With the franchise turning 21 years old this year, Need For Speed has often failed to match the same lofty quality standards as set out by its burgeoning sales success. This wasn’t helped by Electronic Arts often taking the easy route of constantly releasing sub-par sequels in the past, and it wasn’t until Criterion Games took over the franchise in 2010 that the games industry finally got a Need For Speed game that was able to successfully marry quality control with the series’s sales potential. Since then, and with many of Criterion Games staff having moved over to Ghost Games, Electronic Arts saw to reboot the franchise in order to restore the franchise’s credibility. And with this year’s game being the first result of the publisher’s attempt to incorporate the franchise’s previously divergent focuses into one release, Ghost and Electronic Arts both aimed to re-align the brand’s multiple strengths by having one core vision. I spoke to James Moauat (Lead Designer at Ghost Games) about this, and whilst this interview should have been published over a month ago, we got to speak about a myriad of issues surrounding the Need For Speed franchise in what is surely a comprehensive attempt in attempting to learn more about how Ghost Games works and what the future holds for the driving series.
Ghost Studios is comprised of members of Criterion. What is your personal history with regards to the Need For Speed and Burnout franchise that Criterion were associated with and in what way do you believe that you’re qualified to be able to helm the reboot?
So when we brought Criterion in for the last game, Rivals, we knew that they’d helmed the previous few Need For Speeds. And they had a ton of value, not only experience, but tech that we could borrow and continue to build on. And so we brought a lot of those guys over. But I’m not a Criterion guy myself. I came from Ubisoft and other studios prior to that, and I’ve worked with other driving games such as Driver: San Francisco. But I found that my real strength is that I’m bringing the design talent and bringing the design team together so that we can make the right analytical choices and make solid gameplay choices, and then bank on the strength and the experience of the Need For Speed veterans that we have on our team.
Can I ask as to why the reboot came about? I know one reason as to why a reboot comes about is because it allows the production studio and its talent, from a marketing perspective, to re-invigorate the franchise and wipe the slate clean. But given that the Need For Speed franchise has always had an immensely varied portfolio, if you will look at Hot Pursuit versus say…
You can go from Hot Pursuit all the way to Porsche Unlimited to the original stuff and there’s, like you’re saying, there’s a huge spread in the style.
Given that there exists a myriad of styles and design approaches, why the need for a reboot?
I think it’s exactly because of the so many styles. We found that a lot of people weren’t sure what to expect from Need For Speed because we’d tried so many different takes on it. We want to make sure that we could then say, “We know what is made each of these games great. How do we boil that down into one definitive experience of Need For Speed“. So we used that time, and kind of amazingly, we were able to take the year off and really analyze what needed to be done. So the reboot comes from the fact that it is such a long and storied franchise, and that we needed to make sure that consumers going forward know, “Ah! This is what Need For Speed means”. This is what we are going to build on as the future of the product.
Do you also think that because Need For Speed was almost annualized, that maybe the franchise [and audiences] was suffering from franchise fatigue?
Possibly yes, and that was one of the things that the experiment of taking this year off helped us with is to see how the community responded to that. So far, the response has been really positive. People are happy that we were taking the time to really make sure we’re making the right game.
Given that you’re essentially looking to capitalize upon all the trends of pretty much every single Need For Speed game across all of the franchise’s titles, does this somehow imply that the Need For Speed reboot would essentially be incorporating playing styles from every single game, across all the spectrum, so that you’re catering for arcade fans as well as the more sim-orientated fan?
How are you going to be able to implement these when they are essentially very different stylistic mechanics and incorporate them into the gameplay?
So one of the things we have in the software today is the fact that you can tune your car to be drift and be that more modern style, or what we call ‘grip’ which is the more classic “I want to take the best racing line, break into the corner and accelerate at the apex” and tune your car to be able to drive in those ways. But we’ve still made sure that they’re balanced, so there’s no competitive advantage in that regards. That way, we can cater to the fans that love what we’ve been doing recently, but bring back a lot of the people who have been saying, “It’s not the way I want to drive”! That has taken a lot of technological wizardry under the hood, but we’re very happy with the fact that we’ve been able to create this balance and a lot of tools, so players can get in there and find to an all sorts of options to find the balance they’re looking for.
