Our Take: EA Dissolves Visceral Games [Updated]

Update 10/27/2017 – Our analysis was correct.  As reported by Jason Schreier at Kotaku, EA closed Visceral Games because the Star Wars game was completely off track and the studio was too costly to keep open.

Original Article:

Before I continue let me be very clear about this next point: I don’t want to see anyone lose their job.  This article is not a celebration of layoffs. It’s a gut wrenching experience and my heart goes out to those that might be affected by this announcement.

The most noteworthy news today (10/17/2017) was EA (Electronic Arts) shutting down the Visceral Games studio.  (You can read the EA news post here.)  As is normal with these announcements, a lot of industry “pundits” are weighing in:

Jim Sterling:

The “pundits” are not the only ones crying foul.  That same sentiment can be found on Reddit and popular news outlets.  It’s completely understandable given EA’s history.  EA is infamous for buying studios (and their IP), changing their games to be more in line with EA’s vision (rumored), and then closing them or splitting them up so they exist in name only.  Bioware is the most recognized example of a respected studio being incorporated into the EA framework. What exists today is arguably not the Bioware that produced such classics as Jade Empire and Mass Effect 1, but instead a series of EA owned development offices that largely fall in line with EA’s current industry vision.

Visceral Games (formerly EA Redwood Shores) has been an EA studio since 1998.  They’ve been part of the EA organization for quite a while.  Their employees are EA employees and have been for many years.  When reviewing their development history, it becomes clear that Visceral Games didn’t handle EA’s flagship titles (Hardline was not a flagship title).  This is likely due to Visceral being a smaller, strategic studio, that was tasked with tackling alternate markets (e.g. action horror).  In order for EA to track profitability, Visceral likely had their own profit and loss accounting. [I am not clear on the exact financials of Visceral Games.  EA does not make it clear how Visceral profit and loss was tracked.  This is an educated guess based on my experience.]

Visceral was best known for the Dead Space series and it’s really what put them on map in terms of industry awareness.  It is often the more “niche” titles that attract the attention of the some of the industry’s most vocal consumers and they definitely have their fans.  Their current project was a Star Wars production that would have been a primarily single player, linear adventure.  While we don’t have a lot of information on it, it was assumed to be a story driven, “cinematic” video game experience.  It’s safe to say that EA was likely expecting a lot from Visceral.  Considering the new game was planned to be a flagship title in EA’s Star Wars empire, you can be damn sure all eyes in the company were pointed right at Visceral.

On 10/17/2017, EA announced the closure of the Visceral Games studio.  Along with that announcement came another: The Star Wars game that Visceral was working on would be overhauled and turned into “…a broader experience that allows for more variety and player agency…”  We all know what this means: The new Star Wars game is going to be something more akin to Destiny or The Division.  There will likely be a story and a way to play it as a solo player (no pun intended), but by and large it will be following the “games as a service” model that is sweeping through the industry.

Like many others, my gut reaction was to grab my virtual torch and pitchfork and “attack” EA for killing another game (and studio).  “Here we go again,” I thought.   “They are taking another single player, story driven game, and turning in into a focus-group-oriented, soulless shell-of-a-game designed to peddle loot boxes to teenagers.”

I went to Visceral’s Twitter landing page to see if they posted anything about the closure.  They put up a group picture but something else stood out: Visceral’s Twitter has been mostly inactive for two years.  Then I realized I wasn’t exactly sure how Visceral fit into EA’s bigger organizational layout so I went and looked it up.  That’s when I learned the information above – that Visceral wasn’t a small studio bought out by EA.  They always were EA.  What about the Star Wars game?  They’ve been working on this for the better part of three years (from what we know) and the last time the public saw anything was E3 2016.  That particular E3 had a lot of Star Wars on display but for Visceral’s part, all they had was some concept art and a walking demo.   This is where I parted ways with the largely negative reaction that you’ll find on Twitter, Youtube, and Reddit.

Pay close attention to this quote from the EA announcement:

Everything you need to know is right there.  I work in the Fortune 100 landscape.  This is about as “normal” as it gets for corporate restructuring (they are even trying to shift employees instead of letting them go).  EA Vancouver had already taken taken over what probably amounts to large parts of the new game and it didn’t make sense to be dumping corporate funds into multiple studios.  If you’ve been following EA over the last year this fits right into their bigger corporate strategy.  They have been consolidating teams and offices since the restructuring in May.  Everything in EA is moving under the umbrella of EA Worldwide StudiosAt the time I thought: “This action has less to do with Star Wars and more to do with EA closing an under-performing and costly studio .”  I couldn’t find anything to be angry about.  This was just smart business, especially if work at the studio was not progressing.

I started this post two days ago (on 10/17).  Luckily (this time), I am a slow writer and in those two days we’ve seen some interesting information come out regarding both the studio closure and Visceral Games.

  • Zach Wilson (former developer at Visceral) talks about Dead Space 2.  The takeaway: Selling four million copies wasn’t enough because of various costs.  When all costs were considered, those four million copies failed to meet expectations.  A single player experience, without continual profit expectations, is becoming increasingly difficult for EA to sell to its investors.
    • Update [10/24/2017]: Zach Wilson expanded on his comments in another interview.
  • Jason Schreier (Kotaku) reveals that his sources are telling him Visceral was not closed because they make single player games.  There is word on the street that the Star Wars game was in development hell.
    • Update [10/27/2017]: Kotaku reports the studio and the Star Wars project were a costly mess.

Why are these two Tweets important?  Because they help paint the picture of what I believe really happened: Visceral Games was behind schedule and off-track in regards to the new Star Wars game.  We know EA Vancouver had already picked up portions of the project and that was likely due to Visceral failing to stay on schedule.  Before the closure EA was dealing with an unfinished game from a studio that wasn’t producing.  With Visceral failing to produce a successful product in years, EA executive leadership had enough and pulled the plug.  At the same time, due to market forces, EA decided to redesign the game.  And why not?  If EA is sitting on an asset that doesn’t fit in with their corporate strategy they might as well salvage what they can and redesign the game from the ground up.

Right or wrong, that isn’t how EA is being judged in the court of the internet.  There is an angry consensus that EA is closing Visceral because they were working on single player titles.  Visceral Games almost certainly shares some of the “blame” here.  EA didn’t shut down a profitable studio with a game nearly ready to market!  They shut down one of their internal development offices because it was behind schedule and likely showing a loss quarter over quarter.

EA may have been better off to not mention the Star Wars “redesign” in their press release.  It made sense from an investor perspective but the gaming community latched onto the comments as the focal point and created a narrative that is more or less false.  I believe the truth is the exact opposite: Visceral was bleeding cash and didn’t have anything to show for it.  EA picked up the unfinished assets and spun a new story for investors to eat up.  The truth is almost always that simple.

We are going to cover “games as a service” at a later date.  This article is long enough and my hands are tired.