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Thursday, February 6, 2014

Dead Space Mobile: Lessons in Porting/Designing for Mobile Devices

I am currently on my second playthrough of Dead Space Mobile on my Motorola Photon Q.  (My wife and I treated ourselves to fancy new smartphones for Christmas.  I have to say, smartphones are amazing.)  The first two Dead Space games on PS3 were two of the best survival horror games I have ever played. Dead Space 3 was awful, and I will eventually write a post on why it was so bad, but for now, suffice to say that it's not even worth playing.

Dead Space Mobile does an exceptionally good job of translating the mechanics and feeling of the Dead Space franchise to a mobile platform.


Dead Space Mobile takes a break from Isaac Clark's story to give us a peek at another corner of the Dead Space universe.  You play as Vandal, a recent convert to Unitology tasked with sabotaging mining operation on Titan Station.  Within the first few minutes of the game, though, your efforts prove to be part of a Unitology plot to release Necromorphs on the station.  Unitologists, as has been established in other Dead Space works, are a crazy cult that believes that humanity must ascend to a higher form by dying and being reshaped into horrible clawed space zombies.  These Necromorphs don't die easy; rather than taking off their heads, as in most zombie lore, you must surgically severe their limbs.  Otherwise, they'll just keep coming at you.

Space zombies just want hugs.

Left for dead on the station, it is up to you to repair the damage and prevent a catastrophe from destroying the station and all survivors of the Necromorph attacks.  You proceed through a series of levels, often with a short tram ride in between, dismembering monsters, acquiring new weapons, and repairing vital systems on your way to a massive and intense boss fight in the final chapter.  Oh, and Vandal is gradually going insane the whole time, so there's that.

This isn't the final boss, but it is a big jerk that soaks up tons of your precious ammo.

The plot doesn't offer many twists or surprises, but the setting and characters are interesting, and the tension builds well to a satisfying climax.  I also enjoyed the nod to Metroid at the end of the game.  There are some great jump-scares, too.  The designers definitely know how to build suspense and terror, which is just what you want from a Dead Space game.


Smartphone games are a challenge to design.  The screen is small, and the user input is limited to the touchscreen interface and the phone's tilt controls.  I was subsequently nervous about how Visceral Games was going to map Playstation controls onto a phone.  It turns out that it works surprisingly well.

Left thumb to move, right thumb to look around, just like a Playstation controller.

As in the console Dead Space games, Dead Space Mobile gives the player an over-the-shoulder view of our armored protagonist.  Vandal is on the left side of the screen.  Placing your left thumb on Vandal allows you to move forward, backward, or side-to-side.  Placing your right thumb on the right side of the screen allows you to change the camera angle, turn to the right or left, and aim your weapons.  Movement and aiming are very smooth on my phone, as long as I keep the screen clean.  I did have to occasionally wipe the screen to allow for uninhibited aiming, particularly during really tense fights, when my hands would get a little sweaty.

Ready to kill

Tapping the right side of the screen once will ready your weapon.  Tapping again will fire the weapon.  As in the other Dead Space games, all weapons in Dead Space Mobile have two firing modes.  The basic Plasma Cutter, for example, can fire either horizontally or vertically, allowing for precise severing of Necromorph limbs.  The Line Gun either fires a broad and powerful horizontal shot, or dispatches a timed mine.  To switch between firing modes, just tilt the phone to one side briefly.  To reload, tap the ammo readout about the weapon.

If any enemy is standing close to Vandal, you can slash it with a new weapon, the Plasma Saw, which requires no ammo.  An arrow pointing upwards will appear on the left side of the screen whenever Vandal can use this attack.  Simple swipe your left thumb upwards along the arrow to perform the attack

Similarly, when standing over enemies or breakable boxes, an arrow pointing downwards will appear on the left side of the screen to indicate that Vandal can stomp on them.

As in the console games, you gain the ability to temporarily freeze enemies or objects with Stasis.  To do so, aim your weapon at the target and press the Stasis button on Vandal's back.

Vandal can also move heavy objects from a distance using Kinesis.  If an item can be manipulated with Kinesis, an icon will appear above it.  Simply tap the icon, and Vandal will grab it with Kinesis.  Tap the screen again to throw the item.

There are doors, lockers, and boxes that Vandal can open.  An icon appears on such objects; just tap the icon to open it.  The same icon will also indicate when you can interact with the store (where you can buy and sell useful items) or with a bench (where you can use Power Nodes to upgrade your weapons, armor, and Stasis module).

Useful items such as ammo and Power Nodes can be found throughout the game.  Simply approach them.  When you are standing close to them, an image of the item will float above the item itself.  Tap the image to collect the item.

There are a few zero-gravity areas in the game.  These are treated the same way as they are handled in the first Dead Space game; you are magnetically rooted to the floor, but can jump across the room to new locations.  To do so in Dead Space Mobile, aim at the location to which you would like to jump and shake the phone up and down.  Once usually does it.


The game manages to translate the movement, the frantic surgical shooting, and the desperate search for ammo found in the console games.  It even has the spectacular "Stasis-punch" combo, wherein you use Stasis to freeze an enemy, then run up to it and use your Plasma saw to shred it without using up your ammunition.  The game's action is tense as you scramble to get some distance between yourself and the Necromorphs so you can shoot off their limbs.  It is not uncommon to have to run around a room looking for ammo and hoping to heal while several enemies try to trap you in a corner and eat your face.  Despite a linear plot and some rather uninspired level design, the game manages to be exciting, engaging, and fun.

However, there are some interesting differences between the mobile and the console games.  In the console Dead Space games, the player must manage an inventory of items, occasionally dropping useful items to make room for necessary ones.  In the mobile game, there is no inventory; Vandal can carry a virtually unlimited amount of ammo.  This design choice was made to save on screen real estate.  An inventory button did not need to be mapped to the touch screen.

