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Forza Horizon 5 - Creating the Next-Generation of Open-World Racers
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 04:48pm 08/11/21 | Comments
Ahead of the game’s launch we had the chance to sit down with the team at Playground Games to discuss the development of Forza Horizon 5, and take a peek under the hood to talk about the tech driving it all.


“Right from the very start of development, one of our goals was to make the biggest and best Horizon game yet,” Mike Brown, Creative Director at Playground Games says. Forza Horizon 5 is the latest entry in the critically acclaimed and popular open-world racing series, and with its digital representation of Mexico it’s also the most ambitious Forza to date.

Outside of overhauling and improving how each of the 500-plus real-world vehicles looks and handles, it’s the first Horizon to take advantage of Xbox Series X and S hardware. Not to mention the latest in PC graphics technology from NVIDIA and AMD. And with that it pushes the size and scope of what an open-world racer can be.

“From a design side, when you're building an open-world that you want people to spend time in and to explore there's real challenges,” Mike continues. “You can't just make a space 50% bigger and be like, great, player’s are going to love it. You have to make sure that there's a good reason for the size. That there's always new things to see, new areas to explore, and that it isn’t a case of, for lack of a better term, copy-pasted areas.”


In terms of activities and things to see and so, Forza Horizon 5 is just about overflowing with possibility. A single and multiplayer dream come true for fans of all things four-wheeled. Races, drifting, stunts, working together to smash pinatas in a fun little mini-game. But, as we’ve seen across previous entries, exploration is also a key part of the picture. That thing where you’re discovering new and wondrous digital locales. On that front Forza Horizon 5 takes everything to the next level.


“Right from the very start of development, one of our goals was to make the biggest and best Horizon game yet.”



Ahead of the game’s launch we had the chance to sit down with the team at Playground Games to discuss the development of Forza Horizon 5, and take a peek under the hood to talk about the tech driving it all.

A Huge Open World Mexico




“We really wanted it to hit a level of diversity, make it feel like when you're driving through this world you're constantly being exposed to different scenery, new architecture, new plant life,” Mike Brown explains. “That was just one of those goals that we've had, but from a design level we've had to keep thinking about making sure that we're constantly exposing players to new and beautiful things to see.”

To give you a better picture of the behind-the-scenes setup, Playground Games has its own dedicated geology team, a building team, and even a vegetation team. With the goal being to dig into the real-world location depicted and bring all of that detail into the game.

Deal: Our Full Forza Horizon 5 Review




With Forza Horizon 5, the digital Mexico it presents is not only the largest in terms of real-estate, but scope too. Multiple biomes, varying architecture, dynamic weather, and everything from sand dunes to hidden waterfalls deep in the jungle accounted for.

More akin to the diversity found in a cinematic action-adventure or RPG, Playground Games takes a similar approach when thinking about and designing each new Horizon.


“We are an open-world game and we compare ourselves against other open-world games,” Mike confirms. “We want to create beautiful worlds that when you stop and you soak it in there's incredible detail and signs of life. So when you stop and you look at a little settlement in the farmlands it looks like people live there. There's a tractor with some tools next to it, there's a bench set up, maybe some remnants of somebody's lunch. These are meant to look like places where real people live.”


“We really wanted it to hit a level of diversity, make it feel like when you're driving through this world you're constantly being exposed to different scenery, new architecture, new plant life.”



“But, we still need the game to look fantastic when you're travelling past that same farmstead at 250 miles per hour,” Mike adds. “That’s a fairly unique problem that a lot of open world games don’t really face. It’s one that we’re really proud of, how our game works in both of those scenarios. How it looks fantastic when you stop and switch into Photo Mode and zoom in on all those details. How it also looks fantastic when you're zipping past and all that stuff effectively becomes a blur. A very beautiful blur.”


A remarkable feat, and one of the game’s secret ingredients is how it handles assets and level of detail (LOD) streaming. For Gareth Harwood, Technical Art Director at Playground Games and the wider team, it took many hours getting Horizon to a state where it could contain so much detail yet still support travelling at breakneck speed. Let’s get technical.

“Looking at the jungle versus the living desert versus the volcano, all assets are segregated very well for access,” Gareth explains. “We have a very good streaming system that allows us to only stream in the areas that we need. We worked on that a lot, running tests, using a suite of tools to analyse the problem areas. One of the bigger challenges though, was adding the ability to see everything from anywhere. You can go to the volcano and you can see Guanajuato as well as the forest and the living desert. So we also spent a lot of time looking at how we draw things in the distance, with Horizon 5 we've got bigger draw distances than ever before.”

The Rule of Three




More detail everywhere you look, higher elevation than ever before, developing Forza Horizon 5 meant improving and refining how the game was able to get all of that on screen. Because at certain points of interest, Forza Horizon 5 puts the entire map between your car and the horizon.

“It wasn't just about the diversity, it was about being able to show that diversity across the entirety of the map when you can see the entire map,” Gareth Harwood says. “A great example is buildings. We have three levels of variation; macro, medium, and micro. You can see this in Guanajuato where the buildings are all different colours. That's the macro variation, different sizes and shapes. The medium variation is that they have different materials, some might be brick, others might be worn, some could be plaster. When you get very close, the micro, you can see the details on each brick.”


“It wasn't just about the diversity, it was about being able to show that diversity across the entirety of the map when you can see the entire map.”



“At a distance, we drop these out in order,” Gareth continus. “So, the brick detail drops very early. At a larger distance detail will drop when you're, say, three kilometres away. What you're left with is a box that is the right colour, but that's all you need at that distance. Because we've added in that very large macro variation, you don't end up with everything looking the same. You still see all of the different colours. When we're designing, we always try to look at the three scales; macro, medium, and micro.”

