Criterion's two Need for Speed titles - Hot Pursuit (2010) and Most Wanted (2012) - reinvigorated a franchise that had fallen into a bit of a slump. The first one introduced autolog - an innovative system to bring your friends into the experience, while the second paired that with an open world experience. As new studio Ghost Games enters the fray with Need for Speed: Rivals they look to carry over the experience of the Criterion team, a team heavily involved with Rivals, increase the freedom and amount of diversions available in the open world.
We arrive in Gothenburg to pay Ghost Games a visit. Sweden's second largest city has been a bit of a blind spot as far as game developing goes ever since DICE packed their bags and moved up to Stockholm. But as a matter of fact, part of the reason for opening up Ghost Games in Gothenburg was that some DICE talent had moved back and wanted to move back. Another reason to establish the new studio was its closeness to the British isles - where there was plenty of experienced talent in the racing genre. The decision to set up shop in between DICE in Stockholm and Criterion in Guildford is no coincidence. Creative director Craig Sullivan is on loan from Criterion, living just a short walk from the studio in central Gothenburg, an internal EA shuffle between studios - to ensure that the elements that made Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted popular are mantained and evolved further in Rivals. Back at Criterion there are 50-60 people working on the game from a distance - presumably focusing a lot on autolog and online features, but likely also filling in wherever Ghost Games need it.
Ghost Games was set up exclusively to work on racing games, and the Need for Speed series. While reluctant to talk of the future, Marcus Nilsson, whose job it was to recruit talent and organise the new studio, speaks in terms of ownership. His most recent effort as a producer was Need for Speed spin-off Shift 2: Unleashed, developed by Slightly Mad Studios - and after finishing up that project he knew he wanted to use the Frostbite Engine for future Need for Speed projects - something that would not be possible with an external developer as EA keeps their tech in-house and as more and more pieces of the puzzles fell in place - DICE Gothenburg was founded in 2011 - the studio that was later renamed Ghost Games. Two years on, and we're getting a look at a game that sports a somewhat muted colour palette, but still reminds us a lot of the Need for Speed titles Criterion have blessed us with in recent years.
The influence from DICE is clearly there with senior staff and technology, the influence of Criterion with Craig Sullivan in charge of the creative side of things is also evident, and as I walk by a desk one of the developers is involved in a video chat with his counterpart at Criterion in Guildford. It's connected, but a less glaring influence strikes us as we step into the physics department at Ghost Games. Marcus Nilsson points to the men occupying the room:
"These were some of the first people I hired to the studio, the entire physics team is from Simbin."
Now if you don't know of Simbin you're probably not into hardcore racing simulators on PC, but the Swedish studio successfully developed some of the most realistic racing simulators on the market. We were given a brief look at some metrics, that don't really tell this reporter anything, but the takeaway is simple. There is a deep and very detailed physics engine at work behind the scenes in Need for Speed: Rivals - and while this is toned to allow for excessive drifting and the more accessible brand racing Need for Speed is known for, the foundation is there for a simulation.
"The handling and physics set up in this is very, very realistic, but what we do is we layer on top of that, the ability to drift the car very quickly around the corner and just having a lot of fun within two minutes of picking up the controller," explains creative director Craig Sullivan. "Yes, we always start off with very realistic, very beliveable physics so that these cars can pretty much do anything and it looks right. The we layer on the Criterion special sauce of getting camera right, getting the drifting right, getting the feeling of the braking or the e-braking, jumping or even just the collisions are very, very finely tuned. We know we're not making a simulation. We could make a simulation if we wanted to, but we know in this type of game for these guys who are racing chasing as a cop and a racer, they want it to be something that's very... Easy to get into, but quite hard to master."
At the core of the new Need for Speed is AllDrive. It's the name for what is basically the player experience - a seamless blend of singleplayer content and multiplayer action. You're not just visiting another player's world and competing in their races, but you can both be working towards your own singleplayer objectives - or just engage in multiplayer diversions along the way, asynchronous or synchronous. It sounds a little abstract, but the idea is for the entire game to be one organic experience.
"Some game has tried this before, and that's not just driving games. There is the idea of you have to be very much in control of chaos. Cause you have a load of humans together and a load of AI together. So unless you understand exactly what their motivations are and what they're doing, then it can be quite broken to be honest," says creative director Craig Sullivan. "So we've spent a long time playing AllDrive. We play every day in the office and have playtests where a lot of players are playing together as cops or racers or a mixture of both and really, embracing some of the stuff we learnt from Hot Pursuit also from Most Wanted. Most Wanted was a very open game, it was very broad in its structure. Hot Pursuit, our previous game was a little more linear and a little more controlled. And I think we're taking elements from both games and wrapping them up."
"The idea of AllDrive is that you move from a singleplayer experience to a multiplayer experience without going through any lobby screens or anything like that, without having to pull back to a menu and then jump back in," explains senior producer Jamie Keen. "It's literally like if you're driving around in the world and you do something and I see that you've done I'd be like "oh, I want to go and do that with you" and I can jump in, I can do that. And then there's also an asynchronous play there as well so that you might have done it in your world, say you just got a record for a jump or something like that. I see you've done it, I can go do that in my world or I can come in I can join you and I can try and jump that with you. Or I can join as a cop and I can mess with your stuff."
Our next stop on the studio tour is the AI department. Tasked with building an AI that should act and behave the same way a human player would, the objective is to reach a point where players cannot tell the difference between the AI or human counterparts. The idea is to not allow the AI to cheat, they race by the same rules as human players - they won't exceed top speed in order to catch up, they won't slow down if they get in front. They will, however, make mistakes. We were shown how AI drivers would take certain corners - how using the same inputs as players they would be more or less successful in doing so. What's really interesting, of course, is how this all comes together when human and AI players mix it up and try to overtake eachother. Sadly, we did not get see how that all plays out at this early stage.
We turn a corner and enter the "next-gen" department. Throughout the studio the game is being played on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC, but the next gen machinery has been removed for our visit. As we enter this corner at least we're given a taste of what the difference between the current gen and next gen iterations of the game will be. As far as the core features, they will be the same - even if EA calls AllDrive a "next-gen experience" it will be there on both PS3 and Xbox 360. And while graphics will be better looking on next gen, it's really down to details you may not notice at first glance. The way particles behave is one area where next gen consoles will have a distinct edge over PS3 and Xbox 360. Imagine if you will a tail of smoke from a car in front of you. Now this would normally be a static effect, that the next car would just drive through, but on next gen the hardware is powerful enough to calculate how turbulence would affect the smoke. The same goes from bushes on the side of the road, these will now be affected by the draft from cars speeding by.
It's all in the details, but the developers are hoping that this will all add up to a world that feels more alive. Less ghost towns and desolate highways - more of a living, breathing world to race in.
Speaking of the world, we asked senior producer Jamie Keen what goes into a well designed open world experience and how you properly populate the open world with objectives and events:
"It's a very difficult thing to judge," said Jamie Keen, who most recently worked on another open world game namely Far Cry 3. "And that's something where having had people who have been through the mill before on those kind of things, you know you really feel a sweet spot where it's alright you push and you try to fill the world up, and then it's "okay, now it's too much", and then you have to pull it back a bit and add a bit, put bits more in and stuff like that. As well as the kind of density of the experience there's also the variety of the experience as well. You need to make sure that there's enough going into the game that makes it feel like it's operating on a variety of different levels - be it the kind of more second-to-second gameplay pused righ out to the hour-to-hour gameplay and everything in between."
While we have yet to try Need for Speed: Rivals out for ourselves, there is every reason to have high expectations on the first game coming out of Ghost Games.