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Forza Horizon:Under the Hood

Brian Ekberg
Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Welcome to the return of “Under the Hood”, our ongoing series of interviews with the creators and developers behind Forza. With the Forza Horizon demo now available and the full game due to reach store shelves in two weeks, it’s time to delve deep into the details of what makes Forza Horizon the biggest and best racing game of 2012! In this series of “Under the Hood” articles, we’ll be chatting with Forza Horizon creative director Ralph Fulton and Turn 10’s own Dan Greenawalt about Horizon--the world, the cars, the narrative, as well as the kind of community-focused features that long-time Forza fans love.


In this edition, we tackle some of the larger goals for Forza Horizon, learn about the challenge of implementing night racing in the state of Colorado, and more. 


Ralph, would you describe some of the sources that directly influenced Forza Horizon and its approach to car culture?

RALPH FULTON: From the start, when we were talking with Dan [Greenawalt] and Alan [Hartman] from Turn 10, it was clear that Forza meant more than just simulation racing. It was about car culture and passion. And we had definite vision of what we wanted to do with Forza. All of us at Playground Games were big fans of the Forza Motorsport series and we recognized that, just as in the real world, there are infinite ways to express your love of cars. For some it’s about racing, others love to upgrade and customize their cars. Others just like to go to car shows and hang out and have a great time. Well, what if you combined those different expressions of car passion into a summer festival full of cars, music, girls, and parties?


It was from that simple idea that Forza Horizon was born. I’m particularly fond of the “fiction” of our world because, let’s face it, the Horizon Festival as it is in the game simply couldn’t exist in the real world. The insurance premiums would be astronomical for a start! But on the Xbox 360, the Horizon Festival can come to life as this sort of fantasy land for car lovers, for music lovers, and as a place for people to hang out and have a great time.


In terms of direct influences, I think it’s obvious that the game is indebted to the festival scene here in the UK and abroad. In many ways, we’re living in a “golden age” of festival culture. There’s never been so many thriving music festivals--featuring so much incredible genre diversity--as there has been in 2012. A great example is Bestival--the music festival created by Forza Horizon musical director Rob da Bank and his wife. This year’s edition of the festival was incredible--featuring acts as diverse as Stevie Wonder, New Order, Florence and the Machine, Friendly Fires and so many more.


On the automotive side of things, our influences are wide and varied. While the core of Forza Horizon is the authentic driving physics that Forza Motorsport players have come to expect, we wanted to push the boundaries of what was "acceptable" in a racing game. To that end, while you’ll definitely have traditional races in the game (point to point, circuit racing, and more), you’ll also be able to take part in unsanctioned street races for pink slips, as well as unusual race types that have either directly or indirectly been influenced by shows like Top Gear. A great example is our "Mustang vs. Mustang" Showcase event--where the player will be behind the wheel of a classic Mustang racing through the twists and turns of Red Rock against a P-51 Mustang. It’s a thrilling race that happens early on in the game and really sets the tone for the unexpected surprises that Forza Horizon offers to car fans.


Dan, some people are wondering why this game is even called "Forza" when that name is so closely tied to Forza Motorsports’ sim-racing roots. How do you respond to that? Was there every any consideration to use another name?

DAN GREENAWALT: As Ralph mentioned, to us Forza has always been about more than just simulation racing. We always knew we wanted to expand the Forza experience. I think "Forza Horizon" fits perfectly within the "Forza universe" because this is a game about expressing car passion. It’s just not what many people have expected. I actually love that about this game. We’ve said from the beginning that our goal has always been to turn gamers into car lovers and car lovers into gamers. And, let’s face it, there is a segment of players out there that might believe that simulation racing is not for them--it’s too technical, it’s too straight-laced, whatever the critique might be.


I’ve loved showing this game off to the press and the public over these past few months and watching their eyes light up the first time they grab a controller. For players who might be new to racing games, they instantly connect with that idea of getting into a hot car, smashing through fences and picnic tables, and basically hooning it up like crazy. There’s that visceral thrill that is undeniable. It’s equally satisfying, however, to hear from a long-time Forza Motorsport fan--the more skeptical the better, in my opinion--who grabs the controller and within just a few moments realizes that this really is true Forza physics underpinning the game. Yes, these cars feel like individual entities and they all drive differently. And they realize that, "Wait a minute, I’m on the open roads of Colorado and I can go anywhere I want?"


What about the car list? We’ve been introducing cars on a daily basis on the official Forza Twitter and Facebook feeds and we’ve seen a lot of questions regarding the breadth of cars in Forza Horizon. What’s been the approach for cars this time around?

RF: The number one rule for Forza Horizon is that the car is the star. The team at Playground Games has spent a tremendous amount of time and effort making sure that the cars in Forza Horizon feature that same level of physical fidelity that Forza fans have come to expect. This means a tremendous amount of work, from making the cars look just right to ensuring that each car drives just as it does in real life. We want you to feel the difference between a RWD chunk of American Muscle and the razor’s edge cornering response of a Lotus Exige Cup.


