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A Distinct Vision: Nick Earl And Visceral Games

February 22, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

Genres go through cycles. In the sense that I think broadly-defined "character melee action genre" even went through a cycle for the PlayStation 2, where Devil May Cry showed what it was capable of, and then that became old hat after a while. Then God of War re-awakened it. You have to be conscious of those sort of fluctuations, I guess.

NE: Yeah, without a doubt. That's kind of my point about being a student. You have to be a student of individual games, and I think to your point, a student to the greater trends. And we have a nice blend of business kind of acumen here as well as creative gameplay creation. And I think that's ultimately where you find you can have the greatest impact in your medium, to have a deep understanding of what the trends are and to be able to innovate out of thin air.

I feel very, very confident about the executive team inside of this studio. The executive producers are extremely strong. They have a really good supporting cast, and this tremendous maturity and experience at the team level.

There's just a real sense of collaboration and cooperation across the entire studio, where everyone feels like whatever game we're going to launch that year, that is the most critical thing we can do, and anyone that can help out is happy to do it. It's really impressive to see the studio run that way.

A game a year? Is that actually a plan, or is that just a rough estimate of where things are going?

NE: I mean, it's kind of a rough estimate, but what I've learned being general manager of the studio for the past nine years is you can overload a studio, and conversely, you can do extremely well financially, and at the end of the day, we need to be able to do that to continue to attract investment and be able to do the sort of creative endeavors we want.

You can do that with less products that are high quality, and that's really part and parcel of a greater theme and strategic initiative in the company, and that is "less is more". I know it sounds kind of trite, but we really believe that. We've really taken that on board here. What we put out, we want to put out at the absolute highest quality mark. We don't need to do three of those a year. One is plenty, if we continue to drive that kind of quality here.

The Godfather

In the past, particularly I think at EARS, EA was known for a strategy of just throwing staff at games to try and get them out the door. Particularly Godfather was a project that was known for that. Do you see a change? You alluded to having a sense of time and quality being more important metrics.

NE: Yeah. Without a doubt.

There's a couple of things going on. The first is that to have really large teams just requires tremendous management. You can end up imploding a team and the structure and infrastructure of a team by having too many people. It's also just super expensive to do things that way.

What EARS, or now Visceral, has really done, which is innovative from a sort of a development strategy standpoint, is that we collaborate with multiple studios that are all part of the fabric of the action category for EA. We have studios in Melbourne, in Shanghai, and in Montreal all collaborating and working together, leaving it to the expertise that exists, so we can put the right product together.

The notion of just "backing up the bus," we like to call it, I think that's pretty much gone. We just don't do that anymore, and part of that is we've got really strong process and infrastructure and technology in place.

Part of [it is] that we've just sort of matured as a studio. We don't have to do it. The conditions here are just really great, and the work/life balance is great, and we're able to deliver really high quality products.

In nine years of being in this studio as general manager, I really feel like this is just a magical time. It feels like we're really standing in the doorstep of real greatness here, and being a studio that has a brand name inside the sort of consumer world and beyond. So, you know, pretty exciting times.

You talked some earlier about the business angle of running a studio and how that buttresses the creative process, about how there's interplay there. I was wondering if you could talk about that aspect of choosing your targets for Visceral.

NE: Yeah. I think that's right. We spend a lot of time, and part of that is just the richness of experience at Electronic Arts. John comes up to the studio often and we sit and talk through these concepts. And Frank Gibeau, the president, is just a wealth of knowledge and experience, and really works with us on that side of things.

Like I said, I've been here for a long time. We were very purposeful about trying to find the right blend -- the right strategy with the right execution. The execution is clearly there, and it feels like the strategy is really starting to pay off, not only for the studio, but for many studios including BioWare, which just shipped Mass Effect 2. We feel very good about DICE and the Battlefield: Bad Company franchise. That will be the next game coming out in March.

So, it just feels like this tremendous focus. That focus, and the less is more type of strategy, is just bearing fruit in terms of quality, which I think at the end of the day is the kind of ultimate manifestation of that blend, that intersection of the right business with the right creative.

Article Start Previous Page 2 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.

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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.