Uncut Interview - Steve Papoutsis (Dead Space 3)


  • Dead Space 3
  • Uncut Interview - Steve Papoutsis (Dead Space 3)
  • Dead Space 3

Talking viscera and vengeance with the face of Dead Space
In addition to being the Vice President and General Manager at EA’s Visceral Games, Steve Papoutsis is also the long time ExecutiveProducer on the Dead Space franchise. Since its inception in 2008, the sci-fi horror series has become one of the most successful new IPs of the current generation, thanks to the company’s commitment to slick action, story and scares.

As the release date for Dead Space 3 approaches, we had the chance to talk to Papoutsis by phone about the incredible legacy of the series, his own work behind the scenes and what fans and newcomers alike can expect from this all new tale of terror.

[This interview was conducted by phone in January 2013]

Steve Papoutsis
Steve PapoutsisEnlarge Enlarge
CLICK: I just wanted to talk more generally for a moment – you’re GM of Visceral Games and exec producer on Dead Space, what is your day to day in the office actually like?
SP: So I’ve been focussed really on Dead Space for a long time and recently I’ve been given more of an expanded role where I’m able to oversee the entire Visceral group. Which encompasses a variety of different projects and things that we’re really not ready to talk about! There are a lot of different things that I get to interact with and groups of folks that I get to work with. But on a day to day basis a lot of my attention has been given to Dead Space 3. And now with the new expanded role I'm starting to help shape other projects.

CLICK: You’ve been in many ways the face of Dead Space for several years now, what has it been like shepherding this franchise?
SP: Sure working with Dead Space has been probably my favourite thing I’ve done in my career. The team is fantastically talented and being able to represent them is really an honour. They develop great entertainment experiences and being able to get out there and talk about it and support the team is really enjoyable. It’s something that I really try to do a good job with to represent them in the best light.

CLICK: Are you surprised by how much it’s grown in just five years?
SP: Yea I think when we first started working on the game the expectation was that we were really thankful and fortunate to get to do it. And it was a period of the console cycle where we were trying something new, a new IP. And we managed to get some good prototypes in front of executives and started to get support. By the time the game was coming out we were all excited but we were ready in the event that we wouldn’t get to do any more Dead Space games. We clearly had thought about stuff beyond the first game because as we built that game we needed a mythos and the world and where we could go in the pleasant event of getting to do a sequel. But we were also ready in case things didn’t go that way. So it was a great surprise when we received the critical acclaim and support of the players and go the chance to do more Dead Space games.

CLICK: You guys are also working on Army of Two at the moment – do you get involved with that title at all?
Well Army of Two is something that I do get to check in on. But my primary focus has been on Dead Space. But Army is an existing franchise so that’s something I do have some oversight on but generally it’s been Dead Space.

CLICK: Right let’s talk Dead Space 3! Can you briefly set up the story this time around?
Sure. So Dead Space 3 takes place a couple of months after the previous game where Isaac Clarke is on the run and trying to lay low. He’s trying to get away from the past and get himself lost in a place called the New Horizon Lunar colony. And quickly at the start he gets swept into an event that pulls him along in search of his friend Ellie Langford. He’s thrust into a situation he doesn’t want to be a part of but he goes because his friend is in need. So he gets on board with that mission and he’s taken through a variety of locations including the lunar colony and then we transition to the Lost Flotilla which is essentially a haunted graveyard of space ships orbiting the planet Tau Volantis. So players will get to explore a bunch of different ships there as well as experience zero gravity sections. And then ultimately assemble their own craft that allows them to get down to the planet of Tau Volantis. And once there they encounter an archaeological dig and research facility as they try to unravel the secret of what’s going on. And I’ll leave it at that!

CLICK: Did you guys always have a long term plan for Isaac Clarke – beyond the story in the first game?
SP: Well we definitely had to flesh out his back-story in the first game. His family life and what did he do and how did he become an engineer and where was he going to go. So we had a rough outline of where we wanted to take him but over the years as we’ve been developing the games that’s been modified and improved. There’s a place that we want to get him to and that’s something we’ve been building towards. But it’s been a very iterative process as we’ve learned.

