The Age - Screen Play - Alex Ward Interview

Welcome to Paradise


Burnout fans: prepare for Paradise. But be warned: according to the game's creator, you might think the latest game in the high-speed, fender-bending franchise is more like hell. 

Due before Christmas on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, Paradise lets drivers explore a huge, open world (the biggest publisher Electronic Arts has ever offered) based on roads in Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston. 

Players are able to improvise and make their own fun as they drive around, while starting a formal race is as simple as pulling up at a set of traffic lights. Records like fastest speed and biggest crashes are registered for every road you drive on, which you can instantly compare with friends' results.

Up to eight mates can play online together, enjoying races, triggering huge pile-ups, performing coordinated daredevil stunts and playing games like tag. 

Screen Play spoke to the always passionate and outspoken Alex Ward, creative director at developer Criterion Games, while he was in Tokyo recently. Click below to see why he believes Paradise is the best Burnout game yet, and why some long-time fans will hate the game.


Tell me about the game.

I started Burnout seven years ago and this is the first leap for Burnout to a whole new generation of game systems. What we're trying to do is create something that's probably a closer expression to what we were trying to originally do many years ago and remove many of the boundaries and restrictions that we've had on previous generations of game hardware and really deliver a new gaming experience.

So the game is obviously still all about destruction and car crashing but we want to allow the player to have total freedom in the car. We believe that freedom and the seamlessness of the gameplay is a really important idea to develop.

So that was your biggest priority when starting work on Paradise?

Yeah. Racing games have lived under the restrictions of loops and laps and walls and barriers, restricting the player from where they can go, what they can do and how they experience driving. On next-gen systems for an all-new Burnout we're just trying to remove as much of that as we can and throw away the rulebook.

I imagine that you are a fairly long way down the track in development now...

We've been working on the game for 22 months now.

So what are you most happy with at this stage?

I'm most happy with how the cars handle. Obviously we've rewritten the entire physics and handling model for Burnout, evolving the work that we started in 2000 for all the games we did on PlayStation 2 and Xbox. But for now for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, it really was back to the drawing board. Kinda like learning to swim or learning to ride a bike. You throw everything away.

Things that you thought you knew really well proved to be quite challenging. For Burnout in an open world it's very important for the player to be able to make certain rapid changes, snap decisions, being able to really control the car and make it an acceptable driving model that everyone can learn in less than five minutes is really important. We're really pleased about where we've got to.

We're also really pleased that we've been able to solve some of the navigational problems that players have when they're playing so-called open-world games so you don't have to spend all of your time looking at some map in the corner of the screen. We've got a map in the corner of the screen, but we're trying to highlight to the player where they are in the world by making the artwork meaningful and unique and easily recognisable so you know when you're in the mountains and you know when you're in the city, for example. But also that the feeling of driving is different between the two areas as well. We've never built an open world before and it's certainly the biggest open world that Electronic Arts has ever made. Obviously with Burnout we've never done it before but we have had the technology to do it for a long time. It's looking beautiful and it's going to be the first open world that runs at 60 frames a second. On our team that's something that's quite important to us.


Open-world games are often more immersive, but they can suffer from a tedious tendency to make players travel long distances to get to the next mission, or race, or whatever. How can you ensure Paradise is always fun?

Burnout's just more fun than any of those other games, right? Because they build an open world, but there is no reason to have that open world in the game. They could have just built individual tracks and loaded them off a menu. So I agree with you, it's really f**king boring. Whereas in Burnout, there's a lot of action to be had and a lot of improvised gameplay that you can have driving from point to point.

First of all, you can go to any race or any mission at any time. To start a race in this new game, all you have to do is pull up at traffic lights. And they're everywhere in the city. So there's always action around the next corner, rather than "Oh no, I've got to drive for miles to get to this next dot." And then the game stops and loads. There's no loading in our game at all.

Obviously a huge focus in the series has been the crashes. How much more spectacular will the crashes be, now that you have access to next-gen technology?

