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How Need for Speed and EA's sports leadership are collaborating for the future

From the Burnout games to NASCAR titles to the mobile Real Racing series and more, Electronic Arts has a long history of developing racing games, and there's no indication that the company plans to downshift.

Just this week, the PS4 release date for EA's next racing game, Need for Speed Rivals, was bumped up to Nov. 15, 2013. It will now coincide with the console's release and fill the void on Sony's next-gen system that DriveClub left when it was delayed to 2014.

Executive vice president of EA Studios Patrick Soderlund assumed responsibility for EA Sports about six weeks ago at the behest of newly minted CEO Andrew Wilson — the label he ran before becoming CEO. Despite EA's rather successful track record, Soderlund is not afraid of making changes.

Soderlund explained his vision for EA's future to Polygon late last week. Part of that vision will do away with the Labels organization that compartmented games and studios into silos. His strategy will bring development under a more unified structure. But underneath that strategy lie a few practical changes that hint not only at the direction of Electronic Arts but of its racing games in general. One of the first he made was to move the company's landmark racing franchise, Need for Speed, under the structural umbrella of EA Sports.

Soderlund said driving games will continue under the direction of Matt Bilbey, who has overseen several EA Sports titles for years.

"Matt will run FIFA, he runs UFC, but he also runs NHL (or has people that report up to him)," Soderlund said. "We're also putting Need for Speed and our driving business under Matt. We think that could benefit from from fresh eyes, could benefit from some different thinking, and we think that Matt is the right guy to do that. He's got a very different viewpoint about how to make games and what great games."

"I think that we can learn a lot from the sports games and what they've done."

There was something of a built-in autonomy inherent in the old Labels structure that sometimes meant the labels didn't share or talk as much as they could have. Under the new organizational structure, he hopes to foster cooperation, which explains why Need for Speed is now considered a sports title.

"I think that we can learn a lot from the sports games and what they've done," Soderlund said. "When you play a sports game, the  controller in your hand will dictate how good the game is. It's all about player control and input and how it feels. It's a feeling, right? I think that focus on pure gameplay, is something that can benefit the Need for Speed brand in a very positive way."

In recent years, the Need for Speed titles have focused on a more connected, open world sandbox, rather than the more realistic simulations of games in Polyphony Digital's Gran Turismo series or EA's own Shift games. Soderlund said that, although there's room for games like those, the shift to EA Sports doesn't meant that Need for Speed is necessarily going to transform into a realistic simulator.

"It was time for us to get a different pair of eyes on it."

"I find that to be highly unlikely, to be honest," he said. "It's more [that], when you've had a franchise that's been going on for 20 years like Need for Speed, I think it was time for us to get a different pair of eyes on it, a fresh look and feel on it. If something can come in and make take it to the next level, take it to a different direction.

"It's a way for us to push innovation and push a different creative brain or mindset onto Need for Speed."

Marcus Nilsson, the head of EA's Ghost Games studio, which was founded last year from the remnants of Burnout series and Need for Speed Most Wanted developer Criterion Games, worked with Matt Bilbey to sell Soderlund on a vision of the future of EA's driving games. There are many possibilities and many possible turns the company can take, none of which are finalized yet. Determining just what that is will be the job of people like Bilbey, Nilsson and others.

In the meantime, EA continues to hire those who have ideas and skills to set a pace for the future of driving games. As an example, Far Cry 3 lead game designer Jamie Keen is now a senior producer at Ghost Games, an indication that EA is trying to think outside of the sandbox.

"We will take on anyone who we think is capable that has a pedigree and a track record that is strong," Soderlund said. "Whether he's worked on Dirt or F1 or arcade-based racing games or not even racing games."