Things finally looking up for Need for Speed

icon_feature1EA knows that it has a strong product in Need for Speed: Shift; one that might just turn the struggling franchise around. We may agree or disagree once we play it, but the publisher’s confidence in the game is there for all to see. It’s the kind of confidence we haven’t seen in a Need for Speed game for quite a few years. But what’s really encouraging to see is that even if Shift is a critical and commercial success, EA doesn’t plan to milk it for all its worth by releasing a follow-up title next year.

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In 2008, EA had announced that development responsibilities for NFS games would be shared by two internal teams, each churning out a title every alternate year, something Activision has done to great effect through Treyarch and Infinity Ward for Call of Duty. This would give each team two years to develop their game, but would at the same time ensure that there was a new NFS game on shelves every year.

Then Need for Speed: Undercover happened. It was so painful bad that EA finally decided that enough was enough; it was time for drastic measures. An internal restructuring ensued that saw development for the flagship Need for Speed title (Shift) move to Europe as a collaboration between Black Box and UK-based Slightly Mad Studios (who also brought in a spanking new game engine). Shift signaled NFS’ return to authentic sim racing, EA announced Need for Speed Nitro for Wii to cater to the series’ arcade followers, while Need for Speed World Online would target the PC demographic. That was the new strategy – three Need for Speed games in one year.

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We had a chat with Shift producer Jesse Abney this morning, and not only did he allay fears that we would see three Need for Speed games every year from now on, but said that neither Shift, Nitro, nor World Online would see follow up titles next year. He said that EA’s strategy to have three teams develop NFS games to cater to different audiences (arcade, action, simulation) would continue, but from 2010, only one of the categories will see a release each year.

“There won’t be three teams working on Need for Speed next year, because some of these titles will live on. Shift will live on through post launch development and DLC. And the Shift team will be able to spend more than a year to redesign and retool the game and come back with something new and innovative the next time we announce a title,” Abney said.

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“That’s what the three-pronged approach gives us. It allows us to unload one team and one design every year. So Shift will live on as our authentic racing experience. Our action offering this year is World Online; next year it may be something new on next-gen. Our arcade title specifically for the Wii is Nitro, so next year there won’t necessarily be a Need for Speed Nitro on Wii because we’ve released one this year. It will give the team two-three years to redesign the next Wii title,” he added.

So while stating that Nitro and Shift won’t be seeing follow-up releases next year, Abney does mention that there will probably be a Need for Speed title in 2010 under their action category. Let’s just hope it isn’t a return to the disastrous B-grade-action-flick-in-a-game formula, because we all know how that turned out.

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But these are encouraging signs. Unlike sports games, it’s just not feasible to churn out a racing game every year without it getting stale really fast, especially in the next-gen console environment. And that seems to have hit home now, and this new strategy will hopefully result in more focused releases from the Need for Speed stable. Because with games like Grid, Blur, Burnout, and Split/Second all vying for a slice of the pie, NFS really needs to bring its A-game now if it wants to get back to the glory days.

Check back soon for our complete interview with Need for Speed Shift producer Jesse Abney.

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