But if say, somebody is an arcade oriented fan, can they play the game more like Burnout as opposed to somebody who is essentially a Gran Turismo sim-oriented fan? Are you able to cater successfully for both types of fans, especially given the fact that Need For Speed, if you look at its heritage, has been able to do that quite successfully?
We know that we always kind of walk a line between sim and arcade, and that’s what those two handling styles are. We don’t want to get so extreme so that’s its polarizing. We want to make sure that each style allows the player to play the way they want but it’s still a balanced experience. So when we approached it, we said we need these different angle models and we need to find the way they work together, but we’re never going to go so far to say that this has to be an absolute sim. We’re still going to be reflecting the Need For Speed style. We don’t want to be so crazy arcade that it feels much like Burnout. We still have to maintain the Need For Speed style.
There are five characters. Have they been licensed or are they make-believe fiction?
So we’ve announced five character icons and these are real world guys; Magnus Walker, Ken Block, Morohoshi-san, Nakai-san and The Risky Devil Crew. These are all guys from real world car culture, who we have approached to talk about their excitement about what they bring to cars. Magnus Walker is a great example, as he’s well known for his collection of Porsche. The way he drives, he drives his cars crazy fast through L.A. He’s a great person to embody the speed style of playing our game. He’s quite excited to be that representation in the game.
Given that Need For Speed (2015) is essentially exemplifying outlaw driving with the whole “Cops and Robbers” thing, isn’t Electronic Arts essentially promoting deviant culture by promoting the kind of norms and values where you associate yourself with outlaws and people who promote dangerous driving in real life? Do you think that maybe your game gives off a bad image to people who probably consider Electronic Arts to be more family friendly?
Possibly. I think if you look back at the Need For Speed franchise, there’s always been that sense of balance between you driving fast cars and cops always being a factor. We never promote violence in a meaningful way. There was never any running down of civilians or any of that. Yes, you’re breaking the law but it’s a little bit irresponsible. It’s never a very dangerous act and that you’re trying to do malicious things. We’ve worked really hard just trying to straight that balance. Even when we picked our outlaw, we don’t want to pick someone who’s an outright criminal who has done terrible things because it does send the wrong message. But we didn’t want to ignore that part of the game because cops and how you interact with them are important. It would be a disservice to the franchise to say “You know what? Driving like this is totally normal and not a problem”. The cops are an aspect of the gameplay.
But if you look at FIFA… One of things that the FIFA franchise prides itself on is licensing players. But when Wayne Rooney slept with… whatever women it was, there was a vocal outcry from many people who said, “We don’t want this person on the front cover promoting FIFA because he sets a poor example for the FIFA organisation, he sets a poor precedent for youth, and for Electronic Arts”. That’s one of the reason as to why Tiger Woods was struck off and why you guys no longer associate yourself with him. With all the indiscretions related to outlaw driving, these are real people running the risk of running over real people, and they don’t promote safe driving… Given the setbacks that you / EA have encountered with the problems of licensing and promoting certain people who have essentially believed their own hype, are you not essentially setting yourself up for a fall?
I think that’s a risk whenever you bring real life characters into your game. You gave some good examples of problems that have come up in the past, and each franchise has to choose how to deal with it. We have taken great pains to pick people that embody the types of play that the game is about. But they’re not actually terrible people who’ve done terrible things. It is a risk! Maybe those people in their lives may get into hot water and we’ll have to respond too. But we have done our due diligence to make sure that we think we are aligning with people that are still promoting the types of stuff that we think Need For Speed is about.
But if you think about it… Tiger Woods and Wayne Rooney didn’t do anything that was that terrible. They just slept with random people. There’s nothing terrible about them. Nobody got killed. Whereas, you are associating with people who do run the risk of getting people killed… I’d rather sleep with ten women than run the risk of killing some random person. That’s a risk, and a legitimate risk that these outlaw drivers face. Now there is that argument where sex is bad but violence is okay. There’s that disconnect. Why is violence okay? Why is shooting people in the face socially acceptable in terms of norms and values, but sleeping with somebody, and showing your breast off is something to be frowned upon? Now you’ve taken that example to its obvious conclusion. Why did Electronic Arts take the necessary steps to reprimand Wayne Rooney and Tiger Woods for something that was extremely minor in the grand scheme of things, which was a sex related act, but when it’s a violent act or the risk of violent act, EA are more than happy to jump in bed with the enemy?
