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‘We call it fighting for our freedom’ – Former Criterion heads on Burnout, golf & going independent

David Scammell Updated on by

What happens when the creators of Burnout and Black decide to make a golf game? Well… this.

Dangerous Golf is the explosive new sports game from former-Criterion leads Alex Ward and Fiona Sperry and their new independent studio Three Fields Entertainment, which promises to deliver silly golf destruction when it tees off on PS4, Xbox One and PC later this year.

By the sounds of it, it seems to be Burnout’s Crash mode mixed with golf. But while I haven’t yet seen Dangerous Golf in action, I did get the chance to speak to Alex and Fiona last week about the new game, their plans for a spiritual successor to Burnout 3, their goal for Three Fields and the reason behind their decision to leave Criterion…

Dangerous golf toilet

Dangerous Golf sounds exactly like the type of destructive game you were both known for at Criterion, but with a new sports twist. But why make a golf game when you’re better known for racing?

Alex Ward, Creative Director/Co-Founder, Three Fields Entertainment: Because we’ve been doing it for probably 15 years in a row.

Fiona Sperry, CEO/Co-Founder, Three Fields Entertainment: That is the simple answer. [laughs]

Alex: I’m sure some days you come to work and it feels like groundhog day. I think for us, like anything, one of the things a lot of people don’t really know about the industry is that when you’re working in similar genres a lot of the work can be very similar, and we’ve been doing it for a long, long time. So if you think about 10 years doing something, [it’s] a long time. We started Burnout in 2000. We’re still making car games… It got to be what, 2012/2013? The hardware might change but a lot of the work can be the same, so for us it was about doing something new because we could and we didn’t have to ask anybody. We just wanted to get to work and make something that was different and fresh and funny and silly, so that’s what we did.


Fiona: And you’ve always wanted to make a golf game.

Alex: Always wanted to make a golf game. Well, we just like going into genres and having a crack at it really. So 1999, let’s do our take on driving. At the time it was all about Ridge Racer and Gran Turismo, and people said we’d never go anywhere and nobody would be interested. And that was the start of Burnout. So it’s the same thing: Dangerous Golf is the first in a series of games from us that we want to make. And again, like I said, take a bit of Burnout and a bit of Black and mix it up with NBA Jam and throw some really powerful hardware at it, this is the result.

It sounds a lot like Burnout’s Crash mode but with golf. Is that a fair comparison?

Burnout 3’s Crash mode saw players crashing into vehicles and blowing up petrol tankers to rack up points.

Alex: Yeah probably, because myself, Fiona and Chris Roberts, who’s in the company, we were the first three members of the Burnout team. Chris was the original designer on Crash mode and [Burnout 2:] Point of Impact in 2002. So yeah, we don’t look back with nostalgia, we look back with a view of taking things to a new place, to a new level. We knew we wanted to do something short and sweet and fun. We’re only a small team so we’re not going to start off by making some massive, cinematic, open-world 100-hour epic; we wanted to do something that was going to teach us some new things, and that’s teaching us new hardware and new engines. Stuff like Unity and UE4 [Unreal Engine 4]. Looking at new technology from Epic and Nvidia. If we’re going to make a sports game it’s probably going to have destruction in it, so we just thought smash the place up, set the ball on fire and do a massive trick shot. I’ve always loved trick shots. I’m a rubbish pool player but I’ve always loved trick shots and I was watching a video series by some guys on YouTube called Dude Perfect. If you look that up they just show the best trick shots ever. Trick shots make you feel like a hero. [I’ve] always wanted to try something like that.

I’m trying to get a picture of how it plays as obviously I haven’t seen it yet. Is it played from a standard golf game viewpoint…

Alex: No, it’s definitely a non-standard golf game.

No, but I mean purely from the perspective of the camera. Is it third-person/over the shoulder? It isn’t isometric or anything like that?

Alex: No, there’s no character, there’s no club, there’s no club selection, there’s no par. There’s none of that.

Fiona: There’s a ball and a flag.

Alex: There’s a golf ball and a flag and that’s about as far as it goes. I guess the advantage there is that you kinda know you’ve got to bang the ball in the hole. But you don’t play for par, you don’t try and not take a risk. You play for score. So smash the joint up, bang it in with a big trick shot and beat your friends.

Okay, so the idea is to cause as much destruction as possible on each course?

Alex: Yeah. So we thought about where would you want to play that. So that’s indoors. We’ve got an outdoor location. Obviously Augusta probably doesn’t make a great Dangerous Golf course so we thought what would that be. One of our team called it ‘The Mess Maker’. Making a mess is fun. Where do you want to make a mess? In the kitchen. When you like to break things it’s normally fun if they’re really expensive, so we have a palace level, we have a castle level. You can blow up a petrol station. We looked at a lot of movies. I like Caddyshack, I like Happy Gilmore, I like Tin Cup if you know that with Kevin Costner? When Hollywood puts golf in a film they normally focus on trick shots. I don’t know if you’ve seen Tin Cup but the epic moment in that film is when Kevin Costner knocks it off a portable toilet and gets it on the green. There’s no green in our level. You know, like anything, if you want to make a game you don’t have to be beholden to what somebody else says it should be. You can just make up the rules. And it’s very inspired by NBA Jam, which is a great, great sports game and something I still think about a lot. Obviously you’re going to set the ball on fire and cause a load of destruction. It’s just fun and silly and different, and it might be strangely familiar to some people who know our stuff. Hopefully you like playing it.

