Interview: Forza Motorsport 4 Creative Director Dan Greenawalt

by on September 29, 2011

GodisaGeek News Editor, Terry Lucy, recently got the chance to have a chat with Creative Director Dan Greenawalt, who is working on Turn 10’s Forza Motorsport 4. In the 20 minutes or so we spent with Greenawalt, he spoke about the changes in the Forza series, why the Xbox 360 still has legs, the future of Autovista and many other things, including how Pokemon and World of Warcraft have influenced the Forza Motorsport series.

Dan Greenawalt is a man who clearly loves anything with an engine, and that really comes across in not just his work, but in his personality. Car culture is a big deal to the team at Turn 10 Studios, only matched by their passion for gaming, and this is something they hope will transpire to Forza Motorsport 4.

GodisaGeek: There are big differences with Forza 4 in comparison to previous iterations, what would you say are the main changes from Forza 3 to 4?

Dan Greenawalt: Well, It depends on the type of player you are. We really prioritise, develop, incubate and innovate based on a respect for car culture, and for gaming culture, and we really know the diversity in gaming and car culture so we try to make a game that fits people like a glove.That means innovating across all fronts. We eventually broke the team out intro different autonomous groups of specialists that can innovate in graphics, physics, AI and networking and they are tasked, they are empowered, to come up with new features and innovate and prototype towards that vision. So depending on the type of player you are, you might appreciate more of one team’s work, or another team’s work. The physics have had a huge change, the AI has changed quite a bit, the graphics look tremendous. Community wise we have all these new features, there’s Autovista mode which is really like nothing else, so it’s completely unprecedented and some people are going to love it, and some are going to ignore it. There’s the Kinect integration which is bespoke, so you can use it or not, but its there all the time. It’s kind of hard to narrow it down without knowing who the player is.

Do you feel like Forza 4 is reaching the climax of what the series can do on the 360? On the website it says that Forza 4 is “the apex of graphics” on the Xbox 360.

That’s not what would I would say, it’s marketing speak. The issue is that innovation doesn’t come from hardware — it can be empowered by hardware, but it is not driven by hardware, unless that hardware is a radical new paradigm. Frankly more RAM and CPU and GPU isn’t a radical paradigm that’s just Moore’s Law. So Kinect for example, is a radical new paradigm. It’s a clean sheet design with entirely new ideas. But more hardware, more disc capacity, more this and that, that’s just Moore’s Law and that’s what we are really good at reacting to as a development team. The interesting thing is that I think most people think of innovation in the gameplay components, so physics, features and things like that, that are tangible to the player as gameplay. The truth is that it takes just as much incubation and innovation and creativity to do things like the new lighting engine. It’s development work, it requires optimisation and new approaches to how you do age old gaming problems and being on the same hardware for a while actually frees us up to trick the hardware into doing what we want, so this isn’t the apex of Forza at all because we still have so much more. I mean honestly, the vision we have got; turning car lovers into gamers and gamers into car lovers, we have had this vision for 10 years and I still believe that we are at the very bottom of Everest. This is about making car entertainment and something that is relevant within both car and gaming culture. It spans the globe and we’ve been a very successful title — we have garnered good support on the 360, among a lot of gamers and people who like cars. That is the vision that keeps me coming to work everyday — I’ve been working on this franchise for ten years and I still feel like we are at the bottom of the foothills of what we can do, the features we can bring, the way we can surprise our customers and that’s why our innovation has hockey sticked from version to version to version. Everyone is like “Oh there’s nothing that Turn 10 can do. Forza 3 was as much as it could be, so anything they do after this has to be a Forza 3.5” and I think we have proven with Forza 4, it isn’t a 3.5, its radical innovation and we can stay on this hardware and still have huge innovation.

You have had to go the extra mile though this time, haven’t you? With the ‘making of’ videos in the Bernese Alps for example, you have had the team taking photos at different exposure levels to get the detail in. Is this new, or have you had to work harder to go the extra mile graphically?

