Dan Greenawalt, General Manager of Forza Motorsport at Turn 10 Studios, is the first to admit that the Forza Motorsport series has had an identity crisis. “I think in many ways we had reduced our own game to a feature as opposed to having a broader vision.”
“5, 6 and 7, I think we chased our tail, and we went away from our vision. I love all three games, I actually think 5 is our most underrated game by far, so none of this is to disparage those games. But the biggest learning was when we got to the end of 7, it had a raspier tone, a different type of soundtrack, there was more focus on humanity and humans in general. We had the showcase events that added humour, we had Top Gear through 5 and 6, like we had tried a lot. With this one, it was like, who are we? Stop. Let’s take the time and figure out who we are.”
There are a lot of racing games out there, and it can be hard to hold onto a unique voice while trying to one-up the competition. Gran Turismo sits on one end of the spectrum, so serious and meticulous in its simulation that fun might actually be illegal (Editor’s note: Brutally realistic racing IS fun, I will die on this hill. — David). At the other sits Forza Horizon, a playground where being truly serious is illegal, and driving your car off a cliff is encouraged. Forza Motorsport as a series has been a jewel in the crown of Microsoft exclusives since 2005, and having Forza Motorsport 2 bundled with the Xbox 360 gave many players their first true taste of racing on the platform.
But it’s been four years since Forza Motorsport 7 was released, and two Forza Horizons have been released in that time. Many newer Xbox users have never played Horizon’s serious older sibling. But how do you go about reinventing a game franchise with a clear raison d’etre when your franchise is suffering an identity crisis?
I went into these interviews assuming that Turn 10 would have been chatting to Playground games to get pointers on how to spice up the game, but it turns out the opposite was true. “I think some of the things that we were trying to do in previous generations, especially in the first few of our Motorsports before Horizon came out, was that we were building a game that was a lot more like Horizon in areas of the game. And as Horizon has become successful, I think what it allows us [working on Motorsport] to do is go ‘cool, we’re not that — Horizon could do that’. And we can do these other things and we can focus on them and do them really, really well. And so, I think that allows our identity to be stronger about what Motorsport is and what it isn’t and what Horizon is and what it isn’t,” Chris Esaki, Creative Director of Forza Motorsport said.
While many players will likely miss the zaniness of the Top Gear challenges, and other gimmicks, it’s refreshing to see a game (or anything, really) that knows what it wants to be. After decades of shows and games saying that it’s lame to love things, or to not be sarcastic about anything, seeing a game (and a team behind a game) focused on unabashed, serious appreciation is kind of beautiful. But, more than that, the developers of Forza Motorsport aren’t just saying that they love cars and want other people who love cars and are good at racing to join in (like some other games), it’s a game that seriously and unironically wants to help you fall in love with what they’re passionate about, too, no matter your skill level.
“I think that it can be taken almost like a museum. It can be taken as overly dry or overly respectful. Our goal is that people are actually finding their passion inside of it. It’s not us overruling them with our passion. So rather than us saying, ‘this is what’s cool, let me tell you’, it’s like, ‘look at all this. What is speaking to you?’ That’s also why we got away from the car collecting. Don’t collect cars. Find the ones that speak to you,” Greenawalt said.
That’s not to say that nothing was borrowed from Horizon. Playground Games has always been good at building and interacting with the FH community. Where PG was able to borrow car physics from Turn 10, Turn 10 was able to learn how to people from PG. “One of the biggest challenges that we had, aside from all the physics and all the rendering and all the gameplay changes that we made, was actually to be able to create a platform that allowed us to hear our players, get their feedback and be able to make changes quickly enough so that they could experience them before they left the game,” Esaki said.
Part of that meant creating a game engine that could better respond to quick changes. “One of the biggest things we did was make sure that the entirety of our engine, our entire platform was really agile. So, a lot of our development has been about making sure that the game itself is able to be is able to respond, react and evolve in this way,” Esaki said.
“So, the content can really be tuned and dialled in, depending on how players are playing the game and I think that’s going to be a great thing for our players because basically it means that we can create the best content for them and respond in a really, really timely manner.”
This quest for agility can be a double-edged sword, in that you can respond to the whims of a community to keep them engaged, but it also blurs the artistic vision of a game. Are games created to say something bigger, and put across the creative goals of a team? Or to keep people subscribed to a service and constantly come back to enjoy more and more content until the next iteration comes out? That’s possibly a bigger question that can’t be answered by one racing simulation game, but it is an existential crisis that the games industry has to grapple with.
In the meantime, the Turn 10 team is reading every comment, and I hope they have a good psychologist on retainer. “We’ll be looking at how players are playing the game and if they hit a certain point and they’re not continuing we’ll be looking at why that is and making sure that everything is running as smoothly as possible,” Esaki said.
“We listen and read every post, every comment, every video. I spent a lot of time doing that – probably shouldn’t – but it allows us to really understand what our players are thinking and feeling about all the things that we have in the game and we act, we truly do listen.”
Moving away from numbered games, just going back to Forza Motorsport is to signal a couple of things. Primarily that it’s a live service game now, rather than just one in a long line of biannual game releases. But also that the series is going back to basics. It’s like a band releasing a self-titled album for their third or fourth record once they’ve grown up a bit and found themselves as artists.
“We took an extra-long time, to concept, to do pre-production and to really come up with a vision for this game. There were three big inputs into the game in particular, I would say one was wanting to get back to the heart of Forza Motorsport and falling in love with cars through skill and competition, and a lot of features flowed out of that. We’ve had a lot of focus on the graphics, on the physics, on the AI and all these are important pieces of technology that were really, really hard to build, yes. But they were a means to an end. Now the other thing we’re looking at was building more of a platform. As new cars and tracks come in, we could keep a community engaged, especially if you think about skill and increasing that skill gap, getting great players to be part of this and inviting new players in. It’s kind of like the passion breeds passion,” Greenawalt said.
We now have less than a month to find out whether the game will build a passion for cars, as Forza Motorsport is in stores on October 10.
Alice Clarke travelled to Los Angeles as a guest of Xbox.