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A New Vocabulary For Development: Chuck Beaver And Dead Space

The M-rated sci-fi horror game Dead Space may potentially be another important milestone in EA's renaissance -- we talk to senior producer Chuck Beaver on gore, no cut-scenes, and our medium

Chris Remo, Blogger

September 29, 2008

36 Min Read

Dead Space represents a lot of things to the "new Electronic Arts" forged by CEO John Riccitello and the legions of developers at the company.  It's an original IP, an M-rated horror game, and one of the more original and promising games to come out of its Redwood Shores studio, since the company announced its renewed focus on core creativity and risk-taking in development.

But there's more to it than that. In this interview, Chuck Beaver, the game's senior producer, discusses the team's impetus to push boundaries with this project from the get-go, and not just in terms of the goriness of the game's content.

Beaver, who previously worked on more than one of the company's James Bond 007 licensed games, discusses how the team's newfound freedom from restraint allowed it to pursue a singular creative vision.

Beaver also speaks passionately about the need to develop a meaningful vocabulary for discussing game mechanics, so production can match up to the general standards of Hollywood -- though, by his reckoning, games surpass movies in complexity.

He, too, explains how the decisions -- such as having no cutscenes -- made at the start of the project drove the direction of the game, and how capturing the "lightning in a bottle" in a creative environment is vastly superior to the highly codified design of yesterday. 

How did this project start?

CB: Well, our executive producer, Glen Schofield, had a vision for a really gory science-fiction-horror genre game, that he was dying to make, and what you're seeing is almost what we laid out, three years ago. The whole idea, the skeleton of the idea, is exactly what we wanted to do, so...

There are some games I look at, and it's like, "This is a game that's trying to be a specific genre," and I look at some games, and go, "This is a game that's trying to fulfill certain principles," and your game seems like one of those. You've got this full-on, no cutscenes, in-game storytelling, with no intrusive UI. Were those all conscious decisions on your part?

CB: Yeah. For survival horror, in that genre we're trying to keep you scared, and apprehensive, and all those things. The market has changed a lot, to where you can't really have people too sluggish, and the controls can't be molasses controls.

So when our character became more responsive, and a little more quick, we had to do everything else to keep him underpowered; which is to make there be no cutscenes -- so that you're immersed all the time.

And we had to make the pause not be in the inventory system -- though of course you can pause the game. But you can't have the inventory system where the game magically stops and you go into the inventory system and do all this magic with combining herbs and changing your weapons and getting your ammo fixed up, and then the next frame of the game you're magically back, all powered up and ready to go.

So that's actually a huge strategic change from what we're used to, and so the game is very real all the time. That lethal pressure keeps you very apprehensive throughout the game.


It's funny, because Valve did the no cutscene thing in 1998, but since then, honestly, almost no one has, except for Valve. There are very few examples. What are your thoughts on that whole philosophy?

CB: Yeah. That's a good point, because we consider that, really, a superior design ethos to tackle, and they do a really great job about it. When we started out designing our game, it was like, "You know... Let's do that. It's really, really hard, but let's do it." So we tried it, and we stuck with it -- and the reason people don't do it is, it's really hard! (laughs)

Ken Levine said that anyone can write a 20-minute cutscene.

CB: Yeah, it's true! It's really true, because it's so much easier when you have control of the camera, you have control of the characters, there's no one running around with a controller in their hand, mucking up all of your ideas and what you're trying to point at. You'd be amazed at how much it impacts the storytelling, when you don't have control over everything.

So the craft that it takes to get the story to happen in someone's unpredictable interactive space is through the roof, right? We knew it was going to be hard, and it was even harder than we thought -- so now we get why people aren't doing that. But we tackled it, and we tried to make it happen, and so far we've been successful, so...

And you've got the whole audio/video log thing, too?

CB: Yeah, absolutely. So, the story is told, like I said, through the scripted events -- things you see in the game. The rest of the story is told through the characters whom you came with, and you're separated from, and they're talking to you through video logs, and audio logs. You pick up video logs and audio logs from the crew, so that you get a sense of what's been happening before you got here; there are also text logs in the game.

The environment art is a huge way that we found to communicate what's been happening, because you'll walk into a room and go, "How did it -- ?!" because it's like a macabre crime scene, right? Everything that's there tells you what happened: the scrawling of graffiti on the walls, the bodies were placed in certain ways. So the whole story is told through these different channels.

