A decade ago, automakers didn't want to give Turn 10 Studios the time of day when the video game developer approached them about including their vehicles in the first "Forza Motorsport" racer for the original Xbox.
The companies were concerned about protecting their brands, Turn 10 says.
Now, it's the automakers that are knocking on Turn 10's door to see how they can get their latest rides showcased in the games and increase their presence in the "Forza" universe.
Their reasons, again, are all about the brand. "Forza Motorsport," first released in May 2005, is the flagship racing series for Microsoft's Xbox consoles, drawing a devoted audience of millions of gamers in search of their daily racing fix. Like its counterpart for the Sony PlayStation system, the "Gran Turismo" series, it uses stunningly lifelike visuals to help gamers fulfill their driving fantasies, with each update as eagerly awaited by fans as the next-generation Ford Mustang.
As a result, Turn 10 Studios says, car companies now see the gaming world as a key market that builds brand affinity among the next generation of buyers, along with growing numbers of well-heeled adult gamers, while providing a unique platform to do special product launches, where gamers can burn virtual rubber on vehicles before they've even hit local dealerships.
And because Turn 10, a Microsoft unit, can build eerily accurate product clones that mimic their real-life counterparts right down to engine noises and steering wheel texture, automakers can have confidence that their vehicles are well-represented.
John Wendl, Turn 10's content director, said 10-year-old boys are forming brand affinity with Audi, BMW, Lamborghini and Ferrari, which is likely their first meaningful interaction with the brands.
"There was a time where it was difficult, [but] it's become a lot easier now because [automakers] see the opportunity in a brand like 'Forza,'" Wendl said.
Unstinting realism is a hallmark of both the games and the branding opportunity. Turn 10's attention to detail can fool anyone into thinking they're looking at the real thing -- even the automakers themselves.
Before putting vehicles in the games, the studio sends renderings to manufacturers for final approval. Wendl recalled one instance in which Hyundai reps got a little confused after seeing the game models.
"We sent our renderings to them from the game for approval, and we got an e-mail back that said, 'This is great, but why did you send our photos back to us?'" Wendl recalls. "They literally thought we sent them source photos back when it was our rendering."
That level of realism is the result of a painstaking process to capture the essence of each model, imperfections and all.
Wendl said the studio had a realization after examining its 2011 release, "Forza Motorsport 4," on the Xbox 360: The cars were too perfect.
So with "Forza Motorsport 5," which launched last year on the more powerful Xbox One, the studio operated under the philosophy of "simulated imperfection" to add a new layer of realism. Developers took up-close shots of cars and meticulously examined the details.
For instance, Wendl said, they found that no matter how much a car's paint is sanded or polished, small imperfections can remain in the surface, creating a so-called orange-peel effect when the paint dries.
Or when Armor All is applied to sidewalls of the tires and some gets on the tread, the shine will wear off on the area that's interfacing with the ground.
Intricacies like this are in the game.
"It's really cool," Wendl said. "I can see the orange peel. I can see the machine marks in the brake rotors in the wheels."
Turn 10 uses an array of data points to re-create vehicles from laser scans, photos, video and firsthand observations. Wendl said members of his team put their hands on each car to figure out attributes such as what the boot-up sequence is, how the dashboard operates or what the engine sounds like.
To capture the most realistic engine sounds possible, Turn 10 hooks cars up to a dynamometer that's surrounded by about 20 microphones. The developers then record the engine at various performance points from idle to peak to create a narrative arc of engine engagement.
The developers even record how vehicles sound when modified with turbochargers and superchargers to ensure players get authentic feedback when they customize their vehicles in the game.
Turn 10 takes cars on the skid range to record tire sounds during braking, acceleration or when they're about to lock up.
The studio sometimes consults suppliers of certain parts if automakers can't provide the specs on particular pieces, such as a carburetor or rear axle.
"It needs to feel like you're driving that car," Wendl said. "That's where our research pays off."
The cars can take poundings during races, but there are guidelines from automakers on how much damage can be shown.
Wendl said that though the cars can get dented, scraped, have pieces fall off and flip during the course of the action, the studio can only go so far.
"Basically, the cabin never gets crushed to the point where it looks somebody would've died in it," he said.
"Forza Motorsport 5" launched with more than 200 vehicles last year, and Turn 10 offers a steady stream of new rides through downloadable car packs.
Why so many cars?
Wendl said the goal is to have enough of a cross-section of vehicles to address three areas that people care most about: the first car they ever owned, their current car and the car they hope to own one day.
Turn 10 keeps its library fresh with a mix of current models such as the 2014 Corvette Stingray, along with picturesque throwbacks such as the 1969 Chevy Camaro SS coupe and 1965 Ford Mustang GT coupe, which are featured in "Forza Motorsport 5."
While retrieving specification data for newer vehicles is fairly straightforward, Wendl said rarer vintage cars often require detective work. If owners of the hard-to-find models don't give Turn 10 full access to all of the information it needs, the team sometimes will find itself searching periodicals for useful data.
Nowadays, virtual racing enthusiasts can get their hands on exotic rides before they leave any tread marks on American roads.
The "Forza" series launched several vehicles before they were available at U.S. dealerships: the 2013 BMW M5 in "Forza Motorsport 4" and the 2013 McLaren P1 and 2013 Ferrari LaFerrari in "Forza Motorsport 5."
In a similar move in November 2012, General Motors teased Sting-ray fans on "Gran Turismo 5" with a prototype C7 camo car that players could download to whet their appetites before its official debut at the 2013 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The in-game launch of the undisguised version coincided with its unveiling in Detroit, said Frank Saucedo, director of GM's North Hollywood Advanced Design Center.
"You can reach a larger audience by having a car in a video game, quite honestly," Saucedo said. "It allows more people to interact with our vehicles. There is a cool factor being in 'Gran Turismo.'"
In a testament to the realism of "Forza," some automakers have taken advantage of game footage to promote their products at auto show unwrappings.
The show launches of the 2013 Hyundai Veloster Turbo and 2013 SRT Viper both included "Forza Motorsport 4"-powered showcases.
Turn 10 Business Manager Kim Wolfkill said, "It was exciting for us to move beyond producing just a game to producing the kind of experiences that the automakers want to then share with their consumers to help launch their products."