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Interview: Ghost Games lead designer talks the future of Need For Speed

By Shaun Prescott on Friday 8th Nov 2013 at 1:17 AM UTC

Need For Speed Rivals is the twentieth Need For Speed game. While the series is one of the most highly regarded racing brands in the industry, few people can pinpoint what 'the core pillars' of the series are.

In the last three years we've seen the conventional, linear, narrative driven experience of Need For Speed: The Run, which was a solid racer with a widely criticised storyline. In 2012 Criterion released Need For Speed: Most Wanted, an open world 'return to form' which felt strongly reminiscent of that studio's legacy games in the Burnout and Need For Speed canons.

So when it was announced earlier this year that Swedish studio Ghost Games would take charge of the series from Rivals forward, no one could be sure exactly what this meant for the future of Need For Speed. In the below interview, Need For Speed: Rivals lead designer James Mouat provides fresh insight into the studio's plans for the series, and also discusses where the future of racing games in general are heading.


CVG: This is the twentieth Need for Speed game. Is there any pressure associated with that?

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James Mouat, Need For Speed: Rivals lead designer

In a certain way, but at the same time it's nice forming a new studio around Ghost Games, because we have all of EA behind us and the resources that come with that. On the other hand, we also have a bit of an indie feel in that we're free to take this series and add some new flavour to it. The nice thing about having a franchise like this is that there are lots of known elements that are fun and that work, so we aren't starting from scratch. I've worked on new IP and its hellish just to figure out what it should be, let alone what's fun about it. So for us, we knew that we had a solid base and could look back and see what had worked in the previous games and try to pull the best out of them and really confirm that this is the core of what makes NFS fun: the cops and racers, the pursuit tech and an open world experience. Then then build stuff on that like AllDrive.

How big is the team at Ghost Games at present?

In the studio it's about 80 people, but like I said, EA is a big company so we are working with other people. We have the guys from Criterion supporting us on this project and we have people from all over the organisation coming in to help in the specific area they're experts in. We're taking the lead on this project but it's a big project, and you can't do it all in one place anymore.

Assuming Need For Speed continues as a yearly series, is that going to strain the resources at Ghost, or are there plans set in place to deal with this?

There are plans around it. It's more of a producer-y question. I'm an oddball in that I'm actually a designer and EA's structure has a lot of different takes on what that means. My Senior Producer Jamie Keen has very clear plans along with the studio head Marcus Nilsson as to how to accomplish that. The main thing I'm concerned with is that I don't want to burn out my team trying to meet unrealistic goals, so everyone is making sure that is not going to happen.

Everyone knows that if we just continue to make the same game over and over, we'll run the franchise straight into the ground

NFS is such a vast racing brand. The titles have varied a lot throughout its history. Rivals is an open world racer like last year's Most Wanted, but the year before that we had a more linear experience in The Run. Now that your studio is in control, will NFS continue down this open world path, or might we see a return to something more streamlined?

There's always going to be the leeway to do exciting stuff, but one of our main focuses, as you said, is to try to reduce the amount of confusion around what Need For Speed is. We want to make sure we can bring it back into what makes the series good, what its tradional core is and where can we innovate and try new things. I think you'll see more open worlds going forward, but that doesn't mean it has to be. The nice thing is that everyone knows that if we just continue to make the same game over and over, we'll run the franchise straight into the ground. So we need to find the right mix between what works, what people expect, and how we can toss new things into the mix.

One of the touchstones for next-gen racing is the blurring of single player and multiplayer. We saw a bit of that in Most Wanted but Rivals ramps this functionality up with AllDrive. How many human racers can be in one online session?

Regardless of which generation you're playing on, there's a six player limit to the world. The reason we went for six is that, while we could add more on the next-gen consoles technically speaking, it was actually detrimental to the gameplay. We want the world to feel open and alive and busy, but not jam packed where you never have a sense of a lull or relaxed points where you can just explore. So we found the right number that works across all platforms but also satisfies the gameplay element.

Six was the max number for us and I think that works well with how AllDrive works, because two players can be doing their own thing and then bump into one another and that can drastically change the way the player will complete what they're doing. Or the players can choose to play together, or one can switch to a cop and chase the other around. We're trying to move away from a scripted and linear experience. Even though we do have a narrative that is linearly driven, we've given players choices as to how they complete each stage of the progression.

