Need for Speed series sells 100M, Shift moves 309K

Q&A: EA VP Keith Munro explains 15-year-old racing series' long and winding road to sales mega-milestone; latest installment posts decent Sept. showing in US; Need for Speed World Online due Q4 2010.

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In 1994, Electronic Arts released an all-new racer, The Need for Speed, for the 3DO console. Though that platform is long gone, the Need for Speed series went on to become one of the most popular racing series of all time, with 15 different games on 14 platforms.

Need for Speed: Shift rebooted the series this year.

Today, EA announced that the Need for Speed franchise has sold more than 100 million units worldwide during its 15-year career--the only racing series ever to do so. (The only other EA title to hit the mark is the Sims series.) To put that in perspective, EA helpfully pointed out that the figure equals one third the total US population and is triple that of Canada's inhabitants. The sum generated by the sales---$2.7 billion--also matches or exceeds the gross national product of many smaller countries.

In 2005, the series was the undisputed racing king, with Need for Speed Most Wanted selling 16 million copies worldwide, according to EA, and 3.9 million in the US, according to the NPD Group. However, the subsequent years have seen its once white-hot popularity cool somewhat domestically. Lifetime US sales figures from NPD show 2006's Need for Speed: Carbon selling 3.2 million, 2007's Need for Speed: ProStreet selling 2.4 million, and 2008's Need for Speed: Undercover selling 1.4 million.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted was the series' high point, selling 16 million units worldwide.

In part due to these declining domestic sales, the Need for Speed series got an ambitious reboot this year, being split into three subfranchises. A hardcore racing sim, Need for Speed: Shift, was developed for the PC, PSP, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 by Slightly Mad Studios in the UK in conjunction with downsized Canadian studio EA Black Box. EA Montreal is putting the finishing touches on an arcade racer, Need for Speed: Nitro, for the Wii and DS. Finally, Black Box and EA Shanghai are working on Need for Speed World Online, a PC-only, free-to-play game.

Although Nitro isn't out until November 3 and Need for Speed World Online won't arrive until next year, Need for Speed: Shift went on sale September 15. Following Monday's release of the NPD Group's US September sales numbers, GameSpot learned the version landed in 15th place on the top 20 chart, with 148,000 units, while the PS3 version took 16th place with 145,000 units. Add in the PSP edition's 10,700 units and the PC edition's 5,700 units, and the game's total US haul for the month was just over 309,000 units.

While decent, Shift's September numbers aren't at the same blockbuster level as previous Need for Speeds. However, with the series reaching the 100-million-unit mark, EA remains bullish on the brand. In June, the company tapped Criterion Games, developer of its acclaimed Burnout series, to oversee future installments. To get some perspective on where Need for Speed has been--and where it's headed--GameSpot spoke with EA vice president of global marketing Keith Munro.

100 MILLION SERVED

GameSpot: 100 million units is quite a milestone. When exactly did Need for Speed reach it?

Need for Speed: Shift sold just under 300,000 units on the PS3 and 360 in September.

Keith Munro: Need for Speed hit this milestone with the release of Need for Speed: Shift in mid-September.

GS: Other than the Sims, have any other EA games topped that number?

KM: No other EA games. Only five games have sold more than 100 million copies, so Need for Speed is certainly joining esteemed company.

GS: Has any other racing series out there?

KM: Need for Speed is the only racing franchise to hit this 100-million-unit milestone.

GS: Which of the many NFS games is the best-selling one, and how many units did it sell?

KM: With over 16 million units sold, Need for Speed: Most Wanted is the best-selling Need for Speed game thus far.

GS: What are the other best-selling installments in the series?

KM: Over the past six years, Need for Speed has really struck a chord with consumers and has averaged 12.8 million units a year during this time frame, so that’s from NFS: Underground in 2003 through to NFS: Undercover in 2008.

ORIGINS & EVOLUTION

GS: When the series started in 1994, did anyone think it would go this far?

KM: Back in 1994, the goal was to create the most immersive and fun driving experience in amazing supercars. The initial games’ success was a testament to the potential for the franchise, but I don’t think anyone on that team envisioned 100 million units.

GS: How has the vision for the series evolved from the 3DO, Saturn, and PlayStation Era?

