Interview: An In-Depth Pit Stop With Forza Motorsport 4’s Creative Director, Dan Greenawalt

Geek Culture


Image: Microsoft

I wanted to allow the Forza Motorsport 4 racers to take their rides around the track and test out their new wheels and tricked out cars. You know, to find their inner racer again. Now it’s time to sit down in the stands and speak with Dan Greenawalt, the Creative Director of Forza Motorsport 4. We touched on overlooked features of Forza 4, the collaborative spirit behind the game’s creation, the new physics engine and, of course, his passions: racing and gaming.

GeekDad: Regarding the new physics engine, (which is awesome!), how do you see it as improving the game-play over Forza Motorsport 3?

Dan Greenawalt: I have to let you in on how the mind works at Turn 10. For us, we believe in a layered approach with how we actually design the game and the game-play itself. We don’t believe that you have to make a choice between making a great simulation and making a fun game. In fact, we believe that driving a car is really fun in the real world, so the challenge is really on us to try and make reality as fun as possible.

We do a couple of things. And I’ll get into the physics in a second, but I just wanted to set the tone. The first thing we do is we build the best simulation engine we can and we do a lot of things to make it as good as possible. And, then we add layers of assists that go everywhere from PCS, STM, ABS, automatic shifting, auto-braking and auto-steering, all the way up to the assists that are in place to make Kinect driving possible. But all those assists don’t actually make it fun. Part of what makes it fun is challenging people to turn those assists off by using social engineering game-play techniques as well as addictive mechanisms that we get from a lot of the RPGs, even social gaming, where there are multiple levels of experience points coming in, and there’s always some new challenge you’re just about to complete if you continue playing — that’s the sort of addiction level that we get with people.

And then having a ton of variety — so you get to play with the cars you want, but there’s a lot of variety in not only the event types but in the events themselves, the types of opponents, the types of tracks, so there’s always something new. And that’s when we actually make it fun — first, we make it easy, and then we make it fun. At the core, at the heart of that is a great simulation engine.

We’ve done a lot of changes. I think the one we’ve talked about the most in the press is regarding the tires, through a partnership with Pirelli and how we changed our approach. But we also did things with the suspension. We thought that the way we were simulating swing arm and solid axle suspension, especially on the classic cars, just wasn’t quite right. The data that we were seeing coming out of our output just didn’t seem right. So we decided to re-investigate how they are done in the real world through some measurements — take some cars apart and redo that architecture itself. And then once we had the apparatus, we figured we may as well to do it for other suspension types, like MacPherson and the like.

But, the biggest change, really, is the tires, and that came through partnership. In Forza Motorsport, we’ve always taken tires very seriously. We had data from Toyo, from Goodyear — we had stuff from Millikan and Millikan’s physics book on rich bodies and from the SAE. And we believe that the only way to make a really simulation right is to be on the cutting edge. So our goal is to not use the data that’s in the textbooks from two years ago but actually use the data that’s going to be writing the textbooks in three to five years. Because tires are always evolving, they’re simply not the same.

The interesting thing is that I didn’t think that people would notice the difference between our Forza 3 tires and our Forza 4 tires, before I drove them myself! I really believed in our approach for Forza 3. This is something that I’m very passionate about, and I worked hands-on, first hand on this. Even as Creative Director, there are some things that you kind of want to get your hands dirty and still be working in the game itself and tires are one of those areas that I continue to like to work in. Our approach for Forza 3 was very strong. We had blended data from all these different sources. But I felt that if we could throw all our old data away and get a completely new set of data from Pirelli that was custom tests run by them and then change our systems so that we never touch it. It’s straight up — their test data goes straight into our code and that’s what you’re driving in the game. I felt that it would be a better approach on paper. Well, the funny thing was — well, I looked at the data when it came in and I compared it to the old data and there were differences but they didn’t look very large.

But I think they all compound on top of each other to make the way the game drives feel radically different. So we put it in, we drove it, and we thought it felt great. We made changes in the steering as well — we did some more research and we were looking at the suspension on how the steering racks on different cars worked and we looked at how quickly someone can whip a wheel from rake to rake (from one side to the other) and made some changes in there as well. And again, the funny thing is when you’re gaming at this level of simulation, it’s like a simulation that a meteorologist might use. You’re never quite sure what the variable is that is going to make everything different. The truth is that it’s all the variables and every year your simulation has to keep taking into account new variables that are discovered by the larger scientific community. It’s not just gaming. In fact, I’d say it’s not the gaming community at all. It’s the community of engineers who are building race cars, building tires around the world.

GD: One of the things I think about a lot is that the Forza Series is known for the realism of the mechanics, of the physics of these cars. What creative process goes on between the designers, (you as Creative Director) and the racing consultants to tweak how the tire pressure is optimized, how the brakes are fine tuned, etc. and how this affects performance? What creative process evolves between those two teams?

