Monday, May 11, 2009

Interview with Dead Space Producer Rich Briggs

Rich Briggs
Electronic Arts – Redwood Shores

In his role as Producer, Rich is responsible for the execution and quality of scripted events for the Dead Space franchise. He also manages and reports findings from all internal and external focus groups, which are used to evaluate the overall game experience and test various features.

Rich joined EA in 2003 as a Senior Product Manager in the Marketing department. He worked on and launched a number of successful franchises including The Sims, Battlefield, and The Simpsons Game. He previously was a Product Manager at SEGA and worked on several franchises including Sonic the Hedgehog, Phantasy Star Online, Panzer Dragoon, and Jet Set Radio. Rich graduated from Georgetown University with a BSBA in Marketing. An avid gamer since the age of five, Rich can often be found saving the world at 2am after his family is asleep.

Q: Horror is a very demanding genre for video game creators to work in. How do the developers balance the need to scare your audience with the need to create an immersive and entertaining game experience?

A: With Dead Space, those elements are intertwined. We could not deliver the type of horror and scares that we did without having an immersive experience. By having no HUD, high-quality sound, and top-notch graphics, we create an atmosphere that is completely immersive. There’s nothing on the screen saying “You are playing a game” or distracting you from the world. We draw you in, and the horror unfolds from there. In addition, a lot of the horror relies on the sound, and the lighting, and the atmosphere. Once you have all of those pieces put together, it becomes an entertaining experience.

Q: The game features “strategic dismemberment” where the player uses industrial tools to attack specific body parts of the Necromorphs. Was this the starting idea behind the game’s development, and how was the game’s interface built around this concept?

A: Strategic dismemberment was one of our core designs from the beginning. We wanted to challenge the convention of the head shot being the Holy Grail in combat. In fact, in Dead Space a head shot will often make an enemy go into a berserk rage. Our enemies keep coming after you, and have different attack states based on which limbs are missing. Some enemies even penalize you for shooting them in the wrong place, like the Pregnant which releases the Swarm if you shoot its stomach. In Dead Space you literally have to tear enemies limb from limb to make sure they are dead.

Q: The game’s sound design is incredible, especially in scenes where Isaac creeps through the vacuum of space. What was the design philosophy around the audio effects and the music?

A: We have a very talented audio team, and they came up with several innovative ways to make the audio one of the scariest parts of the game. Our “fear-emitter” tech ensured that enemies could have those great audio stingers when you saw them, but it didn’t ruin the moment of one creeping up behind you. The audio really plays with your mind, making you think things are there when they are not, and making you think there’s nothing there when there actually is.

Q: The USG Ishimura is an incredible “haunted house” environment. How did the developers approach this element of the project?

A: The Ishimura was designed to look like a place that people lived in. After all, it was a mining operation the size of a small city. Taking normal settings like a lounge deck, a medical deck, even a Hydroponics deck where plants are growing, and then turning them into the aftermath of a slaughter provided a foundation for creating environments that made people feel very tense. We also made sure we had corridors that were very claustrophobic, and areas with dark corners you couldn’t see into. Finally, little tricks like modeling some of our lighting fixtures after dentist lights made people uncomfortable on a subconscious level.

Q: Following the release of Resident Evil 5, there has been some backlash in the horror community about how survival horror games are becoming less about the scares and more about the action/wish-fulfillment aspect of gaming. How did the developers walk the line between making the character vulnerable enough to be threatened, but strong enough to fight back?

A: We tried to make Isaac a character you could care about. He isn’t a space marine, he is a normal guy who is trapped in a very bad situation, and he has to do whatever it takes to survive. Making him an Engineer gave us a nice rationale for why he could create his weapons and suit abilities from tools. This made him capable in combat, but not overpowered. A lot of time and testing went into determining how quickly he ran, how fast he turned, how strong his melee attack was, etc. We had to find a balance in many areas so combat was fun and rewarding, but also tense and frantic.

Q: As far as in-genre inspiration, what horror stories or films inspired the design of Dead Space? What elements of these works did your team attempt to incorporate into the game?

A: We’re big fans of everything Horror and Sci-Fi related, and took inspiration from several different places. Event Horizon and the Aliens movies are near the top of the list, but we also tried to put our own personal stamp on the game. Strategic dismemberment, Isaac’s suit and our no-HUD approach, and Zero-Gravity are all examples of ways we tried to innovate. One thing we learned from watching a lot of horror movies was that scaring people is all about timing and foreshadowing. We paid careful attention to these factors as we set up our horror moments.

Q: Electronic Arts had Italian horror legend Dario Argento perform the role of the doomed Dr. Kyne in the Italian version of the game. How did the developers approach him and what did he bring to the project?

(Chris Brown, European Product Manager) A: Dario Argento, probably the most popular and discussed horror movie director in Italy, was the first choice for Dead Space. It is so high quality and deep, it makes you immediately think about the cinema industry and its masterpieces as a comparison in spite of other horror video games. Involving Dario in the game was the right move to link Dead Space to mainstream media, adding a twist of “traditional art” to a product that deserved to be perceived as the ultimate horror experience by the general Italian public. Dario Argento, definitely not a passionate video gamer and a newcomer to the industry, enjoyed a terrifying game experience with Dead Space; he lent his decennial experience and actively contributed in defining the character of Dr. Kyne, adding his very own suggestions about the overall tone and style of the voice acting.

In his own words “Dead Space truly captures the essence of fear in an entertainment medium. Not only is it the most terrifying game I’ve ever played, but it’s also one that all fans of horror will appreciate.”

Q: Some of the Necromorph incarnations, particularly the corrupted infants, were particularly grotesque and shocking. Were there any constraints against going too far with the monsters or the mayhem or were there any thematic issues you dreamed up in the early stage of development that were deemed too extreme?

A: One of the great things during the development process was that we did not have any limits imposed on us. We were given free reign to execute our vision, and one of the benefits of that were some horrific enemy designs. There were a few lines that we did not cross, but we made those decisions as a development team and not as a result of an external mandate.

Q: Some of my favorite scares involved the insane survivors Isaac ran across in his journey. If the players could get into their minds, what would they see?

A: A lot of red haze, a lot of blood, and a nightmarish jumble of gruesome images. The survivors witnessed a massacre of epic proportions, and were unfortunate enough to live through an experience that drove them insane. Seeing this first-hand would haunt your every waking moment for the rest of your life.

Q: Dead Space has one of the best jump-out-of-your-seat ending cut-scenes in horror gaming history. It’s also very ambiguous. Can you give us fans some hint to Isaac’s end? Has he finally gone insane, or did he really reunite with his girlfriend once and for all?

A: Thanks for the compliment, I’m glad you enjoyed it. We tried for one last scare to reward those who finished the game. Whether Isaac is insane is definitely a great discussion topic. Kendra certainly thought he was, but I guess her opinion doesn’t matter much anymore.

Q: What’s next for the Dead Space franchise, in particular the upcoming Wii title Dead Space: Extraction? What new features will Wii players encounter, and what secrets will they explore in the Dead Space universe?

A: Dead Space Extraction is going to give players a completely new perspective on the horror that occurred before the original Dead Space. It’s being developed from the ground up for the Wii, which means it has gameplay geared to take advantage of the platform and offers a brand new way to survive the Dead Space universe. It’s shipping this fall and we’re very excited about bringing the Dead Space universe to another platform.

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