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Interview: How The Next Need For Speed Hopes To Shift Racers

EA's upcoming Need For Speed Shift is attempting a zigzag into increased realism -- but how easy is that perceptual change? EA's Jesse Abney explains how dev Slightly Mad is avoiding the "sterile" driving sim feel...
Electronic Arts is taking a new approach with its Need For Speed racing franchise this year, developing three titles each tailored to specific formats. Among these, Need For Speed Shift's been billed as the hardcore simulation racer. It's being developed by London-based Slightly Mad Studios, led by SimBin co-founder Ian Bell, who worked on titles such as GT Legends and GTR 2 -- although SimBin has taken issue with associations Slightly Mad has made about GTR franchise developers' involvement with Need For Speed Shift. Nonetheless, even with all of this proximity to a field of games intended to offer highly realistic race simulations, Shift producer Jesse Abney isn't too fond of the word "simulation," and this interview, he discusses how he hopes the game will divorce itself from traditional associations around the genre term. Instead of sticking within the bounds of traditional genre definitions, Abney here discusses how he hopes Shift will pave a new road. You're taking a very different approach with Need for Speed this year. Why three separate titles, and in particular, why Shift with its hardcore slant? Jesse Abney: Well, for years, we've been perceived as ping-ponging around, from action to arcade to simulation racing. Many people credit ProStreet with our first divergence from the core Need for Speed, but really, Need for Speed has always been transitioning from one genre to another. And in that attempt, we really have not been doing a great service to any one genre. The separation of franchises is really just to say, "Look, we're doing everything we can in every title, but we're not potentially doing everything great." We really wanted to then focus on a particular subgenre and really focus on quality and intentionality and really nail what we have in Shift. Slightly Mad Studios’ development and the debut of their all new engine is a true authentic racing experience -- cars that feel like cars, and professional racing circuits that give you a visceral feel of being a driver in a high-performance sports car. They had some connection to [GTR developer] SimBin, as I recall. JA: Yeah. SimBin was the previous developer. After that, Blimey! [Games] -- who were, for many, the heart and soul of GTR and GTR2 franchise -- really divorced from their publisher, created Slightly Mad Studios, and began working on this next-gen engine roughly two years ago. Did you seek them out for this, or did they pitch a game to you that you decided would fit into Need for Speed? JA: We ran into Slightly Mad through some other discussions and saw what they had in a driving engine, and really found a home for something that proved to be a great potential for Need for Speed. It was through a collaboration with Patrick Soderlund at DICE, who's a semi-professional race car driver. He really tapped into the potential that Slightly Mad Studios could bring to the market in the simulation category, something unique and great fun, which is what we have in Shift with its true driver experience. That is something that we just didn't see being satisfied in that segment of the market. We didn't see being the driver being a core component of these games. With Need for Speed, the car had always been the star. What we really want to present in Shift was something we didn't see being satisfied, and that is the driver. There actually is a driver in the car, and Slightly Mad has him in fully-articulated form, with hands that grip the wheel, an independent camera system that moves -- the head is bashed up upon collision with the walls, and moves down to shift -- feet that work the pedals on the cars, and just a whole sense of speed that we really hadn't had before, and that we didn't see in any other competitor's product. Is that the kind of angle you're going to use to try and differentiate yourself from, for example, Gran Turismo or other games of that ilk? JA: Absolutely. I mean, Gran Turismo is an awesome driving simulator, and we really don't want to even have the simulator tack applied to us. We're a fun, authentic racing experience. And in that, you get the driver experience, which is something that just doesn't exist anymore. You get an AI component to that, which is something we saw games like GRID starting to do -- AI that was fallible -- and we took it to the next level. With multiple personality types in Shift, you get the feeling that you're against a number of racers who are prone to make mistakes. They're going to lock up brakes; they're going to misjudge corners; they don't have a perfect layout of the track in their mind and running a perfect line every time. They're going to cause pile-ups, and they're going to compete with you both aggressively and passively in order to beat the race in the same manner in which you're doing as a player. In that dimension of the game experience, nobody is doing any of that to the extent Slightly Mad is doing with Shift. How do you create a sense of accessibility for people who don't expect that from the Need for Speed