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Playground Games share the secrets of Forza Horizon's success

Martin Bigg On May 29, 2017

In just five years and three games, Forza Horizon has become one of the most critically acclaimed racing game series of this generation, expanding the Forza franchise beyond its racetrack roots. Developed by Playground Games, Forza Horizon 3, the latest game in the series released last year, currently has a Metacritic rating of 91, making it one of the highest-rated racing games of all time. It also featured heavily in the inaugural Team VVV Racing Game of the Year Awards, winning the awards for Best Graphics, Vehicle Selection and Online Multiplayer.
 
We sat down with Creative Director Ralph Fulton and Studio Head Gavin Raeburn from Playground Games to find out the secrets of Forza Horizon’s staggering success, which can be summarised in three words according to the developers: fun, freedom, and beauty.

Located in Leamington Spa, Playground Games was founded in 2010 by a passionate group of former racing game developers from the likes of Codemasters, Bizarre Creations, and Criterion Games who wanted to utilise their experience to make a new open world racing IP.  During his time at Codemasters, Raeburn worked on several key racing titles including the TOCA Touring Car and Colin McRae Rally series. “The opportunity came to work on a racing title so we jumped at that,” he says, looking back fondly at the original TOCA Touring Cars released in 1997. “It was really exciting for anyone who watched the BTCC during the ‘90s. It was the most exciting sport – more so than F1 I thought at the time, so we leapt at that.” Raeburn went on to become studio head and rebooted TOCA and Colin McRae Rally as Race Driver GRiD and DiRT respectively. Fulton then joined the team to work as Creative Director on GRiD.   
 
Playground Games Ralph Fulton Gavin Raeburn Forza Horizon 3

 Studio Head Gavin Raeburn and Creative Director Ralph Fulton of Playground Games.

Ironically, it wasn’t racing games that drove Fulton to Codemasters – it was football. “I went down to do LMA Manager because I’m a massive football fan and promised myself I would work on a football game,” he recalls. Imagine his disappointment, then, when he learned that Codemasters weren’t planning to make any more LMA titles when he joined. “I thought ‘oh great I already moved here from Scotland!’”
 
“I didn’t know this at the time”, says Raeburn. “I remember talking to you and your face was slightly puzzled. I thought ‘why is this guy so puzzled?’ But you moved your entire life down to work on a football game.” At this point, Fulton admitted to Raeburn he had never made a racing game before. “Your second passion in your life became your first - it overtook football. That was fortuitous – we had a lot of fun.”
 
After the successful launch of F1 2010, both Fulton and Raeburn left Codemasters to form a new racing game studio. “We wanted our games to reach as large an audience as possible because you create games and you want people to play them – it’s as simple as that,” says Raeburn. “To do that you want to be working for the largest publisher you can possibly find, although we didn’t have a publisher when we left which was a big risk.” That was until they found themselves pitching to a little-known publisher called Microsoft.  
 
“We knew we would get the reach with Microsoft. We also had hankerings to work on an open world game because we hadn’t before and we thought that was the future of racing games at the time. We felt it was important to stretch out our wings a little bit. To their credit, Microsoft saw this small young team and thought ‘yeah we’ll place a bet on them, they seem to be made of the right stuff.’ I’m pleased to have proved them right.”

Forza Horizon Xbox 360 artwork SRT Viper
 
With the studio formed, work began on the first Forza Horizon title for Xbox 360 but some players were initially sceptical when it was announced as an open world game, perceiving the project as a spin-off to the more established Forza Motorsport series. “I hate the term ‘spin-off’ or ‘sister title’,” says Fulton. “’Spin-off’ seems to denote a lack of quality. But at first, that’s exactly what people thought we were. I think it’s probably taken at least to Horizon 2 and definitely to Horizon 3 to establish that that’s not the case; that we have the quality that the Motorsport guys have built in their franchise for years.”
 
