So, what does it take to go from a hit racing simulation, to a franchise, to a dynasty? In a word, “vision.” Making a video game into a hit simulator is hard enough. Taking a one hit wonder and making it a franchise, even harder still. Going from solid franchise to an era leading dynasty within the genre becomes extremely difficult for any game, simulation or not.
Ultimately it is the vision of the creator that will dictate the direction and line a game follows. Initially the creative idea is fundamentally simple and straight forward in nature. E.g., create a car racing game that imparts a sense of reality. From there it goes to, how much reality should one impart?
Flight simulators for example, such as the, “Microsoft Flight Simulator” franchise dynasty, are at the extreme end of simulation technology entertainment, and as such are less entertaining than they are instructionally interesting. To their credit they have stayed the course pursuing simulation perfection since about 1982.
As focused, long lasting, and strong as their vision was for their award winning product, it still became a victim of, “management issues and delays in project delivery combined with increased demands in headcount, at a time that Microsoft was attempting to lower costs.” Sadly, the “Microsoft Flight Simulator” team “ACES” was laid off in 2009.
Were they a failure? Not at all, especially when you consider their longevity in the industry. In fact, they were the most successful flight simulator of the video gaming industry ever. Today’s automotive simulation counterparts would love to have a nearly 30 year run of success such as this.
Still, there is a lesson to be learned from what happened to “ACES.” It would appear that, “management issues and delays in project delivery” can rot out even the most successful titles. We see this same malignant issue in the two leading racing simulation franchises of, Microsoft’s “Turn 10’s” Forza Motorsports, and Sony’s “Polyphony Digital’s” Gran Turismo, today.
Polyphony has become the butt of delay jokes in the industry. In the same period of time that Turn 10 has released Forza 1, 2, and 3, Polyphony has yet to release its successor to the 2005 hit “Gran Turismo 4” sequel. (Please don’t mention, “Prologue.”)
Not to be out done, Turn 10 has been highly criticized for the opposite problem of prematurely releasing each of its sequels, as noted by the plethora of minor programming glitches and incomplete admissions stated in various interviews.
In the case of Polyphony Digital it has long since been argued that the president and creator of Gran Turismo, Kazunori Yamauchi, is simply a fanatical perfectionist in the same spirit of the most patient master samurai sword smiths. He refuses to birth his next creation until his vision of the game is fully and completely realized. The problem with this strategy (or is it a fetish?) is that the longer one waits to perfect every iota of their game, the more, “Moore’s Law” thwarts the effort. Moore’s law describes a long-term trend in the history of computing hardware, in which the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit has doubled approximately every two years. That means that computing power has quadrupled during the years GT5 has been under construction. Is it any wonder then that Kazunori Yamauchi never catches the carrot on his stick? Every time he thinks he has everything in place, technology offers yet another advance that he wants to exploit.
The result of this chasing after your technological tail is delay after delay to the point that you leave the door open for your competitors to try to step in and steal your hard won market share, and rabid fan base. Enter Forza Motorsports. To date the release of GT5 is still only rumored to be any time between March, and July 2010, but no one is holding their breath.
The fascinating thing with Polyphony and Gran Turismo is that in spite of the numerous project delays and obvious single minded dictatorial management style, they appear to be poised to reclaim their once undisputed position, and in fact finally become the dynasty of the genre that everyone thought was a foregone conclusion 5 years ago. What accounts for this? Perhaps a dictator with a racing vision is more powerful, than a democracy of driving ideas.
The main theme or point of Gran Turismo has been very constant over the years. It’s all about racing perfectly simulated cars on a level that impresses everyone from casual gamer to car racing fan. There has always been something extra special, extra “sweet” about the content and flavor of a Gran Turismo game. The presentation has a legendary or mythical-like quality that many attractive RPG games would do well to capture. Gran Turismo as a major in-house Sony Playstation title is famous for setting the new benchmark in gaming entertainment. Polyphony’s influence has been so great that dozens of racing games were inspired by it, not the least of which was Forza Motorsports.
Dan Greenawalt, the curator and head of “Turn 10” was very impressed by the first Gran Turismo, and like so many of us wanted more. He set out to create his own unique version of the game with some added features like the wildly popular in-game painting application. With major support from Microsoft Studios it was easy to see that Forza Motorsports would become a chief competing title.
Greeenawalt’s vision was generally the same as Yamauchi’s at first, but with expanded features not found in Gran Turismo. Over time and subsequent sequels, those extra features were so well received that they became equal in importance or greater than any other aspect of the game, including racing. As the Turn 10 team grew, departmental democracy took hold, twisting and warping the original vision into something arguably more than a driving or racing simulator. With more people and more sub-teams handling the immense Forza3 project in an effort to better manage the work load, and get the product on the shelves, you see an indistinct homogeny of features designed to attract the attention of dissimilar interests, all under one guise. This broad one size fits all approach allows artists, painters, photographers, filmographers, buyers, sellers, drifters, and oh, almost forgot, racers, to cross each others paths in the same game.
