At this year's E3, I attended a roundtable presentation with Forza Horizon 3 creative director, Ralph Fulton. He went into detail about the upcoming Xbox One open-world racing game, and talked through many of its new features.
1. Forza Horizon 3 is twice the size of its predecessor
Ralph Fulton: Australia is the new setting for the game. It's a vast and beautiful country, and to accommodate that vast beauty, we've created an open world that's twice as big as the world of Forza Horizon 2 – and Forza Horizon 2 is by no means a small game. But the most important thing, more important than size, is the diversity that Australia brings. It's an incredibly diverse country, and that's principally what we wanted to bring to our players – we wanted to give them a diverse world. And this one has twice as many eco types as the world of Forza Horizon 2. We all know about the outback, obviously, but there are gorges, canyons, rolling hills, there's the modern hi-rise city of Surfer's Paradise, and we have rain forests, and the gold coast. Environmental diversity means new driving experiences for our players. Whether that's crashing through the undergrowth in the rain forest, or skipping along the beach skimming the surf, there's a ton of things you've never done before in a Forza game.
The world is beautiful because Australia is beautiful. It's also beautiful, I like to think, because of some of the new innovative tech that the guys back at Playground have created. The sky is particularly dramatic, and it's an authentic Australian sky. That sky actually happened in Australia last summer, and we were there to capture it with a custom built 12k HDR camera rig. And we weren't just there that day – we were there all summer. So we were recording skies in the outback and also closer to the coast, and we built up an enormous library of genuine HDR Australian skies to draw from. But the real magic happens back at Playground where the guys have an incredible new system that lets us take that time lapse video capture and project it into our sky and morph it together so that as you drive around, the sky is constantly changing. It's always dramatic, and it's always looking better than any video game sky ever has.
What this means to the player is that you have these incredible skies that change over time in really surprising and spectacular ways. It also means that technically speaking, the skies are one enormous HDR light source, and that touches everything in the game, from the glint of metal to the gleam of road surfaces.
2. The game boasts a huge roster of vehicles
RF: We have more than 350 amazing cars in this game – that's 150 more than Forza Horizon 2. Also, we have entirely new vehicle types, such as racing buggies, trophy trucks, and since the game is set in Australia, we pay homage to their domestic auto scene and car culture as well, with a ton of 'utes.
3. You are now in charge of the Horizon Festival
RF: First of all, we've literally put you in charge of the Horizon festival. In previous games you worked your way up from the bottom. Not this time. This time, you're the boss of the festival, and you make the big decisions that affect the festival – when to expand your site, when to build new ones across Australia, what music to play. It's a cool new way of looking at progression and structure within our game. We achieved this by creating a feature called Horizon Blueprint that allows you to create your own gameplay and share it with your friends.
You have events all over the map – and there's over 100 hours of gameplay there – but if you enter Blueprint Mode, that allows you to change absolutely everything about any race. You can change the routes it uses, how many routes there are, their distance, time of day, weather, eligible cars, entry restrictions. You can even give them your own names. And these races progress your game in exactly the same way that normal championships do.
And that's only half the story. Blueprint Mode also lets you create your own gameplay challenges and share them with your friends. So, for example, you can set bucket list challenges and send them to your friends. Once you do, it immediately appears in their world. What's cool about this is that friends can pass on bucket list challenges to other players, so that means really good challenges can go viral. Blueprint is probably the biggest paradigm shift in design thinking in the Horizon series since we started.
4. You can hire and fire Drivatars
RF: Drivatars are another way we can bring your friends into your world, but for me they've always been about competition. We've spent a lot of time in this game thinking about what would happen if you could actually play with your friend's Drivatar, and almost co-operate with it as if it was your friend, and a couple of feature ideas came out of that. One of those is Drivatar Lineup, and that lets you hire up to four of your friend's Drivatars to come to your festival and race for you. Basically, when they're racing for you, you earn rewards in the same way that you do from racing yourself. At that point you can start looking at each of your friend's Drivatars to make sure they're still cutting it, and if they're not, you can fire them. So you can hire and fire your friends' Drivatars. And obviously, your Drivatar will also be hired and fired out there in the world, and we'll keep you up to date on what's going on every time you log in to the game.
