Interview: Forza 3 game director Dan Greenawalt

Spanning two discs and featuring 400 fully-modeled (and destructible!) cars, Forza Motorsport 3 is gearhead paradise. It's also completely intimidating to the un-tuned gamer. We spoke with director Dan Greenawalt, who claims that developer Turn 10 Studios has designed the easiest-to-play racer on the market and loaded it with enough eye candy, content and feature depth that veteran sim drivers will be itching to get behind the wheel, as well. Oh, and get this: The team drew inspiration from Pokemon and World of Warcraft. Can you guess which genres they might be eyeing for projects down the road?

Continue reading for the full interview.

Tell us about this new car you guys are showing off in this trailer, the Bugatti Veyron.

Well, the Bugatti Veyron is kind of one of those Holy Grail cars right now. It's reported to be 1,000-horsepower, though it's actually a little bit less but 1,001 sounds really cool. It's all-wheel drive made by Bugatti with parts from Audi and Volkswagen amongst others. It's got a 16-cylinder engine with four turbos; it's all-wheel drive. It's about the size of a TT, so it's pretty small. And it's the current production car world-speed record holder. So it hit 250 miles per hour. It's a very fast car.

How did you guys get this car into the game? What process did you follow to build the model, to actually tune it and make it drivable? Did you have to drive it? Did you work with the engineers at Bugatti to duplicate it? How did that work?

Well, you know, first this car had come on our radar a long time ago and we had contacted Bugatti about it maybe eight years ago -- six years ago, probably. And they really weren't interested in being in video games. But since then they've changed their mind a little bit and become a really strong partner for us.

It's a pretty rare car, it's kind of hard to get your hands on it. But we found one through Bugatti in San Diego, somewhere in southern California. And we had this group named Acme that go in and they laser scan the cars. So the process is they go in and they put tape along the major creases and the major seams of the car and they basically outline all the really nice rounded shapes. And then they use the laser to actually scan those lines directly into a CAD drawing.

It allows them to get incredible level of detail on how they're scanning. And we also take thousands of photos of the car. We didn't drive it ourselves. We did talk to some guys that drove it in our reviewer community and they told us sort of how it drives and what have you.

And then we also spent a lot of time listening to the car and recording other cars on the Dyno, other types of engines, other types of noises in order to recreate the car's sound.

Like all the other cars in Forza, I imagine the Veyron will be totally destructible. You'll be able to crash it, flip it, etc?


Which would give everybody an opportunity to crash and flip a rare car that they probably won't have a chance to see in real life, not to mention crash one.

Yeah, this car is about $1.4 million to buy in the real world, as well as in Forza Motorsport. It's not exactly a cheap toy. But that is kind of what's fun in a game like this; to be able to experience a car that very few ever will. The interior of the car is just gorgeous. It's really just a stunning, beautiful car. Incredible design. And so it's fun to just drive it. But yeah, also smashing the car is pretty cool too.

And the interior's all modeled as well, right?

Yes, it is.

So Forza obviously has damage modeling, ability to flip cars, etc. Gran Turismo has just announced the same thing. Did you expect that? Did you think that was a major feature that you had that they didn't? Or do you think it's kind of irrelevant at this point?

I think that is what it takes to be a modern racing game. We've been doing it now since 2002. We had damage back in our old Midtown Madness games. Damage has been featured in Microsoft Games Studios games pretty much forever -- certainly as long as I've been working on them. So I certainly wasn't surprised. I have not yet heard the extent of what they're doing but I think it's good for the industry to have a bit of a rivalry here where we're actually pushing each other and coming up with great ideas and you know, raising the bar on each other. I'm glad they're doing damage now.

You have a lot of cars in Forza 3. You're actually going to have some of the cars stored on a second disc -- it's actually going to span two DVDs. How does that work? You know, what's stored on both discs? If it's cars, do you rip those cars onto the hard drive? What exactly will the process be if I'm buying Forza 3?

It's a great question. We do have 400 cars and they all feature damage, rollover, and cockpits. It's not just a small subset, but everyone of them feature that. All of them can be painted, put on the auction house, and used in [user-generated content].