Being handed the keys to the fabled Forza franchise to work on Horizon meant that Playground Games faced the challenge of retaining the core values of Forza while giving the Horizon series its own unique identity. “I think we probably understand them better now than we did” Fulton explains, referring to the values of the Forza series. “Our first instinct when we first started creating a pitch to take to Alan and Dan at Turn10 was being different. That was probably the biggest single factor.”
 
“What does Forza Motorsport do? It’s precision, simulation, it’s track-based and they had spent four titles building that experience and creating new experiences within it. It felt to us that we need to do something that is completely different, so open world seemed perfect because everything they do is about racing on the track and if we can take it away from that there’s point space there that we can actually thrive in and compliment an existing franchise.”
 
Playground Games Gavin Raeburn Ralph Fulton Forza Horizon 3“To their credit, Dan Greenawalt has always been great about saying ‘this is what Forza means at a really high level’ but just allowing us that space beneath those values to build our own, and that’s what Horizon has done for three games now, sprung out of a need to feel different from Motorsport to compliment it and offer a different experience. For us, Turn 10, and I think also gamers and fans, Horizon now has its own identity, its own value.”
 
One of those core values the team focused on to set Forza Horizon apart from Motorsport is freedom – but not just the sense of freedom an open world brings compared to the restrictions of a racetrack. “It’s the freedom to play in whatever way you choose,” says Fulton. There’s one core value that defines Forza Horizon above anything else, however – fun. “I think that’s the biggest direct contrast between the two series. Forza Motorsport is a serious game – it’s about shaving tenths of a second off lap times. Our game is not about that. It’s about jumping cars off cliffs and racing planes.”
 
“We’ve actually learned game after game to embrace that and really not take ourselves too seriously. We’ve done things in Horizon 3 that we would never have done in the first game such as the danger sign jumps – just get a supercar and jump it off this cliff and see how far you can jump. We would have been like ‘Can we do that in Forza?’ Whereas now I think because fun is this core value of what Horizon is, we feel like we have the license to do that.”
 
“If you look back at the original concept that we pitched, it’s remarkable how many similarities there are in that original design that we pitched to what you see in the game now,” Raeburn recalls. Even barn finds, now a staple of the series, were in the original pitch.  
 
However, hardware limitations meant that not every aspect of the original pitch made it into the game. Originally, Forza Horizon was designed to be a socially-driven game, but that vision couldn’t be fully realised until the series made the jump to Xbox One. “The biggest things that have only just started to come through in Horizon 2 and 3 were the emphasis on the social aspect of cars, driving and games which I don’t think we realised in Horizon 1,” says Fulton.
 
“With Xbox One and the connectivity that comes with that, and with our increased ability to understand how people want to interact with each other within a racing game, particularly in an open world racing game, those ideas started to come through in Horizon 2 and especially in Horizon 3 which is an incredibly social game at its heart. It’s about having fun in these cars in this open world but doing it with your friends, whether that’s synchronous where you’re all playing together, or asynchronous where you’re getting these pop-ups that tell you what your friends have done or whether it’s through the auction house, clubs, or doing it co-op.”

Forza Horizon screenshot SRT Viper
 
The biggest revelation, however, is that Playground Games intended to include online co-op, one of the headline new features in Forza Horizon 3 that lets you play through the career cooperatively with other players, in the original game, but this proved to be too ambitious at the time. “In the original pitch, we said ‘And it will all be co-op!’ - none of it was co-op in Horizon 1. It’s such a massive investment making every single thing in your game work with four players in a session playing together. We finally got to do that in Horizon 3 and it makes a huge difference.”
 
Fortunately for Microsoft, the gamble it took with Playground Games to take the Forza franchise in a new direction paid off. Forza Horizon was a critical and commercial success in 2012 at a time when racing games seemed to be declining in popularity in the wake of studio closures like Bizarre Creations and Black Rock Studios after Blur and Split/Second failed to find an audience.  
 
“Forza Horizon was the first thing we did as a studio that went out to the world. There’s probably never been more pressure than that,” says Fulton, who worried that critics would write off Forza Horizon for not being a traditional Forza Motorsport game. “We felt it was a good game, but you’ve got to see what the reception’s like,” Raeburn adds. “You don’t necessarily understand who your audience are, so that’s when you start doing your research into who’s playing our game, what do they like and not like about it. You have to listen to your audience – your audience should drive everything you’re doing.”
 
