Design to the Rescue: Dead Space 3

The Dead Space series has been one of my favorite franchises of all times. And many would agree with that. Unfortunately EA Games, the owner, hasn’t treat it kindly. Specially the last instalment of the franchise, which could very well be the last. But what could a sound design-minded person do to fix that?

Design to the Rescue is a series where I, Mr. Towelhead, the most awesome game designer EVER, attempt to amend a fallen sheep (Dead Space 3) back into the flock. All images belong to Electronic Arts (publisher), Visceral Games (developers), Steve Papoutsis (director) and a bunch of baby-eating, blood-drinking, human-skinned Board Executive reptiles. Just kidding… Without further ado.

Mr. Towelhead rescues

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Dead Space 3

Dead Space 3 has the lowest score of the franchise, and if you’ve played the game you can feel some things are fundamentally wrong with it. In a nutshell the game is extremely combat oriented instead of being an intense, psychological, survival horror game (like the first one).

There are other problems. For example graphic downgrades.

The Puker from Dead Space 2 (left) and 3 (right)

ds3talk_puker puker

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

Now, games can and will change with time as the flow of gamer’s taste evolves. More over, corporate greed (erhmmm…) I mean company politics influence game design in the form of money making schemes, I mean strategies, like: Expansions, Online Transactions, Downloadable Content, etc.

Dead Space 3 can be more combat and multiplayer oriented and still be successful. But how? The simplest answer would be: To move away from making a little bit of money with as little effort as possible to, making A LOT of money with some effort. Granted, that’s easier said than done. This is where Design Thinking can help us guide our efforts to make the most out of restrictive development times. Because holiday season is not waiting for any one.

Problem 1: No Variety of Enemies

The combat in Dead Space 3 is boring. And since the whole game is combat oriented, the whole game is kind of boring. One reason is the lack of variety in enemies. Which is weird considering the game features almost thirty different monsters. However:

  1. Around 90% of enemies you encounter are the same three monsters.
  2. Most enemies are easily dispatched with your starting weapons.

If combat is so important in your game, you better make sure it’s fun, interesting, challenging or scary. One easy way to do it is with variation in enemy types. ACTUAL variation. There is no point in having 3000 different enemies if they all look and behave the same.

Remember the Hunter from Dead Space 1? It was 1-on-1 design genius at work. It was an enemy you could not kill nor escape, a monster that could kill you in one or two swings and during two stages of the game you had to complete several task while manoeuvring your way around it. Not only that: It had a creepy background story, a clear purpose driven by the antagonist and it looked and sounded scary, and it even smelled funny. There was no way to treat the Hunter like you would any other enemy in the game.

Hunters are back in Dead Space 3, they are called Regenerators. Unfortunately the game lets you easily build such powerful weapons that the Regenerators are annoying at best.

Remember the GuardiansSwarmers, Tentacles, Pregnants, etc. In order to deal with them, and not die or get pregnant in the process, you had to change weapons and use different strategies, rather than the usual pinpoint accuracy required to deal with most other enemies. These monsters are either gone in Dead Space 3, or they appear only once in the entire game (which begs the question, why even bother?).

Design Solution 1: Sometimes less is more

Instead of having 30+ very similar enemy types, which obviously consume disc space, development, programming and testing time, lets keep things smart, simple, stupid. For example: Fifteen significantly different enemy types, homogeneously spread across the maps would do the trick. And cause a deeper impact in costumers (gamers).

Marketing Research shows that buyers are overwhelmed with hundreds of options for taste, in say, marmalade. And they either consume less or avoid altogether such sight. Buyers are satisfied with fewer tastes of marmalade and are more likely to buy said marmalade brand.

The same applies to video games. And leads us to our next problem.

Problem 2: WAY too many Weapons

In Dead Space 3 you can assemble (kind of) your own weapons from scraps you find on the map. Playing the role of a space engineer this sounds amazing.

Unfortunately:

  1. The first two weapons you get are unchallenged against all monsters and they are vastly superior to any other weapon you may conjure next.
  2. There are hundreds of different combinations, which is overwhelming.
  3. There is no logic behind building weapons, finding a decent combination happens by chance and since you can’t test them you need to use them in combat (which is risky).
  4. The introduction of mods and upgrades makes the chasm between your starting weapons and the rest even bigger.

