When Burnout Paradise first launched in 2008, the development team had an idea of the kind of audience it would attract. Previous entries in the series were focused on arcade-style challenges, where players would attempt to crash cars with pinpoint precision. But for Paradise, the team moved in a slightly different direction, spreading out a huge range of challenges across a vast, open world. They expected players would really dig into the hardcore racing aspects, battling against each other in online races and competing in the ranked progression system.
Soon after launch, though, they realized they had it all wrong: 90 percent of players didn’t even touch the races. Instead they opted to focus on the game’s social features and explore the big new world. “We thought that’s what our audience was,” says Matt Webster, a producer on the game who now serves as Criterion’s general manager. “After the second week of launch, we looked at some of our data and realized we didn’t know our audience at all.”
Today sees the launch of a new remastered version of Paradise, available on the Xbox One and PS4 (a PC version is expected later this year). It’s mostly the same game, but with upgraded visuals and a year’s worth of downloadable content included. A decade later, it’s a surprisingly modern experience; the original Paradise was a pioneering racer, and many of its advances still feel fresh in 2018.
But 10 years later, Criterion is in a very different place. After the success of Paradise, which included a solid year of post-release support, the studio moved on to the Need for Speed series and most recently helped out on Star Wars Battlefront II, crafting the game’s vehicular sequences. Along the way, the studio teased a promising new action sports game, called Beyond Cars, which would ultimately be cancelled. In a lot of ways, Paradise marked a turning point for the studio. “The modern Criterion started when we launched Paradise,” says Webster.
Paradise was ahead of its time in a lot of ways, taking the nascent concept of a connected online world and fusing it to the bones of an arcade racer. The setting, a fictional California town called Paradise City, was inspired in part by the huge open playgrounds of action games like Crackdown. Criterion wanted to create a space where you could drive virtually anywhere and find interesting challenges or collectibles. The developer’s previous game, Burnout Revenge, meanwhile, introduced online multiplayer, and this experience further strengthened the idea of giving players a big online world to share. “We realized that people spent five times longer in the lobby than they did actually racing,” Webster says of Revenge. “So we said, ‘Well why isn’t this lobby a game world?’ We thought it was a good idea, and it turned out to be a really good idea.”
Perhaps the most forward-thinking aspect of Paradise was the idea of ongoing, post-release support. The concept of games as a service is commonplace today; the biggest games in the world, like PUBG and Fortnite, are constantly updated and expanded with new features and improvements. Months or years after launch they can look and feel like entirely different games. But in 2008, this practice wasn’t widespread; some games would receive a few patches or content updates after launch, but it wasn’t a huge part of the experience. For Paradise, its post-release life was key.
After realizing how players were actually engaging with the game, Criterion continued to alter the experience to better suit its audience. There were bug fixes, new cars, and a handful of additional multiplayer modes. The studio kept fans up to date through an ongoing YouTube series called Crash TV. Internally, the team dubbed the time spent on the game between 2008 and 2009 as the “Year of Paradise.” This all culminated with the addition of a brand new island, which was absolutely bursting with challenges to take on and places to explore. “Big Surf Island is the purest expression of everything we learned from our players and the game a year after launch,” says Webster. “How can we cram as much gameplay as possible into the smallest possible space?”
Paradise was hugely influential, pioneering ideas that would later become mainstays in the racing genre. But it was also controversial. For one thing, it’s the last proper game in the series, followed only by the spinoff Burnout Crash in 2011. Since then, the EA-owned Criterion has instead focused primarily on other series, like Need For Speed, and helping out on blockbusters like Battlefield and Battlefront. But Paradise didn’t just mark a shift for Criterion and the Burnout series, it also signaled a move away from classic arcade-style racing experiences. In fact, Criterion founders Alex Ward and Fiona Sperry eventually left to form their own studio to focus on just those kinds of arcade-y games.
Some pushback was expected. “We always expected we were going to get some super-fans who would say ‘This is not a Burnout game,’” Webster explains. “But we figured we were the best people to decide what a Burnout game was.” But the team viewed open-world online games as the future, and pushed forward regardless. And it’s not as though Paradise lacked the intense action of previous Burnouts, it just tied them into a much bigger space that players could inhabit. “I still think Burnout Paradise has that,” Webster says of the arcade-y feel. “It expresses itself differently.”
During the 12 months after Paradise first launched, Webster would regularly pull data from the game to see how people were playing, the areas they explored the most, or the challenges they gravitated toward. This, in turn, helped shape the game as development continued. Now, a decade later, he’s looking forward to doing the same thing as an entirely new audience explores Paradise City for the first time. “We know that game so well,” he says. “By seeing what a modern audience will do with a game like that, it will for sure inform us in whatever creative endeavor we go on next.”