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Q&A: EA's Schofield Ventures Into  Dead Space

Q&A: EA's Schofield Ventures Into Dead Space Exclusive

May 29, 2008 | By Christian Nutt

Dead Space, a third-person sci-fi horror game in development at EA Redwood Shores, is a new IP for Electronic Arts from a core team whose recent experience centers around licensed titles such as The Godfather.

That's a welcome change of aspect for executive producer Glen Schofield, who pushed the project from prototyping into full development. It is now scheduled for release on PC, Xbox 360, and Playstation 3 this October.

Prototyping turned out to be crucially important to the development of Dead Space. During a recent EA press event, Schofield sat down with Gamasutra to discuss how the project came together, why there was such extensive prototyping before the project was greenlit, and why design documents aren't the way of the future.

What was the genesis of the Dead Space project?

GS: Well, it started over two years ago. We had worked on a lot of licensed products for a long time, and I had this game in my head. Some of the core guys around me - we'd been working together for years - are all huge science fiction and horror fans. I just wanted to do this game. It had to come out, right?

So I'm looking around at the landscape, and no one's put science fiction and horror together in a video game. I mean, you see them in movies from time to time, and here and there might be a game that borders on it, but the two huge genres are perfect, right? So I went to the powers that be, and it didn't take much to sell them on it.

Moving from licensed properties to pitching an original next-gen game was something that wasn't too much of a challenge?

GS: You know, it went easier than most people would think. I feel...EA, internally...we had already been across that hump that said, "We want to start making more IP."

When I brought that to them, they said, "Wow, that sounds a little violent. It sounds a little different from us." And when I said the business case, in which nobody's done science fiction and horror -- and horror is huge in movies now, with Saw and everything else coming out -- I said, "There's only a couple of real survival horror games out there. We could be right up there with the best of them."

So they said, "Okay, you and your band of guys...who do you want?" And they let me pick. "You got six months."

So instead of coming out with reams of documents, we decided that we were going to pick an engine and we were going to build it. We were actually going to put it in their hands six months later.

So you prototyped it first?

GS: Yep. Absolutely. That's been the key to the success.

So in your view, is it much more important these days to do early prototyping in the preproduction stage than to do documents?

GS: I would not do it any other way from now on. Obviously, you do have some documents where you're writing up descriptions of your enemies and whatever, but having a rapid prototyping team has worked unbelievably for us.

We went from a five-minute demo to a fifteen-minute experience to an hour experience to the game. Each lump of time along the way has been so much easier to show people. Instead of, "Here's some documents with some great drawings," which you still have to have, it's so much easier because, "Here's the demo."

It's been, like...six to eight months ago, I had an hour and a half of the game. Anybody could pick it up and play it at that point. The main character was basically 80 to 90 percent done then, so now, we've just spent all these months making it better and better and better.

How fast did you guys get through the first, second, and third prototype? That was over a six month period?

GS: Well, the first prototypes were a bunch of different white boxes, so we weren't all together. So we showed one and said, "Here's what dismemberment looks like," and, "Here's what zero-G looks like." These were all little technical experiments.

The next six months was saying, "Okay, here's dismemberment in zero-G. Here's our kinesis gun, and here's our stasis weapon, and here's a couple of other...remember when we were talking about saws and weapons? Here's what we meant by that."

So it starts out as a series of little prototypes, then you put it together. But each one was playable along the way.

Would you say it was a gameplay-driven development? I mean, you came up with these elements that could work in a horror/sci-fi context, and I guess you were always aiming for a horror/sci-fi context. And then once you started to nail down these things in prototype, then you sort of thought from there to build out?

GS: Yeah. I mean, there's a lot to starting new IP. When you have a license, you know what the art direction, what the story's about, what the characters look like, what the world is know all this stuff.

So with us, it's like prototyping, prototyping, making things fun and all that, but on the other hand, we're also prototyping, "What does the look look like? What does an enemy look like? What do these things that you've never seen before look like?" and trying to make them look like something you've never seen before.

It's definitely gameplay-driven, but you're also doing some art direction. You're also doing the mood, audio, and of course story.

How did this work with staffing? Did you have a core team of people that you'd know you'd work with, grab them, get it going, and then...?