Again, going back to Valve, one of the things they've talked about before is trying to draw your attention, almost the way that a movie director draws your eye within a frame. Taking that philosophy ends up affecting your level design, because you have to construct things in such a way that the player is drawn to certain things.

CB: I'd say that it more than affects level design, it actually drives the level design; the line-of-sight considerations, and the misdirection. In our case, where Valve maybe was trying to direct you to look at something and pay attention -- "Here! I'm telling you stuff!" -- for survival horror, it's all about the unpredictability and misdirection.

And so we have the same tool, but it's applied to elicit different meanings. So we're always trying to say, "Look over here... HAH! Got you from the side!" You can only do that so many times, so you have to keep it fresh, over however many hours the gameplay is going to be; you've got to find ways to stay unpredictable.

Not just monster closets.

CB: You can't just have a guy all, "Rahr! Rahr!" all the time, coming up out of the side: you've got to have unpredictability that is a function of this pattern you set up, and then break, and then another pattern you set up, and then break. So...

Going to the Resident Evil 4 comparison, obviously, you've made a slight reference, but, one of the things that I thought was so successful about Resident Evil 4 is that your character was a little sluggish. You mentioned that you sped your protagonist up a bit, but you're still not sprinting around -- it grounds you and makes you feel like, "OK, I've got to deal with this, whatever's right here. I can't just run away." Very claustrophobic.

CB: It's true. No, true, we don't have you anywhere near the speeds of, like, a shooter, where you're running, and you're blowing ammo out of your -- everything -- and [there's] just gunfire everywhere.

But we're more responsive than the traditional, sluggish, like "little girl with a knife in the corner" kind of thing, limping around on a broken foot. So, we don't have that, but we're in the middle. Like you said: trying to establish and stay within the survival horror genre, and then keep the mechanics upgraded in our own version as well. It's been a hell of a challenge to get it to work.

I don't know if this was deliberate on a visual design side, but the way the character looks almost drives that home for me; he almost looks like a tank or something.

CB: Yeah? How funny. Because he's carrying all this stuff around? I don't think that's part of why he's sluggish, nah. His visual design is people envisioning what a mining, an "oil rig floating in space" guy is going to need, right? Because the ship can decompress at any time -- it's kinda fragile -- and it's zero G, so we had him able to withstand that at any point in time.

Very functional.

CB: Yeah, it is; we tried to be really functional. Everything is driven by the fiction of why it is, what it is, so that you'd stay in a believable space. Science fiction is very disassociative -- like a hologram, and a creature with tentacles on its head, and it just makes you stop believing in things, so you're not really scared.

Horror is all about how everything is very believable, and you believe you're there... so when something gross happens, you're freaked out. So those two butt heads a lot, sci-fi and horror. Our game is a smaller part sci-fi, like the background setting... and then the horror is is really real. That's why Isaac looks real, and is like a human, and is all relatable. It's just not super-super sci-fi.

I don't know if there's much more that you wanted to say about your influences, but if you just wanted to speak on what you guys looked at -- because it definitely feels like a game that is trying to aggregate a number of things that are fairly modern, in terms of the past few years. Some of the landmark design decisions.

CB: Yeah. Absolutely, there's a lot of inspiration we draw from games that we consider are really good. Like you were saying, Half-Life 2, with their design of that whole movieless event; that was really a major... "We want to do that! We want to do that!"

And then the look of the game. We wanted our game to be so art-directed that people could look at a frame of Dead Space and say, "Oh yeah! That looks like Dead Space!" As opposed to, "It looks like that, looks like that, looks like that..." You know, people have stopped calling us Doom 3 now, because they've seen enough of our game, or go, "Maybe it's not Doom 3, but Doom 3 did that; they did their own look."

And Blade Runner has its own look, and Alien has its own look, right? So we wanted to go for our own, and it's really hard, because every look has been explored, right? But our art direction focused really hard on trying to give us that.

One of the interesting things, I think, about the art direction, is that unlike most games, the interface becomes an organic part of the art direction, instead of being another layer. It's almost like the Minority Report thing. I mean that, if someone takes a screenshot that includes the UI, I think then you really know...

