Criterion, Most Wanted and the art of racing game design

Cities are designed to fulfil a lot of functions, but fun driving usually isn’t one of them. Quite the opposite these days. Escalating traffic levels have strangled the life out of urban roadways, while congestion charges and designated parking have become familiar weapons in the war against personal transport. We’re not supposed to enjoy cars, we’re supposed to put up with them.

Diametrically opposed to this life-sapping philosophy is Need For Speed: Most Wanted, the latest anarchic drive-’em-up from Guildford-based developer, Criterion. The veteran studio has been responsible for some of the best racing games of the last decade, switching from its own Burnout series in 2010 to rescue EA’s long running Need For Speed brand. Its interpretation of NFS: Hot Pursuit sold eight million copies and introduced the brilliant Autolog social competition system, which allowed gamers to asynchronously compete for the best times. And now the development team has returned with another NFS offshoot and another scintillating interpretation.

Set in and around the sprawling metropolis of Fairhaven, Most Wanted challenges players to become the most notorious illegal racer in town, speeding through a series of illicit driving events, gathering speed points and unlocking mods. Brilliantly, very few of the dozens of licensed vehicles are locked at the start of the game; instead, they’re hidden around the enormous map – if you find them, you can keep them. And you’re free to explore the entire open-world environment at your leisure, locating challenges and races en route.

So how does a studio go about creating a landscape designed specifically for high speed thrills? “It’s quite an interesting process,” says creative director, Craig Sullivan. “We start out talking about the kind of variety we want. So in Hot Pursuit, which was quite different to Most Wanted, we knew we wanted mountains so you could drive in the snow, and we wanted desert so you’d get that Vanishing Point feel. We purposefully didn’t have a city because that game was all about going 200mph through rolling beautiful curves. We were also inspired by California, so we wanted beautiful coastlines, forests – almost a homage back to the original Hot Pursuit games. But with Most Wanted, we knew it had to be based around a city. We kept the coastline, though – it’s our job to make something you can memorise, so if you know the coastline is on the south, you can orientate yourself around that”.

The next step was to add specific gameplay set-pieces – an abandoned airfield, a power plant with lots of off road runs – destination areas for players to discover and experiment with. Then comes the road network, or ribbons as Criterion call it, which links everything together and accommodates the vehicle handling. The underlying ambition is to create a world that looks authentic, but that offers up a range of ridiculous possibilities. “We’ve got a 500ft jump that goes across a freeway,” says Sullivan. “You don’t get many of those in real life, but it’s all about staging things so they look like they could exist. I spent a long time skateboarding when I was a kid and I understand the flow of skate parks, the lines you naturally seek out; you take a similar approach when you’re driving at speed: with the best open-world games you’ll find yourself, not in a funnel, but in a geometry set that feeds itself to you as you travel, which allows you to have a fun time – it’s something you can get very wrong, but we’d already done Burnout Paradise so we had experience with exploration”.

Predictably, the designers are heavily inspired by real cities. During the development of Most Wanted, Criterion sent a group of its design staff to Boston, a historic city with a variety of road surfaces and architectural spaces. “To build an authentic city, it can’t all look pristine and new,” says Sullivan. “It needs to look as though it has been constructed over many years. We wanted cobbles, we wanted wide plaza areas and narrow alleys. I’m just about to go on vacation to LA and Hawaii and I know there are things I’ll see that will make me think ‘that would be cool in a game’. If you find something that looks natural, that looks like it would be fun to drive a car off or through or over, it helps with the design process. We’re constantly trying to keep that balance between believability and fun”.

Another key element of the Criterion driving experience is handling. The studio is famous for its accessible, exciting driving model, combining real-life physics with elements of classic japanese arcade design, so you get cars that feel authentic, but can still drift over a kilometre of tarmac. “There are so many little parts that go into making a great driving experience,” says Sullivan. “We start out with the raw data from the manufacturers and produce an accurate simulation of what that car is like to drive; Most Wanted contains the most realistic simulation we’ve ever done – and we could have stayed with that. There are plenty of games out there that are all about simulating how hard it is to drive a car, but we want to go beyond that – it needs to meet your expectations of what a car is like to drive.”

So what does that mean for the coders? “There’s lots of Criterion DNA in there,” says Sullivan. “The brakes are a little bit stronger than they are in a real car so you can weave through traffic at speed. We have systems that help you control the drift – you can get the back end out doing 150-200mph – I don’t know many drivers in the world who could do a 2km drift like that. In our game we have… they’re not really assists, they’re smart little systems that allow you to feel like you’re really driving that Porsche 911. It feels believable, but it allows you to drive in a cool way”.

These systems are the result of Criterion’s obsessive approach to development, and it has been this way since the beginning. “We spent a lot of time back in 2000, talking about the roots of driving games, talking about AM2,” says Criterion’s vice president, Alex Ward. “That’s where we started: we just discussed braking and sliding – if you don’t have those right, you have nothing.”

Both Alex and Craig talk about the endless iteration that goes on at the studio, the compulsion to play and improve. “We constantly change things,” shrugs Sullivan. “Not for the sake of change, but to improve it. Is the game too long, too short, is there enough variety? We’re lucky with EA – they know we change a lot of stuff, but they’re not nervous. We iterate the crap out of every game we do, we’re always cutting stuff, adding stuff, right to the end. When it gets to the later stages, when the debugging begins, the team just wants people like me out of the office because I’m always tweaking stuff. There’s an email I always send out, the subject header is ‘just one last change’ but no one ever believes that it is. They say ‘can we send him on holiday?'”

Over the years, though all of this, Criterion has learned one vital lesson: handling is all about flattering the player – even if they haven’t a clue about racing lines, the apex of a curve or brake management, you mustn’t tell them that. “There’s a reason you can’t turn assists on and off in a Criterion game,” says Sullivan. “We’re trying to make one experience that allows as many people as possible to have fun. There are a lot of different cars in the game and some of them are hard to drive – we have an Ariel Atom in there and I don’t think theres’s been one on a Need For Speed game before. It drives like a wasp; it’s very quick it corners insanely but it’s also very weak, if it touches anything you crash”.

I try to interject with another question, but he’s off now, breathlessly listing super cars. “We have Bugatti Veyron in there, the Lamborghini Aventador, we’ve got the Koenigsegg Agera R in there, which is currently the fastest production car in the world. They all drive in a very different way, but they still have that… we’re influenced by games we’ve played in arcades: our job as game creators is to make sure that within two minutes of picking up the controller you can drive the car how you want to drive it and nothing seems unfair. You are going to crash at some point but that should make you smile because you know YOU’VE messed up. That’s the secret of tight, sweet-spot handling. That’s what we always strive to capture”.

Read the full article on The Guardian website…

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