Rebranded as Visceral Games last year, EA's former Redwood Shores development team has shifted from a studio dedicated to licensed games to EA's foremost hardcore gaming team. Concentrating on new IP and mature content, Visceral works on the established home consoles and has so far produced the acclaimed Dead Space franchise, and the soon to be released Dante's Inferno.
In an exclusive interview with GamesIndustry.biz, senior VP of Visceral Nick Earl discusses the change in focus, why its important to serve the hardcore gamer, the importance of big marketing dollars and how Visceral Games can approach to new formats.
Q: Dante's Inferno is released this week in Europe – how's the development of that title gone and are you pleased with the end result?
Nick Earl: Honestly, I've been in this studio for nine years and in the games business for sixteen and honestly this was the best run project I've ever seen. A lot of that is due to the fact that the Visceral studio has the infrastructure and the supporting cast to be able to staff a project like this. We've got a great technology base – the same technology we use in Dead Space – and we've got very strong leadership. Really, it was 24 months from concept to the final game in the box which is pretty quick for a new intellectual property.
Q: That's quick for a console project in particular, was that in part due to the reorganisation of Visceral from EA Redwood Shores?
Nick Earl: The studio has really transformed into being a very focused third-person action studio. Years ago we did Tiger Woods, The Simpsons, Lord of the Rings, James Bond – it had a stellar and successful history, but the recent focus that we've bought to bare on the studios is really paying off. One of the reason why Dante's Inferno has been such a successful project from a management standpoint and in terms of the quality of the game is a pay off from the fact that the studio is so focused on doing one thing. It's more than just focusing on a genre, it's a sub-genre of third-person linear action games. We've become the centre of the company in terms of bringing these types of games to the market.
Q: It wasn't long ago that third-person action games were pushed to the side to make way for multiplayer gaming – every game had to have a large multiplayer aspect. Do you see Dante's Inferno as a return to and acknowledgement of the relevance of the single-player genre? There's clearly still a big audience for that type of game if you look at hits from last year like Batman: Arkham Asylum and Uncharted 2...
Nick Earl: This is us saying that this is an established category and our opportunity to step into the ring and take out the incumbent. To your point, this is a core gamer type of game in terms of it being pure action gameplay. It does that really well at 60 frames per second, which I think is absolutely crucial in the category. But that said we are bringing multiplayer downloadable content that will add to the game three months after, which you can download through PSN and Xbox Live. But the game that launches next week is a pure, visceral – with a small 'v' – action game.
Q: Are you pleased with the critical reaction to the game so far and the pre-orders at retail?
Nick Earl: The pre-orders have been really off the charts for us. We've been surprised at how the press has jumped on it, the core gamers are all over it. It looks like the retail channel is very receptive, the pre-sales have been phenomenally good and then we're going to have a big punch with a Super Bowl ad, which is going to be EA's first-ever Super Bowl ad. As someone who makes games it's very exciting and a real pleasure to see the marketing side of the organisation step up and put so much emphasis into launching this product so we can get it out to a new audience.
Q: With Hell being such a universal concept and featuring in many religions, were you conscious of how religious groups might react to content in the game?
Nick Earl: Our intention was to always make sure we weren't going to do anything disrespectful to any religion. This is a simulation of the poem, so everything we do in there has been in the poem. We have a take on it all from a visual perspective and an interactive perspective. We were obviously very careful to make sure we weren't going to be disrespectful. The other issue is we're very clear that it's an M-rated game and we let that rating system do its work and we let people make that decision whether it's content they want to consume or not.
Q: It must have been a different approach to licensing, to base a game on a 700 year-old poem. What kind of challenge was that compared to working on licence that perhaps has it's own book of lore like Lord of the Rings, or James Bond which has a pop culture legacy of movies and books?