Following the success of Forza Horizon, a sequel was inevitable. For Forza Horizon 2, which marked the series’ debut on current-gen hardware releasing on Xbox One, Playground Games gathered feedback to re-establish the core values of the franchise. “We did an exercise which we still refer to as the ‘emotional core’ exercise which is to try and answer the question: what is Forza Horizon to people?” says Fulton.  “What is the emotional response they have to Horizon? Not do they like how many cars there are or do they like Colorado? When they play it, how do they feel? What emotions does it elicit?”

Forza Horizon 2 artwork Xbox One
 
“That exercise encompassed text analysing the reviews and pooling our team, but ultimately involved asking our audience, our fans. We asked something like ‘what does Horizon mean to you in a word?’ We did that, put it all together and stuck it in a word cloud to see what blew up big. The words ‘fun’, ‘freedom’, and ‘beauty’ just jumped out of it. It felt to us that was the game we tried to make, so good. But it was also the things that people responded to most about the experience.  They became the emotional core of Horizon.”
 
“We formulated processes within the team so that everyone understood that and why it was important and that became a lens for everybody within the team, whatever they were doing. Everyone makes tonnes of decisions every day which affect where the game goes. We can make big ones, but there’s a UI artist who’s choosing a colour or an audio designer who’s making a sound. What this framework gave them was a lens to look at their work through which allowed them to understand what the audience wanted." 

"I think that was one of the most significant things we’ve done as a team because it’s led everyone in the studio to understand what their individual work brings to the game and ultimately to the person who plays it. And that’s continued through Horizon 2 and 3. Those words are written on our walls so that everyone can look up and go 'Horizon beauty is…it’s colourful, seductive, evocative'. That helps them think about the person who’s going to be using this in the end.”
 
Set around the Horizon music festival, the series has featured several exotic locations, from the winding mountain passes of Colorado in the first game, to the picturesque coastal roads of Southern France in Forza Horizon 2. “I do think it’s funny that people give us a pass on Colorado,” says Fulton. While the location in the first Forza Horizon perhaps isn’t as steeped in car culture as the other games, the driving roads still make you feel like you’re in a Top Gear segment which made it a standout location choice for Playground Games. “It’s reductive - it’s not like we just landed in Colorado and that was it,” Raeburn explains. “There’s a list of different locations. We were keen on America but didn’t want to go to LA. If you look at the driving roads when you play that game some of the roads on the mountain passes are spectacular.”

Forza Horizon 3 main artwork Xbox One
 
Forza Horizon 3’s shift to Australia was a divisive choice when it was initially announced. “Are you surprised now after playing the game?” Raeburn asks us. Indeed, you can’t argue that Australia isn’t the most diverse setting in any Forza Horizon game, which is a crucial factor for Playground Games when deciding locations. “I think a lot of people didn’t understand at the time how diverse Australia is, but they do now,” says Raeburn. “There’s not just red dust everywhere; you have rainforests, deserts, lush green tropical forests and a beach. There are lots of different areas and that’s great from a driving point of view as well, so that’s why we focused on Australia – it was right at the top of the list.”
 
“I remember when we made that call and we were talking about it internally and within the wider organisation talking about ‘And then you go to the rainforest’ and people would respond ‘There is no rainforest in Australia!’ and having to go ‘Well, yeah there is.’
 
“We had the same response with Blizzard Mountain,” Raeburn recalls. “They have snow, they have kangaroos standing in the snow – you can find them on Google.”

Ralph Fulton Playground Games Studio Head “There’s still people on Twitter who go ‘I thought this game was set in Australia and yet you have snowy mountains.’ Do your research – we did!” says Fulton. “I think there were some raised eyebrows,” he continues referring to the Australian location choice. “I think the choice was sound but I think the biggest thing was how the team executed the choice. Because it could not have worked out as well if the team hadn’t embraced Australia as a location more than just a backdrop. The team went all in on Australia in terms of the voices you heard, the animals you see, and the car culture. Australia has a really unique car culture which is strange to northern hemisphere folks but, still worthy of celebration and recognition.”
 