In terms of the collection of cars itself, the rule was we wanted cars that felt authentic to the world of the Horizon Festival. That means we cut out the bottom chunk of cars on the performance scale – the entry-level cars you might play in Forza Motorsport. At the same time, we cut out the race cars too, which just didn’t feel right to the spirit of the game.


What you’re left with is an amazing selection of cars that carries the same breadth of manufacturers that Forza fans have come to expect. There’s no need to trim the fat here – every car you’ve got in this game is an absolute blast to drive and absolutely appropriate to the kinds of events you’ll drive in the game. A great example is the 1995 Volkswagen Corrado--which happens to be the first car you own in the game. I absolutely fell in love with this one--it’s easy to drift, surprisingly quick, and just eats up the miles in the game. I could easily see myself sticking with that car for a huge chunk of Forza Horizon… if there weren’t so many other amazing cars to try out.


Dan, what’s the status with Porsche in Forza Horizon?

DG: While we were pleased to be able to reach an agreement to bring Porsche cars to Forza Motorsport 4 via the Porsche Expansion Pack, the manufacturer won’t be included as part of Forza Horizon. 


Upgrading your car will be a big part of Forza Horizon but will players be able to tune specific aspects of their car?

DG: In our play-testing of Horizon, we found that upgrading the car and managing it to the top of a car class was more meaningful to the overall experience than tuning the car for a specific ribbon. After all, Forza Horizon is a game about exploration, driving with style, and having a great time with your friends. It’s not necessarily a game about doing hundreds of laps of a circuit and trying to shave off that final tenth of a second. With Horizon being an open world game full of incredible variety of road surfaces, elevation changes, and more, we wanted to focus on the upgrades to the car as the most important thing you can do to affect performance. 


What about free roaming with friends? Will players be able to hop online and explore Colorado together with their buddies?

RF: Absolutely, free roaming with friends was a crucial component for the long-term playability of Forza Horizon and we knew that we wanted it in the game straight away. With a game as "evergreen" as Forza, players love to have the flexibility to go online and race with friends, organize creative impromptu game modes, or simply get together and show off their cars. You can do all of that in Forza Horizon, by going to the multiplayer mode and organizing a "Free Roam" lobby, where up to eight players can join up and explore the open roads together.


We briefly considered building in the online free roam into the game’s single-player gameplay but our experience with other games, as well as our own play-testing, told us that this kind of mode actually created a sense of isolation in the game--with one player on one side of the map and his or her friends all the way on the other side of the map. Only rarely would we run into each other and, even then, we often had different ideas of what we wanted to do at that moment.


For those reasons, we put multiplayer access in three different areas of the game. The goal was to always have multiplayer at your fingertips; this way, players can hook up at exactly the times they want, invite whomever they like, and immediately be together on the highways and byways of Colorado. We’ve also created a huge number of cooperative challenges that you can try with your friends to earn prizes in the game--from driving events where multiple players must get to a specific destination, or more specific challenges, like driving 8,000 miles in a single session, with each player in the room contributing to the overall mileage total. Co-op challenges are just one example of the kinds of unique multiplayer modes we’ve got ready for fans to enjoy and I’m looking forward to seeing what fans have to say about them.


With Forza Horizon, Forza fans are finally getting to race at night, something that hasn't happened since the original Forza Motorsport. What was the approach for night driving in Horizon and what were the technical challenges?

RF: One of the many goals we wanted to achieve with night racing in Forza Horizon was to create a stunning night time landscape that players would want to enjoy and explore just as much as they do in the daytime. While we knew that night racing presents unique challenges to the driver, it doesn’t need to be a pure handicap. In fact, I think we’ve proven that driving at night can be just as beautiful and exciting as driving during the day. We started by giving players a big luminous moon to drive by--at certain vantage points, it seems to fill up a chunk of the sky and it creates a lush and gorgeous dark color palette. 


The technical challenges in making night racing successful in Forza Horizon started with the lighting engine. Horizon’s dynamic lighting system is entirely new to the engine, and in turn required a large number of other features – suddenly, our shadows had to be dynamically cast as well, and our skies had to move and change in real-time. Another huge change was in how we built and rendered our cars. Horizon cars need working headlights, which cast light and illuminate the environment in front of the car. When you’re driving in cockpit view, the dash of your car needs to light up exactly as it would in real life, adding another dimension to our research requirements and requiring more new tech which didn’t exist in Forza previously. The Horizon Festival was another huge technical challenge--to realize the look and feel of a summer music festival at night we needed lasers, fireworks, stage lighting, particle effects, atmospheric effects, and all of these need to be visible from miles away. 


For me, though, the success of the system isn’t in the individual features, but in the way they knit together seamlessly as time passes within the game. I love just driving, watching afternoon turn to evening, watching the sun slowly set and the sky turn a beautiful shade of orange before night falls and suddenly I’m driving with only the light of my headlights and the soft glow of the moon to guide me. That’s the experience we had in mind when we created all this new technology for Forza Horizon.