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A Distinct Vision: Nick Earl And Visceral Games
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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.


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