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Forza Motorsport 7 wants you to care about your driver, too

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Forza Motorsport 7 has drawn criticism since debuting earlier this week for an in-game economy that seems to put a throttle on your progression to encourage you to buy loot boxes. Forza developer Turn 10 Studios has not flipped the switch to enable players to purchase those crates with real money yet, but all the hooks are already in the game. Those include cosmetic items, but not for your vehicles — instead, this is the first Forza to put an emphasis on your driver.

As usual, the push for cosmetics is about engagement. The company wants people chasing after more than just wins and better cars, and custom driver clothing is a part of that. But Turn 10 has always let people go wild decorating their Subarus and Hondas and sharing those decal designs with one another. It couldn’t and didn’t try to pull back on that to sell those items instead. That’s where drivers come in.

I interviewed Turn 10 Studios about this new feature and why it wanted it. For art director Scott Lee, this is all about connecting players to a series that has traditionally felt more sterile.

“At the core of it, what we wanted to do was humanize the experience,” Lee said in a conversation with GamesBeat. “Driving is such a relatable activity. In video games you do a lot of things. You shoot things. You fly. You do all kinds of things that people can’t really relate too. Driving is one of the most relatable things you can do. Almost everyone who plays our game knows how to drive.”

But Lee felt that Turn 10 hasn’t done enough in the past to hone in on that familiarity.

“It felt distant for me, as a fan,” he said. “I always felt like, this is a computer simulation. It’s like going to the science center when I was a kid and doing one of these early vector simulations. That’s how it felt. One of the things we wanted to do was humanize that and personalize that. Pick a character that represents you and let the fantasy play out from there.”

So now, when you first boot up Forza Motorsport 7, you choose your character and one of a handful of basic driving suits. The idea is that as you move along in your career and head online, you’ll earn currency to buy prize crates that may unlock some of the more expressive suits.

Above: Some of Forza Motorsport 7’s driving suits.

Image Credit: Turn 10 Studios

But as you’re probably aware, you spend most of your time in Forza Motorsport looking at your car, the track, and the other vehicles, so when would you ever get to show off these cosmetic goods? And that’s the whole point. You want to look cool online or in gameplay clips so people are envious of you and will want to try to go and buy their own cosmetics. Well, Lee says Turn 10 thought a lot about that and it was part of bringing the AI “Drivtars” that take on the persona and driving styles of your friends to life.

“Say you’re playing career,” he said. “You’ll be on the line. You’ll have the latest Drivatar data. You’re competing against somebody you know, for instance, and those customized drivers that come with them — if they come first, second, or third, they’ll appear on the podium with you. If you don’t come in the top three, you’ll still see the Drivatars celebrating on the podium.”

You’ll also see your friends custom Drivatars during trophy celebrations as well as in the cars and in the pits in online multiplayer.

Engagement and other business opportunities — like the looming real-money transactions for prize crates — will hinge on whether people feel the urge to dress up their drivers. If they do, then maybe they’ll come back to the game regularly to earn crates or to complete challenges.

“I’ve been playing the game like crazy in the last couple of weeks as we’re finishing up and hammering on it, and I love the reward system,” said Lee. “You’ll get choices of what you can receive after winning a race. No matter what you do, you’ll always get some incremental reward, whether it’s credits or discounts on cars or a driver suit that you didn’t expect. There’s a lot of ways to earn the suits. I personally feel that it’s so collectible. I start thinking, ‘I want this, I want that, and I hope that thing comes up.’”

If enough players have a similar feeling, that could keep them around in Forza long enough for Turn 10 to sell extra content or prize crate microtransactions. That could increase the lifetime value of each Forza player and ensure the series and Turn 10 have a healthy future ahead of them.

You can read the full transcript of my interview with Scott Lee below.

GamesBeat: You’re doing a lot of work still on Drivatar and personalization. Can you run me through where Drivatars were at when you started Forza 7 and where you wanted to get them and how you got there?

Scott Lee: I’m the newest addition to the studiosort of. I was a long time Forza fan, coming over from open world shooters and things like that. One of the things I really gravitated toward—characters are a big favorite of mine. I really pushed hard for personalization when I came here. What that grew into is something else altogether in terms of the amount and variety. That’s what Turn 10 does best.

