EA readying Need for Speed threesome

Q&A: Publisher trifurcating its street-racing franchise into trio of new properties: the MMOG NFS World Online, the Nintendo-only NFS: Nitro, and NFS: Shift for the PS3, 360, PSP, and PC.

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Given the upheaval surrounding Black Box, many gamers have been pondering the fate of the Electronic Arts' subsidiary's signature series. Today, EA announced that one of the partially shuttered Canadian operation's franchises, Need for Speed, will continue to be developed.

Need for Speed: Shift
Need for Speed: Shift

Indeed, not only will the street-racing series carry on, it will be expanded and split into three different franchises. The first, Need for Speed: Shift, is a hardcore racing simulation in the works for the PC, PSP, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3. It is being developed by Slightly Mad Studios, in collaboration with executive producer Michael Mann at Black Box and EA Games Europe senior vice president--and Digital Illusions CE cofounder--Patrick Soderlund. Slightly Mad Studios was founded earlier this month by former GT Legends developer Ian Bell.

The second NFS franchise to rise from Black Box's ashes is Need for Speed Nitro (working title), an arcade racer being crafted by the Boogie-makers at EA Montreal. Set for release exclusively on Nintendo's Wii and DS, the game will sport a "unique visual style" and, like Need for Speed Shift, will sport many real-world automotive licenses. Also like Shift, it will ship in North American this fall.

Finally, six years after EA shut down its first car-based massively multiplayer game, Motor City Online, the publisher is backing the auto MMOG genre out of the garage again. Jointly developed by Black Box and EA Shanghai, Need for Speed World Online is a PC-only, free-to-play game set to launch in Asia this coming summer. A North American release is scheduled for "winter 2009," which could potentially mean an early 2010 release.

With NFS being challenged for racing gamers' dollars by Microsoft's Forza Motorsport, Take-Two's Midnight Club, and EA's own Burnout series, why did the publisher decide to mix up its winning formula so drastically? Keith Munro, Electronic Arts' vice president of marketing, laid down some informational rubber with GameSpot in an exclusive interview.

GS: Need for Speed Undercover performed below expectations, selling less than 940,000 units in the US according to NPD. That's about half the 2.1 million units ProStreet sold since 2007, one third Need for Speed Carbon's nearly 3.1 million units, and just a fraction of Need for Speed Most Wanted's 3.9 million units and Need for Speed Underground 2's 4.5 million units. What makes EA think it can turn it around?

Keith Munro: We need to compare apples to apples over a similar time frame, and in fact, globally Need for Speed Undercover sales are comparable to ProStreet on a week-to-date basis. That's pretty impressive, especially given the economic environment and the heavy competition we saw last fall. As we move forward with the franchise, we are confident that the new brand strategy around three specific genres will keep the game fresh and players entertained. As the market leader in the racing category, we are talking with gamers on a regular basis.

For years, we've understood that even though our flagship action-driving games, such as Undercover, Carbon, and Most Wanted, have tremendous appeal, there are still lots of other players who craved something different. Our new Need for Speed development strategy has us building different racing experiences for different players, reflecting their needs and wants from this category. This is really about putting consumers first and continuing to provide the best racing experiences for them on all platforms.

GS: Will the three series be annual franchises like NFS is currently?

KM: We're listening to players and will deliver the games on a schedule that makes the most sense for the franchise. Currently, players demand a new Need for Speed property in the market each year.

GS: Will EA be expanding or shrinking the NFS development team as a result of these changes? If the former, which studios will be expanding, and will they be getting staff from other EA studios which are being streamlined?

KM: We are expanding, and this means growth in studios that are new to Need for Speed. We are focusing on creating quality experiences across multiple racing genres; as such, we are using studios to develop games suited to their specific strengths. Need for Speed Shift is an authentic simulation racer, and is being built in the UK by a collaborative team.

EA Montreal has a strong track record in developing for Nintendo platforms. This team is bringing a new visual style to the game, as well as a distinctly "Need for Speed" take on racing as they evolve the arcade-racing genre.

Black Box is still playing a large role in the development of Need for Speed Shift and Need for Speed World Online. Also, we wanted to give the team at Black Box an extended development window so that their next Need for Speed action game could really blow the doors off the category.

NFS SHIFT
GS: Shift development is being overseen by EA Games SVP Europe Patrick Soderlund and EA Black Box's Michael Mann--where is it being developed?

KM: Shift is being developed in the UK by a collaborative team including Slightly Mad Studios, senior vice president Patrick Soderlund from EA Games Europe, and exec producer Mike Mann from Black Box. Slightly Mad Studios includes developers that worked on highly acclaimed PC simulation racing titles GT Legends and GTR 2.

GS: You say the game is "built by racers for racers." Does that mean this game will be EA's Gran Turismo or Forza?

KM: There are a couple of levels to this. First, we have a number of people working on Shift that have real racing and motorsport backgrounds. We'll get into more details on this later, but as an example, Patrick Soderlund is a driver and part of the racing team that recently competed in the 4th edition of the Toyo Tires 24H Dubai 2009, the first major race event of the year. His team ranked 5th in this high-profile race. He is very passionate about and committed to bringing the on-the-track experience to players around the world.

Second, regarding other games in the sim racing genre. We see Shift joining the ranks of the world's top simulation racing games with authentic cars and tracks, but it definitely offers its own signature look and feel. Shift represents the true driver's experience. Traditional simulation driving games tend to focus on replicating a car's performance, Shift moves beyond that by combining a player's unique driving style with accurately modeled cars to really drive home what it feels like to be behind the wheel.

