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.
The GPS system used to capture the tracks is from Trimble and is accurate to sub-foot measurements. Curbing, fencing, and altitude changes at this level of detail let you see and feel the road surface of each real-world course (dedicated or street-based) that you would see and feel if you were actually driving the course. Professional-grade digital SLR cameras are used to take photos at every 10 feet of track in a complete 360-degree field of view. For a track like Laguna Seca, the team took about 3,000 photos. Tsukuba, a relatively short track, was captured with about 2,000 images. Taking this many photos often leaves the team at the track for several days at a time just to make sure they get everything they could possibly need. Video capture is done with a digital camcorder mounted with a car-mounting system.
For real-word city tracks there were additional difficulties. There is so much extra stuff to capture in the background that urban courses require more pictures than racetracks. Tokyo, for example, took more than 5,000 photos. To minimize the number and still retain high-resolution quality, the teams "shoot buildings from the sidewalk across the street from the building of interest," Wong said. At street level, crowds and buses are added to fill in the area where the photo details aren't as sharp. The team sometimes has to walk the circuit several times to document and photograph the entire area. And sometimes the team can catch unwanted attention. As Wong told it: "On our post 9/11 visit to New York, the team was asked by a security official to not photograph a particular building due to security fears."
The desire to pack as much detail as possible into the game has paid off in several ways. For one, the game has come the closest to bridging the gap between real and virtual. The vehicles and tracks have been gone over with fine-tooth combs by designers and programmers to build a racing simulation game that reflects their passion and experience in motorsports. A side benefit to all the gamers out there is that everything was captured at such a high level for version one that all the references will be usable for the next generation console (read Xbox 360) and beyond. Keep an eye out, as the Forza Motorsport team is still together and working on new stuff. Game on.
The Gear, The Gadgets, Shiny StuffIf you're looking to take your gaming experience to another level you will have to get up off the couch. You need to plant yourself in a driving simulator. Sitting in a race seat, gripping a steering wheel, and working the pedals is the only way to play if you are looking for complete immersion in the racing environment. Once you try a driving simulator you may never go back to a hand-held controller again.
The Forza team uses not one but two simulators to test and evaluate any number of games for multiple platforms. After much research they went with a VRX (www.vrx.ca) setup and loaded it up with many custom features to fit their needs for both now and the future. See below for a complete listing of the Forza Motorsport driving simulator setup. For someone of modest means, like magazine writers, this setup would be perfect for home use. The VRX chair can be configured to work with any platform: PC, Xbox, PlayStation.
Billed as "The World's Finest Personal Racing Simulator," the VirtualGT (www.virtual-gt.com) is as close as you can come to getting behind the wheel of a racecar without actually doing so, and all in the comfort of your home or office. This is an all-in-one system. It comes with a complete electronics rack configured to the user's specs; a Mastercraft-designed racing seat comfortable enough for hours of continuous use; integrated steering wheel and pedals; and up front, a monitor stand that holds any of the optional screens, from 37- to 42-inch plasma widescreen LCDs (there is also a 75-inch DLP projector screen available). The body is constructed from nine-ply Baltic birch. Aircraft fasteners are used throughout. The audio cables are hidden inside stainless-steel lines and -AN fittings.
