Marcus Nilsson and his crew have spent the last three years mastering the fine art of the distraction.
In the trade of piecing together fantasy worlds out of digital smoke and two-bit mirrors, distraction is quickly becoming video game’s most important element.
It is the thing that brings entertainment to empty space, that conjures out of a void meaning and story, both fueled by a player’s own machinations, rather than a developer’s handholding.
It’s the thing that can turn a game designed to be open to player wandering, from an experience in which they get lost, to an experience they remember, maybe even retell. Perhaps most importantly, as game prices remain relatively stagnant and the expectations of those who play them continues to rise, distraction can be an economic way to add meaningful, engaging value to a game and prevent its resale.
While the Need For Speed series has experimented with open world design in the past, Marcus Nilsson, executive producer of Ghost Games, points out that those games have never really been open to full player exploration. That’s not the case with Need for Speed Payback.
“Open world is kind of where we’ve been,” he says. “But we’ve been there in a very confined way. We’ve always been a ribbon racer in an open world. So it’s not really open. With Payback we open up the world and remove the barriers and deliver a game where you can drive where you want to.
“This is far more open than anything we’ve had in the past. In addition, what I really like with this open world it’s not just where you can drive its what you can do in this world.”
But that’s only half the work of making Payback open, Nilsson and crew also wanted to ensure both fully engaged with that open world, but also experienced the game’s linear storyline.
Enter the distraction.
During our discussion of the game, Nilsson used the phrase “distraction-based gaming” several times before I asked him what exactly that was.
“Distraction based gaming?” he says. “You plan to go from A to B and while you go from A to B there is so many other things for you to do. ‘I was going to B but this is right in front of me.’ There’s a billboard, there’s a roaming race and it moves you. ‘Oh shit, now I’m really far away, but I have new parts and that takes you into maybe a drift race.
“There is so much for you to do in this world.”
As Nilsson describes it, distraction-based gaming isn’t merely opening the world to player exploration; it’s then filling that world with things that motivate the player to explore the game and not necessarily in benefit of the pre-created story.
Before spending an hour or so playing a chunk of Payback, Nilsson sat me down in Electronic Art’s New York City offices to walk me through what Need for Speed Payback is.
The game, he tells me, boils down to five key elements: Living out an action fantasy, seen through a Hollywood lens, scrap to stock to super car, open world, casual competitive.
This will be Ghost Games third title, Nilsson points out.
“We’ve been making Need for Speed for such a long time, talking to fans about what they want and like in the game and thinking about where we need to take it to be popular,” Nilsson says. “This game is about taking the best of Need for Speed and putting it into an open world and that we are an action-driving game, an edge-of-your-seat driving game. This isn’t a sim about shaving seconds off a laptime.”
To achieve all of that, the team first worked to build up a cast, three key characters that players can identify with and who, in theory, could help extend the universe across multiple games.
That cast features three playable characters, each taking on archetypical roles: The Racer, Showman and Wheelman. The game also has clear antagonists: The house and The Fixer.
These characters are all thrown into a very clear narrative that features the cast getting pulled apart and then coming back together again to take on the ultimate race.
That, Nilsson says, is the premise that pulls players through Payback.
The experience was then designed to feel more like a Hollywood movie, something that Nilsson says Need For Speed has always been flirting with.
“All of those production values of making you feel larger than life when you’re playing the game,” he says. “There are blockbuster missions, chapter endings chapter starts.”
Once the game’s story and characters were established, the team set about making sure there was plenty to do in the game outside of that narrowly cast story.
A key part of that is allowing players to, for instance, find a scrap heap and over time turn it into a super car.
This game, Nilsson says, has more parts, more flexibility in customization and a lot more polish.
“We’re taking car customization and making it more accessible, deeper and more varied,” he says.
The like to call it a CARPG progression system because Payback has role-playing-game elements built into it. That includes things like random drops after races and car classes (there are five of them: race, drag, drift, off-road and runner).
You can even wander the world in search of derelicts which start as chassis and eventually can be built into some of the best cars in the game.
The open world nature of the game has also been greatly expanded. This time around there is a 24-hour day, night cycle and four diverse biomes: city, desert, mountains and canyons, he says.
“This is the biggest world we’ve ever done,” Nilsson says. “The terrain is all drivable. You can get off the asphalt to race, drive and jump on dirt.”
The game is also packed with sidequests.
“This is about edge-of-your-seat driving experiences,” Nilsson says. “We want you to lean forward. We want your palms to be sweaty.
In sidebets, you put your experience or in-game currency on the line and if you succeed you get four, seven, nine times the money back. It could be very good for you if you are a bit short for the part you need.”
Other bits of distraction play include roaming races and cop chases that have to be triggered deliberately.
Finally, Nilsson says wrapping up the Payback pitch, the game is heavy on what the team calls casual competitive. That means getting together with your friends through the game’s autolog to see who is better. The game will launch with 42 ranked events with more to come. There is also the ability to go on a tour of events with a group of friends all voting to see where you go next.
Seemingly, open worlds are becoming almost a necessity in the reality of modern-day game economics. And with the open world often comes the ability to purchase items in that world. The two, while not always connected, seemingly pair nicely in the view of some publishers.
When asked, Nilsson says he never thinks of moneitization when it comes to how to craft a game and what design elements to include.
