Forza Motorsport will make you a better (digital) driver

From 2005 to 2017, we had a new Forza Motorsport game every two years. The racing series almost became a running gag during Xbox’s E3 press conferences, as players could always expect an annual segment on the next installment. But with a six-year break following the release of Forza Motorsport 7, Turn 10 Studios finally had an opportunity to do something bold with the series’ next release, this fall’s Forza Motorsport. So it tore down the car and rebuilt it from scratch instead of giving it another tune-up.

“Motorsport had not had a large overhaul since its inception. It had some big changes when it went from the Xbox 360 to the Xbox One, and we changed how we thought about this game, but it wasn’t a massive overhaul,” Dan Greenwald, Forza Motorsport general manager, told Digital Trends at a recent press event for the game. “So with being able to recontextualize Motorsport back at its heart, in a sense it’s, ‘What would we build if it was back in 2001 with today’s technology? And this is what we would do.”

That design philosophy was apparent when I went hands-on with Forza Motorsport, racing my way through its introductory Builder’s Cup in a 2018 Honda Civic. I wasn’t playing “this year’s racing game,” but a thoughtfully crafted reinvention that makes the racing simulation genre more approachable than ever. That forward-thinking innovation shows what’s possible when a first place developer has a chance to pump the brakes and rethink every turn.

The starting line

“What’s the best way to start racing?” Greenwald asks as we discuss the major changes present in Forza Motorsport. “When you jump into a lot of games — previous Motorsports — you immediately jump into an exceptionally fast car on a track racing against 24 cars. That is really hard! Forget your experience! The way that you’re taught to race cars in the real world is that you start slow and then speed up.”

It’s an answer that succinctly explains the experience of jumping into Forza Motorsport. When I start my demo, I’m dropped into the action with a quick drive in a Corvette E-Ray meant to teach me the basics of driving. I quickly remember the flow of a Forza game as I pump my brakes to turn corners rather than leaving my foot on the gas. Once that concludes, though, I’m placed right at the starting line. Rather than getting behind the wheel of the fastest car possible, I’m given the option of three more manageable ones. I pick a simple Honda Civic as I set out to complete three intro races.

A Cadillac shoots down a road in Forza Motorsport.
Xbox Game Studios

Forza Motorsport is very careful not to assume every driver is a series veteran ready to be tossed into the deep end. Instead, it’s more focused on teaching players how to make incremental progress. That starts with its initial settings, which leaves a lot of assists on by default and encourages players to turn them off one at a time. It’s a small way Turn 10 tries to help players take the training wheels off one at a time while teaching them how doing so changes the balance of the bike.

That idea of gradual progress becomes a running theme throughout my demo. The more comfortable I get with each race, the more chances I get to bump up the skill ceiling and challenge myself. That’s especially apparent in how Forza Motorsport handles difficulty. Rather than choosing “easy” or “hard” AI, I’m given a screen full of settings before each race. A slider lets me set the speed of my opponents, while three race rulesets add more challenges. Near the end, I even get a chance to set my starting position in a race. All of these options come with their own risk-reward systems, as dialing up the difficulty yields more payouts.

What I quickly find before even jumping into a race is that I have a lot of tangible ways to gauge how much my skills increase as I play. Once I feel like I’ve gotten the hang of driving, I turn off an assist and teach myself how to drive without it. When I reach the podium during a race, I increase my opponents’ speed just one notch next time to see if I can still hang. Just as a Forza race discourages players from simply pushing the pedal to the medal, the very setup here is all about starting in first gear and kicking up to the next one when it feels like you’ve hit the limit.

Corner by corner

That philosophy continued once I actually got behind the wheel of my Civic. Rather than throwing me straight into a tense competition on an unfamiliar track, each race begins with a practice round. Here, I get a chance to learn the ins and outs of a track without the stakes. I’m able to see the complexities of a track, focusing on the individual turns that are tripping me up. That isn’t just my brain breaking up a challenge in its own way; it’s an idea that’s baked into the design itself.

“The mechanics get layered one at a time, and the mechanics are bite-sized and small,” Greenwald says. “So it’s not ‘what’s your lap time?’ or even ‘did you win the whole race?’ It’s this corner. Then this corner. I’ve got a history of teaching martial arts for a couple years and, to m,e this is the natural way of learning. You learn a part, and then you add a part, and then you add a part. And if you put in the time, you end up getting very, very good. But it takes repetition.”