And this is only talking about weapons, you also have tons of items, spare parts, companion robotic rats and portable door knobs (I am seriously not kidding, you can and have to carry portable door knobs).

I can’t imagine what Design Meetings in Visceral Games looked like.

ds3talk_dude

This is highly unrealistic of course because, as we all know, game design meetings are no collegial-masturbatory-sessions.

It goes without saying that too many options are quite simply, too many.

Design Solution 2: Design Skeleton

The new build-your-own-weapon idea sounds great, but was poorly implemented. How can you solve it?

With Design Thinking my dear [the method of finding practical, creative and sustainable solutions to problems yo’]. And thus, how do designer solve a very complex mess with hundreds of different options?

With a Design Skeleton dude!

  1. A design skeleton is any organised grid where all the components and final results are known before hand.
  2. Since we are working with combinations, each possible combination is assigned an empty slot on a master grid.
  3. Now that we have an overview it’s time to list criteria of what we need. For example: Accurate weapons, area-of-effect weapons, tools to stall enemies.
  4. Now that we have a grid and a list of criteria it’s time to design weapons to fit into the grid, a.k.a. the Design Skeleton.

WOW, WOW, wow, dude. But what if weapons are already designed and it’s a mess like in Dead Space 3? Well easy dude, always go back to the basics. Create a Design Skeleton and modify your existing weapons to fit the slots and criteria. Even if you have to ditch few it’s better than having a mess nobody will have fun with.

But, why even bother with this? Easy. A Design Skeleton guarantees that you have order, that building weapons is intuitive and that you don’t forget important criteria. The last thing you want is having 200 different weapons and realise 199 of them are useless or boring.

Design Problem 3: Non-sense Tools

Aside from weapons you can bring Scavenger Bots with you, basically a vacuum-cleaner-rat that serves no discernible purpose other than annoying you at the price of a few extra spare parts. Also you have to carry one-time-use Door Knobs… Wait, what! I mean who’s freaking was to include a door knob that you can only use once! Because, obviously, an engineer like the protagonist can’t dismantle a simple freaking door knob that he built from scratch in the F**KING first place! [o.k. relax] And well, many other crap.

Design Solution 3: Cut the Bullshit

Instead of bringing bars of tungsten, spare parts, portable door knobs, vacuum cleaner rats, weapon schematics and blah, blah, blah. Let us cut the bullshit and focus on the basics.

What do we actually need from a secondary resource:

  1. A resource that you find seldom and costs a lot buy.
  2. A resource whose scarcity makes it valuable.
  3. Extremely powerful modifiers that mandatorily require said resource.
  4. Environmental hazards that can only be unlocked with said resource.

The easiest solution is usually the right one. In Dead Space 1 and 2, we have Power Nodes, a single tool that fits all of the above.

So lets apply that to Dead Space 3. Scrap the door knobs, portable vacuum cleaners and tungsten bars and let us melt everything together into Tungsten Bullets, for example. The forth slot for a weapon is assigned for a Hydraulic Piston that uses tungsten bullets to open locked doors and kill un-killable enemies (-.-) On the other hand, tungsten bullets could be melted to create powerful weapon parts or modifiers.

We reduce several items into one, and this one resource/weapon/item gains new meaning. As a player the power node or tungsten bullet bares the vital questions. “Should I upgrade my gear, or bring an extra anti-Regenerator bullet that I can also use to open secret doors?”

Such a simple solution demands thought from the player, it challenges him to chose how to play the game and ultimately reduces the problem of too many non-sensical items into one badass multitasking tool.

Moving on.

Re-Design PROBLEM 2: Human Psychology of Fear

Dead Space 3 can be the most combat oriented game ever for all I care, what we loved about the franchise was the horror, the true nature of fear in the previous games. Dead Space 3 takes a huge step back in the fear department for no discernible reason. Perhaps to appease angry moms (infant looking monsters are gone from Dead Space 3) or in a desperate attempt to be cool (alien looking enemies replacing human looking enemies).

Bellow a comparison of the former pack, crawler and lurker, each next to their Dead Space 3 – mom friendly design. Such changes bare the question, why even bother when Dead Space 3 is still going to be a R-rated game?

Hmmm… I sense a very slight difference.

ds3talk_moms

Oh EA Games, you naughty boys thought we wouldn’t notice.

While the alien city, alien race and alien necromorphs all look the part and what not, they are very far from scary. But why? Why is the feeder so scary while the alien necromorph isn’t?

