Need for Speed is a multi-platform racing game franchise developed by Electronic Arts. Need for Speed was created by Canadian developer Distinctive Software before an EA buyout in 1991. The series is characterized by an arcade approach to the racing genre, often featuring police chases, street-style car customization and humorous, over-the-top characters. From Need for Speed's second iteration in 1997 until 2013, the series has seen new releases every year (except 2001), usually aimed at the holiday period, reflecting the game's broad popularity. However, when the franchise was taken over by Ghost Games in 2013 (with the release of Need for Speed Rivals), new games in the series are now released biennially, with no new major releases in 2014, 2016, or 2018. Although at least 150 million copies of NFS games have been sold, making it the best-selling racing game franchise to date, it has seen multiple changes throughout the years and no less than three reboots.
The first era of Need for Speed, consisting of the first six entries in the franchise, followed a simple premise; to give players the opportunity to race some of the world's most exotic sports cars in a variety of scenic environments. With the exceptions of Need for Speed II and the Porsche-focused Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed, the games often involved police chases to spice up the action. Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit (along with Need for Speed: High Stakes and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2) also allowed players to play as the cops stopping the racers; III even began a popular sub-series of NFS entries focusing heavily on the police pursuits.
However, in 2001, Universal Studios released the hit action film The Fast and the Furious, which brought the import tuner culture to mainstream audiences. Looking at the success of the film, EA had Black Box, the developers of the PlayStation 2 version of Hot Pursuit 2, make a new NFS entry that focused on the underground street racing scene of tuners and aftermarket customization rather than exotics and sports cars. The result was 2003's hugely popular Need for Speed: Underground, which became the most commercially successful entry in the franchise and started a new era of NFS games focusing on tuners. An open world sequel was released the following year to similar success, although the lack of police in both entries were also criticized. As a result, in 2005, EA Black Box released Need for Speed: Most Wanted, which reintroduced cop chases to the franchise and integrated them to the open world environment, which also brought back sports cars and exotics and was now set in the day again (after the endless nights of the Underground games). Most Wanted also became infamous for its story and acting ("Five grand... FIVE GRAND!"). Nevertheless, the franchise's ninth entry sold 16 million copies, becoming the biggest-selling entry in the series. Most Wanted's sequel, Carbon, released the following year, improving the car customization and returning to endless nighttime, while introducing a crew system and maintaining the police chases from the previous entry.
In 2007, Need for Speed: ProStreet was released to mixed reception. It was criticised for its departure from the popular underground street racing themes of earlier incarnations. This prompted reassurances of a return to the series' roots for the 2008 release, Undercover. This was met with underwhelming reviews as the series tried to go back to a formula similar to Most Wanted. This prompted EA to remove Black Box as Need for Speed's main developer and give the franchise another reboot. In 2009, they released two different games; sim racing-focused Need for Speed: Shift for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC, and the cartoony Need for Speed: Nitro for Nintendo DS and Wii. Black Box continued to work on a different entry, however, releasing the free-to-play racing MMO Need for Speed: World for PC in July 2010. World combined the maps of Need for Speed: Most Wanted and Carbon and kept the car customization focus from Black Box's earlier entries. Despite receiving twenty million registered users by November 2012, World ultimately failed to impress most critics. The game was shut down July 14, 2015 alongside three other free-to-play EA titles.
A highly anticipated Need for Speed title by Burnout developers Criterion Games was revealed as Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit at EA's press conference at E3 2010. The reboot of the Hot Pursuit series returned the franchise's original focus on exotics and sports cars being chased by the cops (which players can play as) in a fantastic environment not seen in the NFS franchise since Hot Pursuit 2. The game also introduced a social racing component called Autolog, which allow players to asynchronously compete with their friends for the best times in races and events. It released on November 16, 2010 to critical acclaim, winning several racing game of the year awards, with Autolog being a part of every subsequent NFS installment since. In 2011, a sequel to Need for Speed: Shift titled Shift 2: Unleashed (which strangely did not carry the Need for Speed title despite still being part of the franchise), was released to better reception that the first Shift. Later that year, Need for Speed: The Run was released. The first NFS game to feature on-foot segments, it was EA Black Box's attempt to take back control of the franchise. However, the game disappointed in sales and critical reception, which led to layoffs at the studio in 2012. The studio was renamed Quicklime Games that year to continue focusing on developing Need for Speed: World, and were eventually shut down in April 2013.