CB: You're like, "Oh, that's Dead Space!" We're really proud of the whole UI thing. "Not break the fourth wall" became this big design ethos, and it kind of came out of the whole "no movie scenes", being immersive. So we started figuring out how we were going to keep everything all real, all the time, and we put everything on Isaac.

And then, fortunately, it was not a licensed property, so we had all the creative freedom we needed to make the fiction fit with what we needed. So that's always really powerful, right; you get where you need to go. And with that -- putting all the HUD and the UI in the screen worked for us really effectively.

The other thing I was going to tell you about was some of the gameplay influences, and how we came to make the game that we made. The influences as far as movies were Alien, and The Thing, as far as look goes, and some of the way the emotional feel of the game is supposed to be.

Because you know how Ripley gets to that point where she's not really supposed to be in this situation, and she ends up being alone. Then towards the end she's in that hallway, and it's just that flashing hallway, and it's kind of steamy, and she has to get past it to get to the shuttle. All she has is that shotgun with the flamethrower taped to it, and she knows she has to cross the hallway, and it's extremely likely that the Alien is in that hallway, and you sit there for a minute in that hallway, and she's like, "Aw, God, I've gotta go through this hallway."

That emotional moment -- like you don't know what's in the hallway, and it's just a hallway, but it's a really freaking scary hallway? That's what we were trying for in most of the design. It's like, if you tease people that don't know what's happening, everything is frightening; every blind corner is frightening. So those are the emotional targets that we're shooting for.

It's funny that you mention that, because most developers often cite that series as an influence, but most of them cite Aliens. The second one. It's funny, because I haven't actually seen that movie.

CB: Really?

Although I have seen Alien, the first one, and it's funny to hear you cite that instead of the other one.

CB: They're vastly different movies. Aliens is a brilliant movie. It's great, but it's vastly different from Alien; it's not a slower, simmering terror, kind of ponderous film by Ridley Scott. Aliens is like, "Wah! Bang bang!" you know?

You've got marines shootin' stuff, and it's a great, great, great sequel. But it's nothing like the first one, as far as the mood; and we're literally going for that first one, that mood that is just eerie and terrifying. And if you're playing it, you kind of get the sense that a lot of it's that combat tension; that, "I'm gonna die! I'm gonna die!" Yeah, so, we tried to hit it as hard as we could.

You were saying earlier that when you make decisions about "no cutscenes", about the integrated UI, one of the hardest parts can be convincing people to do it in the first place.

CB: Yeah. People are really almost religious about their belief in what we should and shouldn't do. It's a big binary switch, like, "Are we going to have cutscenes, or are we not going to have cutscenes?" because it's a big, big deal in design. When we decided in the beginning that we were going to take [the switch], we're like, "Alright, let's go for it. Let's go for it!"

Everyone took a big breath, and they went, "OK! We're gonna do it!" because it impacts everything. With line of sight, you have to design that into the level, so that it becomes part of the fabric of what the experience is. It's much different if you're like, "Ah, now I've got control of the camera, and I've got control of this, and I don't have to worry about anything." So that's a big one.

And then when we started taking the HUD away, and we were going to start making that on the character? People have very specific ideas about what you should be doing with that. Like, as far as camera? If we're taking the camera control, like authored camera, people have very specific ideas about what you should or should not, in a horror film, be doing with camera language, right?

There's a very specific language in the horror genre; we didn't let that happen, because we wanted to stay real. So when you take off into this design decisions and stuff, it's really -- it's really, not new territory, but it's not like you're just aping everything.

It's like breaking dogma.

CB: And it's creating so many [decisions] -- if you are copying stuff, so many decisions are made already for you. Like when you start striking out into these new dial-twists of stuff?

People might think that you're just borrowing from other places, but really, if you're cobbling stuff new together, you have to re-answer all the questions over again, and that makes people really nervous.

It's an internal EA project; do you ever run into difficulties in pitching stuff like that at a company like EA, which ordinarily makes more, sort-of, like...

CB: Not M-rated games?

Not M-rated games, but also, you know, games that are more directly accessible. Not that people won't be able to play this game, but it's more explicitly designed for --

CB: It's the "horror people", it's designed for the horror market, and that kind of stuff. Yeah, for sure, EA likes to make games that have a broad appeal -- that's the commercially viable thing to be doing.