“It’s critical to get that right,” says Raeburn. “If you get any car culture from any country wrong, you’re going to hear about it. And Australians will rightly speak up if you get the smallest part wrong - and rightly so as they should. It’s a fascinating car culture. You can go back and see some crazy fantastical cars, just like the UK car culture. I think we showed a lot of respect for that location and the car culture. I’m really pleased with the work we did.”
 
“In terms of world building, it still astonishes me the level of detail that the environment team go to building that world and how they’ve progressed from Horizon 1 to 2 to 3 in terms of how low level they build stuff. You can drive into the outback right into the north-west of the map and find little farmsteads which are right on the edge of the map."

"There’s nothing there, there’s no races or anything like that. But there’s a post box at the end of the drive, there’s fencing going all the way up to the drive, a house with a barbecue and a picnic table out the back. They built that not because they needed to, because most people probably don’t even see it. But they built it because they’re totally immersed in building this world that represents the research and reference photography they got.”
 
Creating a vast open world as diverse as Forza Horizon 3’s recreation of Australia present a plethora of technical challenges. “People say many times ‘oh racing games yes, they’re easy visually. It’s just linear, you just decorate the side of the track. An open world is just the same but in a different direction.’ That’s rubbish,” says Raeburn.

“Look at Motorsport running at 60 fps – that’s no mean feat. That’s really tough to do at that visual quality on a console. You look at open worlds as well. Remember, for a racing game you can go up to 280 mph in any direction. That’s like flight simulator territory, so it’s not like most open world games like Assassins Creed where you’re travelling at 15 mph and you’ve got time to stream in. We’re making it really hard for the technical guys and artists to be able to draw with those restrictions. So no, racing games are very challenging.”

“I think the unsung hero of Horizon games is the streaming system which we implemented on the first Horizon and then reimplemented in the second when we were moving to Xbox One and had to do all that work again on the new engine,” says Fulton. “If you playRed Dead Redemption, the fastest horse is the fastest you’re going to move in any direction and the game has got that time to think about it. Even if you fly a fighter jet in GTA, there’s no way it goes as fast as a Veyron because our Veyron goes at 270 mph, and it’s drawing in and still maintaining that level of fidelity that we achieved."
 
“I imagine if you take any open world game, take some footage and speed it up I bet the pop-in and glitches will be horrendous. Because there are challenges when you’re travelling at speed - even the lowest transition you tend to notice they’re really hard to disguise.”
 
Forza Horizon 3 screenshot Lamborghini Centenario
Forza Horizon 3 was a very worthy winner of our award for Best Graphics in the inaugural Team VVV Racing Game of the Year Awards. Over six months after its release, it remains an outstanding technical achievement with a level of fidelity that pushes the Xbox One hardware to its limits with its meticulously modelled cars - but it’s the stunning scenery that sets it apart. “It’s a series of improvements over time,” says Raeburn explaining how such a feat is possible on limited console hardware.

“In Horizon, we started with building the streaming system to allow for an open world. You look at Horizon 2, the big thing was getting onto new hardware and learning new hardware – that’s a challenge in itself. And PVR at that time gave us a new way of handling materials with physically based rendering. If you talk to any developer they’ll say that was tough. But then we got into our stride with Horizon 3. We understood materials properly, and we had the new skybox system.”
 
