"Gran Turismo on Xbox" doesn't really do Forza Motorsport any real justice, although that is certainly how it will be branded by anyone with a passing interest. Seeing the latest version of the game at Microsoft's London offices showed a project far matured over that shown at E3. It's a different game to GT4, although the underlying principals are the same. It's a realistic racer, set on realistically modelled tracks with real cars and real physics. It's just that there seems to be so much... more to it.
And "real" in Forza looks almost exactly that, from our place at Microsoft's table as Studio RX director Kiki Wolfkill, herself an ex-racing driver, walks us through the almost absurd level of customisable detail in the game. We could write a feature on the decals and car design aspects alone, but we'll leave that for the next time. (And allow you to probe the bundle of screenshots we collected on our travels.) We'll have plenty to go over before the game's April (ish) launch. Let's just stick to the 200 cars, pushing Live to breaking point, and some fighting talk over GT4 for now. It's as good place to start as any.
Kiki Wolfkill: Forza is the first fully customisable driving simulation that's exclusive to Xbox. The three things that we're really hanging our hats on with the game are the ideas of car ownership - and not just car collection, which is obviously part of it, but the idea of customisation and personalisation - the realism of the simulator is really the second thing we've really focused on, the AI, the visuals. We're really promoting that feeling of speed and competition within the game. Then the third thing is the online story, and how that's woven into the single-player and the offline experience. It's a vision that came out of a very close-knit team. Many people on the team have raced cars and do so now, or race bikes. A lot of the cars that you seen in the game, or at least in the first quarter, are cars that people on the team actually own. There's a real respect on the team for motor sport that we wanted to stay true to. We all know far too much about cars and racing.
Eurogamer: All of the parts in the game are authentic?
Kiki Wolfkill: Yes. We have over 150 licensed brands.
Eurogamer: How important was this authenticity to you and the team?
Kiki Wolfkill: Extremely important.
Eurogamer: Was that your primary concern?
Kiki Wolfkill: Absolutely, in terms of what you can do with the cars. I think again, when I talk about the team's respect for the cars and motor sport in general, authenticity is how the team channelled that respect. Some cars have more upgrades available than others. For example, with Ferraris you typically can't do a lot of engine upgrades. When you get further and further along in your career and get more into the race cars, you're really down to suspension and brake changes, as opposed to engine upgrades.
As you can see on this Audi TT, you have your normal, sports and professional engines. You can see the credits it'll cost you. You can buy upgrades and fit them, or buy them and use them later. It's a very robust system, and certainly for people who have cars that they know extremely well are going to be very excited that all everything they read about in magazines they can do here.
Eurogamer: How do you expect this section of the game to stand up to the equivalent in Gran Turismo 4?
Kiki Wolfkill: We expect it to be much more robust and much more accurate, not just in terms of the use of authentic manufacturers, but when you take the cars on the track and the way the physics behaves and changes will be extremely well modelled. There's a very deep level of detail.
Eurogamer: Obviously, [Gran Turismo creator] Kazunori Yamauchi is well known for his obsession. Do you think you bring the same level of dedication to the game?
Kiki Wolfkill: Absolutely. Without a doubt.
Eurogamer: So all the track detailing and testing, all the sound recording...
Kiki Wolfkill: We've recorded about 90 per cent of the cars and they all have their own sounds. As you make engine modifications those sounds are going to change. I really feel that across the board - visuals, audio and physics in particular - we're extremely authentic and that's really the value of having all those adjustments: it's being able to feel that in the car.
Eurogamer: And obviously you've got the online component as well...
Kiki Wolfkill: Yeah, we found with the other franchises like Gotham and Rally, just how important online really is. We really can't imagine making a racing game without a strong online component. We're really at a point where we design from the ground up with the online component, so it's not like, "make the single-player experience then add online"; it's, "here's the total gaming experience and part of it is online".
Eurogamer: Some of the figures we've seen for the online side of Forza sound exhaustive. Do you really have 1,700 leader boards?
Kiki Wolfkill: Yes. We have series and team leader boards for every car on every ribbon.
Eurogamer: Do you see that as being completist or unnecessary?
Kiki Wolfkill: We found with Gotham that people used every leader board. People are going to want to experience online in different ways. Some people are really just going to care about the fastest time they can get with one car on once track, others are going to be focussed on their teams, and others are just going to want to get out there and beat everyone they can. I think having this breadth of leader boards really allows people to gain that feel of area to jump into an online game. And also it's really nice because no matter what you do online there's always going to be a stat for what you've achieved. Even if you take your Lotus into a race, and you end up doing a fast time in that car on that track, it's going to update the leader board accordingly, as well as your stats on the race.
