Forza Horizon 3 is one of the most anticipated video games to be released this year, and – thanks to Xbox – CarAdvice got a sneak preview of the game and some one-on-one time with one of the key people behind it, all while taking in the gorgeous views and divine roads of Victoria's surf coast in a selection of performance-car perfection.
Due to be released on September 27 for both Xbox One and Windows 10 PC, Forza Horizon 3 is the third instalment from UK-based game developers Playground Games and is set to feature over 350 cars, which you can customise and personalise to your style.
The big news for local fans, though, is that this time the game’s open-world is based on and inspired by our own backyard – Australia.
Given this, we tagged along to join the ultimate real life Forza Horizon 3 cruise: Torquay to Port Campbell – via the world famous 12 Apostles – in an Audi R8, Ferrari 458, Ferrari California, Ford Falcon XR8 Sprint, HSV Maloo R8 LSA, Jaguar F-Type, Lamborghini Aventador, Lamborghini Gallardo, Lamborghini Huracan, Mercedes-AMG C63 S, and Nissan GT-R.
Enjoying his first-ever trip out to Australia, we thought it was fitting to grab a chat with Playground Games art director Ben Penrose while he was behind the wheel of the most quintessentially ‘Aussie’ car: the ute.
And what better ute to experience than the 400kW/671Nm supercharged 6.2-litre V8 HSV Maloo R8 LSA…
CarAdvice: Hi, Ben. So, Forza Horizon 1 was set in the US state of Colorado, Forza Horizon 2 took drivers to Southern France and Northern Italy, why did you pick Australia to be the focus of Forza Horizon 3?
Ben Penrose: When we set out and start making a Forza Horizon game, we actually have a whole set of criteria that we set out right at the beginning where we’ll have certain things we’ll be looking for from a location.
And actually, the way we’ve done it the past three times now, is we actually put together a very organised spreadsheet, and that spreadsheet will have all of our different criteria that we’re scoring each place on – and we actually do genuinely score all the ideas we have at the beginning out of 10 for these different features.
The one that was really important to us this time – and weighted more towards the top – was diversity.
We wanted to provide an open world this time that had lots of very different, we called them ‘eco-types’, so different sorts of visual palettes that you could separate the world up with.
And when we originally started looking at Australia, I think all the guys back at the studio, they had a preconceived notion of what Australia is – which is to be expected because they’re all living in the UK.
So we start looking at something like Google street view, and very quickly you start looking at what is actually on offer in Australia and we found all these really surprising places that we had no idea about.
The rain forest that you guys have here was a big eye-opener, because, you know, we were expecting lots of orange, desert-y-type ‘stuff’ you’d associate with the outback. And to see all those huge trees and prehistoric ferns and everything was… Well, we actually saw the image on Google of a car driving down [Victoria’s] Black Spur Road, and the car looked so tiny compared to all the trees and it was this really arresting visual and we were like, “that’s amazing”.
But then we quickly started adding other bits on top of that. So Surfers Paradise [on Queensland’s Gold Coast], we started looking at that as a city, and we always wanted to do high-rise, skyscraper-type features in one of our open worlds and that place has got some amazing architecture and it’s got those glittery, shiny, glass buildings – it was perfect for it.
So we ended up with the coast, rolling hills, the rainforest, the outback, and Surfers Paradise for that sort of urban city environment, and then we had all these little towns that we we’re pulling from. So, Byron Bay is a feature in the game but it was inspired by Lorne and Port Campbell and Bangalow – places that had that quaint, sort of surfy-type vibe.
And that ended up just being this amazing palette for us to be able to choose from and it gave us something for us to split the world up with, and that was ultimately the reason we went for Australia. It just had everything we needed in spades when it came to diversity as much as anything else.
CA: So if diversity was one of the criteria, what were the other ones, and how many were there?
BP: So there’s a few – I actually can’t remember all of them off the top of my head – but another really important one for us is what we describe as ‘natural beauty’.
So a lot of racing games, they’ll put in these really urban, gritty environments that kind of almost feel a bit dangerous and dark – threatening-type places. And with Horizon, it’s all about having a good time with your mates and chilling out. And the best sort of environments to do that in are places like we’re in right now, which look naturally very spectacular and they’ve got this amazing landscape that you can drink in while you’re driving around.
So amazing vistas and really beautiful, natural-looking stand-out features, like the 12 Apostles for example or those huge trees in the rainforest.
CA: We’re obviously on Victoria’s surf coast to check out the 12 Apostles and the Otway rainforest, but what other Australian highlights will fans be able to check out and explore in the game once it launches?
BP: So, speaking directly to Australians – because hopefully they’ll pick up on some of this stuff – there are those other places I was referring to, so Lorne and Bangalow and Port Campbell, they were a lot of inspirations for the kind of coastal districts.
But in the outback, we went and looked at places like Coober Pedy and the Northern Territory as a whole. Whitehaven Beach [in the Whitsundays] was another place that we looked at that’s made it in as a place.
