Hopes For a Burnout Return
With the release of Need for Speed Unbound this week, Criterion Games is properly back. Not that the Guildford studio’s been away, of course, but in recent years its role shifted towards a support studio, lending a hand with the Battlefront and Battlefield series among others – and its last standalone title was the X-Wing VR mission for Star Wars Battlefront back in 2016.
It’s something of a moment, then, to have Criterion Games back – and back on Need for Speed for a second stint behind the wheel following 2010’s Hot Pursuit and 2012’s Most Wanted. Need for Speed Unbound marks the start of a new chapter, with Criterion now overseeing the series once more, and to mark the occasion I spoke to studio veteran and Unbound’s creative director Kieran Crimmins.
Thanks for chatting with me, I’m sure you’re exceptionally busy with the launch not many days away. Before we get into that, I just wondered if you could tell me a little bit about yourself and your history at Criterion because I believe you’ve been there quite some time.
Kieran Crimmins: I started at Criterion on Hot Pursuit – that was my first game job, actually, and I’ve been there ever since. I’ve probably worked on more EA projects than I like to mention, certainly more than I’m credited for – but yes, I’ve been there for a long time. I’ve been living and breathing racing games and vehicle games for 13 years – I think it might be longer – but for a long time, and it’s a huge passion of mine.
That’s a long time and an incredible legacy. Obviously, the studio of today is quite different from the one in 2010 – can you tell me how it’s changed and how it’s different?
Kieran Crimmins: So you know, some things are the same and some things are different as you would expect. Criterion has always been a kind of place of innovation, a place of disruption in the market, and a place of rampant creativity within the game industry. We’ve always tried to make amazing racing games that have this wonderful pick-up-and-play arcade feel – you know, easy to pick up, hard to master.
The DNA of the studio has never changed since I’ve been there. It’s always been what we’re about and it’s always been the way in which we work and we take great pleasure. Saying that we’ve worked on so many different projects – we went from working on car games to working on Battlefield, working on hardline and Star Wars and VR games. Actually, the last project I did press for was a Star Wars VR game, which I was very proud of.
Was that X Wing: VR Mission? I played it and I loved it – it was fantastic.
Kieran Crimmins: Oh, thank you! That was my baby. I absolutely loved that. My point is, through all that time, the studio has honed that expertise of vehicle handling and arcade sensibilities throughout all the different games we’ve worked on. And we’ve worked on all sorts of different stuff. And actually, it’s funny, because coming back to Need for Speed, it’s not only a joy to come back to a franchise that we’re all hugely passionate about, but with the expertise that we’ve built up at doing those different things… And you know, just imagine the conversations we’ve had down the pub – you end up with a laundry list of cool ideas and cool things that you want to apply to the genre. And then we’ve come back to it and got to do some other stuff. It was a wonderful experience for everyone.
Criterion has had more of a support role in recent years – to then take on a big, sizable AAA game, was there quite a lot of change necessary for that?
Kieran Crimmins: You’d think so wouldn’t you? But I think the way in which we work has remained the same – we try and keep as much in our little creative space as possible. We try and deliver the best possible kind of game feel – we are essentially a game-feel studio. Coming back to Need for Speed, even when we weren’t the lead studio we helped out on nearly all the Need for Speed games – it’s very normal for our studios to share resources. It didn’t actually feel very different – it just felt like the next projects going on. Although I guess we’ve got a little bit more skin in the game!
You said you’re a game-feel studio, which is kind of interesting because that’s something I’ve always associated with Criterion. I’d like to think you could strip away everything and I’d be able to identify a Criterion game just from its handling alone. How would you define that, and what’s the difference for you that makes Criterion stand out?
Kieran Crimmins: So there are two things that we do – I don’t know if they’re unique, and I think people like Respawn work like this, but it’s something that’s part of our core game-making DNA if you will. And one is the iteration loop. So we work with getting things on screen and getting things in your hands as soon as possible, and then we iterate from there and try and make them the most fun things possible. We always have software running, we always have weekly and daily play tests, we always have a kind of critical review, and the point of that is that we’re trying to judge game feel – we’re trying to judge how those mechanics actually make you feel, and how those emotions are manifesting in you. That’s what our ultimate judge for a game experience is – it isn’t whether the feature is done, it’s doing it delivers the emotions that we wanted to deliver. There are other studios that work like that, and they’re some of the best studios out there, and you can definitely tell the games that prize that kind of game feel and the ones that don’t because the games feel very different.
