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A Distinct Vision: Nick Earl And Visceral Games

February 22, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

There was a time at which EA Redwood Shores was an anonymous game factory south of San Francisco -- a place with no identity that created games to fit solely into the company's marketing plan. Nick Earl, the general manager of Visceral Games, as the development-centric part of that studio is now known, would argue that those days are over.

To listen to Earl, the studio -- creator of the Dead Space series and now Dante's Inferno -- has an identity, a core competency, and a creative mission. Says Earl, Visceral is "completely focused on quality action games that are at the edgy end of the spectrum." The studio knows what it does now, and just as importantly, knows what it doesn't do, and that's both in terms of creative direction and processes, says Earl.

Has EA truly managed to turn the factory that created the Godfather games into a creative powerhouse in the gaming industry? Will Dante's Inferno end up being a meaningful success or a throwback to the studio's history of creating competent but forgettable games?

To find out, Gamasutra spoke to Earl at length.

When you talk about being a studio that works in the edgy realm, is that the starting point for your concepts? What is, basically, your mission?

Nick Earl: Yeah. Great question. The mission for this studio is nothing less than to be the leader of third-person linear action games.

We think we can do that by really focusing down on one end of the spectrum, because the action category is just so enormous. We don't want to be all things to all people. We certainly don't want to cover every part of the action category.

So, we come through a lot of different games over the years, from James Bond to Lord of the Rings to Simpsons to Godfather to Tiger Woods -- which we did here for seven years -- Knockout Kings. There's really a range of products.

But in all those years, we've kind of culled it down to the type of product that the studio really wants to build, and that is this kind of Mature-rated or edgy third-person linear action game. You know, we had such a big hit, and it was so critically well received, with Dead Space, and that was right when we changed our name to Visceral.

We feel like we were able to capture lightning in a bottle, which sort of rarely happens. This team feels -- the team here in the studio -- just feels a mission to establish this studio as one of the studios that really stands out and makes a difference and is sort of held as one of the top five or ten across the entire landscape.

And it really is sort of a departure from the past. It's part of the reconfiguration of EA, putting a stake in the ground and saying, "This is what we're about" and excluding what you're not about. Not being asked to do things that fall outside of that remit. Do you think that's fair?

NE: Absolutely. That's exactly right. What I love about the environment with John Riccitiello back as CEO and Frank Gibeau as president is they're really supportive of the executive team here at Visceral to take it in that direction. To your point, they would never ask us to go and do a sports game or ask us to do a game that didn't fit in culturally, because the team here at the studio feels really passionate about being experts.

And that's only for one reason. That is because we want to create the highest quality of games that have the most meaning and impact for the gamer, the customer. It's just too hard to have all sorts of types of expertise at the studio. We're creating one, and that's all we want to do, and we want to be in the best in the industry.

You just said the phrase "meaning for the customer." How would you define that meaning in the context of your games, and how you create that meaning?

NE: Well, we create it through being very attentive to what they like and don't like, so we do extensive testing. We've got a whole lab that we've set up here in Redwood Shores that we have direct contact with gamers, with our end-customer. We're trying to deliver products that are just really interesting to them, that are innovative, that play off concepts that are new and original.

We take a lot of guidance from products that have done well there. There are some things that we'll look at and use in our games from competitors, but we try to pepper in as much innovation as much as possible, and we try to do it as the complete package of being very, very high on the quality mark. And we believe that that ultimately is the way you can get the most copies out into the world and really make a difference.

People in the teams here get most energized and excited about getting feedback directly from customers, whether it's on the boards or being at a dinner party and having someone say, "Hey, did you work on that game? I loved it." That has tremendous impact, and just tremendous reward for the people that spend hours and hours slaving over a game that can go on for two or three years.

You mentioned striking a balance on how much you draw on other games as an inspiration for your creative process. Can you talk a little bit about how you strike that balance?

NE: Yeah, I think it's like as in any medium, you have to be a student of your endeavor; of what you make. And that means we play a lot of games here. We have a really high respect for the the top ten games in all the categories, especially the action category. We really try to understand what works and what doesn't work.

That said, those are springboards into creating our own take inside of the category, and a lot of that is innovating, sort of testing, fixing, and going through the process, and just doing that over and over again. We really learned that, I think in the last three years in particular, and that's why we've yielded results with Dead Space and what we believe, with Dante's Inferno.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Wolf Wozniak
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"A Distinct Vision" to make a game worthy of pity.

Wolf Wozniak
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Alright, alright, I'll be honest.

I liked the menu in the demo, it really set a tone for a great adventure, and Dante's story.

