Need for Speed Unbound has been out for a few weeks now. Reviews were generally positive with a 77 Metascore on Metacritic.
When EA handed the keys to NFS back to Criterion Games, the Guilford studio behind Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted, fans rejoiced. And yet shortly after Unbound's launch, several key staff have left Criterion, leaving fans worried about the future of Need for Speed.
Need for Speed Unbound developer Criterion loses several key developers
GamesIndustry.bz reports that five veteran Criterion developers have left to "explore new opportunities outside of EA."
Criterion’s Vice President and General Manager Matt Webster has left the studio after working at Criterion for over 23 years and at EA since 1990.
During his time at Criterion, he worked on several acclaimed arcade racers including Burnout 3: Takedown, Burnout Revenge, Burnout Paradise, Need for Speed Hot Pursuit and Need for Speed Most Wanted.
Also leaving Criterion is executive producer Pete Lake, who joined Criterion back in 1996 as an artist, and senior technical director Andrei Shires, who worked at Criterion for 16 years.
Head of studio development Alan McDairmant is also leaving after 17 years while head of content Steve Uphill is departing after ten years.
What does this mean for Need for Speed?
Going forward, EA Sports UFC franchise Charity Joy will serve as executive producer for Need for Speed after working on the EA Sports UFC franchise.
Geoff Smith, who oversaw the Dirt and Grid games at Codemasters, will be senior director of Product Development for Need for Speed and also oversee EA's upcoming WRC game being developed by Codemasters.
"It’s now been one year since the talented teams at Codemasters and Criterion officially came together as one unified force, driving the future of racing entertainment," David Rutter, General Manager of EA's racing group, wrote to staff.
"This is an incredibly exciting time for our group following the recent launch of Need for Speed Unbound, (which is being hailed as having opened a new era for the franchise), the successful release of EA Sports F1 22 earlier this year, as well as significant progress on the development of WRC.
"As we look ahead, we know there’s a strong opportunity to evolve our games and experiences and bring them to an even broader audience of fans – with our long-term strategy centred on our strengths in licensed motorsports as well as arcade/open-world racing."
"Building off the progress made so far this year, with two launches, and even more plans underway for next, we are confident that we have the best people, working on the best games, and will achieve great things in 2023."
Should Need for Speed fans be worried?
We’ll never know the real reason for these staff departures. It’s not uncommon for game developers to move on and explore other opportunities in the industry. But the fact that several key Criterion veterans left at the same time so soon after NFS Unbound’s launch is concerning.
Although reviews for NFS Unbound were favourable, initial sales were underwhelming. In the UK, NFS Unbound debuted at number 17 in the boxed game charts during launch week. Digital sales would certainly have been higher, but you’d expect a new entry in a major IP to perform far better regardless.
The problem is that not many players are even aware they can play a new NFS game. Since it launched, EA has barely advertised NFS Unbound compared to past games. This is unusual considering that Need for Speed is the second best-selling racing game series of all time behind Mario Kart.
It doesn’t help that NFS Unbound was revealed just two months before launch. Review copies were also sent on the day of release, giving little time to generate publicity.
With that in mind, it’s hard to shake the feeling that EA didn’t have confidence in NFS Unbound and sent it out to die. Seeing their hard work not get the spotlight and recognition it deserved must have been frustrating for Criterion.
It remains to be seen how these staff departures affect Criterion and the future of the NFS franchise. But let's not forget that EA has a notorious habit of shutting studios down if franchises underperform.
After being acquired by EA in 2002, Black Box Games went on to develop some of the best NFS games of all time in the 2000s including the Underground games and 2005’s Most Wanted.
Black Box was relocated from Vancouver to EA Canada in 2008 but was closed in 2013 after games like NFS Undercover were poorly received.
Several Black Box developers went on to work at EA’s newly formed Ghost Games studio developing NFS games such as Rivals, Payback, and Heat. Sadly, history repeated itself.
After recent NFS games underperformed critically and commercially, EA closed Ghost Games in 2020. We hope Criterion, a studio with so much racing pedigree, doesn’t join the long list of studios closed by EA.
But if NFS Unbound continues underperforming, the future doesn’t look bright for the series and the arcade racing genre as a whole. Let's hope these former Criterion veterans can bring their talent to another studio or form a new one and make a new arcade racing IP free from the shackles of EA.
For more articles like this, take a look at our Need for Speed page.