Even the skies in the game world are authentically Australian because the team captured footage of the sky on location throughout the summer. It may sound like a gimmick, but it has a profound effect on the in-game lighting's realism. “We invested a lot of money, time and effort in capturing real Australian skies. It sounds like a waste of time, but they look incredible,” says Raeburn. “Australia’s skies look different to European skies. The land mass and sea make a difference. The arc of the sun the atmosphere and pollution all makes a difference. They look very different to the test skies that we captured in the UK. Light makes a big difference to the world. Light comes from the sky, we had good sky and that helps a lot with the materials. I think working on a console helped. Working just on Xbox One, less so nowadays, but focusing on one platform does help because you can squeeze every last bit of that console.“
 
Seeing what Playground Games has achieved on the Xbox One, it boggles the mind to think what the team can potentially achieve on the more powerful Project Scorpio. “I’ve heard a lot of people say ‘I can’t believe you got that out of Xbox One,’ says Fulton. “With Scorpio coming out it’s allowed the narrative that that’s it for Xbox One, that you can’t get any more out of it because that’s the traditional generational leap thing. I don’t think that exists now. From what I’ve seen, I think there’s much more to come from Xbox One.”
 
“On every project, we make big changes like we talk about skies and Voxel-based GI that touches everything. But also we have a rendering team and an environment team who are all pushing to make tiny gains all over the place. Whether their discipline is foliage, or grass, or buildings or whatever their particular area is, they are always looking at how they can improve the quality of what they’re creating. I think we’ll continue to do that regardless of new hardware which just allows it.”

Forza Horizon 3 Australia city skyline
 
“It’s not just hardware changes that improve graphics,” Raeburn explains. “It’s algorithmic changes – we learn how to do things better in different ways. Voxel-based GI is a relatively new solution that wasn’t around five years ago but that’s made such a big difference. And then you leverage that in different ways and you add it to a different component of something else you’re looking at. Before you know it you have a system that looks ten times better than what you had before. It’s nothing to do with hardware, just clever people.”
 
Of course, beyond the locations, the cars are the real stars of Forza Horizon. Forza Horizon 3 won our award for Best Vehicle Selection, and rightly so – with over 400 cars including post-release DLC packs, no other recent racing game has matched the quality, quantity and variety of its vehicle roster. Both the Forza Horizon and Motorsport series have consistently featured eclectic vehicle selections that resonate with car enthusiasts, featuring everything from the latest supercars to obscurities you don’t normally see in other racing games, which is a testament to the team’s unbridled passion for cars.

“Chris Phillips, who’s one of our car handling designers, owns the car list right at the start of the project. Everyone in the studio is passionate about cars,” Fulton explains. “I love how we have brought in cars that you just don’t see in other racing games. In a way, it’s a luxury afforded by a large car list. If you have a car list with 50 cars in it, there are some cars you need to have and fill those slots and you don’t have that luxury."
 
“We must be in over 400 cars in Horizon 3. We shipped with 350. Because you’ve got that many, it means you can get those must haves out the way and then you can start to think about what are the other reasons we would bring cars into the game. I think Australia has been reasonably well represented in Forza, but certainly not to the level that would celebrate Australia as the location for Horizon 3. So we went all in on that. We definitely brought the first Utes into Forza like the old Sandman and a Torana which I absolutely love.”
 
For Raeburn, there’s one car the Studio Head has always wanted to feature in Forza Horizon. “I wasn’t allowed to get the Porsche Panamera in,” he says. “Whenever my cars come up they aren’t interesting enough to drive in any racing game.” That was, of course, until the release of the Forza Horizon 3 Porsche Pack, which includes the Panamera Turbo. 

Forza Horizon 3 Reliant Regal
 
“Another luxury of having a big car list is you get to do things like the Reliant Regal which is something we talked about for a couple of games now,” says Fulton. “Doing the three-wheel physics was a bit challenging. Finding the licensor turned out to be a big challenge, as was finding a car to reference and research. The car we referenced to photograph to build it was an Only Fools and Horses tribute replica done up with the Trotters Independent Trading sign.”  
 
“We thought they would roll over,” says Raeburn. “You see them in Top Gear and they roll over quite easily. They don’t, they’re really stable. I don’t know if it’s the lack of power in the car but they don’t rollover. Apparently, in Top Gear they had to rig it so it would roll over. It’s actually a very safe car.”
 