We're also bringing the built-by-racers authenticity via core technology. Need for Speed is renowned for capturing speed and a unique style of racing. Shift continues that through an all-new sophisticated visual interface. For example, there is a three-dimensional HUD that mimics driver head movement, inertia, and G-forces. The depth of field also adjusts based on the speed of the car; so when the car is traveling at high speeds, the perspective will shift to the distance, putting the car/cockpit out of focus.

Need for Speed Nitro
Need for Speed Nitro

And we're bringing a brand-new perspective to the action with a cockpit view. This view highlights the authenticity and lavish detail on the vehicles and provides a more realistic and immersive vantage point of the action. This "first-person mode" also comes with a free-look camera on the right thumbstick so the player can really appreciate their surroundings and also get the lowdown on their on-track competition.

GS: Will it take any cues from the new Burnout series, in terms of crashes and damage?

KM: There will be crashes and damage, yes. A realistic simulation racing experience should include the consequences involved when things go bad on the road, so incorporating realistic damage is definitely a critical aspect of this game. There will be a slight impact on your car's performance, but the real consequence for collisions will not be the damage to the car but rather our all-new crash dynamic. This crash dynamic will disorientate the player similar to a real-life impact, but it will not hinder the experience, and it is represented in an exciting manner.

GS: Will the game be open-world or more event-based like Pro Street?

KM: Shift is about competition rather than exploration, featuring a mix of street and track locations. We have some of the world's most recognizable tracks designed to appeal to the most hardcore driving enthusiast. We're not disclosing the complete track list right now, but we have over 15 immersive real-world locations including a London street course and the world-famous Brands Hatch circuit.

GS: What kind of race events will the game feature?

KM: We're not revealing all the race modes and details at this time, but I can say that every maneuver a player performs on the track is a reflection of their driving skill and style--precise, stylish, or aggressive. The evolution of these skills will determine how a player navigates through the game.

GS: Any new car licenses we should know about?

KM: We are not discussing specific licenses, yet but the car list currently represents numerous decades and car styles. Players will be tasked to select cars that are suited to the race event and their overall driving style. We have definitely created a car list that will appeal to everyone. It spans the spectrum of performance vehicles from domestics, exotics, imports, muscle, and everything else in between.

GS: I noticed the game is coming to the PSP--has the platform been successful for the NFS series?

KM: We have had excellent results on the PSP with Need For Speed, and with the continued global growth of that platform, we have high expectations for Shift PSP.

NFS NITRO

GS: What Wii expertise from the Boogie series will the EAM team be bringing to Nitro, in terms of motion-based Wii Remote control?

KM: The EA Montreal team has learned a ton from developing Boogie and SSX Blur regarding the Wiimote. They will be applying this expertise to ensure that Need for Speed Nitro takes full advantage of the controller in an organic manner that doesn't feel forced. We will be offering a number of control schemes to ensure that gamers of all types can use the Wiimote to their liking while racing through Nitro.

GS: The release says that arcade racing fans "will be exhilarated by [NFS Nitro's] deep and challenging gameplay." What exactly does that mean? Will there be an all-play option and a deeper mode? If so, will that work like EA Sports' All Play?

KM: What that means is that we want to ensure that Nitro is a game that stands up to the tenets of the Need for Speed brand and offers gameplay depth and a variety of modes. We do not want to fall into the trap of creating a "Need for Speed Lite." Instead we are building a game that core Nintendo gamers and casual players alike can enjoy, that's easy to get into but more difficult to master.

GS: Now that NFS Wii games will no longer be versions of the PS3/360 console game, how much will they differ from the main franchise? Will they feature any of the hardcore racing elements of Shift?

KM: Nitro and Shift will be very distinctive offerings. For each, we are taking full advantage of the platform's capabilities and unique qualities, and also crafting experiences that reflect these platforms' varied consumers. At their core, one is an authentic simulation, and the other is an arcade racer, and from there we've let the teams get creative in this expression. But both games will offer challenge, depth, and high replayability.

NFS World Online
NFS World Online

GS: The announcement said that the game will have a "fresh and unique visual style." Will said style be like the NASCAR Kart Racing series announced in December?

KM: The EAM team is taking a unique look at Nitro's visual style and tone, and it will be quite differentiated from the NASCAR game. It will feel very Need for Speed, but in a more mischievous, Nintendo way. We'll be revealing more, including imagery, soon!

GS: Will this game be part of the Freestyle label?

KM: Need for Speed Nitro will be in EA's Games Label.

GS: Will the game be set in an all-new locale or return to a previous NFS location?

KM: The setting for Nitro will be all-new and will also push the creative vision for Need for Speed environments to new levels.

NFS WORLD ONLINE
GS: Given EA's history with Motor City Online (2001-2003), why did it feel like it should return to the massively multiplayer racing genre?

KM: Need for Speed World Online is more about exploration into the free-to-play model that is growing at a fast pace, rather than a straight-up MMO persistent world such as Motor City Online.

GS: What lessons from Motor City Online's failure is EA bringing to the new game?

KM: From a game perspective, the largest difference is that where Motor City Online featured American classics and muscle from the '30s to the '70s, Need for Speed World Online is steeped in modern car culture, featuring many of the vehicles familiar to our fans from the past few years. But the business model and player interaction is also very different--unfortunately, I can't discuss details on these aspects yet.

GS: Why is this launching in Asia first?

KM: Asia has proven itself as a rich market for online-only games. Once Need for Speed World Online has been successfully deployed in Asia, we will expand the game's reach by offering the service to PC gamers around the world.

GS: Will this game use licensed vehicles?

KM: Yes, that is core to Need for Speed. In fact, Need for Speed World Online will give fans the most licensed cars, parts, and game modes ever in Need for Speed's history.

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