So when we pitched the game we had to figure out a way to say that we weren't just a tiny niche market that's just, you know, torture porn, or all these other things that are even more nichey than not.

So, yeah, it's harder, but once they let us do the M rating, that became the ability to be really hardcore about it.

And so if you don't go too far off the edge, you can actually appeal to a wide bunch of people; and when we were putting the slices together, all the executives were looking at it and going, "Yeah, I think this is going to work for you guys; it's actually a pretty good idea, and I think it's going to be good."


This is a bit out there, but I wonder if, also, the existence and success of EA Partners had any influence on that, in terms of how a lot of that stuff is M rated, and more targeted, and I wonder if they were sort of saying, "Well, this stuff is working..."

CB: Oh. Yeah... I don't know if that's it. That's a good point; I don't think it has. I think that EA wanted to go with M because Godfather, the first one, was an M.

We'd been really family-friendly, and so we figured out that, well, it's harder to be innovative and be creative with so many restrictions -- and not necessarily just the M, but so many other restrictions, in terms of licensed games -- to do new IP.

So EA is trying to stretch out and get more and reactivate the creative core of these projects, so they said, "Alright. You want to be M? We'll let you be M; see what happens." And, it turned out, it's been a really wise decision in the end.

I'm wondering if -- this is, like, so out on a limb, and not related to anything, so feel free to not answer, but: I heard several years ago that Doug Church at EALA was working on a System Shock sequel -- and this was years ago, at this point -- I'm wondering if there was any connection there, or if you guys looked at those games, or anything.

CB: Oh, System Shock? We've all played System Shock, for sure, so... I don't know how much influence it had on us. There's going to be some similarities in our game and theirs. Theirs is like a nice hub-and-spoke level design system, where you start out in one spot, and you go over and come back.

They have a good upgrade system. Their game is really brilliant, and we love that game. We didn't really seek to ape that game, specifically, but there was some admiration there, and I'm sure that crept into some of what we're doing.

A lot of thematic similarities.

CB: I think so. Yeah, because the emotional tone they strike, and the gameplay feel that they strike, is really what we like as well, right? So we're trying to do... Like every good horror film that comes out is in the horror genre, and System Shock is a very specific kind of game, and we want to be in that genre, and do a good version of it. So the similarities are kind of in that vein.

It's funny, there are hardly any western-developed horror games. Like, if you think about it, there are very few. I don't know why, but...

CB: It's mostly Japanese, it seems like, that do that. And we've got a lot of Japanese influences on our game. All the tentacles, of course, are really very Japanese; and the style of horror seems to be very Japanese, you know. So, it's weird that there's not more here.


People keep telling us that, "Why are you in this genre? There are so many people doing the sci-fi, the horror, this and that," And I'm like, "Really? How many are there...?" There are that many sci-fi horror genre [games]? I feel like there's sci-fi, and I feel like there's horror, but sci-fi horror, I don't know that I can really name that many.

No. Well, like you said, there was Doom 3, but I can't really think of much since then.

CB: Yeah. It's not like it's a gigantic field of -- I mean, it's not like World of Warcraft, where you've got fantasy games all over the place, and dragons, dwarves, and elves are just a constant language for people...

So, we feel like it's not a niche, but we're exploring a great territory. People want something that's familiar. They want that horror feeling when they play horror games, and we're going to do our own version of that, with our own innovations, with all the mechanics that we talked about.

Any thoughts, generally, on making a multiplatform game? With something like this, these days, where you've got to deal with all the PC compatibility issues, and then closed platforms of the consoles, and then the difference in hardware between Cell, and all that stuff.

CB: Right. It's really challenging; PC is very challenging, but we're happy to take that on, and we have a PC SKU coming out. But everything is parity, so the way that you have to develop in that environment is, you develop a core product that's capable of working to the best it can on all those different platforms, and then you make sure that everybody's looks the same, and does the same features, right?

But really, we don't have time to design anything specifically that's going to be all outstanding -- we've got all of our focus groups on this one game, right? It needs to work the same on all the platforms; we don't want there to be any deficiencies anywhere, so we make sure that whatever we're doing, everything can handle it.

Can you speak at all about how you organize your team, in terms of design and development?