You install the content from disc two as if it was DLC.

But to your question, the way it is done is that we've got a primary disc, which has 300 cars on it, which is a ton of cars -- more than Forza Motorsport 2.

The second disc contains three environments, and another 100-plus cars. What you do is actually install all the content from disc two as if it was DLC and then it automatically integrates into your game. So you can play off disc one without installing it, without ripping to the hard drive, and all the disc two content you have installed (similar to DLC) gets put into the career as AI opponents and shows in your career mode, as different races and the tracks change out. You can make the game more deep, if you like, by adding that content. But the truth is we got so many tacks and so many cars on disc one that even disc one itself is the largest game that's going to be available this holiday.

Obviously not everybody has a hard drive on their Xbox; not everybody has room on their hard drive. What if I was playing on an Xbox Arcade unit against someone online and they were using a car I didn't install or a track I didn't install. How would that work?

The way that we deal with cars – we've done DLC for quite awhile now; Forza Motorsport 2 had it as well as just learnings we had through PGR. And so we have what we call a "blob car." It's a car that stands in for any car you don't have. It's a generic car but it functions just like the other person's car. So you're not going to see their livery; you're not going to see their paintjob; you're not going to see their car; but what you are going to see is a representation of a car that's performing the same way they do.

Now when it comes to tracks, we actually don't allow you to be on an environment you don't have. That's obviously gigs worth of data and we can't send that data over the wire.

And if you're matchmaking, you would just skip that track obviously ...

Absolutely. We actually have a hopper system similar to Halo or Call of Duty. This is not a very hard problem. This is something that's been solved by lots of games. We look to how people have solved it in the past and there are some pretty good models to follow.

Speaking of the livery system, how much has it changed this time around? Did you try and re-tune it or did you not want to break something that's worked well?

Well, we're always willing to break something. [Laughs.] That's the nature of our team. We're sort of perfectionists. What we ended up doing was hiring a few guys from our community. We hired Landen Williams, who is a video-maker, and we also hired a guy named Fred Howell who is one of the really great artists in our Forza 2 community. And we hired him not only to do great paint jobs for us, but also to help us make that better. Now obviously, he's not trained and he didn't come up through the ranks in art or game design; he doesn't have a computer science degree, but he's been invaluable in helping us make this livery editor better.

The important thing to understand though is that the livery editor is not there to make me a better painter; it's really there to empower someone like Fred to – pardon the phrase – "be all he can be." To really show his creativity. So the tool has gotten more powerful for him. He can make artwork more quickly; he can change artwork from one car to another more easily, and as a result he can mass produce his creative work.

But the true power doesn't come through the editor. The power comes through storefronts and the way we actually distribute things. Things like auction houses; things like storefronts; things like creator scoreboards that allow not only Fred to become more famous, but allow us as consumers to find Fred's work more easily.

Has Turn 10 ever considered working on an arcade-style racer?

You know, we've actually looked at quite a few things. This team's got a ton of passion for real cars and we've also got a ton of passion for games. I can't seem to stop playing Arkham Asylum right now. And a lot of us lost ourselves in Fallout 3 before that. Obviously we're a studio of huge gamers; we also love cars. I think in truth, if we were going to deviate from kind of real-world license racing genre, I think at that point the sky is the limit on what we would do. Would we go towards a more open-world game? Would we go towards an action game? I don't know but I think in a lot of ways if we deviate from our core passion – which is the licensed cars that we see in our parking lots and we drove as kids and we want to drive – once we go away from that I think we just become passionate gamers and high caliber developers and we'd want to look at making just a different kind of genre entirely.

I'm not saying that's actually what we've been planning. Right now we've been shipping this game and we'll look into what we'll do next. But the truth is, there's been no investigation along those lines.

Everybody knows that you're working on Forza Watersport.

[Laughs.] That's right, I'm glad you picked that up.

I guess that's a different project. How about Avatar Marketplace items? Obviously the game has almost a culture built around the delivery system. But the idea of outfitting yourself would also make sense if you extend it to the Avatar Marketplace. Is that something you guys have looked into?

