A Distinct Vision: Nick Earl And Visceral Games

By Christian Nutt

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.


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.


When you work on a project for a long time, any developer will say it's easy to lose perspective. Is it just through user testing and feedback from the press playing early builds? How do you become sure that you're reaching that quality bar that you've set for yourself?

NE: It's certainly a combination of several of the things you've said. We continually test. We do not take for granted, even if we feel good about a game, that we're achieving quality, so we look for a tremendous amount of external validation.

The other thing -- again, this is kind of an infrastructure EA thing -- is that EA is very self-critical of the larger picture, so our marketing and sales partners and PR are very, very honest with the studios about the quality of software.

These are people that really understand what the market is looking for, what consumers are looking for, and we take that feedback extremely seriously.

It's a very strong collaboration of partnerships between the greater marketing and greater development, that I think is really paying off now. So, we just continually test. We look at it ourselves. We validate. And when we've got something that looks like it's really hit the mark like Dead Space, we really support it.

And we're going to see very strong marketing programs for our major releases like you saw with Mass Effect and the ad in the NFC Championship game, which is a two minute ad, and the Superbowl ad for Dante's Inferno. So, I think it's just part and parcel of this strategy coming together.

Now, who makes those kinds of decisions on those huge ad spends? Is that primarily something that's vested into your marketing department, or is that a studio level, something that you also have input into?

NE: The marketing department is integrated with the studio, so ultimately, something like the Superbowl ad would be Frank's decision as president of the games label. Of course, you wouldn't do that in a vacuum. John would be very and was very involved in that.

Again, that's very supportive of the initiatives that John's pursuing here, and that I really feel are working and creating excitement. So it's very much a group of people that get involved with a decision like that.

I guess what I would say is that the label and even the studios, because marketing is so completely and utterly integrated into the process... We start talking about the marketing program and how we want to expose our products very early on.

It's tied into how we build products, and when demos are ready, and how they're going to be ready for trade shows and beyond. It's a very tight process that has taken years to cultivate and perfect. It seems like we're really hitting our stride now.


Dead Space

You know, something that's been talked about recently is that the casual consumers are a little more fickle or a little more hesitant, whereas the Xbox 360/PS3 consumers are more willing to spend more frequently on titles. Does that influence the direction that Visceral goes, or is that just a natural alignment? Is that the foundation of your business?

NE: It's pretty much the foundation of our business. We're making games for that customer. We've got divisions, whether it's the mobile group or the Play label or EA Interactive -- which is sort of an umbrella name for a lot of different efforts in the more casual area.

Our express purpose is to make the sort of AAA hits that are just naturally found on 360 and PS3. We also do some PC work as well. That's not to say that we don't have smaller efforts under way and direct-to-consumer efforts on XBLA and PSN. But, you know, the real crux of the studio, and the real effort, is to create these big games that sort of align more naturally with that kind of gamer.

You just referred to the potentiality of Xbox Live Arcade or PlayStation Network games. Can you make those work given the overhead of an organization of Visceral, even just that unit of EA?

NE: Yeah. We had really, really strong results with Battlefield 1943, which was created in a studio even bigger than Visceral and had to pay for its share of infrastructure. We've had great results for that. That is showing the opportunity there.

Just like the packaged goods space and the big AAA space, it comes down to quality and innovation and being able to bring something that's interesting to the gamer. But yes, absolutely. I think we'll have some interesting offerings over this year and next that show our confidence in the space.

We spoke about how Dante's Inferno came out of a pitch. The creative director coming off the Simpsons had this concept, it went into a pitch process and prototyping.

Is there a point when you guys solicit prototypes from around the studio, or should the more senior creative staff launch into their next project as they come available?

NE: It's actually both. What I mean by that is, you have a senior creative staff, which is usually a creative director, an executive producer, a senior producer, an art director, head of engineering, director of engineering. You have that kind of caliber, that will ultimately champion and get behind a project.

