Need for Speed Underground Q&A

We talk to Electronic Arts about the impressive new installment in the Need for Speed franchise.

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Need for Speed Underground is the latest entry in Electronic Arts' long-running racing franchise. The series has featured some unique offshoots from its core racing theme over the years, but the latest entry puts a new twist on the Need for Speed formula with a jaw-dropping new look. We recently spoke with Chuck Osieja, the executive producer on Need for Speed Underground, to find out how the promising game is coming along.

GameSpot: The Need for Speed franchise encompasses a wide variety of games. Could you walk us through its best installments over the years and what the games did right? Which entries, if any, do you look back on and go, "What were we thinking?"

Need for Speed Underground features a shiny new look.

Chuck Osieja: I wouldn't say any of the Need for Speed games were bad. The one that we would consider to have had the least connection to the fans still sold more than 1.5 million units. Not bad even for the best of games. I'd say the following three games were the best:

Need for Speed - The granddaddy of them all. Designed to allow players to "test-drive" some of the finest cars in the world, the first Need for Speed was at its core a simulation. One of the first driving games to incorporate a variety of exotic world locations, Need for Speed allowed gamers to not only drive the best cars in the world, but also do it on the coolest roads on the planet. Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit - The first game to incorporate police chases as a part of the core game experience. Leaning more toward accessibility than simulation, Hot Pursuit affected every arcade racing game to come after it by setting the bar for "chase-based" racing.

Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 - The return of the arcade king, baby! The first Need for Speed on a "next-gen" console, Hot Pursuit 2 redefined arcade driving by creating the ultimate in "hero driving physics." The game combined exotic cars with cop chases that took things to another level with police choppers that dropped exploding 50-gallon drums on the driver. Missed the mark? I wouldn't say the following games were bad, but they're not as fondly remembered by consumers: Need for Speed: High Stakes - The follow-up to Hot Pursuit introduced "be the cop" into the Hot Pursuit mix on the consoles. Another innovation was racing for "pinks," where players could lose their car to an opponent during a race. A great idea in theory, but players were less enthusiastic when they actually lost their cars. Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed - Devoted completely to the rich history of the Porsche. Unleashed was a return to the original Need for Speed roots of hard-core simulation driving. The highlight of Porsche Unleashed was the "factory driver" mode, where the player could test-drive Porsches on actual factory test tracks under a variety of conditions and challenges.

GS: What would you say is the franchise's core appeal to gamers?

CO: The core appeal of Need for Speed is the ability to drive the best cars in the world at insane speeds. Every kid dreams of owning a hot car. It's a primal instinct. Guys love cars. Guys really love hot cars. Unfortunately, the reality is most of us will never have the kind of money needed to park an exotic car in our garage. The Need for Speed franchise has given car lovers an outlet to explore their inner Mario Andretti. Let's face it, not only do we love fast cars, but every one of us also believes that we're the best driver in the world. The Need for Speed games have always provided an outlet for car lovers and racing fans to live out their fantasies.

GS: Need for Speed Underground puts a new graphical twist on the series. What led to this new direction?

CO: When we settled on the idea of focusing on the import tuner culture and street racing scene for Underground, a couple of decisions were made for us. In order to truly represent the street racing culture, it was paramount that the game take place at night and in a city setting. It's where and when the kids are gathering to race.

The challenge for the team was that nighttime racing has never been the core focus of a driving game, and it certainly has never been done convincingly. Most games take shortcuts by changing the sky to black, performing a global lighting change on the track, and calling it nighttime. It's not that simple, and it's the main reason why it's never looked good.

If you decide to set an entire game at night, there are a whole host of conscious decisions that need to be made to really create a convincing look and environment. For us, it was first and foremost the lighting. Not just how the light appears in the world, but also how it affects the cars, the other objects, and the world in general.

These are things that are usually taken for granted, and when they aren't done correctly, they'll fail to convince the user's brain that what he or she is seeing is real. You don't know exactly what is wrong, but you know something is.

GS: Where did you look for inspiration, stylistically and visually, for the game's look?

CO: We spent a lot of time researching movies, television, and classical paintings, drawing inspiration from different techniques and deconstructing what others had done in various media to achieve great nighttime lighting affects. We had screen captures and printouts plastered everywhere. Once we found something we thought was representative of the theme of the game, we used it as a guiding template for the team.

The game walks an eye-popping line between realism and fantasy.

GS: How difficult was it to fully realize the vision that you had? How did you go about ensuring the game's look would be right?

CO: It was a collaborative effort between the programming team, the art team, and the visual-effects supervisor. Habib Zargarpour (a two-time Academy Award nominee for visual effects) talked to the team about techniques that he had learned in film and how he thought they might be applied in our medium. The team was able to understand what he was going for and evaluate whether or not it was possible on the hardware platforms. It's one thing to want to do something--it's a completely different thing to be able to do it.