“Although it does roll over if you’re doing 90 mph which is why we added the stabilisers, which is the best ever upgrade. We have a lot of fun with it,” says Fulton. “We have a team who are just nuts about cars and nuts about different aspects of car culture. There are as many people raving about the Reliant Regal as there are about wide arch kits which is something we had wanted to do forever. The guys that were into that scene were totally angelical about getting that stuff in, who we should approach and who the providers should be. It all comes from just wanting our car list to be as diverse and rewarding as the world is.”
 
“I’ve always loved this about Forza and Gran Turismo when you can just say ‘I want to drive that car’ and it’s there and you can go in it,” says Raeburn. “It could be your own car, your parent’s car, or the car you’ve always fantasised over. But it was always restrictive when we had 50 cars. We have the tools to take real world data and import that into the game and the passion. Sometimes I think our team room is like a warehouse for car parts. You see so many boxes everywhere.”
 
The open world setting meant that Playground Games had to adapt the car handling from Forza Motorsport to suit the setting. “The important thing to note is that the Forza simulation tech underlies both Motorsport and Horizon,” Fulton explains. “It’s the same engine, same inputs, the same fidelity of simulation that’s happening. I think we’ve established a handling style which people don’t question so much anymore. A lot of that has to do with the first game. We were asking lots of questions about what kind of Forza is this.”
 
“We did a bunch of tests in the first Horizon. Driving in an open world is different to driving on a track. You’re never going to do a 180 and drive in the other direction on a track. Also, the speed of decision making on a track is different. If I’m on a straight, there’s going to be a corner and I know with certainty what direction that corner goes in, whereas decision making is much more on the fly in an open world game. You don’t want to be sliding off the road into barriers and having to reverse up. It called for a different approach to handling, and not necessarily a less realistic one.”
 
“We didn’t start breaking things. We softened the edges of things so it’s all in inputs and tyres are the things we looked at just to make that driving experience for a prolonged period in an open world game. I think people got that pretty quickly with Horizon 1, but it’s been much more established. The guys make refinements to the systems with every game. Usually, those refinements are driven by what’s new in the game or what’s new in the world.”
 
“In Horizon 3 we spent a lot of time on suspension and tyres because we had so much more off-road cross country terrain and also a diverse range of types of off-road terrain. So we wanted to look at how suspension travel varied from car to car. We made some big improvements to that.”
 
Playground Games is so focused on making the experience as fun as possible, you can drive a Lamborghini on a beach at high speed without consequence which wouldn’t be advisable in real life, though the physics have been noticeably refined in Forza Horizon 3. “There’s a big difference between Horizon 2 and 3 in how a low-slung supercar or sports car handles off-road terrain. It’s more intuitive in 3 than 2,” Fulton explains. “We never want to go the full hog with that and have the car break because there’s no fun in that.“

Forza Horizon 3 rainforest
 
That said, there is still a lot of depth in how Forza Horizon 3’s physics handle different terrain and environmental elements like water. “If you have a car with a high wheel base you’ll get through that water easily, it doesn’t matter what the power is,” Raeburn explains. “It’s much easier than a Lamborghini which will really slow down as you would expect. So there are ways of balancing things to even out the differences in the power of the cars accurately without taking away the fun.”
 
Forza Horizon 3 received widespread acclaim from critics and gamers on release, but one area we criticised was the game’s limited sense of progression. Rather than playing as a rookie racer in an underpowered car and gradually working your way up like in previous games in the series, in Forza Horizon 3 you play as the festival boss. As well as giving you the freedom to set up custom race events, this setup regularly rewards players with large cash bonuses and desirable cars. Fulton asserts that this was a deliberate design decision to broaden the game’s appeal to as many players as possible.
 
“Our goal with Horizon, and I feel it’s justified with the way Horizon 3 has gone, is to bring this experience to as many people as possible,” he says. “Horizon is about that free-wheeling, easy-going, easy to jump in and out of experience, and I guess that can be at the expense of a more prescriptive progression system which says ‘you must do this to continue.’”
 
