The Burning Issue

We talk to Criterion's Alex Ward about Burnout 3 - the online aspect, the technology, the EA deal, breaking America, and plenty more.

1

After Burnout 2 melted our faces a couple of years ago, there was no going back for driving games. Never again would we accept choppy, syrupy sub 30 frames per second so-called driving 'experiences' that may have looked a bit like driving, but felt like work. Never again would we accept half-hearted damage modelling. Burnout 2 was an instant thrill that never stopped being thrilling, and did it all by ignoring po-faced realism, focusing on the simple premise of games equalling fun and pushing the technical boundaries further than anyone had ever managed. Until now. Cranking up the PS2 to melting point, Burnout 3 delivers an even bigger knockout blow to arcade racing nuts, with more of everything you could possibly think of. We'd caught a glimpse of its ludicrous beauty at E3 and knew roughly what to expect, but cornered Criterion's irrepressibly enthusiastic Alex Ward to tell us the inside story of one of this year's most exciting driving games...

Eurogamer: What have you done in Burnout 3 that you didn't do in the others?

Alex Ward: Online is probably the big thing. Online has driven the whole design. Offline and online, trying to make the offline game the same as the online game, trying to make sure there's not a difference between the two.

Eurogamer: What online modes are there?

Alex Ward: Everything. There's every race mode bar one. So you've got... obviously Crash mode online (two-to-eight players), racing (six players online), and you can race single race, you can race Road Rage, which is a race where we've got persistent damage on the cars, where you have to do as many Takedowns as possible. You can do a GP, you can do a series of races. The only race mode you can't do online is Eliminator. Eliminator is a five-lap race where one person gets knocked out each time. The reason that's not online is because if you're the host, if you're last and you get knocked out, it's going to kill the game. You're not going to let everyone race for five... What would you do while they race for five laps? So that's the only mode [that's not online].

Eurogamer: Do you have some kind of leader board as well?

Alex Ward: Yeah you can upload all your stats and your profile and everything onto the EA network on Xbox Live and PS2, so you're tracking all your profile, number of Takedowns and everything.

Eurogamer: There were an insane number of stats in the last one. Is there even more or has it been cut down?

Alex Ward: There's not as much being uploaded to online, because you have to try and guard against offline people cheating and then trying to upload to online leader boards and stuff. But yeah, Crash mode is online, two players, head-to-head split-screen, co-operative Crash, competitive Crash, two players or split-screen or online. So yeah, online has driven the whole thing.

Eurogamer: Graphically it seems to be something of a benchmark...

Alex Ward: I said at E3, 'we're taking the piss with this, aren't we, on the PS2?' [Smiles]

Eurogamer: You really are taking the piss. It's staggering. How have you managed to do all this crazy stuff that you're doing?

Alex Ward: Well as a studio we probably specialise on PS2. Again, Criterion's been working on PlayStations probably from very early. Our big mistake was not doing a game for launch. I think they probably could of done, if they had the system early enough. So from Burnout 1 to our first game, that was 60 frames, and we pushed it pretty hard - at the time. Then we leapt to Burnout 2 and we made a big leap.

Eurogamer: That was a huge leap, wasn't it?

Alex Ward: A huge leap, and it was like no other PS2 game.

Eurogamer: But this is almost as big a leap again from what we've seen.

Alex Ward: On the PA, on the performance analyser side, our graphics team are all really smart guys, they just live and breathe PlayStation hardware, getting the most out of the system, going beyond what's happening on Xbox.

Eurogamer: Who's the sort of technical genius behind all this?

Alex Ward: Oh there's, there's... They all are. I mean, our Burnout team programmers and graphics guys are all... They've got a lot of smart people, and we're pushing so hard. I mean, audio - we're practically melting the machine [with] the amount of audio that's happening on PS2. Visually Burnout 2 at the time we thought right, bang, that's 90 per cent of the PS2 right there. But after we were done, we took some time out, and when we really had a good look at it on our performance analyser they suddenly realised with a lot of optimisation that was probably 50, 60 per cent, with 40 per cent extra to find. So they've gone out there just improving the detail of textures; more cars in the race - you know, there's five other guys with you in Burnout, it's a six-player race, so it makes for a more exciting race, a more competitive race; turning it up with audio, the stuff we're doing with engine sounds, what we're doing in surround, you know, turning it up. More cars on the track, more detail in the world. So it just really got there. So this time this is it. I think this has got to be 90 per cent of the PS2. Which means there's another 10 per cent there, and they're still looking for it.

Eurogamer: So presumably there is, as you stay, still more in the tank on the PS2...

Alex Ward: We just set out deliberately to make the PS2 version look like the best Xbox game you've ever seen.

Eurogamer: It pretty much does. You could have said that about Burnout 2 to be honest.

Alex Ward: Yeah. And we were happy. And we're really happy with it this time, so we've done parallel development this time. But a lot of other companies are just, they're PC developers and they're working on Xbox and they're going down to PS2, whereas we're the other side; we're starting on PS2, and then go onto Xbox. So some of the Xbox guys might be thinking 'oh but when you go down to Xbox it's not as good', but I don't think you could really look at the game this time and say 'oh that's a bit rubbish on Xbox', because, well we've looked at all the other Xbox racers. I think you could stand it side by side with Forza or something. I think what we're doing with reflections, what we're doing with texture detail, the game looks glorious.

