That doesn't really surprise me at all because games like Dead Space, with all the atmospheric clanging and groaning of monsters in the distance, really get to people because they don't know what's happening; you're letting the player come up with things in their own head.
Have you had a chance to play Amnesia at all?
WB: Yeah, I have. I played the demo. I have to admit I didn't get through the whole thing. Unfortunately, I have really bad carpal tunnel syndrome so I can only play a PC game with a mouse for a pretty short period of time, so I have to spend my time with a PC wisely.
But, yeah, I'd love to have a conversation with you about Amnesia. I think there's a lot of interesting things to say about it.
The number one thing that you said that's really tough to accomplish with video games is letting the player use his imagination, to let the player think there's more going on than there actually is. So, having sounds that suggest there are creatures in the room with you when there aren't any physically there is one of the best ways to scare players.
And some of my favorite films of all time are the films that don't really show you much, if anything at all. I think the films that probably scared me more than anything else were the Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity.
People's imaginations are always far more powerful than anything you can put on screen, but the problem with video games, of course, is that you've got to have 10 hours worth of content, and you can only make so many enemies because it takes so long to build them, to concept them, to animate them the right AI for them.
So, it's always frustrating making games when we want to try to have moments that might be like Paranormal Activity, but it just doesn't work because it's oftentimes really hard to draw stuff out too long without giving the player something to fight against.
I think Amnesia really fascinated me because it got such a good reaction from people. The fact that you, as far as I know, hardly ever really see an enemy in a game is quite interesting. I think the thing about Amnesia for me, though, is it's definitely a niche game. I can't imagine that there are a lot of people in the mainstream that would really be into a game like that.
And of course I don't know much about sales or anything like that, but it struck me as a really great game that I think a very small number of players might enjoy. We found that when doing market research on Dead Space, when we look at other survival horror games, stuff from Japan like Fatal Frame and the like, there's a really, really rabid fanbase for those games, but they actually don't sell very well at all.
Of course, we'd like to make games that sell a lot. Everybody does. It was pretty hard to convince people to give us the money to make a game when you're talking about sales in the hundreds of thousands, you know.
The other thing I think that's interesting about Amnesia is you mentioned in your mail [prior to the interview] is about empowerment and its usefulness in scaring the player.
It is a small indie game, it's kind of a niche game, but at the same time, you said that a couple of your favorite horror films were these small low budget films that happened to make lots of money. Could it be just down to marketing an indie horror game like that? ... Do you think that there's more room in the horror genre for the mass market than just weapons-based action, Aliens-type sci-fi games?
WB: Absolutely. One of the things about our industry is we're so focused on the big titles, just as Hollywood is, but the film industry does better at letting small titles break through. Personally, I would love to see more kind of great, more focused indie titles out there. Personally, I play a little bit of everything from... I still play text adventure games, I love stuff on the iPhone and iPad, I play console games. I'm always checking out the stuff on Xbox Live Arcade, on PSN. I love going to see the stuff that's on the Indie channel on Xbox Live. There's some really good stuff there.
I definitely think that we need to figure out how to promote these smaller indie titles, everyone's been saying this. We've got to figure out how to bring in new ideas. We've got to figure out how to promote fresh thinking in games. I really think that there is a space in the market for it. I'm not in marketing, though, so I don't know exactly how that would be done, but personally as a designer and as a guy who just loves games, I'd love to see more of that kind of stuff.
You guys did play quite a bit with player disempowerment with the Regenerator and with the ammo situations that you run into at certain points.
WB: Yeah. I think that's the main way that we tried to [do it]... I sort of disempowered the player in Dead Space, giving him very limited resources.
There's an interesting story from Dead Space 1 and Dead Space 2, which is that when we started building Dead Space 1, we basically started with a mechanic set that was really similar to Resident Evil 4. We were all really huge fans of that game.
We kind of started -- we had never made a survival horror game -- by saying, "Well, I think in order to scare the player, you really need to sort of cap how much control the player can have, right?" In RE4 and a lot of those survival horror games, they all have these pretty clunky control schemes that don't let you do all the things that you can do in most other shooters, for example.
Yeah. Like walk and shoot a gun. [laughs]
WB: Yeah, exactly. [laughs]. Well, if you could walk and shoot and strafe and everything, you couldn't possibly scare the player that bad if you let him do that [we believed]. And so we started off with a mechanic set that was almost identical to Resident Evil 4. We kept focus-testing the game, and every time we focus tested the game, people would complain about stuff like that.
We thought, "Well, but, you know, that's just kind of what we have to do [to scare people]." Eventually we got kind of tired of hearing people complain about it, and we said, "Hey, we should be trying to scare players by doing things that are actually kind of scary rather than making them just feel helpless." So, we started to do things like... letting you move.
And we turned up the speed that you rotate. And we turned up the speed that you could run, and things like that. And, obviously, we never got to the point where you feel like a superhero, and we never got you to the point where it feels like you playing some kind of acrobat or anything like that.
You still feel you're like an everyday guy walking around in a big heavy suit, but what we found is that as long as we focused on making the game really atmospheric and putting you in freaky situations and getting the timing of everything right, you didn't really have to disempower the player that much in order to scare him.
And I think the upside of that is that, again, we don't want to make a game that feels like a niche game. I think most players, if they pick up a controller these days -- after having played so many other shooters and things like that -- if you pick up the controller and suddenly you felt like all the freedoms you had in other games are taken away from you, it's hard for people to stomach that. People don't have a palate for it.
I think it's sort of the win/win that we gave people a control scheme that didn't feel like it was too deliberately cumbersome but yet still manage to scare people pretty darn well. And I think that's the direction we went with Dead Space 2 as well. What we said was "Hey, let's take this a little bit farther. Let's get people to pick this game up, and the moment they start playing with the controller, we want them to feel good."
We want people to feel good about controlling the game because we don't want them to be thinking about how to wrestle with the controls. We want them to be thinking about their strategy. We want them to be thinking about "Hey, which weapon should I be wielding now? Am I reloaded? What am I going to carry in my inventory?" That kind of thing.
We would much rather have people thinking on a little higher level, a little more strategically rather than thinking more about, "Oh my God, if something jumps out at me, am I going to be able to shoot it in the face?" You know what I mean?