Rich was saying, listening to what gamers think about the game, one thing that we heard over and over again was "hey, we love the horror elements of Dead Space, those were great, but we also want a release point," a point where you can feel like a bad-ass and kick a little bit of ass. I think the way that Rich has been explaining it and we've all been explaining it, if you think about a rollercoaster ride or a sine wave, there's going to be moments where we're building the tension, we're building to a moment and there's a climax and then there's a release, where you can get your bearings, kick ass a little bit and then it's right back into the tension. We're sprinkling these moments throughout the game that are going to make the player feel very empowered -- [they're] epic.
G4: It sounds like more of a rhythm. In Dead Space, you always felt on edge.
Briggs: It was 100% white-knuckle tension and we did a lot of research after the fact and people were coming back and saying "I never even listened to the logs sometimes because I was so scared of something jumping me out of a dark corner," and we don't want people to be sacrificing their understanding of the story and their enjoyment of the environment because they're always so scared. To Steve's point, yeah, we are still gonna be a horror game, yes, we are still Dead Space, we're gonna scare the pants off you as many times as we can, but Issac's been through this before, so he's a little bit more capable this time around, he's going to have some times where he can actually have an epic moment and it is like a rollercoaster ride. You're going to have those peaks and valleys with both the action and with both the scares and they're not mutually exclusive. You can have a high-octane moment that's also very, very scary. We're looking at a lot of different, sophisticated ways to bring both the action, the terror, and the horror together.
G4: This is a very vague question, but how do you define what is scary? It seems like when you're trying to sculpt scary in focus testing, that would be difficult because that's not the environment gamers will be playing in.
Briggs: First, you're right. It's very difficult when you've got a room full of six guys playing the game, but we darken the room, we put the headsets on, then we try and separate them so they can't see other people's screams and when you see an 18-to-24-year-old guy, who's too cool for school maybe, watching TV and saying "nothing's gonna scare me" and he jumps back from a moment, you know you've got 'em, you know you've won. We differentiate between the terror and the horror in some of the tools that we use and how we deliver them and the length of time that we want you to experience it. Terror is more about the build-up of that dread and the horror is that moment when it happens. In our opinion, if we can make you afraid to look around the corner, we've done our job on the terror side. If we can make you jump when a horror moment happens, even when you knew it was coming, we've done our job on the horror side. It's sometimes to replicate the home experience, but, again, that makes it even more rewarding when those guys do jump -- you know you're onto something special.
G4: The way you're all describing the game, it seems you're anticipating a lot of new fans coming into Dead Space 2. Does that alter how much you evolve the design?
Milham: It's a tricky balance, right? Obviously, we would love to grow our audience. I mean, who wouldn't? We want to sell more games and for Dead Space to be around for a long time, we'd like people to enjoy it. A lot of people enjoyed Dead Space, but I think there's a lot more people out there for a lot of different reasons that didn't have a chance to that we want to appeal to. But nobody wins if we don't please our core fans, so we're being very, very careful and they're the ones who we take care of first and then we think of ways, like, "How would a new person want to enjoy this?" When that core fan tells somebody else, "Dude, this thing's awesome because it's got all this sort of stuff," how can we make it more enjoyable for even more people? But the core fans win. We will not disappoint them. That's who we need to take care of.
Briggs: I think it's about taking the elements that are already the core part of the Dead Space franchise and then deepening them and going a little bit wider on them. For the core fan, yes, we're still going to be scary, yes, we're still going to have awesome Zero-G moments, yes, we're going to have a great story, we're going to have Issac Clarke. But for attracting more fans, you broaden that. You say "Issac is still an engineer, but he has a voice now and he has a character and we can go deeper on his motivations." Zero-G has more streamlined controls and you've got more combat opportunities [and] you've got more accessible ways you can use it in puzzles. The horror is going to be dialed up, so we can have more sophisticated ways to tell a scary story. And we go even deeper on the lore of the franchise, so, yeah, this story is a natural continuation of Dead Space, but it expands the universe and brings in new elements that can appeal to a wider range of people. In addition to everything that Ian said, I think it's about holding true to what made Dead Space great, but then broadening them and showing how it's now opening into a much bigger picture.
Papoutsis: Just to follow-up on that, one of the things that we did ourselves a disservice on the original game...a lot of people played it and our demo was not received as the super awesomest thing ever. That's one thing, again, we want to make sure this time out we deliver a demo that lets people understand the flavor and experience that's at the heart of the Dead Space universe. We're really gonna focus on what's really good, so that new people get a chance to experience and see what it's really about. Last time, I just heard a lot of comments like "The demo was way too hard," or "It kind of came out after the fact." We're really putting an emphasis on making sure that we have something there so that new people can check it out. There's a lot of people that seem interested and we just want to give them an opportunity to check it out and get into it.
G4: That seems to be a dividing line between some developers, on whether they believe in the idea of a demo. Like you said, a bad demo can do a disservice to the full game, or there's the argument a demo can give people too much of a taste. But a demo can really evangelize the game, if done right.
Papoutsis: I think so, and this team that we're a part of is just an amazing group of people and if we put our mind to making something great, we can and will do it. If we make the priority to make a really fun demo for people to check out and get a really good flavor of the game, I think we can nail that. I think you're right -- it's a tricky line, right? There's some games you play a demo [of] and you never wind up buying it because "I got my fill!" It's our goal to deliver a game that not only after every single chapter you want to keep going, but we want the demo to be the kind of event where you play it and you go "Holy shit, I'm going out right now, I've got to get this!" That's one of the goals that we're driving towards and I think we're going to nail that.