DG: I think that for us, we get inspired by different aspects of the industry. Obviously we go to races like Petit Le Mans, we have a lot of relationships with car manufacturers and aftermarket part manufacturers. We go to SIMA — and we’re very integrated into car culture. We’re also hard-core gamers and I think that’s what our team is: it’s the intersection between gamers and the car industry itself. The gaming industry and the car industry itself — and we have huge passion for both. But I think one of the big ways we matured as a team, is that we’ve learned that we are very good and there are better industries in other things.

So we really worked on partnerships for this version and that meant on partners such as Top Gear to bring humor into the game. We worked with partners from Pixar on our new lighting engine. We worked on partners from Warner Brothers on doing the audio mix in a better way, and we worked with partners from Pirelli on the tires. But also, we’ve had individuals who have come in. We’ve had Bob Bondurant in our studio, who is a famous race car driver, kind of one of my heroes. But he’s also a driving school instructor, and he’s one of those guys who just from having been a driving school teacher for so long, like any good teacher, he can change his communication style to break through.

And that’s one of the things that’s been great with some of the individuals we’ve found. We’ve found some guys that are great drivers and great engineers, but they can’t meet us halfway in speaking a language that we can understand. And, we’re very technical, but if they’re used to only speaking to people that know every part of their lexicon, it can be very tricky. I mean, we’ve had great drivers that are used to having an engineer who can hear every little word they say and convert that into real-world measurements on the car. What we’ve found is getting partners that are flexible verbally, so that we can get a race car driver who can explain not just “Wow, I wish the car understeered a little bit more” but could say “On this corner, when I’m steering in and I’m at half-throttle I would expect more understeer.” And we can then say, so that might be damping. Let’s look at that, we play with that system, and we bring the race car drivers in again to evaluate our work.

We’ve had Gunnar Jeannette who’s a pro race car driver come in. I’ve gone to McLaren, their factory in the UK, and met with their engineers who do the simulation for making the F1 simulator for training their professional F1 pilots. You know, a lot of doors get opened for this team, and that maturity of understanding that we should, you know, always be open trying to listen to some way to improve our process. That’s what’s allowed us to make these leaps and bounds.

GD: Can you shed some light on the “missing Porsche” situation and Electronic Arts? Can you speak to whether there was a breakdown in communication and can we expect that to change in the future as far as bringing in Porsche cars to appear in future versions of the game?

DG: I blogged about this a few months back on our website. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to find agreement and get a license signed for Porsche in the game.

GD: I like my pit crew at my side when I need them in the race. Was there a conscious decision to leave out pit crews as viable game elements and can we expect them to come to the game in the future?

DG: Well, you know there are certain features we kind of call the usual suspects. There are things that are part of racing, that are in different racing games — such as night, such as weather, such as pit crews. That every version we look at we try and weigh what our vision is and the goals we’re trying to achieve. As I mentioned we’re really that combination where gaming culture meets car culture, and we have a vision that I think is almost ambitious to the point of, I don’t know, it’s kind of ridiculous frankly. Our real goal is to try to move the needle in car culture and move the needle in gaming culture. We’re trying to make gamers into car lovers and car lovers into gamers. We can’t force it. The only way we can do it is entice people. I got two young kids and I want them to love cars, but I can’t make them.

You look at stats today where people are getting their driving licenses, where the young generation is getting their driving licenses later and later, and I fear for car culture. So I really want to make experiences that speak to the current generation of car lovers and get them thinking about games. That “hey, maybe I don’t think of myself as a gamer, but you know what? I’ve found something that is an outlet for my car passion so I’ll start thinking about games.” But also get people who grew up knowing games, games on multiple platforms, multiple levels, multiple ways of interacting with them — where ‘game’ is part of their daily life and daily lexicon. To be thinking of cars in a new way. Now that’s our vision.

And so, there are always features we look at. We’ve got a feature list thousands and thousands of features long that we’ve been developing — for almost ten years now I’ve been working on this franchise. And every version, every time we’re going through our creative process we add to that list, we re-prioritize that list, because it’s not an issue of our “bad ideas.” There are some great ideas out there. But a good idea at the wrong time is the wrong idea. So we have to look at the market, we have to look at our vision, we have to look at culture, we have to look at what’s going on in the larger world to prioritize which features are going to help us move the needle towards that larger mission. So, you know, things fell off the list from one version to another.

When it comes to things like pitting in particular, that’s just a feature that is well supported if you’re trying to do team racing and you’re trying to have pit strategies, and really trying to build in that kind of game-play where you’ve got longer races and it’s not just about how well you drive but it’s about how long you spend in the pit. Outside of that, pits are really just there to fix your tires and refuel your car, which is what we have in the game, but when it’s in at that level it’s not a big investment because it’s not actually adding to the strategic game-play. It’s basically a sequence of dominoes. When we start deciding that the right investment is to go towards the level of endurance racing with pit strategy and team orders and team strategy being a big part of it, so there’s kind of a stake, a risk and reward for pitting. At a deeper level than just “did you pit on lap three or lap five in a short ten lap race,” right?

