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Originally published November 15, 2014 at 8:00 PM | Page modified November 16, 2014 at 8:52 AM

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Screen racers: Microsoft's Turn 10 Studio drives innovative games

Microsoft’s Turn 10 Studio drives innovative games for the racing genre, timed for the release of new machines, such as the Xbox One, when the quality of racing simulation games helps people gauge how much the graphics capabilities have improved.


Seattle Times technology columnist

Video-gaming industry at a glance

17,400: Number of employees in Washington state in the video-game industry in 2013: 8,300 employees at small to midsize game companies; 2,700 freelancers; and 6,400 at large companies such as Microsoft.

330: Number of interactive-media companies in Washington in 2013.

14 percent: Compound annual growth rate of industry cluster since 2007.

$6.1 billion: Wages they paid in 2013.

$91,000: Median wage in industry; state’s overall median wage is $56,444.

$19.2 billion: Companies’ direct revenue in 2013.

$36 billion: Estimated economic impact, including indirect revenue generated.

Economic Development Council of Seattle and King County

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Everyone knows that the Puget Sound builds a lot of airplanes.

Less well-known is that a group of engineers and designers in Redmond is churning out cars to satisfy the varying tastes of car lovers around the world.

Digitally, that is.

For more than a decade, Microsoft’s Turn 10 Studio has been creating racing games — and a continual stream of new, digitally rendered vehicles — to showcase each new generation of the Xbox.

“We are continuously building and shipping cars,” said Alan Hartman, head of the 250-person studio that produces the “Forza” game franchise.

Racing games tend to be overshadowed by blockbuster action games, such as “Call of Duty,” which dominate fall sales and for many define console video gaming.

But the racing genre plays an important role, particularly around the launch of new consoles such as the Xbox One and Sony’s PlayStation 4, when the quality of racing-simulation games helps people gauge graphics capability improvements.

These games also bring a large audience of die-hard racing fans and casual players, who want to show off their home-theater setups or have a family-friendly game on hand.

The “Forza” franchise is the grandchild of Microsoft’s “Flight Simulator,” which broadened the appeal of PC gaming a generation ago and paved the way for Microsoft to start the Xbox business, Hartman said.

Racing games are a key area for console makers. Each produces distinct versions for their own hardware, including Nintendo’s “Mario Kart” franchise, which lately has reinvigorated sales of its Wii U. Sony’s “Gran Turismo” has long been a marquee title on the PlayStation with a hyper-realistic, painterly style that Microsoft counters with the Teutonic precision of the “Forza” graphics.

All have dazzling landscapes, ranging from the psychedelic 3-D courses of “Mario Kart 8” to the “Forza” version of the famed Nur-burgring track, which Turn 10 scanned with lasers to create accuracy down to the millimeter.

“They all offer their own unique twist and take on the genre,” said Sartori Bernbeck, senior market analyst at research firm EEDAR, which tracks the industry.

“If they’re all very homogeneous they’d all be cannibalizing each other and the future would be slimmer than it is right now.”

Bernbeck said racing games are bought by 30 to 40 percent of those buying new consoles early in each new hardware generation, and overall account for about 6 percent of game sales. He expects they’ll gross around $260 million this year.

Microsoft hasn’t disclosed sales of “Forza Motorsport 5” which went on sale alongside the Xbox One last November, or “Forza Horizon 2,” in which players explore open terrain as opposed to racecourses, that went on sale Sept. 30.

In addition to exploring technical capabilities of the Xbox, Turn 10 has pushed pricing boundaries. The franchise uses an in-game commerce system in which players buy upgrades and new cars with credit they earn through racing, or by taking out the credit card and paying a little extra.

These microtransactions have become common even in $60 console games, but “Forza” pushed things too far, pricing new cars so high that players initially felt gouged.

At the Polygon game site, critic Arthur Gies wrote that games such as “Forza 5” and “Gran Turismo 6” put their effort into “fantastically refined mechanics and systems” and draw on decades of real-world track design.