Yeah, it's great because ever since Burnout 2 we've been talking about really being able to hit an object. Hit a lamppost and put a real V-shape in the bonnet. Or do very specific localised damage. The big thing that we're doing that nobody else is doing is that we're actually deforming the chassis of the car. So if you plough into a wall at 100 miles an hour, the engine's going to go through the back seat. It's a shame you can't see it, I'm just running the game now and really deforming the car. What we want to do is rip the car in half. It's not realised in the game yet but hopefully we're going to get there.

The other cool thing that you can do now is that in Burnout we always took control in a crash away from the player. Since Burnout 3 we allowed them to move the car a little. But you could never crash and then keep going. In this new Burnout you can. We call it drive time deformation. As long as there's some wheels on the car you can keep driving.

Tell me about the online features.

Our philosophy is we want to make online seamless. There are no lobbies in our game. When you go online you invite players to your world. You can drive around, the lobby is playable, the lobby is the city, what you see on screen. There's none of this PC-like menus of lists of names with headphone icons and stuff.

Online we'll be using the Live Vision camera and PlayStation Eye a lot. We believe that using cameras makes online play a lot more accessible, a lot more compelling because you can see the person you're playing with. And also we've got a big social focus for Burnout online this time. We believe that playing with your friends is much more fun than playing with strangers. In most online games, you end up being 10,000th in the world, whereas what's really important to you is what the ranking is between you and your friends. We use a poker analogy to explain it. Playing a Tuesday night poker game with your friends in the kitchen is good fun, playing in the World Series of Poker and getting kicked out in the first round and being told "You Suck" isn't that fun. We want to open up online to a much bigger audience of players. We do everything possible to make sure that the experience is smooth, easy to get into, so we're trying to pioneer the use of cameras online this time.


I remember at E3 many years ago you showing off a game concept called SRC behind closed doors and were very excited by its potential. What do you think has made the Burnout series so popular?

I've always known for years that people liked crashing. But I think the software has always been very high quality. I think players recognise that. We have a meticulous approach to detail here at Criterion. We always set out to be world class. From the moment you press start, we always want to deliver in spades. We really want to give the player a good time.

I think people enjoy speed, and we've certainly been a faster and faster game than anybody else. Certainly people enjoy crashing and I think people enjoy the Burnout attitude. Even though its 2007, there's still a lot of bad games coming out, yeah?

But I'm glad you remember SRC, I really had to argue passionately that the game wasn't called SRC. "Yeah SRC, that could mean Street Racing Chaos" or there was "SRC is a brand"... No, Coca Cola is a brand, SRC is a code-name. That's why I always come up with really rude and offensive code-names now so there's no risk of them ending up being the name of the game.

How difficult is it to keep innovating and keep the series fresh and exciting after seven years, but obviously not alienating fans of the original games or deviating too much from the spirit of the series?

The spirit of the series will always be maintained because it's the same people who are working on it. The core group of the SRC team, we're still talking on email right now. We work together because we can kinda read each other's thoughts. We have very different opinions on what the software should and shouldn't be. We never listen to the internet, and making the same game again has never interested us. So we always try to push in a different direction.

We've never failed so far, but if we failed we'd probably fail really big. For this game, we're making some really big departures because we think that's what is expected of us. If you really like Burnout 2 or Burnout 3, great, go and play them, that's what I still do. But don't expect the fifth Burnout to have anything in common with any of the other ones.

We're kind of like Madonna, she reinvents herself every time. Or maybe U2. We're going to win new fans, we're going to lose old ones, you know? Is The Joshua Tree U2's best album? Or was it Zooropa or Pop? Is Madonna's new stuff really good or is it all about Get Into the Groove? We've decided to reinvent ourselves. People always talk about that we're a franchise. To me, it's just a game. I was there when we started it and I'm still there now, and it's pretty much an expression of who we are at that time, you know?