CB: Yeah, it depends on what phase of the project we're in. Preproduction is a bit more loose, where you've got all the designers and producers contributing to the ideas. You've got more rapid prototyping in EA than ever before; we've got engineers and animators all putting ideas down.

I think "design" used to be where you would just write a gigantic design document that was huge, and you'd throw it over the wall, and say, "That's our design!" And that's clearly not how a 4D product works; your dynamic is through time. It's not like designing the Sydney Opera House, where it's just a static object.

It's a blueprint.

CB: It's a blueprint, right. I mean, there's no such thing; this is a 4D experience. So for you to even talk about what you are doing, you have to almost have it there, and just go through it, and just get through it.

So we're doing that, we're doing a lot of prototyping as fast as we can, so we can get these experiences out there, and mess with them. And then from there, we just go into full-on standard production. You've got all your artists and designers and modelers and riggers and lighters, and...

On the topic of design documents -- because I've heard that from other developers, in recent years, that they're moving away from that kind of practice as heavily. But you've also mentioned that this game is very much the design you started out with.

CB: Yeah, that's really weird; I don't know how that happened. Normally, the game that you end up shipping is nowhere near the game you started out making. But for us, the mechanics have changed -- the rapidity and responsiveness of the [main character]... is really not what we started out with, and ended up being much different.

Well the big deal for this is that -- and there's a famous quote about this, but it's really applicable -- that the difference between planning and plans is that your plans, as soon as they're made, are fairly worthless, but the planning is invaluable. So that's what we're learning.

Writing down everything is almost useless as soon as you've written it down. But thinking about it enough that you can write it down is the point. Then, when you start building it, and it starts falling apart for various reasons, then you're like, "Well this doesn't work, and that doesn't work." Then you're like, "Oh, okay, from this huge body of research we've done, here's the next step to take to go where we're going."

So what we've learned is that that's what you're after; that big body of understanding of what you're trying to do. This way, when it starts to mess up, you're like, "Okay, we'll try this; we'll try that." So you're not just shooting in the dark forever, wasting your resources.

I'd imagine there's also a certain amount of grounding that comes from making a decision, like, "We're not having any traditional cutscenes." Something like that is something that, if you're going to stick to that, there's not a lot of wiggle room there.

CB: No, and like I said, it's very binary; those decisions, once you make them, that is what you're doing, and it drives everything. A lot of decisions are like that; especially the HUD, and especially all of these other things that are happening. It becomes very fundamental to everything that happens, and it drives all the rest of the design.


Do you have any thoughts on, creatively, as the industry progresses, if developers and teams are getting a better handle on how you start with a vision and then take it to completion without losing it?

CB: Better. It's maturing. It feels like we're so, so far away from Hollywood, you know? They have that shit down. The roles are completely established, the process is established -- like a production schedule is a work of art. Getting a movie made in a year or something is... If you started from scratch, with no process, it would take you years and years and years to make a movie, right? You would have no idea. So they have the great benefit of that.

So we in the game industry are just in the beginning of getting that stuff down. The better part is, just think about: when film got started, all they filmed was musicals and stage shows, because they didn't know that there was a language for cameras.

Or, like, little ten minute things that would be of a dude, like, tripping over a --

CB: Yeah. Right, it was just "Dorkiest of Vaudeville". They were filming vaudeville because that was the only entertainment media there was, up to that point; so they just put up a camera tripod, and just watched it, and that's what they filmed.

And then, suddenly, someone started realizing, "Well, the camera can cut, and it can do all these things..." Then you fast forward like a hundred years, and you've got Robert Altman doing all of his stuff, or David Fincher.

So, essentially, to me, games are at the very beginning. We're just making, almost, Hollywood movies; everyone still keeps wanting to make movies, cinematic experiences, and we don't have our language down yet. I don't have a toolbox where I can just go in -- I feel like, let's put it this way: I want the interactive spaces telling a story in a way that interactive spaces tell stories.

There's an emotional target, and an emotional toolbox that we get to use, and I don't feel like we're anywhere close to being there yet. That's what we're trying to get to, but it's hard to innovate like that, because there are no shoulders to stand on; you've got to think of it all yourself.

And if you look at job titles, a "producer" is a hugely variable role.

CB: At EA, for the longest time, it was vacillated back and forth between "development director" and "producer". They were the same roles in different titles, and depending on the team they'd flip back and forth. So the roles aren't at all clear of what's going on there. And one executive producer can have a style so different from another, that he's in the game totally, or he's hardly in the game at all. It's just really different.

