With the release of Need for Speed Unbound this week, Criterion Games is properly back. Not that the Guildford studios been away, of course, but in recent years its role shifted towards a support studio, lending a hand with the Battlefront and Battlefield series among others – and its last standalone title was the X-Wing VR mission for Star Wars Battlefront back in 2016.
Its something of a moment, then, to have Criterion Games back – and back on Need for Speed for a second stint behind the wheel following 2010s Hot Pursuit and 2012s Most Wanted. Need for Speed Unbound marks the start of a new chapter, with Criterion now overseeing the series once more and to mark the occasion I spoke to studio veteran and Unbounds creative director Kieran Crimmins.
Thanks for chatting to me, Im sure youre exceptionally busy with launch not many days away. Before we get into that, I just wondered if you could tell me a little bit about yourself and your history at Criterion because I believe youve been there quite some time.
Kieran Crimmins: I started at Criterion on Hot Pursuit – that was my first game job, actually, and Ive been there ever since. Ive probably worked on more EA projects than I like to mention, certainly more than Im credited for – but yes, Ive been there for a long time. Ive been living and breathing racing games and vehicle games for 13 years – I think it might be longer – but for a long time, and its a huge passion of mine.
Thats a long time and an incredible legacy. Obviously the studio of today is quite different to the one in 2010 – can you tell me how its changed and how its different.
Kieran Crimmins: So you know, some things are the same and some things are different as you would expect. Criterion has always been a kind of place of innovation, a place of disruption in the market and a place of rampant creativity within the game industry. Weve always tried to make amazing racing games that have this wonderful pick-up-and-play arcade feel – you know, easy to pick up, hard to master.
The DNA of the studio has never changed since Ive been there. Its always been what were about and its always been the way in which we work and we take great pleasure in. Saying that weve worked on so many different projects – we went from working on car games to working on Battlefield, working on hardline and Star Wars and VR games. Actually, the last project I did press for was a Star Wars VR game, which I was very proud of.
Was that X Wing: VR Mission? I played it and I loved it – it was fantastic.
Kieran Crimmins: Oh, thank you! That was my baby. I absolutely loved that. My point is, through all that time, the studio has honed that expertise of vehicle handling and arcade sensibilities throughout all the different games weve worked on. And weve worked on all sorts of different stuff. And actually, its funny, because coming back to Need for Speed, its not only a joy to come back to a franchise that were all hugely passionate about, but with the expertise that weve built up at doing those different things… And you know, just imagine the conversations weve had down the pub – you end up with a laundry list of cool ideas and cool things that you want to apply to the genre. And then weve come back to it and got to do some other stuff. It was a wonderful experience for everyone.
Criterion has had more of a support role in recent years – to then take on a big, sizable AAA game, was there quite a lot of change necessary for that?
Kieran Crimmins: Youd think so wouldnt you? But I think the way in which we work has remained the same – we try and keep as much in our little creative space as possible. We try and deliver the best possible kind of game feel – we are essentially a game feel studio. Coming back to Need for Speed, even when we werent the lead studio we helped out on nearly all the Need for Speed games – its very normal for our studios to share resources. It didnt actually feel very different – it just felt like the next projects going on. Although I guess weve got a little bit more skin in the game!
You said youre a game feel studio, which is kind of interesting because thats something Ive always associated with Criterion. Id like to think you could strip away everything and Id be able to identify a Criterion game just from its handling alone. How would you define that, and whats the difference for you that makes Criterion stand out?
Kieran Crimmins: So theres two things that we do – I dont know if theyre unique, and I think people like Respawn work like this, but its something thats part of our core game making DNA, if you will. And one is the iteration loop. So we work with getting things on screen and getting things in your hands as soon as possible, and then we iterate from there and try and make them the most fun things possible. We always have software running, we always have weekly and daily play tests, we always have a kind of critical review, and the point of that is that were trying to judge game feel – were trying to judge how those mechanics actually make you feel, and how those emotions are manifesting in you. Thats what our ultimate judge for a game experience is – it isnt whether the feature is done, its did it deliver the emotions that we wanted to deliver. There are other studios that work like that, and theyre some of the best studios out there, and you can definitely tell the games that prize that kind of game feel and the ones that dont, because the games feel very different.