One of the reasons that the inventory was unnecessary was that Dead Space Mobile does away with health packs.  Instead of needing to collect items to heal damage, Vandal heals gradually over time.  This, again, was a deliberate design choice that was made to accommodate the restrictions of the mobile platform.  Changing the heal mechanic for the mobile game allowed the designers to remove the need for the player to have a button or series of button presses in order to heal.  I applaud this innovation, although this did allow me to occasionally "game the system" by completely ignoring slobbering monsters and just running around healing until I was ready to fight them.

None of this.

Dead Space Mobile acknowledges that it is likely to be played in shorter chunks than the console games by discarding the save point system.  Instead, it uses a series of checkpoints to save the game.  Whenever you accomplish something--move to a new location, complete a battle, gain a new weapon, even use a bench or the store--a save icon will briefly appear in the lower right corner of the screen.  Once it disappears, your game is safe, and you can close out the game without fear of losing your progress.  The checkpoints are spaced close enough to each other that gamers on the go can feel free to play for just a few minutes and still progress through the game.

The game includes several instances of zero-gravity, and a few areas without atmosphere, wherein you must rely on your O2 tank and maybe a refill station to get through.  However, those sections were few and far between, and did nothing to really play with the zero-G or oxygen mechanics.  They were just very basic "now you have to make a few space jumps to get to the next door" or "now you have to pay attention to your oxygen level on the way to the next door" type of levels.


I think that, in general, the level design of the game was rather lackluster.  There were few puzzles, none of which were tremendously brain-burning, and the levels were usually quite linear.  Stasis and Kinesis, two mechanics that are crucial for solving puzzles in the console games, are hardly ever used to progress through the levels, beyond freezing some malfunctioning doors or clearing away some large boxes to get through a corridor.  That's not to say the levels are uninteresting, merely unimaginative.

Astute readers may have noticed that many of the preceding paragraphs sound a little disparaging.  My apologies for this.  I don't want people to think that the game is BAD.  It's good.  Solid.  It just doesn't innovate upon the Dead Space formula.  It cuts out some of the console mechanics and doesn't add anything groundbreaking.  That being said, it's a fine Dead Space game which I thoroughly enjoyed.


So what can we learn from this console-to-mobile port?

1. Distill

Console games have several advantages over mobile games.  They have controllers with, just, a TON of buttons and thumbsticks.  They're played on nice big screen televisions, which are occasionally HD, I hear.  (Sigh.)  They have some absolutely KICK ASS games.  But for all their good points, they're also tied to the living room.  (Bedroom.  Basement.  Wherever you keep your game systems; I'm not here to judge.)

Gotta work with the space you have.  I get it.

If you want games on the go, you have to make some sacrifices.  That means trimming the fat.  Boil down the essence of your IP.  What is it that players most enjoy about your games?  Translate THOSE experiences and THOSE mechanics to the phone.  Leave out or simplify everything else.  This was something that Dead Space Mobile did well.

2. Utilize Your Mechanics

If it's in the game, make sure you put it to good use.  Say you have a sweet cover system for your shooter.  Make sure you place a good amount of cover in each area for the player to use!  Even better, give the player interesting ways to interact with cover throughout the game; break up the rhythm that the player will inevitably develop of ducking, popping up, shooting, and going back into cover.  Maybe some pieces of cover disintegrate quickly under fire, or certain types of enemies can shoot through certain types of cover, or certain enemies will rush at your cover, leap over it, and hack at you with machetes.  You know, mix things up.  Play with your game mechanics.

Nintendo games, for example, tend to play the HELL out of very basic yet fun mechanics, such as running and jumping in Mario games.

Dead Space Mobile doesn't do this QUITE as well.  Stasis is great for combat, so I don't fault them for not using it in very many puzzles.  On the other hand, the designers could have found more interesting things to do with Kinesis.  There are a couple of puzzles were you have to use Kinesis to carry powered batteries to open doors, and they managed to make some of those puzzles interesting--forcing you to juggle carrying something with fighting monsters, for example, or having to toss it through a set of malfunctioning doors that are slamming open and closed.  Still, the mechanic seems underused compared to the work the designers got out of it in the console games.

Much more egregious in my mind, though, was the game's use of zero-G.  Their uses are so bland and unimaginative it actually made me sad when I reached the final boss.  "Is that really all the zero-G jumping I get to do?" I though.  I love the zero-G areas in Dead Space.  They're so much fun!  I didn't get nearly enough of them in Dead Space Mobile.

As for O2, there is exactly one fight in an area without atmosphere.  And I'll admit, it was intense, balancing the need to move to a better position and shoot Necromorphs with the need to reach an O2 station to stave off asphyxiation.  But that was a single battle in what I would guess was a seven-hour game.  It was under-utilized, and that is highly unfortunate.  It's a good mechanic that can add a time element to any battle or puzzle that would normally be straightforward.  That's a great way to add tension.  It should have been used more.

3. Design for Mobile Gaming

I don't JUST mean that you have to design controls that work on a phone, although that certainly important.  You also have to design your game with mobile gaming habits in mind.  Most mobile gaming is done in short chunks of time.  Make sure your players can make progress and have fun every couple of minutes.  Keep your cutscenes short and sweet.  Make it very easy to save the game and quit.  Dead Space does this quite well.  It also had some surprisingly good controls for a phone game, which I applaud.


If you're a fan of the Dead Space franchise, you'll almost certainly appreciate this game.  If you like survival horror games, you'll probably like this game.  If you want a good sci fi shooter on your phone, give this a shot.

Dead Space Mobile is available for iOS for $6.99 and Android for the same price.

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