EA’s ‘Dead Space': Original, ‘M-Plus’ And… Actually Pause-able After All??

I was impressed with the cakes his development team has made, but Glen Schofield, executive producer of EA’s upcoming horror game “Dead Space,” recently told me I should be excited about the team’s game, too.

It took some cajoling, but he said he’s received standing ovations after internal presentations of the game at EA. He said he wished he could play it and said that at least an hour and a half of the Halloween-slated game’s gameplay is completely done.

But Schofield and I were on opposite sides of the country, so I just had to believe.

This new game could be something special, he said as he told me its unusual history and how the game began almost as a protest. He made a good pitch and even explained away the biggest negative to eke out of the coverage for the game — that whole no-pause-button-fiasco. But more on that later.

“Dead Space” is an escape for Schofield, and the way he puts it, a relief for a lot of other developers at EA too. It’s an original game about man vs. monsters on a creepy space-ship, a game borne from the fatigue of doing licensed game after licensed game.

Schofield’s previous project had been “From Russia With Love.” Before that: “The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King.” “I’d been feeling like I don’t feel like making another licensed game,” he told me. That’s what he told his bosses, reminding them in the fall of 2005 that EA had been talking innovation for a while. “It wasn’t a threat. It was, ’Hey, look, you guys have been talking about this for a long time.”

So the life-long sci-fi fan pitched a sci-fi horror game. He was told he could have 18 people and six months to make a convincing pitch. Normally, Schofield said, a team like his just prepares a design document. This time, he wanted to put a controller in his bosses’ hands. They worked up a prototype on a developer kit for the original Xbox, maxing out the memory.

“The first he first thing was to show them something completely different than EA is used to,” he said. “EA is always like: ’We’re going to make T-rated games, sports games.’… The idea with this game was: ’We are M. We’re clearly in the middle of M, if not M-plus.'”

How do you make that kind of impression? Schofield said he needed to show his bosses the game’s core mechanic: dismemberment. And show them a tech hook: zero gravity. And, while he pointed out that “our guy was not a murderer,” he said that everyone he showed the demo to, including his bosses, had great fun chopping enemy monsters to bits.

He got more than his six months. The game was given the green light. “This is the project to be on,” Schofield told me, saying he had no problem recruiting a team within EA. Developers want to be on “Dead Space”: “They see the freedom.”

In the Bond games, he said, there were two layers of license approval. And to make a level? Well, I told him I wasn’t personally sold on EA’s ability to do good character-action level design and he said: “With Bond, we’d say to the level designers, ’Look we don’t have a lot of time. You have your level and you have to have these mechanics in it.'” For “Dead Space,” the design started before the deadlines. The floorplan of the horror-filled space-ship, the Ishimura, was made first.

Schofield convinced me that EA was sold on the game early on, but I wondered if anyone in the company has gotten apprehensive. He said that hasn’t really happened, though someone did float the idea of bringing in name actors to do the voice work. “I said ’no,'” he told me. “That’s exactly what I don’t want. The whole idea with the game was, in a lot of ways, was I’m not going to do what the old EA would have done.”

Instead, the only meddling has come from focus groups, and it’s a meddling Schofield believes in. He said he’s had groups of 75 people testing his game. When they say the main character runs too slowly, he tells his design team that the running needs to be sped up. And if that means making the Ishimura’s hallways longer, so be it. “We’re focus-testing bosses!” he exclaimed, just to tell me how far they’re going with this. In his mind, these game is going to come out finely tuned, maximized for enjoyment.

And, by the way, that means that they’d never, ever, not include a pause button. In fact, he said, that would have violated Microsoft and Sony’s rules for Xbox 360 and PS3 games. Let’s have the man explain, since this was a bit of a sticking point when it was reported that the game might lack a pause button:

“I was saying that in a game like ’Resident Evil,’ you pause and you go into your menu. So if you’re in the middle of a fight, you can stop the fight, give yourself more ammo, and change your weapon. What I was saying is that took me out of the moment. ’Resident Evil Evil’ is a great game.” You won’t be able to do that stuff in the “Dead Space” pause menu. “[What] I was saying is you don’t pause to grab your ammo. You better ammo up before you begin your fight. Because you can’t really be safe. [The combat] is happening live and in real time. The reason for me is that adds tension, because people are saying, ’S—, I’ve got to get more ammo. I’ve got to get more health.’ That’s what you want in a survival horror game. We’re not going to make that incredibly difficult. You may have to back away from the fight. We’re just trying to make you think out a little bit more.”

And if the focus-groups say they want a quick-health button to ease that scenario a bit? Then they just may add it. They’re listening to themselves and the gamers, not to anyone holding a license. And that, Schofield said, should help make this game special.

So that’s what I know about “Dead Space”: how it came to be, how it’s a bit different from the norm for EA, and how I’ll be pausing in the middle of the game no matter what I read elsewhere. Look for more on the game as we get closer to its Halloween release.