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Dead Space Through the Eyes of a Game Designer

Thursday, November 13th, 2008




Dead Space
Just finished playing through Dead Space and since I always take notes on every game I play through, I thought it would be useful to compile them all together and write a short disposition for Dead Space from a game designer’s perspective. Warning: Some very minor spoilers in this article.

Dead Space is a third-person survival horror game that closely resembles Resident Evil 4 only with better controls (strafing included) and taking place on the set of the movies Event Horizon and Sunshine. Dead Space was developed by EA Redwood Shores, whose previous effort was the licensed title, Godfather.

The Dead Space team runs a real clinic on great design decisions. Dead Space does a number of things to immerse the player in their world and keep them there.

One of the most important decisions made was to never take control away from the player. What this means is that the entire story takes place from the player’s camera. The great thing about this mechanic is that the player’s immersion is never broken by cutscenes. The negative is that story telling is more difficult for the developers as they cannot rely on cutscenes to drive the story forward. The developers at EA had to be extra inventive in the way they told the story of Dead Space and they managed to do a great job with audio and video recordings spread throughout the gameplay spaces as well as using NPCs to drive the exposition.

Another difficulty that the team must have faced was in introducing new enemy types to the player in a fair manner. That is to show what the new enemy type is capable of before letting them loose on the player. The most common practice in games is to introduce new enemy types through a cutscene. There are many advantages to the cutscene approach. The main one being that you can never be sure which direction the player’s camera will be facing during the game, thus they may miss events that happen during gameplay. The disadvantage is that the control is taken away from the player and immersion is broken. Dead Space manages to get around the cutscene crutch in a number of interesting ways. They minimize the likelihood of the player looking in the wrong direction by picking spots like tight corridors to introduce their enemies or by placing the enemies behind glass and showing what the new enemy type is capable of by allowing the player to view the new enemy attack and kill another member of the crew. Another way that the game introduced a new enemy type is through foreshadowing. An example is when the player, passing through a room to complete an objective cannot help but notice the numerous holes punched through the walls. Returning to the room you are attacked by the giant worm that has caused all the damage in the room and it is pulling you towards the large holes. While this is not new to games, as Valve used a similar methodology in their title Half-Life, it is not often done because it is simply not easy to pull off. The developers at EA should be given credit for applying and following this rule, and it is a formula that I would implore other developers to follow.

The second decision made to promote player immersion is that Dead Space has no on-screen HUD. The player’s health is displayed on the character’s spine and gun ammo is read directly from the gun. This system is incredibly well executed and I am sure that going forward, there will be many games that will be copying this mechanic.

There are a few minor issues with not having a HUD that Dead Space did not handle gracefully. One example is since there is no “press A button to open” dialogue on the screen, I did not even know you could open any of the small crates laying on the ground until half-way through chapter 2, when I opened one by accident.

While on the subject of lack of information, the tutorial does not go overboard and lets the players discover a surprising number of the game’s mechanics. The alt-fire mode is not even explained until chapter 2 and the waypoint path is never mentioned and the first time I used it it was during a cinema, which caused it to not function at all.

Dead Space does manage to pull off many aspects of their game very well. Not being able to pause the game to use the inventory or map brought a risk versus reward and a heightened sense of danger anytime the player wants to check the map or use an item from their inventory.

Even the reuse of environment is handled well. Every one of the game’s 12 chapters start the player in a hub area where the player can save, replenish on items from storage and buy upgrades and items at a store. The hub branches off into multiple directions where the player will accomplish each of their objectives for the chapters. This allowed for reuse of the environment as the areas were populated with enemies on the way down to the objective and repopulated on the way back. This repetition is somewhat mitigated by very good scripted events both ways through as well as the player’s desire to reach the hub again to replenish supplies.

The Zero-G environments are impressive visually and offer a lot of unique gameplay from a platforming standpoint.

The dynamic lighting in Dead Space is shown off to great effect through the use of flickering lights, sirens, wires that flail all around spewing electricity and even random objects hinged to the ceiling just swaying back and forth casting shadows. Little tricks like these really help to make the game environments seem less static and more alive.

The audio is one of the highlights of the game. Creepy singing from people driven insane, screaming in the distance, Necromorphs wailing, objects being knocked around and even the occasional music are all dead on and set up the creepy mood.