In 2012, EA announced that Criterion Games were developing another reimagining of a beloved entry in the series with their own take on Need for Speed: Most Wanted. A more socially-focused take on the original 2005 Most Wanted, the game was seen more as a spiritual successor to Criterion's 2008 smash hit Burnout Paradise and featured a revamped Autolog system. The game was released to positive critical reception, but polarizing fan reception, with many players of the first Most Wanted expressing displeasure on how different it was compared to the original. After Most Wanted and before the launch of Sony and Microsoft's respective eighth generation consoles the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, EA assigned then-new development studio Ghost Games (originally founded as EA Gothenburg) to develop the next entry and take over development of the franchise. In 2013, the developer released their first game Need for Speed Rivals, which was developed with assistance from Criterion and was essentially an open world follow-up to Criterion's 2010 Hot Pursuit. However, in 2014, EA decided that they would not release any new Need for Speed game, although they did release a Complete Edition of Rivals and a film adaption that starred Aaron Paul (Jesse Pinkman of Breaking Bad fame) during the year. Instead, EA decided to reboot the franchise once again, this time with a return to the import tuner scene.
In 2015, EA released two entries to the franchise; an original free-to-play mobile entry developed by Firemonkeys Studios called Need for Speed: No Limits (which also replaced Need for Speed: World that, as aforementioned, was closed that same year), and the subtitle free Need for Speed developed by Ghost Games. No Limits features quick racing events and receives regular content updates. The 2015 subtitleless reboot featured photorealistic visuals and full motion video cutscenes, along with a free post-release update system called the "Living Game". The reboot received mixed reception, with criticism going towards the game's always online requirements and rubber band AI. It was also criticized for lacking manual transmission and drag races, although they were later added in updates. The mixed reception caused EA and Ghost Games to delay the next entry in the series to 2017. That year, they released Need for Speed Payback, which featured offline single-player and a story inspired by action driving films, most notably the more recent Fast & Furious films. However, Payback, as well as Star Wars Battlefront II (which got more mainstream attention), received heavy criticism for their loot box mechanics. No new Need for Speed title was released in 2018, although Payback received a large number of updates and No Limits continues to be supported.
In November 2019, during the franchise's twenty-fifth anniversary year, EA and Ghost Games released Need for Speed Heat. Taking place in the Miami-inspired Palm City, Heat took away the derided loot boxes and replaced the randomized upgrade system of Payback with a simpler, yet flexible one. The game also featured a unique day-and-night system, where during the day, players can earn "Bank" (the franchise's increasingly outdated term for its in-game currency) through legally sanctioned events held by the Speedhunters Showdown, which appears to be inspired by the Horizon Festival of the Forza Horizon series that became wildly successful with critics and racing game fans during the 2010s decade. When players decide to switch to night, they instead compete in illegal street races to earn "Rep", the game's experience points system. Players have to switch between the two to progress; they must earn "Bank" in the day to buy cars and upgrades, and earn "Rep" at night to level up in order to unlock new cars and upgrades. The police, represented by the Palm City Police Department, also behave differently between day and night. At day, cops are more civilized, will only chase the player if they collide with their car, enforce smaller speeding fines, and will only use basic police chase tactics to stop racers if they resist. At night, however, they become much more aggressive, with the PCPD's corrupt and seemingly sadistic task force using whatever they have at their disposal to take street racers down. While Heat still received overall mixed reception, it has been generally seen overall as a step in the right direction for the franchise to eventually return to its former glory.
However, the relatively improved reception was not enough to save Ghost Games. In February 2020, EA announced that the Need for Speed license will be moved back to Criterion Games, and that Ghost themselves will be reduced to a support studio focusing on the Frostbite engine, with the developer getting renamed back to its original name of EA Gothenburg. It remains to be seen how the franchise will proceed for the upcoming ninth generation consoles, the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X, now that it has returned to the former Burnout studio.