Nick Earl: Even though it's 700 years old and no one has ever done a game on it as far as we know, it's such a relevant part of culture as we think about the nine levels of Hell, descending though Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Greed and the rest. It's just such a part of everyday life. It wasn't really something that we wrestled with at all. The executive producer Jonathan Knight came up with the concept after he had finished The Simpsons, which is an interesting juxtaposition going from one to the other. The concept just caught fire internally. It was prototyped very quickly and efficiently with the technology we had in the studio and we knew we had something special. It had really great gameplay, and although the art wasn't anywhere near its final stages, we just felt we had a great concept and great gameplay and it was just a case of executing it well. That's what Jonathan and the team did so brilliantly in the remaining 20 months. It's really an exception to the rule for something to go from concept to highly polished gameplay in a such a short period.
Q: I think it's reassuring to the core audience that a company is still dedicated to single-player hardcore games, despite the growth and hype of social and casual gaming.
Nick Earl: They way I view it is that the audience for gaming has just expanded tremendously, and I don't think that we've lost core gamers. That continues to grow, it's just that there are new audiences that have come in the mix and are more interested in the more social and casual orientated games. That's not to say the core gamers don't enjoy those games, but it feels to me as though if you map quality to core games like Dante's Inferno and Dead Space there's a huge audience that gets excited about that and wants to play it. It doesn't mean they're 100 per cent focused on that type of game but clearly that's where their interest lies.
Q: Is part of Visceral's job to continue to look at new IP opportunities for EA?
Nick Earl: Yes, it's really interesting because this studio has traditionally been a license-orientated studio with James Bond and The Simpsons. We made the switch a couple of years ago to really go after new IP and that was an issue the company was really excited about. When you get such success with Dead Space – a highly-rated game that was so well received – that has really helped form the direction of the studio as a new IP shop. I'm not saying we wouldn't do a license, but it's my sense that we're going to do our best creating new IPs like this. The key ingredient is to launch them in a big way, which is why the Super Bowl ad is so exciting.
Q: And that marketing thinking is going to be behind Dead Space 2 when that eventually comes out next year as well, and all the products from Visceral?
Nick Earl: My sense going forward is that this is how EA is going to be launching its triple-A products going forward. Those very impactful marketing moves – we're already seeing good results with how Mass Effect 2 is selling. That's defining the way we're launching games going forward. My expectation is that every game Visceral puts out will get that support.
Q: And Visceral is focused on just the hardcore machines now – the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 audience?
Nick Earl: That's our focus but we're also going to be looking at downloadable games – there's a direct to consumer opportunity there. This studio is really about these big triple-A new IPs like Dante's Inferno.
Q: Those downloadable opportunities, are you talking about PlayStation Network and Xbox Live?
Nick Earl: Yes, and also for PC as well. We think there's a great opportunity there to serialise products and bring them to the consumer in a direct way. I'm very excited by that as an opportunity but the launch of Dante's Inferno and Dead Space 2 are the big events. Those really define the studio.
Q: Has the studio got hands on with Sony and Microsoft motion controllers, and is that technology that the team would like to create something for?
Nick Earl: We really like that technology and action adventure games are the ones that will map over nicely to those devices, so we've been taking a look at that and we're still in the final stages of what exactly we're going to do but we definitely find those interesting.
Q: EA has stated that boxed product is declining as digital is growing – what's Visceral's role in EA's digital strategy?
Nick Earl: We're definitely bringing games direct to the consumer via Xbox Live and PSN and over PC. The way we look at it is there's been a decline in the number of products that are really successful on the big formats but our view is that if you deliver quality then sales are as big, if not bigger, than ever. It's just there are less number of products that are able to be successful. The challenge here is really focusing on quality and drive resonance in the marketplace. What's interesting about Dante's Inferno is it's this 700 year-old piece of fiction that has really infiltrated all kinds of cultures, and has become the de facto view of Hell. To latch onto that and turn that into an interactive experience was something that we thought would have resonance. If you combine that with quality gaming experience and picking one or two features and really doing them right, the action nature of the product, and then launch it hard, we believe we can be in the top five and the numbers will follow.
Nick Earl is senior vice president of Visceral. Interview by Matt Martin.