Forza Horizon 4 is here! And what a game it is – I’ve spent the last few days blitzing through Playground Games’ exquisitely crafted composite of the United Kingdom, and marvelling at the beauty of it all. It’s not just one of the best racing games in years – it’s one of the very best open world games, too.
Maybe part of that love affair is how British it all feels, and how it speaks to the 18-year-old me that used to sit, slightly light-headed, listening to heavy drum and bass in the back of a friend’s Citroën Saxo as it sped through the countryside and used to think to myself: ‘what if this, but video game?’ It distills some of that magic of driving across this strange and often pleasant land – oh, and it looks absolutely gorgeous in the process too.
Just prior to Forza Horizon 4’s launch, Ian Higton popped up to Playground Games’ Leamington Spa studio armed with a handful of questions for chief creative officer Ralph Fulton – some of them, I admit, from myself, as I couldn’t make the trip and there was some stuff I just had to know. Like where on earth has my beloved Supra gone since last time out?
The game looks great – is it weird to say I kind of felt at home playing it?
Ralph Fulton: It’s not weird at all! That’s been the story of our development here – I don’t think we’ll ever make a game quite like this, the experience will never be quite like this again. We’ve had to adjust to making a game about our home! It’s kind of different – I’ve never been to Australia, we had other people go there and try and recreate it as best we could. Everything about this process, deciding to be in Britain, researching them and building them, playing the game, you pick up on things you never picked up on in Australia. We’re so intimate with how this country is.
I had to do a double-take when I drove past the Uffington Horse – that’s right next to where I grew up. A lot of it feels almost photorealistic, it kind of felt to me like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.
Ralph Fulton: I had exactly that. The village of Broadway, in the Cotswolds – I’d never been there and it felt really familiar. And it’s only then I remembered I went there on holiday when I was nine. That had completely escaped my memory.
So going back a bit. When you started Playground Games, did you imagine Forza Horizon as this long-running series?
Ralph Fulton: I mean yes, because I’m something of a visionary. But yes and no – and probably a lot more no. Eight years ago, when we were envisaging Horizon, we pitched it as kind of our dream game. But we didn’t know exactly what we were going to build. We spent a lot of time, talking to the media, talking to players, exploring what it was. People were really familiar with Forza Motorsport which had reached its fourth instalment, and then we come along with no track record with this crazy idea that it’s Forza but also festivals and music and an open world as well. We couldn’t see beyond the launch of that game, and hoping people would get what we were trying to do.
But also equally, yes – I always felt like the concept had the capacity to be even broader than racing games. Back then it was a racing game set in an open world – I now think of it as an open world game that involves racing. That’s the design philosophy we apply to it. As we broaden the game – especially with 3, which just blew up – in terms of numbers and the diversity of our players, along any axis you care to mention, I always thought we had the capacity to get there. It just took three goes, it turns out, and I think this will be even bigger.
Was the UK always part of the plan?
Ralph Fulton: No! People think we have a list we’re working down, and people always say ‘what was the runner-up!’ It doesn’t work like that, though. Before 4, Britain had never made a shortlist. A couple of things happened that led us here this time – one was that the folks in the studio whose job it was to think about where the location might be made a pitch for Britain that really made us think ‘huh, I hadn’t thought about that, I’d forgotten about how beautiful this country could be’. Another thing was the dynamic seasons – it’s really difficult to make an open world this size four different ways, how much work is involved in doing that. They came back and said we can do seasons – and when you think Britain plus seasons, it’s a no-brainer.
You had a few members of staff heading over to Australia to do research for Forza Horizon 3. Obviously it’s not quite as glamorous doing the UK – what did you get up to on those trips?
Ralph Fulton: It’s a popular misconception that research trips are glamorous! It’s a massive slog, you drive thousands of miles for a very short period of time and take thousands of photos. It wasn’t glamorous in Australia, and even less so in Britain! It was great though, you could decide in the morning that you needed a reference for bluebells and you could go out and get some. The big complication was seasons. We had to go out and research Britain, all the locations you see in the game, in each of the seasons.
And someone had to freeze their arse off in winter?
Ralph Fulton: Yeah, we’ve got video of the audio guys on the Yorkshire moors at winter, at night, with their microphones recording ambience. They look miserable. And they were miserable! But if you think of the year we’ve had, it couldn’t have been any better for us making this game – we had this incredibly cold winter with the beast from the east, which was amazing for snow reference, then this incredible summer we’ve had. It’s been great in that regard. But it’s been a lot more work, even though it’s closer to our doorstep.
