Criterion are back, baby, but the playing field has changed somewhat since their last outing. As Playground Games and Turn 10 prepare to drop the impressive Forza Horizon, we caught up with Need For Speed: Most Wanted's executive producer - Matt Webster - last week to chat about why Burnout with real cars is awesome, why Facebook games give social gaming a bad name, and why Most Wanted is set to be one of the most connected, competitive, and compelling games of this year.
Matt Gardner (Dealspwn): With Criterion perhaps being most closely associated with the Burnout franchise, how would you respond to consumers and critics looking at Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit and suggesting it's simply Burnout Paradise, but with real cars in a new city?
Matt Webster: What's wrong with that?! (Laughs.) That would be the flippant response. To me it's an easy comparison to make because it's an open world game, in a car. Clearly, we've made an open world game in a car before. I think that the differences are night and day, but without making Burnout Paradise and Need For Speed Hot Pursuit, we never would have been able to make this game. You're always going to be influenced by what you've done in the past, as much as what you play. So people will see where we've been influenced by Burnout Paradise and Hot Pursuit, but they'll also hopefully see where we've been influences by other things.
Every game that we make is a reflection of who we are, and where we are as a studio at any given time. But it's a natural progression: to look at Most Wanted and say at first glance “that looks like Burnout”, well they're right, because we made both games.
But that brings us back to the flippant side of things, the genuine response is “What's wrong with that?”
Dealspwn: Well to be fair, we absolutely loved Burnout Paradise...
Matt Webster: Yeah, Burnout Paradise was a fucking great game! We're still so incredibly proud of that game, and frankly Paradise with real cars sounds really cool! Of course, it's not quite as simple as that, but you can see where people are coming from and how they reach that initial response.
Dealspwn: As long-time fans of Criterion racers, it's also good to see a fully-fledged driving game following Burnout Crash...
Matt Webster: (Laughs.) Oh it's funny you say that, I was just talking to another guy a few minutes ago and I was saying something along the lines of “...and after Burnout Crash...”, and he just said “That's not really a Burnout game”, and I thought well, surely we'd be the best judges of that.
Dealspwn: Having spent hours playing both Crash and Paradise, it really is a Burnout game. It's clearly not a numerical sequel, it's clearly a bit of fun...
Matt Webster: Exactly. You've got to try something new every once in a while. And this is the thing; if we listened to all of our fans and followed their every word we'd only ever end up making Burnout 1 over and over again.
I mean, it's great to have passionate fans, and we're incredibly grateful for them, and the fresh perspectives they bring. But you can't go around making the same game over and over again. We'd get bored, and the public would get bored too.
Dealspwn: Following the success of Hot Pursuit, it's clear that EA trust you with their flagship racing series, giving you the freedom to go back and reboot as you see fit. So why Most Wanted? What was it about that game that made you want to deliver a Criterion take on things?
Matt Webster: In a nutshell, it's the name – the setup, the premise, the title. Many of the best songs start off with a great title. Someone's come up with this emphatic title, or a statement, or a line that sparks off a flood of creativity. So Most Wanted, for us, is a really powerful statement: be most wanted, become most wanted. It's conjures up connotations of notoriety, desire, competition, and we just found it to be a really good setup. But we don't make sequels to other people's games. 2012 is a vastly different gaming world to 2005, and just as 2010's Hot Pursuit was our take on Hot Pursuit, so will this be our take on Most Wanted.
Dealspwn: Perhaps one of the most interesting features about this game is that all of the cars are unlocked from the start, it's just a matter of finding them, and that feeds back into the gameplay too. I found myself looking more for hidden alleys, smashing through every fence I could find, and so on...
Matt Webster: We wanted to make Fairhaven a fun place to explore, and what better way to do that than with all of the cars you want littered about everywhere begging to be found?
Dealspwn: But is there a danger of making the other cars too disposable? Once I'd found the Ariel Atom, I didn't really even want to drive anything else?
Matt Webster: You will...
Dealspwn: But how do you go about facilitating that in-game? I jumped into a handful of other cars to do their initial races and unlock the nitrous boost for those vehicles as a means of ensuring wider coverage for critical purposes, but I really missed that Atom.
Matt Webster: Cars are a little like sports teams: everyone's got their favourite. For some reason you were drawn to the Atom, but it's not great in every situation. For all of its zippy handling and acceleration, its top speed isn't great, it's not the best in a police chase, it's incredibly fragile, and it's terrible off-road.
Dealspwn: It was really bad off-road...
Matt Webster: Well there you go. This is why it's so important for us to give players choice. If we were following normal conventions, you'd have to play the game for six to eight hours to unlock that car. Where's the fun in that? We think that games are just way to serious these days, and the only answer to that is to try and bring back that sense of fun; that fun is the most important consideration of all.
