Fixing Forza 5: How Turn 10 wants to win fans back
“I'm disappointed in myself that I've elicited this reaction in people.”
Turn 10's Forza Motorsport 5 perhaps wasn't the triumphant Xbox One debut many expected it to be. A diminished track list - a result of the challenges in creating content for the next generation of consoles - was one problem, but another that gained more traction was its embracing of mechanics more typically seen in free-to-play games, where XP boosters and microtransactions are commonplace.
The developer certainly hasn't been deaf to the cacophonous noise that's met certain parts of its game, and has worked to redress the balance in Forza Motorsport 5's economy. What started with a blog post from Brian Ekberg acknowledging the issue carries on, with a new patch set to reduce the cumulative price of cars within the game by 45 per cent, and on average a 60 per cent rise in the amount of credits paid out per hour.
Dan Greenawalt, creative director at Turn 10, has certainly taken the criticisms to heart, and he's not putting his feet up - although, strictly speaking, he has to right now under doctor's orders, recovering as he is from surgery to address a ligament injury picked up while practising jiu-jitsu. Nevertheless, he kindly offered to speak about the reaction to Forza Motorsport 5, and how Turn 10 wants to address some of the key concerns.
It must be a relief in some way to have the game finally ship, but the reaction's been more muted than some other Forza games. What's your take on the initial response, and the first reviews?
Dan Greenawalt: I have to be honest, our team takes great pride in what lights up our players, and community's the heart of what we do. So it's been disappointing. I'm not disappointed in people - people feel how they feel. I'm more disappointed in myself that I've elicited this reaction in people. I think the biggest travesty for me is how people have misread our intentions, because that's just been sad - community's the biggest thing for us, and the whole point is to get people excited about cars and excited about games, so people saying we've changed the economy for this reason and we removed this feature for that reason - I understand it, because perception's reality, and people start believing what they believe, but I know it's not the thought process we went through to make the decisions we made.
In terms of its reception, Forza's had an impeccable past on Metacritic, hitting over 90 with every instalment, but this one dipped below that for the first time in the series' history. Why do you think that was?
Dan Greenawalt: If I'm honest, I think our scores have never been so varied. We have many scores above 90, a few around 70 and a couple in the 60s. When I read the reviews there's a split between those that evaluate the game as not Forza Motorsport 5 but a great racing game at the launch of the Xbox One, and those that reviewed the game as the sequel to Forza Motorsport 4 as if it was on the Xbox 360.
So you think some of the series' heritage hurt it a little?
Dan Greenawalt: Here's the thing, I'm not really driven by Metascore - hurt would imply damage, and I'm not damaged in this way. To me it's about the community. Review scores are what they are, and I appreciate that feedback, but they don't represent the diversity of who's playing, so the community and what they're doing and how they're playing is what I spend more of my time looking at. If you're saying specifically what do I attribute to the scores being low and hight - well there's the series' heritage, and in some ways it's a bit of a lack of context.
If you look at what we've done, we've made the biggest racing game at the launch of a platform ever - nothing has ever been this big before. This game's bigger than Forza 2, which was a year and a half after the launch of Xbox 360. So that's an unprecedented feat. But that's not how it was looked at - people were using words like cut, that we cut things. We had to rebuild everything from scratch, everything was rebuilt. I think it comes down to how people frame the question - I'm not saying people are wrong, that they're framing it wrong. There's how we look at it, and how others do, and both are fair.
We'll get back to that in a bit. In terms of the free-to-play mechanics that are coming into it - because it came as part of a wave of Microsoft games that introduced mechanics more typically found in free-to-play games in full-price games, what's your take on that and how do you justify their inclusion?
Dan Greenawalt: So that's how you felt about Forza 4?
I did feel that way about Forza 4, so I'll admit an inconsistency there, but it wasn't pronounced as much. It's certainly much more of an issue in Forza 5.
Dan Greenawalt: I understand that if it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck... I know the statement. But honestly if you look at free-to-play games they usually have things called paywalls, where you're slowly wearing something down and the only way to get around it is to pay. That's not what we implemented in Forza 4 and that wasn't our goal in Forza 5 either. We don't have paywalls. We have acceleration, and that was based on feedback from players in Forza 4 - there's a small group of players that can't be bothered to do things and they have disposable income. They're the sim guys in a lot of cases. They don't want to do the career, and they don't value those aspects, and that's alright by me. With Forza 4 we had car tokens that range from one dollar to three dollars - the most expensive car was ten million credits in game, and it only cost three car tokens which would have been three dollars.
