From the Archives - Interview with Ralph Fulton on Forza Horizon
From The Archives posts are posts which I’ve carried over from my old blogs and sites I wrote for that are now offline so that I can keep a record of some of my better and more important work that would otherwise be lost. They come from the entire length of my time in games writing, so you’ll probably notice a big jump in quality between the really old stuff and the more recent content.
This was my first ever interview, which was recorded for a magazine that was never published sometime in 2012, and I realised I had no way to link to this online in portfolios. UNTIL NOW. My editor called me up a few hours before the interview was meant to be held and asked me if I could do it. He gave me a few things to ask about and I prepared a few questions of my own in the time leading up to the interview. There was a catch, though - I'd never played a Forza game in my life. I did some quick googling to find out a bit about the games and the developer's philosophies and used that to aid my question-writing. It ended up going really well! I had to scratch out a few of my questions as I learned more during the interview because it was apparent they were stupid questions only the unfamiliar would ask. I had a question about what level of customisation the game would offer, and it turns out that's a key selling point of Forza games. Oops. Lucky I didn't ask that one.
Alrighty, so first up are you able to introduce yourself?
Sure, my name’s Ralph Fulton and I’m the design director at Playground Games on Forza Horizon.
So you’ve worked on a lot of different racing games in the past, what’s the biggest difference between working on them and Forza Horizon?
Ooh, that’s a good question. So, I think the single biggest difference between those games and this one has to be the open world. That poses huge challenges as we’ve found during the duration of this project in terms of technical aspects, building a world that big, you know, just the work involved in creating the geometry and the textures and building it all together within the engine, but it also proposes, and I suppose this is more relevant to me, lots of design challenges. Suddenly the whole dynamic and flow of the game is completely different than in what you would call a traditional track racing game where you’re at the front end, you’re looking at the track, you do a race, you go back to the front end, there’s quite an identifiable gameplay loop that operates through most of those games that’s not accredited and just the nature of it. In an open world, you’re always there, you’re always playing, you’re always driving. So that’s really forced us to rethink a lot of the ways that we engage the player, the ways that we feed him experiences and rewards, because suddenly the player can do what you want them to do or they can go off and do something completely different. So we looked at various open world games, I’m talking GTA, Assassin’s Creed II, Red Dead Redemption, and we looked at the ways in which they’ve dealt with exactly that kind of increased player agency, you know, they’re putting you in this world, the world looks amazing, it’s really immersive and alive- what are you going to do? And they deal with that issue in that there’s always fun things to do to reward exploration, to reward that freedom, but there’s also essential progression through the game that they can always feel safe in coming back to.
On that topic of things to do in the world, what kind of activities can players get up to in the game world of Colorado?
We have a real diversity of things to do in there, again our overriding objective was to make sure the player was rewarded for whatever he chose to do at any given point in the game, so there’s an essential structure of the game, you arrive at Horizon as a guy just coming on holiday in his car with his friends to this festival to have fun and to party and maybe do a bit of driving, but by chance he makes it into the heats for the Horizon championships which are the big racing championships which run through the island festival and there’s essential progression there that requires you to compete in races, and there are circuit races, point to point races, dirt races, night races; a real range of racing experiences there and your goal there is to progress through the tiers and become the Horizon Champion. And alongside that progression we’ve also given the player the ability to offset that progression for a couple of hours and do something else, just go explore, go and find things, so we’ve packed the world with things for him to find. You can find upgrade flyers or discount ad boards, which enable you to discount the cost of upgrades in the garage. We enable you to barn find, which are classic cars that are sort of lost in barns, and you can find them, and you’ll hear rumours of them on the radio, and you can find one, and you can take it back to a professional and have it restored and you can get a real rare, unique car that way, and there are also social events you can take part in. So the game has social competition in a big sense, in wherever you go there are ways the game will compare you with your friends and give you opportunities to beat them.
On that note, what kind of multiplayer features does Horizon offer?
So we have a range of different multiplayer features. I recommend you play the demo, it has Rivals Mode which is that sort of social competition I was talking about earlier. Anything you do, any event you do, as soon as you finish it the game’s gonna tell you “Hey, you did really well there, but this guy on your friend’s list did it better”, and you’re gonna get some money if you beat them. So there’s an opportunity to get straight back in there, racing against the ghost of your friend, and if you beat him you’re gonna get some cash. So that’s what I’m talking about as that sort of social competition that works regardless of whether your friends are online or not. But if your friends are online and you want some synchronous multiplayer there’s a bunch of things you can do, you can get into races. So there are a huge number of lobbies in the game, from beginner all the way up to hardcore lobbies which allow you to do any event you can do in the singleplayer, online. Then what we’re really excited about is what we call Playground Games. Playground Games are games like Cat and Mouse or Virus Tag all played in the open world. So you’re using the environment to hide, to sneak up on other players. Non-racing obviously, but a lot of fun. We always go back to them when we have time to play multiplayer. And finally we have Free Roam. One of the big attractions of the open world is that you can just get your friends together and convoy, you know what I mean? Just drive, see what you can find. And then if you want to do that we have a bunch of co-op challenges within free roam for you to do which allow you to win big prizes.