“For me as game creator, I definitely never think about open world and distraction-based gameplay as how we can monetize the players,” he says. “I don’t think about the open worldness of a game and the shit ton of stuff to do in that world in terms of how we would like to be able to monetize that. That never crosses my mind.
“When you get to a place where we go to on this. It’s such a great experience. It’s such a great experience to be able to lock someone in, in terms of they don’t want to put the controller down.”
That said, the game does feature what are essentially purchasable loot boxes.
“When you finish a race you get a card drop,” Nilsson says. “There are three cards and you pick one of them and that’s randomized and you can equip that to the car, send it to garage, sell it for cash or recycle it.
“There are also shipments in the game that the core of the economy. In a shipment you can have in-game cash, vanity items and part tokens, (which are a way to go for a specific part you want.) There are also premium shipments you can buy. The only difference are the vanity items. They are mostly time savers.”
And time, Trevor Ruben recently noted in an opinion piece in Glixel, is becoming the true value found in a game.
“Instead of just real-world money, or in-game money, we are presented with the premise that our time spent progressing in a given game is its true value, and we must decide whether or not it is a waste of our time to grind in our favored game, or simply buy out that chunk of wasted time and get to the good stuff, “ he wrote.
To some degree, Nilsson sort of seems to agree.
“When you play whatever game now you’re looking at ways to go through it,” he says. “Zelda is a good example. I go to Youtube to find how to get to a place faster. Time is scarce; when I get stuck I feel I’m losing time.
“But I think there are plenty of people who would never go to Youtube to try to solve that quest, who want to find all of the hundreds of coins spread out in this world.”
To apply that to Payback, Nilsson points to the vaniety items found in the game. A player may see another player with green neon under their car and think they want to get it. They could try to earn it, or simply spend real cash to get it much faster.
“If there is a way to get that by buying premium shipments, there will be a selection of people who do so,” he says.
Are loot boxes and in-game purchases a response to the seemingly fixed price of games and their continued expansion in size and playability, I ask Nilsson?
“It’s clear prices haven’t really gone up,” he says. “That’s clear. I also know that producing games is more expensive than it has ever been. The game universe is changing in front of us now. We see more people playing fewer games for longer. Engagement is important. But how do we deliver longer experiences?”
“The bottom line is that it’s very hard to find this golden path that’s liked by everyone. We make games that are $60 and some might think that it’s worth $40. What’s the value in the package delivered? Something like GTA 5 and GRA Online versus The Last of Us, which you can play through in 10 hours. How do we value that? That’s probably a long discussion.”
And those discussions aren’t just internal ones. Developers like Ghost Games have creative discussions about the topic, but also discuss it with as many other people as possible.
It seems, at least for now, no one really knows the answer.
Another heated issue, going back even to the days leading up to the launch of the Xbox One, is the idea of games that require an internet connection. Always online can be a great boon to a developer, allowing games to use servers to handle everything from machine learning to supporting a constant flow of behind-the-scenes, tiny tweaks and changes to the game. But it also can alienate those who don’t have an Internet connection or want their console always connected.
Payback doesn’t require a connection, but it will be better if you have one.
“I fundamentally think we can offer greater play value from being a connected experience because we will have more up-to-date data and can tweak stuff on the fly,” Nilsson says. “We are building games now where we put more logic on the servers.
“I’m a true believer that connected experiences are better, but I’ve made the decision to support offline play. A large portion of our audience wanted that and we listened. That’s what you do, you listen to feedback and combine that with your own ideas.”
The end result is that those who never go online will have the game that came on the disc and won’t have access to the enhanced experience that comes with going online. But now that decision is left up to the player.
Sitting down to play the game, I was surprised at how well Payback managed to blend the sense of player-control with a strong cast and narrative. The first chunk of the game is very-much narratively driven, setting up the backstory, the reason that there is need for payback. That story telling dovetails nicely with the game’s ability to ease you into controls while also introducing the characters.
Soon, you’re given a bit more, narrative-free play, but with a tantalizing hook back into the story. I don’t want to give too much away, but essentially the game’s opening elements first delivers strong on story and then has you cycle through the three main characters in a blend of open world and quest-driven gameplay.
Once you’ve been reintroduced to the three mains of the game, the story sort of lets go of your leash and allows you to do what you want: drive the world, doing your own thing, or follow the scripted, compelling story.
In my time with the title, it felt like a tremendous success, something I wanted to continue playing both for the story and just for a chance to drive around, tearing up the roads and off-roads of the world Ghost Games created.
The Forever Game
Whenever discussion of open worlds comes up these days, the first game I think of is Grand Theft Auto 5 and its inclusion of Grand Theft Auto Online.
I can’t help but think that the tremendous success of GTA Online fundamentally changed the way Rockstar makes games. But I also wonder how those who work there think about that. Did they know that perhaps GTA Online would be the last game they ever make and make and make?
I ask Nilsson about the prospect of Payback becoming a forever game. Is that something they have thought about or planned for?
His answer, in some way, touches on why Nilsson is such a big believer in online gaming.
“If you think how about I’m talking about this now with characters and evolving story lines I wouldn’t be opposed to getting to a place where we have our universe and we plug in new experiences,” he says. “But it’s kind of Need for Speed World.
“If you have that world, you need to be able to get instant feedback, log data, create more of what players like and less of what they don’t like.”
Can you say what’s next for the franchise?
“Lots,” he says.