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VVV interview Need for Speed Producer Jesse Abney

Alan Boiston On August 16, 2009

The Need For Speed is a long-term stable of EA’s core franchises but its testament to the creative drive of the developer that they continue to push the series into new directions. Earlier this year EA surprised the gaming community yet again with the announcement of Need For Speed Shift. This taking the franchise away from its current arcade formula and moving back towards its origins as seen on the Panasonic 3DO system, that taking the form of a more realistic racing experience.

Now being developed by Slightly Mad Studios who are best known for their work on the PC GTR titles, VVV Gamer were recently given an opportunity to view new code of the game (this time running off disk) at its current stage of pre-alpha development and interview its Producer – Jesse Abney about his background, the development of Need For Speed Shift to this point along with some of the key aspects we can look forward to and its relation to the Burnout franchise besides possible conflicts of interest, Shift hits the retail shelves this September.

 VVV: Hi Jesse, it’s the first time I’ve had a hands on with the game today and very impressed so far. So let’s learn a bit about your development background, where have you come from and what previous developments you’ve been involved with?

Jesse: Well I started at EA in 1995 coming in at an entry level position on Need For Speed 3DO which was the first game I worked on.

VVV: Ah, so you were involved with the 3DO developments?

Jesse: Well I wasn’t really involved in the development at that point, I started off in customer support as a QA Tester, you were one that played the game and checked the manual and made sure all of the marks were correct and made sure all of the button mappings were appropriate while making alterations to the manual and then supporting it on the phone. So I was a member of customer support and went on to a 14 year career in EA at this point. I’ve always been involved in NFS from the periphery, I managed our next-gen platform launches for the PS2 which was the first time we did a collaborative development with all the dev teams around the world, we were involved with PS2 titles helping them support the day and date launch of their products on the platform. We’ve since worked on the 360, Wii, Xbox and DS, PSP and PS3, which was the last one I did and after 10 years at technology development within EA (again working on every title in that capacity) I joined the Need For Speed team last year on Undercover where I worked on design and development of the user interface (UI) and audio systems.


VVV: So it's like coming home, I mean you’ve seen the changes, you’ve seen it go from a very realistic simulation of a game back in the day on the 3DO with the comic approach of the rival guy who would often have pop, beat you in a race and call you useless. You’ve seen it go through the arcade years through the Fast and the Furious inspired years, now we’re back to a realistic racing experience, back to the original concept, so you’re are coming home, in a way?

Jesse: Absolutely! I mean we’ve made an announcement recently that the NFS franchise would diversify and really start to cater to the interests of our fan base more specifically while increasing the benchmark quality. That announcement was that we would focus arcade racing on arcade platforms, focus simulation racing on next-gen platforms and we would focus action open world racing this year online with World Online.

So while there will be another open world action and cops based NFS game it will be very specific to that sub genre and it will not be confused by the sub-genre and that’s really what NFS was doing by perceiving to pinball back and forth each year, trying to satisfy the broad range of interests of all of our fans. When you have a triple A title franchise you have interests from people who have been with us for those 14 years who are now simulation fans or who are now arcade fans and they are very ardent one way or another. So we realised we weren’t doing a service to any of them very well by producing a game that tried to hit on all of those points each and every year, and so enter Shift and really a shift in business model and a shift in philosophy and shift in technology. The Slightly Mad Studio’s all new racing engine is built on multi-core architecture for simulation physics, much improved AI systems and certainly speed.



 VVV: What’s this new engine called?

Jesse: Ah you know (smiles) this or that, the guys at Slightly Mad really it’s their engine, they’re an external developer and they had a beautiful technology through racing and they’re credited with many members of the GTR and GTR2 franchise. So they have enthusiasm for automotive racing that has produced hardcore racing games for the PC platforms over the years.