Isaac. Lookin moody...
Isaac. Lookin moody...Enlarge Enlarge

CLICK: It does sometimes feel like you’re tormenting Isaac! Will he ever get some happier times?!
[laughs] Well it’s a good question. The big evolution of Isaac that I think most players would notice is that he’s gone from being an engineer, somebody who stumbled upon this horrific situation and is forced to use the tools of his trade – the plasma cutter, line gun etc to fend off these Necromorphs. And in Dead Space 2 he’s a bit more capable and more on the aggressive side of the equation, taking the fight to the Necromorphs. And in Dead Space 3 I’ll just say again he’s a reluctant participant and he’s not very happy about it so he really gets an opportunity to take out some of his angst against the Unitologists who have been tormenting him through the years – causing the events which happened on the Ishimura or flat out kidnapping him in Dead Space 2. This time, he gets a little payback. And with our new weapon crafting system he gets to lean into his engineering skills to create some really unique and awesome weapons that he can then turn around and use to dismember Necromorphs.

CLICK: So some proper vengeance finally!
That’s right, you got it! Take down the terror!

CLICK: It seems like Clarke has moved a little away from his insanity in previous entries – is that true?
I think the dementia plays a definite role in Dead Space 3 but it’s more around other characters. I think after what happened in Dead Space 2 – and I don’t want to spoil that for anyone who hasn’t played it yet – I think he really came to grips with some of his internal demons. So while he has some fits during the game it’s not about his dementia as much this time as how it impacts others, specifically the new co-op character of John Carver who players will see impacted by the dementia.

John Carver. He's going to be trouble...
John Carver. He's going to be trouble...Enlarge Enlarge

CLICK: And that character can get taken over by those moments of dementia right?
Yea when you jump into our drop in/drop out co-op and play as John Carver there are missions that actually focus on his back-story and when you’re playing them you’ll at times experience very different things – depending on whether you’re using player one or two. Those different things amount to some dementia moments that Carver has to struggle to fight off.

CLICK: So there’s a sense in which Carver won’t be that much help during those moments? It’s a bit of a twist on regular co-op play.
Well the idea was that it would create another kind of psychological horror and fuel some tension and intense moments. So if you imagine a sequence where you’re being overwhelmed by Necromorphs and Carver is incapable of helping you because he’s having a vision it’s now up to Isaac on his own to fend them off and protect Carver. So it’s almost like a protect mission at that point. And it really is effective in terms of getting people excited and adding a spike to the pacing. Because a fight that you thought might be easy enough is now really challenging because there’s just one of you trying to do it while the other one is struggling. And it really does get the juices going and get your palms sweaty.

CLICK: How did you come to the decision to include a new co-op character?
Well on Dead Space 1 at the end of development we experimented with a co-op character – we turned on another Isaac and we ran around the Ishimura. And that was just a proof of concept and we realised there were some interesting opportunities there. One player could be crowd control while the other was more aggressive. And that was really interesting for us but obviously we weren’t going to just throw in another character at that late stage! So that was just a nice idea that we were going to come back to. And with Dead Space 2 we added a competitive multiplayer which was born out of the story – with the security force of the sprawl against the Necromorphs. So it was part of the fiction of the game. So that was a natural evolution for Dead Space 2.

For Dead Space 3 when we were thinking about what we wanted to do, we needed to continue to innovate – to bring fresh ideas to the franchise. Because our players deserve that. We didn’t want the franchise to be stagnant; we wanted to push for new ideas and to bring more fun to the experience. So co-op was considered. But the first thing we said was that if we’re going to do co-op we have to do it in a very Dead Space way. We have to make sure that we retain that single player experience that our players have come to enjoy. And our co-op had to be unique and different. So our single player, there’s no AI follower, it’s just like a regular Dead Space game. When you play co-op its now an additive experience, with a back story and elements around Carver – whether that’s the dementia or just a little bit of his story or the fun loot that you’ll find when you play as him. That’s all additive to the story – it’s not necessary to complete the game but those players that are interested can seek it out, as well as some cool loot that feeds into the crafting system. So that was kind of one of the key things with the idea of co-op.