franchise? Recently, racing games have been very arcadey. There's the recent Need for Speed franchise, and EA also makes Burnout. JA: It's just in the presentation of those facts to the player. We want to bring existing Need for Speed fans into this simulation subgenre, and with that, we want accessibility in the product to be not only for the beginning player. But we also need to really bring them in and show them that there can be more simple rules applied to a hardcore engine that allow them to progress and to learn -- and to actually use it as a trainer in order to continue to progress the difficulty curve. But we want to have scalability in that difficulty curve and customization to allow the expert players to set the game the way they want. Slightly Mad has done a great job with scaling the physics options, the gameplay, the AI, and difficulty in order to allow you through the options menu to just simply turn everything down and turn everything up with each point and really have the game at the level that you want to play it. It really is about the layman player that you want to handhold through the experience, and Need for Speed is great at crafting a career experience, which formulates that in a very calculated way. The first event sets the AI to account for how well you did or how badly you did, keeping you enticed throughout the race even if you're not in first. There are mechanics in our game that we're implementing for rewarding you for doing well or doing aggressive driving tactics, or doing things that keep you finishing each race. You may not place first the first time or even the fifth time, but what you're doing is earning rewards and building on your driver persona. Those things become accessibility features for people who might not normally play a simulator. They are being rewarded for losing as much as they're progressing their career at the key points for winning. Going to the kind of other end of the spectrum, how do you make it clear to guys who play, for example, GTR, that a Need for Speed game can live up to what they expect in a racer? JA: We absolutely see that in our unique differentiating features: the driver experience, the fully modeled 3D cockpits, the beautifully modeled cars and tracks that are layouts from GP and F1 circuits around the world, as well as the fictional tracks that other games aren't offering. We see it in a scalable options model where the hardcore players can go in and turn all the assists off and turn all the AI up, and have a rewarding and challenging race experience based on that complex physics engine, that complex physics component that's operating underneath the entire game. How do you guys work with Slightly Mad? Are they pretty much developing the whole thing? JA: Yeah. Slightly Mad is the developer of this awesome engine. Slightly Mad is the developer of this great simulation aspect of the racing experience.  Patrick Soderlund, our DICE GM, has brought to them a semi-professional racing experience to the core design intent. This shapes what is the driver experience from a driver's mind and the personality behind the wheel. That has created that driver experience and that true differentiating factor. What we do as a collaborative element with [longtime Need for Speed developer] Black Box Studios, Slightly Mad Studios, and DICE, is work to build truly mainstream simulation products. We want something that can be punishing and risk-filled for the hardcore simulation fan, but that can be assist-filled and fully accessible for someone who wouldn't normally play this game -- while keeping them invigorated and actually teaching them that simulation games can still be fun. And while we don't want the tag "simulation" put on Shift, really, at the heart of the engine, that's what it is. It is simulating true-world physical forces and actually simulating the models, cars, cockpits, audio, and AI abilities of the action on the track. All these elements are collaboratively bringing the tenets of Need for Speed to what otherwise would be a hardcore sim game, and bringing that sim game to the platforms of the PC, Xbox 360, PS3, and PSP. What makes you shy away from the term "simulation"? JA: You know, unfortunately for the experience -- and we all love racing games at Slightly Mad and DICE, who got their start building racing games for the first Xbox -- we find them sterile. They're tech demos. They're plain. They're not cool and contemporary. They don't have all the components that typically a Need for Speed game has. There is a grind associated with them that punishes that entry level player and really tends to turn people off. There's a grind in the sterile simulation that we don't find to be fun, and fun is this defining factor that runs the course of every Need for Speed game. Good or bad, like us or love us, we're always after fun. We really want driving to be fun, and driving should be about fun in a video game where there are no real consequences. Shift is really bringing that fun aspect back to a simulation game -- although we don't want "sim" to be what people take away from this. We want them to take away fun, authentic racing game that made them see and hear and feel what it was like to be a race car driver behind the wheel of a McLaren F1.

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