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The narrative aspect is interesting. Narratives and racing games don't traditionally go hand-in-hand. The Run was criticised for it, and the plot in Ubisoft's Driver: San Francisco was widely derided. Why does Rivals need a narrative?

We've gone narrative light. What I didn't want to happen was that we'd beat the user over the head with "this is what the story is, and that means this is what you have to do". Still, for a lot of players its overwhelming to be thrown out into an open world with no clear goal or even context as to what's going on.

The story is the flavour, not the meat of the experience. The meat of it is getting out there, driving around, smashing things up, using your pursuit tech, encountering people, and then as you check in and complete your assignments and your speed lists you're going to get another little dose of what's happened [narrative wise]. Sometimes, with the cops for example, you'll get busted down for using excessive force and be put in the base level patrol car. So we do use the story a little more overtly when we want to add variety to the experience. But the very next mission, when you complete that, you've taken one of the impounded race cars with top of the line pursuit tech and then your goal is to wreak havoc - to wreck as many racers as possible. We use the narrative to make sure the player doesn't feel like it's wash and repeat, over and over. They have a reason to keep playing beyond an hour or two, because once you've driven a car for a while you think, "well I've driven it, why do I want to keep on driving?"

So one of the ways to keep players excited about continuing to play was having a good level of story so that they have context, but not enough to punish them for not doing things in a certain way. We give goals that are broad and its up to the player to choose how to do them.

How does the new world in Rivals compare to the open world in Most Wanted?

We made a choice early on that we wanted to focus on more high speed gameplay, especially long buttery controllable drifts through corners at massively high speeds. We built the world around that as a core concept of the gameplay. Most Wanted was built a lot more around tight urban environments with 90 degree turns and grid layouts. [That world] had low to medium speed pursuits and a very different feel to the gameplay. We intentionally went the opposite way with Rivals, so that people didn't think we were knocking out a clone, but also so that we could focus on a style of gameplay that suits a very high end car quite nicely.

Our goal is that fans get the experience that they want, not that Microsoft or Sony get a lot of new people on their new machines

Rivals is across current-gen, next-gen and PC. Has developing for all these platforms proven difficult?

No. I think we're pretty blessed in that regard because when we looked at what next-gen was going to be, we didn't try to design an experience around any explicit feature that was only available on one particular console. Instead we made a very conscious decision to cater to fans, and not all of our fans are going to buy a next-gen console. [Our goal was that] fans get the experience that they want, not that Microsoft or Sony get a lot of new people on their new machines.

We made sure that we focused first on design and feature sets that would work across all platforms, which simplified our lives dramatically. Then we leveraged what those new consoles could do in terms of graphics and poly counts and particles. It looks as good as possible on every machine, but if you don't have $500 for a new console and you're a Need For Speed fan then that's fine: you'll feel like you're getting the whole experience and you're not missing anything except maybe a little graphical fidelity.

Moving forward, connectivity appears to be very important in racing games. What else do you think will change for racing games moving into next-gen?

Well that [connectivity] is what we've been striving for with AllDrive. Our own metrics tell us that a lot of our audience plays offline even when there's a multiplayer component available, and that's fairly striking compared to other games, like a shooter, where there's an even split or even more online.

When you think about how you get involved with racing, you're either in first place or you're having a miserable experience. For me, it was important that we develop the experience - and this is why AllDrive exists - so that you can be doing your thing and I can be doing my thing and we can complete the game together, but have rewarding and enjoyable experiences even if neither of us are winning. We can both be second or third in the race but we can still be earning points and completing goals. We wanted that barrier of entry to multiplayer not to be there. A racing experience doesn't have to be about being the best, and if you want to be the best the whole racing career is about being the top dog and winning everything, but the cop side offers a calmer, at-your-own-pace, cooperative experience where you can choose when you want to get involved. So either side allows for a much less threatening version of multiplayer.

Do you prefer playing as a cop or a racer?

If I'm going to play offline I'll play racer, because it's much more rewarding and I think, one of the innovations that might seem subtle is that we have online AI. So you're playing online and offline and the AI is constantly there with you and people drop in as well. Tradionally its always been seperate. So if I was offline I'd be a racer and goof off with the AI, rack up points. But being online it's incredibly rewarding to team up with another cop and gang up on racers and make their day really bad. If I had to choose either though, I'd have to say racer. The tension is through the roof.

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