Creative director Will Ho on what to expect from Need for Speed Payback

Posted: 28 September 2017 3:07 pm


Need for Speed Payback’s creative director Will Ho talks about the old, new and controversial of the latest entry in the arcade-racing series.

The Need for Speed franchise has had a shaky relationship with fans over the last few iterations. Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit was a highlight in 2010, but Need for Speed: The Run had a rocky reception in 2011. It was clear that something had to change for the then-yearly iterating racing series.

Criterion Games helped right the ship for the next couple of entries – Need for Speed: Most Wanted in 2012 and Need for Speed Rivals in 2013 (Ghost Games was the lead developer on this one) – but 2014 didn’t have a Need for Speed game. The plan was to use the extra development time to reboot the franchise with 2015’s simply-titled Need for Speed. The plan didn’t work so well, with lacklustre critical reception and similar sentiment from franchise fans.

Buy Need for Speed Payback

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Need for Speed Payback sets you loose in the gritty underworld of Fortune Valley, racing for street cred as you seek your vengeance against the criminal cartel known as The House.

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Need for Speed Payback is 2017’s entry in the long-running racing series, and it’s intended to address some of the sins of the previous game while taking the franchise back to its drivers-versus-cops form that has been part-and-parcel of the better entries. We recently had the opportunity to take the game for a test drive and, afterwards, pick the brain of creative director Will Ho about what to expect from Need for Speed Payback.

Read on for the full interview.

So, we just got to take it for a spin and had a lot of fun.

Which one did you play? The highway heist, the race, or the off-road?

We had a crack at two of them, the off-road one and the one where we got the thing out of the crate and had to run away from...

Yeah, yeah, yeah, oh, the Bait Crate, yeah.

Yeah, which is really cool. We didn’t really know what to do at first, we were like, ‘We’re going to ram it, right?’ And then we realised, ‘No, no, no, don’t ram it.’ So what’s inside the Bait Crate?

Yes, the Bait Crate is our way of adding risk and reward in the open world. So, as you explore the open world, you find the bait crates and then you go, ‘Hmm who set this bait for me? Probably the cops.’ So, you have to measure that choice, right? Do you take the bait and then trigger a cop chase? If you escape the cops, you get the parts inside the crate, if not you lose it. It goes away.


It may come back. Forever is a long time. But it’s one way to reward people for exploring our massive open world, and for there to be gameplay and for there to be reward for that.

Are the Bait Crates in fixed spots or are they more like emergent things that pop up?

There are tonnes of spots, yeah, yeah, more than you can cover.

Oh, okay. How do the cops actually stop you?

Oh, yeah, so the cops, we brought back a badarse element to the cops where they try to box you in. They really try to surround you. They jostle with you and we’ve also got rhinos. They’re the ones that come head-first at you. Those are fan favourites from the past in Need for Speed. So, we’ve brought those back. And what we’re really encouraging here is that you’re not just outrunning the cops. You have to outfox them. You have to jostle with them. You have to battle them, and one way we do that is with this new weapon that the cops have called the kill switch. And the kill switch is based on real-world technology where they point this thing at your control unit and they can shut it down. It’s scary, it sounds like sci-fi but it’s not, it’s actually science fact. So, the cops use this kill switch to try to immobilise you while you’re moving. And so, how do you counter the kill switch?

How do you?

By ramming them. By shunting cops, by physically engaging with the cops. And so, it is the whole part of that wrapper of, like, blockbuster action. And it’s not just about taking off and outrunning the cops. No, you’ve got to battle them. You’ve got to create these moments where you find opportunities in the world for causing these wrecks, right? And we reward you for wrecking the cops through this cinematic presentation, right? And all the physics are true, it’s procedural, and seeing cops flip and roll over and run into obstacles, like, it’s all just... it’s based on all these old memories of – I’m sure you have similar ones and you grew up watching these car chases – cop chases and, like, all the ways that the cops bail, right? Watching cops get wrecked and so, I mean, that’s a direct inspiration for these gameplay mechanics and the way we present them in a cinematic fashion.

