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Interview: Will Ho On Need For Speed Payback's Action Packed Racing Paradise

It feels strange to consider it, but amidst the stream of sim racers, Need for Speed is now an outsider, a breed of arcade racer that is seemingly becoming increasingly rare. That doesn’t mean it can’t be ambitious though, and alongside an action packed blockbuster story it still has that alongside the more traditional open world racing, as well as the new addition of off road racing.

After playing the opening of the game that is featured in today’s release of the game’s Play First Trial on EA Access and Origin Access, we spoke to Will Ho, the game’s Creative Director.

TSA: An interesting point you made during the presentation was about having the story in the game and how that opens the game up to more people. Why is that now an important aspect for Need for Speed, when it’s traditionally just been a straight up racing game?

Will Ho: Well, when I grew up, I loved cars and I loved driving game, and I always dreamed of being the world champion, right? But what we’re finding is that not many people shared those same feelings. A lot of people admire cars and want cars as status symbol, and there is that driving fantasy, but it’s not the singular fantasy of becoming a racing champion.

What we’ve heard from our fans is how they appreciate having people having goals, they appreciate people from different background, going after bad guys and trying to get away from cops. It’s this perennial fantasy that just about anyone can relate to.

TSA: What were the inspirations behind the story? Obviously there’s one or two films, like Need for Speed… [laughs]

Will: Oh, there’s that one, yeah! [laughs]

It’s a pretty obvious path for us to go toward blockbuster action, right? People want that sensation, that fantasy fulfilment and to become heroes. They don’t want to be mundane drivers – it’s not Need for Slow, it’s Need for Speed! So there’s that elevated sense that we want to give people.

There’s an internal rule that we want it to be 70% believable, but we want it to be 30% fantasy. So it’s grounded in reality, but we go for the 30% where you are doing insane jumps, jumping from massive heights, hijacking 18 wheelers! It’s that fantasy part that is what we offer that very few others do. We feel that we’re catering to our fans and we’re also making new fans by offering this driving fantasy.

TSA: Quite early on, there was a line of dialogue that made me think, “Did they them The House just so you could have someone say ‘The House always wins’?”

Will: [laughs] You know, it’s kind of funny that you bring up the name, because I don’t even remember why we called it The House.

It was sort of inspired by – and actually, I think I do remember now that you’ve jogged my memory – it’s really all about the gambler’s paradise, right? It’s you versus The House and The House always has the cards stacked against you, and I think we felt that was a fantasy fulfilment in and of itself, where you go into The House and try to beat them.

TSA: You the game set in a gambling city like Las Vegas, but I’m curious why you decided to create an original city as opposed to mimicking Las Vegas?

Will: We’ve tried modelling Need for Speed games after real cities, but the problem is that real cities as boring to drive in. Every single time, people ask why we don’t model it on an actual city, but what we want to do is take inspiration. Even before the inspiration enhances it, we craft drives that are fun for the game modes that we want.

We know that we want drifting, so we craft great drifting bits. We wanted off road racing, so we prototyped what off road means to us. I think once we have the gameplay settled down, then we can come up with the wrapper, because it’s no use having the wrapper if you don’t have the fun. So we build up from the fun and then create this gambler’s paradise, but even that is inspired by more than one location.

An insider tidbit is that one of the earliest maps that I drew up […] I labelled it “Calevado”, which is for California, Nevada, Colorado. So it was a mish-mash of all these locations that we’d been to on vacations and trips and what not, but as that evolved, we also threw in some elements from other gambler’s paradises. There’s bit of Monaco, if you look carefully, and there’s a bit of Macao thrown in there as well.

So that made it a lot more visually interesting, because if we’d picked any one of those, it would have been just that place, but we’ve actually picked the best bits from all of these places.

TSA: How difficult was it to get the story’s scripted action sequences to live alongside the open world free form space? It is something that open world games do all the time, of course, but you’re coming at it from the perspective of racing and driving games.

Will: The interesting thing about designing an open world is that there’s so many things it has to shoulder the burden of. One of those is gameplay, another is just the sheer fun of driving, and another is sort of location scouting. It’s no different from any movie where you’ve got all the available locations and pick those that will support the scenes and the emotional beats of the story, and then we layer that into the world.

I don’t know how many revisions, but there’s been literally hundreds of revisions to the map based on all these various factors. So we have scenes that are show at gas stations, scenes in front of casinos, these ones that are out by the canyons and the big dam.

TSA: Then you realise that someone forgot to put the gas stations on the map…

Will: [laughs] Thank goodness we have nineteen of them!

But yeah, it’s really a massive iterative process that we can’t ever account for everything at once, but what is neat is that we have all these various thread on our team. We have our narrative team, our cinematics team, our gameplay team, the people in charge of just the flow of the campaign and what makes sense from a progression point of view. Everyone layers in their data, their needs and what it brings to the table, and eventually we polish that thing until it becomes Ocean Valley.

TSA: Of course, there’s also the off road racing, which is something new for Need for Speed. It’s interesting that you’re going beyond tyres on tarmac for the first time.

Will: Yeah, and that’s something that wasn’t a given. We were initially brainstorming and thought wouldn’t off roading be cool? But we had no idea exactly what it was going to be. We had to prototype it, we had to think how free is it? Are we only going to do dirt roads or are we completely free, or somewhere between?

In the end, we actually have both [dirt roads and completely free], but then we also had to approach how to get it to feel nice in a Need for Speed way and not frustrated with a steep learning curve. […] The off road cars we’ve got feel very different to the not off road cars, so there’s a clear advantage to it.

TSA: Well, you get to keep much more speed, that’s for sure!

Will: Exactly, right? And the off road cars are going to be generally better for the off road exploration in the game for Derelict parts and the Gambler’s Chips that we spread around the world. Some of which are kind of accessible only with an off road car, so you’ve got to be smart about that!

TSA: Speaking of the derelicts, I find it interesting that you say those are the ultimate aspiration for you in the game? You’d kind of expect it to be a Koenigsegg or another hypercar to be at the top, but here’s it’s something that you’ve effectively built yourself.

Will: I think Need for Speed opens a lot of eyes to what cars are cool for people. Like I said earlier, it’s just catering to car nuts or gear heads, it’s catering for people that just want to drive cool cars. A lot of people will learn what cool cars there are through playing a game like Need for Speed, and so we’ve extended it now to the derelicts.

Old doesn’t just mean it’s busted, it can also mean it’s cool. We live in a crafted age now where just about anything can have an artisanal quality to it and people admire that, the level of craftsmanship and having the right eye for it. There’s also just the determination to do it and crafting something over time. That’s what the derelicts offer.

TSA: Finally, I want to ask about Need for Speed and racing games as a whole, because we’ve had so many sim racers in the last, well, two months, and it feels like arcade racers are under-represented. It’s odd that Need for Speed is almost in this underdog position, and I’m wondering if you feel you’re answering a particular call that people have for this genre?

Will: I think it really does answer a call, and it’s a call of millions actually. We have a long history, it’s 23 years of history with Need for Speed, and that’s longer than most video game franchises! We’ve got people that can quote their favourite bits and features and experiences from different eras and different generations of Need for Speed, and we want to bring all of that together. We spend a lot of time looking at fan feedback and looking at the comments, and there’s threads asking why isn’t anyone answering this need?

So we just continue doing it because we know there are millions of fans out there, and we’re happy to be in this position!

Thanks to Will for speaking to us about the game. You can catch our preview here, or simply head onto your PC or Xbox One and try it out for yourself.

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