Why is the Feeder (left) scary and the Alien Necromorph (right) not?

ds3talk_scaryornot

Easy, let me explain

Because we can relate to the feeder and recognize it as dangerous or mysterious. Its human enough that we recognize it (and maybe even recognize ourselves in such peril), yet altered enough so that we recognize danger, oddness and thus perceive it as… scary. There is nothing we can recognize in the alien necromorph. Its a cool shape of something behaving like an alien, and so we are curious about it. Amused by its strangeness.

It almost seems like monster design in Dead Space 1 and 2 had an expert on psychology and science fiction providing tips on human fear, and apparently that person got fired during development of Dead Space 3.

Fear comes from us making a connection to the perceived threat in several ways. Either we connect it with something we know is dangerous, or at least we perceive as dangerous (like spiders in the movie “Arachnophobia”, by Frank Marshall), or; The object of fear is concealed in mystery (like Norman Bates in the movie “Psycho”, by Alfred Hitchcock), or; The threat is human but slightly off (like the hemocytes of the movie “I Am Legend”, by Francis Lawrence), or; The threat is conceptual while retaining something we recognize (like the xenomorphs of the “Alien” franchise). Xenomorphs are very alien looking while retaining a high degree of humanity. For example they have an anthropomorphic stand, their outer shell is remarkably similar to a human skeleton and their teeth aren’t sharp fangs but a fairly normal human dental anatomy.

Xenomorphs are conceptual but slightly human. Don’t believe …

ds3talk_mouth alien

See :D

The Fly Monster isn’t human, but recognizably dangerous and gross.

ds3talk_flybaby

We make a relation to flies, which we know very well.

What you SHOULD never do is go to the extremes. A creature that is all conceptual and has nothing we can relate to or recognize isn’t scary but interesting, silly or curious at best. Like the tribolite alien from the movie “Prometheus” by Ridley Scott.

Starfish Vagina here, alias Cuddles is awkwardly cute…

ds3talk_cuddles

… but not scary :S

I mean fear is not rocket science you freaks! Give us something to anchor our fear and we’ll piss our pants. Give us some CGI (computer generated images) extravaganza with no connection to reality and we’re amused.

See what I mean?

ds3talk_monta

The Kraken from the latest cinematic 3D abortion of Warner Bros. Pictures “Clash of the Titans” (2010) is a wonder of computer generated images, but even Liam Neeson calls to release it with the same enthusiasm he’d ordered a morning coffee [“yaaaawn, and oh yes, release the kraken, yaaaaawn”]. The naughty Elevator Ghost from MediaCorp Raintree Pictures’s “The Eye” (2002) is disturbing for being human, obviously dead and behaving inhumanly (floating slowly and all). Victor Crowley is the amazing Hatchet from Dark Sky Films’ “Hatchet 2” (2010), he’s everything you wanted him to be, creepy, funny and gory. He delivers laughs at the expense of people dying in the most ridiculous ways. The Newborn from 20th Century Fox’s “Alien Resurrection” (1997) is not the best ever, but it looks and behaves like an infant making him fairly disturbing. The american piece of radioactive-crap pretending to be godzilla is from TriStar Pictures’ “Godzilla” (1998) is too conceptual and full of crap you can’t possibly take it seriously. And last but not least, your friendly neighbor T-rex from Universal Pictures’ “Jurassic Park” (1993) is scary because many of us loved dinosaurs as a kind and we all knew too well what a T-rex would be capable of against a petty human. We all had a magnificent relation to it.

So what now? How can design management help us now!

Design Solution 2: Chart of True Fear

By the way, the design of the fear map is based on the “What makes things Creepy” episode of Vsauce by Michael Stevens (youtube celebrity, entertainer and educator). I HIGHLY recommend you check him out. And going back to game design, Dead Space 3 can be combaty as hell but monster design should have retained the horror of before. How to do that? You may ask.

As Design Manager I learned how important it is to visualize things. So I went ahead and based on Michael Stevens and Steven Kings “definitions” I created my own take on it, in the form of a table of fear.

Mr. Towelhead’s Fear o’ Map of Naughtiness

ds3talk_tableuno

The Y-axis of the chart are: Humanized vs Conceptual. The further a concept goes into being human, we can relate to it. The further a concept moves away from us it becomes more interesting, but more difficult to relate to. The trick is to find a fearful balance between human (but not normal) and conceptual (but not silly).

