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Reaper Gaming Interview with Forza 4′s Dan Greenawalt

From what we have seen, Forza 4 will take the franchise to the next level, making what was once merely another racing game series fighting for the top spot in the genre, into something which is now so much more than just another Racing Sim.
Once we had our fill of burning rubber we grabbed a few minutes with Dan Greenawalt and talked about the game and its development,

RG: Has Forza 4 pushed the current Xbox to its limit?
DG: The truth is every version pushes the Xbox to its limit. It’s all about optimisation, like moving from one apartment to another, you take everything out of your flat and the van is full, unpack it on the sidewalk and repack it and magically you have an extra two feet of space. That’s because you packed it better, you optimised the space. So every time we ship a version, we basically unpack and re-pack our code and find optimisations in the math.

RG: What is a typical day like when you are developing a game like Forza 4?
DG: It all depends on your role but the sun never sets when you are developing a title like Forza 4. We have over 350 people who have been working on this title for the last two years, and my job as creative director normally starts out with 6-7 cups of coffee, then a check of the emails. The rest of the day is spent in meetings, walking around the office reviewing peoples work. One of our strengths as a team is “post-morteming” how we build the game.
We built autonomous groups that advance areas of the game like graphics, physics, Kinect. There are leaders in those teams that we have been grooming for years. They come from the industry and by giving them autonomy, they can incubate, innovate and come up with new ideas. So my role is often to review. So I might be the spark saying I really want this sort of general thing, but I don’t know how it’s going to work and here’s the long term vision five years down the line. We want people excited about cars and what the team says is here’s how were thinking of doing this, and this what we can do here, and I can say that makes great sense, it’s awesome.
That’s what allows us to do so much rapid development because it’s not just me saying ok were going to do this and that, go do it. That doesn’t get the best out of people. And for those teams, it’s kind of the same thing but in a smaller version. Those teams have leaders and they review the work going on underneath them.

RG: At Turn 10 you set the benchmark for track based sims, would you ever consider turning your eyes to another form of motorsport?
DG: The interesting thing is that while we make a great racing game our vision is to make car entertainment and racing is a part of that absolutely, and our roots in Forza motorsport come from that but honestly what we’re doing is expanding the franchise, we’re never trying to sacrifice anything. It’s just grow, grow, grow. I think there is a simplistic view that you cannot do two things at once, you cannot please every person and all these are all great little sayings but actually, if you are clever you can. So what we try to make is a game that no matter how you approach car culture it fits you like a glove, so if you don’t know how to play controllers, if they’re kind of intimidating to you, Kinect is a great option. Autovista is brand new – there is no other experience like that in the world. Is that racing no, its completely different from racing but is it cars? Absolutely it’s cars.

RG: What is your favourite track in the game?
DG:  My favourite tracks changes quite a bit. I think there’s two in particular for very different reasons. I’ve been working in Forza Motorsport since 2002 and I’ve been working in games for quite a long time since 1997 and very early in Forza Motorsport 1 we set up the Laguna Seca track. I have driven that track in the real world and done hot laps with pro drivers so I know that track really well and I grew up watching it.
So we set up the 99 Viper fairly early in the game as well, and so from our first prototypes I was driving that car on that track. So whenever we do new tyre features, new brake models, new suspension models, new anything – I always take the 99 viper onto Laguna Seca and do a few hot laps, do a few drift laps and that gets me a good evaluation.
My favourite track in the game right now is Infineon Raceway, and the reason is because it’s a nutter, off-camber, crowning blind corners, walls right next to the track and so when you really nail that track, when you really get the balance of the car right, when you get the rear end to squat as you accelerate through the corner it’s like, it’s like magic. And if you do it wrong, you’re are nothing, you’re not only off the road but you’re into a wall spinning six times.

RG: What real world tracks are out there that are not in the game that you would like to include?
DG: Oh, there’s tons of real tracks. I’ve been watching motorsport since I was a kid. There’s great tracks in F1, DTM, Austrilian V8’s – the list goes on and on. The issue with tracks in general is you call to try and licence a track and you’re not sure who owns them. It is one thing to include a track on the sly, but when we do a track, we hire the track for three days, we take aerial photos, we take gps coordinates of the inside and outside of the track. We do hot laps around the track – you cannot just kind of do that, you need to have the tracks governing body in your corner. You cannot do that without the backing of the owners or some of the great governing bodies out there.