We were really into the Sega vibe for a couple of years, that was a big influence, then we moved to a new place with Burnout 3, then we took it to new places with Revenge. Those games are equally loved and hated. I still get emails. I'm talking to a Norwegian guy who runs a site called BurnoutAholic, and he's really into Revenge. He's going to get a pretty big shock when he plays the new game.

It's been a few years now since the acquisition by EA. Looking back, are you confident that it has been positive for the company and that you are making better games because of it?

Yeah, absolutely. It's allowed us to completely focus on the software, we don't have to worry about where the money's coming from. I used to spend a lot of time having to show the games around and talk about ideas all the time. I'm happiest working in the office with the team. And now we work with EA we've got a really nice office and even get to sit on cushions! In years before we had to sit on, you know, a hard bench...


Can you tell me what you're also working on, such as a sequel to Black?

Yeah, everyone thinks we're doing that. We'll do it, just not right now. If you're expecting that next, maybe that won't be the case. I just started on the plane on the way out our new project, which you'll hear about maybe a year from now.

Bing Gordon made some comments on Renderware last month. Why do you think Renderware isn't the force in the industry that it once was?

I can't answer that question. I don't work in that division.

But do you think that no longer licensing Renderware out to the industry is a positive for Criterion that will help you focus and make better games?

I think it helped a lot of developers and maybe weakened a few developers. Whether you think it's a good thing or a bad thing, to me, I find technology pretty boring. The industry is still dominated so much by talk of technology, I always find it pretty boring. I'd much rather talk about the games, you know? I don't care how many polygons its got.

When people are walking around this year's E3, what are they going to be talking about regarding Burnout Paradise?

I think they're going to be sleep deprived. They're going to see a showcase game on PlayStation 3. They're going to be excited that it's a very different online experience. And they're either going to love it or they're going to hate it.

Does it worry you that some people are going to hate it?

I just hope we go all right, it's not for me to say. I'm working with my team, we're expressing what we want to express, we've made the very best game we think we can, the game we wanted to play. If like people it, that's OK, if people don't like it, that's OK too, there are a lot of other games they could play instead. It's not like we're curing cancer, it's only video games.

They used to say: How many film critics does it take to change a light bulb? - Ten, one to do it, and nine to say how much better the first one was. It's the same with gaming. There's so much opinion and bullshit still. I'm sitting around today doing interviews with Asia, and surprise, surprise, the first question was "Which is better, Xbox or PlayStation?"

You've just spoiled my next question...

The Atari 2600 VCS, clearly is still the best. Which did you prefer, joystick or paddle? Black and white or colour? Mono or stereo?

You're obviously just as passionate about games as when you first began?

Yeah, exactly. The day it stops being fun is the day I'll stop doing it, you know?

Is the industry a better place now?

Yeah, absolutely. The best games ever are being made right now. It's never been easier to make a game. You can get in at a really grass-roots level with the Xbox initiatives and the Sony initiatives. You can talk to games fans all around the world. When I grew up, you sure couldn't do that. Gaming is recognised, people know what it is, and it's still a lot of fun. I've had some of the best gaming experiences of my life this year. I still love it, I'm a kid in a toyshop.

One of the things we are often hearing over here is all the closures in the UK development community. Why is it so difficult at the moment for the independents to keep their doors open?

I can't speak for those guys, but my personal opinion is that it's all about making hits. My heroes were the Stamper brothers at Rare. Many years ago in 1986 when I was playing on Commodore 64 and Spectrum, the Stampers were working with Nintendo of Japan, developing games for the NES. They knew that the market in Japan and America was then 10 times the size of Europe. I always remember this, it's always stayed with me. They were always asked why they'd never made a game for the Amiga, which was big in Germany and England. But the Amiga had only sold half a million at the time. The Stampers said: "Why would we do that? If every single person who bought the machine bought our game, we'd only sell half a million. We can make a game for Nintendo in Japan and sell four million easily."

