Need For Speed Payback Director On Building A Believable Open World

Payback features a day/night cycle and police chases that involve more than just getting away.

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After a year off, Need for Speed returns in November with Need for Speed Payback. Like previous games in the series, it features an open world with a day/night cycle, as featured in a newly released trailer. We spoke recently with developer Ghost Games' creative director, Will Ho, about designing an effective open-world environment, inspirations on the game, and police chases.

Open worlds can be great when they're done well, but they can also go awry--a dead, lifeless world with few things to do can be a real bummer. Payback is far from the first Need for Speed to feature a wide-open space to explore, but part of the reason that one is in place here is to keep players in their cars, not the menus.

"I firmly believe that people who love their cars want to be in their cars all the time," Ho tells GameSpot. "It's the real-world fantasy of exploring aimlessly, finding other car lovers, discovering beautiful places, taking snapshots, sharing stories. To paraphrase cliché, the journey is as interesting as the destination. That journey with your choices and your discoveries is your story."

Races will restrict you to racing from checkpoint to checkpoint "for easy navigation and fair competition," Ho says. You're given some level of flexibility in choosing your path from point to point--what Ho refers to as "color[ing] outside the lines"--but you won't be cutting across vast swaths of land as you can in, for example, certain Forza Horizon 3 events.

Payback's "vast" open world, Fortune Valley, is comprised of events, activities, and collectibles to take part in, which Ho refers to as points of interest. He says there are more than 400 in all currently, which will help the world to feel like a real, dense location. Ho even suggested that could expand following the game's released. "We have ideas for adding even more, should our fans want them," Ho teases.

The day/night cycle, which was absent from the perpetual nighttime races of the previous game, should also serve to enhance the world--and in ways that are not just cosmetic. "I believed firmly early on in the project that we add a full 24-hour time of day cycle," Ho says. "It's true that the world looks varied and beautiful anywhere you drive. But it's also a big factor in how you approach many of our open world activities. Exploring Fortune Valley while collecting parts for your derelict build is best done in the hot sun; beating your friend's high score in a drift zone is probably best left for low traffic in the dead of night."

In light of the multi-character focus of the story, which appears to be going for a more cinematic-style heist narrative, Payback has been frequently compared to the Fast and Furious series. Ho wouldn't say if that specifically served as a source of inspiration, but he does say both "recent and classic car movies" have inspired Payback. He also thinks it doesn't hurt that "people these days are into movies with car chases."

Despite the similarities in terms of having an open world and centering around heists, Ho is quicker to shut down comparisons to something like Grand Theft Auto. "As soon as you take racing off closed circuits and put them on open-world streets, you easily draw comparison with other open-world games," he says. "But we're focused squarely on car culture and not on anything that takes you away from your favorite rides that you've bought, customized, and built. And you get the freedom of living in a giant open world. It's a nice space to be in, to challenge the assumptions of what a racing game should feel like. I think Need for Speed Underground 2 was the first to break the racing game mold. We're really just building on that legacy."

Another legacy element of Payback that surfaces here are police chases, which were a hallmark of many past Need for Speed games. Ho highlights how Payback's pursuits aren't just about the getaway, but the added pressure they put on players.

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"I like how our cop chases in Need for Speed Payback are much more about high speed and time pressure," he says. "When you see a movie car chase, it isn't just about getting busted or getting away, because the heroes almost always get away. Rather, it's about getting the job done on time. Cops will still happily bust you if you stand still. But cop chases are now more about linking heroic cop evasion moments to get to a destination before time runs out. I think it's more exciting this way."

Payback won't allow players to assume the role of police officers, though Ho again seems open to what future updates (or games) could bring. "We're really focused on our three new characters trying to stay clear of the law. But we love to hear what fans want in future updates and titles," he says. "Who knows?"

Unfortunately, Ho wasn't ready to reveal any details about what Xbox One X and PS4 Pro owners can look forward to in terms of enhancements, but EA plans to share those details soon. And that's just as well, as Payback is due out in a matter of weeks, with a release date of November 10 for PS4, Xbox One, and PC.

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