We haven't really looked into it. I totally agree. The idea of being able to customize your avatar not only is something that's interesting to me as a gamer, but actually I think making that kind of app would be really fun. I think the Avatars really did extend how people play and see themselves on Xbox Live. It made it a lot more human, a lot more personal, the way you interact with your friends.

So being able to customize that and take that to the next level would be really cool. But no, it's not something that we're looking into.

So we're not going to see checkered flags and remote-controlled Bugatti Veyrons on launch day then?

We're going to do Avatar gear, obviously. What I'm getting at is I think it would be really fun to personally ...

Oh, to personally customize stuff. Yeah, I don't even know if the system would support that.

I don't know. But it would be fun.

Yeah. But Avatar gear, you guys are looking at doing something?

Yeah, we are going to be releasing some Avatar gear. We haven't released any specifics on that. It's still being worked on right now.

How about online play? Although it's not a sim racer, Burnout Paradise seemed to really change the landscape of online play for racing games. Has that game or any kind of online racing game influenced Forza's online modes at all for Forza 3?

I actually think the two biggest influences for online racing from Forza comes from the Midnight Club series and Midtown Madness before that. I used to work with the team that did Midnight Club back when they did Midtown Madness. They always did great stuff with online play. They were doing tag and cops and robbers and infected and lots of, tons of different game modes.

And also we played a ton of Modern Warfare as well as Halo and Gears of War. And so the hopper system and parties and bringing parties into hoppers

The hook is "I really love cars."

-- those are the two different changes that we've put into a ton of game modes such as Tags, such as Keep It Clean, Cat and Mouse.

And we put it in a rules editor so any user can go in and make it a drift race. But it's team-based and one team is all Class A and one team is all Class B and you're only allowed to drive in cockpit. And they can layer all of these rules on top and save them and reuse them. We call those people "social coordinators."

Now if these rules take off on the web, we start hearing about them on the forums and then we can also monitor what people are playing online. Not individual people, but just generally what the community is using rules-wise. We can bake those into the hoppers.

I expect a month, two months after the game releases, we're going to find that there's a new variant of Tag or a new variant of Cat and Mouse, and we'll just bake it into our hopper system so everyone gets to enjoy it.

Your Halo 3 equivalent would be griffball or the zombie play-types that sort of percolated up from the custom rules into the actual, you know, served games. At E3 you spent a lot of time talking about how Forza is a game that anybody can pick up and play but it also has a lot of depth to it. So two questions there. Question one is: Why is it important that a game like Forza 3 be easy to pick up and play? And question two is: How would you really make casual gamers care or want to pick up and play a driving sim?

I don't necessarily think it's about casual gamers in the sort of way that casual gamers have been defined, as kind of soccer moms and what have you. I'm not going to pretend that I've cracked that nut. What it all comes down to is the vision for the game, which is to turn gamers into car lovers and car lovers into gamers, and if you think about that, there are a lot of people that love cars and want to experience amazing drop dead gorgeous graphics of cars that they've got an emotional attachment to. Now that's not only the really good twitchy racers that are able to do that. Everyone that's got car passion of any kind wants to experience that. What we found was that games like Forza Motorsport, PGR, GRID, Need for Speed -- all of these racing games were too hard. Our sons and daughters couldn't play them, and they wanted to play those games. They wanted to experience cars because they're being brought up in our families so they've got a kind of car passion.

But on top of that we've got people like my father in law and he tunes on cars. And I was playing the game this weekend, we were doing some testing, and my father in law was visiting and he's -- you know, I've got the classic Corvette that he's actually working on right now in his garage, in the game. And there's nothing he wanted to do more than drive it in the game. And he couldn't drive Forza Motorsport 2, he can't drive Need for Speed. He can drive Forza Motorsport 3. The auto-brake, the rewind, he had a ton of fun just playing that car. So that's the hook, the hook is not "Wow I wanted to play a racing game!" The hook is "I really love cars." And there's a lot of people that do, not in a gearhead way – he obviously does in a gearhead way – but the sons and daughters in our team, they're not gearheads, they just think, "Wow that car's pretty. Listen to it, it's so fast! It's so cool! I want to drive fast!" And that's what gets them into it.

