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“We are a Dead Space Game”: DS3 Senior Producer David Woldman Talks Story, Game Mechanics and The Future

In spirit of the addition of co-op to Dead Space 3, Daniel Bischoff of our sister site Game Revolution, as well as my co-op partner for the hands-on preview of the game, sat down with me to do a co-op interview with Senior Producer David Woldman. We go in-depth into the replayability options, writing the story threads, the future of the franchise and much more. The interview has been edited for length (yes, it was even longer), clarity, and to remove embargoed content. Be sure to check out our hands-on preview for Dead Space 3 as well.

Daniel Bischoff: We saw a lot of different environments just in the opening sequence [up to chapter 4]. How do you make sure that variety lasts through the rest of the game?

David Woldman: That doesn’t even account for the stuff that you haven’t seen. There’s a customer expectation when it comes to Dead Space and the visuals and settings. Our world keeps widening every game; what we try to do, what we expose you to, places that we take the player. You put that as a creative challenge to the art directors and creative directors and you say ‘we had four primary settings in the last game, let’s go six, tell me what you can come up with’ and they’ll sit and work with our story and content creators. The fiction drives a lot of that. Dead Space has a very consistent and unified fiction that started with [Dead Space 1] and carries through the graphic novels, through Extraction, through the animated features, through Dead Space 2. Our storyline has grown and gotten bigger. As your world view in your games gets bigger it allows us a lot more opportunity to choose from different settings because it allows our characters to move off of one ship, to a space station and now colonies, mountaintops, planetside, because it’s a natural evolution of our story. We throw [our creative team] in a room, give them those parameters, and get out of their way.

DB: When we are revisiting areas to complete optional objectives etc., how do you keep those areas just as fresh as the first time that you visited them, such as enemies not spawning in the same place?

DW: Sometimes they don’t spawn at all. We try to minimize the backtracking component because generally it’s not something players like to do. Dead Space 1 had a lot of backtracking, Dead Space 2 a little bit less. As long as you contextualize what the player is doing in a way that makes sense, ‘why do I have to go back here?’ and assuming that they do back there [making sure] that the world state changes somehow.

DB: Like the power generator room having ‘necro-tentacles’ [the second time]?

DW: That’s a perfect example. You went through that same place twice. I’d like to believe that your gaming experience was different the second time through it. While the space was the same big superstructure of a room, the second-to-second of what you’re doing and what you’re thinking about is very different than the first time you went through there. Those are tools that we have available to keep the game fresh and not make it feel repetitive. [In Dead Space] you can’t construct any type of experience where you start at point A, end at point B, and ALWAYS blow directly forward to point C. With spaceships, with bases and the things that we do, there’s no logical architecture or way that it can be built sequentially. So you just try to keep the gameplay fresh, you try to keep the players on their toes. Maybe if you had to go through the generator room a third time the floor would drop out and fall down and you’d be in zero-g. There’s a lot tricks that we can use to keep it feeling fresh and interesting.

DB: I noticed that in, Dead Space 2, the engineering ducts were used as transitional pathways and in 3 you use the ladders and the zero-g pathways within the ship. What are some other subtle changes to level layouts?

DW: I don’t want to give too many things away, but you didn’t even touch on… the natural and organic traversal [on Tau Volantis]. You can start to understand that the setting that players are going to be in are going to afford a lot of different gameplay mechanics that when you are by yourself on a ship you wouldn’t be able to do. While we can put those challenges to our art and visual leads on the settings, we then apply those same challenges to our designers and leads on the gameplay side and say ‘what the hell else can you do?’. The new settings give us new opportunities to create what we think are really, really fun experiences in ways that you might not be expecting.

DB: [In the series] you’ll have these moments that are so brief but also very impactful on the player, like when you finally get the advanced suit near the end of Dead Space 2 and the mask snaps shut over your face. What did you tell the team in trying to build more of those moments into Dead Space 3?

DW: You don’t really have to instruct the team regarding building moments or building [story] beats like that. One of the things that we try to do is rollercoaster pace the game. White knuckle tension all the time like in Dead Space 1 turns a lot of people off after a while. You just can’t take it, it’s too much. What we’ve found is that players like more rewarding experiences, gratification, fantasy fulfillment. We build these ebbs and flows all over the game and what might be a big moment to you might not be a big moment to someone else. When a player finishes the HaLo jump, they may have thought THAT was a big moment to them, versus getting the suit. We fill the game with all of these highs and lows. I believe that each individual gravitates to and remembers things differently than others. We try to make sure that they’re all great and try to make the best game for everyone that wants to play it.

