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'Need for Speed' Drives Back to Roots

Veering away from painstaking authenticity and turning back to the white-knuckle arcade races which initially defined it, high-stakes driving game Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit appears to be cruising in the fast lane toward success. You can credit not only an impressive sensation of speed, but also the introduction of savvier computer-controlled opponents and a suite of new social networking elements that enhance online play. Producer Hamish Young drove by to tell us how publisher Electronic Arts is steering the storied franchise back on course.

Scott Steinberg.

Scott Steinberg.

By Scott Steinberg

Veering away from painstaking authenticity and turning back to the white-knuckle arcade races which initially defined it, high-stakes driving game Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit appears to be cruising in the fast lane toward success. You can credit not only an impressive sensation of speed, but also the introduction of savvier computer-controlled opponents and a suite of new social networking elements that enhance online play. Producer Hamish Young drove by to tell us how publisher Electronic Arts is steering the storied franchise back on course.

Scott Steinberg: Why shift away from realism and back to high-speed chases?

Hamish Young: The Need for Speed franchise has covered a great deal of automotive ground over its long history. Given our studio’s arcade bias, it made sense to go back to its roots and take exotic cars and epic drives into the HD generation.

S.S.: What’s the secret to creating a successful game of cat and mouse?

H.Y.: AI is always a bit of a black art. Here, we’re trying to get the computer to predict how to drive cars at over 250 mph, which means that every 60th of a second, the car moves over 2 meters. Between avoiding pedestrian traffic and trying to either elude the police or -- as a cop -- bust the racer, things get more complicated. We have a well-constructed system that breaks these problems into manageable chunks. Modules deal with navigation, obstruction avoidance, planning, physical driving and more.

S.S.: Why add social elements to Hot Pursuit?

H.Y.: Now that we’re in the era of online-connected consoles, we wanted an easy way for friends to compare and compete within the game itself. This led us to develop the suite of features we call Autolog, which offers a Wall where people can post comments, photos or times to compete with. Its recommendation engine also pools data from you and your friends to automatically make recommendations on events and times to beat, and new friends you might know.

S.S.: From a development standpoint, what was the toughest challenge?

H.Y.: Being able to thread everything through the game in order to make it feel meaningful. It also had to be completely optional, because some people won’t be interested in competing in this way. From the responses we have had from the community, though, I feel we have got it just about right.

S.S.: This is a massive, multiplatform game. How did you deliver a title that plays to the strengths of all systems and ship the versions simultaneously?

H.Y.: We’re not the largest developer (around 70 people), so we have had to be smarter about production. We have some great outsource partners, and we put a great deal of investment into world-class tools and pipelines -- not just for developers, but for the production team as well. Being a small, agile team, but having the capability of a bigger one, is something that we are hopefully getting more effective at day by day.

Technology expert Scott Steinberg is the CEO of video game consulting firm TechSavvy Global, and a celebrated gaming guru who’s a frequent on-air analyst for ABC, CBS and CNN.