The other one is more the technical know-how of how we do it. We take an extremely complex and high-fidelity physics simulation – something that you’d be getting a sim or something like that. When we’ve done space vehicles we still physically calculate all the physics and when we’re doing cars it’s exactly the same. It’s the assists that we put on top that allow us to make the fantasy of driving that thing super accessible, so you should be able to pick it up and drive like a heroic driver straight away and be able to do maneuvers that if you were to play a sim game would probably take you years to learn. So you’re living the fantasy that you get to be the hero straight away, but because it’s based on those extremely complex simulations there’s still a really high level of mastery there. So it isn’t just binary inputs or anything like that – there’s still a physical simulation and the more you play, the more you can identify what you can do to master that physical simulation that’s running underneath it.
That’s a really detailed answer and much better than my take on the Criterion feel, which is that the cars all feel like they’ve got big bottoms. I haven’t had a chance to play Need for Speed Unbound myself, but it’s something where do you think something can pick up and get that distinct Criterion feel.
Kieran Crimmins: In the case of this game we turned some of the assists off because we’ve got two different driving models now – we’ve got a very classic arcade handling model, but we’ve also got what we’re calling grip driving models, which are a lot closer to the old Need for Speed models where it’s all about having really great downforce, having great traction and very traditional race lines through corners.
Those sensibilities and those techniques have never changed, though, so I hope that’s the case. Saying that it’s a new technology, it’s a completely new simulation, it’s not going to be exactly the same – because the technology and fidelity and everything moves on. But I would say I can guarantee you that it is a wonderful arcade visceral driving experience. That’s the thing that Criterion is known for, and we’ve delivered that in this game. So even if it doesn’t feel super familiar, I’m sure that it’s super exciting and super fulfilling
One last thing on the legacy as well, because you’ve done it in tandem with Codemasters Cheshire, which is obviously ex-Evolution. And someone who’s big into racing games and the history of racing games, it feels like royalty basically coming together. Are that history and the legacy that has gone into it evident in the final thing?
Having the Codemasters people join us was an absolute joy if you imagine just another bunch of kind of racing car nerds. We pretty much speak the same language, but they had slightly different ideas and slightly different sensibilities. And that was great because that kind of gets you to look at it from another angle, and actually has improved a product pretty much all over from every angle having those people join. They didn’t just join to work on an individual team or work on a feature, they’ve integrated into every part of the studio and joined all the different teams. So they’ve elevated everything by bringing that new perspective and bringing that expertise and passion that they have for racing games.
When it comes to the series itself, were there any particular games in its history that you looked at for inspiration?
Kieran Crimmins: I guess I’ve talked a lot about the new but there are some things we’re trying to retain. Heat set a direction of being more about a street racing fantasy rather than just street car racing – it definitely set a direction, and that felt like the right direction for us. So you know, the original Most Wanted, the Underground series – the ones that had that street racing fantasy at their core, that was something that we want to emulate.
We didn’t necessarily want to emulate all the systems in those games. But we wanted to say if this is a street racing fantasy game, then we’re trying to deliver you the fantasy of being a street racer. So we’re trying to make you bet big on your own abilities. take big risks with every race and make every single race meaningful so that when you decide to do a race and how you do in that race is impactful to your player journey in the same way that it would be if you were an actual street racer living in that kind of fantasy.
There’s an ethos to those old games that I think we’ve captured, and I hope that fans of those old games you’ll notice that in the game. It’s not a direct sequel or anything like that, but it is something where they could appreciate the ethos that those games are about and we’ve transplanted it and kind of modernized it for the audience and put it at the core of the experience and systems in Unbound.
It feels like a sort of homecoming of sorts, having only this week coming back to Criterion. Is the studio committed to the series for the foreseeable future? Is it basically a Need for Speed studio now?
Yeah, well, I believe so! I don’t know the future that well. I mean, but yeah. It certainly felt like a homecoming to all the people that were super excited to work on it, and there’s a lot of passion being poured into the project in that sense. I know we’re looking at other Need for Speed titles. So for all intents and purposes, we’re excited to be making Need for Speed again – we’re very excited to be making Need for Speed again – and I hope that we’ll make many more in the future.
Obviously, I can’t talk to anyone from Criterion about racing games without asking the obvious. And I’m asking now before it comes up in the comments anyway. Would there possibly be Burnout in your future? Because I know a lot of people still have a lot of passion for that series.
Kieran Crimmins: Yeah, absolutely. I hope so. It’s not something we’re looking at doing now. Right? It’s not my next game or anything like that. Not that I could say if it wasn’t, but I guess I can say that it’s not the next game I will work on. But if you’re talking about the two games that the studio has the most passion for, they’re obviously Need for Speed and Burnout. We love those two franchises, and Burnout has a unique take on racing that I think would be absolutely phenomenal now. So I guess what I’m saying is, I would love to do that. And I hope that if everything goes well with these games, and we can expand the team, then maybe we can make one of those as well. It’s not in the immediate future plans or anything like that but man, it’d be really fun