Smart Racers Win at Forza Motorsport

Microsoft game designer Dan Greenawalt set out to create the ultimate car-racing experience by making sure every tweak counts

When Dan Greenawalt set out to create Forza Motorsport, he knew from the get-go that this racing title wasn't going to be for the casual gamer. Greenawalt, a lead game designer at Microsoft Studios (MSFT), wanted players to truly understand cars before they could ever reach the pinnacle of the game. That meant educating them about physics so they could wring the most out of their speedsters.

"The voice behind this game is your really cool high school teacher," he says. You know the guy -- the one who taught thermal dynamics by explaining how race car wheels deteriorate more quickly the faster racers drive.

That's the effect Greenawalt tried to achieve when he and his team designed Forza. The $50 game, which hit the market in May, rewards players as much for their knowledge of auto mechanics as for their driving skill. The more finely tuned the car is -- with players able to adjust everything from a tire's camber to the car's aerodynamics -- the better it will handle on the track. And with 231 cars that can race on 45 different tracks, there's a lot of tinkering possibilities. While Forza isn't Microsoft's first racing title (that honor goes to its Project Gotham Racing series), it's clearly the most authentic.


 The soul of Forza can be found on a bookshelf in Greenawalt's office. There, Greenawalt, who studied physics at Colorado College, keeps his copy of Race Car Vehicle Dynamics. "I've read this book three times," he says. The 922-page tome, by William F. Milliken and Douglas L. Milliken, takes everything that's fun about driving cars really, really fast and breaks it down into complex physical formulas.

And those formulas make Forza fun. Each of the 231 cars in the game has its own physical characteristics, from weight to the way the springs affect the stability of the ride. What's more, each of the upgrades players can acquire -- roughly 40 per car -- have their own unique attributes. High-performance springs, for example, can create a stiffer suspension that improves responsiveness.

The modifications, though, don't remain static. Higher-grip tires, made from softer compounds, tend to wear out more quickly, affecting the way the car handles later in a race. Bumps and nudges from rivals will damage the car and alter the aerodynamics, which can reduce control. And the game even takes into account the weather at the track, with tires gripping better on warmer days.


  In many ways, Greenawalt's muse was also his biggest competition, the wildly popular Gran Turismo for the Sony (SNE) PlayStation and PlayStation2. The series, including the most recent Gran Turismo 4, lets gamers tune hundreds of cars, even more than Forza. Several games have tried to wrest the racing mantle from Gran Turismo, including Electronic Arts' (ERTS) Burnout series and Namco's Ridge Racer.

As much fun as Gran Turismo is, Greenawalt wanted more control over the cars he drove. And he wanted the game to punish drivers for making mistakes, like damaging their car to get past another car. "Forza is made by car people to infect the world, to make more car freaks," Greenawalt says.

None of this careful attention to detail is lost on Forza's most hardcore fans. Take Derrick Miller, a 47-year-old off-campus coordinator at Three Rivers Community College in Poplar Bluff, Mo. Miller works to get the most out of his virtual machines. So he went to the Web to research the race-tuning specs for a 2005 Ford Mustang GT and plugged them into his virtual ride in Forza. "I got a pretty zippy little car," Miller says.


  Miller likes Forza so much he has stopped playing Gran Turismo 4, a game he says he loved. Even though Miller says Gran Turismo 4 has better tracks and cars, he finds that Forza appeals to his intellect. The challenge isn't just driving well. It's tweaking the vehicle's components just right to get an edge over rivals. "It blows me away," he says.

Another nifty design feature is Forza's Drivatars, a driving avatar that mimics players' own driving styles, not found in any other game. Gamers race five different cars on five different tracks to let the computer learn their diving styles. The technology, developed by Microsoft's research lab in Cambridge, Britain, measures drivers' entry and exit points on different types of turns. It gauges how late they break going into a turn, and how fast they come out of one. It looks at the friction each tire uses going around bends.

Once players have set up their Drivatar, they can have it race for them and rack up points and unlock new levels while they're living away from the Xbox. Players can even put their Drivatar on a memory card and hand it over to a Forza-playing friend. Then the friend can race against his buddy's avatar whenever he wants to see how he measures up.


 Even the Drivatar teaches gamers something. To really succeed, players can retrain their Drivatars as their skills improve. So once players have mastered turning through radical hairpins and modest chicanes, they can go back and teach the Drivatar their newfound skills so it can compete better when it goes back on autopilot.

Like so much else with Forza, Greenawalt really is just like the cool high school teacher, trying to educate gamers about the finer points of racing.

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