Interview: Mike Brown, Senior Game Designer at Playground Games

Forza Horizon 3 is the racing game of the year and received stellar reviews not only from techAU, but from the world over. With such a success on their...

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Forza Horizon 3 is the racing game of the year and received stellar reviews not only from techAU, but from the world over. With such a success on their hands, we needed to find out more about how the game came together and fortunately Playground Games lent us a few minutes of time from their senior games designer, the very talented Mike Brown. Below is the Q and A with Mike which provides some insights into the very Australian development of Forza Horizon 3 and I hope answers many of the questions you had about the game.

Q1. Forza Horizon 3 is a massive success in its representation of Australia. Did someone from Playground take a trip to Australia and fall in love? And how did you go about selecting the pieces of Australia that were included in the game?

Well this is my first time in Australia this week, and I think I’ve already started to fall in love! Nearly two years ago now we sent a team over here on a research trip and they spent months scouring Australia for iconic and beautiful areas that we could bring to life in game. They brought back thousands of photos which we poured over before selecting the areas we felt best represented the vision of Australia we wanted to create. After months of research and trawling through the images, we selected some of the most unique locations which we wanted for Forza Horizon 3, including the 12 Apostles, Ormiston Gorge and Surfers Paradise.

 

Q2. Horizon 3 is graphically amazing, can you talk about the challenges of being a few years into a console lifespan and extracting every last piece of performance from the hardware. Are you nearing the end of what’s possible and looking forward to Project Scorpio?

Experience with a piece of hardware can take you a long way, this is our 2nd game and the fourth Forza game on Xbox One so we’re really getting into our stride right now. We’re also really excited to be a part of the launch window of Xbox One S and be the first game on any platform to support HDR.

 

Q3. With the PC version of the game supporting 4K quality, models, textures etc would need to be updated over previous editions of Forza, is this a ground-up rebuild of vehicles or you can build on your previous work ?

Fortunately we build our cars to a much higher spec than they need to be for gameplay on console, and we have Forzavista mode which allows players to view the highest quality car model. So we already had a workflow in place for super-high detail cars. In terms of the rest of the environment, we knew from the start that we would be supporting Windows 10 PC so everything was made with the highest spec PC in mind.

 

Q4. Are there plans to support VR solutions like the Rift and Vive?

As of right now, we don’t have any plans to support VR, with Horizon 3.

 

Q5. How much of the development of this game came from feedback your received from fans of the last 2 versions?

One of the great things about working with Microsoft is the incredible amount of resource they put into research into the user-base and potential users, so we had an enormous bank of data that told us what players loved, what they didn’t and what they wanted to see. The most obvious fruit of this was the return of the Auction House which was our most fan-requested feature.

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Q6. What were some of the more difficult technical challenges you/your team faced on the development of FH3 ? The kind of things that kept you up and night?

With any new technology there’s always challenges and hurdles. In Forza Horizon 3 we introduced new sky technology which was an incredible challenge, especially in terms of the man hours required to capture the data – We sent a team to Australia for six months to capture sky data with our custom built 12k camera rig. All the while we weren’t 100% sure if it would work or how it would look in game when we mixed it with our dynamic weather and time of day. Fortunately the results were the incredible skies you see in game right now.

 

Q7. Can you talk to the development process of capturing, modelling the Australian landscape? How large was the team involved, was it as simple as capturing photos/video and modelling from that, or capturing environments with depth cameras, point clouds etc.

We use a system called Photogrammetry to convert the reference imagery we capture on location in Australia into the 3D models that you see in game. This means when you see a rockface in game – that’s an extremely accurate rendition of a real-life rock face captured in Australia. Rocks are a great example as they’re a notoriously difficult thing to recreate realistically in a 3D modelling package. More simple pieces of scenery like bins and phoneboxes are modelled by hand based on the reference photos our research team captured.

 

Q8. This is the first edition of Forza where cars drive on the left-hand size of the road  and many right-hand drive vehicles. How dramatic or difficult was the challenge of building, given most of the developers would be from markets. Was it ever a concern international markets wouldn’t like it?

I don’t think we were worried people wouldn’t like it, it does take a few moments to get used to it at the start of the game – just like when you first drive in a new country in real life – But we knew that players would appreciate that authenticity. In terms of the challenge, a lot of our AI systems needed to be rewritten as both Drivatars and the traffic which populate the world had both been programmed to drive on the right side of the road for the past two games.

 

Q9. In FH3 we see a revamped ‘Anna’ voice assistant. Is this a effort to reflect the proliferation of voice assistants in real-world vehicles, or simply a good way to offer additional functionality to gamers?

When we start on a new game we take stock of all of the features we’re bringing across from the previous game. Sometimes we’ll say that we’re really happy with how they worked, and port them straight across, sometimes we’ll identify a list of improvements we’d like to make.

In Forza Horizon 2 ANNA only worked with Kinect voice controls, which at the time was great. Since then a lot of new customers have bought an Xbox and don’t own a Kinect, so we wanted to make sure that all players had a way to interact with ANNA, which is what you see in the game today.

 

Q10. There’s a lot of iconic Australian cars in the game, what was the process you went through to select these cars? Once selected, did you have to source one of each to scan / capture audio / understand driving dynamics etc?

It’s always a lot of fun compiling the car list for a new game. With this game we knew we needed to touch on as many areas of Australian car culture as we could – both vintage and modern. Once we decide we want a car in the game we need to source one in great condition so that we can do the necessary data capture for us to build it and put it in the game. We took over 1000 photos of every car which appears in a Forza game. In terms of audio capture, we source a version of the car and then we take it to an airstrip near our office in Warwickshire. We attach microphones all over the car – under the bonnet, near the exhaust, in the cockpit – and then drive it around on the airstrip capturing the sound of the engine. This gives us the really authentic engine sounds you hear in the game right now.

 

Q11. FH3 includes drone mode for the first time. Are you looking forward to the creativity that is / will come from the community in creating amazing video sequences in the environment. Have you considered implementing Nvidia’s Ansel ?

We’ve been absolutely thrilled by the videos that people have already produced, seemingly within about an hour of our demo going live people were uploading amazing videos to Youtube.

 

 

Q12. Is there any final information you think our readers should know about the development of the game?

I think people should know that from the ground up on the first day of the project we planned to do Xbox One and Windows 10 versions of the game and both versions were developed in tandem at Playground Games. We went to every length to make sure that both versions of the game were as technically proficient as they could be.

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