Microsoft figures we all have a race car driver in us, and so it is fitting that Forza Motorsport 7 is the flagship title for the Xbox One X, Windows 10, and Xbox One gaming machines this fall. The game represents the high-end of racing graphics on Microsoft’s platforms and features more than 700 cars and 30 racing environments.

On the Xbox One X and Windows, the new Forza will run in 4K resolutions with high dynamic range (HDR) lighting at 60 frames per second. The racer debuts on October 3 (or September 29 for Ultimate Edition buyers), and it will feature crossplay between Windows 10 and Xbox One players. A lot of fans have been waiting for this, since Forza Motorsport 6 debuted in 2015 and Forza Horizon 3 launched in 2016.

Microsoft said about 5.3 million people already play Forza games online each month, making it one of the largest racing communities in the world. As of December 2016, the Forza franchise exceeded $1 billion in retail sales with more than 14 million unique players involved in the Forza community on Xbox One and Windows 10 PCs. It also features 15 different “voices of motorsport,” such as professional race car drivers Josef Newgarden, Tanner Foust, and Ken Block.

The game carries with it a big responsibility, and the developers at Microsoft’s Turn 10 Studios have shouldered it since 2001. John Wendl, content director at Turn 10, has been there from the beginning. I played a preview of the game and talked to him about 4K racing at a Microsoft preview event.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: John Wendl, content director for Forza Motorsport 7 at Turn 10 Studios.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: I played three races in the preview. Is that the progression of the first events?

Wendl: It’s really just an introduction to the game. That’s what we call our initial experience. With more than 700 cars, we’re trying to give players a taste of the wide variety of cars in the game before we turn them loose in the career. After those first three races, you start your career in the Forza Driver’s Cup.

GamesBeat: I saw a lot of rain.

Wendl: We have a fully dynamic weather system now. It may start dry. You might go through a violent thunderstorm, and it may dry out again. In Forza 6 we had puddles that were physically based, meaning you could drive through them and they’d affect the handling of your car. Now those may form, grow, shrink over the course of the race.

Every lap, coming into that corner, it may be different. There may be a puddle that wasn’t there before. It may be bigger or it may have gone away. It changes your driving strategy over the course of the race. Every time you go to that track it’ll be different — different time of day, different weather conditions, different time of year potentially. That all affects how it looks and how it drivers.

GamesBeat: The driver bodies and animations are new. What would somebody notice about them?

Wendl: We’re rendering them with as much detail as the car itself. We have both men and women drivers now. They’re fully customizable. We have more than 300 pieces of unique race gear, spanning decades of motorsport history and pop culture. I don’t know if you had a chance to thumb through some of them, but it has everything from tuxedos to Master Chief to various different themes in there. Chain mail, mummies, astronauts all kinds of stuff.

Those will be available as you play through the game, as well as in prize crates, which is a new mechanic we have. You can find mods and driver gear and other things as you work your way through the Driver’s Cup. We’ve never had a character outside the car in a motorsport title before. Now the driver is out there with the car.

Above: Forza models human drivers for the first time.

Image Credit: Microsoft

GamesBeat: In some views you’ll see the character. Do the drivers have physics as well?

Wendl: They do. We’ve put in a dynamic driver IK system, which is very different than how it used to work before. They used to have animations, but now it’s a full IK rig that holds onto the wheel. They’ll shift accurately. When the car gets hit you’ll see them react and bounce around inside the car.

GamesBeat: What do you notice as far as the difference 4K creates in the final product?

Wendl: There’s a lot of stuff. We were authored and engineered from the ground up for 4K. We reauthored everything. In a driving game, I notice two things. One is you spend a lot of time looking way down the road. That’s when resolution tends to help you the most. I find that I can drive better in 4K, because I get so much crisp detail in the distance, where I’m trying to look at 200 miles an hour.

The other thing I notice is how vibrant the image is. A lot of people speak to the detail, but if you think about it, a screen is made up of a bunch of pixels, and between those pixels is black space. In a 4K image, one of the things you’ll notice is from this distance, where it may be harder to make out the really fine detail, is the image vibrancy. HDR and 4K work hand in hand to allow us to have wider contrast rations than we used to, which gives the image a natural, vibrant look. We’re able to capture sunlight more accurately. It feels more immersive.

