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Interview: Earl Reveals EA's Expansion Of Visceral Label

Interview: Earl Reveals EA's Expansion Of Visceral Label Exclusive

October 13, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander

October 13, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

Aiming to better align for quality and cost-efficiency in the third-person action category, Electronic Arts is moving to a globalized approach for its Visceral Games label, says general manager Nick Earl, who is helming the effort.

Since the success of the Dead Space brand, Visceral's own alignment has received a lot of EA's focus; Earl told Gamasutra earlier this year that Visceral wanted to tightly focus on a signature type of action title, aiming for a "rough estimate" of one title per year.

The studio itself, formerly part of EA Redwood Shores, received its own brand identity as something of a reward for its headway into the often-fraught arena of original IP, and now EA wants to keep that train moving by including other studios among the Visceral-labeled family.

"We moved into a genre structure about nine months ago inside of the Games label," Earl tells Gamasutra. "Inside the Games label, we went into a structure based on genres, where there are three group GMs -- one for the MMO group, another manages the driving and first-person group, and I manage action and strategy."

In addition to the next Command & Conquer title, which is not yet formally announced and described by Earl as "pretty far out," he says "the effort and energy at the moment is around building EA share in the action category... to achieve our mission of becoming number one inside of the action space."

While analysts and investors believe that EA's stated goal of becoming number one in the first-person shooter space this year might have been crippled by a mixed critical reception for the recent Medal of Honor reboot, Earl is quick to distinguish: "Action, to us, inside of the Games label and the company, really means third-person games. For us, we're talking about third-person action adventure games."

And in that category, Visceral's Dead Space is "the star of the group, and the most well-known," Earl says. "And that's really emblematic of the kind of games we're building. Our mission is very clear and very simple -- and will be challenging -- but we're really excited."

Global Collaboration

Specifically, the Visceral brand will now share resources with EA Los Angeles, the company's art-focused Shanghai studio, EA Montreal and the newly-built "from scratch" studio in Melbourne, Australia. "Organizationally, we've gone to a very streamlined model," explains Earl.

Five executive proiducers, who effectively play the role of general managers on specific franchises (as Steve Papoutsis does with Dead Space, for example) all report to Earl. "We've gone to this collaborative model, all under the umbrella brand of Visceral," he says.

The individual studios will now work as a globally-distributed cluster, he says. "Each of the franchises we have in development, from Dead Space 2, which is close to final, to some IP that are literally in ideation... has a distinct team, and that team is spread across three or four studios. We're not outsourcing or insourcing -- we really look at it as collaborative development, where everyone is on equal playing ground."

Improving its game quality and reducing its cost structure have been perhaps two of EA's most significant goals in recent years -- a pair of objectives that can easily stand at odds with one another.

"Two years ago, the average Metacritic inside [the] Games [label] was low 70s," he says. "Last [fiscal] year, we averaged 80, but this [fiscal] year we're going to be in the low to mid-80s, so quality is definitely improving across the board," says Earl.

Benefits And Challenges

Collaborative development "ultimately leads to quality, because you can afford more staff months on a given project," Earl asserts. The cost of production in Redwood Shores is high, and Earl says it might have been harder to afford the staff size and time commitment necessary to reach development goals without the contribution of work from areas where the cost structure is different. Having studios in Austin and Montreal, rather than in California, helped BioWare gain its reputation for quality, Earl adds.

While it may seem simple to talk about "streamlining", moving from a centralized team and a local pipeline to a global one is hardly a minor adjustment. But Earl says the team has been practicing such an approach for a couple of years now in the development of Dead Space 2, the launch of which he hopes will be a "validation" for EA's preparedness.

"When you work across borders and cultures and time zones, it definitely adds an element of challenge there," Earl concedes. "We've been doing this now for three and a half years in a quiet way, but we have been trying to perfect the recipe." He describes a migration from an insourcing model to an outsourcing one, which further brought the company's studio collective to its new "collaborative" status.

"Regardless of which particular geography, everyone feels like they're part of one group," he says. "Think about the DICE brand as becoming a strong FPS brand with games like Battlefield, Bad Company 2, and with BioWare being a strong brand for RPGs -- we're trying to do that inside the action space, where EA has not had a strong position for some time."

And he sees benefits he hopes will match the challenges, such as the ability to reach talent in other locations. "You can build [a studio's] core competency around a specific skillset," he notes.

"The Melbourne staff are experts at doing PC versions of our projects, as well as doing online multiplayer. The Shanghai team are experts at creating game-ready assets ina cost-effective way." EALA and Redwood Shores still follow a model that integrates art, engineering and design, but it's the spine of external resource-sharing that allows them to do so cost-effectively, according to Earl.

'It Has Nothing To Do With Our Success Or Lack Of In The First-Person Space'

It's the success, momentum and brand equity EA has perceived around Visceral Games that led to its selection as the over-arching label for the publisher's third-person action endeavors, he says -- just as its own studio name, focus and branding was a reward for the success of Dead Space.

"We believe -- and we have a lot of data on this -- that there's tremendous admiration and like for the Visceral brand," says Earl. "We're leaning in to the fact that there's such momentum with this brand, and we have a lot of faith in Dead Space 2... trying to take the Visceral brand to the next level.

The team has been preparing this approach around Dead Space 2 for some years, and EA says Earl began informing the teams involved at the beginning of this week. The company says these new moves to align for traction in the third-person space don't correlate with speculation in the analyst space that Medal of Honor's Metacritic performance means EA will have to cede its bid for the first-person crown.

"We are absolutely and positively not giving up on the first-person space," says Earl. That arena falls under one of EA Games label head Frank Gibeau's groups and is wholly separate from Earl's, but he states: "The reaction to Medal of Honor notwithstanding, we believe it's certainly going to be a commercial hit."

"And Battlefield is a very strong franchise in the first-person space. We're going to continue to pursue first-person -- but I'm personally completely laser-focused on the third-person action-adventure space," he adds. "It has nothing to do with our success or lack of [success] in the first-person space. My mission is to take this group and establish it as the top-quality action-adventure space."

One of the ways Earl says his teams can do this is with strong attention to multiplayer: "That's traditionally not a huge component of third-person games," he says. "We are going to have strong third-person multiplayer with every one of our games. They differ depending on the game... but we're going to try to perfect the recipes to each of the franchises, we're really going to try to lead the industry in the development and performance of online multiplayer inside the third-person space."

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