Turn 10’s Dan Greenawalt Reflects on the Past, Present and Future of the Forza Franchise
Written Tuesday, April 05, 2011 By Dan WebbView author's profile
There aren’t many games for Microsoft that can literally sell themselves. Sure, Halo, Gears and Fable will continue to sell on name alone, but the truth is that their secret weapon of this generation has quite simply been their Forza franchise and its rapid rise to prominence. It wasn’t always plain sailing though and speaking with Turn 10’s Game Director yesterday, Dan Greenawalt, the creative lead reminisced on his and Turn 10’s time with the franchise.
“I dared to dream,” said Greenawalt when asked whether Turn 10 envisaged that they would become one of Microsoft’s lynchpins in its first-party catalogue. “I think Microsoft saw it as a business imperative to challenge Gran Turismo and Sony, but our dream was always to make something much bigger than a competitive IP.” For Greenawalt and Turn 10, it wasn’t just about being the best simulation out there, said the humble design director, it’s about changing how people think about cars, but attacking the subject from both sides of the table. “It’s about making car fans into game fans; and game fans into car fans,” he continued, “We wanted to change how people thought about cars and interacted with the content in a whole different way.”
Hold on a minute… it’s just about getting people interested in cars? “Yeah!” he nonchalantly chuckled, “It sounds kind of naïve now, but it really was. It was about how we could get all generations excited about games and about cars.”
When starting out though, it was important for the team to remain focused, especially when they were going up against Microsoft’s own Project Gotham – an established racer of a different ilk, maybe, but still a Microsoft first-party racing franchise. “I didn’t think that far out because it would have paralysed me with nervousness,” said Greenawalt in response to Project Gotham. “Our focus was finding an identity for our franchise and getting the right team together. We were 100% consumed with putting together a world class studio and then hoped the franchise would have the grounding to establish itself.”
Although there may be an air of confidence about Greenawalt that can sometimes gets misrepresented within gaming circles, Turn 10 still suffer from the same anxieties about their games than the rest of the games development fold. “We thought we were going to get criticised in the press with our first game,” lamented the Game Director, “but it came out to positive reviews – we really were our own worst critics. Same thing happened with second and third titles, too.”
Greenawalt even candidly admitted that they might have lacked direction early on. “In fact, Forza 1 was our most unfocused game,” he noted, “despite having less features than say Forza 3 for example.”
Thankfully for the team and their sanity, Greenawalt’s role now allows him to act as a kind of glue of sorts that binds the team together. “Now I take an outside look and can be more impartial and appreciate our achievements,” he noted, “I literally have to turn round to the team now and go, “Look, we’ve got a great game here.””
“We definitely got more ambitious,” admitted Greenawalt, as he talked through their focus from one game to the next. “First we wanted to nail the simulation engine. As we moved into later versions, that vision of turning game lovers in car lovers and vice-versa became more possible – using Xbox LIVE and connecting people together. By Forza 3 we actively started moving to capture these people and now we know we can aim for a broader consumer without leaving existing fans behind.”
The racing genre and the simulation genre specifically is a field that’s become highly competitive in recent years and Greenawalt is quick to recognise that, especially the rise in form from EA’s Shift franchise. “Of course I’ve kept an eye of them,” he said about Shift. “There are cool ideas in the genre right now and it would be foolish of me not to take note of that,” said Greenawalt, noting that a lot of the Western developers are fans of each other’s work. “It’s a small community, especially with regard to European and North American developers. Maybe not quite so with Japanese developers , that tends to be another circle, but we do play each other’s projects.”
Ah, of course... the Japanese developers, specifically, Gran Turismo developers Polyphony Digital, who spent years tirelessly slaving over their prized possession, Gran Turismo 5. Does Greenawalt believe that the lengthy development schedule allowed them to sneak in almost unseen? “Perhaps,” he candidly admits. “Objectively, we’ve had a bigger window to operate in, but as fans of racing, we like competition and while we may share a lot of features, we really do welcome the competition. Need for Speed is another juggernaut title for us, especially as we share the same platform.”
But surely creating a three game franchise in the space it takes one developer to deliver one title must be quite satisfying? Greenawalt wasn’t so sure. “I don’t know if I’m satisfied in a competitive way,” he noted, “I’d love to see more Gran Turismo titles – and I’m not criticising the development timeframe there – but our approach works really well for us. We have a very highly collaborative group and my job is to inspire my team. My requirement of them is to then come up with better ideas than I can. Our talented staff work together to come up with greater ideas than any one man can and the best thing is, that this has allowed us to scale, and this reflects in our game.”
When bringing up the fun factor that Penny Arcade so eloquently touched upon when comparing the franchises, Greenawalt remained humble and refused to be pulled into any sort of slanging match, but what makes Forza have that fun factor that many believe didn’t exist in Gran Turismo 5? “I think we keep it really close to people’s hearts.”
“It’s all about the layers,” he continued, “I think you hit the nail on the head when you said “at its heart,” [it’s a simulation racer] but beneath the simulation aspect there’s something in there for everyone.”
