There has been a Forza branded game released every year since 2012. Three of these have been created by Leamington Spa-based Playground Games, earning acclaim as some of the best racers ever. Sean Cleaver speaks to creative director Ralph Fulton to find out the story of Forza Horizon 3
Forza Horizon 2 in 2014 became one of the most respect racing games of this generation and was a massive hit for the Xbox One's exclusive line-up. Developer Playground Games, however, had no time to rest as the next road trip was just around the corner and across the globe.
“We started thinking about Forza Horizon 3 pretty much as soon as we had shipped Forza Horizon 2 back in late 2014,” says creative director at Playground Games, Ralph Fulton. “We follow broadly the same process on each project, starting with a long list of possible locations which we gradually whittle down as we do deeper research.
We weren’t sure how our players would react to Hot Wheels when we announced it
Ralph Fulton, Playground Games
“For Horizon 3 we were looking for a location with really diverse scenery and, as we discovered more about it, Australia really impressed us with just how varied it was. When we reached the final three in our search, Australia was the clear winner.
Forza Horizon 2 set a very high bar for the series with its stunning recreation of the Cote d’Azur and Northern Italy. “We were very proud of it, and we still are, and the work we did on that game gave us a great starting point for the next project,” says Fulton. “During the first few months of the project we prototyped some really key new technologies which we felt would take our visuals to the next level. We’ve talked about the dynamic HDR sky system a lot, but the voxel-based global illumination system was equally important to the look of the game.”
The HDR visuals in Forza Horizon 3 were used as a showcase for the Xbox One S back at E3 2016 but Playground didn't originally develop Forza Horizon 3 with that in mind. "We have a really special relationship with Xbox through Turn 10 and we get to hear about things a little earlier than everybody else, but we didn’t hear about what would become the Xbox One S and its HDR output until we were well into production on Forza Horizon 3,” admits Fulton.
“HDR is a great example of something which comes along midway through a development cycle and presents an opportunity that you just have to grab. ForzaTech uses a physically-based rendering system, which models light in a physically correct way, so our game was perfectly set up to incorporate the extended brightness gamut enabled by HDR. I think we had the very first Xbox One S devkit in the UK so we could begin investigating the feature, which also necessitated buying a bunch of HDR-ready TVs for use in the studio. Back then they were less common and much more expensive.
“We also found that the way TVs displayed HDR varied greatly from model to model, which added complexity to the process. In the end, our lighting team ended up bearing the brunt of the work, but because they’d had the foresight to capture all our Australian skies in 12K and HDR, we had the assets to really show off the technology.”
One of the big draws of the Forza Horizon series is that it is a veritable treasure chest of motoring fun, from everyday cars to the exotic. But being set in Australia, there are many cars that might not be familiar to the rest of the world. “There are always a handful of cars on every project which are difficult to get hold of and, as it turned out, some of the Australian domestic cars were the most problematic on Forza Horizon 3,” says Fulton. “We really wanted Australia to be more than just a backdrop to our game and we decided to celebrate Aussie car culture as much as we could. Their culture of Ford vs Holden, and V8s and Utes isn’t immediately familiar to everybody north of the equator, but we did feel it was really interesting and colourful and would add to the game.
“That meant a member of our research team spending a long time trying to track down some of the older cars in Australia, which is not a small place. He was scheduled to be there for a week, but as he was heading for the airport to fly back he got a call about a hard-to-find Holden, which he’d been trying to track down. He cancelled his flight, and ended up staying for a further three weeks!”
Storm Island was an interesting DLC world for Forza Horizon 2, tasking players with the great extremes of mother nature. Forza Horizon 3 was no different with the impressive snowy peak of Blizzard Mountain. “We had Blizzard Mountain in mind during development of the main game,” says Fulton. “Snowy conditions had been something we’d really wanted to do in the series for ages and we were certain our players would enjoy it.
“I love the amount the team packed into it in terms of content and gameplay, but also the little flourishes which you might not even notice. I laughed out loud when I discovered the yeti footprints at the top of the mountain. I always felt that the idea behind the expansion was a bit of a no-brainer, but its success comes from the execution by the team.
“Snow and ice sound like they’d require a big change to our handling, but it’s really just an extension of the way we model tyre compounds and tyre treads in our physics simulation, so it’s systemic rather than faked. That’s why the handling remains identifiably ‘Horizon’. The team did a great job of making these new driving experiences feel new and exciting, though. Reduced visibility, swirling blizzards, snowflakes on the windscreen, the crunchy audio of tyres hitting virgin snow, and the cool way snow deforms around the car all make it feel very different.”
By contrast, the Hot Wheels expansion wasn’t as obvious, as Fulton explains. “The Hot Wheels idea was about as far from a no-brainer as you can get! We had a few ideas, but the only one which got us really excited was the completely ridiculous one: that we’d build an enormous, life-size Hot Wheels toy track in the sky off the coast of Australia and race around it.
I’ve heard people say that Forza Horizon 3 felt like a generational leap
Ralph Fulton, Playground Games
“The team were really passionate about this idea and put together some fantastic concept imagery, which really sold it to everyone, including Mattel. It’s fair to say that we weren’t sure how our players would react to it when we announced it.
“Authentic physics is really important to Forza but we went into the Hot Wheels expansion thinking that we might have to mess around with physics to get cars sticking to the loop-de-loops and huge inverted track pieces which characterise the map. In the end, though, we didn’t and the expansion is better for it. Gravity works exactly as it does in the main game, and our car handling designers and level designers worked together to ensure that our tracks had enough centripetal force to keep the car on the track.
“The speed boosts are a nice call- back to the Hot Wheels toy tracks you played as a kid, but they’re also vital to ensuring cars are going fast enough to stick in the stunt sections which follow. It definitely makes for a higher average speed than you typically find in Horizon, and we had to reconcile ourselves that some lower car classes just wouldn’t be able to cope with the jumps, climbs and loops. But I think the pack is better because of this emphasis on the fastest cars in the game, and we didn’t have to tamper with the physics system, which is the bedrock of our driving experience.”
Ralph Fulton is very proud of Forza Horizon 3, as well he should be, but when it comes to the creation of the game, its look and its success, the pride is very much focused on his team at Playground Games.
“The thing I’m most proud of is the way the whole team set about finding ways to improve on every single aspect of their work over the previous title. Whether it was road texturing, or wet weather effects, or user interface, nothing was deemed ‘good enough’ and the team spent all of pre-production finding ways to make everything better.
“I’ve heard people say that Forza Horizon 3 felt like a generational leap over the previous game and that’s a credit to the team who refused to say ‘that’ll do’.”