While each new version of Gran Turismo strikes one as being revolutionary, each new version of Forza falls on the less dramatic side of, evolutionary. With Forza the basic game play, physics, and sequenced interface is mostly unchanged once you look past the revised graphical facades. The look is different with each new version, but the underpinnings for how the cars behave and are manipulated, have barely changed.
The feeling is that aside from some minor enhancements to the physics engine, and the performance indexing, Turn 10 has tried to keep a, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to car building, tuning, and performance. Going even further to try to appeal to a still broader casual gaming audience, Turn 10 created and adopted certain options, features, and functions, to make the game easier to gain access to, so the uninitiated can be more quickly immersed. All laudable choices and sincere aims no doubt, but through it all the original vision has been clouded somewhat, and possibly even lost or discarded. Helping to add to this opinion, is the inconsistent application of the, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra when it comes to the latest multiplayer match making hopper system of FM3. The ability to freely associate with random players of a like mind through the use of player host controlled lobbies of FM2, were deleted for FM3. In its place is a more automated hopper system intended to make it easier and friendlier for the casual player to experience.
Unfortunately, the exact opposite response Turn 10 desired occurred, resulting in less players playing, while acting with greater anonymity, and less socializing. FM3 lobbies compared to FM2 lobbies are mostly silent crash fests with fewer people using microphones.
A great uproar on the FM.net forum erupted to produce some of the largest most angry thread posts ever seen in fan protest of any game. The powers that be at Turn 10 reluctantly and infrequently responded with what the fans thought was a casual indifference at best, and down right hostility at worst.
At first Turn 10 tried to solicit the help of community leaders to extinguish the flames, but the tsunami of fire was already too great. The fans, especially the core fan base felt a sense of betrayal on all fronts. They saw a repeating pattern from Turn 10 of over hyping the newest game release, being silent on fundamental changes to the game prior to release, ignoring the pleas for correction, and the core fan base being marginalized for being too passionate.
It didn’t help that many of the same old game issues reared their ugly heads at the same time, such as the engine swap money glitch. Worse still was that if you used this glitch/dev secret, Turn 10 was going to delete your account, something they did not do in FM2. Add to this a long list of glitch/cheater cars and parts swaps ruining the integrity of the leader boards, and you get the distinct impression that the game was hardly beta tested, but rather, thrown on the retail shelves as fast as possible in a bad economy for a company needing cash.
Above and beyond all of these acerbic things was a noticeably suspicious lack of simulation racing emphasis to the franchise. Forza had become a pseudo-simulator in which its creator openly admitted that he saw less and less of a meaningful reason to draw a distinction between what was an arcade racer and a simulator.
The once uncompromising fans of Gran Turismo who were lured away by Turn 10 because of the huge delay between GT4 and GT5, have watched Forza go down a different road than what originally attracted them to simulation racing in the first place, and that is, to simulation race. These same GT fans embraced the then upstart Forza 1 wholeheartedly, and became the hardcore base of the Forza franchise. This core fan base gave Turn 10 the respect and dollars they needed to continue the franchise’s sequels, in their (Turn 10’s)non-stop march to supplant any and all other racing simulators including Gran Turismo, as a dynasty in the genre.
But low and behold, the fact is the Forza franchise has taken a turn away from the single minded Gran Turismo emphasis on racing, and yet has successfully branched off into a more open field of dreams. But at what cost? Is it worth losing the core fan base that made the franchise possible? Has Forza grown enough to succeed as a dynasty on mass appeal alone? The answer will have to wait, but if the recent actions of Turn 10 are any indication the wait is already over.
Recently Turn 10 deleted, removed, and rearranged the thousands of feedback posts characterizing their new multiplayer system as being an unpopular flop. They also removed any negative references or opinions on how they have handled the situation, and added a warning to those who might persist. At the same time many have left the forum and game in protest. These are not signs of a burgeoning dynasty my friends.
It can be fairly argued that fan appreciation is at an all time low for Turn 10, odd considering its recent release of FM3. But the spin is, the greater Forza community is what’s important, not the hardcore minority base who frequent the forums.
Of course this schism comes at an opportune time for the folks at Polyphony Digital who have already been ramping up pre-GT5 events with time trials, and turning simulation racers into real racers. Though neither franchise has actually become the simulation racing dynasty they were hoped to be for reasons of management style, and project delays/development, could it be that the once wayward brethren and prodigal sons, who left GT to follow Forza, will now return to make the difference?
With Sony discounting its PS3 price to Xbox360 levels, will it be enough to entice this shunned hardcore fan base to return home to a more focused console simulation racing experience? Will FM4 be just one more step removed from simulation racing towards a broader based game generating greater sales figures than before, even without the self-important hardcore users? Or will a third party arrive on the scene to create what probably should have been done by now, produce an incomparable console racing simulator without rival and with lasting dynastic value.