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GameFest: How  Forza  Lessons Can Drive Your Community Game

GameFest: How Forza Lessons Can Drive Your Community Game

August 15, 2007 | By Christian Nutt, Seattle

August 15, 2007 | By Christian Nutt, Seattle
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The presentation on the development of the Forza Motorsport 2 community functions reveals a lot of interesting and useful information about what sorts of features work and what sort of preparation you have to put into them. Unfortunately, from a practical perspective, solutions were a little less forthcoming.

The discussion began with Turn 10 Studios designer Bill Giese discussing how the limited community features of Forza Motorsport on the original Xbox lead naturally to ideas on what to add for the sequel. "They'd take pictures with their digital cameras of their works of art and post it on the forums. When we moved to Forza 2 we wanted to make it a little easier." Trading cars was also important: "We kind of wanted to take the middleman out of these trade lobbies -- we wanted people to trust [the trading software]."

Community manager Che Chou echoed this: "Communities are crucial for franchise iteration -- going from Forza 1 to Forza 2 we looked to our community to see which features [we needed] ... this led to the auction house which turned out to be our killer app... the community will point out the weakest links in the game design."

Chou took central stage to describe some of the benefits of opening up the community functions on Forza 2. "You'll find that community benefits the developer and the end user. It's a win-win situation for any franchise. The most important benefit that community gives any franchise is that it enriches the gaming experience. It goes in directions unintended by the original design. It gives the games energy, a zeitgeist if you will... you have leaders and opinion makers, followers, cheaters and griefers... a community's social energy will extend the replay value of your game... after they finish the content on the disc they may find new ways to play."

As in earlier discussions of community at this year's GameFest the ability of the hardcore fans to do your marketing for you was touched on: "Those opinions become more valued than anything marketing can come up with."

Forza 2 was integrated with its official website. The site offers not just forums and news posts, but includes game content, tied to a user's Gamertag profile, on the website: gamers can browse through the current car auctions. Due to technical limitations, though, users must log into the game to bid on the cars. Still, according to Chou, "...we actually have more details here than are available in the game -- just because we have UI space to implement it."

As Chou alluded to, the auction house became the game's killer app. According to the PowerPoint presentation, 4.4 million auctions have already occurred and over one trillion credits, the game's in-game currency, have changed hands. 46% of Forza 2 users have bought or sold at least one car. One car sold over over $1200 on eBay. According to Steven Jackson, Developer for XNA Game Platform Extensions, the original creator of the car, who sold it in-game, "basically destroyed his signature art to get back at this guy" who sold it for real world money: he flooded the market with copies of the car to ruin its value.

But what makes the auction house so compelling? "First and foremost we wanted our auction house to be a game... so there are a few things we changed about what an auction house is in Forza Motorsport 2," according to Giese. Auctions auto-extend by two minutes until all bids cease, to prevent sniping and to enhance player engagement. Tied in with the forums, where gamers post advanced notice of their cars coming up for sale, it's turned into a major force in the game's community. Giese notes, "We have people who play all day as car brokers -- they don't race anymore."

How do you design a system like Forza 2's, which also underpins similar gameplay systems in Project Gotham Racing 3, Viva Pinata, Halo 2 Vista and Shadowrun as well as upcoming, unannounced Microsoft game titles? The disappointing practical advice of Brian Spanton, Development Lead for XNA Game Platform Extensions, was to either contract out the work to outside companies or wait until Microsoft makes these tools available to developers in future revisions of the XDK.

Still, the experience of the Forza team is useful for setting your expectations. According to Jackson, "It's something we absolutely had to be prepared for prior to launch." In ten days of churn, users consume 60 gigs of space on the game's servers just on photos of their cars, for example.

"This is something we had to architect for future use," he said. "We were already pretty aggressive to allowing you to search things that weren't in the Forza UI, but any digital object the server knows about." This led to its use in the aforementioned other Microsoft titles.

Jackson is totally convinced now that the team made the right move. "If you invest in your community, your community will invest in your game. If you give people the capacity to innovate, they will... each piece of content extends the life of your franchise."

Of course, it's not all good: "You will end up with offensive content and you will end up with content that infringes on third party intellectual property. I cannot stress this enough -- you need to invest in good administrative tools that allow you to find offensive content and quickly clean it up. If anything goes wrong [with a trade] the server and the console will sit around and figure it out. Even though Live is encrypted, some people will figure out that they can dupe it if they pull out the network or power plug at a certain stage."

Summarizing the auction house, Jackson notes "this isn't a niche feature -- this is something that had broad appeal across the marketplace."

During the wrapup Q&A, Chou brought up some interesting points about the evolution of the Forza 2 community. "Pre-release I was pretty much just managing the forums. We had a lot of excitement... [membership] was somewhere in the low 20,000s... post-release, we had 400 new users per day, 7000 posts per day.

"I identified the best users who were [helping]," he continued, "and said 'Hey, I'd like to make you a Turn 10 rep on the forums', and would gift them cars in the game. I would give them a reputation on the forums to return them that way. Basically you're promoting from within. Right now we have an active user base of around 80,000 users, and we have five or six moderators who keep order."


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