The X-axis are: Mysterious vs Dangerous. Things that are concealed, ambiguous or unknown produce fear out of imagination. Things that are familiar but  obviously dangerous produce fear out of experience or expectations. The trick is to find a fearful balance between things being either mysterious (but not down right invisible) or dangerous (but not childish).

Clusters within the Fear o’ Map

ds3talk_fearoclusters

The pink bubbles are the zones or clusters of famous creatures and concepts

The key to the chart is finding your niche (cluster) and respecting it. A. EXTREMES. You never want to find yourself in the edges (extremes) because your concepts quickly become silly or plain normal. B. BUBBLE SIZE. You don’t want to dilute your identity and expand your bubble-zone all over the place [trying to please everyone usually results in disappointing everyone]. C. EXCEPTIONS. Remember that edges can be o.k. If you manage them well. At the end of the movie “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” by Tim Story; the Earth is threatened by an absolutely mysterious/conceptual thing, an “Evöl Cloud” who’s “face”, “voice” or anything, we never see… [Laaaaame]. However Mr. Shadow from the movie “The Fifth Element” (1997) by Luc Besson, has a clear purpose explained by actors’ exposition, Mangalorian mythology, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mr. Shadow’s conversation with Gary Oldman (Zorg) and Gary’s acting further developed the villain Mr. Shadow. Even though you never see its face, Mr. Shadow is an omnipresent force of evil. D. PRECURSORS. Oddballs of a design-cluster can venture outside of your bubble-zone, as a matter of fact they should to keep the bubble fresh. Precursors of design may scout new terrains, but more often they serve as reminders of what defines a fear cluster. You do yourself a big favor if the bulk of design choices remain inside your niche. For example, Xenomorph variants from the Alien series have gone places, like the Newborn, Mantis or even the Predalien, but the core remains a nice tight cluster that we can recognize with ease. :D NEAT.

And, where are the NECROMORPHS?

ds3talk_necros

TADA!

As you may notice the Necromorphs are conveniently placed near the middle as the neat mix they are [in my naughty opinion]. On the X-axis they tend towards a perceived danger, with their claws and all, never concealed but rather blunt in your face (eating your face at times). On the Y-axis they expand between humanized creatures (slashers, wasters, twitchers) and conceptual ones (leviathans, slugs, brethren moons).

So, what the j’hell went wrong in Dead Space 3? Laissez moi vous montrer.

ds3talk_fearozones

See? … No, let me explain.

Tha’ white bubble in the center is the core of Necromorph design, the blue bubble is the comfort zone where design-choises can wander, and the dark blue bubble is the out-of-place zone, where a select few oddballs may wonder, WITH CARE. And so. While some of the new monster-designs for Dead Space 3 are really neat [Wasters and Nexus], most of them go WAY out of the necromorph comfort zone. Not only that, but they wander off into the extremes of conceptual design, where we have absolutely nothing to relate to [Medusas, Swarm and Alien Necromorphs], and the extremes of humanized creatures that are, WAY too human to even be afraid of [Wasters, Unitologists].

No game mechanic, DLC or silycon-babe is ever going to compensate for a game filled with curious and silly “monsters”. As a rule of thumb:

KEEP IT SIMPE, ALWAYS GO BACK TO THE BASICS

While the alien race per se, might have been oddly designed, it would have been interesting to see alien-necromorphs variants slightly resembling humans, maybe even implying that Markers are the origin of the human race or something. Necromorph-parasited-aliens evolving into human looking monsters would have been scary, disturbing and story-wise more interesting than a show-case of strange figures occasionally bumping into the Protagonist.

That’s it for part 1, I have already talked, WAY TOO MUCH. So good night and sweet weird dreams.

… to be continued in part 2 (dah)

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4 Comments »

  1. Awesome post.

    I guess this also explains why the Dark Super Necromorphs that appear in the latter levels of Dead Space 1 and 2 are less scary than the regular ones. They look less like deformed humans and more like shadowy things, more conceptualized. That’s why they barely scare me at all, even though they are much stronger.

    • Yeah, I think that the “enhanced” versions were not designed that way, but in order to save disc space, they just put the exact same enemies with a slightly different skin. Which is much cheaper (time consuming) than creating a new enemy… Sadly.
      The only scary thing about them was that they actually hurt when they hit you (gameplay and not actual scare :P)

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