Sounds good! What are some of the more odd vehicles available for you to drive in the game?
*laughs* So yeah, there’s a couple of fun cars that we put in. My personal favourite is the 1967 Volkswagen Beetle which is just a total classic. But the great thing about Forza, and about Forza Horizon, is that that car, out of the box, is real slow, I think it’s an E Class car. It’s certainly not going to win you any races, and it’s probably not going to be a huge amount of fun to drive around Colorado. But the great thing about Forza is that I can take that into the garage and I can upgrade it. So I can stick a body kit on it, I can paint it and obviously I can upgrade it in terms of performance. So I can take out the engine and I can stick in one of a VW Golf and suddenly this car takes on a completely different aspect, it’s totally different in terms of performance. And I think that’s the core thing that Forza has over lots of other competitor titles, in that that car isn’t just what it starts off as, it’s what you make it. And if you want to spend time, and invest time into building that car you can do it, and then you can take it with you throughout the game.
Forza’s a series that offers a good amount of post-launch content for consumers, what is the team planning to deliver with this title?
Forza’s done a great job, we think, of supporting the consumer post-launch as you mentioned, and I think that’s really important these days, you know. If people are going to buy our game we’ve gotta ensure that in 6 months’ time there’s still reason for them to play it, there’s still things for them to enjoy about it and discover about it. So DLC does that for us, we’re gonna be launching DLC car packs every month from launch. So that’ll be five cars, and we’re also going to be giving away a car for free each month, so I think that’s a great message for our customers. But we can do more than that with Forza Horizon, and we’re going to launch two expansion packs for Forza Horizon, which aren’t just cars. We’re actually going to expand what you can do in Horizon, and you’re going to get new experiences, new gameplay, new modes, new Achievements particularly and the first of those is coming December 18th. We’re not talking specifics about what it is yet, we’re going to get past launch and get that out of the way, and then we’re going to talk in more detail about what that is. But we’re working on that right now and we’re going to keep working on that until December, and it’s going to be really cool. And if you’re someone who’s really into this DLC program, you can actually get a Season Pass for Forza Horizon, and that includes those two expansion packs so I think there’s a lot of value there.
How do you find the balance between making the cars handle realistically, while still making the game accessible?
That’s a great question! So the background to this is that Forza Horizon is built on Forza Motorsport 4 code. So we were very fortunate that we were able to use that code base as the platform for Forza Horizon, and it’s really because of that that we were able to invest our code time into doing features, creating gameplay rather than re-arranging things. So we got the physics system, we got the handling models, and it would be dumb to throw that all away. So that’s what we’ve used, and what that does is it really sets out the characteristics and behaviour of the car because programmatically it takes all the data we get from our research, which was really, really deep, and sets out exactly what that car would handle like in real life. And then we make it easier to drive, make it more accessible, because sometimes that’s really necessary, not through changing physics but through the assists and switches on top of that. You have traction control, ABS, if you want you can turn on auto-braking, so it’s those things that make the cars accessible because obviously part of the Forza promise is that if you switch all those assists off you’re getting the most authentic, most realistic driving experience you can get on consoles.
So obviously you’re keeping the main feel and mechanics of Forza, but the open world seems like a big change from the formula. Why was this change made?
Well, really because it goes right back to Forza Motorsports does what it does really well. When Dan [Dan Greenawalt, the head of Turn 10 Studios, creators of the Forza series] said “Come back to us with an idea for where you can take Forza”, implicit in that is that we had to take it away from Forza Motorsports to an extent. So we looked around at what car experiences everybody had that Forza Motorsports didn’t already offer. And really, they’ve done an amazing job of giving you car experiences in a videogame, but this is one that they didn’t, so that act of taking the car out on the open road, that act of exploring, you know, just driving to see where you get to was something that I think we can all relate to, and the open world came from that. And from that, it was Where are we going to locate the game, how big is it going to be, what are the roads going to be like and how are we going to pack this world with stuff for the player to do so that he’s always challenged, he’s always excited, regardless of whether he’s on the golden path or not.
So one last question, has the game gone gold, and if so, what is the team working on now?
Uh… there’s a good question. Do you know what? I’m not sure if we’re allowed to say if we’ve gone gold yet *laughs* But you know, you can probably look into that statement and discern an answer. So yeah, at the moment we are having a well-deserved bit of downtime, you know, we’ve worked really hard for a long time to make this game, so the team are taking it just a bit easy at the moment. The demo came out yesterday so everybody’s sort of looking at the forums to see how people are receiving it, and thankfully people seem to be really excited about it. But obviously we’ve got a great deal of work to do on the expansions so that’ll obviously take us up to December for the first one, and then beyond for the second. And we have a bunch of other things which we’re not talking about at the moment, but at the moment all eyes are on the end of October for launch week and we’re all keeping our fingers crossed that the game will be as well received as I think it should be and that the team get the credit that they deserve for the amazing job they’ve done over the last couple of years.
Awesome, thanks for your time!
Not at all, nice to speak to you