But we now have a game that's actually easier to play. We've benchmarked it versus Need for Speed and PGR and Forza 2 and Gran Turismo, because our goal is to make it easy for kids to play, and we're basically not a good test bed because we're too good at gaming. It's very easy for us to just pick it up and go, "Yeah, yeah! This is tons easier! This is so much easier than the last one!" And then we give it to an 8-year-old and they just crash into a wall.

So, what things specifically, in terms of making a real driving sim would you have had to tone down, for the easier game types to make it fun? You know, you mentioned auto-braking and the ability to rewind, but what else did you have to specifically take ...

We didn't have to tone down a thing ...

I mean, in terms of features like the auto brake. If a casual gamer wouldn't be able to quickly respond to braking, it's something you accommodated for with that.

So what it comes down to is putting in assist, you know, in Forza 2 and Forza 1 we have the green line. It started showing up in all sorts of games, it became pretty popular. And I can't go back to other racing games without that now, it's become such a ... you know it makes games so much easier. But, it doesn't actually affect the physics, it's just an assist, right? Same thing with ABS, we have ABS in the game, and not all cars in the real world came equipped with ABS, you know, back in the '70s none of them had it. But, you can put that on as a layer, and it acts on top of the physics. We don't actually dumb down the physics at all.

Well in the same way, that's how auto-brake works, it works on top of the physics, it doesn't change the physics, but it's an AI override, if you will, of your brake pedal. So you don't have to touch it with your finger, it will touch it for you, and it will ease off the throttle for you. But you can turn it off, you can turn off ABS, and turn off the green line, and have a cutting edge simulator doing things with tires that even the PC sims aren't doing yet. We also added gameplay rewind which is a great feature. You know, Prince of Persia, GRID; the rewind feature, another one just like the green line we've added that I think is just a game changer. I think every racing game should have this. You don't have to use it if you don't want to, but if you do use it, you get used to it, it makes you a better racer because you start turning up the difficulty level. We found that even in our play tests, with rewind, people challenge harder AI, turn up the damage difficulty, because if they make a mistake, the race isn't over. They just hit rewind and they do it again. So they're ending up in more competitive races, races that are more fun for them, and they don't end up getting penalized for it. It's really like Arkham Asylum, it's kind of embracing the modern game design; that is, you don't have to punish people, you just give them a great entertaining experience and they will keep coming back.

Anything you guys really wanted to include but you didn't have time?

Everything. I don't know. The issue is that it's not a little bit of time to add the sorts of features we'd like to add. It's a lot of time. So we were shooting for what it would take to make a game in a few years, but the truth is I want to bring even more people together; I want to get more people excited about cars. I think that really comes down to technology we just don't have yet.

I don't know -- it's not a good answer to your question, sorry. I've still got a lot that I want to do in this franchise and we're just years off from it. It's not a matter of well, if we just had another three months or six months. It's like, if we had another three years where we could really sit down and re-architect the system, we'd be able to give an even cooler experience.

What might one of those systems be? Damage extending to engine parts and driving performance and that sort of thing?

We have that. Yeah, when you damage your car in Forza it damages all the components. And if you turn it up to "sim" damage, if you roll your car over, it's pretty much incapacitated. We had that in Forza 2 as well, it's just now we have roll-over, it's much more apparent.

What would the kind of feature be if you're looking at a three-year, generational leap?

I would love to be able to turn around a car in like two weeks. I'd love to be able to go to the Detroit Auto Show and two weeks later people go, "Oh yeah, I was reading about the Detroit Auto Show. I just go to Xbox Live and I download it into Forza Motorsport. I can taste it, I can touch it, I can drive it, and it's right there."

But that kind of turn around is just not possible when you're talking about the kind of polys we have in a car. It takes us three months to build a car and do the interior and get the audio. So we would have to invest in this laser-scanning technology that we had in the Bugatti. It actually cuts down the turn around quite a bit, because rather than having to start from basically a block of tofu that you're modeling this car into, we're actually starting from really highly detailed CAD drawings that we can manipulate to match exactly the photographs we made.

