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Rolling Thunder, Analytics and Performance Drive 'Need for Speed World'

I recently caught up with two of the key visionaries behind Need for Speed World. Dave Wall, a 15-year veteran of the gaming industry, is the rendering and systems lead on the Need for Speed franchise. Eneko Bilbao, Black Box’s technical director, has worked on Need for Speed for two years. Together, Wall and Bilbao provide a convincing case for using Agile development, in-game analytics and performance-analyzing tools for creating a rolling-thunder rollout of new game features and optimized game performance.

By Garret Romaine

Need for Speed World, built by Electronic Arts (EA) Black Box in Burnaby, British Columbia, started a little more than two years ago with a simple idea: become the first real racing MMO. Knowing that racing gamers don’t need to understand the ins and outs of how a car works in order to enjoy zipping along online city streets or race circuits, EA sought to bring this racing MMO to the masses.

The free-to-play online game now has over 3 million players. It’s continuously refreshed with new features, modes, cars and an expanding world, and it’s optimized for play whether you drive a laptop or a desktop. To get in on the racing action, download the game at  World.NeedForSpeed.com.

I recently caught up with two of the key visionaries behind Need for Speed World. Dave Wall, a 15-year veteran of the gaming industry, is the rendering and systems lead on the Need for Speed franchise. Eneko Bilbao, Black Box’s technical director, has worked on Need for Speed for two years. Together, Wall and Bilbao provide a convincing case for using Agile development, in-game analytics and performance-analyzing tools for creating a rolling-thunder rollout of new game features and optimized game performance.

Need for Speed Development Team Goes Agile

Before its MMO incarnation, Need for Speed was released every year by Black Box from its offices in Vancouver, British Columbia. Because such a pace was unsustainable, execs decided to share the NFS franchise across multiple studios. Gone were the lengthy periods of intense crunch time to get the game released every year. The team also switched to an Agile development process and started churning out smaller, more frequent updates.

“The way we used to do games just isn’t sustainable for this type of game” says Wall, “so it’s been something we had to change.”

Instead of the old days of long projects with a big push at the end, the culture of the development team is now about learning and reacting quickly. Today’s weekly maintenance routine means Need for Speed World is rolling out live patches and feature updates like a well-oiled machine. Some of the recently released features include new car models, car customizations and a completely new nighttime mode, with which all the cars are lit with headlights and new special effects.

In-game Analytics Substantiate Player Feedback

To figure out where these live patches and constant optimizations will go next, Need for Speed World uses a proprietary suite of in-game analytics that pinpoint exactly what the players are doing in the game at any given moment. The developers can analyze what the gamers seem to enjoy and use that data to speed the adoption of new features and modes. These analytics allow the development team to almost instantly gain telemetry on how the gamers are using a new feature and the rate at which it is being adopted.

“When we release a new racing circuit, or a new area in the city, we can track whether the gamers are using the circuit or going to that new area,” notes Wall. “We can see if they are having difficulties and get a lot of immediate feedback on what’s happening there.”

Having instant access to such a treasure trove of information is a developer’s dream. The game’s pricing model is based on the levels being free, but after that, everything is micro-transaction-based. The analytics help the game developers understand what people are buying, why they are buying it, what they were doing before their purchase, and much more.

EA’s Bilbao says the analytics are just one facet of their decision-making. “In addition to our analytics, we look at the forums, and then we take that feedback and adapt.”

The payoff has been a rise in customer satisfaction and rapid growth. “We want to be the top game for the casual, mass-market car audience,” Bilbao says.

High Performance Across the PC Spectrum

In terms of graphics, the expectations are set high for the game because the team compares itself to the other Need for Speed titles. But because the game runs on a wide range of hardware that dates back more than five years, much of the development work has focused on scalability, supporting what are essentially primitive machines all the way up to state-of-the-art processors.

“From the beginning,” Bilbao says, “we were focused on the low-end machines because we wanted to make sure that it runs on business-class laptops. Initially, the game was designed for the Asian market, where they have an Internet cafe and not necessarily the high-end computers. We want to offer the best experience ever on this class of hardware, so we zeroed in on integrated graphics, laptops and the business machine.”

Getting that optimization correct across so many hardware possibilities would not have been easy without the help of graphics-performance analyzers. The team put in a lot of work to identify and understand which effect to assign to which class of processor and then make sure the game is perfectly balanced, depending on what it is running on. “That makes it easy to know exactly which effects to shut down to try and get the frame rate as high as possible,” Wall says.

The payoff for all this work -- from the weekly patches to the user data to the performance optimization -- is increased connectivity to the gamers and an easier delivery of the best game possible. And that’s a developer’s dream.

Garret Romaine has been a game tester, reviewer and journalist for 15 years. He is a Fellow in the Society for Technical Communication and teaches technical writing at Portland State University. Prior roles include senior editor at Computer Bits Magazine, reviewer at ESCMag.com, and senior writer for Visual Adrenaline.