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TVG performs a few donuts on the track with ProStreet Producer John Doyle from EA Black Box...
One of the longest running franchises, the countdown to Need for Speed: ProStreet's traditional 'Holiday' release continued recently with a presentation from producer, John Doyle. The last few instalments have focused solely on night time illegal street-racing, culminating with 2006's Need for Speed: Carbon, the franchise's debut on PlayStation3, but dawn seems to have finally returned to the series, and with it, a maturity in the street-racing scene. Gone are the pulses of neon lighting underneath the chassis, which itself resembles a poor man's attempt at replicating The Fast & The Furious; instead, the 'scene' has evolved to focus on performance and not 'Rude Boy' pimp-mobiles.
TVG sat down with Doyle and spoke about the game, and how ProStreet is just the latest incarnation of the veteran series' life...
TVG: Need for Speed: ProStreet will feature a wealth of new features including revised particle effects, AI, physics, and damage modelling - coming two years after Most Wanted arrived as part of the launch raft of titles on Xbox 360, can it be considered as the first true next-gen Need for Speed?
I think probably we certainly focused this time on building technologies [so] we could really take advantage of those next-gen platforms. It turns out that some of those technologies we can get onto platforms like PlayStation2, but then some we can't. So we really designed this game from the beginning, especially things like damage and making smoke look fantastic, they were aimed at what we could do on next-gen.
TVG: So Carbon and Most Wanted were just building up towards what you could do with ProStreet?
In many ways, they were learning experiences. Most Wanted was the first time that we got our hands on Xbox 360; Carbon was the first time we got our hands on PS3. We've got a couple of years of those platforms under our belts, so we could really exploit what we could do with them.
TVG: Judging from what you were saying in the presentation today, ProStreet's gameplay seems to be more structured this time around. Is this because of the change in real world street-racing to closed circuits, or was it more a conscious decision by EA Black Box?
We look a lot at where we think the culture is going, and so what we try to project out is where street-racing could be in two or three years if it got super big? That's the sort of thing we're trying to show in ProStreet. In terms of whether the game is 'more structured', I'm not sure whether what you mean is a good thing or a bad thing, but certainly by putting in real world tracks and real world locations we wanted to go global this year. We wanted to place you in areas that are real, and that have relevance to you in the real world rather than use a city that we made up - because of that, we chose not to go down the route of not using an open-world.
TVG: That's basically what I meant about ProStreet being structured, that street-racing now isn't about driving around an open city...
Well we also wanted to take you away from trying to dominate the back streets of one city, to taking it to the world stage and try to beat the best in the world. To do that, you've gotta travel around a bit.
TVG: With that in mind, do you think that the slew of 'open-world' racers in recent years will be coming to and end? Was it all a bit of a fad?
I don't know, it depends on the concept. If I was designing a concept two or three years from now, perhaps open-world will make more sense because of the experience I want to deliver to gamers. This year it didn't, but who knows, perhaps the next one will...people love to explore.
TVG: You spoke a bit about the procedural damage system used in ProStreet in the presentation; can you explain in more detail about why the decision was taken to develop the system, and how it links into the performance of the cars and the AutoSculpt?
Well, damage was the most requested feature from our research into all racing games in recent years, so we thought that if people keep asking for it then we should deliver it. The next-gen consoles had the power to really deliver damage the way we wanted it, and then we had to add the real-time procedural damage because we went and built the AutoSculpt feature that means we don't necessarily know what you've done to your car. You can morph it [the car] in any way you like, so we had to build a system that didn't have to know what your car looked like in the beginning. We used the physics to actually smash your car up and make it feel very believable.
We want you to push the car to the limit, to race as fast as you can and be aggressive, so you can scrape your car, bump other people, and it won't affect performance. But if you do more damage, like smash your car into a wall or really hit somebody, then it will over time affect the aerodynamics of the car, and it's going to do things like reduce the top speed or make it a little bit more challenging to complete the race. The balance that we're trying to strike over the summer is that it's not punishing. This is Need for Speed; this is fun, it's exciting, it's intense - but damage has some consequences as well. In some cases it'll affect your pocket book, because in the career you're gonna need to repair the car, and in other cases it'll affect your ability to finish the race...if you hit a telephone pole at two-hundred miles per hour, then it's race over.
TVG: The first teaser trailer for the game focused on damage, and showed 'stitched' repairs to bodywork and battle-scars; can you talk about how repairs work in the game over the course of the race weekends?
