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Ex-Visceral dev calls death of single-player fears "totally absurd"

Studio's former level designer saddened by studio closure, but supports EA's shift towards service games

The demise of Visceral has prompted speculation that the AAA vein of linear single-player games could disappear, but one of the studio's former staffers has dismissed this notion.

Zach Wilson, who served as senior level designer and worked on Battlefield Hardline, disagrees with the plethora of 'death of single-player' articles that have spread throughout the games media since Visceral's shock closure last week.

"The assertion that single-player linear games are going to disappear is totally absurd," he says. "EA might not be the company that carries that torch, but there are so many groups out there that are passionate about this kind of game that they won't go away. Personally I'd like to see fewer games with higher quality across the board, which is probably what will happen.

"Personally I'd like to see fewer games with higher quality across the board, which is probably what will happen"

"There's also the case that 'single-player linear' is a term without a concrete definition. Everyone agrees that The Last of Us is SPL, but what about Bioshock? What about Dishonored?  Where does the line blur between SPL and 'immersive sim' and 'open world'? It's a gradient of possibilities, not just one type of thing. 

"We're also going to continue to see developments in production pipelines that will dramatically reduce the cost of asset generation, which will benefit everyone. There's no one single narrative that can be derived from this event other than games are incredibly difficult to make, and the fact that any game or movie gets made at all is a cause for celebration."

It's also worth noting that publishers such as Bethesda believe in the commercial potential of single-player titles, with Wolfenstein: The New Colossus eschewing a multiplayer mode for fear of "diluting" the single-player experience.

The abundance of editorial mourning the death of both Visceral and (seemingly) single-player titles stems from comments made by EA Worldwide Studios VP Patrick Söderlund, who explained the publisher's decision to shut the studio down.

Söderlund described Visceral's hotly anticipated Star Wars project as "a story-based, liner adventure." He implied that after "tracking fundamental shifts in the marketplace" - widely assumed to be a reference to monetisation through loot boxes - a game of that type was no longer viable.

Zach Wilson, ex-Visceral

"It has become clear that to deliver an experience that players will want to come back to and enjoy for a long time to come, we needed to pivot the design," Söderlund said.

Many have taken this to mean Electronic Arts is now only interested in games it can monetise via the use of loot boxes and other microtransactions, or titles that can be positioned as a year-round service. While others lament this shift, Wilson believes it's the right move for the company.

"Current market trends suggest that this is the case," he says. "I expect publicly-traded publishers to follow market trends to maximise their profits. As a current shareholder in EA, I support this. 

"As a game designer in the AAA space I do my best to balance the need to make money with my respect and dedication to the craft, always with the player in mind. As a gamer, I don't buy or play games that abuse these systems."

Commenting on the closure of Visceral, Wilson says he was sad to hear of his previous employer's demise.

"I have a lot of really good friends there that were spectacularly talented, and Dead Space 2 is one of my all time favourite games," he says. "We'll always have Dead Space 2, but there was a lightning in a bottle there that will never be recaptured. It's the same with a lot of the greatest games; they're just a moment in time where the stars aligned and everything came together. I'm proud of Battlefield Hardline and proud to share in the legacy of Visceral games."

"There's no one single narrative that can be derived from this event other than games are incredibly difficult to make"

In the wake of the studio's closure, Wilson suggested rising sales expectations were difficult to meet with Visceral's earlier games. Dead Space 2, he claims, cost $60 million to make and a further $60 million to market, later elaborating that the development budget specifically was closer to $47m. Once you account for the sizeable cut from retailers, distributors and more, 4 million sales is not enough to recoup these costs.

"Survival horror is hard," he elaborates. "Horror games in general are expensive to make and hard to sell. People would give us the feedback that they love Dead Space but don't buy it cause it's too scary. Kind of works against itself.

"You can't sell games to a market that wants them to exist but doesn't want to buy them. The actual process of generating projections - which EA uses to set marketing budgets and judge success - is incredibly opaque, which I think most devs found frustrating. We can't translate our passion into a spreadsheet."

In closing, he reiterates that reactions to Visceral's closure may be overblown and that the fate of a single studio in no way spells doom for an entire sector of the games market. Instead, it's a sign of how rapidly the games industry evolves.

"Games are always in a constant state of change," he says. "We're building cutting-edge technology combined with full interactivity and deep, enriching stories that offer choice. Every game that gets built has to re-invent every wheel every time. It's a miracle that any game gets made. 

"There's no one single narrative that can be derived from this event other than games are incredibly difficult to make. Support your favourite creators and try to create an environment that welcomes new people into our space. Evangelise games as an art form. There are so many stories yet to be told, so many innovations to be had and directions that games can go. 

"Now is a time for optimism and excitement in what the future holds in store for us."

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James Batchelor


James Batchelor is Editor-in-Chief at GamesIndustry.biz. He has been a B2B journalist since 2006, and an author since he knew what one was