Sean Cleaver sat down with Playground Games’ Ralph Fulton to talk about the history of the studio, the mindset to their development and their future.
As you walk around the Playground Games studio in Leamington Spa, you notice a few things, aside from the very obvious orange on the backs of chairs and on the walls. You notice how big and open the office is. Despite the banks of computers with Xbox’s under them and the occasional divider, the office feels expansive and clear. Which you would think is possibly at odds with the slightly disjointed design of the old Victorian regency villas where they are housed.
“The first room, which we called 1-up because video games, was the room that we first moved into in March 2010. It was far too big for the original 16/18 of us at the time and we rattled around that for the best part of a year,” says Ralph Fulton, creative director and one of the founders of Playground Games. “Since then we’ve been incredibly fortunate because this building has allowed us just as gratuitously to expand pretty much at every point we needed to and we’ve taken more space and more space.”
We talk about the history of the building and how, back when the late Victorians still believed Leamington Spa’s waters held medicinal benefits, the villas showed off the mercantile wealth of the town. The wealth now being the vast expertise of video game development around the area and the villas, now very much converted to house the industry. “In the 60s it was joined over and it lends itself best to the open plan office space that’s kind of a necessity in game development,” says Fulton. “We also have one of the regency villas which now houses meeting rooms and our audio suites.”
As I am guided around the studio there are some words on the wall, scattered with other significant words that build on the biggest. There are three specifically that stand out the most – fun, freedom and beauty.” When we finished [Forza Horizon], we did a big exercise in our design group, which has become a very central part of how we think about Horizon going forward,” explains Fulton. “To try and assess what the first game meant to people. It became what we call the emotional core. We came back with three words. We asked the team, we sifted through all the reviews we could find, we sifted through community feedback and then we put together word clouds, which made often-repeated words blow up big. And the three words that came back as common across all those three sources were Fun, Freedom and Beauty.”
“We did a bit of work to try and establish what kind of fun Horizon is what kind of beauty Horizon is because those are quite broad terms. But when we landed on that emotional core, it actually became incredibly useful to not just establish why people had an emotional reaction to the first game, but the things we should preserve and celebrate going forward. And that’s why they’re on the walls. Every person in the studio whatever they’re working on everyday, has to make little decisions. And the sum of all those little decisions can end up being personality for a game. So they have this thing written on the wall that describes, if you’re an artist, what beauty means in a horizon context and so they can course correct their own work based on that shared understanding.”
The Forza Horizon series is something that, really, nailed open world racing from the off. Now in its third installment, the game has seen Playground Games record its most successful year both critically and commercially. It’s something that Playground has been consistently working on since pitching the idea at their inception back in 2010.
“We spent 2010 pretty much pitching. Pitching to anyone we could find. We knew we wanted to be a racing studio, that was our pedigree beforehand with Codemasters,” Fulton recounts. “We wanted to be a racing studio and we were pitching racing games with our IP. That conversation naturally included Xbox which (we had some friends there at the time), which then led us to speak to Turn 10 who had the Forza franchise and pretty much completely own racing for Xbox. Racing on Xbox is Forza. It was through that conversation that started around about E3 that ran through the summer and the autumn. And we ended up pitching them, what was called at the time, Forza Horizon. It doesn’t happen all that often but we pitched it as Forza Horizon and as an open world expression of what Forza is on the race track. We signed that towards the end of 2010 and since 2011 we’ve been making Horizon games.”
The evolution of that series and the studio’s capability at creating games has been constant but for all of the last seven years, the mantra that really defines Horizon as a game and as the eponymous festival of speed has still stayed true to that original pitch. “So much of the ideas and the tone are intact within that pitch that we did back then,” says Fulton. “The festival is the reason everyone is there in that world, and I think that’s important. You have to explain why everyone has come together in this way. It then has expanded over the games. It then justifies the many things you can do, it’s the kind of through life of it.”
Progression is always a fundamental part of game development especially for a studio that specialises with a genre. One of the things, in my personal view is that the Forza Horizon is not seen as a spin off, at least in an outside perception. Of course Turn 10’s Forza Motorsport is the older title, and the one that identifies as racing on Xbox, but Horizon doesn’t feel like it is any less important. It isn’t A and B as titles, more A and A. Part of that is down to hard work from Playground and it’s almost synchronous relationship with Turn 10 Studios.
