How do video game designers create such realistic auto racing titles? From modeling the vehicles to copying the racetracks, we examine how they do it.
In the beginning, the video game universe was a simple place, populated with the most basic of adolescent fantasies: playing sports, battling ghosts and aliens, and, of course, driving fast cars. Well, sort of driving cars.
The first arcade-style driving game, Atari's "Gran Trak 10," debuted in 1974, just two years after "Pong." It was a single-player, race-against-the-clock competition in which the driver maneuvered a race-car icon around a simple 2-dimensional track. Primitive for sure — the graphics were laughable — but it did feature a real steering-wheel controller and a 3-speed gear shifter. Even so, the driving experience wasn't exciting or, for that matter, close to lifelike.
It wasn't until the 1990s that software designers bothered incorporating believable driving dynamics and real-world vehicles into their virtual creations. When it debuted on the original Sony PlayStation console in 1997, "Gran Turismo" set a new benchmark for racing simulations with its industry-leading graphics and the true-to-life performance characteristics of its virtual vehicles — specifically, handling and acceleration. The game was an instant success.
Soon, the Xbox-exclusive "Forza Motorsport" franchise began doing the same, and the dueling series turned racing games into powerful, surreptitious marketing tools, in which players spent as much time driving their virtual racers as they did lovingly customizing their exteriors.
Today, video game developers are competing to take automotive wish fulfillment to even greater heights of realism. And while the games still can't capture the sphincter-tightening sensation of barreling around a real racetrack at breakneck speeds, they do come closer than ever before. How do they do it? By going old school — getting out of the lab and back on the track.
The process of importing real-world cars into video games was largely established more than a decade ago, when developers first started using extensive photographic references to create 3-D models of vehicles, and adjusting performance and handling based on a car's raw specs. Today's game artists use exponentially more references — hundreds or even thousands of photos, depending on the vehicle — as well as more detailed data sets.
For games such as "Gran Turismo 5," which was released in November 2010 for the PlayStation 3, and "Forza Motorsport 4," due this fall on Xbox 360, many carmakers provided computer-aided design schematics, allowing programmers to create in-game equivalents that are structurally accurate, inside and out, instead of reverse-engineering virtual models based on just their stats. Certain vehicles get an extra degree of analysis: For the upcoming "Forza" title, developers took 3-D laser scans of select cars, including the Bugatti Veyron.
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A game's look is one thing; translating a car's performance is another, and it is still primarily about numbers. But more powerful game engines — the core software that determines the physics and interaction of objects as you play — allow for more detail and differentiation. The creators of "Forza," Turn 10 Studios, say that they have modeled tire-related properties, such as weight transfer, and have incorporated proprietary performance data from tire manufacturer Pirelli into "Forza 4." The result, the company says, is the most up-to-date simulation of how modern tires grip or slip in a variety of racing conditions. Few players will notice this level of nuance midgame, but the tiny, exacting minority of hard-core players and professional racers who train using "Forza" and "Gran Turismo" spread that gospel of updated accuracy to the wider audience.
In some ways, Eutechnyx, the team behind the upcoming "NASCAR The Game 2011" — slated for release in March 2011 on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 — has to dig even deeper into the minutiae of real-life vehicles. "NASCAR has strict rules about the performance of its race cars," says Gregg Baker, community manager at Eutechnyx. "It's not like Formula One, where you can have one car with a much superior engine." NASCAR's stringent regulations mean that engines are nearly identical when it comes to power output. "So you have to really fine-tune the difference between the cars — how loose the suspension is, how well they conserve fuel, etc.," Baker explains. "Our game engine is accurate down to how much tape you put on your grille."
Where the Render Meets the Road
Building digital cars might be a relatively standard process, but the capture and creation of racetracks varies from title to title. For its popular iPhone game, "Real Racing 2," the developers at Firemint used existing track layouts as a general reference, and then created custom tracks that are designed to keep the games fast-paced and not overly punishing. "Gran Turismo 5" includes a mix of real tracks and fictional ones. "NASCAR The Game," on the other hand, is a slave to accuracy, and Eutechnyx captured thousands of reference shots of track corners and irregular surface features, and includes as many of those cracks and bumps in the game as possible.