"I worry that we were in some cases the inspiration for some of this in other games. I'd say the biggest inspiration is the way the world is going. This is happening more and more in games, and I understand gamers being resistant, especially if they feel like they're being short-sheeted."
That felt like it was not making the car exclusive enough for those who are willing to pay. So we made car tokens equal to credits - it's not about making more money, it was actually about saving people's time when doing the grind. I can totally see how people are perceiving it, but that wasn't our thought process - we designed the tokens last, which isn't how you'd do it if you were making a free-to-play game - you would design that economy and the token economy first, because that's how you make your revenue. That's not how we make the revenue - we sell the game, and the tokens aren't a big revenue driver. As a creative director, we were looking at it as basically giving people cheats, but if you want to put cheats in you have to pay for them, which puts a barrier in and makes it exclusive to those who want to pay for them.
The biggest experiment was the acceleration - but that wasn't meant to be a paywall. The grind was not designed to be arduous, but I understand people perceiving it that way and that's why we're making the patch to change the grind. It was not designed to be any more so than it was in Forza 4. We're changing it because that's how people perceived it, and perception is reality. But it was designed based on Forza Motorsport 4 data. We changed it, and we had to make some assumptions - some were right, and some were wrong. We changed so much in the game, and our goal was to make a truly next-gen experience, and some of the assumptions we made in converting our data from Forza 4 to Forza 5 were wrong. And that's why we're fixing it.
That's why we lowered the price of our most expensive car from ten million to six million - we wanted to make it more accessible. And we have people that have already earned the car - the GTO and the F1 car - but that was about rarity. We didn't want to lock cars, we didn't want to have unicorns, we wanted it to be based on work that people put in. We're making changes.
You're making changes to the economy, which is a step in the right direction. Are you keeping the XP boost in there as well?
Dan Greenawalt: Well, it's hard to say with the XP boost, because that was an experiment just seeing whether people are interested are not. It's not meant to be something that you're meant to do. Right now we're looking at whether people are using it or not. If they're not using it, we'll remove it, if they are using it we won't remove it. The work's already done to put it in, and we're experimenting - we didn't expect people were going to take it as a statement. That's something... I understand how people took it. Most of us were just surprised that people were up in arms. I'm not blaming people, and I want to be clear on that. I'm just saying that wasn't our intention going in, and so it was surprising to us.
When it came to introducing these mechanics, was it a case of assessing the data from Forza Motosport 4? Or was it a case of... It was obviously a part of a wave of first party Xbox One games with mechanics like this. Was it not something that came from higher up, that you had to have these mechanics in there? It does seem consistent across Microsoft's first-party launch games.
Dan Greenawalt: Oh no. Honestly I think, unfortunately, people attribute too much communication to this organisation. The truth is, at Turn 10 while I'm a Microsoft employee, we're off-site and we have our own culture and work our product to have our own culture. We have our own process and all of that. For the most part, Microsoft sees it as we're doing a good thing so keep it up, and so we're left alone. But if I'm honest we introduced this in Forza 4 with the car tokens. A lot of people noticed and thought it can be introduced where it's not a paywall, and people don't seem to be up in arms because it's just an accelerator.
I worry - and I don't know this - that we were in some cases the inspiration for some of this in other games. I'd say the biggest inspiration is the way the world is going. This is happening more and more in games, and I understand gamers being resistant, especially if they feel like they're being short-sheeted. I think people are looking out for being short-sheeted, and they're seeing conspiracy where there isn't one. And that's common in today's age. We were definitely not mandated to include these - we were experimenting in Forza 4, we experimented a bit in Horizon and now we're further experimenting in Forza 5. But we experiment a lot of things - and when we get them wrong we try to fix them.
In terms of that, how is this going to impact the future of the Forza series. Can you say that these elements won't appear again, or are you just going to be rebalancing and looking to carry on doing it in a way that can be embraced by the community?