So when they took 2 years to develop an all new engine on the PC and we saw it, what we did was introduce Patrick Soderland to the idea of being more involved in our racing franchise and Patrick Soderland is a professional race car driver our DICE GM and European Vice President of our European studio’s and Patrick’s professional race car back ground has given him a unique perspective on what a lot of racing games are missing and that perspective was a driver perspective, really a lot of games are about collecting cars and getting licences and going to tracks around the world and having the perfect race. However that’s really not was a race car driver experiences moment by moment in a race and it was the gladiatorial battle that occurs at each position in a race, even if you’re in last place in Shift you’re battling the AI for that last place position and you’re having the thrill of that moment to moment action in the race conveyed through our first person driving perspective.

VVV: I would like to find out more on that in a moment, but taking you back slightly, the rumour was that this was actually going to be a GTR game released by EA as a GTR game and that then EA felt NFS needed to go into a different direction and then suddenly this changed into a NFS game? Was it developed originally as a different game? Has it become a Need For Speed game or has that always been an idea, that there’s been a philosophy that it could always be incorporated into the NFS world?

Jesse: Well you know, having Slightly Mad Studio’s on our side and seeing what their tech could do it certainly just became a really easy win for us, seeing that they had a simulation racing engine an enthusiasm for that kind of racing, at the time I believe they were working on a Ferrari game which is an interesting footnote for you to clarify (That being the Ferrari game produced by Blimey Games when they were purchased by SMS in January 2009).

But what we also found was a better home with the tech platform for this version of NFS, and what Patrick Soderland found was a creative design outlet for taking his experiences as a race car driver and hitting home in very unique feature set that was not being conveyed in a simulation sub-genre. As we looked around and analyzed the genre we realised people have beautifully modelled cars some have interiors many have drivers that move but nobody is building a model for what the race car driver is going through. So; physical forces, the sound, the independent movement of the head versus the movement of the chassis of the car. By modelling these elements with a dynamic camera system, with a dynamic visual effects system and with the audio system SMS have, you have a whole package of concert that works to deliver everything this driver is experiencing moment to moment in the race.

 

VVV: Again just one last question on this NFS / GTR element, has taking on the NFS name altered the product, I mean essentially you’re forming a bridge between hardcore simulation and more arcade elements, so has there been a trade-off because of the changes to its name? Or are we following a project that has always been laid out in changing the approach to the NFS genre?

Jesse: I guess you just have to abandon the GTR element because what SMS have done is create the next NFS, the only thing I know about what they were doing before was a Ferrari game? But I can offer some answer to that question, SMS have built from their engine and when you have a solid tech platform all you need is assets because they have their tool pipeline worked out. So then they start creating WTCC styled cars, the modelled interiors of Porshe’s and Nissan’s and the Zonda here today.

The Audi’s that we’ve shown in our trailer and they put them in and it becomes any game you want it to be. Its got a simulation based physics model which is scaleable and at one end of the spectrum, is very hardcore non-assisted simulation physics and at the other end we’ve been working on SMS to scale back their physics simulator in order to account for that basic NFS fan that loves the experience of car customisation and online competitive racing but needs a much more controlled physics simulator.

For that we have what can easily be referred to a saleability within the physics engine to a much more novice class racing game, so through the user interface exposing hooks within the physics engine we’re able to turn on a myriad of assists for a much a much more forgiving racing model and allow players that wouldn’t normally pick up a simulation game to play NFS Shift in a much more light hearted way than they would within a sterile simulation game. Keep in mind that while we land squarely in that simulation sub genre its an authentic racing experience, its really the catchphrase, Famitsu asked me for a line an it was something Patrick said that rang with me, and you know we really don’t want to be a sim game, this isn’t about simulation this is about an authentic racing and fun experience. So for me simulation games aren’t always fun but Shift is an authentic racing game which, for me, is fun!

VVV: So is it two new Need For Speed’s or three that we’re expect to see within the next years time frame?

Jesse: Yeah well recent announcements of the franchise were that we would diversify to a point that we would satisfy the interests of 3 sub-genres within the racing category and those are action, arcade and simulation and Shift represents the entry simulation, much like Pro Street did and Porsche Unleashed did before that, on the Wii we are focusing on arcade first with Nitro. The action open world offering is World Online that we’ve announced for closed beta which we are launching later in the year in the North America and further into next year for Europe which will be a massively multi player online open world experience that will live on in online space.

VVV: Do you think that a lot of this new direction is something of a franchise reboot?

Jesse: Absolutely!

VVV: Was that brought about by recent events, I mean last years NFS was probably one of the weakest ever, do you guys internally view it like that and is it a reason for this new strategy?

Jesse: Well for the record we absolutely don’t view last years as one of the worst ones ever because it had a lot of merit to it, potentially the best UI ever developed in a NFS speed title, something I worked on for 18 months. A reboot is a good analogy but it really is more about focused and intentional business, and the intentional business of a racing franchise that is 13 or 14 years old, that has the potential to sell millions of units but in recent years has confused its own fan base and has really fractured its own fan base. Those who want simulation and those who want arcade and not delivered a product with a level of quality that we would anticipate or we would expect out of ourselves. So it is through the ability to focus on any given segment that we are trying to revitalise and refresh the franchise and really bring a new understanding of what NFS means to automotive racing.

 

VVV: More generally where would you say the strength of Need For Speed’s positioning and also broadness leaves a franchise like Burnout? Given that Burnout looks more like the current Wii edition?

Jesse: In assessment of the current racing category we never once competed with Burnout in our minds, Burnout has always been an action arcade racer and its modes have always been unique to that style. Everybody speculates about the future of one over the other, Burnout has always been a critical darling but sales that don’t match NFS while NFS is hated and despised for it size and its goliath mainstream fanbase and yet critics hate it, so its quite a converse dynamic at play.

VVV: Today is the first opportunity I’ve had to play it and I’ve been very impressed so far, indeed the graphics have been particularly impressive because we saw those early screen-shots and I have to admit I thought they were bullshots, now seeing it here today running with a myriad of effects its underlines the credibility of those early screen shots but with all of this activity on screen what frame rate are you expecting to achieve?

Jesse: Well this is a multi-threaded application and absolutely there are compromises that you have to make to retain a solid state system, there’s a whole series of trade off’s for performance and the render threads running at 30 frames where as the physics and AI threads are running at a full 120mhz on the course that they are running on, so what that you get a very smooth and silky performance attribute in rendering and a much needed processing route.

Again it’s a series of compromises, 16 cars on the track fully modelled, fully damaged, fully physically affected which all present a challenge to a render thread so you really have to compromise, as you see today we don’t feel 30fps has an impact on the experience, we’re running very fluidly and I think those elements are not mutually exclusive to the 30 frames to 60 frames argument.

VVV: I’ve been very impressed with the physics; even pushing a car onto its roof, there’s a convincing weight to the cars you’ve managed to capture in this build. So elements to the car tuning wise, what can we expect to see in the game?

Jesse: Yeah its SMS game and as you know their background is more targeted at simulation based characteristics of cars and so with that you get performance customisation which is a tenant of NFS, its something that our fan base really look forward to and you get performance tuning in a deeper and far more complex way than we’ve ever done with NFS thanks to the enthusiasm of SMS. So not only is their engine pushing times of day but its also pushing weather effects which then affect the surface conditions requiring that you use a bit more strategy in things like tyres, pressure, aero, down force, suspension and all around general tunes on your car.

While we understand that this is a simulation fans big interest, we also understand that the accessibility that we place in a number of areas in the game needs to allow players into the game who aren’t normally into that, I’m an example of someone who’s an arcade racer. When I want a performance racer I want power or I want stability or I want traction, so definitely by grouping these much more finite elements into major headings what you have is the ability to give somebody who wouldn’t normally care about the pressure in their tyres the ability to just say I need a different set-up and here’s the button, click to get it. So there’s a spectrum of accessibility options that we’re bringing for much deeper and more comprehensive tuning within the SMS engine.

 

VVV: Now you mentioned weather conditions, does the weather change real-time in the game? What kind of weather conditions are there? Also taking into account leader boards, will you have leader boards that show assists and what weather conditions the lap was raced in? For example you’re never going to be as fast in the wet as the dry but some players may dominate in one or other conditions?