"Forza 4" may end up raising the bar when it comes to re-creating a track. According to Turn 10, developers rented out each track that appears in the game for two to three days, shooting terabytes worth of video and photos, and tracing the inside, middle and outside portions of the road surface with a commercial-grade GPS system. The resulting map detects road crowning, tiny changes in camber, or angle, and other anomalies with subcentimeter accuracy, all of which can be coded into the game for even more realism.
Using the Xbox 360 Kinect body-sensing interface, players can explore the Ford GT's exterior, interior and raw specs by moving around and into the vehicle, and touching highlighted components.
For some types of games, realistic audio is welcome but optional. For driving titles, every tire screech, gear shift and exhaust note is subject to intense scrutiny. Most studios find the safest option is to simply hire audio engineers who have an existing library of up-to-date automotive sounds. Most of that audio is recorded live anyway. Eutechnyx bought specific audio files for its NASCAR game, such as crowd noise from actual races, but it also incorporated engine noise from individual cars, recorded and supplied by the teams themselves.
Despite using in-car recordings, the "Gran Turismo" series has been consistently criticized for its lackluster audio, particularly when compared with the "Forza" games. This is a major sticking point for fans of these dueling franchises. And while neither Sony nor Polyphony Digital responded to requests to talk about this article, Turn 10 Studios says that it captures all of its own audio, and isolates the intake, exhaust and engine sounds from each vehicle.
The arms race between "Gran Turismo" and "Forza" is leaping into another dimension: "Gran Turismo 5" is one of the few games that can be viewed in 3-D, while "Forza Motorsport 4" will have limited functionality with the body-sensing Kinect control system. Kinect utilizes a 3-D camera with an integrated microphone that allows users to interact with specially designed games without using a controller or headset, using only the motion of their bodies.
Aside from differentiating these dueling franchises, both technologies have major implications for the entire racing-game genre. Stereoscopic 3-D, which generally requires glasses, can create a sense of depth that driving games desperately need. "It changes everything," Eutechnyx's Baker says. "You see the track unfold in front of you, and you start to feel the corners as you take them, as opposed to everything just being flat."
The catch, however, is capture. Creating increasingly convincing 3-D environments will require even more data and images of racetracks and vehicles. The same goes for Kinect, which Turn 10 has demonstrated as a kind of advanced ogling tool: Players can walk around their vehicles, but also explore inside, opening the car door with their hands, and craning and leaning to get a closer look at the whole interior. That means more time spent capturing and coding essentially every vehicle in the game.
The more interesting Kinect feature demonstrated so far is more subtle and less data-intensive. Never mind the phantom steering wheel you can grip and steer. In Kinect-only mode, when you lean to one side or the other, the driver's perspective edges with you, letting you peer around a blind curve or just slightly around a car before passing it.
But like the pop-out 3-D graphics in "Gran Turismo 5," the head-tracking point-of-view shift in "Forza 4" is more gimmick than breakthrough. Still, as these gimmicks stack up and evolve into new modes of play, there's potential for the next generation of driving games to be packed with more than just ever more detail and data.
"I think we're just scratching the surface," says Dan Greenawalt, game director at Turn 10 Studios. "I have the feeling that we'll all look back at these first few years of Kinect and reflect on it as a huge inflection point in interactive entertainment."
So start your engines. It's only gonna get more real from here on out.
Based out of the Boston area, Erik Sofge is frequent contributor to Popular Mechanics and Slate.com. He specializes in everything scientific and technical.
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For physics you're not going to sell 3 million copies of real world physics. Some forgiveness needs to exist or you're going to lose all but the most hardcore gamers (and it won't work on a gamepad). Sounds like they're ramping it up to make 4 even better, but there's any number of PC sims out there with better physics than Forza and Gran Turismo 4.5. (Yes 4.5)