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Dan Greenawalt is one of the original team who pitched the game that became Forza Motorsport. Now Game Director of the franchise at Turn 10 Studios, he's been working with racers for more than a decade. The industry, the studios and the genre itself has changed a lot over those ten years, and we took a few moments to sit down with Dan and ponder the current state of the racing game.
While it stuck to the same rough formula for Forza 1-4, one of the major changes to the franchise this year has seen new British studio Playground Games given developer duties on Forza Horizon, which Greenawalt labels a "new expression" of the Forza vision.
It's the first game that Playground has worked on as a cohesive team, but the core team of developers brings an impressive racing pedigree to the table, says Greenawalt, "Some going back, y'know, 20 years...". In addition to developers with experience on the Colin McRae series, TOCA Touring Car Championship, GRID and DiRT, employees were brought in from across Europe and the UK.
Greenawalt mentions the "great talent" which came from Bizarre Creations and Black Rock Studio, British racing game developers that both closed their doors over the past couple of years. It's an alarming statistic, which has been interpreted by some as a lack of audience interest in racing games.
That statement is quickly shot down, as Greenawalt explains:
When you look at the very big racing franchises, they're still doing great. Forza's increased its sales, year after year, we've had good critical acclaim, we've had great sales. The other top racing franchises have actually done the same!
Instead, he has his own theories about why these studios are closing, and it's not one which is attached simply to any one particular genre.
If I was to put on my analyst hat for a second, I would think - we talk about the rise of mobile gaming, and the changing of gaming, with XBLA and social gaming on Facebook as well as mobile. That's taking some of the wind out of the mid-tier market. but it doesn't seem to be affecting the top-tier market at all.
Meanwhile, the top tier market is doing really, really well, though. The shooter category, the adventure category, the action category - we've seen a lot of studio closures in all of those genres, but again it's the mid-tier. It looks like the oxygen is going away there, and it's being spread to the top tier and to these other alternative styles of gameplay.
It's been well-documented that more and more people are dipping their toes into the murky waters of social games, as people who'd never consider themselves "gamers" log into Facebook to check their crops, or load up a quick round of Drop7 on the train. People who were once "intimidated" by controllers bristling with buttons and joysticks are now easing their way into the ecosystem, thanks to the social apps being added to consoles (and the flipside of games being added to social networks).
However, Greenawalt observes that at the same time as there is an influx at this bottom rung, gaming is "becoming more mainstream" and more people are playing games at higher levels, too. He refers to the generation who's grown up playing video games with "more complicated interface devices". They are now aging and taking things a little more seriously, demanding more sophisticated entertainment.
It feels like, to me, there are more people - a more diverse group of gamers - playing the Gears, the Forzas, the Fables, the Halos of the world than there ever has been before.
It's an impact that isn't only reverberating through the consumer side of the argument, either. While the mid-tier studios are being closed down, the developers themselves are taking one of two approaches. Either, they're stepping up, joining big companies, working for The Man, and creating major AAA releases. If that doesn't appeal, they're stepping back, meeting up with a few friends, working for themselves, and creating indie games focussing on the mobile and social markets.
The truth is, our timelines on these big, big budget games, are extremely long. We have huge teams, we have big budgets, and it takes a long time to develop them. The smaller games, with smaller teams, are able to rise and fall and fail much more quickly, and with much less risk. That is a great place for incubation and innovation.
Ever since the creation of the original Forza Motorsport, the aim has been to "turn gamers into car lovers, and car lovers into gamers" with a blend of hardcore serious racing (as you try to shave a tenth of a second off of your lap time) and a more fun, casual approach. Forza Horizon takes a different approach to the same vision, switching the ratios around a bit, but still maintaining the same key components.
However, you can't maintain a series just by rearranging the same two elements, and so Greenawalt explains they look to other games on the market as great sources of new ideas. "We have our own ideas," he laughs, pointing out that there is a creative process for developing those, "but as a creative director, it would be foolish to keep fishing the same grounds.
If ultimately what we do is blend chocolate and peanut butter in new and unique ways, creating new recipes, we should be always out at the farmers' markets, looking at "What are some new ingredients coming in that we can blend with our current ingredients and create an all-new experience that nobody's ever had?" - be that both at the smaller, small-tier level and the large tier level, by blending them with some of the epic content that we can create, as a Triple-A franchise.
So, where to from here? Will all these new ingredients combine to create games shaped more in the image of the traditional Forza Motorsport, focussing on the motorsport side of things - or will we see more in the vein of Forza Horizon, which throws elements into a more open-world setting to see what'll stick?
Greenawalt thinks for a moment, before deciding to perch squarely on the fence. "Both, and more!" he says.
I think the truth is that people are different, especially different styles of gaming, different motivations, different social networks, and there's room for both.
While games like Skyrim and Borderlands are "incredibly open world", other games like Mass Effect are much more narrative-driven, "much more linear", in Greenawalt's eyes (although, of course, some have branching decisions and branching character arcs). On the other side of the coin, he touches on games like Call of Duty, which he describes as "incredibly linear", with very little branching - and pins its great sales on the game's multiplayer elements.
...so when I look at racing, I think there are still a lot of people who enjoy the path of mastery and precision that motorsport lends itself to - and the level of competition! and there are some people that aren't motivated that way.
Having an open world, where they can really express themselves and be stylish and bond with music and cars? To me they both get to the same thing - they turn gamers into car lovers, and car lovers into gamers.
And that my friends - as Greenawalt keeps repeating - is what Forza Horizon is all about, and why the racing game genre is more complex, more creative, and stronger than ever.
Forza Horizon is out right now, exclusively for Xbox 360.
I like video games and music and cups of tea and noodles and beagles and colour-cycling LEDs.
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Jimmy the Geek