This has been a long time coming, and in some respect, I touched on it heavily last week with my expectations ruining the gaming industry article, but considering everything they've come to represent, and what their death symbolizes, I figure that Visceral has earned itself one of my now-famous post-mortems, which are 100% unique to me and absolutely not borrowed from any other famous game industry personalities.
First, some history. And before we get started at Visceral, let's go back even further to 1982 and the humble beginnings of one of the giants of the modern gaming world: EA.
Electronic Arts was founded by a man named Trip Hawkins in 1982, a former Apple employee who had dreams of starting a new venue, Amazin Software. The plan, as you could probably guess, was for this company to focus largely on the production of software, with a heavy emphasis on entertainment, which was why many of his first employees came from VisiCorp and Atari. The first couple of years were pretty strong, but before long, many of the early employees expressed a dissatisfaction with the fairly cheesy name. Hawkins, who had ambitions for treating software as a form of art (making him a visionary in many respects), eventually decided to rechristen his company as Electronic Arts.
During this time, they had released a number of games: Archon: The Light and the Dark is the first, which was actually released during the great North America Video Games Crash of 1983. From there, they made Axis Assassin, Hard Hat Mack, Music Construction Sets, Adventure Construction Set, The Seven Cities of Gold, and perhaps most importantly, Bard's Tale and M.U.L.E, the former being the first game EA ever released for a home console, the NES.
The fact they were able to release games during the games crash, and survive, should make it obvious how skilled they were as game developers. And they used their success to fund new studios and, perhaps most famously, buy new ones. To list them all would be a feat I'll leave for Wikipedia, but for our purposes, they found the star of today's article in 1998 during their move from San Mateo, California, to Redwood Shores.
They were called, at first, EA Redwood Shores, and under that name they released a smattering of games, largely for the Playstation and Playstation 2: Future Cop: LAPD, CyberTiger, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, James Bond 007: Everything or Nothing, The Godfather, the 2007 Simpsons Game, one NASCAR game, and a long series of Tiger Woods games.
But the one biggest game they would release, the game that would forever change the trajectory of the company, would be released in 2008, one year before they would officially change their name to Visceral: an action-horror hybrid that dared to ask "What if shooting the head wasn't the right thing to do?"
A game called Dead Space.
It was Dead Space's success that led to the studio being untethered from EA and allowed to work as a separate division, rather than directly under them. They were called the first genre studio that worked for EA, the intent being that Visceral would focus specifically on developing third-person action games. That's how impressed EA was with the success of Dead Space: they dedicated the studio entirely to making more games for it and games like it.
Their faith may have been poorly placed. The first game released by Visceral after the name change was the ill-fated and poorly-conceived God of War rip-off, Dante's Inferno. A game that would have been destined to die forgotten in mediocrity if it wasn't for their awful marketing and too-edgy-by-half story that made the whole thing a cringe-worthy trainwreck that should probably have its own chapter in the history of disastrous marketing campaigns in games. But then again, the marketing was EA's fault, back when they saw how video games were finally, FINALLY getting the mainstream recognition that our culture had been fighting years to receive, and thought, "You know what we need? To ruin all of that and pretend games are still a hot-button issue."
Case in point, the marketing campaign for Dead Space 2. The Game your Mother Hates.
Dead Space 2 may have been a marked improvement over the first game (and vastly superior to their attempt at a hack-and-slash), but it was marred by controversy from the word go. EA had bogged the poor thing down in DLC packs and had tacked on the same awful forced multiplayer that had plagued the industry at the time (see: Bioshock 2, but I'll admit I actually enjoyed that game's multiplayer a fair bit). It was one of their solution to the used game problem that industry folks wouldn't stop shutting up about, a problem that was eventually solved with the rise of digital game sales.
It was EA tripling-down on these awful industry-chasing money-grubbing trends that led to the ultimate downfall of Dead Space 3: a solid action game that was absolutely bogged in microtransactions, DLC, and of course, a multiplayer campaign that wasn't perhaps as bad as it was misplaced. Horror games can't survive couch-based co-op, it can barely survive online co-op, and the game simply didn't have the same hook that had drawn the old fans in. It was literally in the worst position it could be in: the name and brand were recognized as a horror series, so most mainstream people wouldn't touch it, but the horror fans who had fallen in love with the first two games didn't like the action so they wouldn't touch it either. No wonder sales were so bad.
And yes, EA was a huge reason why Visceral was starting to flop, forcing all that money-grubbing nonsense into their games. But they were far from the only reason: as Visceral released more non-Dead Space games, it was looking increasingly like the company was a one-trick pony. Battlefield Hardline was alright by most accounts, while Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel was savaged by critics. It seemed like the company was only really good at Dead Space. So when it became clear that Dead Space simply wasn't the money-generating factory EA had banked on, and they couldn't trust Visceral to make any other IPs yeah, it kind of makes sense that Visceral would join the other skeletons in EAs closet.
So yeah. I'm not going to say EA is the good guy here. As much as I've gone and said that EA isn't as bad as most people make them out to be, it's pretty obvious that they played a huge role in the public's lack of trust and excitement in the series that Visceral was known best for. In fact, the fact that they put so much stock in Visceral as the third-person action people was probably the moment the company became doomed. But I don't want to let Visceral off the hook here either: it's pretty obvious that the company had some serious problems going on.
In fact, I'm just going to link you over to this Kotaku article that goes into rich detail about why their planned Star Wars game failed. It's huge, but damn it's a worthwhile read.
So whats the takeaway from Visceral's death? What can the industry, and the public, learn about its fall? As far as the industry is concerned, there's not a lot they can learn here that they shouldn't have already learned from other sources, even within EA's own catalog of failed studios. In fact, if anyone should be learning a lesson from this, it's EA: because it's becoming very quickly noticed by people in the industry that the downward spiral Visceral endured is awful similar to something that Bioware is currently going through, and while people might be a bit miffed that Visceral is going the way of the dodo, Bioware is a household name. Bioware is beloved despite its association with EA. Bioware, for all its recent missteps, is still beloved.
I can't imagine what the reaction would be if EA decides to shut down Bioware. But it would not be good, and more critically, I don't think it would be short. The closing of Bioware might be one of those industry events that rings through the culture for years to come, much like the loss of a beloved personality or creator.
For the public? Well, these sort of things are always outside our control. We should never, ever feel obligated to buy a game from a company just because we don't want them to shut down: it's their job to figure out what we want and cater to us. In that respect, Visceral is almost like a martyr, dying to remind the industry that people won't buy into all the money-hungry tools EA had forced upon them. But, sadly, while EA seems to have absorbed that those money-hungry tools don't work, they've just decided to replace them with different, more sinister tools which, so far, are mostly working as-planned.
In any case, I was all prepared to write about something else later this week, but then Runic Games was shut down over the weekend too. And while that studio might not have the prestige Visceral had, I think there are elements to its story that deserve its very own post-mortem... so look out for that!