Burnout Paradise came out a year ago, but time flies when you’re hurtling through billboards and ramming your opponent’s sports coupe into a wall. Soon after they shipped the game, U.K.-based developer Criterion Games announced the “Year of Paradise,” a rolling series of downloadable updates that would refine and expand their ambitious open-world vision of Burnout, with an emphasis on seamless online play. They promised game-changing content for free. Could it work? With over a million registered online users and an enthusiastic, frolicsome community of fans, the experiment appears to have paid off. (And with the imminent release of new premium content, it should soon start paying dividends, too.)
Senior Producer Pete Lake started his career at Criterion 12 years ago as a junior artist, and now oversees development and delivery of Burnout‘s downloadable content. “I’ve seen Burnout from its birth to where it is right now,” he says. So who better to guide us through the twists and turns of the Year of Paradise?
The Escapist: Criterion reinvented the Burnout franchise for its debut on the Xbox 360 and PS3. Was DLC part of that planning process?
Pete Lake: We always thought about how we could support Burnout Paradise after it was released. We had ideas of what we thought people would love to do in the game, but we wanted to be consumer led. So we had plans, but we didn’t agree on exactly what we were going to do until it was out there and we could see what people thought.
TE: Wasn’t announcing a year of free updates quite a risky commitment?
PL: As a studio, we made that decision. We wanted to move away from games being “fire and forget” – you stick it in a box and put it in a shop. We made a conscious commitment to follow it through, and that’s informed everything we’ve done in the past year, from the game updates to the website, forums and CrashTV podcasts.
TE: The ubiquity of online access means games can now be released with a few bugs, then fixed with a downloadable patch. How important was it that Burnout Paradise was robust when it shipped?
PL: It was vital. The first and most important thing for us was to get a strong, solid boxed game out there because if you don’t do that, you lose people at the first hurdle.
TE: After an update of tweaks and enhancements last April, the major Cagney update came in July …
PL: That was the first game-changing content. It was a huge offering. It was free, but there were three new game modes, new cars, the live news page … it was almost too much in one thing. We found it hard to make people understand how much they were getting. But it got a big positive reaction.
TE: That update included some car livery designs created by a Burnout fan. What have been some of your other favorite moments of community interaction?
PL: We had some people turn up at the studio one day. They were some people we talk to on the forums who said, “Yeah, we’re in England next week, can we drop by?” So we welcomed them and showed them around. And people are always sending us things. We had an American cop who sent us a police patch. It’s a big thing in the U.S. – he said officers trade patches with each other to show “brotherhood and respect.” So that was cool.
TE: Especially considering there isn’t much of a police presence in the game …
PL: At least they get some special police cars to drive.
TE: Then, last September, came the bikes …
PL: It was a smaller update than Cagney in some ways, because it was really just the bikes and also the new day/night cycle, but it was fantastic to get it out there. It showed that the game doesn’t have to stand still; you can have a completely different way of experiencing all the gameplay.
TE: Criterion had never made a bike game before. Was it a risk?
PL: It was a good risk because it was fun. We began last year saying we wanted to make game-changing content so we’d have meetings where we’d ask: Right, what’s the craziest thing we could possibly do that no one will expect? Let’s take all the things we love about Burnout – driving fast, skidding ’round corners and doing stunts – and just do them in a completely different way and offer people something brand new. Once we got it running, we spent a lot of time getting the handling right. We didn’t want to make a bike simulation. We wanted to make a Burnout with bikes.
TE: Last October, nine months after Criterion released the game, you clocked the most players online simultaneously. Did that feel like a vindication of your strategy?
PL: It did. We were obviously watching how many people were downloading the update, but then to see them playing it and sharing it with other people online, it just showed that games don’t have to die after a few months of playing them. They don’t need to get traded in or just sit on the shelf. People were going back to the product. Anyone who makes games would be happy to know that their game is still being played nine months after release.