Jesse: Keep in mind there are weather effects that affect surface conditions, dynamic weather is not one of the things we are shooting for, and again that’s a compromise point. It’s more important to a racing game that the track condition is the most significant piece, not necessarily the rain or modelling the windshield wipers or how fast you have them on, that’s much more of a real life issue in driving that we are not trying to convey in the name of fun. So as far as the physical attributes that affect timing and affect performance envelops of vehicles on one player versus another it’s an interesting thought and it goes towards our tearing and our classification systems for our online multi-player.

That stuff is certainly something that we are always looking at, obviously in much more authentic simulator you’ve got all of this depth that you have to account for. So I imagine we are always looking at a way to make our multi-player online equal, and make sure people understand who they are racing against and what those characteristics of that racer are. There will be some pretty unique attributes to our career play this year that will expose a lot of those elements like never before but certainly as to how leader boards account for that stuff and what performance tune a car uses above another is, to be seen.

VVV: Ok I’m going to keep an eye on how that one develops, I will mention on behalf of some of the racers who are reading this, to them time trial leader boards are something they focus on, there’s a lot of online teams who focus on them as well, it is important to the longevity of these communities in relation to this game.

Jesse: Well keep in mind that’s a default staple of NFS you know, the leader boards, the competitions the weekly and daily updates is being streamed real-time on www.nfs.com as well as in-game as well as exposed and XML threads which are being picked up in numerous sites.

VVV: Now we’ve gone through the handling options, obviously you’ve got the assists there you’re going to have a wide range of cars, what cars can we expect to see?

Jesse: This is definitely routed in professional racing and then there’s a broad spectrum of cars that NFS has always been famous for, certainly we’re not exposing the exact number of names of the cars. You can find a bunch online, today we’re racing the Zonda, yesterday were racing the McLaren F1. There’s a ton of licensing woes that go on throughout development with these manufactures and sometimes we get the 09 right or 07 rights, its still very odd to me how that stuff is formulated, I still don’t know how it all works.

 VVV: Oh I would leave that to the specific teams, it always sounds like a nightmare for any racing developers…

Jesse: Yeah it’s a tough one and the truth is that we have some really unique offerings, recently we showed the Skyline 2000 HT which is the very first from Datsun. It’s a little boxy car that’s such a cult classic in Japan, the interior is a big plastic wheel with a metal horn strap across the inside, old rolling handles and an AM radio in the dash. SMS have done such a beautiful job modelling it that it’s a very unique experience to see this era car represented in NFS and know that its such a cult classic in Japan that the fans of drift racing who modify these cars and have such a blast in the Formula D style events are gonna love it! That’s kind of a first for NFS, going back we’ve always had muscle cars, always classified them as American versus European super cars, but this year we have classic era Nissan’s and Datsun’s and beyond that what we get is many F1 style tracks so you can expect to see some very exciting announcements for NFS. There’s functioning pit stops while in this vertical slice we’re looking at today the pits are functional but they’re not really purposeful you’ll certainly see some game modes potentially being announced which take advantage of that element of racing.

VVV: Cheating is one thing that’s a big concern to us, grass cuts, wall rides, glitch shifting, those sorts of elements?

Jesse: It’s a game-play balancing issue it’s a refinement that we’re currently doing, you see some cues for cutting tracks and loosing time, we certainly have to balance that stuff. Wall riding counter measures for online multi-player is always something we’re exploring, we’re exposing where those exploits we’re producing counter measures, you’ve seen disqualification for going the wrong way in the race today and so there’s examples of that in play and certainly how far we go in that in one direction as opposed to another is to be seen but there’s certainly a long compliment of things you can do with the UI settings for a player that allow them the customisation of the game play experience.

VVV: Well Jesse thanks for sparring the time today I know it’s been an epic interview but I’m sure the racing fans out there will enjoy having this insight into yourself and the upcoming NFS Shift.

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