“Racing games are as much about beating the track as the other people on it,” he wrote. “Forza Horizon 2 instead relies on courses built on top of its open world, and they can’t compete.”

After the blowback over “Forza 5,” Turn 10 moved to fix the game’s “economy” and is monitoring analytics to keep it balanced, Hartman said.

“We can see how much money people have in credits in-game, where they are in the game, how many are cars in their garage. We can see that data and react to it, continue to tune the game to make sure it’s giving them the rewarding experience they want,” he said.

With “Horizon,” Forza is also experimenting with the genre. It’s designed to be a social game aimed at younger players with a thumping soundtrack and party atmosphere. In the latest version, players racing around streets and fields in Italy and Southern France can form clubs, rendezvous with friends or become pals with drivers they encounter on the road.

The studio also recently launched Forza Hub, a racing content site with news and highlights of action taking place across the franchise.

“We’re really about taking gamers and getting them into cars, thinking about cars, and taking the younger generation that’s maybe not into cars but they’re into games, and get them introduced to car culture,” said Dan Greenawalt, Turn 10’s creative director.

Games sales could be a surprise this year. In the U.S., 26 percent of homes are looking at buying a console this holiday season, up from 23 percent last year, according to a survey by the Consumer Electronics Association.

Microsoft’s Xbox One had a slow launch and trails the PS4, but it’s been gaining momentum since recent price cuts brought the entry level price down from $499 to $349. Last week Microsoft said Xbox One has lately been the top seller and will soon cross 10 million units.

The company is getting a boost overseas, where the Xbox One in September became the first modern console to go on sale in China. Each console sold in China comes bundled with “Forza Motorsport 5.”

China has a domestic car industry but so far those cars aren’t in the game. That’s because Microsoft’s research found that Chinese players would rather see long-wheelbase Audi A8 sedans and Buicks in “Forza,” Greenawalt said.

To keep it fresh and keep its audience of millions engaged, Turn 10 keeps building new digital cars, releasing new models every month and a virtual car emporium every year it launches a new title.

Between “Forza 5” and “Horizon 2,” the studio has produced more than 500 cars and more than 100 that its offered up through supplemental downloads. They range from an old Volkswagen Bug to the Bugatti Veyron, and from Ford Escorts to priceless vintage Ferraris.

“Our fantasy is this scale — being able to just jump into any car in the world, cars you’ve never seen,” Greenawalt said.

It seems to take almost as long to build a digital car as a real one. Hartman said Turn 10 spends around nine months defining its car lists, prioritizing them, finding real-world examples and starting production, which may take six months.

Having lots of classic cars nearby in the garages of early Microsoft employees has helped, as has the opening of the LeMay Museum in Tacoma.

Turn 10 scans every bit of the cars’ exterior and interior. If the owners are amenable, they hoist up the car, pull the wheels, weigh various parts and test the engine.

The resulting digital models seemed to reach their apex in “Forza Motorsport 4,” released in 2011 for the Xbox 360. It had a feature that lets you open doors, climb inside and manipulate vehicle controls using the Kinect motion sensor.

As the hardware continues to evolve and games are built for 4K televisions and other new platforms, designers will need to do more than dial up resolution and add more texture, Greenawalt said. They’ll need to do more with lighting and individual materials, showing the path a finger leaves in velour upholstery, for instance.

Hartman and Greenawalt wouldn’t say much else about what’s coming with “Forza 6” and beyond.

Having emerged from the rush to finish “Forza 5” and “Horizon 2” for the Xbox One’s launch and second holiday shopping season, they may have time to push the franchise onto other platforms, such as mobile devices.

Hartman said they’ve “played” with virtual-reality headgear — where racing games seem particularly well-suited — but there are still technical challenges to overcome.

Perhaps in the future, if we’re all gliding around in self-driving cars under Google’s control, games like “Forza” will be the only way people can experience the thrill of driving, the beauty of cars and the roar of an internal-combustion engine.

In the meantime, the virtual car factory off Willows Road will keep churning out new models as fast as it can.

Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com



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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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