I can’t speak for the other franchises. I’m so far removed from that. They have their own issues to deal with. I think the risk that you’re pointing out is valid – that these people could in the course of their lives do things that they haven’t done before. But that is the key, we haven’t actually picked terrible people who expel these values of doing violent, terrible things. They have their own brands. Ken Block, for example is very well known as a driver, racer, a rally driver and a stunt driver. He doesn’t go out and do terrible malicious things. He could, and we might have to deal with that. But we made sure to pick people who not only have the brands that match up with our world and our fantasy, but we still think of the right package to bring on board because they aren’t going to do something we think is going to be a terrible thing. I think that is business decision any franchise would make.
Need For Speed previously has never had to rely upon licensing real world actors or driving stars, but as part of its reboot, it has taken the necessary steps to do so. Given the immense success that Need For Speed has enjoyed prior to the reboot, do you think licensing these stars or these five people was absolutely necessary to the commercial appeal of the product? Do you not think that apart from the licensing problems that we’ve talked about already, such as in terms of what they may get up to in real life, but do you not think that maybe those resources would probably might been better spent on making the game a better product?
I think they do make the game a better product. One of our big goals is to make sure we’re seeking with authentic depictions of how car culture works today. We’ve linked up with our partner Speedhunters to get the right style of fuel, and even the right cars and parts in the game. Part of that authenticity is these people. So Nakai-san who I mentioned before, he is a legendary builder. He runs the Rauh-Welt brand. He does aftermarket conversion of Porches. He brings a serious amount of authenticity and believability to the world, and having him in the game I think makes it a great experience and makes it better.
You mentioned the word “authentic”. One of things I’ve noticed from the videos is the Google Maps icon, and as part of that you’ve been able to recreate a pretty believable rendition of Los Angeles. But when you bring up real-world environments which haven’t been fictionalized, that in itself brings up a whole host of licensing issues because you can’t depict a certain key monument. Did you license any key monuments, and how far have the licensing efforts gone to ensure that the environment is as authentic as reasonably possible? And going back to the previous argument, would it have been better use of resources to spend money on the five driving icons or spend that money on say, a depiction of the Hollywood sign? How authentic are the Google Maps?
When you look at our world, we call it Ventura Bay, and the key to this whole world is that it’s an idealised Los Angeles. It is fictional and we have taken liberties and taken out the boring parts, taken out the parts that don’t fit right with the style of player we want, and created this sense. So when you look back at a lot of the Need For Speed worlds that have been anchored to North American Cities, they have been fictionalised. We could have gone further and said we need to have absolutely licensed these areas, and some places we made sure we put the right stuff in, but it was less about the mainstream license such as “we need the ‘Hollywood’ sign” and more “we need to make sure that we’re getting the spots maybe near Magnus Walker’s bridge for example”. Those are the types of areas we think are much more key to getting the feel of this underground world and less about the glitz of the LA scene. Every depiction of Los Angeles is going to be different in a game. I think we nailed ours in terms of creating a fun driving world that still allows you to get the sense of “I recognize this area. I’ve been here before”.
But if you think about it, that authenticity and the ability to license names of [stadium] places is one of the key core strengths of FIFA, which is why the game franchise has been able to trounce PES as its main competitor in terms of sales and influence. I know that you’ve brought on board five outlaw drivers as a way to help strengthen the Need For Speed brand, but there are people out there don’t care about playing games as much and only care about eh best product, but there are also people out there who pick FIFA primarily because of its strength in the licensing of stadiums and player names etc. I know that you’re taking the FIFA-inspired licensing model and bringing it to Need For Speed by having these licensed outlaw drivers. At the same time, you’re also fictionalising certain aspects of Los Angeles which may, ultimately, end up alienating players who do want to drive around Los Angeles. Do you not think that, from a naysayer’s perspective, you’ve got your priorities all mixed up?
