An Interview with Dan Greenawalt

October 8, 2009 by Jeff Barker  
Filed under Articles

Dan Greenawalt is a man with a vision. Creative Director of Turn 10 and responsible for bringing the Forza Motorsport series to our beloved grey box, his vision is to simply turn “Car Lovers into Gamers, and Gamers into Car Lovers” – backed up by wrought-iron and child-like enthusiasm for the latest installment of one of console racing’s most respected franchises. We caught up with him in London’s Docklands Raceway recently, and we all left feeling VERY excited about Forza Motorsport 3.

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VGR: So Dan, what was your main goal with Forza Motorsport 3 – and do you think you’ve achieved it?

Dan: Well, as we mentioned back in the original pitch in 2002 the vision was to turn Gamers into Car Lovers, and Car Lovers into Gamers. So we looked at a lot of other game types in general – we were inspired by Pokemon, World of Warcraft and Dark Cloud – but also looking at our kids and watching how they play with cars, how natural their passion with cars is. I’ve got 18 month old twins, and they only have a few words, right? But I’ve got a yellow car at home, and when they play with the yellow Hot Wheel they’re going “Daddy, Daddy” and they’re building that passion for cars. So, that’s the setup – we’ve now got a game that a six-year old can play, and a pro racer can use to train, and everyone else inbetween finds a game that feels completely made for them. If you’re into JDM, or German Touring Cars, it doesn’t matter. The game automatically configures itself to your car passion.  If you’re a gamer and a controller feels natural: fantastic. If you’re a driver and a steering wheel feels natural: great. When I go to the airport, and I see a bunch of other blokes sitting around reading car magazines, I know they’re not all playing racing games, but I know they’d all love to. They’re looking at reports from the Frankfurt Auto Show, or looking at the new cars, reading the specs and going “wow, this is so cool”. Read the specs? Drive it! You know, get it in the game, crash it into a wall, paint it pink…I don’t care, it’s your car passion, and that’s what it’s all about.

VGR: Forza Motorsport is the flagship racing franchise on Xbox 360, how do you think it matches up against the likes of Sony’s Gran Turismo series?

Dan: Gran Turismo’s the granddaddy, right? Kazunori Yamauchi made a great game, I loved it back on the PSOne, it was fantastic. Our goal was to make a game for this generation, for todays gamer and for today’s modern design. So that means having the best simulation possible, better than you’ll find in any other racing game. The sort of simulation we’re doing with the tyres and partnerships we have are only possible with being a first party (developer) and being (part of) Microsoft. We’ve been doing damage in racing games for ten years now, and there’s this myth in the industry that you can’t do damage in racing games, but it just comes from having strong partnerships. So we have damage, we have rollover, we have the best simulation you’re going to find and we have beautiful graphics. Beautiful graphics are part of the bar, but what I’m most proud of is the fact that a six year old can play the game, and as you “grow up” and get more experience in the game, you turn off the assists and you begin peeling the onion back. You’re becoming a better driver, a better racer, and hopefully your passion’s getting ignited so we have a game that grows with you. You don’t find that in other racing games. I’m not saying that we’re the best, I’m saying that we’re doing some really cool, some really unique stuff here. We’re not saying we want to get involved in a land war with some other game because that would be limiting. We don’t look to copy, we look to our competitors to see where the bar is. So even Rewind, DiRT’s got it, GRiD’s got it – that’s just the bar, and any game that doesn’t have it is gonna seem outdated. We added the Green Line, and you see it in other games; Gran Turismo’s got it. That’s not to say it’s copying or not copying, but it’s my job to look at our competitors and see where the bar is.

VGR: Do you think there’s things you wouldn’t be able to accomplish if you weren’t a first party developer?

Dan: I don’t think this game would be anywhere close to popular if we weren’t a first party developer. Our AI System was done by Microsoft Research in Cambridge, and that’s not a small division of a small game company, it’s a division of Microsoft that works on crazy weird problems. They love F1 and they just wanted to make an AI System, so they shopped it around to the different places and we said “we’ll take it, that sounds pretty cool”. And of course the partnerships that I’ve already mentioned, there’s no way you’d be able to do that in another game.

VGR: Are you looking to use Project Natal for a Forza game?