Well, basically it’s the same general process we have used, even since Forza 1, but we add new tricks to take advantage of new technology that we have baked into it. So, the multiple exposure levels was to get HDR light maps which power the IBL (Image Based Lighting) and so that is something new we had to do for this version, and we had to recapture aspects and change aspects of all our tracks, even from Forza 3. But the going on location and taking thousands of photos, GPS, aerial photography and video are all things we’ve been doing since Forza 1 — we’ve just leaned a new trick. With Forza 2 we got a new GPS rig, with Forza 3, we used new techniques of capturing textures.

Going back to Autovista, why can’t you rev up the engines yourself?

For the most part it comes down to the way we incubated this idea, which was really based on Kinect. I find it more immersed in Kinect and it was a blank sheet design for Kinect. So the controller was kind of retrofitted to the Kinect Experience and in the Kinect experience you don’t really notice that you can’t rev the engine because it feels so natural to move around the cars, and that is what becomes super compelling about it. When you are doing it with the controller, it feels much more like a game, when you are doing it with Kinect it feels like an experience brought into your living room, something really new. So that is the reason why — it’s a kinect experience retrofitted to the controller.

Can you see Autovista branching out into other areas and industries? Into car dealerships for example?

The interesting thing about Autovista as a Creative Director, is that I can’t wait to see what it does. This is just the tip of the iceberg for ideas that we have for this mode. It’s so unprecedented, so we are going to get a lot of feedback, a lot of data from how players are playing, the press feedback, from both the gaming and automotive side, and we have all of our partners – be it BMW, Ferrari or McLaren. It’s already starting and nobody has their hands on it yet, so I can’t wait to see how it turns out. We have all of our ideas, and we are going to start getting all this feedback which I think will help to change Autovista quite radically. So could I see it in dealerships? Yeah. Could I see it as its own game? Yeah. Could I see it integrated more deeply in other genres? Maybe. There is all of these potentials because its so new and we really don’t know where its going to go.

You are making efforts to enhancing the social aspect with Forza 4, why now?

A good idea is only a good idea if it’s done at the right time. Gaming has been evolving, and we have gained critical mass around people who don’t even think of themselves as gamers and they play like 20 hours of games a week on their phone or on Facebook or wherever, and a lot of those games are more social. People are thinking about social as more important component of their network — that is not always about going to the bars but sometimes its actually just sitting around on Skype or Facebook checking up on their friends, or even on their mobile. So, I think we’ve had the cultural relevance of community and social hit a big critical mass and that has gotten the attention of the large AAA franchises that are the innovation engines of the industry.

Will you be looking to add to that by releasing mobile applications in the future?

It’s a no brainer, but we need to find the right time and the right resources to really deliver those kinds of experiences at the quality level that we insist upon for our franchise to grow.

What games outside of the racing genre do you take inspiration from to put into Forza?

I appreciate that question because usually, I am asked the opposite. I play all the other racing games but I take no inspiration from them because the goal is to actually push the genre forward, and we’re known for pushing so much more than most of the genre because of things with social and UGC (User-Generated Content) and so on. So I tend to look at the other franchises that are not thinking about themselves as a competitive war in the marketplace —they think about a longer vision and the experience they want to provide to people. So, we take inspiration from Pokémon for our levelling systems and addictive layer rewards and variable schedule for rewards to get people addicted. World of Warcraft for our Auction House. Storefronts was from Yahoo Stores. We look at a lot of different areas, not only in gaming, but outside, to draw in inspirations. Our team is that nexus between passionate gamer culture and car culture — that’s who we are. So this holiday, as soon as I am done with the press trip I am going to go home, have a holiday with my family and then play Call of Duty, Skyrim, Battlefield and then Gears of War 3. I am a hardcore gamer, as are most of the guys on my team.

With the Top Gear stuff, the Bowling Challenges are really great fun. You said earlier that Turn 10 can be “a bit dry” and you wanted Top Gear to bring in the fun. Did you want to please the casual gamers?

