By far the most significant racing release of 2009 was Turn 10's Forza Motorsport 3. Thanks to both the studio's delivery of a superb package and GT5's belligerent absence, the 360 sim has become an immediate essential in the genre, racking up 13 million hours of Live play it just over three months.
We were lucky enough to grab some time with the game's director, Dan Greenawalt, on the title itself, the IP's future, Gran Turismo 5 and plenty more.
Interview by Patrick Garratt.
VG247: You must be thrilled at the response to F3 in general, especially now you're the only first-party next gen racing sim on the market and probably will be for some time, given GT5's recent slip. How important was it for you to hit a 2009 launch?
Dan Greenawalt: We started planning and development on Forza Motorsport 3 in June of 2007, shortly after the release of Forza 2. Hitting holiday 2009 was the plan from the get go – it made sense for the Forza Motorsport franchise and it made sense for the overall Xbox 360 business. In that respect, a 2009 launch was always important for the game. Of course, while we prioritized hitting our ship date high on the list during Forza 3 development, we never allowed that goal to trump quality and innovation. I’m pleased we were able to deliver the game in 2009 without compromising our vision for what Forza 3 would become.
You were pretty slavish as regards hitting 60fps, and did receive some criticism from the community for apparently trading off some poly budget to achieve it. In retrospect, are you glad you stuck to the 60 frames goal, or could you have created something more visually attractive if you'd lowered the target to, say, 30?
We get asked this question a lot by the press and my answer hasn’t changed much from Forza 2 to Forza 3. The reality is that racing games running at 30fps have to deal with visual shuttering artifacts in the environment and backgrounds that fly by your field of view when the car is traversing at high speeds. So you then go and mask that using motion blur for your environments, which end up eating into your GPU cycles, which take up resources from other features you want on-track.
It really turns into a trade-off for the type of visual direction you’re trying to achieve, and with Forza Motorsport, the visual style is clear, crisp graphics, and highly-detailed environments and textures. But in truth, the decision is less about graphics than feel. We prioritize 60fps as an important feature because it gives the games a feel you just can’t achieve at 30; for instance, the responsiveness and feedback of the controls, or physics calculations and visual manifestation of that on how we model our tire flex and body roll. While those calculations are decoupled from the graphics and run as high as 360 frames per second, we found that graphical framerate impacts the feel of those systems as well. Simply put, we couldn’t have achieved the experience we wanted if the game only ran at 30fps. I’m sure you would get a similar response from Infinity Ward regarding Call of Duty.
Can you give us any figures on how many items are being traded in the game at the moment? Have all the online community features panned out as you expected, or have you had to cope with some sticking issues?
[Story - Ed]
Sure. We already knew from Forza 2 that the online Auction House was going to come back strong for the community. What we were curious to see was how the new Storefront feature would play into the community ecosystem. We pulled these numbers a few weeks ago so they’re not the most recent server stats, but it gives you an idea the kind of momentum we’ve had nearly 90 days post-release. We’ve had over 8 million auction bids placed online, with over 3.3 million auctions created. Our community has purchased or downloaded nearly 10 million Storefront items. Overall, our community has driven well over 126 million races on Xbox LIVE, totaling over 13 million man-hours of time spent playing the game online. They drove over 1.1 billion miles in online races, which is more than five return trips from the earth to the sun. So yeah, we have a community that’s deeply engaged with the game.
As for sticking issues, there’s been surprisingly little fire drills this time around. We had to update the leaderboards a couple times due to glitches but nothing really out of the ordinary.
You've already said that 2010's going to be a busy year for the Forza IP. Are you just talking about DLC here, or will there be disc-based expansions? I'm assuming Forza 4 isn't releasing this Christmas.
[Story - Ed]
Right now a part of the team is focused on monthly DLC to support Forza Motorsport 3 and they’ve been a huge success for us since we started last December. We have lots of great content in the production pipeline right now which will all sooner-or-later become a part of the Forza Motorsport franchise. Another core part of the team is off working on our next big thing, but we’ve got nothing to announce at this time.
On the subject of DLC, are there plans for any free packs, or is everything you release for the game going to be premium?
We included a free DLC pack (with tracks and cars) packed in as code with the retail game at launch last October. This was content that didn’t get finished until the two game discs were already in certification. Soon afterwards we released a free Hyundai DLC pack on Xbox LIVE featuring three cars. We have no other free DLC announcements at this time.
Has the reaction to F3's car customization options been everything you'd hoped? For the record, one of the first things I did in the game was decorate a car with my daughter's name: she loved it.
The Forza Motorsport livery editor has evolved into something incredible with the help of our creative community. Every time we think we’ve seen the best livery possible with the toolset we’ve given them to paint cars, the painters out there have come back with something that raises the bar yet again and blows us away. And what I realized during the development of Forza 3 was that it really didn’t matter what the toolset you provide – creative people will use whatever means possible to express themselves. If you’re not artistic, it doesn’t matter how good or sophisticated your tools are – you’re still not an artist. I expect to see user-generated content taken to the next level with not just Forza Motorsport 3 but pretty much any game that Turn 10 creates because it’s just in our DNA as a studio.
How closely are you watching GT5's development? Are you looking forward to playing it? What does GT5 do that F3 doesn't, and vice versa?
I think all good game developers look at what their competitors are doing. It’s important to understand the landscape; not only to see what’s being done, but to see what’s not being done. As Game Director for Forza Motorsport, what I’m really interested in seeing and defining is the next big shift in how gamers (and even non-gamers) will play and interact with each other and express their passion for cars. For us, player generated content and social media are the modern ways to connect people and their passion for cars. That is why we’ve stressed those features for so many years. As a racing gamer, I’ve been a long-time fan of the GT series. At this point, after so many missed releases, it’s nearly impossible to say what GT5 will be or when it will ship. Based on the all the preview versions over the last several years, it looks like it will be a good racing game.
Finally, how do you see the future of racing sims panning out? We have photo-realistic cars, online racing, full customization; where's left to go?
Do I think the racing game genre is played out? No, I think graphics fidelity and immersion will continue to improve in a predictable fashion. But if you want to evolve the core racing genre and reach players who may not typically race in a competitive fashion, you need the flexibility to be able to design the game for an audience outside of your comfort zone. We’ve touched on a lot of these diversifying pillars in Forza Motorsport 3: the game is easy to pick up for casual gamers, yet deep enough for hardcore gearheads; we’ve elaborated on the areas of the game that de-emphasize competitive racing to focus more on inciting the car passions that lie within all of us, such as collecting, customizing, photographing, and simply admiring cars in your home space. Now the question is, how do we take all of that to the next level? How do we go from being a “Racing Game” to being a “Car Game” to being a way of life? These are just some of the tenants we’ve taken to heart for our next project.