The Callisto Protocol: Returning to the Dead of Space

Glen Schofield, the creator of one sci-fi horror franchise, is about to unleash a second – with the added frisson of being stalked by the first. Richie Shoemaker gets a few questions in before the inevitable bloody showdown.

With Resident Evil enjoying a new golden age and the planned return of a number of much-loved franchises, it’s a fantastic time to be a fan of horror games. This is especially true if sci-fi jumpscares are more your thing (full disclosure: they very much are). Not only is a remake of Dead Space set for release early next year (ten years after the last game in the series disappointed), it will be preceded at the end of this one by The Callisto Protocol, a spiritual successor to the dismemberment classic, headed up by none other than Mr. Dead Space himself, Glen Schofield. Leaving Visceral before the Dead Space sequels appeared (though he would have overseen the excellent Dead Space: Extraction, a rail shooter for the Nintendo Wii), Schofield went on to found Sledgehammer Games, famous now of course for being part of the triad responsible for the Call of Duty series, but which was initially set up in the hope of creating a third-person action spin-off to the franchise.

After co-directing three Call of Duty titles, Schofield left to join PUBG Studios and helm Striking Distance, pitching The Callisto Protocol initially as a means to expand the Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds universe, only for the game to take on a life and establish a universe of its own. We caught up with the Striking Distance CEO to see how that life has evolved, and to ask how it feels to be going up against another series that he helped create.

Two years ago we were told that The Callisto Protocol was perhaps going to be the scariest game on PS5/Xbox. Given how the Resident Evil games have asserted themselves since, how confident are you of out-scaring them?

No one sets out to make the fourth or fifth scariest game of all time … you always want to deliver your best. That’s really what we’re going for – we’re trying to make the best game we possibly can, sweating all the small details, and delivering something that we hope the fans will love. I’m a huge fan of Resident Evil and Silent Hill, so I’m super excited to see their new projects as well. It’s an awesome time to be a horror fan.

You’ve been very restrained in how much of the game has been revealed prior to release, which can perhaps be risky for a new IP? Was the “less is more” approach the right one?

It’s funny, I always think that we’re showing too much! Since we’re a single-player story-driven horror game, I don’t want to spoil the experience for players. The surprise is a huge part of the fun. We just got back from a press tour where we let people play almost two hours of the game, and it was awesome to see the feedback. We’re very grateful for all the interest and enthusiasm we’ve seen from fans and the industry as well.

When you sat down to create The Callisto Protocol you were obviously aware of what it would be judged against, but perhaps not that it would have a more direct competitor. How did you react when you heard about the Dead Space remake and has it had a positive or negative effect on your plans?

Well, first off, I wish that team the best. We’re all fellow devs and I wish other developers nothing but success. I’m excited to see what they do with the game, and I’ll definitely be playing it. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say it’s a little weird to have someone else remaking my game without me. In terms of development, I never really think about the competition. I’ve never worked on a game that didn’t have a big competitor. Every CoD I worked on had to square off against Battlefield. Dead Space launched a month before Left 4 Dead … and both were from EA! I just keep my head down and make the best game I can, and the rest tends to take care of itself. In terms of publishing, horror games are definitely having a moment right now, which I think is amazing. As a fan of the genre, I can’t wait to get my hands on all these titles.

With so many other horror franchises resurgent, how will TCP stand apart?

I think two things that really set The Callisto Protocol apart are the combat and the story. For the combat we’ve really evolved what players have seen in other survival horror games to create something that’s deep, strategic, in your face, and very personal. We’ve put a huge emphasis on melee combat to players up very close to the monsters which adds a lot of tension, and we’ve added a gravity weapon called the GRP that lets players interact with enemies and objects in all new ways and really makes the action feel a bit like a sandbox. We try and make each encounter feel like a little puzzle. We’ve also put a lot of work into the story, and have some really awesome performances from Josh Duhamel and Karen Fukahara. There’s more than an hour of cut scenes in the game and I think the story has a cool twist that I hope players enjoy. You just don’t see that many great sci-fi horror stories, and I hope fans think this is one of them!

How would the game’s protagonist Jacob Lee get on with Dead Space’s Isaac Clarke if they met socially?