CA: And now that you’re here seeing a lot of these places for the first time for real, what do you think of the job all your Playground Games colleagues have done with mapping and modelling these places?
BP: Well I ended up doing a lot of the planning work for the research trips and then the guys went out and physically did the research trips and brought all the reference back and all the scanned data for cliff faces and road surfaces and all that stuff.
And, yeah, coming out here personally, and being in some of the same places the guys went to for the trips, it’s kind of heart-warming actually to be in the place. And it feels so familiar because we’ve been driving around in a digital version for the past two years making the game.
It’s reassuring to know we’ve got a good chunk of this pretty spot-on, and hopefully the Australians feel the same way when they get their hands on the game.
CA: We’ve heard there’s not just Aussie cars and Aussie landscapes this time, there’s also Aussie music. What other surprises can players look forward to? Any Easter eggs to look out for?
BP: So we were really conscious that we wanted to make the thing live and breathe Australia as much as possible, so, for the first time in a Horizon game, we animated and modelled a load of wildlife.
So, there’s obviously some stand-outs that you’d expect to have in Australia, so we’ve got kangaroos in there, and crocs, and parrots, and dingos – all the quintessential Australian wildlife.
But then we’ve also got some Australian cars. That’s a really big thing. We couldn’t set the game in Australia and not properly tip the cap to Australian car culture.
So we know that you guys are crazy about utes, and the whole Ford versus Holden thing, so we embraced that wholeheartedly and we went out and sourced all the reference material for some utes – so that’s a first for Forza as a whole, not even just for Horizon, but as a franchise.
We actually had one of the guys come out and he was doing some research on one of the cars and then we had somebody suddenly have a phone call that they’d managed to spot an original Sandman to get the reference for, which was really hard to track down. And so he actually ended up cancelling his plane ride back to the studio [in the UK] so he could go back out and photograph and capture the Sandman.
I think they’re the biggest things that people will see and hopefully identify with as being ‘Australian’. And beyond the Aussies themselves, I want people to play the game and feel like they’re actually playing in Australian environments.
CA: What are the most difficult elements to get right when creating and developing a game like Forza Horizon 3? And what makes these elements so difficult to get right?
BP: I think the biggest challenge is always ‘the world’ for us. Creating that ‘playground’, if you’ll pardon the pun, for people to get into.
There’s a lot that goes into the research of wherever it is you’re basing the game on and a lot of time spent on the research trips getting all the data that you need.
But then also doing it properly. Actually transferring all that hard work during concept phases into something that resembles the stuff you’ve gone out and researched, is like a constant piece of work for two years worth of your time just making sure that you can get as much of the intricacies spot on.
And that’s why it’s kind of surreal actually being here for real, now, because it’s like those two years… it feels like it’s paid off.
CA: You’ve roughly mentioned two years, but how long does it actually take to develop a game like Forza Horizon 3 from the concept phase to release?
BP: I think for every studio it’s different, but for us, a Horizon project has traditionally been a two-year project.
CA: Is that because there’s a hard deadline that you work to?
BP: Absolutely. I mean, if you ask a bunch of creatives to tell you when something’s finished, it will probably never be finished. But we are really strict with our release dates and we know when we want to release the game and we know that that’s important to make sure that we stay relevant.
I think sometimes if you stay in that development stage for an elongated period of time, you can get to this point where by the time you release it, actually you’ve already kind of missed the boat in some respects, in terms of it being relevant with the rest of the landscape in terms of gaming.
CA: Given those strict deadlines, how much flexibility does post-release downloadable content (DLC) provide?
BP: Well, we’ve always talked about Forza being more than just that original purchase – it’s also a service – so we do spend a lot of time making sure there’s a good steady release of new content for people to get re-engaged with. So we’re always producing new car packs to make sure we’re as up-to-date as possible, and we traditionally always release some pretty ‘meaty’ DLC packs.
Obviously we have plans, but I can’t divulge those plans now because that would be spoiling the surprise.
CA: How many people are actually behind getting a game like Forza Horizon 3 out to the public?
BP: We have around 150 people as a core team at Playground Games, and towards the end of the development process we always end up swelling to more like 200 people with extra people that contract on the project.
And that’s just because to get something of this scale finished in that kind of timescale, you always end up needing a bit of extra help at certain points. But as a core, there’s about 150 of us.
CA: How different was it at Playground Games when you first started there?
BP: It’s been a really interesting process watching that studio grow because I joined about halfway through production on Forza Horizon 1 as a concept artist, and I think at that point, I must have been maybe the tenth artist overall to be hired. There really wasn’t that many people.
I remember the kitchen back in those days was in a cupboard – we didn’t even have a proper kitchen. And that was five years ago. And now we’re over three floors and we have a lovely kitchen now – it’s no longer in a cupboard.
CA: What are your favourite aspects or features of the game, personally, and why?
BP: I’m really happy with what we’ve done with the skies on this project.
Those people who have followed what we’ve done in terms of development features in the past know that we’re a little bit obsessed with skies at Playground Games… to say the least.