So, what we’re hearing is, as part of research, you've watched a lot of Bullet, and Fast and the Furious, and Blues Brothers?

It’s been a long life of watching car chases. Terrible, yeah, a terrible job. No, I mean, we all grew up loving those action movies and those car chases. And what was done is we want to take our greatest memories and see which ones fit into Need for Speed such that, you know, when you play Need for Speed Payback, we want you to feel that’s the Need for Speed vibe, right? That is uniquely Need for Speed.

How much control does the player have over that cinematic presentation? Does it happen randomly? Does it happen all the time? Can you turn it off? Can you make it happen with every single crash?

Yeah. It doesn’t happen all the time because that might be intrusive, but what we try to do is we reward you with that presentation for the most significant ones, right? The biggest wrecks, so the ones that, often there’s an objectives, right? In our highway heist, you’re trying to hijack this rolling 18-wheeler down a highway and they don’t take kindly to that, so they send enforcers after you. And so, in that case those are significant wrecks along the way. So, we give you the pay-off, right? You know, they’re battling with you. You take them out, right? And so, it’s the most significant ones, but if you really just want to stay focused, we’ll also let you dial that back and turn it off.

Can you re-watch them? Because some of them are epic and you’re watching it for five seconds and then you think, ‘No, back to the race. We’ll watch that later and share it with our friends.’

You can’t do that but you can always replay those missions and find out how you can create new moments every time you play.

It was mentioned in the presentation that parts are the main currency and we were wondering what that actually means in terms of the gameplay and the game and how...

So, Need for Speed has always had great performance upgrades and customisation, right? But we wanted to really put it front and centre and go, ‘Hey, we want to place some emphasis on winning.’ So, every time you win a race, every time you complete a mission, we’re going to give you a part. We give you a chance to draw from three different what we call Speed Cards, and then you get to choose one and you’re always going to get something cool, something that enhances your performance: it may have some strengths, it may have some weaknesses and that’s for you to judge.

As you win races and complete missions, you collect more and more of these Speed Cards. What we want… and so when you equip them, your car is going to get better and better and better all the time, right? We really reward you for winning, but then if you want to min/max your stats, right, and find the maximum performance, you go to the garage and you experiment with different combinations of Speed Cards.

There are buffs that we built in where when you collect three of a kind or six of a kind of a certain brand and then you get a boost for that. And then there are also other attributes where you'll discover different combinations to enhance your airtime, to enhance your drifting, to enhance your traction, to enhance your acceleration. So, there’s a lot to discover in this system, but immediately because you’re winning parts, it’s accessible, go in the garage, tonnes of depth.

Are they randomised, the cards you find?


How are you handling that in terms of the balancing? Like, if we wanted to get a three-star rating for a jump, we’d probably need the speed, we’d probably need the airtime, but we would have to rely on an RNG system to score that. Is it doable without getting all those parts?

Sometimes you get really lucky, right? Yeah, with the minimum number of wins… we call it tiering up, right? There’s tiers one, two, three, right? Different card classes. So, sometimes you get lucky, right? And you can find a pretty quick path through, but most of the time when we’re play testing this system, what we’re finding is people are collecting enough cards to have different strategies. You might actually re-equip to have a different load out for different events type or different difficulty. And then if you get a surplus of cards, you can trade them in. You can roll on something you really, really want, right? If it’s a particular brand or particular category of part that you want. So, it’s almost a game within a game now, right?

Is there a rarity level on the cards, as well?

Yes, some of the Speed Cards are designated as rare, and then those ones you go through a mechanism which we call Shipments. So, you earn Speed Coins by playing through the game, and then as you level up, you get more Speed Coins. And then you can turn them in for Shipments for the rarest parts. And all of those… I say the word ‘Speed Coins’ as if it’s an in-game currency. What we want to do is that… all of that content in-game, all these Speed Cards, all the parts, you can do by grinding.

All of the content is available to everyone who plays the game, and then if you want to save some time, we’ll have some microtransactions just to speed up and give you more rollers, more Speed Cards. But I always like to assure our fans that if you play the game, you’re going to get all the parts.

