Interview: Dead Space 3 producer on micro-transactions and keeping the horror alive
25th Jan 2013 | 00:24
It's only a matter of weeks before the world will finally decide whether
Still, there are other things: what's this weapon crafting business? Why co-op? And - bloody hell - there are micro-transactions? Yes, these are all odd developments for a series like Dead Space, so we collared Dead Space 3 producer John Calhoun for a chat during a recent preview event.
A bit of background first: Asymmetrical Dementia is a co-op mechanic in Dead Space 3 that provides different events to separate co-op players. That means your co-op partner may see an enemy or phenomenon that you won't, and vice-versa. This will no doubt lead to heated arguments and/or accusations of delirium. Read more about the co-op experience here.
One of the things with Dead Space, or with any survival horror, is that a lot of the fear is from being caught off guard. How do you continue to create those moments in a third installment? Is it difficult?
It's difficult, but it's a fun challenge that we always enjoy. When we're in pre-production it's all about prototyping, and usually when we're wrapping up a game such as we did with Dead Space 2, the prototyping will start early, and we can use that game's assets and engine to come up with new ideas. In fact, the Asymmetrical Dementia was something that was born out of those early prototypes. Even though we didn't put it in the game early on, we realised that we had something on our hands. Playing over a cubicle wall, where you can talk to each other, people didn't realise they were playing different things when we were doing our internal testing, and it wasn't until we asked them to talk about their experiences that they realised they were seeing different things. It's that social experience of comparing notes and chatting with your friend that reveals the fact that games take place in the imagination more than they do on the screen. So the more that you can appeal to the player's imagination, the more successful you will be.
Another thing we've been doing is reviewing our games and trying to analyse what works, and in our case, one of the things that really works in terms of keeping the tension up, is audio. So for Dead Space 3 we told our audio guys that we were going to lean on them heavily. Come up with something really new. Surprise us, but also keep it Dead Space; don't lose what the fans want. The audio experience is really 50 percent of the game and it's top notch. I have to give them credit.
When the game was unveiled the snow setting immediately recalled John Carpenter's The Thing. What other media - films etc - influence the aesthetic of a Dead Space game?
A lot of influences really. We have a lot of leads who have different backgrounds. One of our art leads actually comes from the film industry, specifically cinematography, so he's really interested in lights and darks and how shadows affect the mood, both to make something bright and cheery, but also to make something somber or tense. We're also all really huge film buffs.
You mentioned The Thing - that was a movie that we watched once or twice as a team, and we all took something away from it. Some people saw it as a monster movie and they were really inspired by a monster that was grotesque and disgusting. Other people took away the fact that the human drama is what's most tense in that movie - not being able to trust people, not knowing who your enemy is. Not being able to trust people is part of the Asymmetrical Dementia moments that we're having in co-op. What our lighting team took away from it, is that a snowy environment can look completely different during the night to what it does in the day. So just taking one source as an example, you can see how so many people were able to take something out of it and put it into our game, giving it our own stamp.
There's a kind of Lovecraft dimension to the Asymmetrical Dementia - there's the sense that you're not getting the full picture, and that's a great source of dread. Was that a conceptual idea, or was it a cool mechanic you happened upon?
It was more a result of just tinkering. We're not geniuses right, we can't say "oh we read this great psychological theory about not trusting your friends". But we've also made sure [to abide] the principal of great thrillers - like Psycho, or Jaws - which is: show less, imagine more. We've been doing that in Dead Space for a really long time. I love that you mention Lovecraft, because that is our creative director's favourite author, and all the creatures are kind of Lovecraftian - at least in the early stages, when he draws them on napkins and on the back of notebooks.
Is it possible for someone to comfortably play Dead Space 3 without bothering with the weapon crafting system?
Absolutely. The weapon crafting is really deep, and for some people it's really intimidating. When we focus tested the game we were surprised - it's a minority - that there are people out there who are just not interested. Usually it's the people who come from shooter games, who say "I'm looking for a shotgun. Just give me a shotgun." That's a quote we were given. So, at the weapon crafting bench there are five options: the first one is to craft a weapon from parts, and the next one is blueprints. The blueprints are predetermined recipes for creating a specific weapon, so you go into that menu. Some of the blueprints you have to find in order to unlock them, but the blueprint will simply say shotgun. If you have the resources and the parts in order to build it, you press a button, and it's yours.
We have blueprints for weapons that can be created with some of the very early parts found in the game. We also have blueprints for many of the classic Dead Space weapons, and we also have blueprints for weapons that are "team favourites", which were weapons that we ended up building again and again because we liked them, so we put them in as blueprints. Choose your own style, you have both those systems in the game.
And there are also micro-transactions on the crafting bench, is that correct?
Not much has been spoken about that, but I can tell you the details now. The way the micro-transactions work, is that there's only three things that you can buy, and they're basically tiers of different resources. Resources are extremely valuable in Dead Space - we got rid of credits entirely. Everything that you can find in the game can be constructed from resources, which includes Tungsten, Semi-Conductors, Somatic Gel. Combining these in different ways will create either a weapon part, an ammo pack or an upgrade to Isaac's suit. There's a lot of players out there, especially players coming from mobile games, who are accustomed to micro-transactions. They're like "I need this now, I want this now". They need instant gratification. So we included that option in order to attract those players, so that if they're 5000 Tungsten short of this upgrade, they can have it.
There's also the hardcore Dead Space players, who are reluctant to spend money outside the purchase of the game. Honestly, most of the dev team are that way, we're kind of old school, a little bit older. So not only are the micro-transactions completely optional, but all packs are available to purchase using in-game resources that you find. So, your scavenger bot will go out, and sometimes when he comes back he'll deliver ration seals. You'll start to accumulate ration seals at a pretty steady clip throughout the game, and everything that can be purchased with real world dollars can also be purchased with ration seals.
Philosophically - and like you said before, you're quite old fashioned - do you agree that micro-transactions will gradually diminish the value of completing a game, of beating it?
I don't think so. We're gamers, we wouldn't allow ourselves to do that. Before you guys showed up I was reading the Eurogamer article, that argued that it's a slippery slope, that if you put micro-transactions in Dead Space, aren't you just saying you can pay to win? We would never make a game you have to pay to win. There are genres of games where that is the answer, and you know what? The world has spoken, they suck. We don't want to make games that suck, we want to make games that people want to hold on to, to keep on their shelves. That is our mark of success.
But we need to make sure we're expanding our audience as well. There are action game fans, and survival horror game fans, who are 19 and 20, and they've only played games on their smartphones, and micro-transactions are to them a standard part of gaming. It's a different generation. So if we're going to bring those people into our world, let's speak their language, but let's not alienate our fans at the same time.