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Forza Motorsport 7 first look: the series refocuses on its drivers

How Turn 10 is trying to make more than just a prettier sequel

Microsoft and Turn 10 studios have officially pulled the wraps off of Forza Motorsport 7, the first Forza designed to run on Xbox One X, Microsoft’s next-generation console. Last month, I went to Turn 10’s offices to see Forza ahead of its E3 debut. I spent a little under 30 minutes playing the game, and the rest of the trip speaking with the team that brought it to life.

A half hour isn’t enough time to provide a deep dive, but here’s what I can say. It’s the most beautiful Forza Motorsport ever. While it’s playable on Xbox One and will also be released on PC, it was really built for — and alongside the development of — what was then still called Project Scorpio, which means it will run natively at 60 frames per second at 4K resolution.

The cars look lifelike in most lighting, the tracks look good enough to walk around, and the skies in the demo were so picturesque I occasionally had a hard time watching the road. Speaking as someone who has an old 1080p screen on his wall, this is the kind of game that will make people like me think: maybe this is the year I buy a better TV.

700 cars, dynamic weather, and now: characters

There’s also more of, well, everything. Turn 10 is offering 700 cars at launch, nearly lapping the 450 from Forza Motorsport 6 — and that includes the return of Porsche. There are 30 tracks (or locations) with more than 200 different configurations for players to run. The weather and night modes that were added in Forza 6 are no longer just modes: there’s a fully dynamic weather system that changes with every race, sometimes even during the race. You can see the horizon shimmer in the distance on hot tracks. The puddles now change in real time when it pours, and on some tracks you can see the rain approaching off in the distance.

Forza 7 primarily leverages the new console’s power in order to emphasize realism. Wires, tubes, and the mirrors inside the cockpits of the race cars rattle in response to the bumps on the tarmac. Window netting ripples in the periphery as the wind whips by at 100 miles per hour. Even the windshield wipers shake as you barrel around a course.

While Turn 10 hasn’t radically redefined the racing game, Forza 7 looks, at first glance, like a considerable visual upgrade compared to its last two predecessors. But it won’t be the only racing game to run at 4K and 60p for long. So instead, the studio has been working on an entirely new challenge: making its car game more human. 

An exclusive first look at 5 minutes of Forza Motorsport 7 gameplay.

A bell rings.

I’m at Turn 10’s headquarters, which is tucked into a business park hugged by trees about a drag race away from Microsoft’s home base in Redmond, Washington. And when I ask what the bell’s for, nobody's quite sure. The team’s so burdened by E3 prep that they’ve forgotten their Pavlovian responses.  

“We’ve been basically living here, so if you smell some smells — forgive us,” Dan Greenawalt, Forza’s creative director and a founder of Turn 10, tells me when I walk through the door. There are 18 days until Greenawalt will hop on stage at E3 to show off what the studio has spent the last two years working on. As if that’s not enough weight on their shoulders, Forza Motorsport 7 is a Scorpio launch title, so it will serve as an early standard bearer for the console.

Eventually I learn the bell was for some newly-met goal, but nobody takes a moment to really celebrate. They’re too giddy talking about the game. Spirits are up in Redmond. The team seems surprisingly rested, composed, and focused. That’s because Turn 10 is in the most enviable position for a game developer: Forza 7 is ahead of schedule.

Forza Motorsport 7 is farther ahead than usual

Not only has the game been running on Scorpio dev kits for a while now, it’s been running really well. At one point, I tried basically the same tech demo the folks at Digital Foundry wrote about, where the full field of cars was locked to a grid like a roller coaster, putting more of them in view than you’d typically see during a race. This is one way the software team tests the game’s limits, and yet it was only pushing about 80 percent of the GPU and about 70 percent of the CPU.

That’s impressive for a game that’s months away from release. Of the time I spent playing and watching other parts of Forza 7, the only truly unfinished bits visible to me were some of the menu graphics.  

Forza 7 wouldn’t be this far along if it wasn’t for the partnership Turn 10 started a few years ago with UK-based Playground Studios, which makes the more arcade-style Forza Horizon series using the same Forza Tech game engine that Motorsport is built on. By staggering the release of Horizon in the years where there is no Motorsport, the teams are able to share knowledge and accelerate the pace of development.

Chris Tector, the team’s software architect, calls that decision a turning point for the franchise. “We can actually share those features back and forth between the titles, and it means both of them can become better with each release, more than they would if they were being developed in isolation,” Tector says.

Photo: Turn 10 Studios
Photo: Turn 10 Studios

It’s this approach that carved out room to add features like dynamic weather and an entirely new character component, Greenawalt explains, while also dramatically increasing the number of cars and tracks — all as the team preps the game engine to run in 4K.

“You go, hey, I've got this great team that can build anything. Let's not have them build everything,” says Greenawalt. “It allows that big team, instead of trying to just boil the ocean and do everything, they focus all that innovation in one place and can go in incredible areas.”