So, the microtransactions are to buy packs or to buy individual cards or the coins?

Yeah, you’ll buy Shipments to get the Speed Cards.

Okay. We also noticed while we were playing that it had a Live Tuning option that came up, and we brought it up and had no idea what was happening. Can you tell us a bit more about how that works?

I'm glad you brought that up because another aspect to performance upgrades is, well, tuning, right? Once you’ve upgraded your car to a certain performance level, now you want to dial it in, based on your personal preference to extract the maximum performance. So, we used to have a system where you have to drive to the garage every time, and then you fiddle with the sliders and then you bring it onto the road and you’re like, ‘Oh, what did I actually do?’ So, we brought that system out of the garage and into the car, so that no matter where you’re driving, you can, when you’re free roaming, you just press down underneath that, and then that Live Tuning menu comes up. And you’re playing with the sliders, learning what the sliders mean, seeing what effects it actually has on the car’s handling. And then you’re doing that in the world. So, you feel those differences right away.

Can you do that during a race or while you’re getting chased?

During free roam. Yeah, in the intensity of a race, it’s really tough, to me it’s almost like you’re an F1 driver but for our players, we want people to experiment with them and learn, what the power is in those sliders. And when you do it in free roam, you can drive on all types of roads, right? If you want to practice for drift and dial a car for drift, take it to the mountains, go on the switchbacks, dial your car in and then enter that drift event.

So, we appeared to be gaining nitro faster for doing jumps and drifts.

Yeah, that’s a mechanic that’s kind of time honoured. We’ve had that in previous Need for Speeds where the more cool stuff you do, the more cool stuff you can do using nitrous. So, yeah, any drift, any jump, any air, you know, dangerous driving like oncoming, near misses, they all contribute to your nitrous refilling costing.

And we clicked right stick a bunch. Was that taking pictures?

Oh, yeah, yeah that’s our instant snapshot. Yeah, so when you go back into the menus, you’ll have a photo gallery, all the snapshots you’ve taken are there and then you can share them from there. And then we also have a snapshot pro mode, right? If you want to go in, if you want to frame it, if you want to compose your shots, use all the different camera attributes, filters, those are all available, you just have to pause the game and go into snapshot pro.

We noticed that the right stick seemed to be restricted to how far you could move to look left and right. Was there a look behind option as well as that?

Yeah, you can.

Look all the way behind?

I think, yeah.

Because it seems to, like, when we pushed it left or right, it would kind of stop before a full rear view, which is why we kept instinctively clicking the right stick for a rear view.

Oh, you should be able to, yeah.


I'm surprised that you weren’t able to but, yeah.

That’s good to know, because we were thinking, ‘That’s an interesting decision,’ to leave out a rear view.

No, no, we look behind to scope out cops all the time, yeah.

Yeah. And in conjunction with the little mini map.

Yeah, you want to see how far behind like second place is, right? So, yeah, you use the right stick.

And you also want to watch them smash into a car that you just veered around, right?

Of course, yeah. You know, it’s totally there, yeah. Sorry you didn’t have that experience playing but yeah, it’s there.

For the open world, it felt like we drove past another player at some point and we kind of looked at each other; is that random? Will that be random people? Will that be friends?

Something we’ve got is with all them Roaming Racers, and it’s built on something we had in the last Need for Speed, where there were spontaneous races that could happen with other drivers and now we’ve got these roaming racers that are all over the open world, and then you can challenge them. And there’s sort of an impromptu race that happens. And then you beat them, they come back later but at a higher performance level. So, a developing rivalry between you and those AI drivers that are roaming around the world. And then if you work your way up, what we call these Street Leagues, you get to face the boss and then dominate that Street League and we have four of those in the game.

So, it’s not other players, it's AI with names on them?

AI roaming around the world.


So, there’s a lot to discover in terms of like discoverable gameplay. I talked about… you know, we’ve just talked about the roaming racers, plus the Bait Crates, so tonnes of impromptu racing, and tonnes of impromptu cop chases in the open world on top of all of the campaign gameplay.

