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It's been a decade since Isaac Clarke investigated a distress signal from the USG Ishimura and ushered a new era of horror games. To commemorate it, we're revisiting Dead Space with one of its creators, Wright Bagwell.
Wright Bagwell started to dabble with game development at the tender of age of 8 on a RadioShack’s TRS-80 Model III computer. But the blissful days of programming in Basic and writing simple text adventure games were put to an end with the arrival of a Macintosh in the Bagwell household. The Apple computer was famously unfriendly to homebrew tinkerers, but it wasn’t enough to kill Bagwell’s passion for making games. It did, however, maim it for a few years.
Fast-forward to his college years, when Bagwell came across the game that would change his life. “I'd never really gotten into a game like I did with Quake,” he says with a hint of nostalgia. What Bagwell loved about Quake was its community of fellow minded modders. He wanted in on the fun. His pass into that world was a clever little mod called The Vigil, which introduced a novel at the time idea of a stand-off against an enemy horde. It caught the attention of the gaming media, which in turn led to Bagwell catching the attention of some developers. Several job offers followed and eventually, he joined Cavedog Entertainment, the studio behind the legendary Total Annihilation.
And while the game he worked on for Cavedog, a too ambitious for its own good shooter called Amen: The Awakening, was canceled in 2000, Bagwell's career took off. His next job was at Valve, helping out with pre-production on a little game called Half-Life 2. After that, he landed at Electronic Arts where his career was set to flourish. A few years into his stint at EA Redwood Shores, Nintendo shook the gaming world AD 2006 with the release of Wii. "I don't think they thought that it was going to do as well as it did," Bagwell says about EA's leadership’s reaction to Wii. In its defense, very few did.
Nonetheless, never the ones to miss out on a profitable trend, EA scrambled to support the console. Bagwell, who made a name for himself in various design roles on a couple of James Bond games and an unreleased Lord of The Rings tie-in, was tasked with designing a family friendly title tailored for the Wii's motion controller. He came up with a kooky, cartoonish fishing game that would never be released. It's a game that still holds a special place in Bagwell's heart. He talks about it fondly and would still love to make it, but as far as career milestones go, it can't compare to Dead Space.
Aim For The Limbs
"It scared the shit out of me and I will never forget how intense that demo was and how frightened I was," Bagwell remembers his first time playing Dead Space. It was after his Wii fishing game was scrapped when the studio decided to reroute all the resources into two potential cash cows: The Godfather 2 and Dead Space. When the time came for Bagwell to join one of the two teams, the choice was simple. "I went to the studio leadership and said that I would only work on Dead Space," he says. He backed the request up with his shooter heavy portfolio and joined the project as a senior gameplay designer.
"There was a lot of debate about whether or not it was possible to make a survival horror that was truly scary without making a clunky control scheme," Bagwell says and invokes the example of ungainly Japanese horrors like the Resident Evil series. "So one of the things I was really impressed with when I joined the team was that they had spent the time and had all the debates internally and they figured it out."
They truly did. Dead Space felt like a proper, intuitive shooter. But responsive controls were just one part of the equation. The other was making the game scary. What helped with that part was abandoning some of the tropes associated with shooters. Isaac Clarke, the game's protagonist, was not a battle-hardened space commando we were used to, but a middle-aged systems engineer having a really bad day aboard a planet-cracking spaceship. As such his inventory was mostly limited to mining tools like plasma cutters, futuristic saws or flamethrowers. And yes, some of the tools onboard USG Ishimura handled suspiciously like guns, but on the whole the game’s arsenal felt fresh.
The other expression of ditching the shooter staples felt even fresher. To build its thick atmosphere Dead Space used three ingredients: darkness, claustrophobic close quarters, and relentless enemies. And while the first two are fairly self-explanatory, the latter was accomplished with a simple paradigm shift: making headshots ineffective. The enemy combat in Dead Space was built around dismembering the ever-persistent Necromorphs limb by limb to slow down their attacks. "You couldn't just walk into a room and get a bunch of headshots and move on. You knew that every limb you dissected and every head you blew off only resulted in a different kind of challenge," Bagwell says. The end result was some surprisingly tactical gameplay, which required the knowledge of different enemy types, a steady aim, and a strategy of prioritizing threats. Most of the enemy encounters ended with the enemies keeling over within arms length of the player and with precious few rounds left in their tool’s cartridge. It doesn’t get much tenser than that.
Still, no game development is without its issues. Bagwell remembers one recurring, if a tad self-imposed, problem on Dead Space. With the game’s levels in the early stages of polish, without lightning or textures or anything that makes them attractive to the eye, Bagwell and the team tended to overcompensate by overpacking the stages with enemy encounters. For a horror game that’s a cardinal sin. "It was kind of funny that even though we knew about it, we kept making that mistake,” he says. "This is obvious now, but what we found is that less is more."
Thanks to those findings, Bagwell and the team learned to, "... have some rooms whose only purpose is to make you think that there might be something there when there's not." That particular lesson was quite evident in Dead Space, with its perfect ratio of actual jump scares to imaginary ones.
"It was the first game that we had all built at EA that was not licensed," Bagwell says about what made Dead Space special to the team. The previous EA Redwood Shores games like James Bond and Lord of the Rings tie-ins that Bagwell worked on required a lot of back and forth with the license holders. In his experience, that tends to not only slow down the process but can also impair creativity. After all, nobody wants to spend a lot of time on a great idea that might be shot down by a third party. Dead Space came with none of those limitations. "In some ways it was a bit of a catharsis for the team, saying 'let’s just go crazy and see how far we can take things,'" he says.