"It was sad when I saw people's responses that this game seemed small to them. When I was looking at Forza 2 and all the previous launch titles, I was so proud of what we'd done. I'd never felt so disconnected from my fanbase, which was a really sad moment."
Dan Greenawalt: What I can say is that we're absolutely committed to Forza Motorsport 5. And we're going to be doing more updates, and more serious updates, than we've done in the past. It's about supporting Xbox One and the community that's playing Forza 5. The nice thing about Xbox One is that it's fairly easy to make changes and make updates, and we're getting a lot of data and telemetry. We have a really broad customer base - and while I love the people on the Forza forums, their play-style isn't indicative of the overall community that's playing the game.
We have a lot of people playing that are brand new to the franchise that have never been in. So that's part of the assumptions that we got wrong - we've got a lot of people that aren't playing the way Forza 4 was played by our fans. We're going to be using it as an experimentation platform, tuning the economy, tuning the features. Ultimately, the whole goal of the product is about getting people to have relationships with cars- that's why we got rid of gift cars, that's why we changed the way people earned out, that's why we allowed you to earn credits in free play. That's why affinity pays so much more than it has in the past.
All of that's designed to have people to have a relationship with cars, and not have a garage full of cars they didn't use. Which is a fact that, in Forza 4, people had cars in the garage they didn't use. So when we design how much money you should be earning, we design it based on the value of the cars that people owned in their garage that they used, not just the cars that they owned, because some of them they didn't use. There was a lot of presumption in that math. The cool thing about the Xbox One is that with Forza 5 we're going to be able to update and change and experiment.
My biggest hope is that we can win back the fan's trust - we didn't do this for any other reason besides getting people excited about cars and games, and whenever we work against that purpose we take that very seriously, because it's not our intention, and we're going to make changes as needed.
Another big criticism is the track list - obviously it's more difficult to get the tracks up to the standard that you have them in Forza 5, but what are the plans for the lifespan of the game for expanding that track list?
Dan Greenawalt: So I'm not in a position to announce a lot of that - I'd like to be able to tell you that, so there'd be nothing more exciting to talk about that. What I can say is that we have plans to update this game and make changes that are going to delight our fans, but all the tracks had to be rebuilt either 100 per cent or to be updated seriously. The fastest track to be updated took us nine months. And that was a track that didn't require recapture.
It's funny, the story of the Xbox 360 the bigger global story in the media was how video game companies going to survive, because the new generation is so expensive to build content for. That's happening again, but it's not the story in the media - we're now in a new generation, we're now on Blu-ray and we're filling them up. And those tracks, they not only take nine months which is a lot of time and money, but they take a lot of space. The motif in the media is around the free-to-play bit, but there are lots of stories going on...
It was sad when I saw people's responses that this game seemed small to them. When I was looking at Forza 2 and all the previous launch titles, I was so proud of what we'd done. I'd never felt so disconnected from my fanbase, which was a really sad moment for me. I was so proud of what we'd been able to accomplish, and I think I was in the sausage factory for too long - I was looking at how much work it took to make the tracks we made and all the cars we made, and the level of fidelity and immersion in the cockpit view, the physics. I wasn't looking at it relative to Forza 4, I was looking at it relative to every other racing game that's been launched alongside a console.
I remember you saying last time we spoke that this felt like the first Forza that wasn't compromised - but do you think you could have done with another 12 months of development, and didn't have the pressure of having to launch alongside Xbox One?
Dan Greenawalt: Not really. We've developed a team that's made to have process around concept, and prototype and production and close-down in a very set cadence. It's how we hire and how we staff, and it's kind of how we are. In statistics there's the idea of the inverse U - the more time you have something can get better, and the more time it takes eventually it gets worse. In game development it's similar that way. You can't make a triple-A game in a month - I'm being hyperbolic here - and as you take more and more months, you get more time to get the quality required, the innovation required and you have to be able to throw things away to make a triple-A game.
But - and I'll be hyperbolic again - after, say, six years, your technology starts getting old. It starts getting outdated, and you have to rewrite it, so you're in the state of constant rewrites. Looking at most games being developed, the two to three year basis is the sweet-spot for triple-A games. But we've optimised our team to do the two year product cycle. It's hugely disruptive to add another year - you're having to throw a lot of work away. Since we've made a team that's able to make games in two years, I think another year we'd have to change our processes to make the most of that.