Forza Motorsport 4 talks Kinect, 3D and Top Gear
Getting dragged out of the driving seat when playing Forza Motorsport 4, doesn't put us in the best of moods for interviewing Dan Greenawalt, even if he does happen to be creative director at Turn 10 Studios.
Working on the franchise for the last 10 years, Greenawalt is still positively evangelical about Forza even as he greets Pocket-lint at the wrong end of a trans-Atlantic red-eye.
"It all starts with the vision," he describes with his West Coast enthusiasm.
"The vision we have is incredibly - and some would say ridiculously - grand. We have a tremendous respect for car culture and gaming culture and our team is so passionate; we are the nexus of those two.
"The vision is to make a car experience that actually gets gamers to think about cars in a new way, but also gets car people to think about gaming. Sure, that's ambitious for any franchise but the thing that keeps me interested is having this incredibly, ridiculously, hard goal and that's what forced us to innovate on all fronts for Forza 4."
Of course with a game as good as Forza 3, the challenge for Turn 10 has been how to make Forza Motorsport 4 even better.
There are some distinct new elements to the game - Kinect integration; Auto Vista, where you get 3D tour of each car - in addition to more tracks and cars to choose from. Oh, and they've added in Top Gear too.
"We're not just making a game for the sim racer - we do make an incredible game for the sim racer - but we also have some of the most copied painting and community user generated content tools too," Greenawalt explains outlining the appeal that his racing title has had to the more creative part of the Forza community rather than just the hardcore precision petrol heads.
But exactly who are they looking to please by supporting Kinect, and how has the team ensured that it fits Forza rather than being seen as a gimmick in what is otherwise a title renowned for its authenticity to the automobile experience?
"The things we do with Kinect integration speak directly to our vision. It wasn't about tacking it on or strapping it around. It was really about thinking up new ideas that could fit towards that vision and help us expand.
"There are four main ways it's integrated and they really speak to different types of players in very, very, different ways."
Those four ways are head tracking, Kinect voice, driving and Auto Vista. Of this selection, it's head tracking that really has us interested and just how Greenawalt and his team have managed to make it a seamless part of the game rather than a distraction.
"The process of actually honing it required us to bring people in. We video-taped people playing and we watched how they naturally, without even noticing, turned their heads. And then we set it up so that very subtle movements will help you look into the corner.
"But it's also different per view, because people play in different views, and they still move their head but what they actually want to have happen when they move their head is different. So, for example, in cockpit view, I look in the mirrors. In third-person view, I do a little bit more drifting, so I want to look a little bit more to the side.
"The idea is to make it natural so that Kinect head tracking and regular driving work together; you don't have to accommodate Kinect in how you play, it should just happen. There are settings you can adjust to change how it responds and it shouldn't take players long to get used to it. It takes about 20 minutes. You tune it and then you forget it's even on. It just works."
Greenawalt's excitement about Kinect seems obvious. It looks, in head tracking, like they've got away with adding an element of motion control without falling for the obvious holding you hands out in front of you miming a steering wheel manoeuvre, but we can't help thinking about the other obvious gimmick that's hitting games recently - 3D. Fortunately, it's not something that Forza looks like it'll be pandering to any time soon.
"3D is one of those things that, when we look at the vision, it's on the list. A lot of things are on the list. For 3D to have ranked higher, we would have needed it to really come up with a new idea of how to do gaming passion and gaming culture and car culture where it's really bringing something new.
"We always want to be 60 frames per second and also we want to be immersive, but we really want to create these brand new car experiences and in the marketplace. 3D's just not taking that on at the moment."
One of the big new additions to the franchise, of course, is Top Gear. The intro to the game gets a voiceover from none other than Jeremy Clarkson - spine tingling stuff - and Clarkson also has a great role to play in voicing the Auto Vista descriptions.
We're perhaps not as sold on finding the Top Gear Bowling mini-game, in which you have to knock down bowling pins whilst driving around the Top Gear track, placed early in the game, in such stark contrast with the racing levels that sandwich it, but it's a decision which Greenawalt defends.
"We start off with an uncompromised physics engine that's always running at 60 frames per second. So, when people reduce it to its core, they can drive a simulator but, of course, Forza is so much more than that.
"The thing that makes it fun is the variety, the playground that you're able to take the cars that you love out and play with them in a lot of different, fun ways. As you're going through the World Tour, you move up and down in the spectrum and hit different places. Some of these are more taxing and some, like car bowling, are just more fun."
Fair enough. As it goes, Top Gear is a lot like that too. So was that something which the BBC's production tried to push through in the development of the game in a particular way?
"What Top Gear provides regarding cars are anecdotes and that doesn't really affect the development of the game. It's kind of like if we were to suggest a segment for their show. They're good at making their show. We could suggest it and they'd say, 'uh, that's a neat idea, amateur, we're gonna go make our show'. Well it's the same way with our game."
One thing that does come out of this, however, is the importance of partnerships, be that Top Gear, IBL or Pirelli, in the development and future of Forza Motorsport.
"It's the only thing that's going to allow us to continue to innovate at the scale that we do as we look across the broader landscape outside of gaming," concludes Greenawalt.
Pulling all these things together, whilst staying true to Greenawalt's vision, results in a game that offers variety, without sacrificing that core driving experience. But it's clear too that Greenawalt is open to taking pieces from all areas of car culture to fulfil Turn 10's aim of creating, not just a great driving game, but something that is steeped in car passion.
For us, that's what makes Forza 4 exciting: it's so much more than just a driving game.
Forza Motorsport 4 will be available on 14 October. Until then, why not read our first impressions of the game?