From the Archives - Interview with Jon Airhart on Dead Rising 3
From The Archives posts are posts which I’ve carried over from my old blogs and sites I wrote for that are now offline so that I can keep a record of some of my better and more important work that would otherwise be lost. They come from the entire length of my time in games writing, so you’ll probably notice a big jump in quality between the really old stuff and the more recent content.
This was an interview I did with Jon Airhart at an Xbox One preview event for Hittin' Crits sometime in 2013. I was really happy with this interview because it wasn't planned and I was able to get a lot of information on the controversial direction the game had taken without being antagonistic. He and I got talking while I was playing the game and then I just went out on a limb and asked him if he'd be up for an interview. He was keen so we found a quiet spot and I came up with some questions pretty much off-the-cuff, which I was extremely proud of myself for. At the end he gave me his business card which had some awesome Mega Man art on it and it kinda sunk in then that I'd just interviewed a Capcom producer all of my own volition.
So for everyone at home, are you able to introduce yourself and what you do at Capcom?
Sure! My name's Jon Airhart and I'm a producer at Capcom Vancouver, working hard on Dead Rising 3
So Dead Rising 3 is the third- actually it's the fourth installment in the Dead Rising series now if you include Off The Record, right?
Yep, if you include Off The Record it's the fourth game
Being a sequel, what elements did you find core to the series that you wanted to bring back for Dead Rising 3?
I think the most important thing for Dead Rising is that absolutely anything and everything can be used as a weapon, you know, that has been a core tenant of the series ever since the very beginning- just kind of a huuuge space full of zombies, and you basically grabbing anything and everything you can put your hands on and try to survive. This has continued to be a big part of the series, and I think will continue to, moving forward. Another thing is volume and density of gameplay. You know, a lot of open world games are really, really fun with huge worlds but a lot of the time those worlds end up feeling a little bit empty. Dead Rising  feels full- full of zombies, full of stuff, full of weapons, full of things to discover. You can go into stores, explore all the back alleys, go behind the counter, find new stuff, discover new stuff and explore. Those are the two pillars, but the third one I would probably say is playing your own way, and kind of finding a customised experience whether that's through clothing, like going through the mall as Frank West and you put on a dress, and in Dead Rising 2 with all the combo weapons and putting them all together and finding your favourite ones, and you know, all that stuff comes together in Dead Rising 3 and I think those are the three things that really define the series.
You were talking about the open worlds of other games, they're always plugged as being living, real worlds, like with Grand Theft Auto it was "Oh yeah, there's all these NPCs living out their lives in a huge world", how do you achieve something like this in a world where almost everyone is a zombie?
Right, right. Well, you know, I love, LOVE Grand Theft Auto and I'm actually really excited to play GTA V, but I haven't got my hands on it yet, and I don't mean to say they [the worlds] feel totally empty. They certainly have their own character, but what we do is basically have this huge space and completely fill it with zombies, and you just get a different experience where you feel totally overwhelmed by enemies. I mean, there's thousands and thousands of zombies on-screen at once. We've got roughly three times the amount of zombies on-screen compared to Dead Rising 2, which had a little over 6,000 zombies, and one of the things that was always a tough question with Dead Rising 2 and onwards was how to make that number of zombies meaningful, right, and just that density of gameplay and kind of just putting as much as you can into that world, and giving you combo weapons and combo vehicles that allow you to destroy large volumes of zombies at once. And that's the way we've not only been able to build a world with content, but also make it meaningful for gameplay, if that makes sense.
Yeah. So you were saying how you want to make the player feel vulnerable, how do you do that at the same time as making lots of fun ways to kill zombies, like how do you find that balance between using crazy, over the top weapons while having the player still feel vulnerable?
