It wasn’t incredibly surprising when it was first unveiled either. But you have to think back to how we used to look at EA games a couple of years back.
They were the big dog. They were the evil empire. Throwing out sequel after sequel year on year to their sports and racing games. Over working their teams. Throwing out licensed game after licensed game.
And right in the middle of it all Glen Schofield was going crazy because he’d had these ideas in his head he wanted to turn into a game, and all he’d been getting to do was make games based on other people’s ideas.
The Simpson’s Game. The Lord of the Rings games. The Godfather. From Russia With Love. These were the kind of games that Glen and the other people that would come to make up the Dead Space team had been working on. It wasn’t that they weren’t enjoying their work, or proud of their work, it just didn’t feel entirely theirs.
So while finishing up things on From Russia with Love, Glen went and pitched his ideas for a dark, gritty, sci-fi horror game to the EA top brass.
They gave him a handful of developers, and a handful of weeks, to try and convince them that his ideas were something worth banking on.
It wasn’t difficult finding people eager to work on the project. Glen didn’t want to be an auteur and impress his ideas on everyone else. He wanted to find people into the same kind of horror and sci-fi he was and to let creative people be creative.
When Ben Wanat came onboard to design the creatures, the game was just a wall of concept art. The first thing he did was take down all the pictures of creepy Japanese children.
It was decided pretty early on, that instead of just putting together a design document and a bunch of concept art, that they would make a ‘vertical slice’; a ten to twenty minute section of the game that could actually be played.
This ambitious pitch worked, and Dead Space finally got the green light, and a full team of developers.
Violent and scary, it was so different to what EA had been making lately, it was a game that some people fought to work on.
Rich Briggs had been a project manager. Overseeing a large number of projects from the PR/marketing side of things, when Rich caught wind of Dead Space, he knew he wanted to dedicate his time 100% to the title, and switched over to development for the first time in his life to handle the motion capturing and production of all the in game audio, video and text story elements, as well as producing the scripted sequences.
Everyone I met from the team, seemed incredibly proud and enthusiastic about the title. You could tell that it was a refreshing change for these guys to be able to work on something and make it their own.
While the team did study a lot of great works of horror and science fiction in trying to understand the two genres and while there are nods here and there, such as the name of your character, Isaac Clarke, drawn from Asimov and Arthur C. respectively, effort was put into not being something identifiable, and to give the game it’s own look.
Glen Schofield cited Blade Runner, Star Wars, Star Trek and Alien as looks they wanted to avoid. Art director Ian Milham put it a bit more directly saying Sci-Fi had two main looks: Aliens and Terminator. Aliens is black and wet. Terminator is blue and shiny. Ian instead went to the work of David Fincher to draw examples of the kind of look the environments in the game should have… also drawing heavily from elements of Gothic architecture.
Ribbing. Visible supports. Fine detailing. These elements would also influence the design of the main character Isaac Clarke’s outfit to find a look they felt they could call their own.
The monsters would need to be distinct too. Ben Wanat explained in some detail. If you make something look too alien it isn’t relateble. It can be too alien, and that isn’t so scary. If they look too human, it’s not something unique.
The game designers knew what kind of monsters they wanted for the game play in terms of what they could and couldn’t do, but finding a look that tied all those ideas together in a cool and scary way required literally thousands of concepts before something was found that everyone liked.
Monsters made from decaying human parts, in many cases repurposed human parts being used in ways they weren’t meant to be used. So you’d recognize a hand, or a head, in the middle of some more complex alien horror and know that people died for this thing to come into existence.
The desire to build a combat system around dismemberment helped to further influence the designs. They would need limbs and tentacles as obvious spots to attack, but not so many as to make it difficult for the player to know what to attack and what effect that would have on the ‘necromorphs’.
Dismemberment as a central gameplay mechanic was something the team wanted to do right from the beginning. Given the chance to make a bloody horror title, what better way then to literally let you take apart the enemies piece by piece? Well, to make you need to take them apart piece by piece, and to make sure you do it in the correct fashion was the ‘better way’ they came up with.
Of course a story was needed too, and they didn’t want the story to be some last minute addition. They wanted the story to dictate where you would go, what the environment would be like. They wanted everything to have a history, and as such they worked with a number of creative people. Warren Ellis helped in creating the story. Wes Craven, Eli Roth, James Wan were consulted about horror (and Wan ended up cutting a trailer for them because he wanted to be more involved).
Glen Schofield had always loved big ideas like those of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. The idea of a resource hungry future needing to go out to other planets to mine them, lead to the idea of giant spaceships, ‘planet crackers’, that would literally tear planets apart to drag huge chunks of them back for mining.
Who was the company that built these ships? Who was the player? What was this world like? Huge amounts of effort was put into developing the world, so much so that putting together a comic book series detailing some of the history leading up to the events of the game seemed like a natural move.
Unusually the team was given final say on all aspects of the marketing and spin-offs.
They wanted the comic to stand by itself, so they were able to prevent any EA branding from appearing on the comics. They had final say on the script for the comics, and are incredibly happy with the final result.
The comic didn’t cover the fall of the Ishimura though, just the start of the horror down on the planet’s surface. When Starz Entertainment wanted to get involved, telling that story seemed like the way to go.
For someone like Starz Entertainment to want to make an animated movie leading into the events of the game before the game was even out, when it was a whole new property was a huge risk, one that the team are very aware of, but very encouraged by.
When I got to play the game and meet the team last week, the game was in beta, just a few weeks away from finishing. The team were in full on crunch mode, pulling 10+ hour days ensuring that any remaining bugs were smoothed over, and yet they seemed still as enthusiastic as ever.
For example, when they took the game to comic-con last month, they came along with a guy cos-playing as Isaac. The R.I.G. he wears wasn’t paid for by EA marketing and done professionally like you might expect, but was the work of one of the team, who put it together in his spare time when he wasn’t working on the game.
When you’re working 60 hours a week on a game, and then go home and spend most of your spare time making a costume based on that game, you’ve got to be pretty damn excited and motivated by what you are doing.
Based on what I played, you can see the result of that dedication in the game they’ve made. They’ve definitely made something to be proud of and I’m pretty confidant that when everyone gets a chance to play the final game this October they’ll get all the recognition and plaudits they deserve.
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