But at the core of it, what we wanted to do was humanize the experience. Driving is such a relatable activity. In video games you do a lot of things. You shoot things. You fly. You do all kinds of things that people can’t really relate too. Driving is one of the most relatable things you can do. Almost everyone who plays our game knows how to drive. It felt distant for me, as a fan. I always felt like, this is a computer simulation. It’s going to the science center when I was a kid and doing one of these early vector simulations. That’s how it felt.

One of the things we wanted to do was humanize that and personalize that. Pick a character that represents you and let the fantasy play out from there.

Above: One of the custom helmets in Forza Motorsport 7.

Image Credit: Turn 10 Studios

GamesBeat: How have you accomplished that? What have you put in the game to give people the sense that they own their character?

Scott Lee: Variety is the big key to it. The Drivatar system itself is already one of my favorite parts of the Forza franchise. It’s been around since the very first game. It was a novel idea, to have people’s behavior translate into how the AI behaves, even if you’re offline.

Taking the next step and having a version that friends or family could save, and then they appear in your game, that was the logical next step. That’s how it grew. It inspired the numbers that we wanted to create with this stuff. If you think about playing multiplayer and then having all these other drivers—instead of being nameless and faceless, having something of a personalization to them, it was logical for Forza. It makes things a lot more—along the lines of other games you might expect. It introduces more RPG elements, kind of. It introduces a lot of elements from other genres that capture our imaginations here, as fans of other games. We really wanted to do that. Your car is like your weapon, or your suit of armor, have that kind of feeling.

GamesBeat: If I’m in the game and racing, when will I see the personalization options?

Scott Lee: We kind of put it right at the beginning of the game. Right after the initial experience. You’ll see a cinematic that introduces Forza Motorsport 7, and then the first thing you get to do is you choose who you are. We have these identical drivers come out, male and female, and you decide who you want to be. That was a statement for us. We wanted the driver to be front and center, and for that driver to then go choose the car. For the first time ever in Forza, you choose to be someone. That’s super interesting. We give you a handful of suits in the beginning to choose.

One thing we really wanted to do, especially as players start playing, but before they progress a lot or buy a lot of cars or gain a lot of suits—you want to go multiplayer, but we didn’t want everyone to look the same. The great thing is that people are going to have a lot of different choices. Nobody’s going to get the same kind of suits, except for the very first ones you get. We peppered a ton of variety into the small amount of suits that are initially available to you.

We wanted players to be able to get online at first and look very different. You’re going to see a lot of variety, a lot of different colors and things like that, to begin with. Then, as you move on, you get into our driver gear selection mechanic. You get to see the breadth of it all. Except for all the special ones that are locked, you get to see more than 300 pieces of driver gear, and a lot of these things are unobtainable as yet, just as we do with our cars, but you can get to see all of the things you could potentially do. You can earn these by winning races, or unlock them through prize crates. There’s a variety of ways to get new gear.

GamesBeat: I’ve noticed that fans of Forza strongly associate their identities with the game. They’ll say, “I play Forza. That’s what I do.” By linking people’s character identify to the in-game driver, does that link to the way people think about Forza as a series?

Scott Lee: I hope so. That’s a really good question. I think this, more than anything else, is a nod toward where we feel like our franchise could go. We have Forza RC. We obviously have the Horizon series. We have a universe that’s building within the Forza franchise. I feel like having player identity as one of the biggest things—Forza is a natural kind of game for your own fantasy experience. Without having a character to represent you, it’s tough to do that.

This is our first step into the world having unique characters and who knows where we could go from there? But I totally—we have the deepest customization system when it comes to cars. The depth to which you can go is kind of insane, from liveries down to the minutiae of performance you can customize within our game. I think it’s a natural step to start doing that with characters. For now, we’re offering up all of these options, but in the future who knows where we can go?

I see the possibilities of us getting really granular with the customization, letting people do whatever they want with it. This is our first step into that.

GamesBeat: When will other people see my character? Will people mostly just look over and see me driving by them, or will they see me on the podium?

