Meet the man who makes Forza

19 June, 2013 | by topgear

So in November, Microsoft will be bolting a supercharger, KERS and NOX to its Xbox 360, slapping on a new badge – the Xbox One – and launching the next generation of games consoles. It’s accepted wisdom that a new console needs to launch alongside an all-new driving game, so step forward Microsoft-owned publisher Turn 10 and its revered racing sim, Forza Motorsport. We caught up with Forza Motorsport 5′s creative director Dan Greenawalt, to find out what more power under the hood of a console means for the next generation of driving games…

So Dan, tell us what gifts does a next gen system give to a studio like Turn 10 and a game like Forza?

Well you know, about four years ago when the platform teams were planning out the Xbox one, they came to a lot of the first party and third party teams and said, “What are the games that you want to create? What are you looking for?”

Well, you’d hope so.

Well yes, obviously we were one of the teams that they came to. And we wanted to be native 1080p, 60 frames per second, we were looking already at things like open wheel racing and there were changes we wanted to do with the physics to be able to do that. Not only because we wanted to do the kinetic model to get the suspension right, but also because those cars are so much faster, even than an LMP [Le Mans Prototype] car. So being able to maintain a 1080p 60fps at those speeds, that was important. We were still nowhere near the power that we would expect out of a console at that point.

But we started getting at the physically-based material and recreating the way that paint has multiple layers, and the imperfections that you see on the machining of wheels, rotors and inside the paint coat, and bringing a city like Prague to life with the history, and pock marks on the cobblestones, all that was a new way of doing materials and requires a lot of power. So the Xbox One does a really good job of actually delivering on physically based materials.

Sounds complicated… Anything else?

The other thing was being cloud powered. This is something that I’ve been really excited about since the original Drivatar, but we didn’t actually know how we’d ever realise it. The idea of big data just wasn’t around back then. So the original Drivatar, it’s a learning system, it’s machine learning, it’s a Bayesian network [a statistical model which represents a set of random models and their conditional dependencies. If that helps] which was way ahead of its time back in 2005.

We updated that in subsequent Forzas, but we didn’t tear it down and rethink the entire problem. And this is what’s so exciting about the new Drivatar. It’s not really like AI. It’s like big data. It’s like search. So we log telemetry on you and the servers just start thinking about it. They start collecting and looking at other people and other data and it’s not really about what you did at that point per se, it’s about building a model. Because if a collection of people start doing something similar, then the overall system learns that new behaviour. Like check braking, we don’t tell it to check brake, but if enough people check brake it learns how to check brake. And it doesn’t mean that everybody’s Drivatar check brakes, it just learned a new behaviour because the population learned it. And then, if you happen to check brake, your Drivatar says, “Oh yeah, I know how to do that!” so it’s going to continue to evolve as more people drive. And that to me is what’s so exciting, every time you log in, there’ll be something new. People have said it sound like replays, but it’s nothing like replays, it’s nothing like line following.

Okay, geek alert. I hardly understood a word of that. Is there an idiot’s guide, please?

I know. I love this s**t and I’m sorry about that! The easiest way is that all the things you’re fearful about in sci-fi, and AI coming to life and killing humanity? Basically, that’s what Drivatar is. Skynet is officially self aware! It happened today! Look, it’s basically a learning machine, and it is techy and that’s actually been the struggle, you know? I was really excited about this because I know the impact it’s going to have when you go into a race and see cars faking each other out, not faking you out, AI playing with each other, racecraft, when have you ever seen racing AI have a racecraft? Where they fake left, dodge right, where they don’t just draft and hit each other, but they hit each other because they wanted to, and had that intention.

Or they go three abreast, totally clean, complex passes where they’re cutting corners, learning faster ways around the track than a traditional AI system would do? It’s that kind of experience that people are going to see. I was explaining on the tech side, but on the experience side, you’re not going to be able to tell the difference between really, really fast people, you know, humans! In multiplayer, and griefing humans, and everything else, it’ll be humanity in your single player, and I know that some people are concerned about, “I don’t want griefers in my game!” that’s okay! You’ve got difficulty settings. You don’t have to have them in your game.

So where you had computer controlled AI, you’ve now got people that the game has learned from, from their telemetry being uploaded to the cloud?

Yeah, and it looks like them as well, so if I get into a race, my brother, my sister will be in the race, and they’ll be driving their cars from their garage, their customised liveries, and they’re going to drive the way they drive. You know, my sister tends to cut me off, and she does an outside/inside pass all the time on me. That’s what her Drivatar’s going to do.

The hero cars are the McLaren P1 and the Pagani Huayra. How do you choose the hero car in your games?

