Forza Motorsport 4 races into stores this week, delivering what is easily the finest racing simulation yet released for the Xbox 360 and an equal-footing contender to Sony's competing console-exclusive Gran Turismo series. Boasting a garage featuring 80 manufacturers spread across more than 500 cars of all types, not to mention a creative collaboration with the team from the BBC series Top Gear, Forza 4 is as much a celebration of the automobile as it is a test of how fast one can move over another.
That's the intended vision too, according to Turn 10 creative director Dan Greenwalt, who lifted the hood on Forza 4 for me in an interview last week. "We're in the racing genre but we're a car game and we're about car passion," he explained.
The evidence is written across the game's massive and widely varied assortment of cars, which covers everything from a fresh-out-of-the-workshop 2011 Ferrari 599 GTO to a sputtering, old 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI. The Rabbit, and other cars like it in the game, aren't necessarily what you'd think of as performance racing vehicles... and they're not.
"We think of [Forza] as a car game," Greenwalt said. "We have a lot of cars, tremendous diversity with 80 manufacturers and 500 cars, but for me and for our team, it's not about driving all those cars. In fact, we want you to drive fewer cars than you would in most games."
"It's interesting, because a lot of traditional racing games may or may not have less cars and yet the structure of the game is such that you're kind of meant to race all of them and throw cars away," he continued. "You get a car and that car becomes useless in later parts of the game and so you throw it away and you go to a new car."
With Forza 4, Turn 10 hopes to give players more of a feeling of connection with the game. The extensive car list speaks to that; you're not meant to sample each and every one. You can if you want to, but the real hope is that players will build up a garage that in some way means something to them.
"We're hoping that you find the five cars that matter to you personally," Greenwalt said. "Those are different than the five cars that matter to me. You and I may share in common an admiration of something like the Enzo, just because it's an amazing machine that crosses a lot of boundaries between different cultures, car cultures, gaming cultures and the like, but as you start working back in somebody's car passion, you find that there's a lot of diversity."
"So if you live in France, it's possible that a Renault 5 speaks to you. If you live in the south of the United States, maybe it's a Plymouth GTX. The thing is, the Plymouth GTX probably does not speak to the person from France and the Renault 5 doesn't speak to the guy from the south. That's why this car list is so diverse, so that we can find the five cars that matter to car culture around the world."
This is why you see so many "regular" cars available to drive in Forza 4, and also why the game's affinity system has been tweaked to focus solely on manufacturers as a whole.
"This came out of watching people play," Greenwalt revealed. "We wanted the affinity system to keep you in the cars you love, not ever get out of them." Interestingly, the team learned from Forza 3 that players would generally max a car out at level 5 and then move on to another one, an approach which is in direct opposition with the series' vision that Greenwalt laid out for me.
"We redesigned the system to keep you staying in the cars you love, and if you ever move off the car you love then there's a really good reason for you to go to the same manufacturer," he explained. "We found that Dodge people love Dodge cars, for example."
The changes have a huge impact. Maxing out your affinity with one manufacturer or another gives you 100 percent off -- yes, free -- upgrades in the shop. Meaning that clunker of a VW Rabbit you've been driving around -- and, against all odds, winning races with -- can be outfitted with better parts that put it up alongside vehicles in higher racing classes... all for no charge to you. This has resulted in some interesting lessons for the Turn 10 team, according to Greenwalt.
"The way we're finding the life of this goes is, somebody plays the game and they're getting options of gift cars [as they level up] that they didn't have in Forza 3. And they might only have a small affinity toward one versus the other. But it's there. A small affinity."
"So they make their choice. And then once they make their choice, they build affinity with that manufacturer and now they're encouraged to just experiment with that car. Just do any parts you want. Try A class, try S class, try C class with that car. But also, because they're building that up, the next time they have a choice between three manufacturers, and one of those is the manufacturer they've already built affinity with, BAM-- that's an easy choice."
So we're building loyalty, we're building affinity with the cars," he explained. "It's amazing; we've always had the pieces kind of there, in Forza 2 and Forza 3, but small realignments in the design is having huge social engineering impacts on us, the players. As we play our own game we're find that it's changing our behavior and changing our emotional relationship with the cars in a huge way."
The cars are of course the essential piece of this puzzle. It's not just that you have 500+ cars to choose from in Forza 4, it's that you have 500+ carefully selected cars that, for one reason or another, hold a place of importance within car culture. The process by which the list of vehicles is generated has been streamlined over the course of multiple games, but one simple guiding factor has persisted over all of those years: never make it personal.
"Honestly, our biggest goal is... to divorce our passion from the decision-making on the car list in particular," Greenwalt said. "We use our passion to keep us excited about coming to work and delivering great features, but when it comes to the car list we have a tremendous respect for car culture around the world."
"I meet people equally passionate as I am in other parts of the world that like entirely different cars than I do. For me to believe that I represent them is incredibly naive. The reason we have this process in place is so that we can more objectively evaluate what cars should go in and shouldn't go it."
The process is an exhaustive one, with the Turn 10 team absorbing content from around the world-- magazines and other sources of news for car enthusiasts, in multiple language and under the advisement of experts in different parts of the globe. Greenwalt cites examples like data gathering and polling, listening to the community in all ways.
"We bring all of those together into a weighted system to prioritize this giant list of cars that we have," he continued. "So yes, I'm sure everyone on the team has a personal car that they wish they'd got it, but I think its become part of our culture, because we've been doing this for so long, to not lament those. That, if they really are cars that speak to people more globally, then they're eventually going to get made."
"My favorite car, personally is the Shelby Daytona Coupe. I love that car, but it didn't get into the game until Forza 3. And the reason it didn't get into the game is because as it was being stat-ranked, it didn't stat-rank out high enough with these processes that we have. Eventually it did and it got in."
"Personally I was very happy about it, but the goal for me is to not let passion blind me from being able to deliver even low-end cars."
Adam Rosenberg is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, NY and living at the whims of his lovable chow, Loki. You can find his work plastered all over the Internet, or just follow him on Twitter @geminibros for daily doses of his crazed, nonsensical ramblings.