The telekinetic powers and puzzles helped break up the pacing and the way it is used reminded me a lot of Star Wars: Force Unleashed. This made me start to wonder how a Jedi would behave in a survival horror style of game. Back on topic.

Last note: Guns whose parts animate all over the place like the Line Cutter are always cool.

Improvements I would have liked to see in the game:
1. As with most middle portions of games, they are usually slow and uneventful. Sadly, Dead Space is no exception to this rule.
2. Playing on a console I was surprised by the absence of aim assist on the turret sections of the game. It was immensely frustrating attempting to aim at precise points on the Xbox Controller without any assistance. You can get away with this on the PC Mouse, but with a console controller this is simply not acceptable.
3. Taking away the player’s ability to run on sticky substances was intriguing, but not explored. I am really surprised EA Redwood Shores did not take advantage of this more. The player’s inability to run could have led to a number of cool scare moments. Just off the top of my head, imagine the fear and anxiety of the invulnerable Necromorph chasing you through a corridor where you cannot run from it, but must slow it down with limb shots to make your getaway. This is a missed opportunity.
4. The red explosive barrels that do not affect the enemies are a “wtf moment.”
5. Why does the game reset my plasma gun alt-fire position to default at the beginning of every level and on reloads? This gets annoying.
6. The way the game spawns enemies behind you or when you turn a corner and the tiny Necromorphs (which are out of your view frustum because they are tiny) immediately latching onto you is pretty cheap. If you are going to do that at least give the player some warning and a chance to react. An example of this warning could be, the player enters in a room and hears a crash through the ceiling behind him and then hears the roar before the Necromorph attacks him.

Despite these relatively minor issues, Dead Space is an achievement and is one of the first fruits of a welcome shift within EA to create more original IPs. This is a game that developers, aspiring developers and gamers should not miss.

For aspiring developers, this article is an example of what a designer is looking at when they play games. To learn more about how to become a game designer please read: Become a Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1.

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See my other related articles also:
Call of Duty: World at War Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Roger Ebert is Right: Games are Not High Art…Yet
What’s Bad About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer Mode?
Gears of War 2 Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1
10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 1
10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 2
Low Skill Cap and Luck (RNG) in World of Warcraft PVP
Top 5 Greatest Moments in Competitive Gaming (eSports)
What Video Games Taught Me About Life
Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 1
Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 2
8 of the Most Underrated or Overlooked Video Games of All Time
Pimps at Sea err I mean Age of Booty & Gen 13 Cosplay
My Student Films 2: EverQuest Documentary and Guilty Gear Isuka Trailer
Best MMA Fights & Genki Sudo: Real Life Video Game Character

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8 of the Most Underrated or Overlooked Video Games of All Time

Thursday, November 6th, 2008



Underrated or overlooked games, by their very nature are only played by a small minority and slip under the radar of even hardcore gamers. Having said that, my list is not meant to be a definitive list and is no doubt different from most other people’s lists. Being a game designer by profession, I naturally put more weight on gameplay mechanics than other people. If you read my other article “Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know” and are looking for some games to research, I would highly recommend any of the games on this list. With that I give you my list in no particular order.

Guilty Gear XX Accent Core (PS2/Wii) 2007
The most balanced 2D fighter in existence. Nearly every character can be played at a tournament level and has a chance of winning.

Let’s run through this game’s new and creative mechanics that developer Arc System Works has introduced. The gameplay is incredibly fast. Most of the characters can, double jump, dash in the air or run along the ground. Low air dash attacking is a common strategy. This makes for lots of action and a frantic pace.

Custom Combos: An endless variety of custom combos can be created by a mechanic called the Roman Cancel, which ends the animation frame of an attack as soon as you press the button, allowing you to chain any move you wish.

A Tension Gauge limits the use of Roman Cancels. This bar fills up as you move towards the enemy, inflict damage or receive damage. A Roman Cancel would take 50% of the Tension bar and an exactly timed False Roman Cancels on specific attacks take 25% of the tension bar.

Fortress Defense: An impenetrable defense that uses up the Tension Gauge to block both high and low attacks and nullifies special move blocking damage.
Burst Gauge: This bar fills up as you receive or inflict damage and serves two uses. If being attacked, it can be used to break out of any combo or it can be used offensively to refill the Tension Gauge.