If you turned around to me and said, “I really want to drive the Ariel Atom, why can't I drive it?” and I replied saying,” Well you can, but you've got to do this many races and earn this many credits...” that just makes no sense any more. This is 2012! We're all carrying connected devices around in our pockets; this is the “right here, right now” generation. If DVDs were games it'd be like forcing people to watch the Dutch version to unlock a bunch of cool special features. If the best part of the moments to moment gameplay is being able to drive all of these really cool cars, then we say go drive the cars. Let's think of a different way to motivate people in an open world.
Dealspwn: How do you go about doing that in terms of systems? Fairhaven, perhaps even more so than Paradise City, feels like an urban playground.
Matt Webster: Well, we like to say that an open world deserves an open structure. So, let's take what you said earlier about driving around, exploring and looking for cars. We term that “distraction gameplay”, and it goes with something that we've always wanted to be able to say about one of our games – that not playing the game is the game. Not playing the races or events that we've authored for you, just going around and doing your own thing, that's as much a part of the game as the things we've created and set up. So we have to give you lots of variety, and we do that with finding cars, smashing through security gates and discovering new areas, jumping through billboards, speed cameras, and racing. First of all you get variety: I want to race, I want to explore, shit my mate's face is on that billboard...let's smash it! We don't know what mood a player will be in when they sit down to play, so we try to offer a loose structure that can cater to any need. If the driving is great fun, if we've designed enough cool fun things to do, and there are a bunch of structures that are extraordinarily socially connected, there's going to be a huge amount of player freedom and player choice.
Dealspwn: That social experience, that connectivity, that seems to be really driving gaming forward at the moment. Every EA game seems to have a “-log” these days...
Matt Webster: It's all about the social experience, and this is an incredibly social game. There's nothing social about a Facebook game spamming my feed, or bombarding me with adverts, and harassing me to invite my friends every two seconds. But if you can make me want to engage with a friend in a shared gaming experience in a shared environment, there's something really powerful in that. And if you can provide persistent personal competition, throw up emergent challenges that mean more, are more personal, to me and you and anyone who plays the game, that's incredibly exciting.
Dealspwn: Well one of the greatest instruments of that has been Autolog. How do you go about weaving social elements further into the game? We've seen one example that’ll stick faces of your friends onto billboards for players to smash, but how have you gone about really ratcheting up that connected experience for Most Wanted, and where do you see Autolog going from here?
Matt Webster: Well this is really what I think of when I hear the term “social gaming”. This is what social gaming is. First of all you have to be really true to the one principle that defines that sub-genre: it's about friends. If you deviate from that, you dilute the notion of social gaming entirely. Everything is better with friends: I see my friend's face; I want to compete. A pop up tells me someone has beaten my time; I want to compete. That desire is innate, and all Autolog does is enable that. It makes everything immediately accessible and simply serves the same function as leaderboards have done for so long, but faster, with greater efficiency and integration and immediacy than ever before. It takes those competitive elements and instead of making you go looking for them, Autolog pushes them right into your face, constantly daring you to compete. That's social gaming, not "invite your friends to receive credits".
There are two really important by-products that Autolog has given us in Most Wanted. First of all, in any open world game, you'll have the paradox of choice. “There's so much for me to do that I don't know what to do or where to begin!” It's like a massive specials board in a restaurant, so you ask for a recommendation. But a recommendation from a friend carries even more weight. The other thing is the broadness of the systems that we're tracking in this game; in Hot Pursuit we only ever tracked your fastest race time. Here you're smashing boards, and hurtling through speed cameras, and there are more systems, more ways to get involved. But it's here also that the unlocked cars come into play. If you turn up a month after everyone else in any other game, they'll have much better cars, you'll be at a disadvantage, so you wouldn't be able to compete. But here, of course you can! All of the cars are unlocked from the start, so we're broadening that sense of competition, widening the playing field, and inviting everyone to come and play the way they want to play regardless of when they bought the game, or how much time they've got logged on the clock.
Dealspwn: That forward thinking, that getting rid of the unnecessary to make things more convenient for the player ties into the menu system too, and it was really nice being able to change cars and pull up challenges and multiplayer sessions just off the D-pad...
Matt Webster: Well any time you're waiting around is wasted time. It's just not necessary. We design things by playing, and then we ask questions. Why doesn't this console automatically track what I've done and let me know when my friends have beaten my time? And that's where Autolog came from. For this one, it was like “Why do I have to pause, or get out of the car and break my immersion, and lose game time if I want to change something?” It's just an idea that develops. Driving the car is awesome fun, so let's keep players doing that as much as we possibly can. It's like being on a rollercoaster. The experience is awesome, but an hour long queue will ruin that. If we can reduce the queue time, and make it so you don't even have to queue at all, you're just going to want to ride that rollercoaster again and again. And the principle is the same here: keep the players behind the wheel, doing what they love doing, and work to make the options as accessible as possible without ever leaving the car. Why make a conventional game when you can make an unconventional game?
That's what Most Wanted is all about.