“I like to think that is the case now,” says Fulton. “I think I’d be lying if I thought that was always the case in the outside perception. You know spin off can be a derogatory term maybe and I think that’s through a lot of great work and the guys at Turn 10 learning to think about Forza more than just Forza Motorsport. And I think certainly with Horizon 3 we have proven that we stand shoulder to shoulder with them and that’s to the enormous credit of the people in the studio, many of them who have been with us since the first day. And I say frequently to them and to others that Horzion 3 took six years to make. It wasn’t a two year game, it was the experience and learning and the mistakes from previous things that can lead you to the critical perception.
“That relationship I think is one of, maybe the most important strength of not just the success of Horzion games but the success of Forza this generation. That is born out of two game developers on different sides of the Atlantic ocean, who have found ways to work together, to inspire each other and to share knowledge and learning, sometimes mistakes as well. It’s rare that there isn’t a day of the week where calls are happening between the members of the two studios and that shared experience and technology and ideas is the real core strength of Forza this generation, where every year is hitting quality and innovating and bringing new fans into racing.”
That sharing of information is one of the things that allows Playground to really build on Horizon’s successes and focus on making the game even better than the last. “It’s a balancing act,” says Fulton. “In terms of visuals, we never stop. There’s literally no aspect of our game in a final frame that we are satisfied to the point that we’re not going to work on it again. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to get around to it again but at the start of every project from a visual perspective we look at absolutely everything. What we can get more out of the box on. That’s why you can see such a visual step change, obviously 1-2 was across generations but 2-3 wasn’t. And I think we achieved a great if not greater leap in quality between those two games than we did previously because we’re always looking at everything from how we draw grass to how we create skies to how our lighting systems work.
“What we have done in our gameplay and feature sets is build up a legacy of features that people associate with Horizon, they are signature features. We did Barn Finds and barn finds were in the original pitch. We did that in the first game and we’ve done them ever since and I don’t think you can do a Horizon game without them. The question then becomes are they ways we can improve them, make them better. But very much that’s kind of safe, we have to do that as the price of entry now. But that frees us up in terms of gameplay, UI, Online, to pick the big areas where we can make the biggest difference for our players going forwards. That’s the balancing act.
At all times, that must reflect on the person playing the game. “On the one hand our scope for our games and thus the value for money we offer for players is a great thing. Games are expensive, they should offer as much as they can in terms of content and longevity. But equally I think if you’re selling a game based on more than last time, you haven’t done your work in terms of finding the new things, because you have to delight players every time as well. There’s lots of levels of innovation. And some will be more noticeable than others, some we’ll talk about more than others but all of them add value for the player.”
So how does Fulton see the future for Playground Games? The studio is at a point where it has three successful racing games and a pedigree in that genre, a large space with which to work and an incredibly talented pool of employees with which to work with.
“There’s really exciting things that we’re starting to work on at Playground right now. Obviously the funny thing about games development now is the whole team works together on a game and they ship it and immediately you go from having one project to four projects. Some of the team is continuing support the game that’s out there, you start work on expansions, the team starts splitting in to many different mini projects.
One of the things we did recently, which was before Horizon came out was really look up where we’ve come in the last seven years. And we feel we kind of achieved the objectives we set for us back in 2010. More successfully and in less time than I ever thought possible. So we spent a bit of time, the leadership team here, thinking about what we’d look like in five years time and what we wanted Playground to be in five years time. Part of that what came out of those conversations was that we wanted to build another team, experiment in other genres, improve our ability as games makers beyond the racing genre that we’ve worked in and still love.
“So that has become, that’s gone from something we’ve talked about and aspire to to something that we’re actually doing. We’re hiring for and have hired for a brand new team here in Leamington, a AAA team, it’ll easily be 100 plus people and we’re super, super excited about that. And I know this is woefully unsatisfactory for you because I can’t tell you anything. And I think in all honesty it’ll be a good time before we start talking about what that project is. But I love the fact that we had our most successful year ever last year, critically and commercially and we’re in a position hopefully to build on that, to diversify and to build another great team here in the UK.”