The other one is more the technical knowhow of how we do it. We take an extremely complex and high fidelity physics simulation – something that youd be getting a sim or something like that. When weve done space vehicles we still physically calculate all the physics and when were doing cars its exactly the same. Its the assists that we put on top that allows us to make the fantasy of driving that thing super accessible, so you should be able to pick it up and drive like a heroic driver straight away and be able to do manoeuvres that if you were to play a sim game would probably take you years to learn. So youre living the fantasy that you get to be the hero straight away, but because its based on those extremely complex simulations theres still a really high level of mastery there. So it isnt just binary inputs or anything like that – theres still a physical simulation and the more you play, the more you can identify what you can do to master that physical simulation thats running underneath it.
Thats a really detailed answer and much better than my take on the Criterion feel, which is that the cars all feel like theyve got big bottoms. I havent had a chance to play Need for Speed Unbound myself, but its something where do you think something can pick up and get that distinct Criterion feel?
Kieran Crimmins: In the case of this game we turned some of the assists off because weve got two different driving models now – weve got a very classic arcade handling model, but weve also got what were calling grip driving models, which are a lot closer to the old Need for Speed models where its all about having really great downforce, having great traction and very traditional race lines through corners.
Those sensibilities and those techniques have never changed, though, so I hope thats the case. Saying that its new technology, its a completely new simulation, its not going to be exactly the same – because the technology and fidelity and everything moves on. But I would say I can guarantee you that it is a wonderful arcade visceral driving experience. Thats the thing that Criterion are known for, and weve delivered that in this game. So even if it doesnt feel super familiar, Im sure that its super exciting and super fulfilling
One last thing on the legacy as well, because youve done it in tandem with Codemasters Cheshire, which is obviously ex-Evolution. And someone whos big into racing games and the history of racing games, it feels like royalty basically coming together. Is that history and the legacy has gone into it evident in the final thing?
Having the Codemasters people join us was an absolute joy, if you imagine just another bunch of kind of racing car nerds. We pretty much speak the same language, but they had slightly different ideas and slightly different sensibilities. And that was great, because that kind of gets you to look at it from another angle, and actually has improved a product pretty much all over from every angle having those people join. They didnt just join to work on an individual team or work on a feature, theyve integrated into every part of the studio and joined all the different teams. So theyve elevated everything by bringing that new perspective and bringing that expertise and passion that they have for racing games.
When it comes to the series itself, were there any particular games in its history that you looked at for inspiration?
Kieran Crimmins: I guess Ive talked a lot about the new but there are some things were trying to retain. Heat set a direction of being more about a street racing fantasy rather than just street car racing – it definitely set a direction, and that felt like the right direction for us. So you know, the original Most Wanted, the Underground series – the ones that had that street racing fantasy at their core, that was something that we want to emulate.
We didnt necessarily want to emulate all the systems in those games. But we wanted to say if this is a street racing fantasy game, then were trying to deliver you the fantasy of being a street racer. So were trying to make you bet big on your own abilities. take big risks with every race and make every single race meaningful so that when you decide to do a race and how you do in that race is impactful to your player journey in the same way that it would be if you were an actual street racer living in that kind of fantasy.
Theres an ethos to those old games that I think weve captured, and I hope that fans of those old games youll notice that in the game. Its not a direct sequel or anything like that, but it is something where they could appreciate the ethos that those games are about and weve transplanted it and kind of modernised it for the audience and put it at the core of the experience and systems in Unbound.
It feels like a sort of homecoming of sorts, having only this week coming back to Criterion. Is the studio committed to the series for the foreseeable future? Is it basically a Need for Speed studio now?
Yeah, well, I believe so! I dont know the future that well. I mean, but yeah. It certainly felt like a homecoming to all the people that were super excited to work on it, and theres a lot of passion being poured into the project in that sense. I know were looking at other Need for Speed titles. So for all intents and purposes, were excited to be making Need for Speed again – were very excited to be making Need for Speed again – and I hope that well make many more in the future.
Obviously, I cant talk to anyone from Criterion about racing games without asking the obvious. And Im asking now before it comes up in the comments anyway. Would there possibly be a Burnout in your future? Because I know a lot of people still have a lot of passion for that series.
Kieran Crimmins: Yeah, absolutely. I hope so. Its not something were looking at doing now. Right? Its not my next game or anything like that. Not that I could say if it wasnt, but I guess I can say that its not the next game I will work on. But if youre talking about the two games that the studio has the most passion for, theyre obviously Need for Speed and Burnout. We love those two franchises, and Burnout has a unique take on racing that I think would be absolutely phenomenal now. So I guess what Im saying is, I would love to do that. And I hope that if everything goes well with these games, and we can expand the team, then maybe we can make one of those as well. Its not in the immediate future plans or anything like that but man, itd be really fun
To see this content please enable targeting cookies.