If you’ve been keeping an eye on the gorgeous-looking Forza Horizon 2, you’ve no doubt seen mention of something called Drivatars. If you’re new to the Forza world, this term may seem strange and unfamiliar. Fear not! We are here to explain the whole concept for you.
And it’s worth understanding. See, the original Forza Motorsport ditched the traditional method of managing computer-controlled competitors’ behavior. Whereas other racing games use a standard and time-tested form of artificial intelligence, Forza actually learns from the driving behavior of actual players.
The data it learns from watching you play is saved as a driving avatar – a Drivatar. Since the first Forza Motorsport on the original Xbox, the feature has evolved, and starting with last year’s Forza Motorsport 5 debut on the Xbox One, your Drivatar moved to the cloud, ready to be called upon to race other players. It’s not online play, and it’s not a straight recording of you driving a particular track – it’s something much more complex and interesting.
Under the Hood
The original Drivatar system was born out of Microsoft’s research studio in Cambridge, UK, which sought a way to use machine learning to emulate real player behavior in computer-controlled opponents. The system took data from human players, applied it to the course (and course conditions), and then fed that information through a virtual controller using the full physics engine to create lifelike opponents. This resulted in A.I. that was markedly different from opponents in other racing games.
With Forza Motorsport 5, the Drivatar system changed radically to take advantage of cloud computing on Xbox Live. With the power of the Xbox One and the ability to process opponent A.I. in the cloud, opponents learned how to drive by observing their creators and the system gained complexity by studying the overall population using techniques more akin to “big data”. Furthermore, the game could track and share data from every single player with an Internet-connected console.
So what does all this mean? Well, consider pretty much any other racing game. When you get into a race, you tend to see other cars all behaving pretty similarly: They’ll slow down in about the same spots, make their turns in about the same way, and follow pretty much the same line through the race. In some games, the only differences you see are based solely on the physical characteristics of the individual cars. Now, to be fair, most developers introduce a bit more variety in order to create an illusion of personality in different drivers. But even this becomes somewhat predictable in its minor randomness, as you sink more and more hours into a given game.
Not so with Forza. Instead of a whole pack of cars all following pretty much the same line, you see noticeable differences in driving styles. Some opponents will brake earlier, some later; some will corner more sharply to set up for a future turn, others will try to maintain speed with wider turns; some may even use your car to bounce off of in tight turns. The Drivatars of advanced drivers, use real racing tactics and even setup strategies multiple corners in advance.
On the Track – Or Off
At first glance, the differences may be subtle, but switch from another game to Forza and you’ll notice a certain undeniable, indefinable realness to the competition, especially early in a race when cars are grouped together. Even better, whether your Forza-loving friends are online or not, you’ll occasionally see their Drivatars pop up as opponents in your own races. Having your opponents personalized in such a way makes a substantial difference in the sense of competition; you don’t just want to win this race, you want to crush your friend. And as an added bonus, while your friends are all having fun racing against your virtual self, your Drivatar is earning you credits for car upgrades.
This whole system is coming to Forza Horizon 2, with some special tweaks for the go-anywhere off-road setting. While racing lines and careful cornering still matter, the ability to take off-road shortcuts means that overall style plays a bigger role. Where a Forza Motorsport 5 Drivatar would strive to emulate things like apex approach and braking precision, Forza Horizon 2 is more concerned with elements like aggression and willingness to take shortcuts. In fact, implemented Drivatars had an unexpected benefit for the Forza Horizon 2 team: They actually started finding their own cross-country shortcuts.
This kind of A.I.-level finesse may be hard to quantify, but it has an undeniable effect, making racing in Forza feel more life-like than in any other racing series. But you don’t have to take our word for it; you can download the Forza Horizon 2 demo and see for yourself right now!