I had a chance to test drive Electronic Art's newest entry in the venerable Need For Speed series, Need For Speed World. World will be a massively multiplayer online environment similar to Battlefield Heroes. In fact, I found the online experience of World to be a lot like Battlefield Heroes in a number of ways.
As with Heroes, it is very approachable. You are dropped into the world and in a matter of minutes you become comfortable with the controls and the environment. Unlike in Heroes, there was no one shooting at me in the Need For Speed world, but that isn't to say that it wasn't just as frenetic. As I ventured out into the World I was reminded strongly of the last EA racing game I had played, Burnout Paradise. The architecture and layout of the highways and roads were very similar, as was the smooth flow of the surrounding area as I sped through traffic barely in control of my car. I was not alone, however, While the strength of an MMO style game is the presence of hundreds of other human players, it is offset by the weakness of MMO game: the presence of hundreds of other human players.
It was a mad house! Cars were flying in every direction. It took me a few minutes to get up to speed and able to stay more or less out of the way of the more maniacal motorists. This aspect will be somewhat improved in the final release when earned incentives are stickier. This will be a critical success factor since playing in a sandbox is only fun as long as most of the other payers aren't there just to throw sand. If the world has sufficient incentives to get players to organize into better behaved races, the overall experience should be favorable.
The designers realized this as well (I'm not known for having anything other than painfully obvious insights - at GamingNexus get-togethers, calls of "Captain Obvious has entered the room" greet my entry) and have hopefully found ways to encourage players to behave. There will always be the crowd that gets more entertainment value from being a disruptive nuisance, but for those that embrace the idea of the game there will be sufficient reasons provided to maintain some semblance of rationality.
For example, Other than the kid that likes to race wrong way around the track in hopes of causing the kind of spectacular pile-up one usually only sees on a foggy German autobahn, the biggest problem with online racing is that people will drop out of the race after they fall behind from a spin or wreck. The races then become all about attrition, and for anyone that has watched a race that ends up getting decided by who could stretch their fuel the furthest, you know how boring that is. In World, incentives will be awarded for finishing a race, and as you would expect, better incentives are rewarded for finishing in higher positions.
These incentives take the form of Mario Kart (or Crash Bandicoot, if you were a PlayStation family) power-ups and defensive measures. Obviously, with the power-ups mostly (but not all - just finishing a race at all will give the player a "Lucky Draw" redeemable for something) going to the top performing racers, success will breed even more success. This is a great draw for those that succeed early, but may prove daunting to new racers that find themselves competing with racing dynasties. Hopefully there will be a class system that restricts some races to only those drivers that aren't carrying a huge bag of weaponry.
Also similar to Heroes, World will have a free-to-play model that lets any willing player dive in and race for only the cost of the download. These "free" games aren't developed and given away out of some sense of altruism, of course. It is highly likely that a player will only be able to progress so far before the need or desire to keep up with the paying players either entices the player to start buying upgrades or frustrates them right out of the World. This is a model that can work very well or very poorly for EA. As with just about everything, the devil will be in the details. If "free" players feel like they are being treated as second class citizens and/or have no hope of ever winning races, there is the risk that they will simply shrug their shoulders and move on. Or worse, go over to the dark side and become disruptive nuisances bent on ruining the fun for the rest of the World's inhabitants.
If, on the other hand, EA is able to achieve a good balance between “fun (enough) to play for free, but better to play for pay,” World should be a compelling experience. There’s just something about beating a human opponent in a close race that cannot ever be duplicated by beating an AI opponent. Providing adequate controls and incentives to keep the whole thing from degrading into online anarchy will be the key to World’s success.