But I think the good thing is, the more -- we've got to find our auteurs, the people who have creative vision, to establish the new language. If you have the pattern, you can get everyone who's mildly talented to use the pattern and make something relatively good.

If you don't have the pattern, everyone with only mild talent is floundering and not really doing anything. As soon as people establish these benchmarks of how interactive entertainment should be used, everybody else will start using that. But we don't have that yet; no one's caught on fire and said, "This is how it's done!"

One of my favorite things at GDC is watching people try to set that stuff down. Clint Hocking at Ubisoft had a talk this year about immersion, and it wasn't so much about the concept of immersion, it was more about codifying what we mean when we say that. Instead of having all of these unwritten things that everyone kind of understands on principle, let's say, "This is what I mean when I say this." And it's a process that's only very much at the beginning.

CB: And no one's even started. We did the same thing on our game, like having a discussion about puzzles, and how do you get the language around that; where you're talking about how a puzzle needs to be "intuitive", so the end state needs to communicate to you. The line-of-sight needs to communicate; how much of the puzzle space is the cognitive parsing of what's happening, like, "What do I do?" and then how much is the execution of the cognitive answer, right?

In Ratchet & Clank, you walk in, you go, "I know what to do!" and then you spend all your time doing it. In Myst, the game, you have no idea what to do, forever. And then once you figure it out, it's done, right? So those are the two extreme examples. So what's that language? How do you discuss those phases of the puzzle, and what you're trying to be?

What is the actual "puzzle" that is just a random set of trial and error, that you're like, "If I try this, did it work? If I try this, did it work?" Is that a puzzle? Versus, like, Portal, which is brilliantly intuitive. You're thinking of the space, and going, "Oh! I have to do A, and then B, and then C," and you intuit what you need to do to get to the end-state, which is in the space.

Where is that kind of language? Who is doing it? Is that being taught in a college somewhere? Is there a book you can read? And so having that language -- like, if it was film, they would have a language for that; everyone would talk in this lingo that is all about puzzle lingo. It doesn't even feel like that is standardized yet, across the industry. You happen across people who've done it, and have experience, and talent, and talk about it, and then you have people that don't, so...

It leaves this weird thing, where you've got the developers who are known for, "Well, those guys, I guess, figured it out!" But sometimes it feels like it's still so insular.

CB: It's a brand; it's almost a personal brand. Like, whoever was doing the Portal thing, that's just how they thought of games. "This is what we're gonna do." In our game, we're horror, so we needed somebody who thought in terms of horror, like a horror setup; the first thing they do when they walk into a room is they think of, "How is this going to be a horror setup?"

And then you get somebody who's a gameplay guy, and he walks into a room and says, "OK, I'm gonna put four guys there, that spawn in one way, but then I'm gonna do this, and then it would be really cool if this guy with the ranged attack...!" Someone thinking in terms of all these combinations, right?

So we're finding that game design talent is extremely broad, where you've got all these different brands of it; it's not just a game designer, it's all these things.

Like, in effects, you've got somebody who does water, and somebody who does light, and somebody who does air, you know what I mean? They specialize. So that's what we're getting to now, it feels like. And it's weird to say it now, because games have been around for so long, but it just feels like, as the spaces get bigger, and the games get more mature, and people are thinking about them in more detail, it's becoming more clear, how to get that stuff built.

That's reassuring.

CB: (laughs) Yeah, it's funny how long it takes, but the thing is, it takes longer because production value becomes so dominant that it's a big deal. It's just like with movies, right? "Is the writing any good?" "I dunno, but you've got a hot chick in it, and it's got a lot of explosions, so that'll sell!"

It becomes difficult, in that every pixel is so much work on the screen. To get those nuances and those ideas in there while you're busy fighting with a gigantic department that's, like, a lighter and a rigger and an animator and a modeler and a character modeler and a texture modeler. There's this huge string of people that are trying to make one thing happen, and the subtlety can get lost. You're trying to get it to go.

So I think, once we get a process down that in the beginning gets all the cleverness in, and then the production values can take off... Hopefully we won't suffer Hollywood's fate and make beautiful things no one wants to watch.