I've always wanted to be a hit maker. When I joined gaming development, you can get very locally distracted. There's more to the world than your own backyard. At Criterion, we never wanted to be Robbie Williams, we wanted to be The Beatles. The Beatles were massive all around the world. That's why I'm here in Tokyo. But there's not many Western developers that come here, maybe they just don't try. But like anything in life, you won't succeed unless you try. If they throw you out the front door, kick in the back door. If they throw you out the back door, smash the window with a brick. When they call the cops to arrest you, burn the house down, right?

I know a lot of the guys in the UK, but I guess all I can say is that out of all the places that have been closed, that's bad, but I don't think there was ever a hit game that didn't get made because of that. I used to be an acquisitions guy in the industry and meet developers from all around the world. Some of the ideas were crap. That's why I joined game development. I'd never done it, but I figured I couldn't be worse than some of the guys doing it. I sat in an office in Germany once and asked "What's the game?" and the guy said "It's like FIFA, but with giant insects!"

But you know what, one thing people never seem to want to say in this business is the game is bad. It seems like that's one thing we all have in common, we all think this game is bad. But once you're being paid to do it, you might be a chicken-shit and not do anything about it. Games represent a team's work. Everyone on our team has to pull together. That's what we do at Criterion, Anybody at any time can jump in and say "This is bad".

Thanks for your time, Alex, I'm really looking forward to playing the game.

Thanks. It was really great to hear you mention SRC. I'm going to send an email and mention that to the original guys, thanks for mentioning it.

- Jason Hill -



Xandu's picture

The original interview can be found over at

This interview is by Jason Hill. Here is some more info about him:

Jason Hill is one of Australia’s most respected videogame journalists and won Best Gaming Journalist at 2007's Sun Microsystems IT Journalism Awards. A veteran in the industry, he has chronicled gaming's rise into mainstream entertainment and reviewed thousands of games across all popular formats since 1992.

Jason is Games Editor for The Age newspaper’s Livewire section and The Sydney Morning Herald Icon, and writes Australia's most popular gaming blog, Screen Play.

More info can be found here:

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-- The Creator --

ZombieTron's picture

Nice find Xandu - this has to be the most indepth interview yet! Alex Ward sent us a message when he got back from his trip to Japan and he said that he mentioned BurnoutAholics in a couple of interviews - this is the first one we have found. And Alex Ward is right about the sleep deprivation from E3, I'm still buzzing from all the cool Paradise footage! :-)

SUFFUR's picture

Do we club together and go 'Hostal'( a trip to the 'dam' woould be cool?) on Alex. LOL.

You're not going to like Paradise, you have been told by the God(creation theory out the window) of Burnout. Gosh, he's not even let you play it yet, to make up your mind. Going from the interview, the whole game is the Lobby, lobby lurking on a mass scale, sweet, i'll be at the Bar, up on the hills, just there, rev your engine and i'll come out to play.

So Xandu, send Alex a message, to prove you don't like the new game, you have to try it first. ;) Thank you, was a good interview and i am greatful, that Alex put down the gauntlet and also proved he is a gamer, which is more important, than just being a one game guy. Not that i though he was, i have seen enough of his interviews, to say otherwise.

Burnout Marmite, you'll love or you'll hate it.

And were going to 'dick' around in it, gross! or not?

Patience is something I taught myself, so I never know when its going to run out?

Patience is something I taught myself, so I never know when it's going to run out?

ZombieTron's picture

Alex Ward said Xandu would be in for a SHOCK with Paradise, not that he wouldn't like it! I am 99% sure we will (you know who I mean) all be Burnout Marmite Lovers and not Haters :-) but I know there will definatly be some burners who will prefer pre-existing burnouts and wont be able to make the transition to living in a big city. Xandu and I have our bags packed already and can't wait to move to Paradise City. We are getting an apartment Downtown, you are all invited to the house warming party!