I was lucky enough to have a conversation with Will Ho, Creative Director, at Ghost Games, for the new Need For Speed Payback. A game that is already making waves and may prove to be one of the Fall’s biggest titles. It’s a fast paced thrill ride with great characters and a complex tale of revenge to boot. The driving is exciting though it’s not everything. There’s more to this newest installment, of the classic franchise, so I went right to the developing studio to get some answers about what it’s like to work on a project like this.
Here are the the 10 questions I needed to know the answers to. Check out my interview with Will Ho and get even closer to the hot, new Need For Speed Payback.
10 Questions For Creative Director Will Ho About Need For Speed Payback
Heavy: Need for Speed was already a successful franchise by the time I purchased my first game. It was the excitement of the underground racing scene, going up against rivals, vinyls, and neon under-glow that had me hooked. NFS Underground and NFS Underground 2 boasted unique racing styles, an exciting climb to get to number one, and new cars with a lot of visual customization.
With Need for Speed: Payback, nearly everyone is excited to hop in their car and get right to the action. Although for some drivers, the customization of their vehicle is the ultimate rush. The customization in past titles has been mostly cosmetic and hasn’t always allowed you to get some grease on your hands, diving into the inner workings of your wicked machine. Was it your goal to really expand customization in the new Need For Speed Payback?
Will: So I’d be surprised if we ever put out another game without it [full customization]. The mission now is to make it deeper and more accessible than ever. So we have mixable body kits on every car, five new car classes, Speed Cards that make swapping parts more fun, and Live Tuning that lets you fine tune your handling while you drive. It’s everything you need to build your perfect car.
Heavy: A lot of people who enjoy video games live in areas that don’t always allow for easy internet access. Its true even in today’s connected world there are many who play a wide selection of games offline. In a time when so many game titles have moved away from offline available content and when many games don’t even work without a connection; Need for Speed: Payback is boasting an offline single-player mode.
Was it a goal to make this game more inclusive and widely accessible?
Will: We listen to our fans a lot. And what we’ve heard loud and clear is our fans want to play through a full single-player campaign without having to be online. So we built it like that from day one. It’s your personal racing journey from start to finish if you want. But you’ll get a more competitive experience when you’re connected with Autolog tracking your best scores versus your friends and the world.
Heavy: Moving away from circuit racing and the endless grind of 50 laps sound enticing. One of my favorite features of Need for Speed was its ability to bend the traditional makeup of car racing. With a little creativity you could win because even on a set course, there were always multiple shortcuts.
When you create a fast paced, exciting, and action based driving game; it has to be in an open world setting. The huge size and scope of the setting only increases the realism and the creativity of the drivers. As developers creating an open world environment are you also thinking about how that can influence the game’s story? Do you think the larger environment creates a bigger more believable story?
Will: Building a huge open world is no easy task these days. It has to feel like real life but be suited for over-the-top action. It has to give you freedom but not make you feel lost. It has to backdrop a story, but not be constrained by a single script. If you want to live to be 120 years old, don’t start a career making open worlds. It’s tough work.
But we do go to great lengths to integrate realism, story, freedom, and guidance into our open world. We make sure visuals and gameplay work together to make a world you believe feels true to your particular driving fantasies, no matter what they are. That’s when you believe in it.
Heavy:Having multiple characters enter the story over a game is always exciting. A few new faces here and their often bringing with them just what you need to win the next race. The concept of having multiple drivers each with their own skill set is perfect way for players to explore their different strengths.
With Tyler Morgan, Mac, and Jess there is an added element of versatility. It could be about exploring each of their separate strengths and using the right driver at the right time. As a gamer the choice of driver is exciting, but as a developer did it have any unforeseen consequences? When creating a mission, race, or new challenge did you ever have a specific driver in mind? Were you plotting a course or a path that you knew favored a specific driver’s style?
Will: We designed all of the races and the missions in the single-player campaign holistically. That is, the game mode, objectives, course design, characters, setting, rivals, etc. were all chosen deliberately to form dozens of cohesive experiences that are linked together.
For example, Mac pits himself against a street racing league called the Free Ember Militia. He’s a free-spirited, fun-loving guy who likes to color outside the lines whenever possible. Accordingly, we designed several courses that let you, as Mac, find a lot of shortcuts and alternate routes that his more regimented rivals don’t take.
Heavy: I was caught off guard at E3 when I heard the term action driving. It seemed a more elaborate concept than just what it sounded like.
