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To fill out the hallways of a fully-interconnected USG Ishimura, EA Motive needed a host of fascinating new systems, says technical director David Robillard.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

January 26, 2023

12 Min Read
A screenshot from the Dead Space remake. Player character Isaac fires at an incoming necromorph.

This week, EA Motive rolls out its remake of the 2008 horror hit Dead Space. 15 years after the original game terrified players as they uncovered the mysteries aboard the USG Ishimura, the Montreal-based developer of Star Wars: Squadrons took on the task of recreating the first game's story and setpieces—but modernizing its gameplay and systems for a new audience.

Dead Space is just one of many remakes being rolled out by major industry IP-holders. It's a unique development opportunity where the risks of doing ground-up development on a new title can be balanced against a built-in audience.

It's also a chance to "reboot" a series without doing a full narrative and mechanical overhaul. And now, if new players interested in checking out older series want a fresh start, they've got it (see: The Last of Us Part I).

To reboot a game like Dead Space, which cashed in on then-novel advancements in what was possible in level design and body horror, Motive needed to implement new systems that could go above and beyond the still-unsettling scares of the original game.

According to technical director David Robillard, there were three interconnected innovations EA Motive made to punch up the original game's horror. These included the creation of a fully connected USG Ishimura (the ship players navigate over the course of the game), a new "Intensity Director" that could fill the hallways of the Ishimura with systemically-generated scare moments, and a new "Peeling System" that pushes the limb-ripping of Necromorphs in the first game to a whole new level.

Robillard told us a little about how these systems came to life—and why none of them can exist without the other—in a chat last week.

A fully traversable space mining vessel

In 2008's Dead Space, the game is divided into a number of different chapters, each acting as a standalone level. Players advance from chapter to chapter by using an internal tram system on the USG Ishimura.

When EA Motive set about to remake the game, Robillard explained that it was a design goal to have that tram feel like a natural part of the whole ship. And when Motive laid out the full map design of the original game, there was plenty of empty space to be filled.

Since the team was very interested in having the game be playable in a "single shot" (much like Sony Santa Monica's God of War from 2018), that meant plenty of space had to be filled for a tram system to feel real. That gave Motive an opportunity to create new, fresh encounters for fans of the original game.

Before we talk about filling out that content, we should check in on the technical process of making a fully-interconnected space happen in a game. Obviously, it's not quite technically feasible to keep all of the Ishimura in system memory. Loading times are still disguised by different events, but players are much savvier now about timed airlocks, squeezing through tight corridors, etc.

A screenshot from the Dead Space remake. Player character Isaac stands in a corridor filled with sparks and smoke.

After deciding to add all of those new spaces, Robillard said Motive need to prioritize how it allocated memory budgets in different areas. A challenge in that prioritization came with improvements to the original game's physics systems. "We've pushed the physical dynamism of our environment to a much higher level than [other games I've worked on] Robillard said.

The new Dead Space has over 1,000 dynamic props across the game, meaning most objects the players encounter can be lassoed and flung at enemies to inflict damage, bounce around if the player or an enemy slams into them, and other reactions.

Then the game has to stream in the dynamic layers of enemy's skin (more on that later), and obviously the nearby levels themselves. Robillard said that this was a "small challenge" for Motive. Tackling that challenge was a process of "getting the budgets right...iterating on it, and working with the art teams to make sure they respected those budgets."

Taking this approach to remaking the original Dead Space solves some interesting overlapping development challenges. First, it's a neat way to add new content to the game while preserving the original level design by Visceral Games (RIP to the champs).

It also lets Motive merge design philosophies of the 2000s with lessons learned from more modern open-world titles. That inspiration led Robillard and his colleagues to create a system called "the Intensity Director."

Dead Space's Intensity Director brings authentic jump scares to life

Before Robillard joined Motive, he was at Ubisoft Montreal. He worked on games like Far Cry 4 and the standalone DLC Far Cry: Primal. Working on those games, he and his colleagues learned plenty of lessons about filling open-world spaces with authentic, interesting encounters.

"These are massive games, right? And they require a lot of dynamic systems, that will fill up that content," he explained.

To fill out the open world of a Far Cry game, he talked about how Ubisoft would build "bricks" of content that could be thrown at players while they were out in open spaces. The hope in building a system like is this is that if open-world spaces are diverse enough, and the "bricks" of content plentiful enough, the open world will feel dynamic and alive, rather than stale and repetitive.

What purpose does that system fulfill in a linear horror game filled with tight corridors? Well as mentioned, adding new sections of the Ishimura meant filling those sections with interesting encounters.

Robillard said it would be "excessively painstaking" to hand-script original encounters for all of those sections, and doing so would be "probably predictable" for players. He and other developers familiar with open-world content got cooking on a system that could dynamically generate horror movie moments for the whole game.

The Intensity Director works by grading content bricks on a scale of 1-11. Those content bricks include a wide variety of encounters—some large and intense featuring an array of necromorphs, some smaller, like a light fixture falling from the ceiling. Some encounters are just shifts in lighting, and others might manifest as sounds playing off in the distance.

Robillard said Dead Space's Intensity Director has around 350 events in its library to heave at players. Though Dead Space's level designers have tagged certain areas as being places where the Intensity Director takes the reigns on horror, there are other tools in play to help make sure it's not predictable and obvious when it's triggering.

Different areas of the Ishimura are tagged with different "intensity curves." Robillard said that the goal isn't to assign a fixed number to each area because "there's no point in always having the same intensity."

"You want that to be kind of a roller coaster," he explained. "You want the ups to be high and the lows to be low so that we can ready up for another high moment.'"