I don’t think so. If I had, I wouldn’t be part of the project. I think it is important to give emphasis that we spent a lot of time listening to what communities wanted out of this game, and we’ve made some bets based on that. So in this case, we haven’t had a lot of people saying “I need to drive a perfect depiction of Los Angeles”, but they have said “I need to customize my car, I need to get back in the way my car drives”, and we’ve spent a lot more time there. Creating that world where we’re bringing real aftermarket parts in, bringing real people from car culture in, and making sure that we created an authentic world, even though the fictional environment you’re driving is based on, but not a completely accurate version of Los Angeles. I don’t think that is going to offend anyone out there, they’re going to enjoy the experience of driving this environment.
Because the game has an open-world, the gameplay videos reminded me of a more sanitised version of Grand Theft Auto. I know you can’t jump out of about cars and walk around, but the game does encourage free-form driving where you can speed up and slow down. But the thing is that Need For Speed has traditionally always focused on a “need for speed”. It’s always been a case to getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible. There hasn’t been any real need to ever slow down. It’s always been an adrenaline orientated franchise that gives people their “need for speed”. When I saw the video there was a scene where you had to drive slowly in order to not be pestered by the police. Do you think that promoting a more pedestrian style of driving may turn off some fans?
We don’t promote it. We had a lot of feedback that the cops, while important, some people threatened by them and they want the ability to maybe drive slowly, check out the world, explore at their own pace, without cops being all over them like crazy.
That is the one thing I really enjoyed about Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit with its open world mode. Whereas the traditional game almost felt like a hybrid between the old Outrun and Burnout games. It’s interesting because in the new Need For Speed, encouraging people to explore and drive slower is actually part of the main game, and not something that is another game mode which is tacked on.
I don’t think we ever really encourage people to drive as slowly as possible. We encourage them explore the five different ways to play. So if you want to drive fast, that’s part of it. But if you also want to get involved with the style, it’s not about being the fastest guy out there, you can take a long drift and get points and build your reputation that way. We’ve tried to diversify, so it’s not simply about appealing to one type of player. We have heard feedback that some guys like to get in and play with her car, but they don’t necessarily have the skill to drive as fast as other people, and then, they don’t have as many things to do. So we tried to diversify what Need For Speed offers.
I’ve noticed that the cut scenes are live action.
Microsoft have done a ‘Fast and Furious’ package for Forza as a tie-in package. Given that the Need For Speed movie was essentially a… I wouldn’t call it a ripoff or a clone, but it was going for the same ‘Fast and Furious’ vibe. The new Need For Speed game has live action scenes. Apart from maybe being a stylistic choice, are there any connotations to be made between the live action scenes and the live action movie? Do any of these have a connection, and if so, what bearing do the live action scenes in the game have on the Need For Speed film franchise?
The first thing we’ll tackle is the live action… When we came to it, the live action is a nod back to the older Need For Speed games which also had live action in them. A lot of people loved the characters that were created and the way the actors portrayed them, that sometimes the other Need For Speed games didn’t have. So that was one of the first things we looked to, how can we portray our narrative better. The Need For Speed film entity was a parallel project but not one of ours as the Ghost development team. So while we’re happy to see that they’re exploring that, it was all always more of a serendipity that “Oh! We’re making a movie, but there’s also a game that was using the full motion sequences”, and that’s fine. We really want to make sure that we’re capturing that sense of what Need For Speed has done in the past. We’re going to get a nod to that style again and re-incorporate that sense of storytelling.
So as part of your plans for the reboot, will the game have any bearing on the film franchise and vice versa?
I think there’s always the possibility. There’s no close doors there, but at this point we’re more worried about exploring the game franchise first and we’ll see where it leads us.
The Need For Speed reboot promotes outlaw driving, but you also talked about the earlier Need For Speed games such as the one on the 3DO. But around the same time of Need For Speed‘s release on the 3DO, another outlaw driving game that Electronic Arts used to promote, and that also had live action was Road Rash. Are there any plans to bring Road Rash back?
I have no idea! I personally would love to see Road Rash. It was one of my favorite games. I owned a 3DO back in the day. Need For Speed and Road Rash were two of the games I played the heck out of. If we’d do one, I’d love to be involved. As far as I know, it’s not something that Ghost is handling. But EA is a big company, so who knows where it might go with it.