The other one was we needed to make sure that it wasn’t one of these games where it felt like a separate mode. Our franchise is known for the story and we wanted to make sure that character was integrated into the story and the universe. So we really focussed on doing that as well. And lastly we wanted to make sure players were able to experience it with their friends at any time. So it’s fully drop in/drop out. If you and I started playing tonight and you had to leave I could keep playing alone with all the progress I’d made. And when you came back you could rejoin me either at the point where I stop or we could use chapter select and go back to where you left. And in addition to that, all the loot you found before would come with you. As a matter of fact if you decided to leave in say chapter 3 and played by yourself from there – which you can – with all the loot that you took. So now you could play as Isaac in your single player game. And you could play from chapter 3 to 10, get more loot and make cool weapons and bring all that stuff back to our co-op game and we could resume where we stopped or wherever I am in the story.

CLICK: So you could bring back weapons from later on in the game?
Yea! And it’s very flexible. And that was important to us because what we’ve seen in some games is that you get into this situation where you’re waiting for your friend. Or you have to create another new game and you lose all your investment. So going back to co-op is kinda a bummer because this other character has all the cool stuff! So we wanted to avoid that. And that’s a key thing that we really haven’t talked a lot about. But that’s a critical piece which makes our co-op very unique and I think it’s going to be remembered when people look back on this generation of games as one of the standout features and a very innovative one.

CLICK: How do you respond to people who suggest that the two player option takes the game from its tense, survival horror roots? Is it more action packed?
SP: Yea it’s something we’ve heard. And I kind of turn it around so if I’m playing with a friend whose really into the horror aspect and the story and wants that kind of experience, I think it’s going to be just as intense. Now if I’m playing with a buddy who’s maybe more of a joker, the kind of guy who talks during a movie! Well that’s going to impact your experience. But the cool thing about co-op is that you do it with somebody you know generally. So if you want that tense, horror experience, don’t invite your talky friend! Invite a friend that’s going to take it seriously. And ultimately you don’t have to play co-op – the single player game is still there. So co-op is a chance to bring a friend along, either in a tense way or if they want to just have a good time. That’s up to the players to decide how that’s going to unfold. And ultimately what’s cool about it is you have that option and it makes the game really deep and long. It’s definitely our biggest Dead Space to date and I think there’s a lot of fun for people to have whether it’s with single-player, co-op or any of our New Game + or different difficulty modes. There’s a lot of game there and for me it’s the best Dead Space yet.

As much horror as you can handle
As much horror as you can handleEnlarge Enlarge

CLICK: The faster movement speed, cover system and dive rolls also feed into the idea that its more action oriented too?
Well let’s take that one by one. Isaac isn’t faster – it’s the same as it was in Dead Space 2. The dive and dodge yes that is allowing him to be a bit more nimble but that’s something our players have been asking for from Dead Space 1. So that’s something we’re directly responding to. So we let them have it. And it’s helpful in some situations and in others it’s not the right thing to do – but that’s part of the risk/reward design of it. In terms of how that makes the game feel more action oriented, it can to a small degree but it doesn’t feel that out of place when you start playing it. It feels relatively natural. Our cover system also incidentally only becomes available in specific situations when you’re fighting human enemies. So you’re not going into cover fighting Necromorphs. Against human enemies, when you get close to something that’s half height, the player will naturally go into a crouched position. It’s not stick cover so you’re not attached to anything and it’s… pretty mild in terms of how intrusive it is into the experience. And again it’s optional, if you don’t want to be doing it you don’t have to. It’s essentially like our crouch which we’ve also added when you’re close to an object. And that’s against human enemies. So those are small additions that we felt were needed now that we have introduced human enemies. But they do not take away from the experience; they actually just make the controls feel a bit more natural for players who are coming from different types of games.