Well it’s interesting because at E3 those cars are getting the lion’s share of the media, but actually I would say the hero car is the P1. And we choose our hero car on a few different levels. We’re looking for partners who are actually going to bring something in to the simulation of the game. But we see ourselves as an editorial group. We don’t play favourites. So we had Audi help us at the launch of Forza Motorsport 3. Audi didn’t get any preferential treatment, but we did actually get a lot of data from their race team, because data makes our simulation better, not just on their cars, on all cars. McLaren’s the same way. That’s actually the great thing about a partnership with McLaren. They’re a technology company. So imagine you want to do a better physics simulation of open wheel and you want to improve your aerodynamics. McLaren? They’re on a short list.

There’s some expertise there…

Exactly. And it just so happens that these cars like the LaFerrari, the Huayra and the P1, these are cars that only come out every 15 years. And so to happen to have the P1 come out now, you know, that’s just an incredibly fortuitous event.

It has been an amazing couple of years for hypercar concepts, with the likes of the LaFerrari, Lamborghini Veneno and the Aston Martin CC100. How flexible can you guys be in putting cars in your game at late notice?

Because of our process of bringing cars to life, we are incredibly inflexible. It takes us almost six months to build a car, and that’s if the manufacturer gives us CAD. And what we’ve found is that the manufacturer’s data is often nowhere near as accurate as we need it. So we usually have to put our hands on it. The CADs helpful, but then we put our hands on it and we laser scan it and take photographs and it just takes a long time to build, especially when we’re trying to get this level of detail on the painting and all of that. So six months is our standard time. We can cut that down by weeks, but not a lot. There are always, always cars that we wish we put in, but that’s what’s great about having continuous downloadable content, we’re able to add cars at our pace, because we don’t want to rush the pace, we want the cars to be accurate, we want the physics on the cars to be real, we want the sound on the cars to be accurate. We’re really that anal.

Is there one that’s really frustrated you that springs to mind?

We’re not actually at the time yet where it would be frustrating. There’s not been a big announcement that’s not something we already have in flight, as far as I’m concerned. I would say probably at the end of June, or July we’re going to get something, I don’t know what it would be, that I’m going to read in a magazine, and I’m going to be looking at the clock and going, “Tick tock!” We’re not going to get that in, in six months.

So, as an example. Would you be able to get the Aston CC100 in now, or has that ship sailed?

The nice thing is that we’ve actually known about the CC100 for quite a while.

But your job is essentially the best car shopping in the world. We’ll have that one, and that one, and…

We’ve got a big process for actually coming up with the cars. It’s interesting. Over the last 10 years we’ve seen a huge change in the way that manufacturers approve and approach new media, which is the area that video games falls into. It was “new media” because they’re old companies. What they’re starting to learn is that “new media” is just “media”. And that’s how they’re going to reach the next generation of car enthusiasts. If they think that we’re on the fringe and that video games is another way to reach their customer? No. We’re the major way that they’re going to reach the next generation of customer.

We had posters on our walls. Now kids can actually drive these cars…

They drive them in games. They have pictures of them digitally on their phone and on their tablets, it’s not the same world. And car manufacturers know this, they obviously have very big marketing wings, and so they come to use and say: “Hey, there’s this new car, we’re really excited about it!” And we’re able to say, “We’re excited about it too,” and the nice thing is that we’re getting heads up about it ahead of time, because they now know our timelines.

So to go back to Aston, you said they’d spoken to you about the CC100…

Yeah, they’d spoken to us about the CC100 fairly early, it’s a very cool car. We hear about a lot of these cars. Some cars we put in the DLC, kind of save them for later, some cars we put in the game, and a lot of times we’re also looking for a commitment from the actual manufacturer, that they’re really going to make a car.

Forza 4 had quite a lot of Jeremy Clarkson. We understand that Forza 5 is going to feature all three chaps…?

They are! We worked with Top Gear, and we worked with Charlie [Turner] on the magazine side, looking at the hundreds of cars that we have in our car list and putting them into groups that are more rivalry or spiritually based, and Top Gear would have an opinion on them. And they are narrating on these careers. They kind of hopefully giving you a feeling of what’s exciting about these cars. So they’re not just a random collection of cars, they’re a collection of cars that feels like there’s a heritage there. A history. If these cars were people, they would hate each other – having that level of passion.

Which makes sense, because when you’re talking about Top Gear, it’s essentially three people who hate each other…

That too! The great thing actually was having all three guys write, and come up with their take on each one of these different things. We actually had great material to choose from where sometimes they had very strong opinions about this group of cars, and fond memories or angry thoughts and what have you. And sometimes it was just like yeah, here’s a history lesson. And having all three of them allowed us to pick and choose really funny, real Top Gear moments.

So how is that presented in the game? Because at the moment there are simple sets of menus to delve into, in the single player game. How have you bolted three old men onto this?

We’re still in the pre-beta format of the game, so a lot of what people have seen so far is going to be swapped out and changed. We’re experimenting with these flows. What it comes down to is that we’ve streamlined the overall flow, where we curate the cars you buy and we curate the paint jobs you buy and you’re looking at these mini careers, and then there’s a flow of getting into your car and learning more about that group and having Top Gear present information and then going on this journey to all these different environments, having different types of races that you’re getting into. It really amplifies the rivalry between the cars, it feels very bespoke. So that whole thing is kind of a flow, it’s a story, right?