KM: The single largest shift for the franchise was in 2003 with the launch of Need for Speed: Underground, which took the series from supercars on the open highways to a street-oriented racer rich with customization, youth car culture, and a wider range of cars including sport compacts and other more accessible vehicles. This evolved into the open world, narrative, and pursuit-filled experiences characterized by Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Carbon, and Undercover.

In 1994, The Need for Speed started it all on the 3DO.

GS: What would you consider turning points in the series?

KM: Other than what I just mentioned, it would be the recent pillar approach that Need for Speed has undertaken. Recognizing that racing fans want different types of experiences and innovation, we have structured development to make unique, high-quality games for these different audiences, based on three categories: action driving (games like need for speed most wanted), authentic simulation, and arcade racing.

The first expression of that was Need for Speed: Shift, built by Slightly Mad Studios with collaboration from Black Box. It is a highly realistic racing sim, but done in a very edgy, visceral, violent-in-the-cockpit style that really lets players feel what it’s like to drive such powerful racing machines.

The next expression of this approach will be the arcade racer Need for Speed Nitro, which is being built by EA Montreal, and it’s the first truly built-for-Nintendo platforms and audiences Need for Speed game our brand has undertaken. It is a hair-on-fire, 200-mile-per-hour, cops-on-your-tail experience that will appeal to a wide audience.

Need for Speed Nitro peels onto the Wii and DS November 3.

GS: If there was anything you could go back and change in the series' evolution, what would it be?

KM: I would probably have begun the transition to multiple development studios earlier than we have, and rested the team at Black Box.

GS: What was the series' high point?

KM: The launch of Need for Speed: Underground and capturing the imagination of consumers established Need for Speed as the dominant racing franchise. Recently, the release of Need for Speed: Shift, with us delivering such a high-quality game that is being loved by fans, is certainly another high point for us.

GS: Its low point?

KM: While technically Porsche Unleashed (PS, PC) was widely acclaimed at its release in 2000 for being the best Need for Speed game ever, the product didn’t reach its sales expectations, despite a valiant performance in Germany! Porsche remains one of the most valuable and amazing partners for us, but I believe our fans really value the choice and variety found in a typical multiple-manufacturer Need for Speed game.

2000's Porsche Unleashed underperformed, according to EA.

RELAUNCH

GS: When the threeway relaunch of the series was first announced in January, many assumed that it was due to disappointing sales of back-to-back installments of Need for Speed Carbon and Need for Speed Undercover. Was that the case?

KM: As I mentioned earlier, it was really motivated by our consumers and deep insight into what they wanted to see in the market. We have devoted the best studio teams to creating high-quality racing experiences that build on those studios’ key strengths, and delivering these cool and varied experiences to consumers was our primary motivation.

GS: Do you think those two games did not live up to expectations?

KM: While they didn't reach the unparalleled success of Most Wanted, both games actually sold quite well despite shipping in extremely competitive windows.

GS: Which of those issues were addressed in Need for Speed: Shift?

KM: Need for Speed: Shift really was a shift for us, diving hard into the authentic-simulation subgenre, but in a uniquely “Need for Speed” style. It was very different than any of the past six years of Need for Speed games by virtue of it being a cockpit-driven, realistic, extremely visceral, true driver’s experience on closed courses. And of course, the quality of the game and how it drives is amazing.

GS: Reviews for Shift were positive, but not universally so. Has it met your expectations? How many units has it sold worldwide?

KM: Depending on the platform, we had a 20- to 25-point jump on Need for Speed: Shift sales from the previous year, so we are really satisfied with that, and I think the average scores have been outstanding. It has sold well and we are excited for the holiday season, which is traditionally Need for Speed’s best sales period.

Need for Speed World Online is set to launch next holiday season.

GS: How does EA handle having so many different studios working on one series?

KM: We have strong leadership on the studio and publishing side of the business, all with a strong eye on the Need for Speed brand and its tenets. We also have a deliberate strategy in play aimed at delivering the best-quality titles on the right platforms built by the best developers for those subgenres. We are not launching all the games at once, so management is not arduous. It’s actually a lot of fun.

GS: How is work on Need for Speed World Online coming along? Is it still on track to launch this year?

Need for Speed World Online is coming along well and many internally are playing it regularly. It is tracking to a closed beta in the first part of 2010 with commercial launch also planned for holiday 2010.

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