A driver holds a steering wheel in Forza Motorsport.
Xbox Game Studios

That’s exactly what I experience as I take practice laps around the introductory Grand Oak Raceway. Whenever I take a corner, I see a small pop-up in the corner of the screen that gives me a score for that segment of road. That grants me a bit of experience points (CXP), which fuel Forza Motorsport‘s “CarPG” progression hook. When I return to that piece next lap, I have a chance to beat my time and doing so rewards me with even more CXP. Those small bits of feedback add up during my test drives, as I can feel myself getting better based on how quickly I’m leveling up my car with each lap.

By the time I actually get to the race, I’m an expert on the Grand Oak Raceway. I know how to hit every turn in a best-case scenario. I’ll just need to see how well I’m able to work around another added variable when 23 other racers circle around me. It’s a slower loop than you might be used to in simulation games that cut straight to the chase, but it’s one that makes Forza Motorsport the most effective virtual racing teacher I’ve ever had. Patience is the secret to mastery here, and Turn 10 incentivizes that idea at (literally) every turn.

I think the spectrum of simulation and arcade is an overly simplistic view of the world.

Ite helps that driving itself feels as fine-tuned as ever. Turn 10 tore the series apart for its latest installment, rebuilding its entire physics system. That work shows, as Forza Motorsport feels like a true driving simulation without sacrificing the fun of zooming around a track in a digital vehicle. Turn 10 notes that the change to physics is even more impactful than it appears on its surface. It enabled the team to push other aspects of the racer to its limits too.

“The physics are the heart of it, and the next thing you know, everything in the game had to be redone,” Greenwald says. “We wanted to have AI that could beat our fastest players with no cheats, no hacks, no nothing. And by making the physics better than ever, we made that challenge harder than ever. So that domino hit the next domino (the AI). We had to tear that entire system apart and rebuild it from scratch. Now, the lowest AI difficulty is 6% slower than any previous Motorsport and the highest is about 20% faster.”

Racing is for everyone

When I praise the work Turn 10 has done here, keep in mind that I’m not exactly a “car guy.” I’ve never really gotten into the racing simulation genre despite dabbling briefly in games like Gran Turismo 7. The Forza Horizon series and other “arcade”-style racers are more my speed. But what’s so impressive about Forza Motorsport is how it actually gives me the tools and incentives I need to understand the nuances of the genre. It wants to teach me how to drive, tune parts, and form a connection with a car.

“Simulation is a means to an end,” Greenwald says. “I don’t want us to ever take shortcuts with our physics, our AI, our rendering engine. These core components are the heart of simulation. But never forget that this is to help people fall in love with cars and be part of a big community. That’s what it’s about. I can’t imagine Forza being just a simulator. And I think the spectrum of simulation and arcade is an overly simplistic view of the world. You can make an ‘arcade’ game that could have the hardest simulation physics in the world. That’s not a design challenge that would be hard to do. And you can make a sim that has some pretty big holes in its physics!”

If I can only design it for one person, I’m probably not a great designer.

Turn 10 doesn’t just want its game to appeal to longtime enthusiasts who are already bought in; it wants to welcome everyone into car culture. To do that, the studio went to great lengths to make the game more approachable for newcomers, breaking down a skill-based genre into digestible parts. More importantly, it’s also included a wealth of accessibility options here that let players cater the experience to their needs. Simulation purists might turn their nose up at the idea of a one-button control scheme or assists, but Greenwald believes that inclusive design represents the real heart of Forza’s mission.

“You look at curbs in New York City. There didn’t use to be a ramp to get down the curb. Did it help people in wheelchairs? Yeah! Does it help if you have a shopping cart or a wheelie bag? Yeah, it helps you too! That’s an accessible design that helps a lot of people,” Greenwald says. “In my opinion, accessible design is great design. If I can only design it for one person, I’m probably not a great designer. The thing that I don’t like about that belief that approachability means exclusion is that it’s the very opposition of what we’ve been trying to do with Forza for all these years, which is democratizing amazing technology and incredible cars.”

Cars race on the side of a track in Forza Motorsport.
Xbox Game Studios

Based on my first cup, it seems like Turn 10 is poised to deliver on that mission. Forza Motorsport might be the first simulation racing game that actually gives me all the tools to not just improve my skills, but to form a bond with my car too. By the end of my demo, I felt a connection to my little Honda Civic, understanding all the ins and outs of how it worked. I felt like that dad in his garage tinkering with his prized muscle car. I’ve never understood the appeal of that before. I do now.

Forza Motorsport launches on October 10 for Xbox Series X/S and PC.

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