“With Horizon, and this has been a preset for longer than there’s been Horizon as well, we want the player to play how they want. We want the player to be able to configure the game to their preferences and their tastes, and then enjoy it for what it is on that basis. And Horizon 3 is very deliberately set up in that regard.”

Forza Horizon 3 buggies
 
“So if you want to, you can make the game really hard. You can set any number of different things, from assists to difficulty levels to give yourself that challenge. But the game is never going to say to you ‘you’re not good enough to do this, or continue try again.’ That whole ‘you didn’t get it, try again’ is an anathema to the spirit of Horizon where, and this is disregarding the whole concept of ‘you’re the boss,’ it’s about how we want you to feel in the world we’ve created. We never want you to feel like ‘I have to do this thing because I failed’. Instead, we set it up so that you can do it and you can be terrible. You can come 12th and you don’t have to do it again. You can just move on.”
 
“I think that translates for some into a lack of challenge because the game, unlike certain others, isn’t ever going ’sorry mate, you can’t progress until you’ve done this to the standard I’ve set for you.’ Instead, our game throws its arms wide open and welcomes one and all to get out of it whatever you want to get out of it."
 
“You can make it as tough as you want,” Raeburn adds. “You can make it as tough as other racing games, if not more so, but that’s your choice. The nice thing about Motorsport and Horizon is that you can go into the settings and go ‘I’ll try that, I’ll turn off traction control, I’ll turn off stability control – actually that’s good fun.’ You’re doing it at your own pace rather than hitting this brick wall in a really hardcore sim that says ‘you can enjoy this’, or ‘you’re rubbish’ or ‘you’re good’, or ‘you need to go away.’ That’s not the way we look at it.”
 
“I think about things we’ve done through the years like that particular attitude to races and never having to do something because you weren’t good enough - it goes back to the rewind thing which is another peeve of the slightly more challenge-orientated gamer to avoid the word hardcore,” says Fulton.

“That was born out of taking a step back from racing in general and saying ‘what are the things that are likely to make people put the pad down and never come back?’ The rewind thing is like ‘I’ve done a really good race, I’m on the final corner, I spin out and I come last.’ That’s an experience that could make people just go ‘It’s not for me, sorry’. Rewind was our answer to that, a response to that. The way we look at it, finishing a race, coming in fifth and the game going ‘for the next bit of content that you’ve already paid for you need to redo that and come third or better. That felt like another moment where people might just go ‘This isn’t for me’.”

Forza Horizon 3 Lamborghini Centenario beach
 
“We wanted another way of learning how to drive better in a less punishing way,” says Raeburn. “So instead of saying ‘Oh I’ve got to restart that whole race, I’m not quite sure why I went wrong in that corner but I did,’ you rewind and you see why you did and then you learn very quickly: ‘Right I can take the corner that way, I can break it down. I think it’s a better way.“
 
Forza Horizon 3’s structure also accommodates players who don’t want to grind through aspects of the game that don’t interest them to progress. Not everyone enjoys drifting, for example – some people love it, while others can’t drift to save their life, which is why drift events are entirely optional in Forza Horizon 3.
 
“Another example of something we tried very hard in Horizon not to gate the next level of content behind things that you just might not want to do. Drifting has always been divisive,” Fulton explains.   
 
“We introduced drift zones in Forza Horizon 3 as one of the new features because there’s a ton of people in Horizon who love drifting and just want to go drift. We felt ‘know your audience, do stuff that they want’. But we’re also very conscious that there are people who don’t know how to drift, understand it or enjoy it. So we made it that you don’t have to do any of those drift zones to progress to the end of the game. You can get right to the end and just ignore that section of content that isn’t for you.”

Therein lies one of the main secrets to Forza Horizon’s success – it’s a racing game series that anyone can instantly pick up and play and have fun within minutes, regardless of their skill and experience in the genre. There’s always room for improvement, however, which Fulton and Raeburn feel is a healthy outlook to have in games development. “Being super critical is very important. The moment that you get complacent is the moment that you’re out of business,” says Raeburn.
 