Dan: The strength in my team is its creativity. We’ve got developers from Nintendo, developers from Blizzard and developers from all over the world that have come together because they have a passion for cars and a passion for technology. We’re huge gamers – I lost myself in Batman: Arkham Asylum. That game was awesome, way better than I thought a Batman game could be. I played a ton of Fallout and I had three characters at Level 60 in World of Warcraft, and my team are all like this too. So, we look at Natal and we’re just like “that is so freaking cool”. The excitement level in the team is very very high. I think there’s even more that can be done with trying to turn Car Lovers into Gamers and Gamers into Car Lovers when I look at Natal. The moment I saw it I was like “yes, I can make an amazing experience there and yes, I can get people SO stoked about cars”. We need to start prototyping, start playing with it and seeing what’s fun and what’s cool.

VGR: What was the biggest lesson you learned while making the game?

Dan: It’s not very sexy, but the truth of the matter is Team Organisation. We’ve got a giant team. 125 people on our floor plus another 200 scattered across the rest of the world working for two and a half years on a mature codebase. My job isn’t to tell them “this feature, that feature or that feature”, my job is to inspire my team. They’re such high level developers, what I do is say “look, here’s our vision – and here’s some ideas for some features, impress me”, and that’s what they do, They come back to me and I go “wow, you knocked it out of the park, that’s way better than I imagined”. We’ve kind of got pharaoh’s army here! Just having lieutenants that are incredibly creative powerhouses is the secret to being successful.

VGR: Forza Motorsport 3 is a double-disc release; can you explain what the second disc is all about?

Dan: We had a lot of DLC for Forza Motorsport 2, we had DLC Cars and DLC Tracks – and that’s what Disc 2 is – it’s a year’s worth of free DLC. The fist disc has over 300 cars, and it has tons of tracks, the full multiplayer, the full single player, it’s the full game. So you put the second disc in your console and it sees it like DLC, it installs it onto your Hard Drive, and those cars automatically work themselves into the game. It’s all very automatic, very AI based. So you can have the biggest racing game this holiday, or you can have the bigger-est racing game this holiday. We’re gonna do DLC as well. If we see a car in the Frankfurt Motor Show then bang, there it is for you to download. So the game’s just always going to be updated.

VGR: Is there anything in the game that’s a Dan Greenawalt stamped “you must try this”?

Dan: Because this game crosses such a broad spectrum, from a pro race driver down to a six year old who just wants to play with Hot Wheels, most of you will find yourselves somewhere in the middle. If you just hit A, A, A through your career, you’ll get a very unique career to you, customised based on the cars that you have, but if you really want to get that stamp of uniqueness on it, after you’ve finished your first two events in your calendar, it’s going to ask if you if you want to do a third. At that point, back out and go to the “buy car” area, and you’re going to have a lot of money – go buy a car that you care about. There’ll be over 80 cars to choose from at this point, classics, you name it. Once you do that, the career is going to start branching in huge, huge leaps. If you’re in a BMW, it’s going to feel like Turn 10 made you a BMW game. If you’re in a Ferrari it’s going to feel like Turn 10 made you a Ferrari game. Not everyone’s going to find this naturally, so it’s a good tip. You do that, you go talk to your friends, you’re going to have stories that they don’t and it’s just gonna create that car passion, it all goes back to the initial vision.

VGR: So, tell us about the AI in Forza 3 – is it better? Will it react differently to each player’s driving style?

Dan: Actually, it will even react differently based on the Rewind function. They (Microsoft’s Research division in Cambridge) created a very, very different AI system to any other game that I’ve ever worked on. Usually your AI’s scripted, they don’t drive the full physics, and that’s a good thing as a designer because I can control it. A lot of AI is like driving bumper cars, when you hit them, they don’t get out of the way and they don’t do what your car does. Forza’s always had AI that drives the raw physics, and we have to keep training it. The cool thing about this Research AI is we trained it like a kid – you don’t program it, you actually have it drive the cars and it learns how to drive the cars better, and it does things that we don’t expect. It learns bad habits and learns cool things too. The AI pressure system that I talked about at E3 was a new system that it (the AI) started, we didn’t. We actually found that it was reacting to the player following it, and we could tweak some of the variables on it to make it happen more or less. So we didn’t so much develop that, as discover it. It’s another one of the freaky things about this system. It’s continually evolving.