CLICK: Did you ever consider having Carver as a constant AI companion when you’re playing alone?
No. As I said that was absolutely something we didn’t want to do. That was mostly due to the fact that we were very happy with how the other games felt. And we didn’t feel the need to alter that approach. But we did believe there was a way we could do co-op without an AI follower and that we could build a new character that actually had a compelling story. And then of course include that drop-in/drop-out ability that we talked about. So the idea of having an AI follower was something we were very against from the get go.

CLICK: So just in terms of mechanics, if I’m playing a level that’s set up for co-op – with gates that need both players – what happens when one leaves? Does the level reload?
SP: Yea so when a player drops out you have a checkpoint restart. So you go back a short way and then continue. So it just refreshes the level.

CLICK: What was the biggest challenge in creating a second sequel to Dead Space?
SP: I would definitely say the biggest challenge was making the co-op work and the ability for a player to leave at any point and retain their progress while also playing single player. That’s something you don’t really see in other games and it was a lot of work for the team to do. And I’m super proud of what they delivered. There’s a reason you don’t see that feature elsewhere.

CLICK: You recently showed off the Kinect functionality in Dead Space 3 – can you tell us which actions it can be used for?
SP: Sure. So Kinect was an interesting thing for us to get an opportunity to play with. With Dead Space 2 we did have on the PlayStation side Dead Space Extraction. Which came from Wii to PlayStation Move. And that was an exposure to motion controls which were fun to play with. And with Extraction it was built around motion control so it all felt really natural. With Dead Space 3 when we got the chance to look at Kinect, we wanted to find a way to have the Kinect really be super useful. And the thing that appealed to us were the voice commands – so you could continue to be connected to your controller, you don’t have to stand up or anything like that, and you could call things like ‘find objective’, ‘use stasis’, ‘reload’ those types of commands. They’re pretty helpful and then also being able to give your friend ammo or health is something that you can do from Kinect. So it may sound relatively simple but cutting out a couple of button presses can actually be pretty handy!

CLICK: And there’s no frustrations in it being attached to attacks.
Well we’ve actually got… you can use it to break out of paired attacks. And that’s a funny story actually because there are certain… expletives that you can yell when you’re trying to break out of paired attacks that actually work. And that was really fun for us because we were looking at the team and seeing when people were in those sorts of moments what they were doing and saying so we had some fun with that.

CLICK: So you’re hoping people will discover them by accident?!
Yea exactly, it’s fun.

CLICK: You’ve previously expanded the universe with apps and tie in animated movies – do you have any similar plans this time?
Yea we’ve got a graphic novel coming out that we teased at E3 which centres around Carver and his back story. And we’ve got a new novel that’s on the way. So we’ve got those two things and we put a lot of effort into making sure they’re part of the canon and they’ve come out really good.

CLICK: You’ve so intimately involved in everything to do with Dead Space. What is your personal favourite feature of Dead Space 3?
Well that’s a tough one. It's gotta either be the weapon crafting system or co-op. Again you know co-op is just a monumental effort for the team and they really did a great job with it. Co-op is 1(a) and weapon crafting is 1(b). Weapon crafting is also an amazing achievement in the sense that not only are you combining resources to create weapons but you’re doing it to create your own unique weapons and fire types and it’s actually also a visual change. So when you look at our weapons, the animation team has done an amazing job with them, really making them feel different. So when a player crafts something cool and you’re playing with them, you get these moments of ‘what the hell is that?!’ And that was what we were hoping for – that people would use their creativity to really create interesting implements of destruction that players would want to share with each other. So that’s definitely something I’m super excited about.

Dead Space 3 is coming to PS3, Xbox 360 and PC from the 5th of February 2013. Why not get caught up with our hands on preview.

Uncut Interview - Steve Papoutsis (Dead Space 3) on ClickOnline.com
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