Eurogamer: And while you're playing the offline game, all of the stats are being uploaded?
Kiki Wolfkill: Yes. And on top of that, the other aspect of the online experience is the trading.
Eurogamer: You've been likening that to Pokemon in the press...
Kiki Wolfkill: Yes!
Eurogamer: Obviously, that was one of the biggest draws of Gran Turismo. How are you taking it to the next level?
Kiki Wolfkill: It's not just a car collection aspect, as there's much more to collect now. It's not just cars. It's how your car looks and how your car's set up. I would see that as expanding what you're able to collect. Then there's the trading aspect, and the buying and selling aspect, so suddenly you're not just able to collect, you're able to trade and use what you've created to gain other things from other people, as opposed to just from the game. The trading aspect is very strong. Again, it's like Pokemon in the respect that you've created something that you're very proud of and you know someone's going to want.
Eurogamer: Have you ever played Pokemon?
Kiki Wolfkill: I have a little bit. The lead designer is a stronger Pokemon player than me. I don't have the patience for it, to be honest [laughs].
Eurogamer: But we can see how the idea of each monster being individual to the user could translate into a car game.
Kiki Wolfkill: And the idea of rarity as well. Depending of what region you choose to go into the game, certain cars are going to be harder for you to unlock than others.
Eurogamer: To talk about the career mode for a second, how many cars do you actually have available at the moment? You're saying 200, right?
Kiki Wolfkill: We have over 200 cars. About 80 per cent of the cars are available from the beginning. When you choose a region, there are certain set of cars that you're going to have access to, which sort of fits to the Pokemon concept. So say I choose North America and you choose Europe and we're friends, and we both go along on our travels, and there's a European car that I really want that I'm not going to have access to. So we can start sharing cars. When we set out to design Forza, we understood that people really experience their cars and their racing games in different ways. Some people are just about collecting all the cars, some people just have a handful of cars and just want to progress through the career mode. We really wanted to build Forza in such a way that allows people to experience it in the way they want to, in the way they're most going to enjoy. Some may spend a portion of their time on the track but most of the time in the Forza community, and other people may focus on the racing, which is obviously the foundation of the game, but they may not want to spend a lot of time setting up their cars so they get their friends to do it.
Eurogamer: The actual driving aspect of the game: you have emergent tracks, with debris and so on?
Kiki Wolfkill: Yes, we have pieces that fall off the car. You actually have a choice about how this works. Again, it depends on how deeply you want to into the simulation. Damage can either be cosmetic or it can affect your performance. It's the same with tyre wear. That's another way that we really wanted to make the game accessible. You can play with your driving assists on, or you can go very deep into the simulation and drive with all the assists off. What we really want to do is teach the deeper player to be a better driver and a better racer through the course of the game. That's definitely part of the motivation behind continuing to play. It's not just that you're beating more people, but you're actually becoming a better driver.
Eurogamer: Obviously you've done a huge amount of work on Forza. Do you see it becoming one of the major Xbox franchises?
Kiki Wolfkill: Absolutely. We've been thinking about this game for over five years. We've been waiting for the technology to be mature enough for us to do it, as well as our own team.
Eurogamer: And obviously the online experience as well...
Kiki Wolfkill: Yes. We absolutely think of this as a huge franchise. I'll be very honest and say that we are targeting Gran Turismo with this game on Xbox, and I think we've been very focussed on that. We have a lot of respect for Gran Turismo, which helps drive that desire to beat them.
Eurogamer: What do you have over Gran Turismo? Is it just a bigger and better game?
Kiki Wolfkill: I don't think it's just bigger and better, I think it's deeper. I also think the idea of personalisation and really making the maximum of your car makes for a more emotional experience than we've found with Gran Turismo. There's a depth there that will make it very exciting.
Eurogamer: You've obviously played Gran Turismo a huge amount. What's the main inspiration you've taken from it?
Kiki Wolfkill: I think the main feeling that comes out of Gran Turismo is very must the respect for motor sport, and that certainly is the foundation on which we started. I think we have the same level of respect. But we want more out of racing games, rather than the same racing games forever.
Many thanks to Kiki Wolfkill, and look out for Forza Motorsport on Xbox next April or thereabouts. Head here for screenshots.