Eurogamer: Are any other developers sub-licensing this technology? Is it built into the latest RenderWare for example?

Alex Ward: No it's not yet, but there's a lot of things shared. I mean, the Burnout guys, a lot of their developments and breakthroughs and stuff then support the other side of the company, so they just live and breathe for pushing the PS2. And once this is done, they'll get to work pushing the PSP.

Eurogamer: Is this still on track for October release, or...?

Alex Ward: Yeah we're really on track. It's early September. At the moment I think it's the 10th. I mean, they're working on that, it might change, but yeah, it should be the 10th of September on PS2 and Xbox.

Eurogamer: Do you think it's going to really succeed commercially now that EA has got its hands on it?

Alex Ward: Well I mean the previous two did. They were both million-sellers.

Eurogamer: But they're not happy with million-sellers though, they want four-million-sellers.

Alex Ward: Well I suppose in a year when a lot of UK companies have collapsed and closed and all this stuff, and not really sold and not had any big successes, Burnout like TimeSplitters was one of those new IPs on PlayStation that was an original IP. So the first two were really bloody successful. Always more so in Europe than America, so this time, you know, we don't want to be Robbie Williams, we want to be The Beatles. You want to break America. That's key to us, so EA... The whole EA thing's been great for us. They've pushed us, we've made a better game. This is EA, they tend to know what they're talking about.

Eurogamer: How did the deal come about?

Alex Ward: I think it just came about that we were wanting to do the next game, we talked to different partners, and online is a key thing. And EA was the partner that could deliver online for us easily. And they had experience of putting online games out. If we'd gone for any other publisher they might have one game out on PS2 Online, and we'd probably have to use a third party technology. Whereas EA, they've already got the online infrastructure, they've shipped ten, fifteen titles, two versions on PS2 Online. They're more ahead with online almost than Sony are. So it's really easy to talk to the guys who took Tiger Woods online in two goes, who put SSX online and NASCAR and FIFA. So online has been easy. We've been running online since November.

Eurogamer: Obviously when you first signed it, EA weren't doing Xbox Live stuff. Was that an issue?

Alex Ward: Yeah, right out of the blue, so we were happy. We got told about that very late in May.

Eurogamer: Because I remember when we first got told about Burnout 3 it seemed bizarre that it wasn't on Live...

Alex Ward: Absolutely, yeah. There was no agreement signed and we went to E3 with two versions. We knew the first day... We didn't go to the conference, but we got a fax, so we had two versions at E3 ready to go. If it happened, we had Xbox Live that could connect from the EA booth to Microsoft. The Sony version's always been done, that was online since November. But Microsoft, yeah, we were testing on Live literally the week before but still we were told 'nothing's signed yet, there's no agreement, if it happens, it happens, if it doesn't, it doesn't'. So we had two versions ready to go.

Eurogamer: Why isn't there a GameCube version?

Alex Ward: Because there's no online. The online networked experience has influenced so much of the offline game, you just would have been half-hearted on GameCube. You're going to have this killer online experience on PlayStation and Xbox. All the modes, everything makes sense, because you can play online and offline. If we were only going to make an offline game, it had to be different. Nobody wants to make just an offline game any more. Everyone wants an online component.

Eurogamer: What do you reckon about PC then?

Alex Ward: Well that's the other one, yeah, I mean we're just really big PS2 specialists, so we'd do it on the PC if somebody asked us to do it. My honest answer to that is that I don't think it would happen, even though I'm sure it could be very profitable, because I've never seen an arcade game work on the PC. Successful... I mean something like Need For Speed Underground is a big game on the PC, but it involves some tuning and a slight sort of simulation, whereas Burnout is a free-for-all. And I don't remember Daytona or Sega Rally or anything being big on the PC. And Burnout on the PC... If we had an editor in Crash mode and you could create your own junction well maybe that would probably work on the PC, but there's no tuning in this game. What you see is what you get. But maybe for online, I don't know.

Eurogamer: It would seem logical, the PC being such a huge online platform. But you did Burnout on PC didn't you? No you didn't did you... I'm just making that up!

Alex Ward: No. Kristan, if you come to Guildford you'll find out, my team will be laughing their heads off. I'm known as not being much of a PC fan. I don't own a PC, I don't play games on PC. It's not for me. I grew up on Ridge Racer, Wipeout.

Eurogamer: Do you play the GT series?

Alex Ward: Yeah, I've got my memory card and I've got three saves of GT3. I've always been into it but I've never really played it much on PlayStation 1. But GT3 took up a lot of time. I finally found out what the fuss was about.

Eurogamer: What is the fuss about, because I haven't got it either...

