Electronic Arts' Need For Speed has passed 100 million units across the racing franchise, which has seen some 12 iterations in 16 years.
"The main thrust of the sales has actually come in the last six years, where we've averaged over 12 million units per year," says franchise VP of global marketing Keith Munro, who most recently worked on latest title Need For Speed Shift.
Munro began with the franchise as product manager in 2001 on Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit 2, and since that time, he's witnessed a significant evolution in the tone of the series, one he credits with the last six years' rapid uptick in sales -- 80 million of the 100 million units have been sold in that period.
"The older Need For Speed games were more of the exotic supercars on the Italian countryside," he says. That changed in 2003 with the launch of Need For Speed: Underground, which Munro calls "a shift in style for us in a pretty dramatic way."
"We included street racing vehicles and sport compacts, and cars that were much more accessible, and in a way, relevant -- because our consumers might actually own these cars, or parents might have one in the garage," he says.
"We're giving people the opportunity to take these accessible cars and trick them out, add their own personal expressions on a very deep level, both in the visuals and in the performance... that really struck a chord, and saw us take a great leap forward."
That continual focus on youth street racing culture, rather than more traditional high-end vehicle simulation, is what's differentiated the franchise over the last several years, Munro says. "We take a much more edgy approach to our games," he says. "We want them to be rich and thick with style, and we want to be highly aspirational in terms of youth automotive culture," says Munro. "We're also very accessible -- you can't sell 100 million units by being a hardcore-oriented racing title."
Earlier this year, Electronic Arts unveiled a "pillar" strategy for the title -- "We're actually making different games for different audiences," says Munro. After a close study of consumers, the team saw a huge market for action driving titles, another for authentic simulators, and then a "very large" market for those who want what Munro describes as "over-the-top, arcade racing game experiences on Nintendo platforms."
"We set about a strategy to have different studios based on their core strengths, talents and engines developing different games for different audiences, based on our research," says Munro.
With Shift, he adds, "We didn't want to create a clean, clinical, sterile sim racing game -- we wanted something that was very visceral and very athletic, and almost violent in the car, in terms of what it feels like to be in the cockpit and what it feels like to have that true driver's experience."
For the game's developers, this starts with some very tangible experimentation -- with the help of pro racers, they test-drive the cars that are in the game. "We give this opportunity to the guys who are closest to creating the physics," Munro says. "To actually feel like what it's like inside the car... it scares the crap out of you with a pro driver!"
"But letting people feel the physics, the sound of the road, the sensation on your body, the feebadck you get on the car, the audio -- it starts with that. We have our guys out on the track regularly."
Electronic Arts is building the Wii title Need For Speed Nitro, which is shipping to retail November 3. "It's the first-ever Need For Speed built from the ground up for the Nintendo platforms," Munro says. The aim is to have it be accessible and pick-up-and-play, and yet still provide challenge and depth for core players.