RG: 3D? In Forza 5?
DG:  We’re still waiting for 3D to get critical mass. We did a ton of innovation with Kinect because we believe Kinect has reached critical mass on the Xbox 360, and because it was so cool. What we can do with it, we’re just a the tip of the iceberg in terms of Kinect can do as we, the AAA franchises, push and learn from each other.

RG: When you saw Kinect, did you immediately think how you could use it?
DG: Honestly, I lost my shit. I just thought this is the coolest thing I have ever seen. I didn’t even know how we were going to use it! I had some ideas but to tell you the truth, like most new model the ideas were awfully, and that’s part of the process of innovation, if you come up with a hundred ideas, that goes down to 10 which are remotely good then you have to prototype those ten to get one that might stick. It’s different than working on something for a controller – we have been  doing it for so long we’re so good at designing for a controller that our hit ratio is really high, and with Kinect it’s like I think this will work, then you try it and it’s rubbish – it doesn’t make any sense at all.

RG: The weirdest thing I found about it was that the  breaking and acceleration was all done automatically for you.
DG: The truth is, that part of Kinect – the Head Tracking and voice linking, those are very core features. Autovista is for both core and casual players. The Kinect driving is all about having fun it is about sitting down on the couch with your kids and getting them into cars, or coming back from the pub with your mates and smashing up some cool cars.
We actually did settings for shifting and acceleration but the people who were really excited about Kinect didn’t want it, they just wanted to drive and smash things up , and the core gamers want to try it but wouldn’t use it anyway. So we made it for these guys who just want to smash things up and have a good time.

RG:  Some very expensive bumper cars.
DG: Yeah it’s all about having fun.

RG:  I read that there might have been a licensing issue with the Porsches and RUFs, but I see that RUFs are in the game.
DG: RUFs are in the game. I’ve written about this on my blog.

RG: In terms of investment, how long does it take to put together a title like this?
DG:  With the way we organise ours teams, the way we postmortem and reconstruct the team, if you’re using a classic system where you have a figure head and only have one or two creatives and everything has to run through them – it really does not allow itself to scale. But by using the model that we have in place, it allows us to upscale and get in new people and release a game every two years.  So it’s not a case of trying to reinvent the wheel but how to make it better. And it’s through this process that we can release a game every two years.

RG: How much of a challenge was it to include electric and hybrid cars into the game?
DG:  In terms of physics, there was not much of a challenge at all, the real challenge was making them fun and interesting to drive, because they sound like vacuum cleaners and most have only one gear or a cvt (continuously variable transmission), so you’re not getting the roar as it goes up through the revs or the change of gear.

RG: Image Based Lighting, you touched on it outside – it sounds fascinating. I must say it looks amazing and really has made a difference.
DG: The truth is I am a developer so I’m actually curtailing my swearing. When it comes to telling you how we set up our teams, or how hardware is not the answer to  better graphics that is the gods honest truth – it’s not marketing speak. I’m telling you how it works in the industry and IBL is another technique. It comes from knowing what we’re good at, and we don’t have to employ the best lighting people in the business because Hollywood is already hiring them, but they need to offset their cost so we can work with these guys for a short period of time, to work on our lighting engine, for example. By doing this we can work with the best talent in the industry without having to attract them, so that cuts down costs but at the same time frees us up.

RG: So after the game is released, where are you going on holidays? Anywhere without a racetrack ?!
DG:  I love cars, and I want everyone to love cars and that’s what keeps me going, so when I do have free time, I do like to spend it at the track watching vintage races and get the invigoration from all the people around me too.

Forza Motorsport sets the boundaries when it comes to racing and simulation, and Forza 4 is going to push that boundary even further. Granted, the Kinect drive won’t be to everyone’s liking, but the people who like it, will love it. Turn 10 really appear to have looked at what the players of their game actually enjoy doing and focused on those areas, which from a players point is nice to see.
With the amount of options open to players, Forza 4 is going to be much more than a racer. And after the little bit of time we got to burn rubber around some famous tracks, it just left me wanting more.

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