That's one of the challenges. If you're making a big triple-A game, there is so much groundwork that has to be done regardless of whether there's any creativity or meaningful design work, and no matter what, you've still got to have the engine [and everything else].

CB: Think about all that, right? You're making a piece of bug-free software that goes on a disc, and you're making an experience like a movie... and it's about four times longer than a movie. GO! (laughs)

And so to act like that's not some sort of huge creative endeavor that dwarfs a movie production is just not realizing what's going on. So you have engineering staff, there's a gigantic engineering staff because you're trying to innovate technically. You've got platforms that are changing every five years, so those can't even stay the same... It's just a really challenging environment, then, to have this creative thing happen.

I'll have to give our creative director, Brett Robbins, a lot of credit, too; he's got a gameplay sensibility. He did a really great job of keeping his eye focused on gameplay, because a lot of times you forget that the creative director has the whole fuckin' game to work with.

He's got the meta-game, and story, and character, and level design, and what's happening in mechanics. And then you have to worry about what's happening in the gameplay -- the sort-of conflux of all that -- and that's where if you take your eye off the ball, you lose. So he's always kept his eye on, "Okay, is it fun? Is it working? What are we doing? Is it fun? Is it working? What are we doing?"

And by doing that, it helps drive all the departments towards one answer; little X moments, where you're like, "Okay, here's what's supposed to happen in this moment: the raptor's supposed to jump at me, I'm supposed to hit him with stasis, and I'm supposed to cut off his arms."

That, alone, invoked every department in the whole team. They all had their tasks to do, and they would build these gameplay moments, as opposed to just building a mechanic over here, and building another mechanic over here, and then hoping that at some magical moment their systems would interact properly. You start with the interaction that you want, and then you build the spiral out from there.


Are you familiar with the MDA Framework [PDF link]? It's a theory about game design. It's based on what you just said. You start with the thing you want to evoke, and then you work backwards to the more mechanical side.

CB: Well, and it sounds like common sense, but when you have so much work involved to get it done, that can get obliterated really fast. Now unless that's a spoken ideal, people just... and they don't even realize that they're missing it, right?

I've been on games where we thought we had it, we established it, and we went off and established all the things around it. But then we forgot to keep checking in, to see where we were all going. And then we were all like, "Wow, that didn't work very well..." So, you know, you live and learn.

That speaks to what you were saying about the concept of design documents becoming less of a rigid thing; because if you're trying to let your more base-level mechanics emerge from the sort of emotion or interaction that you're trying to create, it's not very useful if you've already decided that these are the mechanics.

CB: Well think about that. Think about the lightning in a bottle that you're trying to capture, right? You've got all these different mechanics finally coming together, and it's a big layer cake.

The first foundation is the mechanics, right? You get those in, and you put them together -- like stasis, and [the TK gun] -- and people start playing with them and doing setups.  In some random meeting, after hundreds of meetings, a flash of inspiration hits the team, and we're like, "Oh! That was cool moment! Did you see that? There was a flash and he ran around the corner, and you hit him, and this happened!

If you cannot capture those flashes of lightning, if your process doesn't let you capture those, and institutionalize those, then you're failing as a creative culture. So if you're basically saying that, at some point I take a snapshot of my thinking, which is a design doc, and it doesn't get a chance to evolve and move? You don't really get it, as a creative culture; you're not really understanding what it means to be creative.

Now the other half of that is, you've got to get the goddamn game out, so you can't keep changing forever. So there's a healthy [balance] between the two, but you have to be able to just take a snapshot and make a design doc, which means that you've done your homework and researched it. Then you can be like, "OK, but if we find something cool, we get to do it!", right? So that's a real challenge.

But I think we've done an admirable job with holding off our development guys, who are the scheduling and capacity people, and having them feel comfortable enough to let us innovate when we can, and catch those flashes of lightning in a bottle.

And, of course, it's all statistics, so the longer you have, the more that you can do; like a five year game catches a lot of lightning in a bottle, but a two year game doesn't have much lightning to catch in a bottle, since you're too busy with everything else.

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About the Author(s)

Chris Remo


Chris Remo is Gamasutra's Editor at Large. He was a founding editor of gaming culture site Idle Thumbs, and prior to joining the Gamasutra team he served as Editor in Chief of hardcore-oriented consumer gaming site Shacknews.

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