Dead Space 2 Interview – Ian Milham, Art Director
Written Saturday, November 13, 2010 By Richard WalkerView author's profile
Attempting to add multiplayer to a franchise established on a strong single-player component is a big gamble. With BioShock 2, it left a lot of players cold and it remains to be seen how Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood's multiplayer will pan out.
Now it's Dead Space's turn to go multiplayer, pitting The Sprawl's security team against a pack of slavering Necromorphs. For the full lowdown on what we've seen of it so far, head over to our recent hands-on preview.
We sat down to chat with Dead Space 2's Art Director, Ian Milham to talk about multiplayer and also found time to get some information on Isaac's new advanced suit, the game's art style (obviously) and the secret to video game terror.
What was the thought process behind deciding to introduce multiplayer in Dead Space 2?
Well, it's funny. When we first announced it, I think quite a few people had some questions, because some great multiplayer games already exist – Battlefield, Medal of Honor and all that kind of stuff – and people were like, really we know Dead Space as a single-player franchise, and so what's the idea there? And our response is, Battlefield doesn't let you play as a demon baby and clearly, the juice and the potential and the part that got everybody excited was playable Necromorphs. We wanted to bring the Dead Space horror and atmosphere and add multiplayer fun on top of that, so that was the idea.
How did you go about balancing the relatively powerful human weaponry against the relatively weak Necromorphs?
Well, they're weak if they're used incorrectly or without creativity. But there's no magic in that. We just knew that when we started that the thing you're biting off by doing an asynchronous game like that is balance and there's no magic to it other than hours and hours and hours of internal play with ourselves and then we balanced it once, then we opened it up to the whole of EA worldwide and then balanced it again and did more and more and more. Then we did a closed beta that was pretty big and we've been doing balancing ever since. The game has been playable for quite a while now – more than a year – and we've just constantly been balancing it. And then with the maps, we've got to make sure that they're balanced for both play styles, that there are little nooks and crannies and surprise points for Necromorphs to use, but not bottlenecks where the humans can get completely owned. It's been very difficult, but we needed to do it and there was no argument about the fact that we had to do it.
The general reaction from the majority of people when looking at or playing multiplayer for the first time, is that it's a lot like Left 4 Dead. Presumably it was an inspiration, but how do you respond to the comparisons?
It's a flattering comparison, because no one questions Left 4 Dead as something that exists, and people completely see the value in it. I think we offer some different things in terms of having a lot more objectives rather than just getting from A to B, there's a lot of stuff to do along the way. Choosing who you want to be is a huge deal; choosing which Necromorph you want to come in as and even changing strategically as the human team accomplish things is a big, big difference.
As far as Dead Space 2's art style is concerned, what would you say have been the main changes in both single and multiplayer since the first Dead Space?
Well, a few different things, but I think the biggest change people will see is the variety. Dead Space 1 had a lot of good feedback and people really liked a lot of what we did, which was really gratifying, but what they also said is it's all kind of samey. By about an hour and ten minutes or so, I'm seeing a lot of the same brown spaceship and Isaac looks kind of the same throughout and so on. Our challenge this time was trying to maintain that very high level of quality and atmosphere, while this time having much much more variety. The Sprawl as our new location offers all kinds of different places to go that are culturally evocative and interesting like shopping malls, churches and stuff like that. And I think even right through to the very end, Dead Space 2 is constantly bringing new stuff. Then on top of that, Isaac isn't just a mute avatar any more; now he's a fully-drawn character and his suits are completely different with gameplay implications and folding helmets. The amount and variety of content has hugely expanded since the last game.
Speaking of Isaac's suit, if you look back at the first Dead Space, it's very much a chunky lump of metal that makes him look very much like an engineer, whereas the new suit is much sleeker. What's the reasoning for making Isaac's suit so much more streamlined?
What I would say is that you see Isaac's advanced suit on the cover of the game and you see it everywhere else, so that's sort of the face of the game to show people that it's different and interesting and new. Fans of classic Dead Space will find plenty to like, more than has been revealed so far. We cover all the bases and they are all quite a bit different from each other. The thought process was to give people more variety and interest compared to last time.
What kind of new abilities do the new suits bring then?
There's two things – although these aren't specifically suit-focused – but the things I think people will notice about Isaac is that all of the controls have been improved. The aiming and movement has been completely revamped, although it's funny that in all the playing so far, no one has noticed. They just think he controls well, which is our goal. It's not a feature; you don't want to put 'controls really well' as a bullet point on the back of the box. It should just feel completely intuitive and nice. What people do notice, is the completely revamped zero-G, where instead of simply jumping from lily-pad to lily-pad, it's now full 360-degree flight and movement in zero-G.
If the zero-G has undergone a revamp, can we expect to perhaps see a return to zero-G basketball or anything similar?
We have some things in the works.
Zero-G multiplayer perhaps?
We... It's not like we didn't think of that... Let's just put it that way. It seems like a natural fit and there could be something very interesting there, almost so much that you could make a whole other game out of it. It's something we'd like to explore, for sure.
We've also seen glimpses of Isaac in halo jumps with thruster boots and so on. Are these confined to set-pieces or will they be part and parcel of his advanced suits?
Yeah, those are mostly set-pieces. The idea is with a lot of those – we call them the 'epic action moments' – some of the feedback we got from the first game was that it was great, but it was pretty much unending horror and tension and no tension release, and so it ended up working against us a little bit as people just became numb. So, the idea behind these action sequences is a kind of counter-intuitive way of making the game more scary. It cleanses the palette and sets you back, so when the scares return, they're much more effective.
When Dead Space 2 was first announced there seemed to be some concern amongst the fans that it might be too action-oriented. Would you say that's true?
No, and I think people were worried that we were going to make it less scary. No, not at all. It's just as scary in its peak moments, we just offer more variety. It's not action-focused, it's just as scary and just as intense, and we've just added to it, that's all.
What do you think is the secret to making a genuinely scary video game with moments of terror?
I think immersion is the number one thing. A lot of our decisions are designed upon not reminding people that they're playing a game, keeping them mentally caring about what's going on, so that's where decisions like having no HUD on the screen came from. I literally took a clip of 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' and then had another version with a HUD on it to show everybody how it just completely took all of the tension out, and so by integrating all of the HUD and other information displays into the world, you just believe it so much more. And having a setting that has an intrinsically believable and relatable feel, imbues the fantastical things that are going on with a certain reality and gravity that's important. So, number one is immersion and believability.
Given that the integrated HUD in Dead Space was already pretty much spot on, did you need to make any changes to it for Dead Space 2?
Yes. We've evolved pretty much all of it. It was successful last time, so some of it is just aesthetic, some of it has added new levels of function. A small example is the breadcrumb line which was very popular from last time and lead you to objectives, now it can lead you to several areas of interest rather than just the objective. It can lead you to the nearest store, save point or whatever.
Dead Space 2 is slated for launch on January 25th, 2011 in North America and January 28th 2011 in Europe.