Luckily, this team is composed of some of the most talented people in the industry. When everyone was confident that we could accomplish what was being proposed, Habib Zargarpour created a CG visualization piece of a race sequence using all the techniques that we planned to implement in the engine. What we had when he was finished was a visual target for the team to shoot for. What's funny was that there was some skepticism within the company that we could actually create a game that looked that good. The look was just too different from anything they had seen.

But the CG piece was created using game assets and similar techniques to what had already been discussed. Once the team had the visual bar set, they were turned loose. It was up to the artists to bring the CG piece to life inside the game environment. I'll always remember the Monday that I came into the office and on one of the development stations was the realization of the target video running on an artist's computer in real time. From there the team blew past the target video and continued to improve the look of the game. But without that visual target to shoot for, we could have spent months chasing after the right look. It really focused us on exactly what we wanted the game to look like and allowed us to concentrate on how to get there.

GS: Why was film the best place to look for cues, as opposed to other games, or even comics and manga?

CO: We did look at comics and manga. In fact, some of the Batman comics were instrumental in creating some of the high-contrast lighting style that you'll see in the game. Film, however, gave us a moving version of what we wanted, so we were better able to deconstruct exactly how light works in a nighttime environment.

GS: Was there a specific visual element that you felt was key to establishing the game's look?

CO: Initially, I don't know that we had one particular element that we thought would set Need for Speed Underground apart visually, but we soon found out that the camera shake was a powerful effect. We're definitely not the first game implement a camera shake to create a sensation of speed, but we will be the first game to implement it correctly.

Our visual effects director had previously worked on the pod-racing sequence in Star Wars: Episode I and had done a lot of experimentation with camera shake. What we learned from him was not only how effective the technique can be, but also how to implement it in a way that looks natural and enhances the sensation of speed.

There is actually a science behind how the camera moves to create an increased sensation of speed. When done correctly, it can be a little unnerving. Your brain has to buy into the illusion. The camera shake, combined with the other visual effects, can almost be overwhelming. I've seen people physically react as the car hurtles down the street faster and faster. It can be frightening.

GS: Once you'd settled on the look of the game, how did you approach creating game graphics that were appropriate? Does the game use an all-new engine?

CO: Underground is actually built on the PS2 Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 engine. Using core technology from a product rated at 90-plus allowed us to start from a solid base and add to the existing game engine, as opposed to spending half the development cycle rewriting rendering code. It's certainly allowed us to get to a lot more game features than we would have if we had started from scratch.

GS: How are you tailoring the visuals to play to the strengths of each console?

The game will feature striking visuals on all platforms.

CO: The amazing part of the engine that we're using to build Underground is its flexibility. The team has done a great job of creating common code that works with little or no augmentation on all the platforms. We've been very successful at having everything work on every platform.

Although all the platforms have their strengths and weaknesses, the team wanted to make sure that no platform was shortchanged because we couldn't create a specific technique on a console due to hardware limitations. I know what you're thinking--"Sure, sure, you just don't want to tell us which of your 'kids' is the ugliest." It's really not the case. Sit all four platforms side by side and you'd have a hard time telling me which is which. In our game theaters in the office, where we have all the platforms set up, you oftentimes have to try multiple controllers before you figure out which platform is showing. It's a big win for the consumer, since you usually have to sacrifice something on each platform. The first time we showed the game at E3, we were asked if it was running on an Xbox. It was actually on the PS2.

GS: Was the development of Need for Speed Underground's gameplay affected at all by the evolution of its visuals?

CO: Any designer worth his or her salt can play a game in his or her head at the infancy of an idea. You use that to guide the direction of the gameplay, the look of the game, and the sound. From the inception of the Need for Speed Underground concept, I've always held a vision in my mind of how I wanted the game to play and what the experience was that we wanted to give to the player. Nine times out of 10, the game fails to live up to those lofty expectations. Underground is the exception.

The way the visuals have evolved over the course of the game has completely blown away the vision that I held in my head. A pleasant surprise, to say the least. Now, every day that I load up the latest build, I am surprised by the leaps and bounds that we're making in every facet of the game, and each one of them directly affects another. Crediting it all to the visuals alone would be shortsighted, as the complexity and depth of the audio in the game not only enhance the way the game plays, but they also add a tangible realism to the visuals themselves. A great game is the sum of its parts, the complete package.

GS: The game's release date has moved up to this year. How is development coming along?

CO: Fantastic. It has definitely been a tough dev cycle, but the support that we've gotten from the company has turned an impossible task into a very achievable goal. When we decided to move the date, it was important to everyone involved that we maintain the feature set and integrity of what we initially set out to build. EA supported us 100 percent and has removed every roadblock that might have tripped us up along the way, helping us focus on building the best Need for Speed ever.

GS: Thanks for your time.

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