Next-Gen Horizon




One of the biggest pushes for the team at Playground when it came to improving the visuals in Forza Horizon 5, especially with the added power of next-gen consoles and PC hardware, came with lighting. A complete overhaul, one that included placing over 10-million light probes throughout the world, the result is realism. Physically-based lighting that draws on actual in-game objects like the sky, sun, and the countless man-made lights scattered throughout the world.

The way Forza Horizon handles textures has also changed, the game’s ‘mega-texture’ system - which handles things like the road and terrain - has moved from the CPU to the GPU. The team also implemented a new micro-texture system to handle things like rocks and building detail. Weather effects and particles have also improved.

The list is huge.

“On top of all of that we've increased detail, texture fidelity, and spent a lot of time on materials and textures,” Gareth Harwood adds. But, even as the team looked towards the future and the added power provided by the Xbox Series X and GPU’s like the GeForce RTX 3080 it was still designing with an eye towards older kit. The baseline Xbox One console, and more mainstream GPUs from the GeForce GTX 10 series.


“It's something that was very close to our heart throughout development, probably more than ever before,” Gareth notes, when the discussion switches to older gaming hardware. “We've always built with scalability in mind because we’ve supported PC and different Xbox platforms for a while. With Forza Horizon 5 though, the difference between the lower-end platforms and the higher-end platforms is bigger than ever.”


One of the biggest pushes for the team at Playground when it came to improving the visuals in Forza Horizon 5, especially with the added power of next-gen consoles and PC hardware, came with lighting.



“On the higher-end we looked at where we should push the visuals,” Gareth continues. “There’s DXR ray-tracing and moving our mega-texture system from the CPU to the GPU. This time around we also made a conscious decision to start building assets knowing that you won't even see the higher-end versions on lower-end platforms. We're not even shipping with that data for the lower-end platforms.”

Things like variable resolution also come into play, and on PC the ability to tweak any number of effects adds to the game’s scalability across a wide range of hardware. “It was interesting how we took some of the high end stuff and trickled it down,” Gareth adds. “We did find that in a few cases, when we had to make optimisations for lower-end platforms it didn't really change the visuals all that much. So we then took those optimisations to the higher-end platforms.”

The SSD Boost




With the arrival of the Xbox Series X and S consoles and the shift to faster SSD storage, not to mention SSDs being common in the PC space, Forza Horizon 5 allowed the team to make fundamental changes to the design based purely on how fast things load.

“The Xbox One was our lead platform, it's where most of our players were, so we had to design around the fact that it could take a while to load things,” Mike Brown says. “One example of that is when you arrived at a race we defaulted to keeping you in the car you were already in. And we would then load in cars that were similar to that car.”


“That wasn't necessarily the best experience because we have 500 cars and the game's great when you're jumping between different cars and you're seeing all those different driving experiences,” Mike continues. “But, when you change cars on the base Xbox One it incurs a load. We've always designed around that limitation to not have a player sit through that long load heading into a race.”

“That’s not a problem anymore, [in Forza Horizon 5] we give you a lot more cars earlier in the game than we ever did. Not only that but the game will prompt you to change cars much more often than it ever did. One, because we believe the game is more fun when you're jumping between different cars and having different driving experiences and experiencing that diversity. And two, because we are designing around the SSD and knowing that PC players and everybody on the Xbox Series X and S now has an SSD.”

500 Cars and Counting




Created as an off-shoot to the Forza Motorsport series, Forza Horizon shares a lot of similarities with the sim racer. Hundreds of real-world cars, and the ability to tweak and tune and drive with more realistic physics in play. Horizon may present a more casual approach to its racing, but that hasn’t stopped the team from populating the world with hundreds of cars spanning decades of driving.

So then, one has to wonder how it manages to keep track of them all -- and if it’s as simple as taking all of the vehicles from Forza Horizon 4 and putting them inside Horizon 5’s digital Mexico?

“It would be great if we did just bring all the cars across from the previous games and didn't have to make any changes,” Mike Brown explains. “Each game we make a number of changes to the cars. Handling changes here required us to rebalance every single car. When we upgrade the visual spec for vehicles, that means making changes to every car. We treat that as a price of entry for the type of game that we make.”


The cost being, making this one change and then repeating the process over 500 times.

“It's a lot of work, but we go into it with eyes open,” Mike admits. “We have to make these decisions quite early and be confident that we're making those right calls because even one small decision about how our cars are going to be rendered on-screen or how they're going to perform on a controller or steering wheel generates a lot of work for a lot of our teams. That's just part of the game that we are.”


“We have to make these decisions quite early and be confident that we're making those right calls because even one small decision about how our cars are going to be rendered on-screen or how they're going to perform on a controller or steering wheel generates a lot of work for a lot of our teams. That's just part of the game that we are.”



And with Turn 10 working on what’s going to be the 8th mainline Forza Motorsport, the team at Playground still works closely with them. Sharing technology, making changes to suit the more open-world setup, a back-and-forth that now sees the Forza name encompass both circuit-based realistic racing and grand open-world exploration and driving.

“We work really closely with Turn 10, we're always very communicative with them about the improvements we'd like to make to the physics engine and that goes both ways,” Mike adds. “With each new game we're both looking to improve the simulation. We're proud of the fact that underpinning all of our vehicles is that authentic physics simulation.”

Forza Horizon 5 is available November 9 on Xbox Series X|S, PC, and Xbox One. It’s also available to play via Xbox Game Pass for PC, Console and Cloud.
Read more about Forza Horizon 5 on the game page - we've got the latest news, screenshots, videos, and more!



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