Like all video game genres, driving games have come a long, long way in the thirty-odd years since the public masses started shoving quarters down the machine's throat as fast as they could. From Night Driver to Pole Position to Outrun to Ferrari F355 Challenge, driving games have gotten better looking and more realistic every year. The switch from upright arcade machines to the home console market has not slowed either their popularity or advances in realism. Gran Turismo is the granddaddy of console driving simulation titles and deserves all the respect it has garnered, but it has been showing its age lately.
Arguably, one of the finest driving simulation titles on the console market today is Forza Motorsport from Microsoft Game Studios for the Xbox. We knew there had to be a dedicated group of enthusiasts behind this title, so we went to Microsoft HQ in Redmond, Wash., to get the scoop. After spending time with Forza Motorsport lead game designer Dan Greenawalt and his team, it became apparent as to why this title has an enthusiast's look and feel to it. Greenawalt has been with "Forza Motorsport" since its inception, and he's a car guy from way back. This is not just a job for his team. It is a passion, and they just happen to create video games.
This passion comes in part from the Forza team's interest and involvement in varied racing disciplines. John Wendl, art director, has raced motorcycles and in the Star Mazda series. Another with experience in Star Mazda is Aaron Ogus, development. Eugene Wong, lead environmental artist, has competed in national SCCA rally events. Motorcycle racing is how Christian "Squido" Owens, test lead, spends his time at the track. External team members Kiki Wolfkill and Chris Novak both have high level experience in both Touring Car and GT leagues. Several team members also participate in local autocross and sanctioned drag racing events.
With the well-rounded motorsport backgrounds of the above and with plenty more team members entrenched in the enthusiast lifestyle it is no surprise the vehicles and tracks have the most authentic feel of any driving sim console game out there. Capturing the vehicles and tracks is a time-consuming and sometimes arduous task. But once you play Forza Motorsport you realize all the hard work has paid off. Pulling back the curtain just a bit, here's a peek at how vehicles and tracks go from real to virtual.
For readers not familiar with the vehicles in Forza, the broad range of vehicles come from all over the world, from the tuner-friendly Honda Civic to the Le Mans-winning Joest Audi R8. Classics such as the Corvette Stingray and Shelby Cobra are also playable. According to Gabe Garcia, vehicle art lead, the car list came together after a lot of research to determine which were the hot cars, both current and historical. "We look at what the enthusiasts liked, what the aftermarket embraced, what cars are recognizable, and what is proven on the race track," Garcia said. Quantity doesn't matter when the quality is this good.
Once a vehicle has been selected, the manufacturer or race team (licensee) is contacted to see if the vehicle can be licensed for use in the game. More often than not the licensee is thrilled to be included, and it is not uncommon for the licensee to offer up additional vehicles in its lineup for use. Sadly, there has to be a cutoff or else the game would never ship. The Porsche Cayman was close to being in the first version, but it wasn't announced in time.
About the only similarity between a Honda Civic and an Audi R8 in the real world is how they are captured for use in the game. "It all starts with obtaining reference, from very specific photos to orthographic drawings to CAD data," Garcia said. The amount and availability of reference materials dictates how quickly the car can be built. "From there, each car is built by hand to a strict specification," Garcia continued. "This assures consistent detail levels from car to car and maintains a predictable load on the CPU for performance." From start to finish, a vehicle takes about four weeks to complete.
Being able to drive cars from around the world only makes sense you can drive them all over the world. Forza Motorsport is a truly global game. It was a difficult and time-consuming process, but Greenawalt and his team succeeded in getting premier tracks from around the globe. Not just any tracks, tracks that met their strict criteria: name recognition, size, difficulty, and global appeal. Just as with the vehicles, track owners had to be contacted to see if a license was available, and if so, set a time for the team to capture it.
Saying the track teams have intimate knowledge of each track would be accurate. Each team consists of three to five people, with each person trained to use every piece of equipment used to make sure every possible detail is captured. Eugene Wong explained that it "is important to send the people on the team who will be building (modeling) the track to that location because there is a lot of information that can't be quantified in the photos." This approach helps the tracks come alive during gameplay because the artists can add back in a sense of atmosphere and light quality the photos tend to leave out. The level of detail is such to where you can almost feel the hot, humid August morning at Road America.