Guard Gauge: Another common problem with fighting games is the turtle (ultra-defensive) strategy, which leads to boredom and little action. Guilty Gear has largely alleviated this issue and keeps the game’s frantic pace by introducing a penalty for employing this strategy in the form of the Guard Gauge. The Guard Gauge begins a fight half-filled. As the player blocks, the Guard Gauge increases and as you takes damage the gauge empties. If the player neither blocks nor takes damage, the gauge returns to the middle. The emptier the gauge is, the less damage you take. Therefore, if you continue to turtle you will take more damage when you do get hit. Also if the player refuses to attack, they are warned and then hit with a complete reduction of their tension gauge, a 20 percent fill-rate of tension for 10 seconds and suffer an increased likelihood of becoming dizzy when hit.

Since the number of hits received drains your Guard Gauge, attacks had a built in diminishing damage return. So the subsequent hits in a combo do less damage than the previous hit. This forces combo creators to frontload the heaviest damaging attacks at the beginning of the combo string for maximum efficiency.

When you look at all the innovative fighting systems in place coupled with really crazy character design and finely balanced characters, Guilty Gear is the pinnacle of all 2D fighting.


Sword of the Berserk: Gut’s Rage (Dreamcast) 1999
Berserk’s brand of cutting people and mutants in half and blowing their heads up with your giant sword and seeing fountains of blood spray everywhere action never gets old. Sword of the Berserk had multiple paths that were determined by whether the player successfully completed specific Quicktime events. Decent variety and design of enemies and huge bosses kept the gameplay from getting stale.

What really set the game apart from others was that Guts had two complete sets of melee moves; one with his giant sword and the other was hand-to-hand melee. Gut’s massive sword did the most damage, but could not be swung in tight places or if the character was close to a wall. In tight places, Gut’s had to switch to hand-to-hand which was not as damaging. This caused the player to have to be careful of where their player was in the environment and allowed the designers to ramp up the difficulty in areas by bringing in the walls for short periods of time. In addition to his giant sword and fists, Guts has a huge arsenal of weapons including throwing knives, bombs, a hand-cannon and a rapid-fire crossbow. All of them useful, balanced and more importantly satisfying to use.

The story was compelling and told through a number of well-directed cinema scenes. All in all it was a very fun game that did not deserve to be overlooked.

Oni (PC/PS2) 2001
Oni is heavily influenced by Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell anime series. Oni is set in the year 2032. As Konoko, a police agent in the Technological Crimes Task Force, you will use any of 10 different guns and numerous different martial-arts techniques to eliminate foes. As the player progressed through the game, new melee attack moves would be introduced to make Konoko more effective.

While everybody praises the “Halo” control scheme as revolutionizing shooters on consoles, this Bungie game invented that control scheme that Halo gets all the credit for. As a result of this revolutionary control scheme, Oni controlled amazingly well on the PS2.

This game was universally reviewed low, and I am still not quite sure why. Oni’s unique blend of hand-to-hand melee combat and third-person shooting had never been pulled off as successfully before or since the game’s release in 2001. What really would have pushed this title over the top is the inclusion of Multiplayer, which I had heard from inside sources was working and insanely fun, but sadly never saw the light of day.

System Shock (PC) 1994
System Shock is one of those titles that was overlooked simply because it came out at the wrong time. It attempted to go head-to-head against Doom II and obviously lost. Looking at the two games side-by-side System Shock seemed to come out way ahead. System Shock was way ahead of its time. Unlike Doom II, System Shock had a true 3D environment that allowed the player to look up, down, climb, duck, jump and lean to the side. Its story about a murderous sentient AI was deep and engrossing, it had interactive environments with actual physics, first-person action and RPG elements all in one title. The player could even enter into a gravity-free wire frame 3D Cyberspace through computer terminals littered throughout the game to open doors.

System Shock holds up even going back and playing it today. If you are interested in playing this game, the DOS emulator DosBox is a good way to do it.

http://www.dosbox.com/

I am glad that the remnants of the team at 2K Boston that created System Shock finally got their hit in the spiritual successor to System Shock, BioShock.

Kill.Switch (Xbox/PS2/PC) 2003
This 2003 third-person shooter developed by Namco was one of the first Japanese developed games to use the “Halo” control scheme. This overlooked gem introduced the cover mechanic and blind fire mode later made famous by Gears of War.

