Off like a ghost.
Need for Speed is nearly twenty years old, but Ghost Games is little more than two years old. Set up under the working title of EA Gothenburg in – well – Gothenburg, Sweden, the studio was set up with the foundation of working on a new Need for Speed title using EA Games’ flagship engine Frostbite, created by Swedish sister studio DICE in Stockholm.
For game director of Need for Speed: Rivals, Marcus Nielson, despite the long legacy of the series and the short timespan the studio has been around for now, there’s a little pressure, but not much of it otherwise.
“It’s obviously daunting in the fact that it’s one of the most selling franchises of all time, the number one leading racing franchise,” Nielson told me [Disclosure: this was conducted back in September at Eurogamer Expo – JC]. “I think we’re really fortunate to have Criterion help us, mentor us in some ways to get us started and you’ll feel it when you play the game that they’ve been involved with the physics and the handling of the car.
“I don’t necessarily think of it in a ‘I’m scared’ way. I think the way we’ve built up the studio and the way the different people are contributing are putting us in a good position to deliver something that feels really Need for Speed but also brings Need for Speed forward with gameplay because that’s important to me. That’s what going to drive the genre forward and not more polygons in a car.”
Mentioned by Nielson was the relationship the upstart Ghost had with racing veterans Criterion, who had saw their visions of Need for Speed come to life with 2010’s brilliant Hot Pursuit and the underwhelming Most Wanted last year. Since Most Wanted came out, however, the series has seen a change behind the scenes. Ghost is now in charge of the entire series as Criterion, who itself became caretaker of the series back in 2010 after Hot Pursuit’s release, decided to go beyond racing for its next project.
That said, Ghost has split into two teams: its main dev team in Gothenberg and the other consisting of ex-Criterion vets – including creative director Craig Sullivan – in Guildford, where Criterion are also based. The move between the two studios was “nothing really strange,” according to Nielson.
“Criterion has made Burnout, they’ve been making Need for Speed, two high quality games,” he said. “At one point in time, they feel they want to do something else and having that creative force you have with Alex [Ward, Criterion creative director] and the team around him is simple. You can use that to come out with something pretty fantastic.”
Nielson admitted he doesn’t have a clue on what Alex Ward and co are up to next at Criterion, but said the split was a friendly one between Criterion and those who came to Ghost to work on Need for Speed, which according to Nielson, is “on its way up.”
He said: “We asked the Criterion people, ‘do you want to be part of this journey we want to take you on with Need for Speed and if you do, you’re more than welcome to join Ghost here’. So it’s a amicable departure if you want and I’m pretty sure we’re going to see something pretty cool from Alex and them people.”
If one word summed up Need for Speed: Rivals for Nielson, it was ‘new’. New studio, Ghost. New engine, a retooled Frostbite 3 suitable for driving games. Simply put, new is the word around Ghost Games (“when you see all these news, you go fuck,” he joked). In fact, it was something Nielson said was a “great strength” of EA.
“I pitched this to Patrick [Soderlund, EVP of EA Studios, previously EVP of the EA Games label at Ghost’s founding], ‘maybe we should do this to be ready for next-gen’ and we found Gothenburg and then, we just put so much muscle behind it – we got recruiters in, we handpicked the key people we wanted and we pay them enough to come and work for us.”
But don’t think Gothenburg, the second largest city in Sweden, wasn’t just picked because out of a hat at random for some reason.
“Gothenburg is also a great place, it wasn’t a random placement, we did it for a reason. But you know, it hasn’t been a sit back and enjoy the ride. we’re not valiant… Ask whatever developer’s who’s coming onto next-generation about how they’re feeling now, they’ll say there’s still work to do.”
Maintaining the Swedish link, Ghost is EA’s second studio in the country behind arguably the flagship studio of the entire company, the Stockholm-based Battlefield creator DICE.
As well as Battlefield 4 (and the upcoming Mirror’s Edge origin story), the studio has been working on Frostbite 3 as a tour de force games engine for most of EA’s upcoming line-up outside of EA Sports (that group is using the new Ignite engine). Ghost has had to retool the engine to make it suitable for a driving game. And while, at his own admission, “it’s not perfect”, it’s more than capable to handle a game like Rivals.
“Frostbite 3 is no doubt a very capable engine. You can see with the output. The designers and artists, if they come from somewhere else, they’re like, ‘oh can I do this’, so it’s very efficient,” said Nielson.
“It’s not perfect, though, and especially taking something that isn’t a driving engine, there’s a lot of techinessness to make it happen. As I said, we had to make sure it was open-world, we drive 250mph, you need a streaming system that supports it.
He continued: “And this AllDrive feature of you and me playing together in this open-world and go from a race to a pursuit to a race, all these gameplay loops all going at the same time is also very big and quite a daunting task.
“But there’s been a lot of technessness in this and now that we can ship this game, we can say we now have for the first time a Frostbite driving engine.”
On the matter of AllDrive, which brings together single-player and multiplayer all into one world seamlessly, it’s something that is hoped will bring together a more social feel to the series this year.
“When you start playing in England and I start playing in Sweden, we are put in the same world. That could be social because we start hanging out. Autolog has always been a social tool, Autolog has always been sponsoring that asyncerious play.
“Whether’s it’s a message to your phone or it includes social lairs like Facebook, it’s obviously something we always iterate on. AutoLog this year is more true to [what] we had in Hot Pursuit… because it’s more up in your face this time around, which I think is the best version of it so far.
“But we’re building a Need for Speed network which is a backbone of playing this game, this’ll be your home, this’ll be where you can see your stats, your challenges, your playlists. All of the stuff that actually most people wouldn’t be excited about because every other game has had it but Need for Speed hasn’t had it.
“So Need for Speed has always been about on the marketing side ‘buy the game buy the game buy the game’ whereas now, we’re building a Need for Speed network which is for the people that bought the game. And that’s obviously going to increase the socialness of the game.”
The social aspect of bringing together single-player and multiplayer stems from not just a next-generation perspective, but also a proverbial barrier between the two modes in Most Wanted that Nielson encountered when playing the Criterion game.
“Most Wanted was a step towards something we really liked but it still had this wall between single-player and multiplayer. I had a car where I’m, ‘okay, I like this car, I’m going to tune it’ in my single player’ and then I go into multiplayer and it’s an ordinary car, and I’m like, ‘why is it like that? it doesn’t have to be that way’.
“And then once we started talking about, ‘lets not have that, lets just go into a world that’s a little bit like opening Pandora’s Box’ [with Rivals] because everything you knew about a single-player game is going out the window. We have a world where you can be a level 5, she [referring to the EA PR in the room – JC] can be a level 15 and I can be a ten – we should be able to go into a race together, race and all make progress in our careers. That to me is the next-generation because it’s a new way to play.”
For now, Ghost will pick up the torch passed onto it from Alex Ward and Criterion as it becomes the carers of one of gaming’s oldest and biggest IPs. It may be a cross-gen game for PS3 and 360, but with the next-generation finally here after this morning’s US release of PS4, Rivals defines the word ‘new’. New consoles, new studio, new engine, new social-influenced ways to play. It’s a new era for Need for Speed.
Marcus Nielson is game director of Need for Speed: Rivals. Need for Speed: Rivals is out now in the US for PlayStation 4 and releases on November 19 for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC. It’ll be a launch title for Xbox One on November 22 and PlayStation 4 on November 29 respectively.