Get an exclusive look under the hood of Criterion Games and the downloadable content of Burnout Paradise with this special studio tour feature.
There's a distinct air of calm in the Criterion Games studio. Not overwhelmingly so, yet it's unmistakable - it's the sort of peace that comes with the acknowledgment that a lot of hard work and toil has been worth it, through the critical and commercial recognition of Burnout Paradise, the hit racing game on PlayStation 3.
And with wealth of downloadable extras for Paradise it's full speed ahead on a wide horizon. As far as the Criterion team is concerned, the faster the better...
Burning it up
Since its release in January 2008, Burnout Paradise has been boosted with a number of free updates to enhance its high octane experience. Among them is the Cagney update (offering Freeburn multiplayer modes: Online Stunt Run, Marked Man and Road Rage) and Burnout Bikes which introduced motorcycles and specific challenges to go with them among other extras - all significant markers to Criterion's intent to keep Paradise's fans very much in the driver's seat.
"Extending Burnout Paradise with downloadable content presented a fresh new set of tricky technical challenges as we wanted to add great new content without it interfering with the original game," says one of the game's engineers, Iain Angus. "To do this we needed to be very careful and well organised with everything we added."
"Coming up with ideas isn't difficult," adds Producer, Pete Lake. "Especially when you've just finished a product and you didn't get a chance to put in everything that you wanted to do, so there's that, all the things that you realised you could have done, and all the new things you just think of on top of that. We ended up using a different combination - some of the things we chose, like the bikes, were something we always wanted to do but never had the opportunity."
As Criterion's first major foray into downloadable expanded content for a big title, the project brought with it obstacles. The introduction of bikes in particular to the roaming highways and streets of Burnout Paradise was no mean feat.
Criterion's ambition involved tailoring the game to a whole new vehicle, which meant creating character models for the riders (something the team never had to consider before, given the use of cars as the main focal point of the game), as well as structuring locations, dynamic weather, day-to-night cycles, Challenges and game modes to make full use of them - a vast undertaking.
"The bikes stretched us as a studio but allowed us to do new things and gave the consumer a whole new experience in Burnout," says Lake. "We looked a lot at what consumers wanted. We do a lot of research and observation of people playing the game to see what it is they're actually doing, because it's always a little bit different to what you think they'll do."
Paradise, your way
It's this ethos which helped the development of Paradise's premium download packs, which includes the Party Pack, Legendary Cars, Toy Cars, Boost Specials, Cops and Robbers and Big Surf Island. Not to mention the bundles, such as The Ultimate Box, which throws in the original game with updates, bikes and the Party Pack, to make sure first timers have plenty to start off with.
While each pack brings with it an identity which broadens the appeal of Paradise - from the frantic chase of Cops and Robbers, to the diminutive remote control styled madness of the Toy Cars - strong ideals of quality, accessibility and unification drive through them all. "With everything we've done, the important thing is that we wanted it all to interact with each other," explains Lake. "The content is an expansion of the same product rather than forcing you to play them a certain way."
Not only that, one of the main factors behind Paradise on a whole is to bring people together on a social level, something many of the team at Criterion are proud to achieve. "It delivers a unique social online experience that is completely seamless to get into and is focused on cooperation and having fun with your friends rather than a hostile environment of trying to be the best," says Designer Tommy Hudson. "A focus on freedom of choice rather than being constricted or having to play the game in a linear fashion."
Angus agrees: "Burnout Paradise has more of a sense of fun and you can play online without the pressure of needing to do anything. Many players just boot up Burnout Paradise so they can hang out online together. Of course if they want something to do there are hundreds of Challenges as well as game modes and road rules to compete over. I met several players who had got the game in order to get the Trophies [we implemented] so that's [also] a great way to introduce new players to the game. Whatever you choose to do you can take it at your own pace."
"So what ARE road rules?"
The openness and social aspect of Burnout Paradise is a natural reflection of Criterion Games on a whole, which allows itself a degree of freedom for its team members to explore. Ideas for the direction and content of the game are shared across the whole team, regardless of whether they're an artist or producer, creating a lively atmosphere where anything can happen - or as one artist puts it: "the feeling of walking around the office and discovering that someone has suddenly implemented a flaming hover-car in the game is very surreal."
Even more entertaining for the team are moments where they secretly interact with fans of the game and witness first-hand the fervour Burnout inspires. "When Paradise was released I went online as soon as I got home from work and met another player in a Freeburn lobby who appeared to want to teach me how to play the game," says Angus, who has worked on Paradise and its content for over three years. "He had no idea that I was involved in creating the features that he was trying to explain to me.
"I kept him going for almost half an hour with little comments like '... so what ARE road rules?'. Even though I corrected him a couple of times and was driving a car that is only unlocked towards the end of the game he still didn't get even a little suspicious."
Driving a Network
With the primary means of interaction with fans and the delivery of the downloadable content being PlayStation Network, it's no surprise Criterion is happy with the opportunities afforded by having an ever ready Internet service at its disposal.
"PSN is becoming its own publishing platform - it allows smaller developers to do their own thing, and allows bigger developers like us to try new things in different ways," says Lake. "We wouldn't have been able to create the bikes before unless it was planned in a sequel, so with that sort of stuff it's great to have the opportunity and means of getting our ideas out to people. It allows us to keep expanding the game, keep offering new experiences, and keep them playing."
"The PS3 system's openness to online [functionality and content] is superb," agrees Hudson. "Without that, we wouldn't have been able to make Paradise as seamless as it is."
Back to the future?
While the original idea of the sun-bleached American city may have expanded into something a little more extravagant, there's no arguing that Burnout Paradise's evolution has created an exciting ride for the team behind it as well as the players. Whether it's taking a spin in the DeLorean homage, exploring a whole massive new environment in Big Surf Island, or just wanting to jump through a giant doughnut, there's a little bit of something for everyone.
"We didn't set out to just add a few more cars and events when it came to the downloadable content," says Lake. "We wanted to make something we really enjoy playing and we really hope everyone else enjoys playing as well." As for future plans, the Producer, who has spent 13 years at Criterion, smiles. "We have an awful lot of plans. Once we've made all the things we really want to make, we'll figure out ways to make sure everyone gets to play it."
It's only a matter of time before the streets of Paradise are slick with racing wheels again - and while it may seem Criterion is taking a well earned break after making so much Burnout content, it's more likely the studio is just quietly working on the next big thing for when traffic lights to turn green once more. As Criterion's Development Manager Alan McDairmant, succinctly puts it, "push the boundaries and never rest. We can always find ways to improve and stay ahead."