Well in terms of where you want to put individual zip-ties, we haven't gone that deep. I think what we're going to have you do is decide on when you want to repair the car; if you've cosmetically damaged it, for instance ripped the side-mirror off, you can go into the next race or choose to repair it. We see the addition of zip-ties and duct tape on the body work as an example of how aggressive a racer has been.
TVG: You're demo-ing the game on Xbox 360 at the moment, but how is ProStreet shaping up on PlayStation3, especially with regards to the implementation of SIXAXIS control?
It plays well on PS3, it's something that we've put a lot of effort into this year is to make sure that it at the very least plays as well on PS3 as the equivalent on Xbox 360. It's coming together very smoothly, and we don't expect any problems with getting it out the same day with the equivalent level of features and details, and looking great.
In terms of the SIXAXIS, we're still playing around with that, it's something that we're going to be spending a lot of the summer tweaking it to make sure that it's exactly how we want it.
TVG: So you think that SIXAXIS is sensitive enough to cope with the twitch reactions that ProStreet's game modes, like the Speed Challenge, require?
I think that with the assists turned on, then SIXAXIS will be just fine. The Wii controller works great, and so I think that as you turn all of the assists down, it'll become more of a challenge - but that's something we'll play with also.
TVG: In recent years, Need for Speed has regularly been Christmas number one in the UK at least - how much pressure is there on the team to continue with that sort of success?
You know, we'd love to be number one every year, and EA would love us to be number one every year - and we certainly push to release the best game that we can every year. I hope this game gets that popular, we're trying hard, but the pressure is certainly there because you want to be as good as you can. But it's a good year for gaming...
TVG: It's certainly a cluttered last few months of the year...
Yeah, it's going to be tough for me too - I want to play a lot of games!
TVG: Can I quickly ask how difficult it is to reinvigorate the Need for Speed franchise? It's one of the few annual releases that isn't a sports franchise, so how did ProStreet conceptually begin?
We spend about two years working on each game, and the first big chunk of time is spent generating and evaluating concepts. We test a lot of them, we look at what consumers thought about the last game, and what was missing. Then we continue to come up with ideas and then discard them - I don't know, five or six, maybe more, ideas were generated for this year's game before we settled on ProStreet being the one. And even then, it's further refined as we get to the design phases.
It is a challenge, we're not a sports game, so people expect a lot of innovation in the games every year, and they deserve a lot. It's a challenge to come up with something fresh every year, but that's the cool part about working on Need for Speed. There's a game out every year, but you have the freedom to be as creative and unique as you possibly can.
TVG: Playing through the Speed Challenge demo earlier, there's a really tangible sense of speed, and it's quite reminiscent of the techniques used by Criterion in Burnout. Was that series one of the inspirations when it came to developing the sense of speed in ProStreet?
I think that we experiment a lot in how to generate that sense of speed. One of the tools we use is to move the camera around. Other things are the textures on the road, and how close things are to the side of the road to give good parallax, that feeling of speed. I don't know if there's any one inspiration, but we do watch a lot of film, we get in a lot of race cars. We try to get that 'this is what that feel is like', and we experiment until we say 'yeah, that's it."
TVG: In a lot of other racers, even sims like Forza and Gran Turismo, the issue of damage regularly comes up, and how car manufacturers apparently won't allow extensive damage or flips to occur in the game. Yet, here's ProStreet, and there's extensive damage [aside from the cockpit], and plenty of flips - so are the manufacturers going easy on the Need for Speed brand? How do you get away with it?
I think it's because we've spent many, many years working with the manufacturers, and developed a level of trust that we're not going to do anything that doesn't actually happen in the real world. So a lot of what we've done is show the manufacturers videos of what their cars look like on a race track, smashing up. We're not going to do any more than that, and we're going to make sure that nobody appears to get hurt - and the manufacturers have been pretty open with that. I can't tell you why other games don't have that.
TVG: And what about the online experience for ProStreet?
Well there's the ability to share Blueprints [for player-tuned cars] and build fame around user-created content. We're going to talk a lot more about what we're doing online in the next month or so, so I can't say too much - but I can tease you a little bit. I think that we've worked pretty hard to develop something that re-invents online competition; our focus is really about playing with people you care about and seeing the results of your friends and people you know rather than looking at thousands of people on a leaderboard...
TVG would like to thank John Doyle at EA Black Box for taking time out to discuss Need for Speed: ProStreet, scheduled for release across multiple platforms later in 2007.