This week, EA announced that it was delaying its next Need for Speed game with Criterion, the studio who has been working on the title since the release of Need for Speed Heat in November 2019, refocusing its efforts on assisting DICE with the next entry in the Battlefield series.
The news was shared in an interview with Polygon, and whilst the publisher’s leading studios executive Laura Miele insisted that neither franchise is in trouble, it’s certainly worrying for fans of EA’s biannual racing game franchise. Without fail, the former Swedish studio Ghost Games delivered a brand new Need for Speed title every two years when they led development on the franchise, but early last year they were shuttered in favour of establishing a bigger racing game team in the UK under Criterion.
At this time, it was assumed that the acclaimed Burnout developer would no longer be an assist studio for various EA projects. While Ghost were busy with Need for Speed, Criterion helped DICE and Motive with their Battlefield and Star Wars projects – prioritizing them over their own new IP codenamed “Beyond Cars,” an all-new extreme sports title that showed much promise but was cancelled in 2016 in favour of allocating resources to EA’s heavy hitters. It would’ve played to Criterion’s strengths too, as it was planned to feature all sorts of unique vehicles for players to master, including quadbikes, parachutes, speedboats, jet-skis, dune buggies, helicopters, planes and even wingsuits! In addition to its focus on delivering pure thrills and fun, this was supposed to be the biggest game in Criterion’s history.
Criterion’s last wholly developed title was 2012’s Need for Speed: Most Wanted. It collaborated with Ghost Games on Need for Speed Rivals the following year and crafted a unique Star Wars Battlefront VR experience for PlayStation VR in 2016. But that was it. Criterion wouldn’t begin full development on another game until the new Need for Speed. It was originally intended to launch later this year, but EA has now postponed the title until 2022.
While one would expect the delay to provide additional time to develop and refine the title, the reality of the situation is that resources that were meant to go into Need for Speed will be instead given to Battlefield. This leaves the new racing game in limbo and almost dormant. Whilst some developers at Criterion will likely continue their work on the project, EA’s interview with Polygon gives the impression that most of the studio will be focused on getting the new Battlefield game out the door later this year. It’s frustrating for fans of Need for Speed because they all know that if EA retained Ghost Games as the leading series developer, then this delay wouldn’t have been required – unless of course, EA just reprioritized Ghost’s efforts too.
2021 has already proven to be a controversial year for EA. The publisher is notorious for its studio closures and game cancellations, but we’ve already seen two major titles shuttered in the last few weeks – the Anthem “Next” project that promised to revitalize BioWare’s new IP, one that showed much potential before its release but was found to be ultimately disappointing and Motive’s new “gigantic-action” game. The latter had already been in development for more than five years and promised to be of significant scale; delivering blockbuster open-world gameplay seen in the likes of the Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed franchises.
In 2015, EA even brought in the latter’s former executive producer Jade Raymond, who had also worked on Splinter Cell: Blacklist and Watch Dogs during her stint at Ubisoft. At the time, former EA studios boss Patrick Soderlund admitted that EA didn't have a lot of action games. “EA is not known to make gigantic action games like Assassin's Creed or Batman or GTA or those types of games that are really big,” he told IGN.
Motive’s new IP was meant to be EA’s big game-changer to shake up the “gigantic-action” genre, but it suffered from distractions and a reboot. Motive was also enlisted to help with various Star Wars projects, including the relatively short, but technically stunning campaign mode for Star Wars Battlefront II and went on to launch its own fully-developed Star Wars game in Squadrons, which focused entirely on aerial combat. When announced, Motive revealed that its new IP was still in active development, but Bloomberg recently reported that it had been rebooted in 2018 following “cultural clashes” among creative leads – some of whom had been previously working on Star Wars Battlefront II. By the end of the year, Jade Raymond had left the company. She pursued a new, but short-lived opportunity as Google’s VP of Stadia Games & Entertainment at which she was responsible for their first-party efforts, including a now-cancelled, but large-scale multiplayer action game, according to VGC.
EA CFO Blake Jorgensen admitted in late 2015 that the company has “never really operated in the largest genre of gaming, and that's the action genre.” Fast forward to 2021 and the story hasn’t changed. Jade Raymond is a free agent as of writing and Motive appears to be focused on developing new Star Wars projects – with its new IP “Gaia,” the codename of which was first revealed by Bloomberg, only receiving a short glimpse at the 2020 EA Play showcase. It was described as “a highly ambitious, innovative new game that puts the power and creativity in your hands.” If Motive will ever release a large-scale, gigantic blockbuster game on the scale of Grand Theft Auto or Assassin’s Creed, as the studio was initially formed to do so, remains to be seen.
Considering EA’s history and how they’ve treated their studios in the past, it’s does leave the Need for Speed franchise in a bit of a bizarre position. Should development continue next year, and the project launches as intended, then all is well, but what if it doesn’t? If EA reviews the progress that has been made on the title and executives conclude that it isn’t worth the extra financial cost, then why continue? Following a bidding war with Rockstar and 2K Games parent company Take-Two Interactive, EA finalized an acquisition of Codemasters, the acclaimed British racing game developer behind the annual F1 game launches, as well as the DIRT and Project CARS franchises. This means EA’s line-up of racing games is bigger than ever before with almost all segments of the market covered. EA’s Laura Miele even admitted that this was a significant factor in deciding to repurpose Criterion’s 2021 development efforts on the new Battlefield game, as Codemasters will at least launch a new Formula 1 game this Summer.
Miele also suggested that rushing the new Need for Speed game could potentially result in it being “cannibalized” by a Codemasters release around the same time. While EA did make this mistake by launching Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2 just weeks apart from each other in 2016, which resulted in significantly reduced sales for the latter, there’s quite a stark difference between a Formula 1 sim-focused track racer and an open-world Need for Speed illegal street racing game. Miele told Polygon that the Need for Speed franchise is not being axed nor moved to another studio like Codemasters. She also noted that the game will launch on both current and previous-gen Xbox and PlayStation consoles despite the pushed back release window.
“[Criterion] own the Need for Speed franchise; that’s why they managed the [Hot Pursuit] remaster,” Miele assured Polygon in their interview. “Anything that’s happening within the Need for Speed brand, they are responsible for, or things come through them to ensure that they’re on board with it.”
Despite this optimism for the future of Need for Speed, the brakes will stay pulled in favour of Battlefield. “We’re going to put all the resources we have on this,” Miele said, which clearly shows its prioritization above other EA franchises. It does make me ask the question again: If Ghost Games still existed, would EA be shipping both Battlefield and Need for Speed this year? Of course, there are many factors to consider here. The pandemic and work-from-home have really shaken up the industry, causing several titles to be delayed as development has slowed down on them, but this is the first instance where a publisher has at least publicly acknowledged its intent to leave development on one franchise dormant for some time to put all its energy into another.
Last November, EA launched a remaster of 2010's Need for Speed Hot Pursuit. Whilst originally developed by Criterion, this ten-year anniversary edition was created by Stellar Entertainment and this week it even received a new update to introduce a livery editor and support for Xbox Series X|S and PlayStation 5.
Should you be interested to read more on Miele’s thoughts on the future of the Need for Speed series under Criterion, as well as their collaboration with DICE and what this means for the next Battlefield installment, then be sure to check out the full interview with Polygon. If you’re keen to learn details around the cancellation of Motive’s original IP, then Bloomberg has you covered.
Alan is the co-founder and co-owner of FullThrottle Media. As someone who enjoys spending all his free time playing video games, he keeps the website updated with new and relevant content, including news stories, reviews and opinion pieces for the games he likes writing about the most. He also tweets too much, probably.