GS: Part of the deal was that I could pick 18 people. I pretty much knew the 18 guys. A lot of them I worked with for over a decade. Some of them, we got some new blood. Every single person of that 18 I've done at least two or three games with, so there's sort of a second-hand language where you know you can cut through the bullshit and just talk. And we're all huge fans.

In the beginning, it was important that we had animators and engineers and this and that, but everybody we called a game maker. They were game makers, they were gamers, and that was critical. Absolutely critical.

The other very, very important thing was that each person could do more than one thing. My special effects guy is also a great concept artist, and my artists were also great at something else, and the writers. Everybody had to do a little bit more than normal, but they really loved that. They loved the stretch. They got what they wanted.

And then when it got green-lit for full production, then you staffed up to a larger team, obviously.

GS: Yeah. Greenlighting was...along the way, when they saw the first prototypes, eight or ten months into it, they started to see the promise of the game, and added a few more.

So we maybe went up to 25, then we went dark for about four months there to build fifteen minutes on the next-gen platforms and make the engine better and things like that. Then we had a big greenlighting meeting up in Canada.

How long did the prototyping process take, overall?

GS: From the day that we said we were going to start with 18 people to the official green-light, over a year.

That seems really...I guess "extravagant" is the wrong word, but maybe it's not. I mean, it's a bit rare.

GS: Yeah, I think it's rare, but it's the right way to do it. What we were doing is that along the way, we were just getting better and better and better. So when you greenlight a project, it's a lot of money.

What they were doing movies will do little pieces and things, and a lot of them will write a script and stuff like that. We were doing something brand-new and pretty risky for EA, you know?

It costs a lot of money to have 18 to 25 people working for a year.

GS: Yeah, I think the green-lighting process was just sort of this official thing, but in reality, everyone knew that it was already a given.

What did you prototype in? What tech did you use at first, or as you moved forward?

GS: We actually did it on one of our own engines. We had just finished a Bond game, and we were just prototyping on one of those engines that we had used. Some of the physics stuff, we had to prototype in something different.

Along the way, internally, we were building our own engine. Actually, we were morphing our engine. So as soon as the different parts of the engine would come on, we would put it into that.

So is this game being developed on an internal EA engine, not licensed tech?

GS: Absolutely. Yes. They call it the Saber Engine.


GS: It gives it its own look. If you look at the game right now, it's doesn't have that same look that a lot of the games out there now have, because we actually prototyped the look we wanted as well, and then we built the engine renderer around that look.

So that's down to the renderer and shaders and stuff?

GS: Absolutely.

How involved were your art team in getting the look and communicating with the people who were building the engine?

GS: They worked hand-in-hand. What the guys doing the engine said to us was, "This was the best thing for us." They saw this piece of the game that had the look, the mood, the lighting, and everything we wanted in it.

That made that job easier. They said, "That's what you want? Cool. We're going to build that." And that's how we went around it. They said to us a number of times that that made their job easier.

So you moved into production having prototyped it for a long time. How did you move forward with fleshing out other elements of the game? It sounds like you started out with what sounds like an art-, theme-, and gameplay-driven prototyping process.

GS: We didn't just make the same time, we were coming up with the story as well. The story itself we'd been working on for two years. At the back of my mind, I knew what we wanted. It was just getting the details out.

Part of hooking people into it is not only showing them, "Hey, feel this. And look at zero-G. Brand new." Right? "Here's the look of it, and here's the story." The story really hooked people in, because it was really important to us, as game makers and gamers that we wanted a really rich story. So the story really hooked people in.

How are you organizing? Are you doing a Scrum kind of development, now that you're moving full production, or is it a more traditional milestone-based waterfall thing?

GS: It's sort of a hybrid with the agile development and some Scrum development in there. We are milestone-based and things like that, so it's sort of a hybrid, but when you're prototyping and changing and iterating, you've got to be pretty agile, and iteration is key, especially with horror.

I mean, you just don't make a scary moment. You don't just write it down and go, "And then the guy does this, and you're scared." It's all about that tenth of a second - the right stinger, and the right sound. Sometimes you don't get it right.

So you're iterating a lot on the game as you develop it?

GS: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. It's like telling a joke. I can tell you a joke, and the punchline only works once. It's the same thing with horror.

I can only have a guy jump out or do this or that once or twice, and I've got 20 hours of this. We've got to keep the pacing up. I've got to change it constantly. Sometimes they don't work. A lot of times, they do.

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