Instead of a single “A Button” press of Gears of War, Kill.Switch used a hold down button not unlike Time Crisis’ step peddle mechanic. If you were out in the open the player would duck, if you were close to a wall or other piece of cover the player would latch himself onto these pieces of cover. The cover mechanic was very innovative and well implemented.

Body Harvest (N64) 1998
Many people credit GTAIII as the first free-roaming sandbox game, but in reality Body Harvest owns that title. Body Harvest was developed by DMA Design who later developed GTAIII and was bought by Take-Two games and renamed Rockstar North. You played as Adam Drake, a human in power armor, thwarting an alien invasion of Earth.

Body Harvest’s world is populated by numerous civilians whom you were supposed to save, but could just as easily kill. Civilians react realistically and throw their arms up and try to flee when shot at. With over 60 drivable vehicles, including, cars, tanks, planes, boats and planes and 1000 virtual square miles Body Harvest was huge. Random mission objectives would pop up as you traveled around the world.

Body Harvest received mediocre reviews at release mostly because of poor graphics when compared to its more linear contemporaries. This is not surprising considering even modern open-world games have to sacrifice graphical fidelity to fit a huge world in memory. Body Harvest was an overlooked title that today’s open-world games owe much to.

Shadowrun (SNES) 1993
Shadowrun was great game that had a futuristic adult setting that broke the mold. Shadowrun came out in a time when its contemporaries were little more than Dungeons and Dragons clones. Based on a gritty near future Seattle, where Megacorporations ruled the world, the game is a revenge story that opens with the player waking up in a morgue with no memory of how he got there. Thus begins the player’s search for vengeance against those that killed him.

Shadowrun combines both the statistical numbers of traditional RPGs with a mix of real-time gameplay. You would place the cursor over the enemy and fire at them. By killing enemies you gain karma that is used to raise different attributes, skills and magical powers.

Other innovative aspects of this game include the ability to hire mercenaries to help you in your quest, hacking into the matrix to gain information and cash, and a dialogue system that would highlight specific words that you could later ask other NPCs.

Syndicate (PC/Amiga) 1993
Syndicate came out in 1993 and blew my mind. It is by far my favorite Peter Molyneux game. The Blade Runner inspired game put you in control of four juiced up and upgradable Syndicate agents from an isometric camera view. The cities you played in were teeming with civilians, cops, vehicles and enemy agents. The buildings can be entered and most of the environment, from skyscrapers to vehicles could be destroyed.

You could also steal and take command of vehicles like cars, trucks, APCs, fire and trash trucks and use them as transportation. Not only that, you could use the vehicles to run over people and watch them splatter.

The items in the game were one of the highlights. While using a flamethrower to set cars on fire had its own charm, the best item in the game by far was the Persuadertron. The Persuadertron let the player take over the minds of the civilians, cops and eventually enemy agents. You could go around the city and gather up a force of dozens of civilians that would throw their bodies in front of enemy fire to protect your agents. If you happened to kill a cop or an enemy agent they would drop their weapons and your new loyal civilian shields would run up and pick the weapon up to defend you.

Simply, one of my favorite games of all time.

Other honorable mentions:
Jet Grind Radio (DreamCast)
Bushido Blade (PSX)
Herzog Zwei (Genesis)
Psychonauts (Xbox/PS2/PC)
Beyond Good & Evil (Xbox/PS2/GC)
Psi-ops (Xbox/PS2)
Ico (PS2)
Viva Pinata (Xbox360)
Wings of Fury (Apple II)

See my other related articles also:
Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1
10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 1
10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 2
Low Skill Cap and Luck (RNG) in World of Warcraft PVP
Top 5 Greatest Moments in Competitive Gaming (eSports)
What Video Games Taught Me About Life
Roger Ebert is Right: Games are Not High Art…Yet
What’s Bad About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer Mode?
Dead Space Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Call of Duty: World at War Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 1
Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 2
Pimps at Sea err I mean Age of Booty & Gen 13 Cosplay
My Student Films 2: EverQuest Documentary and Guilty Gear Isuka Trailer
Best MMA Fights & Genki Sudo: Real Life Video Game Character

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Posted in Video Games | No Comments »

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