Above: Forza Motorsport 7 is the flagship game for the debut of the Xbox One X.

Image Credit: Microsoft

GamesBeat: How big is this project as far as people and time you had to invest in it?

Wendl: It’s massive. We have a ton of content, more than 700 cars. They all have Forza Vista levels of interaction and detail. More than 30 tracks, but with the dynamic weather system really no two races are the same. The Forza Driver’s Cup has six different series, and we expect it to take players between 60 and 80 hours to complete. It’s been more than two years.

Plus, it builds on the success and technology of previous titles. This is our seventh version. I’ve been with the studio since the beginning, almost 16 years now. The Forza Tech engine continues to improve. We’re shipping on three platforms: Xbox One S, the X, and Windows 10 PCs. We’ve leveraged some of the work that was done on Forza Horizon 3, bringing over the dynamic HDR skies, but we’re taking it a step further and using those skies to actually light the car in a system we’re calling dynamic IBL, image-based lighting. We’re constantly taking things we’ve done before, improving them, and incorporating them, plus adding new features as well.

GamesBeat: Forza is the flagship title for the Xbox One X. How’s that feel?

Wendl: It’s a great position to be in. We welcome the challenge to really embrace 4K. The One X is such a powerful box. When we first brought our engine over to the Xbox One X, even after we rendered at native 4K resolution, HDR and 60 frames per second, we still had a 30 percent surplus on the GPU. We’ve been trying to figure out how best to spend that power with visual effects and lighting.

Windows, I believe, is a real opportunity for motorsport. There’s a huge sim racing audience on PC. We’ve done a lot to surprise and delight that audience. We’re supporting every fan-requested wheel on the market, a ton of different peripherals. You can even plug in a PlayStation Dual Shock controller on your PC and play it that way if you want. We support 21 by 9 aspect ratio, which PC gamers told us was important, as well as a really wide range of specs – everything from high-end gaming rigs down to an i5 processor in a Surface Book.

GamesBeat: What was the most requested thing there?

Wendl: The wheel support and 21-by-9 aspect ratio were the two biggest requested features. And then, of course, wanting it to run on their machines. We continue to expand the range of machines our game can run on. We’ll have a demo with a benchmark mode, so people can download the demo, play it, and get a sense of how the game is going to run on their machine before they go ahead and make the purchase.

Above: Forza Motorsport 7 debuts on the Xbox One and Microsoft Windows on October 3.

Image Credit: Microsoft

GamesBeat: Where would people go to find a big simulation rig like the ones you’ve shown off at E3?

Wendl: We put instructions for that on, the rig we’ve taken to different trade shows. It’s a bunch of components to make up the sound system, the motion rig, the framing, and the TV and stuff like that. You can find the specs on our community site.

GamesBeat: You think a certain number of gamers will really go and do that?

Wendl: There’s not a ton, but they’re certainly out there. They’ve built these huge impressive rigs. In some cases they cost more than a real race cars. We have guy competing in Forza RC, our esports tournament. We just finished our first year. We started in New York, and then it went to Le Mans. We had Porsche sponsor that series. It culminated at Le Mans. The racers flew to France, competed, and got to stand on the podium and spray champagne after the GT and LMP racers did there. It was the first time in history an esports team shared the podium with racers from the actual 24 Hours of Le Mans, which is a pretty cool moment. And then we had our last tournament at China Joy, wrapping up the esports series. Now PC gamers and console gamers are going to be able to compete and play multiplayer with cross play in Motorsport. It’s going to help Forza RC continue to be the leading esports platform in motorsport.

GamesBeat: How big is that as far as the player base?

Wendl: It’s huge. We get hundreds of thousands of participants. It boils down to some of the fastest racers in the world. We have hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash prizes. People have won cars, all kinds of things. It’s getting really big. Last year was the first time in history there were more people watching video games now than playing. We have full Mixer integration now, the streaming service, so that players can stream very easily and people can go watch these world-class racers compete.

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