Interview with Dead Space 3's John Calhoun

Interview with Dead Space 3's John Calhoun

Co-op + microtransactions = Survival Horror?

Dead Space 3 is in an interesting position. Sequel to a spectacular (and successful) series, its similar success seems almost automatic - especially in today's risk averse market, where sequels (we are, after all, anticipating the announcement of Call of Duty 10 in a few months) are the norm. And yet changes to the game (most notably the addition of coop support and microtransactions) seem to risk alienating its core audience, setting it adrift without a fanbase to support it.

Are those accusations fair? Does the audience really care as much as it sounds like they do, were you to read a random forum about the title? Is the game at risk of becoming a me-too dudebro title, further reducing the number of quality titles available to fans of the survival horror genre?

To find out, we sat down with John Calhoun, one of the producers on the game. If you're interested in our own impressions, be sure to also check out our hands-on previews.

Tell us about the game; what are our protagonists up to and what should players expect of the experience?

The primary protagonist is Isaac Clarke, who is the returning hero from Dead Space (1) & 2. He's an engineer by trade; he doesn't really feel comfortable with a gun, nor does he want to take the fight to anybody - let alone the necromorphs - but he finds himself falling into this ragtag group of scientists and ex-military personnel who are trying to destroy The Marker. The Marker is a large, obelisk-like artifact that they suspect creates the necromorphs (the zombie-like creatures in the game.)

Should you choose to play in coop, you'll be joined by your friend online who plays as John Carver, who is a soldier and has his own pretty deep back story, which we tell in a graphic novel that will be releasing alongside the game. He lost his wife and son to some people who were trying to meddle with The Marker as a possible power source, so he has a personal vendetta against the necromorphs as well. The two of them join forces, not always seeing eye to eye, but trying to help each other survive.

Frank Gibeau, President of EA Labels, stated that the intention of Dead Space 3 was to "open up the accessibility of the title by adding more action, but without undermining the horror"; at a practical level, how do you set about achieving that? Have you achieved that?

I think we've achieved the goal of making it more accessible, but not by the means that you just said. We haven't actually added more action to the game; we have demonstrated the high-action moments to the public, simply because they look so awesome on screen, but what we've done is we've maintained the overall pacing that's in the Dead Space DNA.

By "pacing", I mean the high highs, the low lows; if you have a game that's only at one intensity level, it gets to be pretty monotonous. So we have periods of high action - shooting lots of creatures, solving epic puzzles - but we follow those up by long sections of the game where nothing seems to be happening, except creepy sounds, lights going off - things that can kinda play with your imagination.

That's been a part of the Dead Space franchise from the very beginning, and it's alive and strong in Dead Space 3.

To make the game more accessible, we've done things like add coop. There are a lot of people who like science fiction, who would like a game like Dead Space, but they just happen to consider themselves coop gamers - they really only like games that they can play with their friends.

By adding [coop] to Dead Space 3, we hope to attract those people. We're not doing it by changing what the game is, we're simply doing it by giving people a new option and a new way to play, if that's the way they like to approach games.

So you wouldn't consider this a new direction for the series?

No, absolutely [not]. We did a preview event [recently], where we allowed people to play the first three hours of the game, and for the first time ever people played the game uncut, unadulterated - something that wasn't a demo. When we demo, we try to put a lot of features in, all at the same time, so people can come up with good talking points. But our demos aren't indicative of the final product, which is an extremely long game.

When they played the first three hours of the game, they were the first people to actually play the game as we designed it, the game that we know that it is. And by that I mean, it's classic Dead Space. It starts off with a bang, and then just as soon as you feel like your adrenaline is pumping, we take the action down to zero but crank the tension up to a hundred. There's nothing to fight, it's all trying to explore these creepy corridors, wondering what's going to jump out at you around the corner, and really dealing with the fear that's part of your imagination [not just] what you see on screen.

Where did the idea of coop come from? There's a suggestion that the idea has been around since the beginning of the franchise; is that true?

It's something that we've always played with, but it's not true that it's something we've always wanted to have. We like to try and innovate, and games like Dead Space kinda fall into particular genres - call it Survival Horror, call it Action Horror, call it Sci-Fi, call it what you will. But those particular genres are usually singleplayer focused, right? So we were like 'is there something we can do that would be different?' - coop would be one of those ways.

We experimented with it in Dead Space (1) and 2, we tried to see if we could make it work for us, but for either technical or fictional reasons, we were never able to make it happen. But with Dead Space 3, the stars aligned; we had an online multiplayer technical background that we developed from the competitive multiplayer of Dead Space 2, we had a character archetype that we had been incubating for a couple of months with John Carver, and we actually had fans tell us that they'd like to play through the story campaign with a friend.

So once we had all the pieces in place, we knew that we could do it; we decided that Dead Space 3 was going to be the game where we really devote all our time and energy into making it happen.

Do you need to play the game in coop mode to get a full understanding of the story?

No. We talk a lot about how the story is different in coop, but the truth is that it's the tone that's different - not the actual story itself. If you play it entirely in singleplayer, you're going to experience every major milestone, every triumph, every failure, and the eventual climax and resolution that is the heart and the core of the main Dead Space 3 game.

What coop does is it changes the tone and the feeling of that experience; it doesn't change the story. What that means is, Isaac, when he's on his own for example, he doesn't really talk much. He's got no one to talk to. That's very classic Dead Space. He fights enemies by himself, he has no one to rely on, and it's an isolating, scary experience.

When you play in coop, Issac is joined by a partner - John Carver. It's only natural that the two of them would talk to each other. They fight, they bicker, they celebrate their success. They have different backgrounds, so while Isaac might comment on an engineering solution, Carver might say 'screw fixing it, let's just blow it up'. It's a tonal shift that changes the feeling of the game. But no one is going to be missing out on the story moments.

There has been some significant (and very vocal) negative reaction to the game from the series' fanbase - is it justified, in your opinion?

It's been heartbreaking, almost, to read all the stuff on the Internet, when we know that they're reacting to microscopic slivers of gameplay, trailers, and screenshots that aren't representative of the entire game. When people get the full game in their hands, their opinion changes entirely; it does a 180.

The reaction before people play is 'we're worried that somehow this isn't Dead Space. It's not going to feel the way Dead Space (1) and 2 felt.' Then they play the game for three hours, in an uncut, realistic setting. Where they have to manage resources, where ammo is low, where the enemies are overpowering: that's what the real game is like, it's not necessarily the kind of thing you can do in a demo, where you're trying to focus on how awesome the game is and all the things that are new.

What I'd like to tell people who are worried is simply that the biggest fans of the game are the development team. We love this game more than anybody else, and the same people that made Dead Space (1) & 2 also made Dead Space 3. The heart and soul of this game is in our DNA and we're not going to do anything that's going to change what makes Dead Space such a great franchise.

Continue reading on page 2.


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Comments Comments (2)

Posted by Scuba_Steve
On Tuesday 29 Jan 2013 12:39 PM
Well that is the relief I was looking for I think, seems they've just added things in without taking away.
Now I'm just excited to get me hands on the game!
Posted by lax1
On Wednesday 6 Feb 2013 2:26 PM
so looking forward to this - hopefully can scare the bejesus out of my wife in co-op..