Forza Motorsport Driving SimulatorVRX Chair with Butt-Kicker and 5.1 surround sound systemPlayStation 2 with HD component cables and optical audio outXbox with HD component cables and optical audio outAdrenaline Pilot Series 3600GT gaming PC with optical audio out Xbox 360 (newest addition)LCD TV/monitorComponent video and digital audio switch box with cablesLogitech MOMO wheel and pedal set (PC)Logitech Driving Force Pro GT wheel and pedal set (PC and PS2)Fanatec Speedster 3 wheel and pedal set (Xbox and Xbox360)
VRX Racer Pro PC (MSRP $2,695, base model starts at $895)Polished chrome chassisPolished aircraft grade aluminum speaker mounting bracketsPolished aircraft grade aluminum seat mounts and wingsLED lighting effectsHigh-gloss paint with 3D epoxy decals Suspension-mounted Sparcoracing seatLogitech Driving Force Pro wheel with force feedback1,500-watt tactile transducer (Butt-Kicker) 1,100-watt tactile power amplifierSpherex 5.1 Dolby 300-watt (RMS) surround sound3 digital inputs, 1 analog, 1 USB 1.1 device portAdvanced keyboard design to enable efficient interactive positioning
VirtualGT Pro-PC OptionShuttle XPC System with Intel 915G and ICH6-R Chip Set3.0GHz Intel Prescott processor with 2MB cache800MHz front side bus speed1GB dual-channel DDR 400 RAM16X PCI-Express video slot ATI X800XL PCI-Express video card with 256MB DDR3 memory Dual output Six-channel audio Gigabit Ethernet (3) 80GBWestern Digital serial ATA harddrives in hot-swappable enclosure ICE (Integrated Cooling Engine) for superior cooling, Smart Fan for quiet operation.250-watt power supply Length x Width x Height (in.): 11.81x7.87x7.28 All aluminum construction Wireless keyboard with built-in mouse and trackball controller accessories included(1) 9 ft. USB male/female extension cable(1) 9 ft. 3.5mm Mini Stereo Phone to dual RCA audio cable(1) 6 ft. VGA video cable(1) 6 ft. power cordAvailable optional link kit to connnect multiple VGTs for head-to-head racing
The Sound Of SpeedAn engine's signature sound is a huge part of the gaming experience. If you select a BMW M5 and it sounds like a Buick V6, it doesn't matter how good the graphics are-realism goes right out the window. That's why Microsoft Game Studios is on what seems like a never-ending quest to find the world's most desirable cars-and record them.
This is a massive undertaking that often takes several years and millions of dollars to complete. The process begins with audio content coordinator Mark Price, who is charged with locating the most lusty performance cars-not only on these shores, but Europe and Asia if necessary. "The first thing I do is think about the person that owns the type of car I'm looking for," said Price. "Where is the best place to look for that person? For a Miata, I'd say a Miata club. For a Nissan, probably a Nissan service center or dealer. For a Lamborghini, I would locate a club and find out who the collectors are." Price's most challenging assignment thus far was collaborating with another game studio in Great Britain to record the heady sounds of an Audi R8. "The recording took place at the Audi Sport engine plant in Ingolstadt, Germany," Price explained. "The other game studio flew to Germany to record the engine."
Whenever possible, the car in question is recorded on a chassis dyno near Microsoft's sprawling campus in Redmond, Wash. "The way we use dynos and the type of dynos we use are very specific," said Gregory Shaw, audio lead for Microsoft Game Studios. "We require dynos that are quiet, and those that can place the engine under load so we can recreate the growl of acceleration."
We visited one of Microsoft's recording sessions at Dyno Authority, also of Redmond (www.dynoauthority.com), where a BMW M3 was being placed on the rollers. Sound engineer Mary Olson was busy placing high sound pressure level (SPL) condenser mics at strategic locations on the car: two at the exhaust, two over the engine itself, and one directly above the airbox, which had been relieved of its air filter element. "The goal of these sessions is to accurately capture the key characteristics of each car," said Olson.
Unlike what you might expect, cars are not recorded going through the gears, downshifting, etc. Instead, Microsoft uses a "sound recipe" of sorts. "Before sound is even introduced, we use software that lays out the physics of the game," Shaw explained. "The audio engine, which is the other part of the program, works in concert with the physics engine. We sample specific rpm and load conditions, take the rpm sample and loop it, then map that loop against physics variables (rpm, load, throttle position) to manipulate the sound."
The situation gets more complicated when plausible modifications to each car are taken into consideration. In Forza, players can upgrade their car with myriad mods, from aftermarket exhausts to superchargers and turbochargers. "This builds a list of sound permutations," said Shaw. "For example, if on the M3, you can upgrade the intake and exhaust three times, we would have three separate recordings of that M3." On Forza 1, Shaw noted that there were 788 base foundation sounds. In some instances, components that affect sound may be layered on top of the base foundation to achieve the desired effect.
"I document what upgrades or modifications have been made to each car and enter it into a database," Price explained. "That way, we know what a recording is-what exhaust and/or intake we're listening to-and that helps us decide where to use that recording. Even more challenging is deciding which recording we use for which car in the game. A lot of times, it's not possible to locate a specific car, so we have to use another car with similar specifications."
Some of the most exotic recordings thus far consist of the Ferrari Enzo, F40, F50, a vintage 250TR, and the aforementioned R8. But believe it or not, the most coveted sounds originate from more plebian models. "A lot of the coolest cars are the modded-out production models," said Shaw. "They're the most fun for me. You get these cars on the dyno with big turbos and open exhaust, and they just sound awesome." -Chris Hemer