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Q&A: Executive Producer Talks Horror, Monster Design, Multiplayer In Dead Space 2

Gamasutra speaks with Dead Space 2 EP Steve Papoutsis on the game's use of horror and creature design, asymmetrical team-based multiplayer, and the rapid expansion of the franchise.
Due early next year, Dead Space 2 is Electronic Arts' follow up to Visceral Games' 2008 survival horror title, once again pitting players against horrific monsters in a science fiction setting. While the first game was a single player only experience, Visceral announced that Dead Space 2 will include a suite of team based multiplayer modes in addition to its single player campaign. While the franchise offered multiplayer co-op in Visceral's Wii rail shooter Dead Space: Extraction, Dead Space 2 marks the first time the franchise will allow players to play together in a competitive setting. The online multiplayer allows players to take control of either the human security force or the monstrous necromorphs in competitive objective based attack and defend game modes. Human players sport abilities akin to those in the single player game, while necromorph players can take control of one of several monster types, each with different specialties, and players can unlock new abilities for each team as they play. Gamasutra had the chance to talk to Steve Papoutsis, executive producer on Dead Space 2, to discuss the franchise's use of horror and creature design, crafting asymmetrical team based multiplayer, and the rapid expansion of the franchise. The Dead Space games rely heavily on horror to build atmosphere and tension. How do you maintain fear over the course of an entire game without relying on the same tricks again and again? Steve Papoutsis: For the Dead Space series, we have this saying: "Real space, real terror." What we mean by that is we try to create a certain level of relatability in the environments and locations we put the player in. In the original Dead Space, players believed they were in this ship; there were crew decks, medical decks—players had a vision in their mind of what that look like, even though it was a science fiction setting. It's the same thing with the enemies; they are humans, but they have these horrible disfigurements, these things that make you say, "Okay that's human, but wow, that's creepy! It's missing its jaw." Having that level of relatability puts people in a mindset where they feel like they are in a real place, and then they see something really disturbing and it creates that tension or atmosphere. The other thing we have to do is mix up the pacing. In the original Dead Space, for instance, perhaps we were having the scary events happen on the twos and fours, in terms of music. In Dead Space 2, we want to focus on mixing that timing up a bit, so maybe it's on the ones and threes, and then it switches to the twos and fours again, so it doesn't become predictable. The monsters in the game often evoke a distinct sense of the uncanny; they are familiar in a way, but are simultaneously very different, and their protrusions and open wounds create very disturbing, abject imagery. How do you design creatures that can elicit fear in players? When the artists worked on the creatures, they went through many revisions until we got our basic necromorph. And we certainly drew from the uncanny and abject like you mentioned; there's a certain instinct to people. When they see something that's humanoid, but something wrong with it, it is disturbing. Whether it's disfigured hands that stick out, or a weird jaw, we keyed into those things to make enemies that were visually disturbing, and we also had to make sure they worked for our gameplay and the strategic dismemberment. That's how we came up with the silhouettes of our creatures, so it makes sense to shoot off the limbs. It's a combination of all those things, but we spent many, many weeks or months trying to develop a character, even in the concept art phase. When we get to that moment where it hits a nerve and we think, "That's disgusting, that's disturbing, it will serve gameplay, and hopefully it will be fun for people to experience," that's when we say, "Let's go ahead and make this thing." In the multiplayer, you are allowing players to take control of the monsters. In horror films, when the audience sees through the eyes of a monster, horrific scenes arguably become less scary, since the audience sees the events from the perspective of the attacker, not the terrified victim. How do you maintain horror and tension in that sort of situation? We wanted to make sure our multiplayer mode has a connection to the main game, so some of the events that occur in multiplayer are going to be relevant to players when they play single player; they'll realize, "Oh, that's how this event played out!" When allowing people to play as the necromorphs, we were hoping to give them the opportunity to see what it looks like to be a necromorph, and generally speaking, it sounded like it would be fun to attack as the monsters. In the single-player game, we are going to heavily rely on what people expect and want in Dead Space, and the multiplayer is an opportunity for people to experience a Dead Space game with their friends, but in a fun and new way—whether it's a combative mode, where I'm a necromorph and you are on the security force, or if we're both on the security force together; there can be competition or cooperation. We are hoping that it brings more people together, has them playing the game long after they finish the single player game, or it gives them a break from the single player game; they can go play multiplayer instead. How do you balance your multiplayer when the teams are completely asymmetrical? How do you ensure that one side doesn't have an unfair advantage? That's where getting a lot of sample data helps. We get people to play the game in focus tests and at events, and we observe what happens and make small incremental changes to see how that flips the balance of power. A few weeks back, it felt like the necromorphs were too powerful, so we made some changes, and now it feels a bit better, but it might be too much in favor of the humans. That's a balance you can only nail down once you get a lot of people to play the game and see a lot of different kinds of behaviors. People have vastly different play styles and skills, so it's an iterative process. Even the most successful games with asymmetrical multiplayer, such as StarCraft or Left 4 Dead's versus mode, receive regular updates to keep the advantages of each team in check. What is Visceral's philosophy on keeping the multiplayer updated post launch? Well, that situation is a great problem to have. Hopefully we have people excited and still playing well after launch, and we'll be monitoring that and making sure that experience remains fun. We don't want to release something that is completely imbalanced where people say, "The necromorphs always win-- this sucks!" We are going to make the best and most informed decisions that we can up to launch, and post launch, we are going to see how it goes and make sure it will be worth people's time; we are making sure the team has the ability to make changes to help the game post-launch. The original Dead Space seemed as if it were planned as a major franchise before the first title even launched; the first game was released alongside comics and an animated movie and such, and even the upcoming Dead Space Ignition doesn't follow the framework of the main games. Could you discuss how these extra projects came about and how you could be certain they would be worth pursuing? Well, we weren't certain! In terms of the fiction and the backstory, that was a side effect of trying to create a universe. When we sat down and started working on it, all the people involved started asking questions. For instance, the Ishimura is a planet-cracker—well, what is a planet-cracker? Why is planet-cracking happening in this universe? We kept asking these questions because we knew players would want to know. Going back to the relatability element, if you are going for a certain type of game, like science fiction, the audience likes to ask a lot of questions, so we had to plan out a lot. We didn't say, "This is going to be great! We're going to do this, then we're going to do that!" It was more that to have a believable world, you have to understand why it is the way it is. Once we got the ball rolling and created this backstory, we got interest from comic book and animated feature guys, and we were able to jump on these other projects so quickly. We've gotten so much extra content just from conversations, that we were able to do more with it. That also applies to Dead Space Extraction too; when we were finishing Dead Space, we had all this extra story we wanted to tell, so we tried to do a Wii game.

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