G4: How quickly did you arrive at the decision to give a voice to Issac? I know that when that detail came out, that was a point of contention for people.
Papoutsis: The voice thing is really just about making the game believable. So, the first game, there really wasn't anybody around, there wasn't anybody for him to talk to. And in the new game, c'mon, he's just been through this horrific experience and there miiiiight be some people around, so it would make sense that he may actually speak. It was an evolution based around what the story required, and just the fact that it's tough to stomach that some guy's not going to talk for another however many hours Dead Space 2 is -- that was one of the motivators for it. And the other thing is getting a connection with him and what's going on and how he may be feeling. There's been a lot of questions about what is Issac, who is Issac. I mean, today's panel was amazing -- that one guy knew all this backstory info on Issac and I was completely blown away, but that was just one out of every 100 or 300 or 500 people that actually know that. So being able to deliver a little bit more of what he's about through some voices is cool. And just to be completely clear with anybody who's freaking out or think it's going to be weird, he's not going to be some Chatty Kathy, he's not going to be busting out one-liners...
G4: It sounds like a storytelling thing. Having him muted makes it difficult for certain things to be communicated unless you're reading it in a log, or somehow getting another character to say it.
Milham: Exactly. On a specific point, a lot of the feedback we got from the first game was "Really liked the story, liked a lot of things, Issac felt a little bit like an errand boy, I was getting bossed around a lot and I didn't have a lot of success even when I did do things." We had reasons for making him silent, but now, Issac's going to be the one in charge, he's going to be making calls and it's pretty tough to do that if you don't talk. While we certainly are cognizant of all the risks there and we're gonna do a good job of it -- because you could cast the wrong guy or you could make a misstep. The things that would make us question the decision, we're aware of...and we're definitely planning on doing a really good job and nailing the character, but now he's a much bigger character and he is a character and he's going to to be the one in charge, bringing experience to bear and the story is going to revolve around him. To do that, we're going full-on with a full character.
Briggs: The final thing is...Issac is going through a lot of horrific things and the idea that he never has any kind of reaction to any of this stuff that he's seeing...?!
G4: Instead, the player's having the reaction.
Briggs: He did face palm! [everybody laughs] He learns that his girlfriend's been dead the whole time and he puts his hand over his face, looks down and says "well, you know, I never really liked her anyway," and [it's] back to business. As we're trying to take the bar and the terror to new levels, Issac is going to have some reaction to this. He's going to see a lot of very terrible things, even worse in Dead Space 2, and we need to give him -- in addition to Ian's point about being able to call the shots and Steve's point to emotionally resonate with the audience -- we've gotta make him feel like a believable character. If you saw somebody rip their heart [out] in front of you, you probably wouldn't just keep walking.
G4: How much of the overall fiction was mapped out in the first game? Clearly, you're expanding it so that there's a whole host of possibilities you can go forward in.
Briggs: We had the majority of the roadmap already in place. We knew what most of the key beats were. There were a few things that we had to do a little course-correction on, things that we had settled on for Dead Space that didn't work quite the way we wanted to for Dead Space 2. Without ripping anything apart, we could make those changes, reconcile the lore in a few ways. There are other things, like a lot of our IP extensions, where we have a comic and an animated feature, there are stories that we can introduce and say "you know, this is a really cool story." We've already got the foundation of it from the reference material we created for ourselves as we were writing the original Dead Space. Let's go deeper on the story, let's use that foundation as a jumping-off point and tell somebody else's story. Steve worked on Dead Space: Extraction and that was something that was already in the foundation of the Dead Space universe, but then you can take that and turn it into an awesome game because there's a whole story waiting to be told.
G4: You talk about the one guy who was super into the lore. Do you have any idea what percentage of your players are like that? Unlike a lot of other horror games, you guys have good gameplay. A lot of horror games tend to be scary and combat's not so fun. Because of that, do you find of people focus on that more?
Briggs: When we do our research and our usability testing, we ask "Do you know about this? How familiar are you with these different elements?" I would say a really good percentage of people enjoy the story, they understand the key beats, they know about Nicole and what she represents, they know about the marker. They know all the things that they need to in order to get through the game, but it's a lot smaller percentage that are like that, that are in there with the nitty-gritty [saying] "Well, I know this X, Y and Z." That's a small, core fan, but we love those guys. Those are the guys that are reading the comics and they're watching the animated feature, so that's why we create that stuff. You don't have to know all that to enjoy Dead Space, but if you do know all of that, it just makes your knowledge and the intricacies that we throw out there all the more rewarding.
G4: Do you have any interest in revisiting Dead Space: Extraction now that it seems like the other consoles have some sort of motion capacity in development?
Papoutsis: That keeps coming up. It's definitely something that sounds pretty cool. That's all you can really say about that.
G4: Just to wrap up, what can fans expect in the near future? When can they look to hear more about Dead Space 2? Seems like PAX East was a coming out party.
Papoutsis: Anybody that wants to stay connected with Dead Space 2 should be following us on our Twitter and should be checking into our Facebook page because we're putting updates up there all the time, so there's some really good, unique info that we're sharing there right now. And then as far as our plans, we're going to be getting the game out there a lot in the coming months. And as far as a ship date, we're going to put this game out when it's ready and when it's at the quality level that the people are going to play it expect, and that's kind of our current plan. But as far as information on Dead Space 2, there's going to be a lot more coming soon.