5. Drive to your own music
RF: Music is still a really important part of the game, and our aim in Horizon 3 is to allow you to drive to the music that you love. We've increased the number of radio stations this time, offering a much more diverse range of music, such as hip-hop, punk, hard rock – because that's what our fans told us they wanted. But what we've also done is create Groove Music Radio, which allows you to use your own personal music collection streamed through the cloud to create your own personal radio station. You basically take your MP3s, put them on your one drive, create a playlist and point the game to it, and the game will automatically stream it. Also, if you're a Groove Music subscriber, you can use can use the songs on that service to make your own playlists.
6. Upgraded car customization
RF: We've completely overhauled the customization in the game, starting with cars. There's a wealth of new options for a huge range of the cars in our list, from rally cars to off-road cars. There are more than 30 new wheels from really cool manufacturers, and we have wide body kits for the first time. Beyond that, you can personalize your own license plates, you can choose the car's horn sound, and even the character that drives the car.
7. Co-op play is being introduced for the first time
RF: Horizon 3 is the most social racing game ever – which comes back to Xbox Play Anywhere. If you buy the digital version of Forza Horizon 3, you're entitled to play the Xbox One version as well as the Windows 10 version at no extra cost, and you can switch between playing on the two versions of the game seamlessly with cross-save. Thanks to Xbox Live, this is a cross-play title, which allows Xbox players and Windows 10 players to play together for the first time. Horizon is ultimately about having fun with your friends, and it shouldn’t matter what platform they're playing on.
The perfect expression of this feature is the four-player campaign co-op mode. We've wanted to do co-op in Horizon ever since we started the series, but haven't felt that we could do it right. This time we do. By doing it right, I mean, making sure that everything that's available in the solo game can be played in co-op. It's not like a fenced-in area of the game, and I think that's really important. That means coping with players of different ability levels, coping with players who are at different points in the game. The game should just handle that. You can drop in, and drop out, and the game just handles everything. It just works. If you've been playing with friends in co-op mode, and you leave that session, everything you’ve earned in that session – the xp, the credits, the progression, the unlocks – you take it back into your own game, and the game automatically updates. So you never feel like you're wasting your time.
8. Auction house and storefronts return
RF: Two other features that are coming back to Forza that have been out of the series for a while are the auction house and storefronts. The auction house is the opportunity to buy and sell cars with the community, player to player. Buy low sell high. You can find rare cars, and also the greatest works by Forza's most talented creators. We have exceptionally talented community members, and this is a way to celebrate them and really advertise the great work they do. So I can go and buy their work in the auction house, and if I really like what they do, I can jump to their storefront and see everything they've ever created and shared – their designs, their tunes, their vinyls, and their photos. If I really like their work, I can follow them and be notified every time they create and share something. And of course, this being Xbox Play Anywhere, it works seamlessly on Xbox One and Windows 10.
9. Wet weather driving has been improved
RF: The thing that changes wet weather driving most markedly is the new sky system. As the clouds roll along, they cast exact cloud shadows, which is really cool because it gives you movement across the terrain. We can also tell if they're dark enough to start raining. We've also improved the way that water affects and lies on the roads. You'll see much more variation in the micro-undulations of the roads, so that water pools more realistically, and where there's runoff into the vegetation.
10. Rare and Unicorn cars will be making an appearance
RF: We have a new concept called Horizon Edition cars. They're available as a super-rare win in Wheelspin, which is what you get every time you level up. They're cars from the regular car list, but they come with a custom livery, and they also come with a gameplay buff. So, for example, if you won a 370z, it could have a drift buff that would score you double points in drift, or something like that. They'll be rare, so they should fetch a good price in the auction house. The other thing is Unicorn cars. We have the ability to bring in entirely new cars silently, and we use them as prizes for the community – either attached to our features, or because players do amazing things. But those cars will be super-rare, and they'll fetch incredible prices. We'll also do special one-off auctions where we'll release some rare cars into the auction house, and I think our rich players are going to go nuts for them.
11. Barn Finds are back
RF: We have 15 of them this time. There's quite an Australian feel to some of them. Every barn find in the game, whether it's obvious or not, has a backstory. We actually need to know why that car is there, and what led it to being there, so it makes sense to us at least.