Need for Speed in Criterion's garage

While talking Project Natal, EA COO reveals Burnout developer is now under the hood of the publisher's street-racing series; EA CEO says shop crafting "revolutionary" new entry in franchise--which may delay the next Burnout.

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During the same investors conference presentation where he revealed Battlefield 3, Electronic Arts chief operating offering John Pleasants dropped another bombshell. Specifically, he blew the lid off one of EA's historically most successful franchises, Need for Speed, which was trifurcated into three subseries in January: Need for Speed: Shift (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PSP, and PC), Need for Speed: Nitro (Wii, DS), and the massively multiplayer online game Need for Speed: World Online (PC).

A true Shift to Criterion?
A true Shift to Criterion?

Initially, Pleasants discussed the three-way split, which will see independent shop Slightly Mad Studios develop Shift, EA Montreal work on Nitro, and EA Shanghai and the downsized EA Black Box craft Need for Speed World Online. "We've put a huge effort into reengineering the whole franchise," explained the executive. "Different teams very much reengineered how we're making this product; lots of good work went into that, and the product quality is totally going to show it."

Then, Pleasants let slip a major literal shift for the franchise. "We've got staggered teams now, so we're not in the 12-month cycle grind, which is really the biggest thing we had to break. We've taken the Burnout team and combined it into the Need for Speed franchise. Now we have that in our favor because Burnout is from probably one of the more online-centric and high-quality developers that we have, Criterion." (Emphasis added.)

Almost simultaneously to Pleasants' speech going up via webcast, gaming blog Kotaku posted highlights from an interview it did with EA CEO John Riccitiello during last week's Electronic Entertainment Expo. In it, the executive confirmed Criterion Games head Alex Ward is overseeing development of a new, unnamed Need for Speed game--and that the project has apparently taken precedence over the next Burnout title.

"I don't think you can fold Burnout into Need for Speed because a lot of people like Burnout," Riccitiello said. "[But] we don't have a plan right now for a separate major launch on Burnout because the team doing it is working on a revolutionary take on Need for Speed." (Emphasis added.)

Other than to repeatedly say that Need for Speed and Burnout would remain distinct series, Riccitiello didn't elaborate much. Pleasants, though, expounded on EA's determination to make the former series a top seller once again. "Look, Need for Speed is one of the great franchises," he said. "I believe it's a top-10 seller in game-industry history. It's a backbone brand for EA, and it's one that has sold to 10 million units, now selling about 5 million units as the quality has eroded. So what's new in Need for Speed is a deep commitment to getting that title and that franchise back to its glory days."

Pleasants also touched on the Project Natal-optimized version of Criterion's last game, Burnout Paradise, which was shown off both at Microsoft's E3 Press Conference and on last night's episode of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

Pleasants said that EA had known about the project "for some time…we didn't learn about it at E3. We've known about it for months. I think you saw that Burnout was one of the products that was tested there, so we've had access to that software long enough to take a project like Burnout and make it Natal-ized."

"If I were in Microsoft's shoes, I would think of Natal like a new console," he continued. "If it is deployed correctly and we as third parties can leverage it correctly, then there's a lot of innovation that will feel innovative like another round of a console [would]. For us, that's positive because, yes, we have to do new dev for another controller, but we don't have to do new dev for a new platform. It's a different level of investment. [But] that doesn't take any of the onus off the innovation. We still have to figure out the hit-making sauce for Natal versus a non-Natal 360. They're probably going to be different."

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