Dangerous golf dining room

So how does it actually work? Is it a case of just lining up the shot and watching the destruction unfold, or is there any sort of aftertouch?

Alex: So if you remember in the car games [Burnout], the reason why you could move the car around is because crashing in one place was very limiting. If you cause enough destruction you can turn the ball into a bomb and for a limited time you can fly it around with twin stick controls, and you get a varying amount of time to create even more destruction. In real golf you would probably really think about where it’s going to go and try and land as near to the flag as possible. In our game you get more points if you deliberately land it as far away from the hole as possible, turn your back on the flag [and] bang it in the wall. You score more points for the distance the ball travels and how many times it bounces off stuff.

It sounds like a lot of fun and obviously heavily based around destruction. You’ve already mentioned briefly about how you’re trying to push the tech – did you look at using cloud processing to push destruction similar to what Reagent Games are doing with Crackdown 3?

Alex: You’re talking to some hardcore Crackdown fans here but we haven’t really seen that stuff. With our stuff, we were impressed a couple of years ago… Paul Ross, our CTO here has been following the work that Epic and Nvidia have been doing for the past five years probably now. We prototyped our game in Unity for a while and then we’ve learned UE4. We’ve worked really closely for the past couple of years with Epic, not just [in the UK] but in various locations around the world, and also with Nvidia, again various locations around the world from Gateshead to New Zealand, working with some real technical geniuses. We set out to push the boundaries of a physics-based game and just start to prepare for the next generation of machines whenever they come to try and be a small developer but be on the cutting edge of tools and technology. To dream big and try and push the boundaries. Physics-based games, there aren’t many of them. The tools have just got to the point now where stuff like that is possible. So our genius tech team here were saying we should try a physics-based game, and we were looking at, you know, like any developer does, the stuff that people see in movies that’s pretty mind-blowing and try and see if we can put that on the PC, PlayStation and Xbox.

Is there any difference between the three versions? Is the PC version perhaps a little more capable of the physics stuff, or are all three level-pegging?

Dangerous golf kitchen

Alex: No. So one of the changes in departure for us… Obviously previously when we were doing multiplatform games with a fixed end date, you would always de-risk the project as much as possible, which meant you couldn’t do anything special on each one. But now we’re an independent company we’re targeting very, very high-end PC. We’ve got an incredibly powerful dual-Titan X-powered machine here we’ve been developing on. The guys here are mostly ex-Criterion. We have some ex-Disney and Ubisoft as well. We’ve always been about pushing the hardware as hard as we can, going right back to PlayStation 2, so we want to push hardware really hard and pull out all of the stops on all of the versions we’re making. So we’re doing PC, PS4 and Xbox for this first game.

The press release only seems to mention on and offline multiplayer. Is Dangerous Golf considered a party game or is there a single-player option?

Alex: No, there’s a single-player option. We just thought we’d mention that because not many people do couch co-op and we’re really excited because we love couch co-op. We love it, not many people do it and we think it should be in every game, personally, unless it’s a story game… A lot of the games we’ve made, we’ve had testimonials from press and people who we’ve met over the years, we like games you can play with your kids. Everybody’s older and wiser here now and some are more stupid than others, everyone’s got kids, they want games they can play with their kids.

Fiona: Or even just with your partner.

Alex: Or even just with your partner. So yeah, we’ve got couch co-op but we’ve got single-player. We’re very big on connected play, so there’s online leaderboards. There’s a lot of stuff obviously that wasn’t invented back when we started Crash mode back then. We like playing for score, we’re arcade game fans, we’ve made arcade games our whole life. So we like playing for high score, we like competing against our friends. We’ve got a MAME cabinet in the office. We’re constantly playing stuff, and high score is a big driver, certainly for me and the guys on the team here. Beating each other’s scores, finding secrets and rewards. That’s always been in our DNA.

Are we able to talk a little bit more about your decision to form an independent company? Both of you left Criterion a couple of years ago which at the time was considered a very successful studio. It seemed at the top of its game, you’d just come off Need For Speed… Hot Pursuit when you left? Or Most Wanted?

Need For Speed: Most Wanted, the last game developed by Ward and Sperry before leaving Criterion Games.

Fiona: Most Wanted.

Alex: We’d just done Most Wanted, I think. We left [in] November 2013.

What made you want to go independent when you were making such huge games?

Fiona: I guess that’s the thing, when do you leave? It’s always that thing of there’s always another game around the corner. We just felt it was the right time in our careers. We always knew we wanted to do this at some point. We’d had a really long and successful career at EA and Criterion, so it was just time to leave. The market was in such a place that it was possible for us to leave and do this. You know, that you can self-publish, there is digital distribution, and we just felt it was the right time for us.

