EA pushing hard for market share in third-person action, turning Visceral Games into umbrella label for genre

Visceral Games, formerly EA Redwood Shores, has a little game coming up called Dead Space 2. Of course, it was even littler for the first game, but its success gave the company recognition and a sequel with lots of hype. Like any part 2, there will be many changes and revisions, and most (hopefully) for the better. A set of changes one doesn’t see too often, though, are the ones behind the scenes. In a recent interview, EA’s general manager of action and strategy games Nick Earl discussed the structural change behind Visceral Games, how its projects pull from EA’s resources across the globe, and how the label will now act as a general haven for third-person action.

About nine months ago, EA structured their development groups around genres. “…There are three group [General Managers] — one for the MMO group, another manages the driving and first-person group, and I manage action and strategy.” Earl’s action and strategy group will oversee franchises such as Command & Conquer and, good guess, Dead Space, which is looked at as the star example of what they want to consistently achieve. Earl describes it as “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.”

On the specific development side, the label Visceral Games is going to stand for not just one studio in California, but of resources in EA studios worldwide, including the “art-focused” Shanghai studio, EA Montreal, and a brand new one in Melbourne, Australia. A game like Dead Space 2 still has a distinct team focused on it, but that team now spans several studios. “We’re not outsourcing or insourcing,” says Earl, “we really look at it as collaborative development, where everyone is on equal playing ground.”

The benefits to the model come several ways. First off, it can cost less. The cost of a massive team like Dead Space 2’s would be much higher were they to place all their resources at the original Redwood Shores studio. By spreading the team about different locations where production costs less, they are better able to simply afford making the games they strive to make. Earl cites BioWare as a successful company with a similar structure, spreading their team across Montreal and Austin, TX.

The global structure also, according to Earl, makes it possible to “build [a studio’s] core competency around a specific skillset.” So the artwork can be handled primarily in Shanghai, for instance, while gameplay design decisions are made in Redwood Shores. It sounds like a typical office environment where each aspect of a game’s creation is its own department, only instead of walking down a hall to contact them, you’re limited to communication via email, video chat, etc.

Earl is also quick to point out that this restructuring, while dramatic, is not done in response to a rather lackluster critical response to Medal of Honor, which poses as a bit of a hiccup in their recent talk of taking back the first-person market. He says that their efforts in first-person are not going to dwindle at all, but he’s “personally completely laser-focused on the third-person action-adventure space.”

The structure change makes Visceral Games sound like one of the many record labels in the music industry that specialize in a particular genre, like Jive Records for all your pop divas and boy bands, and Sub Pop for your indie fix. It’s an interesting idea, and maybe it’s the kind of focus that would improve the quality in games.

The globe-spanning dev teams also sounds interesting. Sure, it can cost less to hire  artists in Shanghai, but it’s not hard for me to imagine the physical distance and differing time zones hindering development. Maybe that’s not as big an obstacle these days with video chat and Skype, but we’ll see. I’m more curious than ever to see the results when I play Dead Space 2.