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Forza Motorsport 3: Microsoft's latest offers 100 tracks, 400 cars, 300,000 polygons

Thu, 29 Oct 2009

Even if you were an international billionaire playboy car collector (and, this being AutoWeek, some of you are), you probably would not own more than 100 or 200 cars. If you could own a racetrack, you probably could not afford more than one. You could not jet around the world on a whim--especially with all those cars--to drive whatever track you were in the mood for at the moment. They tend to book Le Mans far ahead, after all. But as of Oct. 27, anybody with $59.95 can buy Forza Motorsport 3 (FM3) for Xbox 360 and do better than the best international billionaire playboy. Electronically speaking, that is.

FM3 features 400 detailed and accurate road and race cars that you can drive on 100 equally detailed and accurate international racetracks. You can customize your car, personalize a paint scheme or "buy" ready-made paint jobs with credits you get by racing, and you can "photograph" your car and show off the photos online.

FM3 has its strengths and some weaknesses. But it comes out many months before chief rival Gran Turismo 5 hits stores and has the largest collection of highly detailed cars and the most accurately detailed tracks now available on a home gaming console. FM3's developers invited us to Microsoft headquarters outside Seattle to have a look at the finished product, giving us a prism through which to glimpse this huge slice of the entertainment pie.

Video games are now part of a worldwide industry that passed the $30 billion sales mark worldwide and could hit $50 billion in as little as two or three years--fast surpassing movies, music and girlfriends as a way to dispose of your disposable income.

This gives game developers more leverage, especially in the automotive sector. Developers used to have to pay manufacturers for the rights to use real-life cars in their games. But the tide has turned.

"Now they're recognizing the marketing benefits," said FM3 content director John Wendl. "Research has tied purchase intent to exposure in video games. Forza did research and said, 'Look, games are selling cars for you.'" Now many manufacturers pay for exposure in games.

How did FM3 become such a powerhouse? Microsoft's Xbox was a big success before the original Forza Motorsport launched in May 2005. But with automotive-themed games such as Gran Turismo and Grand Theft Auto grabbing huge chunks of market share, Microsoft knew it had to do something big.

"Gran Turismo is the crown jewel for Sony," said Dan Greenawalt, game director at Microsoft's Turn 10 Studios, which made all of the Forza games. "Back in 2002, we decided we needed a crown jewel for our racing."

Forza games quickly became known for their realism--their "physics," as gamers describe the way cars realistically react to tuning and to skillful driving. The market responded. Forza Motorsport 1 sold more than 1.5 million copies. FM2 sold 3.5 million. The numbers for FM3 should continue to track upward.

Turn 10's people set the parameters for the new game early. They wanted something with incredible detail, cars so accurate they looked like photographs of real cars. They wanted tracks to match. And they wanted cars that reacted as closely as possible to the way real cars react to inputs and chassis setups. But the main challenge they sought to address was to make such a detailed product accessible to and enjoyable for everyone, from the dedicated gamer-driver to someone picking up a controller for the first time.

"We wanted to make the best [simulation] we could and still make it accessible to the arcade user," said Greenawalt.

In video-game lexicon, an "arcade" game is a fairly simple, easy-to-use, fun game that anyone can switch on and drive. It's like a cartoon. A "sim," or simulation, is far more detailed and accurate. It takes much more time for developers and players, as well as more effort and disc space.

"That's actually a really hard trick," said Greenawalt. "Most developers approach it as black-and-white--it's either a sim or an arcade. We wanted to accomplish both. So the game's like an onion. It has different layers depending on how deep you want to go."

"I learned a lesson when my dad played Forza 2," said Wendl. "He laughed, crashed and probably wouldn't come back. We've created this game to be fun for anyone."

AutoWeek and Microsoft have partnered to bring content to the Forza Motorsport 3 universe. Gamers and fans can tap into the FM3 Web the latest automotive, racing and enthusiast commentary. Also, look for contests and special offers just for fans of FM3 and AutoWeek.


How did they do that and get it all on two 8-gig DVDs? Plenty of work, plenty of people. At Turn 10 alone, 350 people worked almost around the clock during peak development. That doesn't include "several partners" in India, Vietnam, China, Europe and all over North America. Those were coders, artists, testers, software engineers and source-material experts (i.e., car guys).

The core team in the studio worked in three-week sprints, after which they would have a "scrum," where that portion of development was presented and debated.

Wendl said he worked nonstop on FM3 throughout June, July and August. Team members would often sleep on couches in the office. Food was delivered. Families visited. They got more efficient, though: FM1 took about a year of hard work, and the crunch time for FM3 was only about three months.

Of course, there was still plenty to do before the crunch. First, they had to decide which cars and features to include.

"We had no shortage of guys with ideas about what they wanted to put in, but you have to be able to say no," said Brian Lockhart, chief of the Turn 10 program managers. "You have to keep to a timetable and have a finish date. If you don't, your competition crushes you, or your team starts to burn out."

There are hundreds of features on FM3, everything from complete car interiors (a first for the series) to 600 different wheel patterns. Each required CAD data, detailed photos and measurements. So the thinning of the ideas was a constant process.

The team whittled the original list of potential cars from 2,000 down to the 400 "most important." After launch, new cars will be added via online downloads, about one a month.