Robillard also went out of his way to praise Motive's audio team for rehabilitating the studio's audio propagation systems. "We've got full 3D audio going through connecting rooms, so we can do a lot of [foreshadowing] with that," he said.

A screenshot from the remake of Dead Space. Isaac is pinned by a necromorph.

A 3D audio system generating sounds in other rooms also helps remind the player that those other rooms exist, and are navigable. Robillard said the end effect was that it made the Ishimura feel much more like a haunted house.

The Intensity Director's audio tools are buoyed by other audio cues as well. Player character Isaac will run out of breath when he's stressed or physically exerting himself.

If a "director" dynamically adjusting a horror game sounds familiar...it should. 15 years ago in 2008—the same year that Dead Space released—Valve released Left 4 Dead, a game that also touted a "director" that would dynamically adjust zombie encounters over the course of a campaign.

On paper, the two systems don't sound that different. In practice, 15 years has been a heck of a time for programming and AI advancements. Robillard said he's proud that Dead Space's Intensity Director is a far more subtle tool than what he was used to working with on the Far Cry series

He shared a story about testing the game with creative director Roman Campos-Oriola. By this point in development, Campos-Oriola had played the game over and over again, and was familiar with the scripted encounters of the game.

During one test, Campos-Oriola opened a door and a group of high-level necromorphs called "enhanced slashers" burst out and tried to kill them. "He was like 'what the hell is that doing here? We're not supposed to have these here!'" Robillard recalled.

"Well, that's the Intensity Director," Robillard remembered telling him. "That's—that's what happens."

"Oh, okay!" Campos-Oriola responded, his stance shifting from questioning to giddiness. Robillard pointed out that it could have been anything from the system that popped out. It could have been lurkers, it could have just been the lights shutting off—but if the Intensity Director could fool the game's creative director, it would probably scare the pants off of players.

I came to the new Dead Space as a player fresh to the franchise, which gave me a curious perspective on how this system fits in a ground-up remake. When you're organically exploring the Ishimura, the system definitely makes the game feel like a modern title.

What's interesting, however, is when you enter a space where you can feel the system isn't active. I happened to get torn to shreds by a pair of slashers in an early puzzle room, who legitimately surprised me and gave me a jump scare while trying to solve a puzzle with the Stasis tool.

The game looped me back to a save point, and I re-tackled the puzzle more prepared for the encounter. In a very 2008 combat design moment, the two necromorphs that did me in before spawned from the exact same points, and I cut them down without taking any damage.

It's a fascinating contrast to how the rest of the remake's combat plays out, and one of the rare moments where Dead Space shows its age. Still, I can't say this moment undermines the hard work Motive put into the Intensity Director system. Plenty of modern combat games rely on pre-fixed enemy spawns, so it doesn't feel any more inorganic than dying and respawning in a game like Horizon: Forbidden West.

A flesh peeling system for the ages

This might be a good point to duck out if you're squeamish about body horror.

One of the big hooks of the original Dead Space was how different its violence was. Enemies weren't just abstract numbers with health bars that players would sink bullets into, they were unstopping horrors who could lose limbs and keep on coming.

Correspondingly, players weren't just given your average library of video game guns to work with. Instead they got to play with a suite of mining and ship maintenance tools that could rip the limbs off necromorphs. 15 years later, that gameplay is still appealing—but increased graphical fidelity means it's a more tricky system to implement.

To create a "2.0" version of the limb-ripping system, Robillard said that the first decision the Motive team made was that there should be more clear "progress" that a limb is detaching. The goal should be that if a player is shooting a limb and making contact, it's clear that damage is being dealt beyond just VFX firing off.

This led to the birth of the "Peeling System." The Peeling System lets players watch as their weapons gruesomely rip apart the bodies of the necromorphs. When you attack a limb, first the skin will break to reveal muscle, then muscle will break to reveal bone, and then of course, the limb will snap off (and become usable as a projectile weapon).

Motive built this system by placing individual volumes all around the game's characters. From there, there's "multiple mesh layering" at work to build the different fleshy bits, and every time a new layer is revealed, the game executes a series of vertex transforms to eventually show only the skeleton.

Different weapons also have different penetration volumes, which can impact how much flesh and bone is torn away as different shots. This tool opened the door for Motive to revisit the "secondary" feature of various guns, as well as the use cases for different weapons.

Motive apparently didn't have much from the original game's development, but what they did have was plenty of old data and metrics. Which means they knew that in the first Dead Space, most players didn't use the Force Gun.

"We decided to give it a proper function," he explained. And so now players can use the Force Gun to, and I quote, "peel off massive amounts of tissue and flesh and reveal the underlying skeleton."

A screenshot from the Dead Space remake. Player character Isaac floats in zero-G, looking at a lot of fleshy horror stuff on the wall.

Robillard described this as part of a "mini game loop" that adds a layer of strategy and tension to the combat. It also creates scenarios where a wounded necromorph might actually be your best weapon.

"You might have a slasher walking around with a dangling arm, but you can use the Kinesis ability and throw it back at him," Robillard said. "That's just candy."

In the original Dead Space, players were tasked with juggling limited ammo and overwhelming enemies by ripping limbs off to slow down their movement, rather than going for the kill. Now with a peeling system, players have visual indicators of how wounded an enemy is—and determine if they have time to go for the kill or need to just slow the monster down.

EA's Motive brings franchises and genres back from the dead.

Though Dead Space is a very different game than Star Wars: Squadrons, Motive has once again shown off how strong development practices can create success when revisiting old titles.

In studying what Robillard told us here and what Squadrons game director Ian S. Fraizer said at GDC, there are clues to be found on how developers can make the most of this modern remake trend.

It's an exciting time for developers—especially ones who grew up as fans of these older games.

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About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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