The Art Of The Visceral Crash: Your Interview With Matt Webster

Last week, Kotaku AU had the chance to play Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit with a small group of press. And in between sessions of destroying highly expensive automotive equipment, we were able to ask Matt Webster, Producer at Criterion Games, a few of your questions.

Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit combines a few different things that both Criterion and the Need for Speed franchise have experimented with in the last few years, but they’ve taken each thing further. It’s open world, and four times the size of the map in Burnout: Paradise. Cops are back, but Hot Pursuit lets you play a full career as a cop or racer. The game is already running in 3D as well, even if they’re not sure what to do with it yet.

But most pleasing to us was to see that the emphasis has been taken away from bright lights, hot girls, loud music and street racer “culture”, a la Fast and the Furious, and is instead on the cars, maps, missions and gameplay. It’s subjective, of course – some people like their Porsches with a bikini model on top – but even they can’t deny that (except maybe Pro Street) the years Need for Speed concentrated on that are the years Need for Speed would like to forget.

With that in mind, the franchise is in the right hands. Criterion’s focus has always been on the fun. They make cars go fast, they make cars go boom, and they do it well.

“I think there’s a real disconnect for people when you slam a car into a wall and not much happens,” says Webster. “[Crashes are]fun and exciting, and certainly what we’re known for, and certainly what we’re bringing to Need for Speed. Plus it’s how the cars handle, and what happens when car meets car. That’s part of Criterion’s DNA.

“We’re taking it back to its roots with exotic cars, epic drives, and the cops. And really major on the cops. We really wanted to do something that hasn’t really been done before in a Need for Speed game, certainly to the extent that we’re doing. But going back to those credible cars, and building an open world for them, and compelling gameplay, and giving people a shot at playing with the cops.

We asked him what goes into making that perfect crash.

“They’re very visceral, and that’s how you shoot them. How the weight feels, and the effects that go with it. But they go hand in hand with what’s happened before that crash. So it’s not just the car itself, it’s how the car felt, and the fun you had around the corner, and the closeness to the traffic cars, so when the crash actually happens, it’s a beautiful sort of counterpoint to everything that’s just gone before it.”

Crashes in Hot Pursuit are an important part of the gameplay. Players can utilise weapons such as EMPs and spike strips, or call in support in the form of road blocks or helicopters, but your bread & butter is a good old fashioned ram. Cop cars are faster and more powerful, so racers need to be wily to escape, making smart use of their weapons and map shortcuts.

“Our online is racing, 8 players, hot pursuit online is 1v7, 7v1, 4v4, many configurations. And we’ve also got Interceptor, and that’s one cop vs one racer all over the world. Big, big, big pursuits on that one. Doubling back, hiding out, time of day changing…

“For the solo player, we’ve still got AI cops, but the cops are rolling in Zondas, and Porsches. It’s not like a Chevy Blazer taking you down in previous Need for Speeds, where you’re driving a Veron and they’re driving a Blazer and take you out. The Seacrest County Speed Enforcement Team have access to considerable resource.”

Simply drifting, or boosting to get a more powerful ram and watching the resulting slow-mo crash, is very enjoyable. As David Hollingworth, Atomic editor (sitting next to me) pointed out, more enjoyable than it has a right to be. But it’s clear that multiplayer is where the game will shine. In a scenario we played out with two cops vs two racers, the combination of Need for Speed racing and weapons seemed to milk the trash talk out of our bite-sized assembly.

One of Hot Pursuit’s innovations is fostering this kind of multiplayer competition even when the entire group isn’t online.

“I don’t know about you,” says Webster, “but even if I get a good score in a game online, I don’t care about being ranked 200,000th in the world. What matters more is beating your friends.

“Autolog is a system we constructed to aid that social competition that players have. So what Autolog does is track everything that’s going on inside your friends network. It’s always listening for the things you do within the game, constantly running these comparisons and then throwing them back out at your friends.”

Players will have a Speed Wall, which works off the many challenges within Hot Pursuit’s open world, and displays your achievements. It acts as a leaderboard and social networking device in one. Friends can see what you’ve done, and select that challenge to try and beat you. If successful, you’ll get a notification saying they’ve overtaken you, and all the while, anyone in your group of friends can get in on the one-upping action.

“It’s not just for the top of the Speed Wall. If I’m in 10th, I’ll get a Speed Wall recommendation from the player in 9th. So we wanna just get these social competition gameplay loops going.

“And we do some fun stuff like tracking the number of attempts. So maybe I’m in first and you’re on second, and I’ve got one attempt and you’re on two. I know you’re coming for me hard. So just simple things like, we’ll all feel it and talk about it in these ways, but just trying to present stats and comparisons in a human way, making it personal.

“Every possible opportunity, by injecting it directly into the game, we’re just trying to direct that competition. And what we’re seeing is that people are playing the same event over and over, just trying to eke out the best time. It’s a powerful mechanism.”

Hot Pursuit is the ultimate competition stirrer. The ultimate banter machine. It doesn’t just chart achievements, it grabs them from over there, brings them to you and says “Hey, your mate just beat your time trial over here, but it’s only by one second. You gonna take that?”

Happy with our domination over the other outlets, all that was left was to ask a few more Kotaku community questions. So – will there be a handbrake? And how important are customisations?

“Yes! Fastest player to do a 180! Yank that handbrake.

“But when that Zonda rolls out of that production line, it’s perfect. Adding a wing onto it is vulgar. So there ain’t any customisation for us. You can change the colour of the car, and there are upgrades in terms of weapons.

“So as you progress through your career, the spike strips will get wider, open quicker… Your EMP is going a lot faster, maybe it’s got a wider angle on it. Maybe your helicopter is going to stay on station a little longer.”

And what about game design degrees? How are they regarded in the world of Criterion?

“It depends where it’s from, and what it’s in. I don’t know, I kind of feel a lecturer in games design can make more money in games design than lecturing about it.

“But I think it’s great that it’s now a career opportunity. I think it’s a lot more informalised in terms of the technical things, but I think we’re still more successful at hiring people with, let’s say from a computer science standpoint, computer science or maths degrees. They’re probably more likely to generate more capable students than necessarily specific computer game science courses.

“Ultimately it’s a passion for games, and good ideas, being able to communicate, and thinking logically. They’re the things you’re going to want the most. The technical disciplines are better covered at the moment with the more established courses and it’s a little better understood.

Our thanks to Matt Webster!


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