"The amount of detail on these cars is just crazy," said Wendl. "We had to do the lug nuts, windshield spray nozzles, interiors for all 400 cars. We have a level of detail that was only possible in movies five years ago."

It took $2 million of work to put all of those accurate interiors into all of those cars, down to the dials on the digital and analog gauges.

"You can see the warning label on the sun visor," boasted Wendl.

Such a level of detail required teams to mine CAD data from the manufacturer, perform digital scanning of the car or perform an intense photo session--preferably all three. A 60-page photo-spec document required 700 to 800 photos. The photos were then loaded into the 3-D modeling package at Turn 10's studio.

Then the source-material experts (SMEs) went to work. They knew exactly which wheels went on which model and what vent belonged where for the appropriate year, make and model. "We're the guys looking out for the gearheads," said SME Matt Laverty. The detail has evolved exponentially with video games, Laverty said, to the point where one car had a reminder note: "Do not model dead insect in radio."

"You're going from 300-polygon cars to 300,000-polygon cars," Laverty pointed out. A polygon is like a pixel, except it's mathematical instead of physical.

For earlier video games, cars were fixed blocks of dark light; no one worried about the images reflecting in the paint. Now, everyone does.

With so many in-game upgrades available, few players will keep their cars stock. There is a significant list of upgrades for each car you can pick and choose yourself, or you can have the game install prepackaged accessories with different performance goals. For example, FM3 offers 400 stock wheels and 200 from the aftermarket. Gamers can set stagger, width, aspect ratio and ride height. They can install body kits and numerous upgrades for the engine, chassis and drivetrain.

With the right combination, you could turn a Honda Fit into a Ferrari killer. You could make a 1,000-hp Volkswagen GTI, changing it from a front-wheel-drive four-banger into a rear-drive V6. You could add slicks and downforce and change the camber, sway bars, air pressure and gear ratios, all for better lap times. When your car is done, you get instant specs showing how your changes affect performance.

As you increase your car's performance, if you're racing, you also go up a class or two, so that 1,000-hp GTI might not be the best way to attack the supercar class. Or it might be. FM3's artificial intelligence will run a theoretical lap to test your new setup. The detail can intimidate a beginner, so there are various levels of assistance available.

"You want to bring the fun parts of racing into the game and leave out the parts that suck," said Wendl.

An enormous share of the team's budget went into physics, the part of the simulation that mimics on-screen what that actual car would do in the real world.

FM3's developers gathered many terabytes of data to create the physics you see. There are eight to 12 gigs of it per car. The finished game represents 39,000 hours of work gathering the physics data alone.

Designers collect 300 data points, or variables, per car: chassis stiffness, lift, drag, tire compounds, and so on. Then they put those through a mathematical model that calculates what effect the data would have on the car. Sometimes performance means better 0 to 60 mph, 100 to 0 mph or lateral g's. Sometimes it means the car flips over when it hits the guardrail.

That process of putting the data through the mathematical model is called AutoMagic. It is like running a huge equation for every bump--or, more accurately, 360 huge equations per second, part of which includes every bump.

FM3 runs at 360 hertz, meaning it "samples"--checks, rechecks and compares the moving car against the mathematical model--360 times a second. Most games run at 60 hertz. So when you hit that bump on the concrete runway at Sebring, your car, with the springs, shocks and tires you put on it, reacts just as it would at the real Sebring.

To take full advantage of this modeling, FM3 presents everything on your screen at the rate of 60 frames a second, so it appears almost like the real thing. It takes up a lot of disc space and requires a lot of processing, but it is worth it.

Turn 10 is particularly proud of its chassis-flex and tire-sidewall-flex simulations. The studio has partnerships with various industry leaders, from Michelin for tire data to real carmakers such as Audi and McLaren. They input CAD data from manufacturers along with their own measurements and real-world info.

"On other games, the car is just a brick," said Wendl. "A Mustang handles like an Audi R8. Even race teams don't model their cars as thoroughly as we do ours. McLaren got as much out of our meeting as we did."

The detail extends even to the sounds you hear in the game. FM3 engineers run every car on a dyno and record the intake noise, transmission noise and both stock and aftermarket exhaust. There is a pile of aftermarket exhaust pipes stacked in a corner of the office, left over from acoustic mapping sessions.

Developers also went to a crash-test facility and recorded the sounds each car made as it hit either concrete or guardrail--they did the same thing on the skidpad.

The same scrutiny goes into making the racetracks for the game. Of the 100 tracks in FM3, more than 60 are real-life venues. Team members spend two or three days at each track, taking thousands of photos and measuring gradients and bumps with military-grade surveying and data-acquisition equipment.

"We're trying to get as much detail as we can," said lead environment artist Matthew Collins. "We measure the camber of the road, the rumble-strip heights, and try to capture the general ambience."

Collins spent three days at Le Mans, walking the course with a GPS machine. He drove an NSX JGTC race car at Suzuka in Japan and spent a day studying the concrete bumps at Sebring.

They even visit the areas where the game's fantasy tracks could be, such as Sedona or Montserrat, photographing mountains, roads and bridges to be compiled into a realistic-seeming road course.

"These games have 10 times the polygons as FM2, four times the texture and four times the resolution," said Wendl.

When Peugeot factory sports-car driver St

By Mark Vaughn