Even so, that's just cutting a few weeks out. What I'm talking about is cutting out 90 percent of our current time so we can turn a car around -- bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.

And what would that require besides something with laser scanning? Would that require the participation of the car companies?

They have been participating. Ferrari, for example, has given extensive CAD drawings. We've got a very strong partnership with Ferrari so they give us all sorts of drawings. Again, that cuts the time down but the kind of time I'm talking about, I think would be the next generation of laser scanning. It's basically what we don't have yet.

I think what we need is, I don't know – that's what I mean about if we had the answer, we'd be targeting it already. That's what I mean about three to five years away. We just don't have the technology.

I can imagine that being a feature that would really get our friends at Autoblog excited -- being able to see a car at the Detroit Auto Show and then drive it two weeks later.

Well, I think it opens up a lot of opportunities too to become the editorial site, where someone from Autoblog can say: This is what it's like to drive the car. Go check it out. You get to feel it here. Feel how it understeers this way, feel how it oversteers that way. I think with that technology we'd be taking interactive experiences and going beyond what you currently get at Road & Track and websites and what have you and actually delivering an interactive version of that editorial.

Have you ever thought about integrating editorial into a product like Forza? I'm thinking specifically of the way Gran Turismo has done their whole GTTV thing.

We've got inspiration from Pokemon, Animal Crossing, as well as WoW.

But even doing something different, integrating the editorial of Road & Track magazine, so people can kind of read about a car and then drive it. Read a review of a car and then drive it.

We actually looked at that. This is going to sound bad, but people were actually really bored. We were looking at people. That was an early idea for Forza 3. You would have the ability to read editorials on cars. What we found was that people wanted video editorials and they wouldn't even sit through a lot of those. What they really wanted to do is go drive the car. The biggest problem is actually having video editorials that cover the vast number of cars we have. It's really easy to get video tutorials on lots of common cars: Toyota Camry, what have you. But it's actually really hard to get video tutorials on all the cars we have in our game. Very rare, very cool, sometimes very old, or super cars. There's just not a lot of video editorial on them.

So we were basically left with: We'd be able to cover basically 10 percent of our cars with video editorial and the rest would be left blank. Or they would have to be reading it. Reading it on the screen just didn't pan out the way we were hoping. We did tests; people were just like, "Ho hum. I don't want to read on my living room screen. I want to just drive it."

Now as far as GTTV, we see Xbox Live as doing this step for us so we never even considered that. We just looked at being able to do Truth in 24 from Audi or going to Netflix to look at something from Bullitt or Le Mans or these classic movies. Plus, there's all this stuff that you can get off Netflix that's car culture TV type stuff. So we kind of looked at it as that's already covered by Xbox Live. That's not a service we have to provide.

My last question for you, did you play any other racers at E3, and if so were you impressed by any of them?

I unfortunately was locked in a room for about four days and didn't get out to see anything on the show floor, which is sort of sad. I've been playing the Dirt 2 demo. I like Dirt. I've got mad love for Codies; I've always liked Codies. I think they make great games.

I don't know, I guess in general, as a game director, I don't tend to look at racing games for my inspiration. I look to racing games for what's the current bar. You know what I mean? About how people are now adopting the green line and are now expecting everyone to adopt gameplay rewind.

I look to my competitors and I look to our game to set the bar; look, this is the new bar you've got to cross. But I don't actually look to them for innovation. I tend to look at film and movies and other game genres and you know, I just find that the real innovation comes from blending chocolate with peanut butter; not from just looking at what are the other chocolate bars out there.

So we've got a lot of inspiration from Pokemon, Animal Crossing, things from eBay, as well as World of Warcraft. These are the things that actually inspired us to take the racing genre to a new direction.

So does that mean we're going to see the Batmobile in Forza 4?

No, but I do really appreciate that game. There's no timers, there's no death falls, it's fun and it's difficult but it's never punishing. And I think that's just the way games ought to be. That's my personal ethos on that. Not everyone is going to agree with me, but that's my take.

And so obviously that's what Forza follows as well. You don't have to be punishing to still have challenge and difficulty and fun.

All right Dan, thanks again for your time.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.