EA's Nick Earl on the Horror of "Dead Space 2," and How He's Changing Game Development

Nick Earl, the Senior VP and General Manager for Electronic Art's group that focuses on action games, tell us about "Dead Space 2," why he is happy about the elongated cycle for current game consoles, and how he is pioneering a new form of game development.

Dead Space 2

Kevin Ohannessian: I've seen Dead Space 2 at both EA's and Sony's events. E3 seems to be going well for your group.

Nick Earl: The thing is, 99% of the teams, are back working. They see this all online, read the blogs. It's such a shot in the arm for them. You really feel the momentum if a game comes out of E3 strong. If you think about The Lord of the Rings, when we came back the team finished so strong. It was a 7-million-unit game. And my sense this will be the same for Dead Space 2.

Nick EarlWhat's your favorite thing at E3 this year?

I've been doing investor relations and meetings and media interviews, so I haven't walked around. In terms of the press conferences, Halo: Reach looked very good. And I thought Killzone 3 looked extremely good. Fortunately, I don't compete head to head with those, being first-person shooters and I'm in the action group. But tomorrow, I am going to walk around and look at every strong Action/Adventure game, and try to understand how we are mapped against them. My charter is to grow our market share in the action category, which we think of as third-person as opposed to first person. And the best way to do that is to bring great products like Dead Space and Army of Two, but Dead Space 2 is the cornerstone. From that, things are blossoming out across the group that I run, defining the quality and the caliber of games that we are trying to deliver.

At Sony's event 3-D gaming was pushed. When are we going to see a 3-D Dead Space?

We'll look at it. Coming out to the show, that was one of the things we wanted to get a sense of how strong that was going to be. My sense it that it actually really isn't that difficult to develop for 3-D. The bigger question in my mind, running the group, is what is the adoption going to be like. Are people going to want to buy televisions? That's also true for gesture gaming. How much of a base is there going to be? The good news right now, is that the cycle has been elongated. We are really excited about that. It allows us to focus on building software, as opposed to rebuilding engines, all the capital costs, regenerating all of that infrastructure when you're getting ready for a new cycle. It just means better quality software, better games, focusing on design and innovation, as opposed to trying to get a polygon running up on the screen. When you make that change-over, it's so inefficient. This is great news, that no new hardware is being announced, other than stuff that is elongating the cycle.

The great innovation for this cycle has been multiplayer and online. You can really deliver a great experience, and there's just so much momentum there. So we are elongating our games and the value propositioned by really going deep on multiplayer. That's a big area of opportunity for the action group because most multiplayer tends to be FPS. If you look at hours logged it's on games like Call of Duty, and hopefully Medal of Honor and Battlefield. The third-person space is not quite as active. So one of the things we think about in the action group is how can we bring great third-person multiplayer gaming. We are trying different styles and modes: cooperative on the couch, coop online, head to head, lots of different flavors. We are trying to see if we can build a community that starts to approach that of FPSs. I think we can do that--it's just an enormous opportunity, for the business and especially for EA.

I am a fan of horror and psychological stories. Why did you and Visceral support that genre with the Dead Space franchise?

The original decision wasn't so much about being specific to go after something. It was more about an idea that generated on a team. We were doing James Bond and we were about to do another Bond, and we looked to the future of doing Bond games and we felt our hands were tied creatively. We had done some great games--Everything or Nothing was probably our highpoint there. We really enjoyed doing that product, but it felt like we had creative handcuffs. The team spent a few weeks and came up with this idea, and at the same time we realized that Bond wasn't right for us going forward. So we just took a chance on it. This is when the company realized that new IP is really crucial, that we hard to start to move away from sequel after licensed sequel and create some new IP.

Three years after we delivered Dead Space 1, which is one of the highest rated games we've delivered. What's interesting about Dead Space 2 is that it is a little more action oriented than survival. You are going to get all of the horror, all of the psychological terror of Dead Space 1. You are going to get improved controls, which is something that just happens naturally. And you're going to get incredible scripted moments that just overwhelm you with action and the largeness of the experience. It's a little more empowering as the main character; you're going back after the bad guys--it's a little like Aliens versus Alien. We are moving forward with this game, not just cleaning up Dead Space 1. That is very exciting to us and the reaction we are getting here is proving that we are going in the right direction.

Dead Space 2

You don't lose any of the scares. It's the oldest trick in the book--the guy jumping out as you walk around a corner. But it works. I've been playing the same level as we get it ready for E3. At the same place every single time, the guy jumps out, and every single time I can get scared. We think we have the form down. There are some new ways that we can create terror, a little more psychological. Some of the new necromorphs have some unbelievable tactics--the vomit guy in particular. The first time he vomits you don't really get it, but then you realize how destructive it is. Every time you see him your heart starts beating fast. We'll keep all of that, but the big difference is that rather constantly running away from these guys, you're going after them. You are still being scared, but you are going after them. It's a subtle, but important difference in the game. And then increase in scripted moments just provides such incredible, fantastic scenes. It has a much more epic feel.

EA's been pushing downloadable content. Dead Space 1 had some items, Dante's Inferno had full levels. Are we going to similar DLC with Dead Space 2?

It's incomparable, even to Dante's, the amount of paid DLC we have planned. This is because we feel strongly that the consumer wants it. You can iterate effectively, based on telemetry data you get, and then you can adjust the content going forward. As long as people are going to want to consume, we are going to deliver that experience, and keep improving that experience. There is also huge efficiencies around keeping a team working on it. We're gone from the days of you ship the game and move them off to something else. We view this as a service, delivering quality gameplay through many means. There are all different types we are going to look at, and listen carefully to what the public wants. If they want maps, we'll do more maps; more pieces, new suits, more necromorphs--we'll listen to what the community wants and then deliver it. We have a long plan to do that, and the resources do that. We'll try to understand what consumers are looking for, and we'll deliver for whatever that period is. But sometimes you have to move on. That's the nice thing about PDLC, it's a much smaller team--you have got the engine built and you can deliver strong content. You don't have to work on the whole game package.

Besides DLC, are there other big issues for you and your group at EA?

The other area of focus for my is learning how to collaborate development-wise, and trying to pioneer a new model on how to build games. Dead Space 2 is being built across four studios. What used just to be at EA Redwood, now Visceral, is now being done along with EA Montreal. What we are learning to do is build games across multiple teams, where the talent is--some of it lower cost talent, which brings costs down. More importantly, you can find talent elsewhere, outside of California. Dead Space 2 is really proof of the ability to make quality, be thoughtful about your costs, and do it in a new collaborative model.

We do a lot of the art in Shanghai. We do a lot of the PC version in Melbourne, which is a lower cost facility--very strong engineers. The core team is based at Visceral. And then there's a very large team in Montreal. They have their own levels they work on, but also they are helping with user interface. There are components that are parsed out in different ways, but in general art will come out of Shanghai, engineering out of Melbourne, core experience from Visceral, and integrated levels, value-add levels, and multiplayer happening at Montreal. Every game in my portfolio is being worked across at least three studios. It's a new way of developing that we are trying to pioneer and perfect.

For more with Nick, read the E3 posts on Art in Gaming and Financial Threats to Games.

Stay tuned for more interviews from E3.

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