After working on the Battlefield series for many years at DICE in Sweden, Marcus Nilsson looked for a different challenge in the world of game development and has spent the last two and a half years not only building a new secret EA studio in the city of Gothenburg, but he and the team at Ghost Games have been hard at work crafting the next game in the traditionally arcade-style racing series, Need For Speed.
Nilsson currently serves as the head of Ghost Games and is also the executive producer on Need For Speed: Rivals, and to find out more about the racer we had the chance to speak with him at gamescom 2013 about the challenges of creating a studio while developing a game, with topics ranging from respecting fun, to Swedish family life, and his very strong vision for the future of the Need For Speed franchise.
- Marcus Nilsson at gamescom 2013
El33tonline: What are the challenges of building a new studio from scratch, while working on a brand new game, on brand new platforms… there are all of these things working against you, what are the challenges you’ve faced?
Nilsson: ‘Challenge’ is the right word, ‘problems’ is another word that you could put in, but we talk about challenges, absolutely, and Ghost was built because we wanted to get to a really high quality for Need For Speed and after not being happy perhaps with where the games ended up, or even with what the games were.
So with Frostbite 3 – this is the time when Battlefield 3 was still in development – we could see where this technology was going to take us. We knew that when these new consoles come out, we’re going to have an engine that’s ready to take us to the next generation directly. Instead of waiting for them to be announced and then building an engine, we had that already.
Having said that, it’s not that easy because an engine for Battlefield is not automatically an engine for Need For Speed, far from it. You can absolutely share stuff, but the driving layer, the physics layer… there’s a lot of things that need to be replaced so it’s almost like building a new engine as well.
So if you think about it, I step out of an airplane to Gothenburg about two-and-a-half years ago, and since then we’ve built the game you see, and to do that we’ve built an office and a team, we’ve built a concept, we’ve taken over the Need For Speed franchise, we’ve built an engine and we’re putting the game out on new next generation consoles which are still fluctuating a little bit.
So yes, there have been plenty of challenges along that journey, but you know what? That’s what makes it interesting. Talk to any developer actually and they would more or less say the same thing. Maybe we added a few things on top, absolutely, but that’s what our lives are like and we do it because we love to get the games out to the fans. I know that sounds like ‘Yeah, of course you would say that,’ but the reactions? When you get just small tweets from people saying ‘I played Need For Speed: Rivals and it’s brought me back to the franchise,’ it’s amazing to think that, ‘Wow, we did that!’
El33tonline: So Ghost is now the sole Need For Speed studio?
Nilsson: Yeah, that brand needs to stabilised with consistency and the plan is for that to happen and for me to drive that franchise.
El33tonline: You’ve obviously really dug into the Need For Speed franchise – what to you is the essence of a Need For Speed game? What does a game need in order to be a Need For Speed game?
Nilsson: I think a lot of people have different opinions on what a Need For Speed experience is, and that perhaps is also the problem as well. One day it could be this, and another day it could be that. As I said, it needs consistency and you need to follow where technology and entertainment is going.
Need For Speed is obviously about cars and going fast, and to me it’s absolutely about being able to play as a cop or a racer. I think what we saw with Autolog being incorporated into [Need For Speed] Hot Pursuit in 2010 is also very much a core component of Need For Speed now with friends competition and the replayability that that brings. I also think personalisation or customisation of your car to express who you are through you avatar, if you will, is absolutely a cornerstone of Need For Speed – it’s been missing for a couple years. And some kind of narrative of ‘Why am I playing this game, why am I a cop or a racer,’ is also definitely a part of what Need For Speed is.
So we’re absolutely thinking a little bit differently about what Need For Speed is with Rivals, if you compare to what Criterion did, which I think is bringing us back to the core.
El33tonline: There’s a lot of pressure in developing and continuing to develop a Need For Speed game. When I think of Need For Speed I think of established franchises like Mario, these huge franchises that have stood the test of time – how have you dealt with that pressure and what sort of help have you got from Criterion? Craig Sullivan is on the team, I believe?
Nilsson: It’s a learning process, right? You’d be foolish if you didn’t work with Criterion if you started something like this up. It’s a sister studio with [the EA] label, and Craig is an old friend of mine even before this. I sat down with him and said, ‘Hey, I’m opening up a new studio, you should be the creative director on that.’ He obviously had to finish [Need For Speed] Most Wanted, but then he came over and now he lives in Gothenburg.
El33tonline: So he’s there full-time?
Nilsson: Absolutely, he lives there.
