Forza Motorsport 3 (© Turn 10)Click to enlarge picture

Looks like a photo, doesn't it? The graphics in Forza Motorsport 3 are so detailed you have to look closely to tell it's a video game.

Even if you were an international billionaire playboy car collector (and, this being AutoWeek, some of you are), you probably would not own more than 100 or 200 cars. If you could own a racetrack, you probably could not afford more than one. You could not jet around the world on a whim — especially with all those cars — to drive whatever track you were in the mood for at the moment. They tend to book Le Mans far ahead, after all. But as of Oct. 27, anybody with $59.95 can buy Forza Motorsport 3 (FM3) for Xbox 360 and do better than the best international billionaire playboy. Electronically speaking, that is.

FM3 features 400 detailed and accurate road and race cars that you can drive on 100 equally detailed and accurate international racetracks. You can customize your car, personalize a paint scheme or "buy" ready-made paint jobs with credits you get by racing, and you can "photograph" your car and show off the photos online.

FM3 has its strengths and some weaknesses. But it comes out many months before chief rival Gran Turismo 5 hits stores and has the largest collection of highly detailed cars and the most accurately detailed tracks now available on a home gaming console. FM3's developers invited us to Microsoft headquarters outside Seattle to have a look at the finished product, giving us a prism through which to glimpse this huge slice of the entertainment pie.

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Video games are now part of a worldwide industry that passed the $30 billion sales mark worldwide and could hit $50 billion in as little as two or three years — fast surpassing movies, music and girlfriends as a way to dispose of your disposable income.

This gives game developers more leverage, especially in the automotive sector. Developers used to have to pay manufacturers for the rights to use real-life cars in their games. But the tide has turned.

"Now they're recognizing the marketing benefits," said FM3 content director John Wendl. "Research has tied purchase intent to exposure in video games. Forza did research and said, 'Look, games are selling cars for you.'" Now many manufacturers pay for exposure in games.

How did FM3 become such a powerhouse? Microsoft's Xbox was a big success before the original Forza Motorsport launched in May 2005. But with automotive-themed games such as Gran Turismo and Grand Theft Auto grabbing huge chunks of market share, Microsoft knew it had to do something big.

"Gran Turismo is the crown jewel for Sony," said Dan Greenawalt, game director at Microsoft's Turn 10 Studios, which made all of the Forza games. "Back in 2002, we decided we needed a crown jewel for our racing."

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Forza games quickly became known for their realism — their "physics," as gamers describe the way cars realistically react to tuning and to skillful driving. The market responded. Forza Motorsport 1 sold more than 1.5 million copies. FM2 sold 3.5 million. The numbers for FM3 should continue to track upward.

Turn 10's people set the parameters for the new game early. They wanted something with incredible detail, cars so accurate they looked like photographs of real cars. They wanted tracks to match. And they wanted cars that reacted as closely as possible to the way real cars react to inputs and chassis setups. But the main challenge they sought to address was to make such a detailed product accessible to and enjoyable for everyone, from the dedicated gamer-driver to someone picking up a controller for the first time.

Can video games ever replace the thrill of racing in a real car?

"We wanted to make the best [simulation] we could and still make it accessible to the arcade user," said Greenawalt.

In video-game lexicon, an "arcade" game is a fairly simple, easy-to-use, fun game that anyone can switch on and drive. It's like a cartoon. A "sim," or simulation, is far more detailed and accurate. It takes much more time for developers and players, as well as more effort and disc space.

"That's actually a really hard trick," said Greenawalt. "Most developers approach it as black-and-white — it's either a sim or an arcade. We wanted to accomplish both. So the game's like an onion. It has different layers depending on how deep you want to go."

"I learned a lesson when my dad played Forza 2," said Wendl. "He laughed, crashed and probably wouldn't come back. We've created this game to be fun for anyone."