Throughout its 17-year history, EA's Need For Speed series has seen its fair share of ups and downs, and its approach to racing games has varied just as wildly.
In the past few years alone, the series has dipped into simulation racing with Need For Speed: Shift, added a social framework to arcade racing with Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, and now the series has returned to EA Black Box in Vancouver for the story-focused Need For Speed: The Run.
Black Box built this upcoming title with the Frostbite 2 engine from Battlefield 3 studio DICE, marking one of the first times a developer other than DICE itself has built a game using the new tech. Along with Frostbite 2's new physics model and visuals, Need For Speed: The Run will also integrate the Autolog social features introduced in the Criterion-developed Hot Pursuit.
Here, Gamasutra speaks with Black Box executive producer Jason DeLong to examine the evolution of the Need for Speed franchise, and how DICE's new engine and other production changes affect development at Black Box and EA at large.
Need For Speed has gone through a lot of evolutions over the years, and it seems like... don't take this the wrong way, but it's like some stick and some don't.
Yeah. I think when you look at Need For Speed as a brand, as a franchise, it is massive; it's the biggest brand in racing and one of the biggest brands in games. And for us, what we want to do is make sure that we're offering something that feels relevant to gamers, feels relevant to car culture, is respectful of the world we're trying to recreate, and with that comes a little bit of trial and error.
I think with what Hot Pursuit did last year was a great reinvention of the franchise to a certain point, especially with the integration of things like Autolog and adding that social competition aspect to it. And for us at Black Box, what we've always done is sort of the traditional narrative based, Need For Speed games -- Most Wanted, Underground -- those all had stories attached to them, and they're some of the most successful games in the Need For Speed canon. And so in doing that, what we wanted to do was tell the story in a new way.
Obviously with technology limitations in the past, we couldn't tell a story really effectively. We would film these cutscenes where the guys talk to the camera, which has an inherent cheesiness, if you will, that made it hard to really convey the seriousness of the story that we wanted to do. So in moving to Frostbite 2, that allowed us to really for the first time tell the story in a way that was effective and was relevant to games.
We're really excited about the direction; the testing that we got back so far has been very, very promising. That people want some sort of motivation behind why they're racing, especially when you're racing for an extended period of time. And with the size of what these games are now, it's easy to sort of just get lost in race after race. So time and motivation behind it and having the story with it -- a cross-country journey -- was really important for us.
How did you end up selecting Frostbite 2?
A couple reasons. It all started when the company decided to go with a two studio model for Need For Speed, because as you know, Black Box traditionally did it year-over-year in the past. When they decided to split the development across Criterion and Black Box to give each studio the time and development to create a quality experience, one of the things that we obviously had to do was to reinvest in our technology, because we hadn't been able to because of the yearly cycles in the past. So we looked at several options: do we advance the engine that we currently have? What other third party ones are out there?
And when we realized the game that we wanted to make, which we knew was based in a cinematic kind of Hollywood story telling fashion, we looked at Frostbite and it seemed like, "Well, it's internal; we can work closely with the dev team" and it was the right choice. So it allowed us to get a character in the game, have incredible, believable characters in addition to amazing worlds and amazing looking cars. Their visual effects work is second to none, the world destruction, their audio is incredible. And most importantly, one of the nice side benefits was that it's an incredibly content-driven tool, which allowed us to create more content than we've ever done before.
We have over 300 kilometers of track in the game, which is more than three times you've seen in any previous Need For Speed. Because we can just iterate so quickly on the content and get to quality very quickly and make those drives incredibly fun very quickly, it allowed us to just provide this epic race across the country, but in a believable way.
In terms of Frostbite, DICE uses vehicles, but not in the same way in as you guys do, right?
Yeah, so we collaborated with DICE on getting a very deep racing mechanic of handling physics into the game. We did a cross-studio development on the Frostbite 2 engine that we're using. And yeah, it was a lot of collaboration and work with them to get things like our road tool, which is our internal tool that allows us to build a track very quickly.
The tool that you just spoke of, was that a preexisting tool that you got into the Frostbite tool chain? Were you able to adapt your old tools that the team was already familiar with?
Yeah, exactly. I mean we didn't want to throw everything out that was working, and the road tool was something we spent a lot of time perfecting and allowing designers and artists to very quickly lay out a ribbon of road and to determine if it's fun or not. If we had to rebuild that from scratch, it probably would've taken more time than what was worth it at that point. So again, for us to be able to collaborate really well with DICE and get the things that we needed in, it's been a great experience.
Does DICE have a central tech development team?
Yeah, they have a Frostbite team. Just like any major studio has sort of a tech department, right?
Well, sometimes it changes. You know? [laughs] Sometimes with studios, you talk to people a couple years later and they're rethinking how they handle their tech.
I think Frostbite has become as big, at least within EA, as Unreal is or anything else. So they need a support team that's working on that all the time, and they do a great job.
A bit ago, you talked about wanting to bring in some narrative to enhance the game. How do you filter in what the audience requests and what does the audience of the series think about narrative?
We have a fairly tight connection with our community. We have some of the best community managers out there, and we know what people are asking for and we're making sure that we're appealing to what people want. And at the same time, we're also looking at the market in general, and what people are playing and what they're enjoying. As I said before, Most Wanted, Underground, all these games have a story to them; there was a motivation behind it. But I think, based on the technology we had, we couldn't tell the story as effectively as we wanted to. Now, in going with Frostbite, we're able to for the first time tell the story from within the game.
I also think it's about making a story that feels relevant to current culture in terms of what people are wanting to see in movies and see in games, and where we draw our inspiration from. And obviously movies like Fast Five just setting box office records on its opening weekend, movies like the Bourne trilogy, which bring kind of a more human element to it. We were inspired by a lot of different things, but in the end we wanted to make sure that we're delivering an experience that doesn't feel forced, that doesn't feel cheesy, but is believable. And that's really what we want to do.
Obviously you had a longer cycle, so did you have a lengthier window of pre-production to make these kinds of decisions?
Yes, definitely. That was one of the really nice things about going to the cross studio development was that we weren't forced to come up with a concept and go. It was like we could test it, we can try it out, we can say, "What if it was more like this? What if it was more like that?" At the same time, we could work on our technology to say, "Okay, we want to make sure we're supporting what we want to do with the game."
It's always been pre-production, alpha, final (snaps fingers). It was just always so quick on a yearly development cycle. But to have, to be able to space out our development so that we can really focus on our pre-production, it makes sure we're innovating. And that's the important thing - we're not going to survive if we don't innovate year-over-year.
Do you have a road map for the franchise now, a specific goal with the franchise now?
Absolutely. I mean Need For Speed is a franchise, it's a brand, it's a global brand, and it's a very well-known brand. Like any good business and any good brand, we obviously have a road map of the future and what we want to accomplish, and we're feeling good. With Hot Pursuit obviously being as successful as it was and how good we're feeling about The Run, I think Need For Speed is on track to hit its goals.