At the beginning of the game you're not able to create tonnes and tonnes of combo weapons- you need to find the blueprints, which are kind of the keys to unlocking all of this stuff, so at the beginning of the game your character, Nick, he's not super confident and that's reflected in the gameplay as well. He starts off a little unsure of himself, definitely, but he's got to find his sea legs so to speak, and so you're not going to be able to create all this crazy stuff we've been showing to you today right off the bat. But as you find the blueprints, as you level up- the level up system is much different to previous games, you can choose your own path and it's a bit RPG-like- and you can find books which can increase the skills you like to use so you can get more and more confident as you play through the game. And that's where the zombie intensity ramps up as well, and you just have to try and keep that balance, you know, of zombie density and intensity ramping up alongside your own skill level so you can keep it fun throughout the game and you know I think we've been really successful in that.
As well as the main protagonist Nick, you've also introduced the co-op character, Dick. How does he fit into the story, and how does the story sort of change to incorporate another character.
So that's one other thing that we really wanted to improve over Dead Rising 2, where the second character was just a clone.
Yeah, it was just a second Chuck, wasn't it? *laughs*
*laughs* Right. So we really wanted to focus on another character who appears in the cinematics and has a personality of his own. It's a bit of the story that just makes a bit of sense for him to be with Nick while in co-op. So Dick's backstory is he's a trucker, he was passing through Los Peridos, and he's just the wrong guy caught at the wrong time. He sees Nick and he just sees something in him and thinks "Hey, this guy is actually capable" and he's thinking Nick is his best chance of getting out of the zombie outbreak. And also it's kinda like this little thing where you've got Frank, Chuck, Nick, Dick- they all end in 'k' and it's kind of this little joke
*laughs* So that was actually intentional!
Oh yeah, we were all "Well, we've been doing it this long, might as well keep on doing it". But yeah, we really wanted to focus on making sure that co-op character really has a bit of meaning and added to the experience and made sense, didn't throw you out of the experience.
So obviously one of the game's big selling points is that it's next-gen, new hardware. What has next-gen allowed you to do that you couldn't do on current gen?
Right. Biggest thing we've been able to do with Dead Rising  on the Xbox One is, for the first time, create a full open world experience. You know, previous Dead Rising games were super fun, but had a lot of loading screens. You'd walk to a different area in Dead Rising 2, and you'd hit a loading screen which really broke the gameplay up. We wanted to keep that high density of zombies and that crazy amount of stuff and the world, and we also wanted to make it fully streaming, fully open, we just wouldn't have been able to do that on Xbox 360. So we've been able to make a fully streaming, fully open world, where you'll be able to go from one end of the world to the other with no loads and not sacrifice the amount of zombies- in fact there's MORE zombies- and not sacrifice the density of gameplay. There's more items, more weapons than ever and it's been amazing to work with the Xbox One, it's just completely changed the series.
And there's also the SmartGlass functionality. Did you decide on the Xbox One because of the SmartGlass, or did you decide on the Xbox One and then think "Hey, there's this cool functionality, let's incorporate it into the game"?
So at the beginning of the project- this series has always had a lot of history with Microsoft. The original Dead Rising was exclusive to Xbox 360, Dead Rising 2 had Case West and Case Zero exclusively for Xbox 360, and Microsoft has always had a soft spot for the series and they were interested in working with it again and once we started those conversations about their plans for the platform, and SmartGlass and Kinect, and things like that, and we heard about this and thought "Wow, this second screen experience, and the way it's been implemented, opens up a lot of possibilities". So we were thinking "Alright, what would a hardcore gamer, someone who plays our games, or appreciates Dead Rising, get out of this?" and we thought it's gotta be something that makes sense within the world and add to the story. So a lot of folks at our E3 reveal were like "Er... why can this mechanic call in an air strike and drop bombs out of the sky?" What actually happens is, he finds a military PDA on a dead ZDC agent (that's like the zombie control body in our fiction) and basically that PDA becomes your device- so it's your iPhone, Android device, Windows phone, works on anything. So it basically skins your device to look like this PDA, and we thought this was cool, you basically get access to everything this ZDC agent did, and other apps and things. Like, in so many games the main character has a cell phone or a device, and this just puts it right into your hands, so it's about bringing the player closer to the experience and it just works so well and so after we started working on the project and learning about the platform and plans that Microsoft had, it just made us really, really excited.
