In our biggest and most expansive developer interview to date, Digital Foundry talks extensively with Need for Speed SHIFT developers Slightly Mad Games on the genesis of their most ambitious racing game yet, discussing topics are diverse as the original title's post mortem, hopes and ambitions for the sequel, the evolution of the NFS brand and of course the technical underpinnings of the game itself.
Previously we've concentrated mostly on the technological aspects of the games we've covered - but with the assistance of Slightly Mad, in this piece we're able to expand the scope significantly to answer all of the questions we have ever had on how a top-tier racing game is actually made, the core assets the teams have access to in terms of cars and tracks, plus we've gone in-depth on the whole process of the racing simulation.
A great many thanks go to the following Slightly Mad staff for their extensive help in putting this feature together: Andy Tudor (Design Lead), Ged Keaveney (Lead Programmer), Tim Mann (PS3 Lead), Jan Frishkorn (Vehicle Lead), Andreas Moll (Art Director), Doug Arnao (Physics Lead), Dr Stephen Baysted (Audio Lead), Rob Dibley (Render Lead), Peter Nicholls (Render), Stephen Viljoen (COO), Suzy Wallace (Producer).
The scale and scope of this piece is such that we've decided to split this piece into two parts, with the concluding segment of the interview being published tomorrow.
When I talk about SHIFT I always talk about 'the journey'. It's a journey of player's growing expectations and changing play styles, and a journey chronicling car culture over the years. SHIFT was always meant to be the next step in that journey transitioning players from the illegal street racing of Underground and Carbon and that 'Fast and The Furious' mentality, through 'legitimate' racing in ProStreet (that brought 'organisation' to the racing), and finally onto bona fide circuits for the first time.
We never saw Need for Speed SHIFT therefore as a single-release product even from the initial concept stage; each iteration is specifically designed to be a further step on that journey that takes us to a place where we're the most authentic, realistic, visceral racing experience out there.
So looking back on SHIFT we were happy that we'd achieved the specific goals we'd set for that particular product - we had a fantastic cockpit experience that really rebooted the pure raw fun of racing a car at 300km/h and we shook up the traditionally sterile sim genre with a number of second-to-second, minute-to-minute, and meta game objectives and rewards. The quality level was high and that was reflected in both sales and scores.
When I talk about SHIFT I always talk about 'the journey'. It's a journey of player's growing expectations and changing play styles, and a journey chronicling car culture over the years.
Therefore we knew we had a great base to work on for the sequel and the telemetry and community feedback really reinforced the roadmap we already had in terms of the features we knew we wanted to add and improve, and the areas we knew we were going to streamline or remove.
The two main areas were authenticity and variety; we knew we wanted night racing - it provides variety and we wanted to add gameplay challenge there based off the personal feedback from real-world racing drivers. We knew we wanted to keep on top of the cockpit innovation since competitors would no doubt start copying it. We also knew we wanted to mature the product even more with a premium presentation, a streamlining of the different currency systems (XP, Stars, Cash), and the inclusion of authentic real-world boss drivers and licenses (FIA GT3/GT1).
We then set out to double the number of cars and tracks - but ensure that there was variety within them (so no 'five variations of the Toyota Corolla' but categorising them into Retro, Modern, Muscle, Drift etc). Finally we then wanted players to share this experience with others - hence Autolog (which we called "The Driver's Network" at the time before discovering Criterion were coincidentally developing a similar system) which is a game-changer for the sim genre and other game genres can benefit from.
At the start of any game (as most teams do) we create a wish list of what we want to achieve and see in it. This can be features, cars, tracks, anything. We already had some core features down from the over-arching 'roadmap' list and we combined this with our own wish list, the community feedback, and telemetry from the first title to get an uber-list.
Now, of course, that list is very long and not focused yet but regardless we then plug that in and see what kind of schedule we'd need to complete it. Does it fit into the time we have available? Do portions of it complement each other and would therefore work as a nice downloadable content pack? What features do we know we can do 10/10 and which would need more time to fully realise to our high standards?
After this 'bottom up' approach we then take a step back and look at the list of features from a 'top down' perspective and start thinking about the 'message' of the game or the 'X'. In the original SHIFT we set out to create a game that really made you feel the raw experience of driving a race-spec car in the cockpit. The X there was 'The True Driver's Experience' and spoke to specific features like the g-forces and sensation of speed in the cockpit, the disorientation effects when crashing, the XP system, the career progression from 'zero to hero'; it was all about you, the driver. Having an X really ties together your feature set and provide a message you're sending to your consumers: "this game is all about X".
Going into SHIFT 2 Unleashed therefore the X of "The Driver's Battle" really helped us focus that huge wishlist into something achievable from a scheduling perspective and as time went on during development we grew and expanded accordingly as each feature or asset approached in the timeline. It went very smoothly therefore.
We have more freedom in a certain sense; we're not tied down to the usual Christmas release of previous Need for Speed titles and nowadays there are more viable release windows - January when you can spend a bit of your Christmas cash on a present for yourself or Easter when your nephew is looking for a game to play whilst they're off school for example. These other channels give us a bit of extra manoeuvring room when negotiating how long it's going to take versus product quality definitely, but we don't have an 'open calendar' like some other companies like Valve do.