The other big piece to getting Forza 7 ahead of schedule, though, is that Turn 10 has been developing the new game alongside Project Scorpio since the beginning. For a while, Turn 10 used simulations of the Scorpio hardware. Eventually, though, it came time to fire up the game on the real thing.

“I was coming back from lunch and [Tector] came over, and he was vibrating,” says Alan Hartman, the studio head for Turn 10. “He was like, ‘we're running on Scorpio, you want to see it?’” Hartman followed him over to a conference room that had its windows blacked out. “I come in and I see the fan pointed at the circuit board and the ribbon cables strung out and brought around to the monitor. And sure enough, there we are, running.”

Photo by Sean O’Kane / The Verge

Running smoothly, even. “Typically,” Hartman says, “you get it working, and it's running at 10 frames a second, and you go ‘okay, now I have to work weekends to get it working fast.’ It's super advantageous, because we get to focus on the game, not trying to build the tech layer.”

“We talk a lot about finding the fun,” Greenawalt adds. “You do all this work so that you're starting from a pretty fun place, but let's be honest — it's a hypothetical fun place until you get [the game] in your hands. And when you’re fighting the technology, just to get it to run, getting it stable, you can't find that fun, because it's all coming together at the last second.”

Scorpio has already been touted for its head-spinning specs ahead of the official reveal. It cranks 6 teraflops of power, has 12GB of GDDR5 RAM, and a custom GPU that runs at 1172MHz. All which means it’s set to be the most powerful home console on the market.

That power is great for the looks and performance. But Turn 10's true focus in Forza Motorsport 7 is on something that raw power can't guarantee, something that will be a part of Forza going forward no matter which version you play.

Photo: Turn 10 Studios

While many of the people at Turn 10 appear well-rested, the mottled hair and the bags under Scott Lee’s eyes are a sign some have definitely lost some sleep over Forza 7. As the lead art director, Lee’s been shepherding one of the game’s most defining features: the addition of customizable characters.

Characters are a new — and prominent — part of the game experience

Lee’s small character team has funneled a ton of effort into creating absurd levels of detail for the now more prominent driver, by building out a catalog of racing suits, helmets, gloves, and more. The game has over 300 character designs, and about a week or more of work went into each. There are female and male models, and different “silhouettes,” or body types, for both, each of which took around five weeks to design.

What’s more, each one of the five discrete pieces that makes up a character (the helmet, the suit, etc.) has its own 4K asset. Zoom in on a helmet and you’ll see realistic scuffs and smudges on the visor — and on some special helmets, signatures that look like they were just Sharpie-d on.

Photo: Turn 10 Studios
Photo: Turn 10 Studios
Photo: Turn 10 Studios

That might sound like a strange amount of attention spent on something you won’t see much of while you’re racing. But for a good chunk of Forza Motorsport 7, you actually will see your driver. Turn 10 has completely revamped its menu system to put an emphasis on showing off these characters. For example, the pre-race screen that shows up before you start a multiplayer race is now fashioned more like a loadout screen in a shooting game. There are menu options on the left, and your character stands swaying on the right, as if she’s itching to hop in and drive.

Characters will also show up at the ends of races, podium-style, with the winner front and center looking proud, and the third-place finisher turned slightly away from the camera as if they’re already plotting revenge. Your character’s look will even now represent you when you show up in friends’ games as “drivatars,” a feature introduced back in Forza 5.

Expect real race suits, old-timey outfits, and lots of inside jokes

Players will be able to choose between everything from real race suits with HANS devices, to old-timey outfits with leather helmets, to some even goofier additions from pop culture. (Expect a lot of “era-specific inside jokes,” Lee laughs. “There's a lot of middle-aged people that work here.”) With Forza featuring real racing series like IndyCar and NASCAR, you can also expect to see some more iconic suits as well, set to be announced later this summer.

While diehard fans are always going to want more cars and tracks, the game has long passed the point where it lacked in either of those departments. One thing it has been missing, though, is a way for players to represent themselves beyond the badge on a car’s hood. Bringing characters front and center seems to be a reaction to that critique, a step towards making players care more about what, and how, they do in the game.

“I think [the characters] might be the coolest opportunity for us to really kind of depart from Forzas in the past,” Lee says, though he admits it won’t be as deep as the character creation tools in other sports games. And it isn’t as focused on story as something like Madden’s new Longshot mode. But he thinks it’s a good foundation on which to build. “I think it's really kind of a nod to where we want to go with the franchise,” Lee explains. “I feel like the car becomes a lot more personal, it's ‘oh it belongs to somebody, it's something.’”

Photo: Turn 10 Studios

Looks are a huge part of Forza, but you don’t play racing games on mute. Sound is crucial to an immersive experience, and so even Chase Combs, the game’s audio director, has spent the last two years trying to find ways to make Forza 7 grab the attention of your ears as much as your eyes. That starts with abandoning the sweeping cinematic score of Forza 6 in favor of a soundtrack you might mistake for what’s found in modern-day beer commercials.