And I’ve done a similar thing with many other people – people that I’ve worked with before that I really trust – I’ve brought them back in. I’ve got Jamie Keen who was the lead designer on Far Cry 3, which has an amazing open world and is filled with things to do all the time, so we were lucky enough that he was in a position where he wanted to come back to Sweden and to Gothenburg – he’s getting married, and Sweden is good for family life.
El33tonline: That’s good to hear!
Nilsson: Yeah, that’s partially the reason for starting a studio in Gothenburg.
But you’re absolutely right, the pressure is there. Need For Speed is big business and big money for EA, and you just need to be professional in what you do and make decisions and have a strong belief in what you want it to be, be persuasive and tell people what it’s going to be and why we’re going to spend the money. But the great thing with EA – which can also sometimes be its negative – is the size of it.
El33tonline: It’s huge.
Nilsson: Yeah, so sometimes some things are really taking a long time and a lot of people are getting involved, but in terms of setting up Ghost the support has been immense. Getting people – there’s just a team that goes through and finds the best people that can fit. The complexity of setting up a new team is not only ‘I need a producer, I need an engine programmer,’ it’s in getting people who can work eight hours a day at least – or now actually more – and taking something good to something great. Good simply isn’t good enough.
El33tonline: A bit of a side-step: How do car manufacturers nowadays feel about destruction and deformation of their cars?
Nilsson: To me it’s never changed, really. Again, a strength of EA is that we have a licensing department. We never see that as developers, I don’t have to call Ferrari – even though that might be good to call Ferrari [laughs] – someone else does that and they give us CADs [3D model designs] for the cars and we build the cars and say, ‘This is what the car looks like when it’s whole, this is what it looks like when it’s a little damaged and then very damaged,’ and they come back with feedback.
Some people are easier to work with, some people hard to work with, while some people have higher integrity about their brand than others. So that licensing department [at EA] is doing a great job, especially now getting Ferrari back because that’s not easy.
El33tonline: You mentioned that Gothenburg is a great place for family – how important is that to you to have a good quality of life? Right now you might be in crunch but maybe the crunch period isn’t the best thing for the games industry and eight hour days should be enforced…
Nilsson: Absolutely, the balance… a bonus of this strategy in setting up in Gothenburg and having good people there, and also being a window to the rest of Europe, is that Sweden is also very good when it comes to balancing work life with vacations and parental leave – that’s attractive for people to relocate. Game developers themselves have been moving across the world to work at different studios.
So I think it’s a good idea to say, ‘OK, we’re going to be settling down, Gothenburg looks cool, it’s close to the UK. Close to mom and dad – but not too close – and I can take parental leave, and what, the company is going to compensate me a full salary for six months?! I’ll go with that.’ You know what I mean? It’s not even an argument.
And now that we have the Need For Speed franchise we have a strong brand behind us so we’re in a good position that way.
So that is important to us, the core values of Ghost is ‘respect fun and excellence,’ and respect to me… respect is applicable to everything, it’s me having respect for you and you for me, saying ‘hello’ to someone in the office in the morning and then when you go you say ‘goodbye.’ But it’s also respect to the other side, you respect that you need to reach a certain level of quality for the game, so we respect that the quality is driving us. Then once we have the chance to compensate for that, we respect family life and we go that way, so we need to be flexible in that sense.
But when it comes to the ‘excellence’ word, I want everything that we do to strive for excellence. We’re not always going to reach there but it does mean we’re going to reach high, and that goes for everything we do from the press conference I did for EA the other day, to what we’re showing behind closed doors, to how the emails are structured that come in from my development director.
So trying to work that into the atmosphere of the studio is core. And then I think we get fun, when we now see the comments coming in from the showfloor and when journalists write about the game, and people see where all the hard work has been put into, that’s our reward and it’s more rewarding than potentially all the money in the world to say that what you did with a team of a hundred people is fantastic – that is… wow, epic.
El33tonline: Going back to Rivals, I’m personally excited to see abilities like EMPs and roadblocks back in the game and able to use them on the fly – what are some of the advantages and disadvantages of playing a cop versus playing as a racer, and how do they play off of one another?
Nilsson: I think you see a difference in how this game is being played, and how Hot Pursuit was played. Hot Pursuit was like a slot machine, right – you would race and there was awesome replayability because of Autolog, so I think it was a brilliant game. But it didn’t give you an identity of being a cop, or being a racer, so what we’re doing now is going back to having a narrative and I think we’re going to see people play through the career as a cop, and then career as a racer, or the other way around. There’s not going to be much jumping back and forth because there’s always something new to see and learn in that career.