It helped that the second half of the 2000s was a great time for new ideas at EA. It launched numerous new franchises such as Mass Effect, Army of Two, Mirror’s Edge, and, of course, Dead Space. And even some of its longest running, stalest franchises got a makeover. FIFA 09 continued on the series' new, fresher course charted by David Rutter, Battlefield turned to storytelling with Bad Company, and Paradise elevated Burnout by bringing the series to an open world. Bagwell remembers that shift in the company’s policy.
"We saw that the costs of licensing were increasing, so I think there was a point where people said 'we just want to be making more interesting games,'" he says. And so with the profits from licensed games—EA's bread and butter—dwindling, came the push for the original IPs. The management of EA Redwood Shores embraced the opportunity. "I think the leadership on Dead Space just felt like, 'what the hell, let's just let's just do this and if people don't like it we could probably get a job elsewhere.' And that kind of attitude paid off," Bagwell says. He’s right. It did pay off.
After Dead Space was released and managed to petrify the audiences on PS3, Xbox 360, and PC, EA Redwood Shores reaped the rewards. The studio was rebranded as Visceral Games and given a new mandate to further develop the Dead Space franchise and work on new, visceral action games. “I was very very excited. It felt like now that we have established this brand we were going to double down on the idea of building gritty action games that are taking big risks,” Bagwell says.
His next assignment certainly had the makings of a risky endeavor. Someone at EA had the idea of transplanting Dead Space to Wii. Bagwell, thanks to his experience with the offbeat fishing game, was the right man for the job. The rail shooter Dead Space: Extraction took him out of northern California and into the U.K. to work with a Derby-based studio Eurocom. "It's a shame that it didn't do very well because there's some really great stuff in that game," Bagwell says, proud of Extraction. "But ultimately the market showed us something obvious, which is that Wii customers didn’t want a survival horror."
Upon his return to Visceral, Bagwell was faced with a new reality. In the early stages of work on Dead Space 2, the studio’s leadership departed to form a new outfit called Sledgehammer Games. The exodus left the opening for the sequel’s creative director and Bagwell was chosen to lead the project.
Roller Coaster in Space
“I'm grateful that I inherited a game that was already great. All I had to do was try to make it a little bit better,” Bagwell says. He’s a humble man, but he had a clear vision for Dead Space 2.
“We tried to create a game that felt like a roller coaster ride,” he says. Whereas Dead Space wanted to give players a heart attack for 10 hours straight, Dead Space 2 was more about mixing different experiences. Moments of terror followed by moments of triumph. Feelings of powerlessness followed by temporary feelings of being in control. Eerily quiet sections followed by high action set pieces.
“My passion was always for action games,” Bagwell says. “As a result, Dead Space 2 felt a little bit more like an action game than a full-on survival horror game.”
And yet, some attributed that shift in tone to a pressure from EA’s top brass to create a game with a wider commercial appeal. Bagwell recalls no such directives. “I don't remember there being any pressure there,” he says. But that changed by the time the work on Dead Space 3 started. Bagwell spent only a couple of months on the project but remembers a change in attitude.
“My understanding is that there was a push to try to make it appeal to a larger audience. And I think it's it's hard to fault EA for that. I don't think that the Dead Space games ever sold that well,” he says. “I can't disclose any of the numbers, but I think it's obvious to say that if they made a lot of money they'd still be making Dead Space.” It’s hard to argue with the facts: both Dead Space and the studio that created it are no more.
“It wasn't a surprise to me, but I was I was very, very sad,” Bagwell says about the closure of Visceral Games. The studio was deep into the development of an untitled Star Wars title when EA decided to shut it down last year. Many of Bagwell’s longtime friends lost their jobs and from an outsider’s perspective, Bagwell might have an idea why. Visceral's output decreased as the years went by and the costs of development increased. And that meant that each of the few games was a bigger, riskier bet. Those bets never really paid off, either. The studio, despite creating well-received games, never managed to turn Dead Space (or any of its other games) into a big moneymaker for EA. And then there is the harsh economics of running a business in the Bay Area, which made each of EA's bets on Visceral ever riskier.
According to Bagwell, Visceral's shutdown is not going to make life any easier for the game studios remaining in the San Francisco area. "Every time a studio shuts down here it reduces the opportunity for people here." That's something Bagwell knows about well. His current endeavor, Outpost Games, chose South San Francisco as its home base.
Before opening his own studio, however, in 2011 Bagwell left Electronic Arts early in the development of Dead Space 3 to try something new after 11 years in the console games business. "I think it happens to all of us. We get to a point in your career where you just need to try something different," he says. In his case that meant joining Zynga to work on FarmVille 2. And yes, the humor of trading an extremely gory space horror for a bucolic farmer simulator isn't lost on him. "That's going from the game that your mom hates to the game your mom loves."
Now in charge of Outpost Games, Bagwell is trying something different once again. "'Wouldn't it be really interesting if you could integrate audiences directly into the game so that they felt like they became part of the experience?'" is his pitch for the platform his company is working on and whose first test was a Steam survival game called SOS. "The next stage is working with other game developers and media companies, who want to figure out how to build better esports and better entertainment,” he says passionately. That sounds ambitious enough.
As we're wrapping up our chat and I thank Wright Bagwell for his time, he asks me to make one thing clear. Here’s his request verbatim:
"I don't want to take credit for the Dead Space franchise that I inherited. I did my best to pay the deep respects it deserved. And I feel I feel very fortunate to have been on that game and to work with that team. It was a really incredible team."
Which, somehow, makes the demise of both Dead Space and Visceral that much sadder.