Implying that EA's Dead Space blatantly borrowed from Capcom's Resident Evil 4 may sound like a bad thing. It's not. Because, as senior producer Chuck Beaver said, there are dangers to doing "too much new."
That's been a common theme at some of the GDC talks we attended this week, as published developers caution their peers to be selective about the amount of innovation they try to pack in to a single video game.
"Don't reinvent literally everything," Beaver warned, noting that the EA Redwood Shores team picked about five new things they wanted to do in Dead Space. That, in itself, was a challenge, as the EARS team was hungry to innovate. Since it had been working on licensed properties like The Simpsons and James Bond for more than fifteen years—its last new IP was Road Rash from 1991—the desire to pile on the "new" was fierce.
Beaver said that developers should start with a template, looking at a published game for lessons on what has been tested. "They're like a giant present with a bow on top of it," Beaver said. "It's a great place to start."
In the case of Dead Space, EA Redwood Shores started with Resident Evil 4. But it first had to come to grips with the fact that it had nothing to build upon, with some team members excited about the possibility of creating a new genre, a la Grand Theft Auto, with new characters, new camera systems and new technology.
"If too much is new, people will get lost," the producer contends. He cited another Capcom game, the Clover Studios developed Okami, as a cautionary tale. "Okami was a great game, but maybe there was too much new about that game."
Beaver talked about various aspects of Resident Evil 4's game design that was proven, saying that "yesterday's innovation is today's standard." There are "accepted aiming and firing mechanics" that gamers understand, systems like health packs and life bars that are established game design facets.
However, "once you have your game skinned, you need to put some distance between you and your template," he said.
The Dead Space team's distance was influenced by its setting. It's in the future. And it's in space. That lead to the team redesigning things with the concept of "in the future."
"What's the pistol of the future? It's a plasma cutter," he said, referring to Dead Space protagonist Isaac Clarke's mining tools. "What's the flamethrower of the future? It's a flamethrower, strangely."
Beaver also gave his take on the seeming lack of advancement on the very game series that inspired the team.
"If you look at [the reception of] Resident Evil 5, you'll see that they're getting a lot of guff for their control scheme," he said, citing the now accepted mechanics established or refined by games like Call of Duty and Gears of War as sources of potential innovation. "It feels like they might have been able to move forward on that and gotten less criticism for it."