What’s the relationship like with Turn 10 these days?
Ralph Fulton: The relationship is great, and it’s a relationship that’s eight years old now. It’s the same team we pitched this to, and we’ve been working with them ever since – and when you’ve been working with people that long, you tend to become friends. It hasn’t changed a lot – the first few games it was about building trust, showing that we had a vision and that we could execute against it. After two, building into three, there was a building confidence. I think we have more latitude in that we can say something like we’re doing dynamic season – previously there might have been more questions, but now there’s more confidence which is a very good place to be.
Right, this one’s a very Martin question. What’s going on with the Toyota licence?
Ralph Fulton: What to tell you about that. The story of licensing, the whole process is very opaque to people that don’t make games with licensed content. That’s fine – I don’t expect everyone to understand how it works. But in situations like this you have to do a bit of explaining. We’ve a team that are based somewhere in Redmond who go and renegotiate every licence we have on a per-project basis. They are working twenty four seven, 365 days a year on that. That’s 400 manufacturers, music licenses, any number of different partners. And unfortunately, when you go back and strike up a conversation you can’t always align with the things that they want, the things that you want – things change year to year in any project in any corporate area. Unfortunately what’s happened with Toyota over the last couple of years is we haven’t been able to reach an agreement which is unfortunate – hugely unfortunate for us, because as car lovers we feel the pain that our fans feel as well. And we will continue with our conversations in that area – that’s not something we’ve given up on.
Why did you sell up to Microsoft? Did you have any other suitors?
Ralph Fulton: Is that a Martin question? Because honestly! I can see why he chose not to travel and ask that! We were independent for a long time. And we love being independent. When you think we were acquired earlier this year, it came from a place where we love being independent, ew loved what we were doing with Microsoft. A couple of things – one thing that changed between Horizon 3 and now, when we shipped Horizon 3 we were a one-team studio.
That’s a very simple business to think about and manage. Obviously since then we’ve branched out and have a new team that we’re tantalisingly close to and you’ll never see what they do. I like teasing that! They’re two very different games, two different genres, both with Xbox – and suddenly when your business is growing like that and your staff is growing, it changes the way you think about what the future looks like.
The other thing is we achieved an enormous amount as an independent. Forza Horizon 3 exceeded expectations in pretty much every respect and felt like as well as an independent studio could do. Our MO is we grow and we improve and we do better than we’ve done before in everything we do, and it felt like the capacity to do that in a Forza Horizon world would only be possible if we became part of the family.
I remember talking to Brendan Greene about why they signed an exclusivity deal and he said it was stuff like them sharing tech.
Ralph Fulton: Yeah they had the Coalition help with controller stuff.
What kind of things have you gained from Microsoft?
Ralph Fulton: That’s an interesting one – we’re in a different situation from Brendan in that regard. We had a curious not quite first-party not quite third-party – okay, second party – status. We were an independent studio whose client was Microsoft, but also we worked on a first-party franchise, they’re first-party games effectively and were treated as such. So we were probably right at the front of the queue when it comes to technology – we had the first Xbox One S devkit in the UK, we were the first game on Xbox cross-play. HDR was another one – I think we were the second game to launch with HDR. We knew about these things and were probably clued in before others were. But there was still that partition that’s not there when you’re one of the family.
You’ve managed to find homes from devs before from the likes of Black Rock and Bizarre. Have you managed to find a home for devs in your new studio from Lionhead?
Ralph Fulton: Is that from Martin? Oh I’m so texting him when this is done. I think we do have a couple of people in the studio who’ve previously worked at Lionhead.
There’s one last question from Martin. Have you managed to find a role for Sean Maguire in Forza Horizon 4?
[Sidenote: Ever since Sean Maguire – Tegs from Grange Hill, or Aidan from EastEnders if you will – starred in Forza Horizon 2, I’ve been begging for him to get his own spin-off. Ralph has never seemed quite as keen.]
Ralph Fulton: This interview’s over.
He’ll be able to hear this when he’s transcribing the interview.
Ralph Fulton: [Leaning into dictaphone] Martin, you are a moral coward.
[Yes. Yes I am.]