Need for Speed Rivals interview with James Mouat Lead Designer Ghost Games

Need for Speed Rivals interview with James Mouat Lead Designer Ghost Games
I have a need…a need for speed!

The moonlit strip of tarmac snaked off into the distance. I pushed the Aston as fast as it could go. The speed camera flashed. A new record.

Distracted by the distant thunderstorm I failed to notice the cop bearing down on me from the left, the flashing red and blue lights shredding the darkness.

At that point the heavens opened, the headlight illuminated raindrops swarming towards me like a thousand fireflies. Hardly able to make out the road through the downpour I approach the hairpin, gently tapping the brake to start a drift; but just a second too late.

As my car’s rear slid towards a boundary fence I expected to be stopped in my tracks; instead the wooden posts fractured into a million splinters, my car continuing its slide at breakneck speed away from the pursuing cop.

This is Need for Speed Rivals next-gen style.

I recently took the latest entry into the EA’s veteran racing series, Need for Speed Rivals, out for a spin on Sony’s new PS4 console under the watchful eye of the game’s Lead Designer, James Mouat. Afterwards I sat down with him to chat about the game.

Hello James, can you introduce yourself and explain your involvement with Need for Speed Rivals?

Yep, I’m James Mouat and I’m lead designer in Gothenburg, Sweden, at EA’s Ghost Studio working on Need for Speed Rivals.

You are stepping into some pretty big shoes, following Criterion’s excellent Need of Speed: Most Wanted. How does that feel?

It’s actually really good because whilst Criterion isn’t directly working on the game they are still supporting us. We are able to use their knowledge as a starting point, so we are not stuck reinventing the wheel as it were. It’s great to have the support of those guys and to have such a strong franchise.

I’ve worked on new IP before and it can be very difficult to figure out what you need to make, let alone what’s fun. So it’s good stating with a lot of things that we know people like and find fun. We have a strong base to work from and build upon, with new ideas like the scoring system for the races and the AllDrive system.

So do you are building on what Criterion has done in the past?

Yes, it has been a good point of reference to be able to look at Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted to find parts that really work well and to use them as inspiration.

Need for Speed Rivals interview with James Mouat Lead Designer Ghost Games

The racing genre is very saturated at the moment what separates Need for Speed Rivals from the crowd?

There are two really big aspects that make our game stand out. The first is the involvement of cops. Everyone I talk to, when I ask them what Need of Speed is, brings up cops and the ability to play with and against them.

Then there’s also our pursuit tech. We definitely have an advantage over a lot of hardcore sim racers, and even some of the open-world driving games, with some really cool gadgets like spike strips, stun mines and those sorts of things.

We also have our new feature AllDrive, which is something that’s like Autolog was a few years ago. It was kind of a weird new feature that people didn’t quite know what to make of it and now it’s what everyone is striving for. With AllDrive we were able to put out a new innovation in how we approach multiplayer and how to make a genre like multiplayer, which is pretty hardcore and threatening to a lot of people, more accessible and fun.

Can you tell me a little bit more about AllDrive? How does it work?

AllDrive is about destroying the line between single and multiplayer. You hit the start screen and you don’t choose the single-player option or the multiplayer option. You just start the game and AllDrive will take it from there, matchmaking you as appropriately as it can into the right world with friends or people from the general public.

You can still experience some of the more traditional gameplay modes like a hot pursuit event or a time trial event. You can start a hot pursuit as a cop and I could join in; we could do it together and cooperate. We could strategize and maybe you could wait down the road or you could jump in and join mid-way through. At a high level, AllDrive is about matchmaking without the need for understanding lobby systems and fiddling with all those modes.

But the point about destroying that single-player/multiplayer line is that I can be in the same world as you. You could be a level 20 racer I could be a level 5 cop, I have my own set of goals and you have yours. We could bump into one each other and chase each other around. I could end up busting you, or maybe you’ll get away. Maybe I satisfied one or two of my goals and you got some of your goals done. We are all completing different parts of very different experiences in the same world.

