On January 22, 2023, Burnout Paradise celebrated its 15th anniversary. We look at how the legendary game’s innovative approach to arcade racing helped set the bar for years to come in the video below.
Most of the time in an arcade racing game, you’ll see a hot rod tearing across the countryside, with magnificent scenery in the distance—one that’s nothing more than that: a distant setting you’ll never reach. Instead, there is only one way to take, and the distant scene is just for show.
The majority of arcade races, a genre about stepping into a Corvette, speeding down the road, and then hopping out a few minutes later, were set in a Hollywood-style setting. You could race as many times as you like, but the joyride would never go any further.
That was not without reason. Sandboxes are untidy and do not allow for precise design. Arcade races move at breakneck speeds, especially in multiplayer, making the combination of the two “ridiculously difficult [to build],” according to former Criterion head gameplay programmer Iain Angus. “Terribly, really difficult.”
Burnout Paradise, a game in which you explore the imaginary California town of Paradise City, was all about fooling around and making a mess. When Guns N’ Roses started playing, the horizon was extremely close.
“It’s a game where you can simply go and drive around and goof about [socialize] and communicate to one other,” Angus explained in a 2014 interview. “Unlike most other games, we do this race and that race and that race, and it’s a different sort of pace and a different style of online experience.”
Criterion’s wildly famous open-world racing celebrated its 15th birthday on January 22, 2023, and its influence on the genre is still felt today.
In his GameSpot review, Alex Nevarro dubbed Paradise City a “wonderfully implemented concept” that hadn’t been seen in a Burnout game before.
It paved the way for racing behemoths like Need for Speed and Forza Horizon to embrace open worlds years later.
Other racers—Test Drive Unlimited, according to Angus—had drivers zoom through open worlds before Paradise, but none nailed the spirit of the genre as Paradise did.
They were frequently vast worlds with little to do, and the driving was never nearly as thrilling as when you slammed your Carson GT right into the wall of a ravine after rounding one of Paradise City’s hairpin curves. Often, the spectacle was more than enough.
The entire concept of Paradise started as a solution to one of the most prevalent concerns players have when starting an arcade race: spending too much time in the lobby.
“We discovered that guests spent five times as much time in the lobby as they did racing,” Paradise producer Mark Webster told The Verge in an interview. His group has studied how players engaged with Burnout Revenge.
“So we asked ourselves, ‘Well, why isn’t this lobby a game world?'” We believed it was a nice idea, and it proved to be an excellent one.”
Paradise City was created first and foremost as a lobby where players could effortlessly enter and exit as other players zipped through other portions of the city.
Criterion discovered that its concept for an open-world lobby was more popular than the races it created. 90% of players preferred to soar around the Los Angeles-style metropolis carefree. Few people queued for racing or other solitary game modes.
Although it was not the first game to offer one, open worlds had grown in popularity since the release of Grand Theft Auto III in 2001.
The sandbox design approach is still widely used today. Developers are still attempting to create novel, inventive ways to traverse vast environments.
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According to a seamless open world, Paradise City was the first open-world racetrack that felt complete, and it was the first to make that form of play work. It served as an influence for many following games, including DiRT and Need for Speed: Most Wanted.
“I still don’t think anybody has captured the appropriate kind of the size of package like Paradise,” DiRT principal game designer Paul Coleman told Game Developer in an interview.
“The magnitude of the city and surrounding surroundings felt appropriate for what Paradise was attempting to accomplish. There was something to do at almost every turn.”
The sandbox racetrack wasn’t the only innovative design element. A year of free downloadable content was given, which was unprecedented in the history of online games in 2008. Many of the design features influenced the work that Criterion produced in the future.
“A lot of the tools and technology that Criterion employed in following titles emerged then, a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff; telemetry, understanding what all the users are doing, what they’re loving, what they’re not,” Angus explained. They all have their analytics and so on, so it was an early version of it.”
In the 15 years since Paradise opened in 2008, we’ve only seen one Burnout game: Burnout Crash in 2011. The only other occasion Burnout appeared on a modern screen was in 2018, when a remastered version of Paradise was released.
The majority of the Paradise crew has left Criterion, and the business has since worked on other brands such as Need for Speed, Battlefield, and Star Wars Battlefront.
So far, Angus has been correct in his prediction that we would not see another Burnout game in 2014. Many of the concepts introduced by Burnout Paradise have since been standard in many other open-world racing games, but few have matched the summer vibe that comes with a joy ride along the coast.
A game like Paradise may never be seen again, but a drive through Paradise City will never go out of style.