So the game has two modes, there's the free mode that lets players free roam as much as they want, and then there's the Nightmare Mode that restricts you to a time limit like the previous games- how do you design the mission structure of the game to work with both of these modes?
So in Normal Mode and Nightmare Mode it's the same story and the same set of missions, the difference is that Nightmare Mode reintroduces that crazy, strict time limit, and also a level above in terms of zombie difficulty. So zombies are tougher and more aggressive in Nightmare Mode, and so the way we were able to balance that sort of experience is sort of going back to just the volume of the content. We found that when we were playing through the story mode, and playing through the missions with the timeline and time limits in place it's still super fun, it's still super challenging, however you just don't have time to stop and smell the roses so to speak. You don't get to experiment with lots of combo weapons and have fun in the sandbox, and not just use them to beeline to the next mission. We wanted people to have this experience if they wanted to, and so we were pretty lucky since we didn't have to change the mission structure. Basically just by having, or not having, that time limit, it managed to have the same mission structure with two different feels. So if you want the enemy to be the clock, you can choose Nightmare Mode, and you can do that from right from the beginning if you're a real masochist, or if you want to be more the zombies, and you just want to experience the story a little more naturalistically, finding all that the game has to offer, then you can choose the normal story mode, and it really works both ways, so we were really lucky and glad it worked out that way.
Right, so it's not so much a case of designing the game around the free, open mode and trying to cram it to fit in the time limit?
No, no, the time limit was something we had in the plans from the very beginning and we just realised once we really opened it up it was massive. We had combo weapons, super combo weapons, combo vehicles, challenges, survivors, side missions, psycho missions- all this stuff, and you just couldn't really 'get' with all of it and it felt like trying to have fun on a schedule, you know? There's definitely tonnes of fans of the series who want this experience, so we're like "Well, what can we do?" so we've relaxed that a bit, made it a little more fun, and it's worked out really well.
On the topic of the psychos, I'm sure you're not allowed to talk a lot about them at the moment-
I can a little bit *laughs*
but from what I've heard they seem a little more serious than previous games. Like, they're named after the seven deadly sins which seems a little gritty and edgy, and then there's the more toned down, darker colour scheme, but then there's also all the funny weapons and all that. So is it a funny game that people are just misinterpreting a bit, or is there a big mix of the grit in amongst the humour?
Well, I know there's been a lot of talk about this, right, especially around E3 and everything. The difference I would say, if there is a difference, between the older Dead Rising games and this Dead Rising game is that the older games were kind of funny by default. You were kind of hitting the craziness with the bright colours and the wildness right off the bat, whereas with Dead Rising 3 we wanted to put the control of that in your hands, so it kind of starts off as a serious experience, a serious game, a serious situation, but then if you like you can go out and engage with all this crazy, wild content- yuk it up, photobomb the game, basically, and chuck that humour on top of it. As far as the psychos go, them being kind of based on the seven deadly sins, that was kind of a loose framework that we had for the game. It's not like they're connected to each other, or that there's a big overarching thing that's tying them together, but we just kind of thought about that, and it was a really interesting framework, making sure that each of these psychos has a theme. I think one of the ones we've shown pictures of is Greed, he's a doctor who's gone a little bit crazy, and you'll be hearing more about those guys and his story soon, but the psychos for the most part aren't the main, critical path of the missions, they're things that are out there that you can, again, choose to experience, and they are definitely more on the crazy side. In addition to the psychos we have the main story bosses, and those are more just like boss battles that you see in an action game, and those are less goofy, less crazy, and more serious. You need to get through them to get through the game, so again, serious by default, and you can just layer on as much of the goofiness, and experience as much as you want.
Cool, so I think that's all we needed to know, so thanks for the interview!
Not at all! Hey, did I give you one of my cards?
I don't think so
Cool, I'll give you one of my cards, let's do this thing!