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E3 2014: Criterion's Matt Webster Talks About Developing the Studio's New Game

The world is changing.


Yesterday afternoon, just a few hours after Criterion debuted its unnamed extreme sports game at the EA press conference, I talked to the studio's general manager, Matt Webster. He wasn't ready yet to reveal any concrete details about the game that weren't included in the trailer, but he did talk about the trajectory of Criterion as a studio, the concepts that are central to its design, and what it's like to show a game at such an early stage in its development.

I started out by asking Webster why Criterion decided to reveal the game at this early point, when the graphics are still so simple and there isn't a title yet for the public to latch onto. "The truth is, I don't know if it needs a name at the moment. If you're a fan of Criterion and you know the games that we've made, and the fact that we are talking about a game that features multiple vehicles, you've got a character in it for the first time, you can kind of imagine where we might want to go. Why can't we talk about games early? Why not? What's amazing is how [EA] said, 'OK.' If anything is an indication of the way that EA's changed over the last year, this is it. I still thought, up until I saw that video run, someone was going to step in and say, 'No, it's a bit early for that.'"

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One of the advantages of showing a game this early, he said, is that all people can talk about is the game itself, not the visuals or other elements that will only start falling into place later. "Our philosophy with this is rapid development--build it fast, play it, ask yourself, 'Is it more fun?' change between one and three things, and then build it again. Go through that cycle as many times a day as possible. So everyone is just focused on the game. The play. The fun. You can't get distracted by anything else, there's nothing else there. Can't get distracted by a name, either."

In the Burnout games, there weren't people in the cars. This made it easier to appreciate the beauty of twisting metal and shattering glass, since there weren't mangled human bodies to think about. In this game, you have a character. I asked Webster about how that changes things. "I think that the tone is quite different between 'there's someone in a car getting mangled' and 'playful adventurous action.' We're super inspired by the world of [people using] GoPros and how they're sharing their experiences, and in first person." Talking about the physicality emphasized by a first-person perspective when you're piloting vehicles, he went on to say, "t has to start with beautiful vehicle control. But what we're talking about is a person on a vehicle, and that's great because it really connects you to the experience, and also it gives you a very different perspective on the vehicles. But the criticals are Criterion criticals, so--beautiful vehicle control, we love freedom and experimentation, we love competition, we've always been about online innovation." And so again, without offering up any details, he suggested that those who understand Criterion's past will have a better sense of where it might be going in the future. "I think if you start with what you know about Criterion and chart that line, you get a great start point."

We want to know what people like to do. You can't make assumptions. People surprise you. And I think that now there's an opportunity to get people engaged earlier, and it's all a bit nerve-racking, but that's just the way the world is now.

Matt Webster

Talking about what we do know about the game—that it contains multiple types of vehicles that can coexist and interact in the world, Webster said, "It's probably the most diverse range of vehicles you've ever seen. The point is bringing them together. And that in and of itself is going to lead to experiences that people have not seen before, and actually, probably, emergent types of play that we could never design for, but they are absolutely all consistent with one another."

Hinting at the possibility of a beta happening for the game at some point down the road, Webster said, "We've got to feel comfortable feeling uncomfortable. So we're talking about the game way earlier than we've done before. We also want people to play it way earlier than we've ever done before, because that's just the new way of developing video games. People want to know. People want to get involved and share opinions, and we should be listening."

Lessons learned from Burnout Paradise are informing the design of the new game.
Lessons learned from Burnout Paradise are informing the design of the new game.

It wouldn't be the first time that Criterion has learned a thing or two from the way people play the studio's games. "We learned so much from Burnout Paradise," Webster said. "We thought that was a hardcore racing game. Now, in Paradise, we had a huge amount of telemetry data that showed us what people were doing, and it was unbelievable. The first weekend, less than 20 percent [of time spent playing] was racing. What it tells you is, we didn't know our audience one bit. That set the tone for the course of Paradise [DLC] and the rest of our games. We want to know what people like to do. You can't make assumptions. People surprise you. And I think that now there's an opportunity to get people engaged earlier, and it's all a bit nerve-racking, but that's just the way the world is now."

Speaking of the way things have often been done in the past, Webster said, "Normally, you'd get a two-minute video that looks amazing, and we'd say, 'We'll let you have hands-on with it next year, maybe.' Now we're saying, 'This is our game. Let's go.'" When I asked him when we might hear more about the game, he said jokingly, "We're kinda making this up as we go along," but followed that up with, "I don't know, but our sense is we will probably be talking more about this game throughout the rest of this year."

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