Alex: And the tools and the hardware had finally advanced to do stuff that we could really have a good crack at. Over the years we’d talked about this. Myself, Fiona, Paul and Chris talked about it since, I don’t know, 2005/2006 when we were acquired. When’s the right time? Back then devkits used to cost £20,000. You’d probably have to sign a development deal with a publisher. The cost of doing it back then was probably even higher than probably still the high costs of doing it now. So it’s something we talked about over the years. A group of us have been working together for 10-15 years now, and we just wanted to go back to having full 100% control over what we make, what we make it for, what technology we use, when we talk about it. So again we’ve chosen to keep quiet and just do what we do best which is making our software, and that’s what we’re happiest doing. And then we’ll choose to announce on Tuesday, and then we’re going to try and finish the game and put it out. You can download it in May. And that’s what we’re about. All of us here have had successful careers and this is the next chapter.

Do you think it would have been possible to have even made a game like this back at EA? What would the reaction have been like if you were to have pitched something like this?

Alex: Yeah, they probably would have done it but we would have still probably been, er… Probably would have done it as well as make Need For Speed.

Right. And that’s not something you would have been interested in?

Alex: It was always our plan to do one Need For Speed game, for us directing. We ended up doing two and directing a third. It was just time for a change, it was time to start that next chapter. The world’s always changing, we like to change with it. We wanted to change how we worked, how we did things and go back to being a small team. [When] Burnout started there were 10 of us, in 1999. And in 2000 there was 10 people trying to take on the world. And that’s what Three Fields is: the latest incarnation of that, really. It’s just 10 talented guys and girls in an office in Petersfield having a go, having a crack at it. We call it fighting for our freedom. Can we find an audience? We don’t know. I guess we’re about to find out. I hope we do.

I didn’t realise you’d directed a third Need For Speed. Was that Rivals or something different? Because Rivals was obviously developed by Ghost…

Alex: It was the start of that, yeah. It wasn’t Rivals. It wasn’t that concept when we were overseeing it. But again, it involves a lot of travel and as you get older you just want to lessen the amount of time you spend flying around the world, really.

If Dangerous Golf is a success, Three Fields intends to develop a spiritual successor to 2004’s Burnout 3: Takedown.

You’ve spoken quite openly about your plans for the future and that you were thinking about doing a racing game if Dangerous Golf is successful. You’ve said before that you’re aiming for that game to be a spiritual successor to Burnout 3…

Alex: Yep.

Do you have any ideas for what you want to do there?

Fiona: Yeah, we know what we want to do.

Alex: Yeah, we’ve been talking about it on and off for the past probably 4 or 5 years, so yeah, we know exactly what to do… It’s probably going to involve driving really fast and hitting things.

Fiona: And a lot of destruction!

Did you ever consider heading to Kickstarter for something like this? Playtonic has seen huge success crowdfunding their spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie, and when you talk about finding an audience that would be an easy place to find out if there is one.

Fiona: We didn’t really think about doing Kickstarter to be honest. It’s not something that we’ve really followed and for us we just felt like this is what we wanted to do. We chose not to take any funding from anywhere which makes it more risky. The Americans think we’re crazy – ‘You’re doing it on your own money?’. It does put pressure on but it does also mean that we have complete freedom, and that’s what this is all about. Freedom was the key thing we wanted when we started Three Fields.

What would it take for Dangerous Golf to be considered a success? Would it be something as simple as a fan following, or would it have to be a commercial success?

Fiona: Obviously there’s 11 of us and four of us haven’t taken a salary in two years so at this point we just want to make back the money we’ve invested.

Alex: Yeah, we want to be able to carry on doing this which is doing what we love and be able to have a viable business. Obviously we don’t know yet. We’re just 11 of us here in a barn, trying to make a console game. Not many people do it. We need all of the support in the world from people like yourself. There’s not many people doing this in Britain. It’s happening all over the world. There’s not many people doing this on console. We think Britain is a great place to make games. We think the talent in Britain is amazing. We’re British. We have a really passionate, talented team who are working really hard to provide some great entertainment. So we’re just having a go at it. Will we be successful? I don’t know. I think we’ve made the best game we can and I hope that we do alright.

Dangerous golf logo

Do you know what price you’re aiming for?

Alex: Yeah, we’ll announce that later on. We’re not talking about it today because it’s just the kick off. But we’ll announce that in good time.

Okay. How long are you thinking of supporting the game? Are you thinking of adding more locations in the future?

Alex: We don’t know yet. We’ve just got to see how we go. Everything’s focused on this first game at the moment.

Well it sounds very exciting, and if you’re a fan of Burnout and Black I don’t see why you wouldn’t be interested in finding out more about what Dangerous Golf is all about.

Fiona : We hope so.

Alex: Yeah, thanks for that. We’ll find out [on Tuesday].

Dangerous Golf releases digitally on PS4, Xbox One and PC this May.

Burnout 3: Takedown

on PlayStation 2, Xbox, Xbox 360

Burnout goes online with the third game in the series

Release Date:

September 7, 2004