Scott Lee: Absolutely. When you go through different experiences–you’ll have some podium experiences. Say you’re playing career. You’ll be on the line. You’ll have the latest Drivatar data. You’re competing against somebody you know, for instance, and those Drivatars and customized drivers that come with them—if they come first, second, or third, they’ll appear on the podium with you. If you don’t come in the top three, you’ll still see the Drivatars celebrating on the podium. You’ll see that during free play as well.

If you’re going through free play you’ll have podium experiences there. When you win championships, we have trophy celebrations, and you’ll see that as you start playing the game. You get more of a cinematic experience with that. We’ll have some presentation elements in what we call our car theater. Beautiful things happening on a big screen in the background. It’s custom lit. You’re awarded a trophy and your Drivatar appears in that scene.

Of course, in multiplayer you’ll be able to see everybody’s customized drivers in their cars and in the pits.

Above: The suits even feature third-party sponsorships, just like real racers.

Image Credit: Turn 10 Studios

GamesBeat: Is there a business opportunity here? Are you guys selling microtransactions related to this stuff?

Scott Lee: With our prize crates—there are no microtransactions going on [Ed’s note: Players will soon get the option to buy “tokens” with real money that they can exchange for prize crates]. This is all in-game credit and things like that. We’re using our game economy in regards to how you earn this stuff.

One of the best things we’ve done this time around, especially from a player’s perspective, is the reward system. It’s a lot more immediate and satisfying for me this time. I’ve been playing the game like crazy in the last couple of weeks as we’re finishing up and hammering on it, and I love the reward system. You’ll get choices of what you can receive after winning a race. No matter what you do, you’ll always get some incremental reward, whether it’s credits or discounts on cars or a driver suit that you didn’t expect. There’s a lot of ways to earn the suits.

I personally feel that—it’s so collectable. I start thinking, I want this, I want that, I hope that thing comes up. There are a lot of ways to get them. There are rare ones in there as well. We’ll have some more announcements on stuff like that as we go, but there’s a lot of super interesting ways to earn them. That’s going to be a really addictive experience. I’ve been hunting down certain suits, playing through the flow. It’s driven me to go, okay, I want that suit, so I’ll play through this. It keeps me coming back to the game.

GamesBeat: The history of Forza has a lot of customizability options where people can design and share their own stuff. Is that all in there for suits and other personalization options?

Scott Lee: We have that in the livery system for cars, but we don’t have that as yet for our characters. Our characters are based on—we’re offering all the variety in terms of the drivers. But again, this is something we’re definitely looking forward to in the future, to be able to livery up your driver the way you can do your cars. That’s something we’ll be pursuing.

GamesBeat: How do you think about custom drivers at a higher level?

Scott Lee: One thing I really wanted to get across in regards to the characters—there’s kind of a philosophical thing about introducing drivers in our game. For the longest time in Forza, the cars were the stars. I felt like introducing the driver and making it more of a human experience, having a much more tactile feel to it, it makes the car even more of a star. I feel like I care more about the driving experience. I care about the driver and how it behaves. And it wasn’t the driver that we introduced.

We’ve really upped the game in terms of how we’re doing the animations.. What they do inside the car, how they bounce around violently when they get into crashes, all that is stuff we absolutely have to have. Once you introduce a nifty-looking driver, they have to start behaving correctly. A lot of what we wanted to do was make that feel of driving dangerously, that thrill. We want to capture all of that stuff. When you’re driving in the car and you go into cockpit mode, if you hit a wall, your head’s gonna hit your lap. Your driver’s head is going to bounce around from side to side if you get sideswiped. That’s a big part of the experience. It’s not just about making something look cool. It’s really making something feel real. It adds a lot to the experience.

GamesBeat: Was that the reason, always, that drivers weren’t in the game, that you were making the car the focus? Or were there other reasons that don’t really apply anymore?

Scott Lee: I think it’s a natural progression. It’s the evolution of the studio. Offering more. Games have to go somewhere. I feel like with Forza, our experience is really in the amount of content we provide. More than 700 cars, 300 drivers, it’s really sort of a natural step in where we want to go with the franchise.

The PC Gaming channel is presented by Intel®‘s Game Dev program.

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