With Dead Space round the corner, we got the chance to fire a few questions at EA's Content and Community Manager, Ben Swanson regarding the online, narrative extension of Dead Space, known as No Known Survivors. I would explain to those who don't know what it is, but Ben kindly answers that question for us in the interview.
First of all, thanks for your time, I understand this must be an incredibly busy time for everyone there. Can you just introduce yourself and your role to the folks reading this?
Thanks for having me! My name is Ben Swanson, and I am the Content and Community Manager for Dead Space and a few other titles. I work on a range of things from creating content for our sites to interacting with members of the gaming community online, as well as creating contests, programs and events for them.
So not everyone will be aware of No Known Survivors. Can you just give us some insight in to what it is entirely?
No Known Survivors (www.noknownsurvivors.com
) is an online episodic interactive story, essentially. I know that sounds like a mouthful, but it’s much simpler in action. Basically we have created two story lines that play out in 3D interactive environments, by exploring the environments, interacting with object and solving puzzles, think Myst with dismembered limbs. You can piece together these two tragic stories.
As this is an extension of the narrative, will there be any crossover between the website and the actual finished game?
No Known Survivors was concepted and built from the hundreds of pages of back-story and game documentation that the team generated during the early production phases of Dead Space. No Known Survivors is meant to give a real sense of what the world of Dead Space is like, what the people are like personally, how the culture is, and what exactly has gotten humanity into the place it’s in. We felt that this would be better done through interactive experiences than through fake corporate websites or some of the other ARG methods that can sometimes feel a bit too dense and demanding. We wanted to give people depth, but still have it be entertaining and engaging.
Where does the inspiration for a project like this come from?
Well the inspiration came primarily from the game and the passion of the development team for the world they were creating. This is a new IP for EA, and in many ways it represents a new direction for us. When you are creating a game that is atmospheric , story driven and new, it’s not enough to just go to gamers and say “we got a survival horror game now, it’s in space, here are the weapons, trust us, you want it!” You need to engage people in the world you are creating, and the Dev Team invested heavily in a world that is worth talking about, so we brought it to people online.
We concepted maybe ten small stories with the help of the team from the back-story and narrowed them down to the two we thought were the most interesting and most representative of the world.
Then we thought about how we could tell stories in an interesting way online. Both myself and Andrew Green, my boss, and the other half of our online team for Dead Space, felt that ARGs and some of the other story telling efforts going on online were interesting, but appealed to a relatively small subset of people.
We’re both big fans of adventure games and, in retrospect, what we created is essentially a point and click adventure game (in a good way). We wanted to give people a lot of ways to interact with the world: artefacts, video, cinematics, environments, dialogue. So we sort of worked to tell the story, in a sort of crime scene investigation fashion, through all of these points of interaction. All of it is meant to give people a real sense of the world of Dead Space in a visceral and interactive way.
What sort of work does it take in to creating a project of this scale?
About fourteen months, hahaha. I can say it was more work than anyone involved imagined when we were first throwing ideas around. We had the great fortune of working with a lot of creative people: the Dead Space team, who were also heavily involved in the Comic and Animated Feature, as well Antony Johnston who wrote the comics and much of the game, and Nick Braccia who is our powerhouse Creative Director.
This project involved 3D art and design, hand illustration, voice acting, live acting, 3D cinematic work, puzzle design, graphic work and a TON of writing. So it’s pretty involved. That said, I think that for both ourselves and the Dead Space team, the only way to do these sorts of extensions was to do them well, make them true to the world and really make them valuable for people.
Can you tell us a bit more about the leaderboard system there and how players score points? Will there be any benefits that go with doing well in the league?
Each episode has a console you can interact with. Once you register you will be asked to answer a series of questions. The answers to these can be found in the comic book, the website and primarily in No Known Survivors, there are also some serious puzzles in there. We wanted to give our die hard fans something really deep, challenging and rewarding, knowing in advance that it’s not for everyone that comes to the site. There is a reward for the people that score highest throughout the test. That reward may be a free copy of the game, and I think more prize announcements are coming soon.
Are the team on the No Known Survivors project part of the actual development team that worked on the game?
We’re part of EA’s online Community Management team. We manage websites, develop programs, and work with communities across the web on a number of titles. This project however, required us to essentially integrate into the Development team, we reviewed everything with the team and worked with them to ensure that everything was up to quality. So no and yes I would say, though I believe we are going to be working more and more in this capacity in the future.
At what stage is this sort of project planned? Is it part of the initial ideas process or is it a last minute idea?’
Online in general happens very early. Usually a game needs representation online when it ‘s initially announced, so this means you start working on the game before a lot of the other marketing efforts are going. As I said before, we’ve been working on Dead Space and this project specifically for more than a year, so it’s a pretty long process. That said, getting involved early allows you to do a lot of really cool things. Developer diaries, concept art, interactive pieces and community building are all things you can’t do last minute.
Despite the concept and execution being ultra cool, do you think at the end of the day it makes a difference to sales or raises the profile of the game at all?
That’s a tough question. People are spending a lot of time on the site and they are interacting with the world of the game itself. As gamers and fans ourselves, we’re looking for more real value, real material, real experiences. It’s certainly our hope that the people who are on No Known Survivors feel closer to the game than they ever would by sifting through screenshots or even watching a trailer. As marketers, it’s essentially our job to drive anticipation and hopefully purchase of the game. But we feel that for our online communities, that’s best accomplished when you give them the access and the interaction that they want.
Do you think that this sort of thing will become more and more prevalent before a games release in the future?
I certainly hope so. I think you are seeing a lot of alternate approaches to online marketing. There’s a lot more developer access through dev diaries, blogs and interviews than there has been in the past. I think this is huge. As games mature as a medium, I think it’s important that we take the ideas and the people behind them more seriously and invest more heavily in them, and I think that’s taking place across the industry. I think all of these efforts from studios and publishers are good for gamers, they not only make for richer worlds, but I think they educate gamers about what it takes to make a game, what’s really going on, and I think that’s how you get more people involved in the industry.
Do you think that the Dead Space story is going to be one of the game’s selling points?
I think it is. Dead Space is a survival horror game with a lot of great action, amazing visual, great scares, eerie sounds and serious gross outs, but it also has a stark and interesting world that was created by a lot of really talented individuals here. I think that’s the reason that a lot of good games resonate with people.
Thanks for your time. We look forward to more and more episodes as it unlocks every Monday. Have you got any final words for the Dead Space fans out there?
I just want to thank our amazing community out there who has been so supportive of the game. We’ve received so many awesome comments on the site and we’ve got a lot of great feedback from people around the world. I know there’s a lot of games out there and a lot of places to spend your time on the internet, so we’re thankful to everyone who takes the time to check out No Known Survivors and to everyone who decides to pick up Dead Space on October 14th!