When I go sailing over an intersection at 150 km/h and land only to slide sideways and narrowly make a sharp left turn; I call that action driving. NFS: Payback is an “action driving” game. What does action driving mean? Why is it so important to the overall story of the game and its style?
Will: Realistic racing is heavily defined by rules. It’s fun only up to the point that you break the rules, then you’re punished or disqualified and basically not having fun anymore.
With action driving, you still show off your driving skills to achieve a goal, but your goals can be much more than crossing a finish line. You can battle with and wreck pursuers. You can shuttle bad people around for good money. You can smash through obstacles at speed. All of this is fun because the only rule is to break all the rules.
Heavy: This is unique, the NFS franchise allows itself to be reinvented or redefined constantly. It means their can also be numerous ideas from everywhere about everything. A ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ scenario.
Working on a famous video game franchise like NFS, do you ever feel there is a lot of pressure to put out a great product? Ignoring finances and of course your want to produce a fantastic game. Is there extra pressure being part of a long line of games and wanting to put your mark on their history?
Will: No one who ever put out a videogame wanted it to be a dud. It doesn’t matter if you’re making a small indie game or a massive AAA blockbuster. You want to find an audience.
Need for Speed has the massive benefit of having and audience and knowing it pretty well now. We’re in tune with what our fans want more than we ever have. That’s not to say that we can please 100% of the people 100% of the time. But games that please their audiences generally make history without explicitly trying to.
Heavy: Using the Payback theme seems to some critics as a little too ‘Fast and Furious’. Using cars and your friend’s cars to take down the criminal enterprise, liberating the city in the process. I believe the story allows for a unique play style and incorporating 3 drivers with unique strengths is a perfect way to take advantage of that. I think any silver screen connections strengthen the story and help connect it to a large audience.
The plot almost sounds like something out of a big Hollywood production and excitement is building for the release. Do you think the immersive story and setting will make people feel truly part of the action? Is NFS: Payback going to be a fast paced, thrill ride?
Will: I might have dreamed of becoming an F1 champion when I was a boy, but most of the human race didn’t. We have to go for more universal goals that most people can relate to: how to win when you’re an underdog; how to assert yourself in the face of adversity; how to be a hero when the bad guys threaten your home.
Once you have motivated heroes, interesting bad guys and the tools they need to do battle – in this case, Need for Speed-style cars – you have the big pieces in place to make an entertaining thrill ride.
Heavy: When people are driving their car they are definitely listening to music, receiving calls, and that is an important part of the game as well. Receiving calls, new missions, updates how is this all presented to the driver? How does NFS: Payback allow each driver to stay connected to the outside world?
Will: We aimed for a more consistent level of unobtrusive storytelling. We transitioned from full motion video cutscenes to ones rendered real-time in Frostbite. We have characters give each other real-time advice during missions. We also have a podcaster-like narrator named The Curator who has her finger on the pulse of Fortune Valley’s car culture. All of these elements intertwine nicely to keep you informed while you’re driving, driving, driving.
Heavy: Designers and Developers often fall in love or out of love with a specific area of the game. Is there a mission or moment that is your absolute favorite? Is there something about the game that was particularly frustrating for you?
Will: I think that after more than twenty different Need for Speed games, it’s hard to come up with a truly original new race route. It’s a gift and curse that, say, drifting on mountain switchbacks or defying death on cliff-side drives is always fun.
A couple of our guys came up with an event that truly surprised me. It boldly combines elements of an oval track, off-roading, shortcuts, and stunts. It’s pure genius when you play it in the single-player campaign, and it is surely going to be one of our best loved multiplayer events.
Heavy: The modern game is made by people from everywhere. It’s a truly international and multicultural undertaking. Teams can be from many countries, faiths, backgrounds and work hard to finish a game. A game meant for an equally diverse and global audience.
With this new title is there anything you’re bringing to NFS that its never had? A new perspective perhaps or some influence from your team that will draw a global audience to NFS: Payback?
Will: The crew at Ghost Games is the most diverse I’ve ever been a part of. Our studio in Gothenburg, Sweden houses a mix of Swedes, Brits, Canadians, Germans, Americans, Italians, and more. Plus we also have satellite crews in the UK, Romania, Shanghai, Canada, and others. A distributed team that works across boundaries and time zones isn’t going to make a production line, color-by-numbers kind of game. Rather, the variety of ideas and solutions — and the energy put into finding the best of these — makes a more interesting, more textured Need for Speed.
My special thanks to Will Ho and the entire crew at Ghost Games.