TE: The first paid-for downloadable content will become available next month, including a selection of new cars. There’s one everyone is particularly excited about. So who had the original idea for the Jansen 88 Special, the flying DeLorean?
PL: We didn’t want to just offer more cars; we wanted to offer cars that people really wanted to drive. But I can’t really pin the idea on any one person, since we work as a team.
TE: Does hovering change the handling?
PL: It doesn’t really change the handling, but it changes the way you think about things – when you see yourself flying off a jump with fire trails behind you, it’s pretty incredible. It feels really different.
TE: You’re also launching a whole new area in February: Big Surf Island. Does it contain things that would usually have gone into a sequel?
PL: I suppose we’ve designed the island a lot like if we were doing a traditional sequel. You look at the product and try and learn from everything you did during that process and try and make something better. So we’ve taken everything we know people love about Paradise City and tried to make one special place where all that stuff is. Basically, if you see it, you can drive it. It’s not as physically big as other places on the map, but in terms of actual driveable acreage it’s probably an awful lot bigger. There’s a lot more verticality, as you might have seen from the screenshots.
TE: After a year of free updates, you’re now moving to paid-for DLC. What were some of the factors that went into that decision?
PL: A lot of things, really. This year, we’ve been spending a lot of time working with our community to keep offering them new experiences and we felt that it was the right time to offer paid-for content. With Big Surf Island, we’re doing everything we would do if we were doing a sequel. I think we’re offering people a lot of gameplay and value-for-money.
TE: How much will the DLC cost?
PL: The price point is yet to be announced. But we’re really pleased with the reaction we’ve had. I think people can see we’ve given a lot over the Year of Paradise and it’s been quite surprising along the way … people have said they would have paid for the bikes. So there hasn’t been a backlash. The response from people I’ve come into contact with is that they’re happy. We haven’t had any hate mail.
TE: Your publisher EA must be pleased that after 12 months of freebies, some money will be coming in. Have they been supportive of the Year of Paradise strategy?
PL: They’ve been absolutely supportive. We’re at one with EA – we occupy a whole floor of their U.K. headquarters in Guildford. We couldn’t do the things we do without EA’s help, the power and experience that they have in publishing, marketing and developing. It’s fantastic to have that on our side.
TE: You’ve put a lot of faith and energy into downloadable content – you can now buy Burnout Paradise as a PSN download – but you’re also putting out a new boxed, updated version in February. Is that physical presence still important?
PL: When we released the PSN version, it was an important step for us. It’s a whole product available to download that you can just have on your hard drive whenever you want to play it – it’s a fantastic way to get directly to consumers. But not everyone has online, so we know that some of our audience won’t have experienced the new content. There are a lot of people who have been hearing the buzz about Burnout Paradise over the past year and they’ll be able to buy this new product and straight away get all of the existing content and the new offline multiplayer Party Pack on the disc and then get ready for all the new stuff we’ve got planned this year. And PC owners will get to experience it for the first time, too.
TE: After reinventing Burnout once, will you have to do it all over again for Burnout Paradise 2, or will the franchise continue to evolve through DLC? Basically, is there a plan?
PL: My plan is to keep shipping everything for Burnout Paradise. We’ve got an awful lot of things lined up that are going to keep changing the game in interesting ways. There’s no need to reinvent anything just yet.
TE: On a more personal note, what do you drive, both in-game and in real life?
PL: I’m a little ahead of everyone else, I suppose. I’m currently driving the new Dust Storm but I’m a big P12 fan, since I do a lot of stunt runs. In real life, I’m driving an Audi TT, which is a bit of fun.
TE: One final question – where are my goddamn Burnout planes!?
PL: You saw the planes, then. [Pause] I can’t really comment! But we’re doing lots of incredible things, and what I love is that we can show people some of the stuff we’re trying out and they can get excited about it.
Burnout Paradise: The Ultimate Box is scheduled to be released for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC in February.
Graeme Virtue is a freelance writer based in Scotland. He recently managed to get Aquaman to open up about being excluded from Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe.