Giving a studio its own identity and personality is one way to influence the quality of the games it makes, says Glen Schofield, studio head of Visceral Games -- formerly EA Redwood Shores.
The Dead Space
and Dante's Inferno
developer joins other EA studios like Mythic in bucking the trend
toward naming internal studios simply as location-based divisions of the larger publisher, but the name change is more than a rebrand, Schofield says -- it's the selection of an identity.
"'Visceral' seems to be a term that we use an awful lot, especially making Dead Space
or Dante's Inferno
or any of the type of games that we've made over the last few years," Schofield tells Gamasutra. "You talk about 'I want it to feel visceral'...and it just seems to fit with the direction that the studio is going, and well, it was ours to take!"
One motivation was that it was frustrating to have the development studio so often muddled with EA's corporate offices, also headquartered in Redwood Shores. But having a separate identity helps consumers relate to the products better, Schofield believes.
"A company like BioWare, and a company like Valve... people identify with that," he says. "For the gamers that are gravitating toward the type of games we make here, I think having a name that can be recognized hopefully in the future as quality, they'll get that -- for me, any BioWare game, I'll just buy it, because i know those guys stand for quality."
The staff benefits too, Schofield says -- little things like one's own name and logo are important to a sense of relationship to the work of developers. And more than that, by embracing a single personality for the studio, it ensures that the team is always working on projects more inherent to their nature as creators.
"We're not going to make a cartoony game one day and then next game is going to be realistic," says Schofield. "This is our wheelhouse, our core competency; this is what we work on, and it tells us the type of people that we're going to hire -- people become experts."
And when people are experts, the games come out better: "Visceral having a focus on a certain type of game also means that it helps with the quality," says Schofield. "He has a vision of the Visceral name and logo becoming "an icon... I'm hoping that it's synonymous with quality over the next few years. That's something that we have to earn, and the plan is to earn that."
All publishers are concerned with the quality levels of their products, of course, but Electronic Arts in particular has used the Q-word extensively in recent years, with CEO John Riccitiello setting a specific goal to elevate the average Metacritic score of all games it publishes. So how does Schofield plan on ensuring a high quality from the games Visceral produces?
"With Dead Space
one, it was a game in which you follow your schedules as much as possible -- but my philosophy is you can't always schedule making a boss or an enemy or something like that," Schofield says. "So you do it until it's right, and maybe you have to cut something else out of the game -- and maybe the game was too big to begin with."
The studio is, of course, still milestone-based. "But I would rather say that we missed a milestone than say that we hit it and one or two of the things sucked," says Schofield.
"It's a balance... and I would rather have a couple less things and everything 90-rated than have a whole bunch of stuff that is all 75, 78 rated. That's what we look at right now; we either get it to 90 or we don't do it, and everybody's embraced that philosophy."
That may mean that everybody's embraced the philosophy of evaluating quality in terms of numerical Metacritic scores, too. Electronic Arts' Holiday season -- where it had very highly-rated games that all posted disappointing sales -- actually prompted a close scrutiny of the Metacritic system, and how reliably it actually correlates to sales. Now Visceral's actually assigning numbers to components of their own work?
"Yes, absolutely," Schofield says, describing how the team plays their builds in progress and tries to measure whether or not it feels like a 90-rated game. "It's a benchmark," he says. "For lack of a better benchmark, that's kind of what we use internally. All of us on the team -- we'll play 80 or 90-rated games. Games that start dipping down in the 70s... with few exceptions, you're not going to lay down 60 bucks for that."
Is Schofield concerned about this approach, when EA's heavy reliance on scores as a predictor of sales steered it wrong so recently? "I think the predictor of sales thing took a left turn last year," he concedes. "But then again, you can look at the macroeconomic conditions that were out there at that time."
"You can look at the number of games that came out at the same time," Schofield continues. He points to the macroeconomic climate around the 2008 holiday season, and believes consumers were challenged to choose among a wide range of 90-rated games in a season when they were buying fewer of them.
But Schofield still believes in the value of the quality score: "I'm not going to stop shooting for that 90 just because Dead Space
didn't get the numbers out that we wanted," he says. "It still did really well. We're still gonna shoot for the quality."
"Quality, I do believe, will sell. I just think last year was kind of an odd year, and maybe next year will be odd as well," he adds. "We shipped a lot of games -- maybe too many. I think we threw a lot of things at the wall to see what would stick... but John's outlined what i think is a very, very strong plan going forward over the next couple of years. I'm a firm believer."
Visceral is currently working on Dead Space: Extraction
and Dante's Inferno
, in addition to two other unannounced titles. "They are shaping up to fall right in line with exactly what Visceral wants to be in terms of quality, and gameplay, and things like that," Schoield says.
"These are the first two games that will have the Visceral mark on them -- it's very important that we come out strong."