However, when I was dropped into the game, I could double jump.

Now, I don't mind that, as long as it's explained.

After I got death's scythe, I could understand that.

But not as a regular man.

I also felt like the first "room" was just that. A "room" where mindless enemies stream out of the buildings in Jerusalem. And then a crappy looking ship crashed into the perfectly square room for no reason.

Another failure of consistency was the part after Dante gets home to see it in ruins, and finds Beatrice dead in the garden/cemetary. That was a really effective -cut scene-. I was ready to chase after her into the woods.

When I was dropped back in, I was in the cemetary like before, but now the Devil May Cry walls of "kill all these baddies" were up, ruining the immediacy and just suspending my disbelief.

Sorry, from what I've seen it's a God of War clone with poor team cohesion.

It does make be sad to say that.

The menu, like I said, gave a really different vibe than the actual game. (I guess I was hoping for something dark and scary, like Demon's Souls.)

Stephen Pick
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Did you read the article? This isn't the place for your armchair critique of the Dante's Inferno demo or its main menu.

As for Visceral's approach, while I agree that any developer should be looking at what's going on in their medium, the phrase "We have a really high respect for the the top ten games in all the categories, especially the action category" gives me pause for thought. Top ten by critical reception or sales performance? And shouldn't an innovative studio be looking beyond the top ten for inspiration?

I would also have liked him to indicate what "strong innovation" Dante's Inferno brings to the table. The only concrete thing he could say about Dante's was that it runs at 60hz. Running at 60fps doesn't mean a game can beat competition. Big Rigs runs at well over 100fps.

What I would like to see is more genuine innovation from Visceral. Dead Space was truly innovative with it's UI and dismemberment, and while these are pretty "safe" chances to take, it is still progress. I struggle to see many parallels between that and their latest title.

Christian Nutt
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@Stephen, Yeah, If I have one regret about the interview it's not pressing on what innovations he sees Dante's Inferno as pushing, since based on my playtime with the game (about an hour, so hardly the whole thing) they weren't apparent.

The 60 FPS thing is really relevant, though, in this genre, so I understand why he's proud of it. Particularly as it's hard to push through production and get buy-in on, in my understanding.

And I have the same exact reactions to the "top ten" comment. For some reason it didn't stick out at me when he said it, but when I was editing the piece...

Ted Brown
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I've worked on several console games that started out as "60 FPS OR DIE", but dialed back to 30 when it was clear 60 wasn't going to happen with the design and/or art plan intact. So I have to vouch for the accomplishment of an HD title shipping at 60 FPS. I'd make an educated guess that many design and artistic decisions had to be ... er... sacrificed at the altar of framerate. (speaking of Dante) But with that knowledge intact, they're able to build on it, and possibly extend the engine to bring back some of the design and art that got chopped.

Wolf Wozniak
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Well, I was referring to the "Distinct Vision" that the game clearly lacks.

It's all over the place, you can see the failure for the separate teams to communicate.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Brian Yu
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After finishing Dante, this game really doesnt bring anything new to the table. It doesnt surpass GoW1 in anyway or bring new things to the table like Bayonetta. It is like the designers on the team are so fixated on replicate everything in old GoWs. Furthermore, this game features one of the most annoying and cheap final boss I have played in the last couple year.

Aaron Green
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It appears that the "top ten" comment is merely a benchmark of excellence. It's fair enough to shoot at something like this from the hip, but after reading Gamasutra article "Better to be Sexy than Worthy" by Tadhg Kelly (11/27/09), I can't help but feel that Dante's Inferno, along with Earl's vision, is the kind of 'worthy' thinking that suggests they're not on an innovative wave length.

I totally get what he's saying about "edgy end of the spectrum" though, because looking at the concept videos early on I was disturbed to see how far a developer would go to establish the extremity of a concept. Clearly, they are exploring the idea of Hell, which has every reason to be the 'edgiest' place for innovation, and the imagery depicts that they've done that well. Game play is a lot more than visual impact though and the visceral side of innovation is when the player starts cold-sweating to a raised heart rate from being suspended in constant anticipation. If players are picking out fourth-wall discrepancies, such as 60FPS and double-jumping, then I'd say the play testers are all too happy to be on the tester credits when an honest rant about GoW fever has gone wanting.

Wolf Wozniak
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"If players are picking out fourth-wall discrepancies, such as 60FPS and double-jumping, then I'd say the play testers are all too happy to be on the tester credits when an honest rant about GoW fever has gone wanting."


And I was honestly REALLY trying to get into it.

The whole concept is cool, just the ham fisting that happens more often than not is really pretty bad.