Okay. So, just going back to the last game you mentioned earlier. Can you talk about some of the bigger points of feedback you had from the community that have helped to shape this Need for Speed game?

Absolutely. Yeah. So, coming out of the last Need for Speed, people loved a few key things, right? And they loved the aesthetic, the game looked absolutely gorgeous, I’m sure you would agree.

Frostbite looks great.

They loved the customisation, right? The visual customisation was back in a big way. And they really loved the authentic car culture. It had the cred of having the most iconic cars. So, we’ve built on that and built more variety in every way. So, going back to the world looking beautiful. We’ve added 24-hour time of day. So, when you’re free roaming around, you’ve got a more diverse environment. You’ve got this beautiful city, plus mountains, desert, and canyons and with a dynamic time of day, you’re seeing these gorgeous vistas, like you never see exactly same thing twice. Tonnes of variety there.

Then with customisation, we’ve blown that out, visual customisation, even more parts, even more ways to visually customise your car. Also, the Speed Card system I talked about making performance customisation more accessible. And then, finally, more iconic cars that have a lot of strategies in the way that you build them. So, there isn’t just one progression system for building a car, now we have five different build types.

So, we have race cars: self-explanatory. Then we have drift cars: handle very, very differently, made bespoke for drift events. We have dragsters because drag racing is back. We have off-road because we’ve opened up our open world so you can drive on sand, and dirt, and terrain. Your construction sites, through a spillway. So, you want off-road cars for that. And, finally, we have what we call the runner class, and that’s made for these missions where we have to get away from the cops and battle the cops. It can get those bank robbers off to their safe house. So, we have a class of cars built especially for those missions.

So, now we have these iconic cars that you can build in all these different ways, right? All have different attributes, all have different strengths and weaknesses, unique visual parts, and races and missions that you play them in.

Okay. And does that also tie into the idea that the three main characters in the story have those different cars?

That’s right, they have different disciplines. So, when you switch from racers to different types of races to missions, you have a different type of character expressing their motivations and what they want to achieve. I think, in the past, we’ve had Sara, the first-person character who didn’t talk, but now we have a person in the driver’s seat who’s expressing what they want to achieve, how they’re trying to achieve it, how Jess battles against the cops, how Mac handles off-road, how Tyler handles drag racing, right? And then, also, we have banter between the three, they support each other; they’re a crew. They come together in these blockbuster missions to help each other achieve a greater goal.

Okay. And you mentioned the dynamic day and night cycle. Is there dynamic weather, as well?

It’s kind of a desert-y place, so we don’t have a lot of different weather but, I mean, it’s always hot. But even just when you combine the diverse environments with the dynamic time of day, you really don’t see the same thing twice.

Does that impact the gameplay at all, the day and night cycle? At night-time, is it a bigger cop presence or lesser cop presence and things like that?

Yeah, traffic conditions change. And then, also, we’ve designed a lot of the races and missions for the time of day that they really want to be in. A lot of the illicit street races happen at night, right? While the off-roading is fun in the sun and the desert, right? So, when you’re free roaming, it’s dynamic time of day. When you’re playing through the campaign, we went for the right tone, the right mood and the right challenge level for the various types of events.

So, for the campaign, we noticed we’re watching this awesome moment where they did a jump off the back of a truck, but it was a cutscene. It wasn’t the player being able to do that. How much of the campaign will be those bigger moments pushed into cutscenes and how much will we actually get to do to feel like that was our moment in gameplay?

Yeah. There are some transitions and certain cutscenes which are in video. What we find is those are actually nice breaks from the gameplay, so that you can actually appreciate a cinematic moment. But then there… I’d say more than half of those transitions are actually in-engine, because it has to reflect what cars you’ve built, what cars you have, right? You want to see those cool cinematic moments in your specific car and, plus, you’ve got these dynamic vehicle switches in many different points of our blockbuster action missions.

So, you’re seeing one car that you’ve built and customised transitioning to another car that you’ve built and customised. So, it really feels personal and it was definitely very, very short, so you appreciate your transition, but you’re back to driving almost right away.

Okay, awesome. That’s all the questions I have. Thank you so much.

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