Alex Ward: GT3 is like reading, I don't know, Lord of the Rings. If you read all three... And I hate Lord of the Rings, so I dunno, I, uh. I stole the books from the school library when I was younger and I read them and I was mightily bored and I gave up. But GT3, when it's really there it's really there. And the real magic and beauty of that game is that you can race one track in a front-wheel drive car, and then you unlock a four-wheel drive car, and you race the same track again, and it's the only game in the world where you can feel the improvement. You can feel the handling, so then when you race that track in an F1 car, you realise how genius the course design is. You finally see a racetrack on different levels. And you don't see that in TOCA and you don't see that in Gotham...

Eurogamer: With TOCA 2 I did find that actually...

Alex Ward: ...You're sitting there, and you're finding the corners, and the pattern of the bends in a different way. And when it clicks... It doesn't click for about three and a half hours, but when it clicks, it's magical. And it's a great game. Paul Clancy who works for Criterion has a good line on this, and Paul says, 'GT is great if you love cars and you love games'. If you love videogames and don't like cars, you're not going to get much out of it. Similarly, if you're really into cars, and you don't like games, then you're not going to get much out of it either. But if you kind of like both it's really there. But if you don't like GT and you still think Sega Rally on Saturn and Sega Rally 1 in the arcade is just magical, then that's what Burnout's about. We share that arcade feeling. And you know there's only us and Namco left making an arcade racer.

Eurogamer: So what are you targeting for sales this time, or are you not going to put your neck on the line yet?

Alex Ward: It's got to be as successful as last time.

Eurogamer: What did it do last time?

Alex Ward: [Smiles] You can find the figures on the Internet. They're both beyond a million-seller.

Eurogamer: I know what it did in the UK, but I don't know what it did outside.

Alex Ward: The split between Europe and America was probably 80 per cent of the sales were from Europe. I mean, Burnout 2 was one of the biggest games in France ever. There's a phenomenal number in France. But again this game works because everyone digs the arcade vibe. The game's come out in Japan recently - Burnout 2 just came out - but Burnout 3, EA Japan are really excited about it and it'll get a splash in Japan. And we're going to TGS to show the game and we're excited about that because I've always believed that they'd dig the game in Japan because it's an arcade game... It's a Western game made with some Eastern values.

Eurogamer: Do you think Namco will maybe look at your tech and go 'we need that'?

Alex Ward: We met the Ridge Racer guys at E3. They came in, they loved our game, and they said they will show us the new Ridge Racer on PSP, they'll show us the next Ridge Racer next year and we talked a lot, I got their cards. We're going to hopefully see them again in Tokyo. We were talking about Ridge Racer and we've got a track in our game - Dockside - it's a got real Ridge Racer vibe and it's got a couple of little in-jokes and references.

Eurogamer: What was the best Ridge Racer?

Alex Ward: Rage Racer. Beyond a doubt. Now you're going to expect me to say four, right? But no. Although Phantomile was strong, it doesn't beat the Extreme Oval from Rage Racer on PS1. The defining games for me really on PS1 were Resident Evil 2 - the first game I played till daybreak - or one of those games that blew me away was Rage Racer. Rage Racer I played a lot. I loved everything about it. The sound, the music, the tracks, the car, everything.

Eurogamer: And it all went horribly wrong with R: Racing. What was all that about?

Alex Ward: Ah, Jesus [Shakes head]. I think they listened to America too much. When that game started, I think it's like the story-driven TOCA game was a bit critical hit in America, so I think the Namco guys maybe they called America and said what do we need to do? And they said well you need storyline, and you need characters in this. I dunno. Hopefully the next one will be back to what we need to be. Fantasy cars on fantasy tracks in Japan. And if it doesn't open with a girl breaking the strap on her sandal, and playing some wild techno fanfare, I'll be disappointed.

Eurogamer: What's the music like in Burnout 3?

Alex Ward: It's all licensed tracks this time. It's a real sort of punk rock track.

Eurogamer: Is that through EA's Trax?

Alex Ward: Yeah EA Trax. We've got The Ramones in there, we've got Faith No More...

Eurogamer: Is that stuff you directed in any way?

Alex Ward: Yeah they have a very cool guy over here, and he works outside dealing with all the music, and he's been doing all the music, picking all the bands, picking people, I dunno, Avril Lavigne, and Avril Lavigne did a gig in the cafeteria at EA Canada apparently just before she broke and went on to sell millions of records. So I originally wanted a very R&B sound for the game, I was thinking it's got to be something like Underground, with an urban flavour. And they were saying look, the way it's happening, rock or punk is going to break again in America, and so they just came out with loads of tracks, and we're listening to them all and we listen and if after ten seconds it sounded good, it was going down. We've got a really good soundtrack to the game, and it's helped really define the personality and attitude of Burnout this time, which has always changed from 1 to 2 and is going to change from 2 to 3. But it's got this kind of rebel attitude to it. All the team are loving it as well, and I think that's rare, you know - you normally can't please everyone with music. But it's a toe-tapping soundtrack. It is good.

Burnout 3: Takedown is due out on PS2 and Xbox this September... 10th, by the sound of it. Watch out for our first impressions of the game in the very near future.

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About the author

Kristan Reed

Kristan Reed

Contributor

Kristan is a former editor of Eurogamer, dad, Stone Roses bore and Norwich City supporter who sometimes mutters optimistically about Team Silent getting back together.

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