It’s not about choosing arcade or simulation either according to Greenawalt, it’s about “the things that make games fun, easy and great to jump into.” Careful not to pigeonhole the franchise, he notes, “We don’t want people to choose, so we provide a blend that tailors to lots of different people,” whether you’re a tuner, an artist, a collector and so on.
“We look at community and social networking and how people share content,” he continued, citing games like Pokémon, World of Warcraft and Animal Crossing for games that have inspired the direction of the franchise. “We don’t look at just racing games; we look at other genres for that hook that keeps people playing as well.”
With Forza 3 though, Turn 10 seemingly upped the ante ten-fold in respect to its community involvement, but did that focus pay off? Greenawalt seems to think so. “Yeah, absolutely. We joke in the studio that there’s a subsection of the audience we don’t know a lot about. We know a lot of enthusiasts play and talk on the forums, but there’s some who play the more fun modes like Tag or Cat & Mouse that we don’t know anything else about. They represent a huge part of our audience and provide a lot of data for us, but they don’t engage in the forums and it’s great to be able connect with these people in some way.”
So what does the future hold for Turn 10? Well, Forza 4 of course, but Greenawalt remained cryptic on what they did or didn’t learn from Forza 3, that they’re taking into Forza 4.
“We’re our own worst critics and take on board all the reviews and opinions,” said Greenawalt. “It would be so easy to drive yourself mad reading everyone’s opinions and evaluating what you’ve achieved. We try to bucket people into categories to tackle what each subsection wants and how we can tailor the next game to improve it for them. It’s a colossal list. We get together and decide which of those edits or additions are the most important.”
“We always see the glass as half empty and we’re very dedicated to improving the game.”
That surely means improving the physics on their simulation engine, after all, Turn 10 almost seem obsessed with that level of detail, but when asked whether anyone would actually notice the tweaks and upgrades, Greenawalt remained philosophical.
“I think it depends on what kind of customer we’re talking to. The tyre model, assists and controller buffer affect how we can modify these physics,” he noted, before reflecting on years gone-by when it would take days to run simulations. “Lots of the dynamic simulations that had to be done over a period of days have now been streamlined with greater accuracy so these effects are not only more powerful but also more concise. Ten years from now, I think we’re going to see race cars designed 100% in real time.”
Forza 4 though, for Greenawalt, isn’t just about extending and building on their previous goals and foundations. It’s, and I quote, about “giving people a playground to have them engage with their cars in.”
“We don’t want to make any of our cars disposable by limiting their usefulness in certain racing events,” he declared, “Upgrades and other customization really helps to achieve this. In terms of technology, LIVE and Kinect are two fantastic ways to give players brand new experiences that they don’t expect to stoke their passion.”
So, the inevitable Kinect subject reared its head amidst topics of community and the franchise’s roots, but at what point did using Kinect for Forza 4 become a reality? “Before we finished Forza 3, we had an incubation team who branched off to investigate these experiences.” It wasn’t just about racing with an imaginary wheel though for Greenawalt. Oh no, that was “too obvious.”
“We didn’t want to just look at the racing aspect, but how to interact with those cars using the technology,” before correcting us that the E3 demo wasn’t ever intended to be a Forza 3 add-on, it was simply intended to show what was achievable with the technology.
“The E3 demo wasn’t really a standalone product, it was just an example of some of these ideas that the team had created. Before long we saw some of this getting rolled into the fold for Forza 4’s development.” And the rest they say is history.
Being a Microsoft wholly owned studio though, did pressure come from outside to include Kinect features in Forza 4. Short answer: no. “I didn’t need any pushing from Microsoft and frankly we didn’t get any,” said Greenawalt, “We were very keen to support it. Back in 2002 when we pitched the franchise, we wanted to develop our own identity and team. As a creative studio, Kinect – and LIVE – have been brand new frontiers that we find hugely interesting.”
“It’s new technology and new territory,” said Greenawalt, speaking of their experience with the tech thus far. “What we’ve got now is the beginning of a new revolution and this is just the start, almost a palette cleanser. The ideas that will change the world require time to play with. I honestly still believe that we’re just scratching the surface with Kinect and that is hugely energizing for the team – the sky really is the limit.”
Even Turn 10 has seen the evolution of the tech in the time they’ve spent with it. “The XDK has just improved consistently, giving us more tools to play with when we use Kinect,” he pointed out. “Add in the rapid development on top and it’s really exciting for the team. I expect this to continue for another three or four years. There’s not been a change like this in gaming since, well… in my career, certainly.”
While Kinect is definitely adding another facet to the simulation genre, Greenawalt had some strong words for the genre itself while talking about innovating and reinventing it. “I think simulation racing as a genre is actually outdated in its name,” claims Greenawalt, “It’s a genre that hasn’t really changed in the last 20 years.”
“You’ve got arcade being about the thrills and spills, and real simulation that is so hard no-one can play it. With Forza we aspire to be both, or conversely, neither. We do try to take the best of both though, but for me, it’s all about the cars rather than the racing. My hope is that we wouldn’t just be judged as a simulation racer, but for our cars and our fun experiences.”
“It’s now about evolving your game into a game about cars,” and with Forza 4 scheduled to hit this year, that’s exactly what they intend to keep on doing.