The concept can come from them or it can come from more of a junior person on the team who has presented something to them that they get behind and bring to the studio management, which ultimately greenlights. I've seen both work, and I've also seen licenses that were presented to the studio that we just felt were right. Simpsons was probably an example of that.

I think going forward, Visceral feels like we've got a wealth of property, and future ideas and concepts. And with that said, we'll never stop listening to ideas generated from anyone inside the studio, from admin to executive producer.

We're always looking for the next great idea. If we've got enough support that want to build that game and it feels like it hits the strategy right and is the sort of thing that we can do to quality, then we'll greenlight it. That's sort of what we're seeing with Dead Space, Dante's, and even works that are unannounced for the future.


I know this was Tiburon, but Henry Hatsworth was this really nice experiment in letting a small team break out within the large studio structure. It came into fruition from a critical perspective, but I guess it wasn't a tremendous success.

I was wondering if there's a way, in your vision, to make that kind of thing align more successful both critically and commercially, and if you think that's a valuable kind of way working.

NE: Yeah. I think there are lots of different experiments going on. One of the things that I think is impressive about Visceral is we've got a tech base that is so strong that we can prototype and make experiments with relatively small teams and get a sense of what the offering is ultimately going to be.

I said earlier that when Jonathan and his team prototyped Dante's Inferno, with a small amount of spend, and a very quick period, we really felt that we had something strong.

That gave us the kind of confidence to support it financially, and bring resources to bear, that the infrastructure was there to support something that was innovative and creative. And the ultimate result is a really strong product 25 months later.

We're always going to make experiments, and some work out more commercially and some work out more critically than others. For studios like Visceral, and DICE, and BioWare, and EALA, and some of the big studios, I think it's incumbent upon us to pick the AAA winners, make sure that they've got the support they need to be successful.

And the way I view the studio, everyone at the studio works for the executive producer, including me -- because they're the ones spearheading the effort to bring something to market [in] a very competitive marketplace.

That leads into two questions, but the first I want to talk about is your technology internally. Do you guys focus entirely on your own internal engine technology, primarily?

NE: Yeah. There's some off-the-shelf tech we use, obviously, including art packages like Maya. But what we've been investing in the technology here that has now shipped probably six products -- the six last games out of Visceral have been on this engine, including Dead Space.

No toolset or pipeline is perfect. We're constantly working on it. Every time we finish a game, there's a lot of work to do to kind of bring that into our main line, but this is our engine, and I believe it's a competitive advantage. Other studios are adopting it inside of EA, and using it to create the kind of experiences that they sort of own the franchises they own.

I think the Visceral engine and Frostbite, which is what we create Battlefield under, are two engines that really starting to get a lot of play. I believe they're competitive advantages to the label, and to the company.


Dante's Inferno

You talked just a moment ago also about the strong competition in the genre, and you guys are bookended by some of the strongest competition in the genre has seen. Obviously, Bayonetta came out recently, and that game is excellent.

NE: Yup.

And God of War III is soon to follow you guys out of the gate.

NE: Yup.

How do you feel about the landscape?

NE: Well, you can spend a lot of time worrying what other people are doing, what our competitors are doing, or you can accept that it's going to happen, sort of work around them a bit, and spend a majority of your time and energy just building what you have as best as you can. I think I would probably fall into the latter camp.

That's not to say we're unaware of what's happening, because we knew Bayonetta was coming and we knew God of War obviously was going to be launching in the quarter, but, you know, we felt like we've got an opportunity to stand out in a crowd.

We've got some strong innovation. We're at the 60 hertz frame rate, and I think that's very meaningful for this space. We've got a really interesting world in terms of the Dante's Inferno and the whole hell concept.

Ultimately, the market will decide what they think of it, but we feel pretty confident that it's going to be a strong offering. We're in this for the long haul, but the company feels very supportive of Visceral Games going forward. We think we've found sort of the right methodology in which to develop games. We've got technology. We've got some great concepts. You know, we feel like we're here to stay. It's kind of the long haul that really matters.

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