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GDC 2011:  Dead Space 2's  Milham: 'Double Down On Successes'
GDC 2011: Dead Space 2's Milham: 'Double Down On Successes'
March 2, 2011 | By Brandon Sheffield

March 2, 2011 | By Brandon Sheffield
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More: Console/PC, GDC



One of the biggest problems with the visual design of the original Dead Space was that everything felt too visually similar, said, Ian Milham, art director at EA Redwood Shores. “We were trying to invent this new world, and invent this new look,” he said, a lot of which came from gothic architecture. “You look at them and you really know how they’re held up.”

“But some of those decisions we made had some unexpected consequences,” said Milham. They did their job too well, and it wound up too cohesive, to the point of looking samey. By the same token, the player Character had five suits, and even though they were all built from scratch, it just looked like they added some extra bits to each new one.

Another problem was the fact that the main character didn’t talk. “That worked, and some people enjoyed the loneliness of the experience,” he said. But when the main character has a guy speaking to him telling him were to go, at a certain point the player would want to talk back, because this guy is just jerking him around. That lead to an emotional disconnect from the character.

“It was trying to be a horror game so much, and we were effective at it,” said Milham, “but we kept hitting people with the same tricks. It was so constantly tense, that it stopped being effective. People said ‘I really want to play the game, but I kind of want to have fun tonight. This is like work!’”

The key words for Dead Space were accessible, believable, relatable, and immersive. For DS 2, they added the words variety, memorability, and character.

To add variety to the environments and emotional tone, they created a level-by-level color guide. But not just on a level-by-level basis, they also moved contrast and saturation up and down moment to moment.

The team also did a lot more with environmental storytelling, introducing and reinforcing ideas via posters and objects in the world. For example when your objective was to get to a transport station, they started showing the player ticketing machines, then advertisements, then at a certain point huge billboards about the transport center.

As an extra trick, “Once you’ve gotten people to care about your world, and then you add some weird shit, people will assume there’s something really big behind it,” he said. They included signs and posters for something called “Peng” that don’t mean anything, they’re just there and weird, but people associate something interesting with it.

In terms of enemy characters, the team decided to make them more readable as former humans, which is much scarier. As Milham says, it gives you a “Holy shit, what happened to that guy?” moment. “One part bit us in the ass, though,” he said. These new enemy characters were recognizable. “Problem is, this philosophy doesn’t go well with large numbers. If you put 10-20 of them in, it ruins the believability.”

You’ve got to add something sticky, he says. Epic moments in games add memorability, they’re trailer fodder, and make great demo punctuation. “Once they have an opinion formed, [people] tend to pay attention to evidence that supports opinions they already have.” To this end, you should set peoples’ opinions. One good area is “how round are the things?” he says. “Round things they really judge. We’re not going to put many round things in the game, but when we do, holy shit are they going to be round.

Milham showed a screenshot from the opening, with some very round objects, which players associate with high fidelity. He then demonstrated a couple scenes in which a human transformed into a monster, and a room decompressed. Both were extra high fidelity. “The idea there is not that different from the round stuff,” he said. “Not only are those moments supposedly high fidelity and cool, they’re both versions of common events of the game. Transformations of humans happen all the time, and decompressions happen all the time.”

In the first instance of each of these, they can make it huge. “You’ll hopefully bring the emotional memory of the first one, along [later when the fidelity is lower]. You’ll hopefully feel it’s more detailed than it was.” Ultimately, Milham feels the art in Dead Space 2 succeeded because, “We doubled down on our strengths instead of addressing our weaknesses,” meaning they improved good things, and cut weaker stuff entirely.


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Comments


Joe McGinn
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Love this philosophy. Example of the opposite: Ubisoft Montreal's endless and futile focus on combat in Prince of Persia. POP has had bad combat from the get-got. Some games it gets even worse. It never gets better. The team is *terrible* at it yet pour all these resources into it, year after year. Imagine where POP would be as a platformer now if they'd just stuck with POP Sands of Time combat (with minor tweaks) and instead "doubled down" on their strength?

Sting Newman
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Combat in the original (sands of time) was good, in #2 it was too fast and moves you did perform didn't have the same visual impact even though it controlled well. Problem was the moves in Warrior within didn't feel awesome to perform. By the time of the two thrones it was game over.

Jacob Pederson
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I'm glad I'm not the only one that thought this. Sands of Time combat may have been a little repetitive, but this was more from overuse than the gameplay itself being bad.

Eric Kwan
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I thought Two Thrones made an acceptable compromise by allowing the player to skip most fights via stealth kill. I remember when I was playing, I would use the sands to rewind time if I messed one of those up, just to avoid the fights.

Sting Newman
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Problem with deadspace 2 is they cut too much freedom and rail-roaded you a bit too strictly. In DS1 the atmosphere was way better then DS2, they spent too much time flashy movie fx and not enough on substance of the game.

Jonathan Gilmore
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Totally disagree, I thought the atmosphere in the apartment blocks trumped anything in the first game.



Also, it's not like the first one was open world, you had more choices but it was still a very linear focused game.

Sting Newman
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@ Jonathan



I just finished playing DS2 and then DS1 back to back and I can tell you for certain DS1 hit a higher watermark for atmosphere because you were alone on a spaceship in the middle of the universe.



In DS2 you are on a planet, not so scary. Also faded memories don't count too much when comparing games that were both good. The ishimura in DS2 looks nothing like the ishimura in the the first game. Also in the first game you were not rail-roaded into a set path.

Jason Chin
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and also unskippable movie segments. that should've died a long time ago, Onimusha had the same irritating problem.

Jason Chin
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And unskippable movie segments. *sighs*

Luke Skywalker
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You were on planet on DS2? Which version did you buy? I was stuck on a space station the whole time when I played it.....



Atmosphere is a pretty intangible concept, I preferred DS2's atmosphere for whatever reason but wouldn't tell anyone that it was certainly better than DS.



It would be helpful if we moved away from attempting to make factual statements about matters of opinion and move towards discussing why we felt a certain way.


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