I don’t know if it’s more casual. We didn’t think of that really in terms of gamers necessarily. All of it comes down to our design philosophy, which is I don’t believe you have to choose to cater to a hardcore or a casual gamer, I think that means you are a poor designer. I think if you can manufacture your design in a structured way, you can make a make a chair that is both good to look at and comfortable, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. So at our core, we have the physics engine and our goal is to be on the cutting edge at all times, not just on the 360 but across all consumer grade devices — at 60FPS with great graphics. But then we add assists and we make it so a six year old can play, especially for Kinect. But that doesn’t make it fun ether. What makes it fun is giving people diversity, giving them a playground where they can explore their car passion and have fun with their cars, so we add a full range of challenges, from classic 12 car racing — very hardcore in that sense — to passing car challenges and Autocross and Drift, all the way to probably the lightest fare, which is the Top Gear Bowling Challenge — and that is what brings the fun, the surprise, the diversity, where you don’t expect it. It didn’t rob from the physics, it wasn’t like we all of a sudden switched to crazy arcade jumping or something like that, we kept it based on simulation physics.

With the loading times, I was pleasantly surprised that they weren’t as long as I expected. Was that something you had to work extra hard at? Everybody knows GT5’s loading times were poor, what did you guys do to bring them down if they were at that level before?

Two components. One, as you are on the same hardware for a while, you learn how to trick the hardware and that is why getting the most out of the hardware requires you to share with other developers and we learn things from Epic and Lionhead and we bring that in house, and that’s what allowed us to bring the loading times down. There is a lot of techniques. The other interesting aspect is that there is often been discussion regarding high capacity discs, and I’ll tell you as a game dev, the nice things about DVD’s and games that are downloaded on a hard drive is that loading times are lower. High capacity discs have slower reads always. The slower your read-in is, the less stuff you can steam in, the more stuff you keep in RAM, the lower res it has to be, the less good looking it is. So that’s a reality across all hardware, and you can trick things. You can make loading quicker and stream faster if you trick things and we are doing all of those tricks on a faster DVD format. So that’s why we have two discs. The second disc is an install because it allows us to stream as quickly as possible and ideally for us, if I’m being honest, is to have things installed on the hard drive because that’s the fastest read altogether, and if you could guarantee that everything was on the hard drive we could make the graphics even better because we can make the streaming system even more compact. Yes, I come from the dev side.

You’ve gone 16 multiplayer in Forza 4, was that a big challenge?

Yeah. Again, we split out our team into groups, and they can take on one, maybe two, really hard challenges and we look at all the features, some we call the usual suspects — features we look at every year since Forza 1 and they are always there and sometimes are right near the top but they are not one or two because of the right idea at the right time, they are not the biggest thing we can do to push our vision. So 16 player multiplayer was a huge challenge. The IBL, huge challenge. One was for the graphics team, one for the networking team and yeah, it was hard.

Have you got the infrastructure in place for the post launch support of 16-player multiplayer? There are a lot of devs who struggle to support multiplayer after release.

You can never say you are totally prepared, that is asking for trouble. What I can say, is that we have been doing this a long time. Our livery editor that we added in Forza 1, we expected it to be steady and it went crazy. In Forza 2, we added the Auction House, we thought it would be steady, and people went nuts for it. Same with the Storefront. Photo downloads from the websites, same thing. We have been doing multiplayer a long time, its a very experienced team. Does that mean that we believe we have the support in place and we are paranoid? Yes. Does it mean we have every contingency covered? Of course not. So our plan is to support it like we have in the past. Our community is so strong because we have placed such a big investment into community features but every time we release features, like Autovista or Car Clubs and Rivals, I simply know that our players are going to play it not only how we expect, but there are going to use it in ways we never expected and its going to create things we have to react to.

And that is where the interview came to a swift conclusion. We genuinely enjoyed our time with Dan Greenawalt, and speaking to him and seeing his passion first hand has reminded us that he is the perfect person to be heading up Forza 4, which has the potential to be one of the best racers from anyone to date.

Forza Motorsport 4 releases on October 14th, exclusively for Xbox 360.