Chandler Wood: As far as the canon of the Dead Space universe, is there anything out there that is disregarded or is it all a part of the overall story?

DW: It’s all part of one story. The hardest part about digesting all of the story pieces right now is [putting the pieces] into the timeline, so you might have to take a second to figure out where in the canon, where in the timeline those things happened. Our story producer and our fiction writers are steadfast in making sure the events are all consistent. For example, Weller lost his legs at the end of Dead Space 2’s episodic content. We wouldn’t bring him back walking around in Dead Space 3 without a logical reason as to why. Ellie loses her eye in Dead Space 2, but she has an eye in Dead Space 3. There are a few logs that explain that she now has a cybernetic eye that was given to her by this doctor. In finding story content, you can actually even understand that little bit of detail. Our authors are very, very specific and deliberate about making sure that it all works together and not just a contrivance. It’s something we’re very proud of.

DB: You mentioned the logs and the story content that you can find, but isn’t necessarily thrown at you. A lot of players miss the deeper story that is offered, and I’m surprised that so many people miss it.

DW: I’m not surprised at all. Just watching you guys here today play; the first guy finished the content in about an hour and a half. Well, he didn’t play any log players, he didn’t stop and read any logs, but that’s fine. The game stands up without that. It just depends on what, as a gamer, you want. There are gamer demographics. There are story-centric gamers, there are action-centric gamers, people who like all different sorts of things, and the data we have is very mature on those sorts of gamer profiles. Some people just don’t care. They only want their alpha story, they only want the event of the player they are, what they are doing from start to finish. They don’t want to know about Altman, Ellie, or Carver’s journey. Some people won’t play co-op because they don’t want that story content. We built the game to stand up to all those people. I think it’s a richer experience, a deeper and more informative experience if you stop and take the time to read and listen to the machines that are telling you the stories. They’re all there for a reason. It provides richness and depth to the world that we believe enhances the game. You have to recognize that you can’t make that stuff story critical because there is a large segment of people that will never pick it up and read it.

CW: Is it really difficult to find that fine line of what you do make story critical and what you separate off as logs and extra information?

DW: Our team is very mature at this right now.  We’ve done it for a long time. Just think of it as threads.  There are two or three central threads that run throughout the entire game that you need to know just to understand the game you just played. Then you can can weave another ten in and out in pieces as you go, and whether you choose to explore those threads is up to you. There’s a key element that you saw hinted at in the game already. A guy named Serrano, a guy named [Mahad?], you just heard those names briefly. Their entire story and how they interact is littered throughout the game but its not necessarily on one of those two or three primary threads. You don’t need to know their discoveries, the things that they had to give in order for you to enjoy the game, but if you are a story-centric gamer those things will add a lot of enjoyment and a lot of depth for your gameplay experience. 

DB: What was it like to produce environments that fit well for both single player and co-op? Dead Space is generally very narrow and constricted but now you can add a second person. What was the challenge there?

DW: The challenge wasn’t necessarily how you construct the space, your hallway might need to be a little bit wider to support two people walking in it, things like that aren’t very interesting and probably aren’t what you’re getting at. I think the bigger challenge in the level design was to try to make a singleplayer experience that stands up on it’s own, but then is additive when you bring a second player. We do some small things such as the generator puzzle playing slightly differently in co-op.

CW: We couldn’t figure that one out at first [while playing again on co-op].

DW: Because you’d played it once a few hours ago and the puzzle was different, right? That becomes the challenge more so, how do we take the spaces we have and make sure that there is something interesting to do in both modes. We’re not creating a separate game. It’s one game. We’re not going  to say ‘co-op, you go in this space and singleplayer you go in this space’. It’s how do you keep the combat different or specialized for two players when you have extra guns, extra stasis, all that extra stuff that comes with a second player and keep the gameplay and the puzzling and the level design mechanics.

DB: And not by just throwing more necromorphs at them.

DW: That’s generally not the right answer. It helps sometimes to have more targets and we do that periodically. If you [compare] each encounter as you play it, some of them spawn the same way, but all of a sudden there may be an extra guy or two. But the way they behave with a second player, as you probably saw, is different. They get to you faster, they close the gap, they don’t give you a chance to breathe because there is two of you there.  There are a lot of levers we can pull to make the game easier or harder that affects our AI state and the way the necromorphs will respond to the players. Without going into too many nuts and bolts details, we pull very different levers in co-op than we would in the singleplayer because of the added partner that you have along with you also trying to survive.

Continue reading to find out if Dead Space 3 is Resident Evil with lower gravity…