Now Ghost are basically part Criterion, if that sort of make sense. Like, Criterion “reborn” as it were…
We have some Criterion members, sure, and it adds to our legacy, but we are lot more than just that Criterion legacy. We’ve drawn from other companies. We’ve found the right mix of staff to make sure we’re bringing that strength, but we’re also creating a new sense of what the studio is.
Such as yourself where you’ve came from Ubisoft. Now previously, Nintendo approached Criterion with regards to doing a new F-Zero game. Given that F-Zero is a futuristic racer, and given that there are no futuristic races out there on the market and Sony are now no longer interested in the Wipeout franchise, will Ghost be utilising some of its extensive talent in maybe making a futuristic racer in future?
At this point, we’re a Need For Speed studio.
Does that not make you feel creatively boxed in?
I would say that you would be boxed in no matter where you work then. Almost every studio is focused on their franchise. There’s very few studios that do more than one game. I don’t think that’s a big deal, and if anything, it makes sure that we’re specialized and we can make the best of what we’re doing. If we split our attention, chances are we’ll split our focus and we may suffer in quality instead.
But as a lead designer yourself, obviously, you want to be creatively fulfilled. One can only do the same thing repeatedly for so long before their creativity becomes stale. You’ll probably start to think maybe you need fresh challenges. The fact that you are creatively leading the Need For Speed team and project, and Ghost is now the Need For Speed studio, does that not make you feel more pressurized in living up to the expectations generated by the Need For Speed legacy, but also making you kind of despondent about the future?
Not at all…
Because ultimately, you can only do the same thing for so long. We aren’t all like James Cameron with a nine year vision…
If we’re looking at what we’re doing with the reboot, it’s actually super exciting that we’ve been able to take the story franchise, long history, and get new blood and new fresh ideas into it. We’re able to make it ours, and say “this is what we think it is”. So if I were to do this for twenty years? Yes, I might feel stagnant. Right now, I think we are just at the very beginning of a really exciting ride for the franchise and I’m excited.
Driver: San Francisco… one of the games that you previously worked on for Ubisoft was famed for its storyline. It was also famed for its… “X-Files” style gameplay. Will any of those supernatural components be making their way to the Need For Speed reboot?
No, we’re still grounded in a very authentic feel. I think Driver: San Francisco had a very cool story to tell, but we’re telling a different story.
What about the soundtrack? How much emphasis is being place on this, and will there be any licensed tracks?
Plenty of licensed tracks, and we’re definitely looking back at some of the previous soundtracks to make sure we’re getting a nod to those old style of songs we had in there, but keeping some of the new stuff in there as well, so we’re staying current.
Given Electronics Arts’s history, and I say this in the best possible way and without meaning to cause offence, where the company has shipped AAA products in a broken form, with Battlefield 4 being the biggest culprit as it made international gaming headlines for all the wrong reasons. How confident are you that the Need For Speed reboot will release to a certain quality threshold?
I think this is something I am definitely pretty happy with actually. Part of why we took that year off was to make sure that we took the time we needed. There’s always going to be technical challenges, but one of our [very] strong commitments is make sure that we continue to support the product. So we will come out with the strong product. We will make sure there’s still more there. If we find problems and the community has issues, we want to responded those as well.
The game is coming up for PC, XBox One and PS4?
So all of the tech is related to current gen?
None of the legacy platforms?
No. We decided we wanted to push the graphical edge. I think if you see the software, it really shows. People are floored by the amount of fidelity we have. We didn’t want to have to make any sacrifices, like splitting the team and focusing on two different genres, or whatever that may entail. We made the choice and EA backed us up, and that’s really exciting to know that they have that kind of confidence in both us and in this generation.
Criterion was approached by Nintendo to do an F-Zero game, which implies that [at the time] Nintendo had a lot of faith in Criterion to handle its intellectual properties. IP which they are extremely protective of. But this move also conveyed the strength in relationship between Criterion / Electronic Arts and Nintendo at the time. I know that Projects CARS got cancelled recently because of the Wii U’s technical limitations, but would we ever get to see a Need For Speed game on future Nintendo consoles?
I wouldn’t rule it out, but I’m not a tech guy, so I don’t make the platform choices. I’m the “gameplay guy”. I want as many people to be able to play the game as possible, so if we have that route, I’d love to follow it, but the tech guys make the calls for certain reasons and I’ll back them up on it.