Ralph Fulton, former Chief Game Designer for Codemasters, has worked on some of the biggest titles in racing history. Overseeing the design of F1 2010, GRiD and DiRT 2, he’s one of the biggest names in the genre. Now, as Design Director for his new co-start-up Playground Games, Ralph and his team have spent the last two years forging Forza Horizon. Taking a track-based racing-sim and turning it into an open world racer puts it up against the likes of Burnout Paradise, Test Drive Unlimited and NFS: Most Wanted to name but a few, but with a pedigree team and a scintillating demo, it looks like they may be up to the task. We sat down with an enthusiastic Ralph recently for a quick chat on his latest efforts.
games.on.net: I’ve now seen the 20km draw distances for myself, but for comparison’s sakes, how big is the Colorado gamespace compared to, say, Ibiza or Oahu (from Test Drive Unlimited 2)?
Ralph: I’m not entirely sure how big those maps are, what I can tell you is that we do have hundreds of miles of roads within Colorado. I know that we can draw 20 kilometers into the distance so I guess there’s hundreds of square kilomoters of area in our Colorado map.
games.on.net: From a technical perspective, can you share some numbers around just how big a job it is to create a gamespace that size?
Ralph: It’s a massive undertaking as we found out over the last year, 18 months, it took a team of over 100 people. At our peak we had 106 people on site here working just on building that environment. But we also did huge amounts of outsourcing in terms of our environment as well. Almost every object you see in the world was outsourced to companies all around the world, also large parts of the terrain in the environment were outsourced as well. So, it’s a massive operation, not just creating all that geometry but also bringing it all together, stitching it back together which was the thing we did here at Playground.
And then building it into the game engine took a massive amount of time as well. At times, much more complicated and time consuming than building, for example, a track like Bathurst.
games.on.net: As the game FUEL proved, having a massive play-space doesn’t automatically make it fun for the player, what does Horizon do that will make me want to just drive?
Ralph: A lot of people confuse sheer area with quality, they might say “Oh, the world has to be so big I can never find every part of it”. We did a lot of prototyping to find the right size for our map and pretty soon we realised almost all huge maps are almost a little off-putting, you feel you’re never going to learn them, never going to find anything. So what we alighted on was a map which was achievable in terms of scale, both for the player and for us, but crucially a map that was totally full of things for you to find and for you to do.
Part of the allure of Horizon is the freedom, at any point you can go off the beaten path and see what you can find. In order to reward that in the player, we’ve made sure that there’s always something you can find if you just point your car in a direction and drive.
There’s lots of collectibles to find, we’ve filled it with Social competition as well, wherever you go there’s always something that compares you against what your friends have done.
games.on.net: How is co-op free drive handled as far as connecting, player count and activities?
Ralph: It’s a drop-in drop-out lobby. We made a really conscious decision — and we have a lot of data to back this up — if people want to get into multiplayer, they go and do multiplayer. Very few people do multiplayer by accident.
So there was a really strong reason for us to separate singleplayer and multiplayer… but make it simple to just jump straight into multiplayer at any time.
Free-roaming with friends is set up by a lobby so your friends can join you at any time so it’s drop-in drop-out in that sense but you need to state what you want to do. We’ve setup co-op challenges in our free-roam mode, it’s collaborative with really cool rewards. So an example might be ‘everyone get into a mini and drive to a dam by sunset’. Another might be a speed trap on a freeway and you all have to go through it at 250mph within 1 second of each other… all of a sudden you’re all talking about what car you need and like ‘go now’.
games.on.net: The Mustang vs Mustang race was a really clever challenge-concept and something that I think Forza 4 missed out on taking advantage of from it’s Top Gear license. Are there many of these moments in the game?
Ralph: That’s a showcase event, something the festival put on for the fans, and the conceit of it is that’s done for the festival it’s about spectacle, There’s ten in the game. They all have a unique set-up like that Mustang versus Mustang and they’re also really lucrative as in that example if you beat the plane you get to keep the Mustang.
games.on.net: Dan Greenawalt, Turn 10′s head, has talked about the trust he has in Playground Games and you in turn have been very complimentary around his vision for the Forza franchise. Was it simple a matter of ‘here you go Ralph, take this engine that we haven’t told anyone the name of and tweak it’ or is there collaboration and asset-sharing going on?
Ralph: Yeah, it’s kinda somewhere in between the two. It’s been a fantastic relationship over the last couple of years that we’ve had with Dan and the guys there. I guess there’s a bunch of objectives to the relationship on their side and also on ours. One of them of course was make an awesome game with Horizon which I hope we’ve gone some way towards doing… but I think another objective was to get not one but two world class teams working on the same codebase. So we were fortunate enough to obtain the Forza 4 codebase for our platform so we’ve built on that and augmented it, to build in night lighting and off-road features and stuff like that … and that folds back into the central codebase and the goal is that can then assist them with the next game they’re making.
In that respect there’s been a lot of collaboration, they’ve been showing us how they do things and they’ve been very open to letting us show them how we do things., In that sense it’s been a fruitful relationship and they’ve also been great at saying “creatively, go your own way, come back and tell us what you want to do… it’s okay if you scare us and do something we don’t want to do”.
games.on.net: The Forza series is notable for its volume of quality DLC, will the open-world nature of the game mean we might see more than car-packs? Perhaps more crazy challenges?
Ralph: You’re absolutely right, that’s exactly what we thought as well. Yeah, there will be car packs every month, and I think that’s great and we’re starting to build some of those cars already. But, it’s an open world and I thought, you know, it’s an open world, we can do more here. So we’re going to be doing two expansions: the first one is coming December 18th, and if you buy the season pass it will be free, it’s going to give you more gameplay, more game modes and a different way of experiencing Colorado. We’re going to talk much more in detail about that when we get past this launch business.
games.on.net: Will we ever see Forza Horizon come to PC?
Ralph: That’s a good question, I’d never say never but I wouldn’t hold your breath guys.
Thanks to Ralph for taking the time to chat with us. Forza Horizon is (unfortunately!) an Xbox exclusive and is out October 23rd.