I have to think Jacob would kick his ass, right? But seriously, I think they’d totally get together for a beer or something. They’re both just regular guys in terrible situations. They’re not soldiers or anything. Isaac didn’t talk though, so it’d really be up to Jacob to keep the conversation going.

A couple eagle-eyed journalists did pick up on the relationship between the names Jacob and Isaac though. How difficult has it been to straddle the line between being too much or not enough like the game’s spiritual predecessor?

At first I didn’t want to do anything I did in Dead Space, but then realised things like the immersive diegetic UI, audio, the art, the brutality … These are all just my style. Both games just have my creative DNA and there’s only so much I can do about that. That said, this is a new game, with new mechanics, in a new world, with a new story, with new characters, from a new team, so it really is its own thing.

Revealing the game to be part of the PUBG universe was something that raised eyebrows, but seemed more beneficial for headline writers than to either game. When and why did you decide to roll that back?

At first, the connection to the PUBG universe was really helpful when we started building out the world. But the more we worked on it, the more The Callisto Protocol just grew into its own thing. It’s just the way the creative went, and CH Kim, the CEO of Krafton, was incredibly supportive of us just doing whatever we felt was best in terms of the creative. We still have lots of little easter eggs in there for PUBG fans.

Every game has development challenges that couldn’t be predicted. What have been TCP’s?

How about COVID for starters? We had literally just built out our brand-new state-of-the-art studio at the end of February 2020. Twelve days later the world went into lock down. We hadn’t even set up everyone’s computers yet.

Making a video game over Zoom was way harder than we thought. There’s the technical challenge of having to pivot and create 150 remote mini studios, but the creative process was an even bigger challenge. At least for me, creativity has always been about face to face interaction with people. There’s nothing like being in a room with other people kicking around ideas. Combine that with the fact that we’re working on a new engine and making games for new platforms, it’s probably easier to count all the things that went to plan rather than the things that didn’t.

What’s been the biggest highlight of making the game, aside from the fact that it will soon be in people’s hands?

I just love survival horror. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been obsessed with sci-fi, and have developed such an appreciation for horror as an adult. Getting to make a game like this is just so incredibly rewarding that it almost doesn’t feel like a job at times. It’s hard work, don’t get me wrong, but I just love getting to think so deeply about creating a scare. It really is something that comes from the gut. On the team we think of it like “horror engineering” – crafting every detail that goes into a scare by hand.

I’ve been incredibly lucky in my career to be able to create my own studios and start a few of my own IPs. It’s amazing and refreshing to have the chance to work on bringing your own vision to life. I really am grateful to Krafton for the support and the faith in me and the team to make The Callisto Protocol a reality.

There’s talk of a four-year post-launch plan to support the game, which suggests more than a clutch of half-baked DLC releases taken from the cutting room floor. Can you elaborate?

That was a reporter misunderstanding of our CTO Mark James’ English accent at Gamescom. He said a “full year” not “four year.” We do have some pretty cool DLC in the pipes though, from new story content, to new modes, and more.

How is the studio changing to support the game’s post-release phase?

We’re not really changing anything to support post release. We’re just putting the finishing touches on the game now, have some people working on DLC, and some people thinking about our next project.

Dead Space is a great name, but it’s not considered a great trilogy. Are you mindful of that as you consider where to take the franchise next?

I really just try to take it one game at a time. I have a ton of ideas for what’s next, but we really try and keep our eye on the ball to deliver a great game every time. Gamers have long memories, so we’re very focused on quality and earning trust every time we release something new.

Despite successes with other games, Krafton is still known predominantly for one title, PUBG. How important is it that The Callisto Protocol helps change that perception?

One of the reasons Krafton was excited to work with us was to take a more global approach to gaming. We’re learning a lot from them about live services, and they’re learning from us about western console games. It’s a great partnership, and I’m very excited about our future together.

About Richie Shoemaker

Prior to taking the editorial helm of MCV/DEVELOP Richie spent 20 years shovelling word-coal into the engines of numerous gaming magazines and websites, many of which are now lost beneath the churning waves of progress. If not already obvious, he is partial to the odd nautical metaphor.

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