Need for Speed Rivals interview with James Mouat Lead Designer Ghost Games

Say I’m a low level cop and you are a high level cop and you’ve started a high level cop event, I can roll up at that start spot to. Alldrive will allow me to start it with you and I can piggyback in and play an event that was otherwise unavailable to me. So it allows me to easily play with my friends and have that same experience even if I haven’t unlocked it in my normal progression yet.

We are trying to reward people and allow them to play together as often as possible. Whenever you are driving near someone your HUD will light up and your scoring text will go green.  It’ll show the icons of the gamer avatars of anyone that’s nearby and for every player that you’re driving around in close proximity to you are going to get an additional 20% bonus to your score.

We know it’s fun to play together, but we are actually going to give you a bit of a reward for when you do. You are kind of encouraged to go and play with your friends. Even if you are a racer being chased by me as a cop, you are still getting a bonus just because I’m nearby. So you might want to string the cop along and not just race away, giving me a chance to keep chasing you.

With AllDrive we’ve looked at all aspects of the game, both the big meta-level and right down to moment-to-moment gameplay to find out how and why we can bring people together.

Need for Speed Rivals interview with James Mouat Lead Designer Ghost Games

On the subject of being people together, Ken Block is now EA’s Racing Advisor. Can you tell me about his involvement in the development of Need for Speed Rivals?

We had Ken come in quite a number of months ago, sit down and look at some of the software mid-development. He gave us his personal feedback on how he drives cars and how it differs from what he was seeing in the software.

Ken gave us ideas and inspiration saying things like, “when I’m driving a car, if I wanted to do a drift or a stunt I might do it like this and I’m having difficulties doing it in the game”. And we’d say, “OK, I see”, because he has a very hands-on, gearhead knowledge of how cars work and how they should behave.

Ken’s feedback helped us keep a good balance between the arcade and the simulation style of racing that we do. It allowed cars to more accurately feel like their real-world counterparts, but still not be super-hardcore and punishing to drive.

I’ve found that the handling this time around is definitely different than the last game. At first I was hitting those corners like an idiot; I’ve since started to get it after playing in for an hour. I’m able to drift a bit now.

We definitely pegged a big part of the gameplay, of the driving experience, around high-speed drifting. So we have built a lot of the world, and the driving model, around satisfying the ability to easily and effectively do cool drifts around corners.

If you see that there’s some traffic you can actually alter the path of the car to drift around them and keep going. The previous game, Most Wanted, was very much about very tight urban environments, slow to medium speed cornering and chasing; whereas we’ve gone for super high speed and long smooth drifting.

Need for Speed Rivals interview with James Mouat Lead Designer Ghost Games

How do the two environments compare? How big is Need for Speed Rivals’  Redview County compared to Most Wanted’s Fairhaven City?

We’ve actually overlaid the two and we are much bigger. We are much, much bigger. But they are much more dense because their’s is an urban grid-style city. We do have a much larger total drivable surface, so if you thought that the world in Most Wanted was a lot to explore there’s even more to be see in Need for Speed Rivals.

Need for Speed Rivals uses Battlefield 4’s Frostbite 3 engine. When someone says Frostbite to me I think destructive environments. How have you made Frostbite work for you in Rivals?

So as you might have guessed, Frostbite in the Battlefield sense isn’t about 200mph drifts around corners, so we have had to develop the Frostbite engine to suit our own means. This gives us is an amazingly solid technical base, supported by a large group of people. As the Battlefield team, or anyone else that is using the Frostbite engine comes up with some new tech we can all share it.

They’ve done some really good stuff, some very subtle stuff in Battlefield, like allowing move clips to be played in the scene; when you see a big explosion; that’s actually a movie clip playing in the background. We are able to use this sort of tech to help bring our world to life as well; stuff we might not have had the time to focus on and develop for ourselves.

So yes, there have definitely been some big hurdles for us to clear to make Battlefield style tech work in a driving experience; but at the same time it bought us a wealth of technical groundwork that we could start from.