And we are waiting for the stars to align. There are absolutely arguments to be made for it just being part of the life of the track. The issue is that we’re waiting for the stars to align where we’re trying to add game-play and the aesthetic and some strategy involved — risk and reward, to where it really makes sense that now it’s the right idea at the right time.

GD: You’re obviously very passionate about this game and very proud. As Creative Director, what was your proudest achievement in Forza Motorsport 4?

DG: You know I wear a lot of hats in this role. Sometimes like with the tires, I’m actually at the ground level doing implementation, and other times I’m really looking ten years out. Where do we want to go and what would be the next step to get us there? I think as Creative Director, the thing I’m most proud of and the most on pins and needles about is Autovista. Autovista is a mode that’s so new. And for us, Autovista is just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much throw away work that has to be done when you do something so new. But we want everything we do to be very high quality. So we can’t just throw things in and say “well, you know it was a good idea but it didn’t work out in the end, so let’s just keep it in there.” So we do have to actually put things in, throw them away, try them, try another one, try another one.

Now, Autovista is, again, maybe just ten per cent of where we wanted it to go ultimately, as far as all the features we’re talking about, where we think it can go. We’re also trying to figure out — what do people want? What are people looking for? This is so new, it’s not something that’s in websites, it’s not in other games, it’s not an experience you get out of videos. And, I don’t know exactly. Some people are going to love it. Some people are not going to get it. We already know that it has kind of lit the automotive world ablaze as far as the actual automotive companies. This is something that’s new and crazy and incredible to them!

Especially with the Kinect integration where they can actually use Autovista to show their cars internally within their own companies. This is the sort of thing that we know has huge potential, but we’re kind of waiting to see where exactly it goes. Where did the fire get ignited under it? So, as Creative Director, I’m very interested in that. Now, I mentioned before I’m a gamer, and I find Rivals mode hugely addictive. So I spend a lot of time playing Rivals against my friends asynchronously, which is embracing a trend that’s been happening in social and happening in mobile for a couple of years now, and doing it in a big way with cars clubs and Xbox Live on the actual console. So I know that’s usually addictive — I reallly enjoy that.

But the last bit I’d say is that I’m also a dad. I’ve got two young kids and as I mentioned I worry about the next generation of car lovers. And my kids are young to the extent that they still can’t get their hands excited about using a controller. They love to hit the buttons but they don’t really get it yet. Usually it means that I put the game into kind of a tracked mode and they still think they’re playing. But with Kinect driving, they can actually do it. And they can have fun. And, so, that’s something where I know I’m getting them excited about cars and it speaks towards that vision so I get very excited about that as well.

The only thing I’d mention, is that there’s one aspect that — I’m really surprised. I don’t think I’ve seen a lot of people trying it: it’s Kinect Voice. I’ve been watching the kind of coverage we’ve been getting, and it’s been clear that pretty much no one’s even trying it. They’re talking about Kinect driving, and some of them try Kinect Autovista and some don’t, but most do. But very few are actually trying Kinect Voice, and the interesting thing is that I play in my living room. I use it constantly. It’s not one of those things that just kind of changed. Those of us who play Forza a lot do a lot of painting, do a lot of tuning, do a lot of racing. On our team in particular, we use the thing constantly. So I’ve been kind of surprised that people haven’t been reporting about it. The only thing I can really figure is that most people aren’t using it. They’ve not even tried it once, so they don’t really — it’s not even on their radar. We never push it in the game. We don’t tell people “hey you should do this” or what have you. We let people discover it and I don’t think most people are.

I tend to be, for example, in between races in career and I will do the “XBOX paint car” or “XBOX upgrade car” and it takes me there. And then I will do whatever I’m gonna do like paint the car or upgrade the car, and then I’ll say “XBOX next race.” So that’s the path I tend to use the most that’s high frequency for me. But I probably use it once a half hour is my guess. I’ll do that cycle where I jump into a place and then jump back into the next race, race for a half hour and then jump again.

GD: My son’s fourteen, almost fifteen, so he’s often playing a lot of FPS games, and of course, Gears of War and Forza. A lot of people associate Kinect in particular with kid’s games like Kinect Adventures and Dance Central.

DG: I think that makes perfect sense looking at the market. What we were trying to do with Kinect was put it in basically based on how we play. So we had something totally new with Autovista. We added Kinect driving which is just obvious but much more kid-focused. And so the core [player community], you don’t expect the core to like it at all because it’s not who it was made for. But then we add Kinect head tracking which, depending on what type of gamer you are, if you tend to play with a wheel, Kinect head tracking is awesome. But if you tend to play with a controller on the couch, it’s just not as useful for you. The interesting is that Kinect Voice, which has had the least pickup, is the one that is the most powerful for all of our core players.

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