Forza Horizon 3 Dodge Challenger SRT beach

“There was a moment when the reviews came out when the daily embargo lifted and people spent an hour or an hour and a half on Metacritic. We hit 91 which is even higher. We’ve always wanted to hit 90 and we exceeded that,” says Fulton. “But this team just went ‘yay’ and went back to work. Because they already know what they need to do. They already know how they can improve. I was speaking to someone who said ‘I can’t look at Horizon 3. I can’t see it for the flaws.’ That’s the kind of attitude that allows us to improve game on game and makes me think that the future’s bright for this team.”
 
Forza Horizon’s accessible approach harks back to retired arcade series like Project Gotham Racing, which, in a genre dominated by daunting simulations, is pivotal to broadening the appeal of racing games to a wider audience. 2017 is being seen as the resurgence of the racing game genre, however, with series like Gran Turismo, DiRT, Project CARS, Need for Speed, and of course Forza all competing in the same year. “If you look at some of the games being released towards the end of this year, it’s phenomenal," says Raeburn. “There are so many. Most of those are accessible racing games. I think it’s just the way it fluctuates year to year.”
 
“I wonder if journalists do as much hand ringing about other genres as they do about racing,” Fulton ponders. “It’s boom or bust for them. It’s either ‘wow it’s the new racing renaissance’ whereas last year we came out and there wasn’t much competition. It’s like ‘wow is the racing genre in the doldrums?’ No, it’s just psychological. There are fewer games in general now than there were five or ten years ago. That’s not just in racing, that’s across every genre because games are more expensive to make, there are fewer people who make them, and the publishers are making fewer bets. But that’s not a racing specific problem, that’s just how the games are these days.”
 
“You look at the number of shooters ten years ago. There were dozens and dozens but there’s probably only a handful of good ones,” Raeburn adds.

“I think as a result of there being dozens and dozens of games ten years ago, teams had to do different and weirder things just to stand out in a crowded marketplace, whereas now those games don’t exist in other genres in the same way they don’t in racing,” says Fulton.
 
Forza Horizon 3 pickup
“The upshot is that the games that are left, you can look at any TripleA game and you’re almost certainly going to have a well-produced, well reviewed, fun game to play because a lot of effort goes into that at the highest level to make sure that happens. Ten years ago, you had as many misses as hits. That really is less so nowadays.” 
 
Now, the racing genre is more crowded and diverse than ever, ranging from accessible arcade racers and hardcore simulations to car games, bike games and even futuristic racers. Whether it's photorealistic graphics, ultra-realistic physics, or virtual reality, it’s difficult to pinpoint what will revolutionise the genre in the future. “It’s very fragmented,” says Raeburn. “If you look at the racing genre, you can ask one racing fan what they want to see, and they’ll say something hardcore. You could ask someone else and they could talk about Mario Kart.”
 
“I think it’s such a broad spectrum of different racing and styles. It’s really hard to say there’s one thing that will unify all these different types. In many respects, I think that’s what’s to be cherished about the racing genre. It’s all the different fragmented bits that people are so passionate about their own form of racing. I don’t think we should necessarily be looking at one thing to pour that together. Just let different groups have fun.”
 
As for the future of Playground Games, Fulton and Raeburn remained tight-lipped but emphasised that development for Forza Horizon 3 is far from over, despite the studio expanding and potentially branching out into different genres. “The guys are still working hard sustaining a game. Games don’t finish when they ship these days, which is one of the big things that happened in the last five or so years.”
 
“You have to put a lot of work into continuing to support that game and continue to respond to your community. We do that with expansions and monthly car packs, we run Forzathon which every single week is giving cool programmed content and often awesome prizes to people who still play Forza Horizon 3. We recently brought the Lamborghini Sesto Elemento back to Forza for the first time in years - it’s certainly one of the top ten most requested cars.“
 
Forza Horizon’s focus on fun has just reached new heights with the recent release of the Forza Horizon 3 Hot Wheels Expansion. And despite Forza Motorsport 7 being on the horizon, Fulton hinted that there’s still more content to come  – “there’s a bunch of stuff you don’t know about as well,” he teases.

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