“We ended up kind of going with something that felt a little more rooted in what you might hear in a garage, you know? That automotive spirit,” Combs says.

But Combs and his team went further than just shifting genres. The music in the game (which you can customize with your own songs if you’re not big fan of power chords) follows you as you hop around the different environments. It also dynamically adapts to those environments.

Go from the main menus to the garage to start tuning one of your cars, and suddenly the music sounds like it’s coming from a radio on the other side of the room. Hop into Forzavista mode, get in the car, and it will muffle. Jump over to the car selection menu, where your character is standing on a stage, and the music sounds like it’s coming through stadium speakers.

Photo: Turn 10 Studios

This follows through to the races, too. As you drive around each course, the game’s soundtrack will flash by you as you pass the track’s speakers.

“A goal of mine,” Combs says, was to “make [the music] a character in the game, not just something that we lay on top of the game and people kind of turn off. I wanted to make it feel like it was actually seated in the environment.”

The music actually sounds like it’s playing in a garage, or coming from the track speakers

It’s a slick effect, but music is less than half the battle when it comes to the sound of a racing game. The cars need to sound as real as they look, too.

“We think audio is critical component of that sense of speed and the kind of violent or exciting nature of racing. At times it's complete cacophony, tons of noise, rocks hitting the underbody of the car,” he says. “With race cars in particular, you have no noise insulation, and so it's just like this like giant resonating metal box.”

To get all that right, Turn 10 struck up a partnership with Warner Brothers, which got them access to some of the more rare cars that appear in the game. “We could come to them with a list of cars, and they could just go off and do all that,” Combs says. “Getting an actual race transmission has always been a challenge for us and we think that's a critical component of what a race car sounds like.”

The end result is a game that sounds remarkably lifelike without all the different layers — the screaming engines, squealing tires, doors slamming, and the rock soundtrack — muddying each other up. You can hear the air being sucked into the engine at the same time that, say, your tires hit the gravel when you slip off the curbing of a track. There’s enough space in the mix for the click-thud of shifting gears, the raindrops hitting the windshield, and the spray coming off the tires to play together, not against each other.

Of course, Combs shows me all this in one of his small sound editing studios. So what about the rest of us schmucks playing through the tiny, drilled speaker holes on our flatscreens?

That’s a question Combs thinks a lot about, he says, especially when it comes to car crashes. “There is an initial instinct when you're making collision sounds to try to just, like I'm gonna juice the bass. But we know that with those speakers, anything below 200 hertz or more, [they] just can't reproduce it,” he says.

Combs has a switch on his desk that he can flip to funnel the sound through two desktop speakers, and that his team will often head out to one of the common areas and use the TVs there. That way, hopefully, their work can be heard no matter where you play. Good audio doesn’t sell games, but Turn 10 hopes it will be just as engaging as the new characters, and as exciting as the cars themselves.  

Photo by Sean O’Kane / The Verge

Adding customizable characters and doing tricky things with the sound might seem ancillary to the core Forza experience. But with Scorpio letting the team max out the graphics and the racing engine, these are the ways Turn 10 is trying to grow its customer base beyond the 4 million players it already claims.

How do you do that? Well, for one thing, this will be the first full Forza title available on PC. There, the company hopes to court the same increasingly diverse sets of players (namely: women and kids, but also competitors in the Forza Championship series) that it says has come to the game on Xbox in recent years. One way of doing that will be through sheer compatibility — Turn 10 says it has tested everything from PlayStation DualShocks to pro racing wheels to Guitar Hero controllers, and all of them work with Forza 7 on PC.

And yes, Forza is more approachable these days. It’s tempting to think of Horizon as the game for non-racers, and Motorsport for the diehards. But the number of driver assists and the freeing up of the campaign has made Motorsport almost as accessible to new players. There will be more of that in Forza Motorsport 7. One particular new option is a “friction assist,” which lets the player turn up or down how severely they’ll be affected by driving off track.

“Realism and punishing don’t have to go together”

“For some players, if you've got licensed cars, and you've got realistic graphics, you are as realistic as is required,” Greenawalt says. “We keep pushing the physics system further and further and further, and I think it's understandable that people would go ‘wow, if you do that then you've made it inaccessible.’ That's not been the case.” Or, as Hartman puts it, “realism and punishing don't have to go together.”

In that way, Turn 10 is redefining realism. Or at the very least, widening the focus of the definition to include the more human aspects of being a racer: the way your body jostles in the seat, the sound and fury that comes with pushing a car to its limits, the silly stickers that can be plastered over a helmet. Forza Motorsport 7 is all about creating the feeling that you’re a great driver — whether or not the computer’s helping.

That’s why Greenawalt thinks pushing for unpolished realism through things like scuffed helmets and garage-speaker sound is so important. Turn 10 has already mastered making glossy racing games. To grow, it has to stop buffing out the dings that make things feel familiar and real. “What makes cars more relatable is the human hands that made them, and yes, those create imperfections,” he says. “But it's the imperfections that really bring it to life.”


Edited by Chris Plante and Casey Newton.