So we spent a whole load of time on Horizon 2 building a model of the earth’s atmosphere that actually modelled how many particulates were in the atmosphere and how dense the atmospherics were, so that if it rained in the game it was because this model had got to a point where there was so much stuff in the atmosphere that it sort of reached a breaking point and it would rain. So we went to this sort of finite level of detail in terms of getting that right.
And then with Horizon 3, we really wanted to build on top of that and create some photographic visuals.
So, quite often you’ll play racing games or other games and they’ll have a really nice high-dynamic-range photograph of a real sky on their ‘sky dome’. The difficulty with using that kind of technique for us was that we have a dynamic time-of-day cycle – so it goes from night to day and it’ll rain at certain points.
So getting that movement in the sky is difficult with that kind of format. So right from the beginning of the project we actually problem-solved it with a bunch of technical analysts and rendering engineers and we custom-built a camera rig with three 4K cameras strapped to this huge rig with all these batteries and different filters attached to it.
We then shipped it out to Australia, to the actual location, and we had a couple of guys camp out in a field for an entire summer, capturing all the skies for every second of a full day.
So you end up with essentially a high-dynamic-range time-lapse piece of photography and then we’d take all that data back into the studio afterwards and put it through a conversion process, which would then turn that information into something we could actually play back in the game and it would hook up on top of all the old stuff that we’d done for Horizon 2, so we could drive it with the same model.
It’s turned into this really amazing-looking piece of tech and it works as the predominant light source for the whole game. So tarmac and car body and metalwork and carbon-fibre, it all has this uncanny, sort of, realistic response to the quality of the light you get from that kind of data input and it’s really sort of shifted the level of realism you get from the visuals for this third game.
I think all the team at the studio are really proud of what we’ve made with this game and I’m really proud. I think this is the best game that we’ve ever made as a studio.
CA: As ridiculously impressive as all of that is, why is it so hard to get a decent smoke effect right? Because it seems to be a long-standing challenge for game developers.
BP: [Laughs] You’re right, it’s quite a difficult thing to do. You have the effects artist spending months trying to make tyre smoke look real.
I tell you what, when you play the game, have a look at what we did with the tyre smoke and you can tell me whether we nailed it or not. I thought we did a pretty good job.
CA: Have you always been a car person or more of a game person? And where do the two intersect for you, if at all?
BP: So my first word as a child, was ‘car’, which is true story, I’m not just making it up – you can ask my mother if you meet her.
So I’ve always loved cars. I haven’t been one of those guys who’s super-nerdy about everything to do with the mechanics of the thing, but I’ve always been passionate about cars and the way a car looks – and I’ve got a bit of an artistic bent, I would argue.
So I’ve always been a car fan and when I heard what Playground Games were doing, which was turning Forza into an open-world game, I was also a massive gamer at that point – still am – and I particularly loved my open-world-style games, so there was this beautiful crossover with two things that I really loved. It was kind of like a dream project, it was hard to say no to.
CA: What elements of the game and game development in general will continue to evolve and get better? How far off the limits are we?
BP: I think that with the progression of technology and the power you can get out of technology improving all the time – Moore’s law – if that trend continues, we’re always going to be at that point fairly soon where you can do so much more than you could before.
I mean, I still think there’s so much mileage in terms of what we can do as a game developer. We’ve already got to the point where we can start to produce some eerily realistic visuals, but working on the other side as a game developer, I’m acutely aware of the list of all the things that we still can’t do, which we’d really love to.
You know, in video games, you’ve got to render 60 images every second, if you’re running 60 frames a second. And when you think about it like that, that’s a huge limitation. And even though we’ve got to the point where we’ve got all this great technology behind us and things become so much more achievable, there are still limitations attached to that requirement.
CA: How 'real' do you think driving simulators are now, and how 'real' do you think they will be in the future?
BP: I remember watching a Top Gear episode years ago where Jeremy Clarkson sat down and did a lap of Laguna Seca in a particular car playing a driving sim game and then drove the real car on the real track and tried to match the time but never could. And I think his conclusion was, the one thing you cannot simulate in a simulation is the fear that’s associated with driving in real life, and I think that’s true.
And I think maybe with the dawn of things like virtual reality, you know, maybe that’s going to become a bigger part of it. But I think that sort of deep-seated, guttural dread of taking a corner slightly too quickly for your own ability is always going to be something that’s going to be pretty difficult to achieve in a video game. I think until we find a way of doing it, it’s never going to be quite the same.
CA: And finally, Ben, if you have one, what's your ultimate dream car?
BP: Yes, I do have an ultimate dream car and it’s about three cars in front of us – the Ferrari 458 Italia.
The 458, I think, is just a gorgeous looking car. I absolutely adore that car.
CA: And have you driven it yet?
BP: [Laughs] No.
CA: Saving it until last?
BP: I don’t know. I think it’s just worked out that way.
CA: Well good luck with the drive of the 458 and Ben Penrose from Playground Games, thanks for your time.
BP: That’s alright.