So obviously the weapons feed into that in the sense that it’s part of the progression, like any game – you’ll unlock stuff and you choose what to equip your car with. On the racer side you can basically decide what kinds of weapons you want to have on the car, while on the cop side each car that you unlock will have a certain level of those weapons.
The two sides also unlock differently, so it’s not like playing two careers and they both unlock exactly the same, there’s this element of trying to get away or catch, and it’s also different in how we allow you to access different things throughout the game. Basically with this, I would say you get one-and-a-half games in one in how it’s set up.
El33tonline: Talking about that word ‘challenge’ again, what are the challenges of making sure players are always having fun in your game rather than relying on them to make their own fun? How heavy a hand must you have on the player to make sure they’re having fun, or are you confident that people are going to have fun on their own?
Nilsson: I think that’s a really good question, actually, because that’s one of the problems in any game, to make it go from a grind to something that’s fun. You’re still doing a grind, right, but it shouldn’t feel like a grind.
So many games it feels like a grind, and sometimes game makers use the grind as a tool to pull you in, right? ‘You’re almost there… you’re almost there…’ And that in itself is plays on the reward system in your body, you want to reach [that goal]. But sometimes it’s not fun to go there. So the second-to-second in Rivals is really good. I believe, it’s the best Need For Speed in terms of driving that people have ever had. So that’s good, the second-to-second is fun.
But it’s only going to be fun for ‘X’ amount of time if you just have that, so there need to be a lot of other things for you to be able to do at any given time, which is where this new progression comes in. There’s going to be stuff in that Speed List or assignment that there will be constant progression towards, and some of that you’ll need to complete bespoke stuff to do. Some of these things are in Autolog, so for example how fast can you complete them compared to me, which creates competition and conversation with your friends. So now we don’t only get replayability on a race or a jump, but a selection of things.
Then there’s also a big exploration aspect to it, with jumps to find and also to set records on, so I think that’s going to be like a smorgasbord of things to do, but it starts with making the car really fun to drive.
El33tonline: You mentioned Far Cry 3 – are there any other open-world games that you looked at to give you ideas on how to ensure that there were these pockets of fun and pockets of progression in Rivals?
Nilsson: I think we take inspiration from so many different areas. I come from Battlefield, and the Need For Speed Network that we’re making for this game, and Overwatch, totally is related to Battlelog. There’s no hiding from it, Need For Speed has never really had a website that was made for the people who bought the game, and I think that makes a big, big difference.
I want Need For Speed to be something that people live and breathe, I want them to play the game for a long time with a community that’s active and have them enjoy it for a long time. I want to be able to change the experience for them for a long time after the game’s released – this is more visionary of where the brand needs to go, but that’s what I want to get to. Need For Speed Network and the second screen stuff that we’re making is definitely part of that strategy
El33tonline: What is your favourite or most important feature of Need For Speed: Rivals, and what’s one of our favourite moments from playing the game so far?
Nilsson: I think the two feed in together. So AllDrive is a feature that destroys the line between singleplayer and multiplayer, and you can get many moments from that.
If you think about the game as a sandbox, and you think about cars and Pursuit Tech, and roads and action and what that can create with you and AI, but then you add other players into that mix and you can imagine how that sandbox would evolve. But while you do that, you also progress your singleplayer all the time and it doesn’t matter if you’re level fifteen and I’m level five, we can still play together and drive next-to one another doing stuff, but still be progressing.
That in itself I’m proud of and I think it’s a great innovation, and a step into how people will play games in the future, but the coolest moments were probably when we actually started seeing all of this work. [During development] when you go from playing online in the office with broken AI and using weapons that crash the game, then all of a sudden… I remember when Craig [Sullivan], who was sitting behind me and playing, said ‘What, was that you in that yellow Ferrari? I didn’t even know you were playing in my world and all of a sudden we’re in a race and you’re coming up the hill and I’m going down and you’re taking me out…’
That was one of the moments when the experience just collided out of nowhere, and that could have been created as a bespoke moment in the game, but now let us create that bespoke moment for everyone and for the millions of people who buy the game. Those moments are just going to start happening at random. We’re going to start talking about ‘Need For Speed Moments’ in the same way we talk about Battlefield moments.
Need for Speed: Rivals will be released for PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on November 19th in the US and November 22nd in the UK. The game will also be released for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One this holiday season.
Keep up with El33tonline’s coverage of Need For Speed: Rivals for more screenshots, videos and details, and read our hands-on preview impressions from E3 2013.
Also follow our coverage of gamescom 2013 for our continued impressions from the show this year, with photos, sights, sounds and more to come.