So are they narrating the single player game?

In most ways they’re bookending, setting it up, because what we’re trying to do is borrow against the emotion they’re putting forward. At the highest level, it’s a collection of cars. And racing games, even Forza in the past has been: “Hey, it’s a race. With a collection of cars.” And if you know cars, you know why those 6, 8, 10, 20 cars belong together. But if you don’t know cars, that’s where we thought Top Gear could add the most value, actually coming and saying, well any car enthusiast knows this, but what Top Gear does so well is actually translate car enthusiasts to… my wife. So I look at a group of cars and I’m like, hot hatch! Yeah. The original GTi, blah blah, it’s there!

But for your wife, it’s incredibly boring.

But they can come in and explain that this hot hatch was a revolution because it allowed kids on the coast to get into a lot of trouble tuning up their cars, and just tell those great stories. And then through the rest of the races we can borrow against that.

Right! In your demo, you told us that you can finish your car this time round in 24-carat gold, if the mood takes you. Whose idea was that? And is that the weirdest thing you can clothe your car in?

Oh yeah, much weirder! I don’t know what we’ll end up shipping, if I’m honest in that area. We can create materials. It’s alchemy. You know, we can honestly create skin, we can create leather, we can create anything that’s on a car, and pretty much anything else. So we could cover a car in leaves. Absolutely. And so we went through our first review, and we had every material we had built for the game and there are thousands of these materials: cobblestone, flags, canvas! And just started looking at it and going: “That’s money! Or, that’s cool!” And the first barometer we held up was, “Is this the sort of thing that 3M currently makes a wrap for?” And we were like, we should include all of those. Anything that they pretty much say yeah, you can go buy a chrome wrap, or you can go buy a carbon fibre wrap, a matte wrap, so those just got a pass immediately, because you can do this today. Then we started looking at more wild things, and honestly the jury’s still out. We’re a very passionate team, and we’re still debating a lot of these. We saw some cool ones though, like raw fibre glass, that dull, milky fibre glass, with the little pieces of fibre that go through it. We had that, and put it on the outside of a car, and it looked… funny? We liked it. But, I don’t know, something about it didn’t look right from a distance so, I’m not saying if it’s in or it’s out, we’re just currently looking at those right now.

What are the silliest options you’ve considered?

There were some that were absolutely out there. Like alcantara, covering a car in alcantara. It’s not only that it’s kind of weird, but it didn’t actually look very good. It caught light very realistically, bit it kind of breaks your brain. It looks weird! It’s not even like matte, because matte absorbs light, but not like alcantara, because alcantara has grains that go different directions, so… we’ve gone way too deep into that subject!

The last time we caught up with you, you were getting an BMW M3. Do you still have that, and how’s it working out for you?

Look, the game we’re working on the team of a few years ago could not have built. I couldn’t have managed the project we’re working on right now. It took maturity in our process, tools and our engine, all of the individuals involved had to be more mature. And as a result it’s actually invigorated my career, I’m more excited to work in games than I ever have been. I’m 13 years now into this experience, but… I’m working real hard! I’ll just say, I don’t see my car very much, it kinda gets me home, and it gets me back to work, and that’s kinda that.

Ah, that’s a bit sad…

I know people want me to be like this playboy who owns a bunch of cars and I come to events like this, and I’ve been driving the MP4 up and down, and having a good time this week, but when I go back to work, the truth is, what they really want, is what I really do. I don’t do a playboy lifestyle, I got to Calspan [tyre research facility] and I test tyres. And I bring that knowledge to bear for our customers. So I don’t go racing on the track, I have raced, I’m not a bad racer, I’m okay, but that’s not what people want me doing with my time, they want me working! And the great thing is, right now, I love working. I really enjoy the job.

Have you managed to have a go in the P1?

I haven’t, no. I shared the stage with it, I daresay it upstaged me.

But have you sat in it?

I did.

How did that feel?

Well, at that point, it feels like a car. It’s a nice car. But it’s sitting in a car. I think also, the MP4-12C is a wonderful car to sit in, the 458 is a wonderful car to sit in and the P1 feels like a wonderful hypercar to sit in. It’s not so bejewelled and bedazzled as the Huayra.

Well, the philosophies are so different, right?

That’s why I liked bringing both of them here in the game, because people kind of put them in the same group, because they’re hypercars, but they’re nothing alike, they’re ridiculous. But they’re nothing alike. The P1′s understated. It’s nice. The stitching’s beautiful, but it’s hard to separate just sitting in it from an MP4. Now, I’ve not heard it fired up and driven, and that’s when I think that car will separate itself even from the glorious MP4-12C.

Forza Motorsport 5 is out on the Xbox One console at its launch in November.

     

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