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Co-founders of Criterion Games, creators of Burnout, leave studio (update)

Alex Ward, vice president and creative director of Criterion Games, and Fiona Sperry, studio director, are both no longer working at the studio, Electronic Arts has confirmed to Polygon.

"Alex Ward and Fiona Sperry have decided to leave EA," a spokesperson told Polygon this morning. "We appreciate their many contributions through the years and wish them well in their future endeavours.

"The incredibly creative and talented team at Criterion are hard at work on a new project for next-gen consoles as new IP continues to be a major priority across EA. Matt Webster is leading development of the new game and the Criterion studio moving forward. Matt has been part of Criterion for years and has an exciting vision for this new game."

The departure comes at a time of uncertainty in the studio, following several years of changing focus for what the studio was working on. Ward's most recent LinkedIn profile shows that he's working on "unannounced project zero." Sperry's LinkedIn profile shows her working on the "Team Zero" project, which is described as "the next thing from Criterion Games." We've reached out to both Ward and Sperry for comment and will update this story when they respond.

The two formed Criterion Games in 2000 out of Criterion Software, a technology company that developed RenderWare. In the years since, the studio created and nurtured the over-the-top Burnout racing games. Following the 2010 release of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit and 2011's Burnout Crash, Criterion was given stewardship of the Need for Speed franchise with Need for Speed: Most Wanted.

In a 2012 interview with Polygon, Most Wanted executive producer Matt Webster told Polygon that while all future Need for Speed games may not be developed by Criterion, but that the studio would have creative oversight of the franchise moving forward.

"We are always going to have a handle in it," Webster said at the time. "We're not really talking about where we go next, but we definitely have a creative hand on the tiller."

But just one year later that was no longer the case. During a Gamescom interview in August of last year, Need for Speed Rivals executive producer Marcus Nilsson told Polygon that the newly created Ghost Games studio was now in charge of the franchise.

"Ghost is now leading Need for Speed and there will certainly be some announcements about how that will evolve and work in the near future," Marcus Nilsson, executive producer on the game, told Polygon. "Criterion is doing something else, but that doesn't mean they can't help us on this."

Nilsson said that about 80 percent of Criterion was working on Rivals with the remaining group working on a mysterious "new project." A month later, Alex Ward tweeted that 60 to 65 people moved from Criterion over to Ghost Games, seemingly permanently, to work on the game and the franchise, leaving about 20 at Criterion.

That same month, Andrew Wilson was made CEO of Electronic Arts and shifted EVP of EA Labels Patrick Soderlund to become the EVP of EA Studios. With that shift, the Need for Speed franchise was moved over to reporting to Matt Bilbey, a senior vice president of EA who oversees sports.

"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," Solderlund told Polygon at the time. "He's got a very different viewpoint about how to make games and what great games."

Update: After the news broke on Polygon, Ward tweeted that he "just decided to start afresh and form a new games company with Fiona Sperry."