Need for Speed Rivals interview with James Mouat Lead Designer Ghost Games

I noticed lots of stuff flying about in the game which I recognised from Battlefield. I did smash through something made of wood, I think it was a water tower or something, and I turned around and thought did that just fall down? When I turned around there was a pile of rubble there!

Yes there is lot of smash and destroy in our game which is especially good fun.  We’ve deliberately lined the road with lots of little things like wooden fences around the outside of a turn.  You are inevitably going to tear up a lot of the environment.

Yeah, I drifted straight through one of those wooden fences! Now, I’ve been playing Battlefield 4 and the environmental effects are amazing in that game. What environmental effects are players going to be up against in Rivals? I think I saw a storm brewing in the game.

Yep, we’ve got a good weather system in the game as well as a good day/night cycle. If you put those two together you can create some pretty harsh and chaotic scenes. It’s one thing if it is dark and one thing if it is raining. But if it is dark and raining and then the attack helicopter goes up; it starts shining a spotlight, the beam is going to be lighting up all the rain and it becomes like, whoa! It’s really hard to see given and the helicopter is kicking up all the downdraft particles .There’s dirt and rain.

We want the world to be alive and the weather is a big part of that. It’s also a very dramatic aspect of the world. It should be punishing to drive in the rain. It should be manic and tension building. What we’ve looked for in all our weather effects; be it dust, rain anything like that, is that it should add to the drama and the “oh my, I’m right on the edge of keeping this in control” experience, but not make players think “this is unplayable, I hate doing this”.

Need for Speed Rivals interview with James Mouat Lead Designer Ghost Games

I’ve had a go on a few of the marques, but how many cars have you got in the game?

I don’t think we can talk about that right now. Lots! The stuff we can talk about is the fact that both the cops and the racers have unique lists.

OK, moving on then. This is another title that straddles console generations. What is the difference between say the PS3 and PS4 versions of the game?

We made the conscious decision to try to keep the game uniform across all platforms. This was in part to make our lives easier, but also because it’s our job to make sure that we deliver a great experience for the Need for Speed fans.

We’re not interested in trying to push the next-gen consoles for Microsoft and Sony. So when you buy Need for Speed Rivals, and you don’t happen to have an extra $500 lying around for a new console, you shouldn’t feel like you are missing half the game if you brought it for the 360 or PS3.

The feature set is intact and it’s uniform across all of the releases. We’ve simply tried to leverage the horsepower behind the newer machines so that it looks that much richer and lush. On next-gen the cars have more detail and the world’s got more dust and particles. The game has as much life as we could push into those high-spec machines.

At the same time, though, we wanted to make sure that you didn’t feel cheated because you bought the wrong copy. There’s no such thing. If you get your hands on a copy of Rivals for your machine you are going to have the full experience.

Need for Speed Rivals interview with James Mouat Lead Designer Ghost Games

What feature in the game do you think gamers are going to enjoy the most?

I look at it two ways. I think obviously AllDrive, as it’s our big feature. But one of the things that I’ve really pushed hard on internally was the tension aspect for racers. You are constantly growing your score and your multiplier, but the more you do, the more intense the police attention is going to be and if you get busted you are going to lose your points.

That sense of consequence and everything that comes along with it is a more hardcore design than we’ve seen in Need for Speed in the past. I think that a lot of players are going to find it attractive because it is so tension-building. But for those looking for a little less tension in the game can say no and opt out.

I’m hoping that it is going to add a real sense of drama and create a lot of high impact moments that stay with you. When you add in AllDrive to that, where other people are suddenly showing up and interfering and adding a new dimension to it all, it’s going to be really intense.

And finally, a question that I was asked when I first came to Australia: are you Ford or Holden sort of fella?

Probably Ford, especially if I could somehow get my hands on a Ford GT. That would be awesome.

That would be awesome. Nice one. Thank you very much, James, and best of luck with your game.

Need for Speed: Rivals will be available for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 later this month.