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How ‘Forza Horizon 5’ Became the Perfect Game for the COVID Era

·13-min read

Plenty of games received the “perfect game for the COVID era” title in the last two years. Nintendo’s timely Animal Crossing: New Horizons, InnerSloth’s mobile juggernaut Among Us, and PlayStation’s transportive samurai opus Ghost of Tsushima. Now, Microsoft has entered the fray with the latest edition in its storied racing imprint, Forza Horizon 5.

Critically and commercially, the reviews for Forza Horizon 5 sparkling. With more than four million players sprinting across its recreation of Mexico on the first day, Playground Games hits every mark. Its eye-catching world is a hodgepodge of gorgeous geography, from flaring calderas to wafting palm trees dotting the coastline. You off-road up mountain ranges, dodge goats and drift tight corners to vault through a peach sky fresh off a nicely-placed ramp. Its world is ridiculous and fun; it begs to be played. And, according to creative director Mike White who helmed the game, it celebrates players for doing so as well. “Everyone in the game is excited you’re here,” he tells The Daily Beast.

But the lifecycle of a game like this can be dicey. Playground’s previous Horizon title was the first live service—a game that drops new content over the years to paid subscribers—which completely changed how its developers would engage with the Forza community. By the time Forza Horizon 4 was relatively over, it played like a much different game. It seems that Forza Horizon 5 will follow in the last iteration’s tire tracks. Things will surely not always look the same, but leaning into the ease of Xbox’s Game Pass service, which allows access to hundreds of Xbox titles old and new for around ten dollars a month—opting for sociality or, as White puts it, “build[ing] features that encourage you to play with a friend”—seems like a smart play.

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In a conversation with The Daily Beast, White discussed Forza’s creation, the swerved mistakes, recruiting Mexican-American writer Lalo Alcaraz, and how the game will continue to evolve in the future.

How does it feel to know this is the new generation’s biggest hit?

It’s surreal. One of the curious things about making a game is that you set out with those objectives. You set out making the best-looking, the biggest, most fun game. In a studio like this working for Xbox game studios, those are the types of goals you set for yourself. But in a position like mine where I have this whole game view, I spend a lot of time reviewing everything, polishing everything, pushing everything forward. I spend a lot of time looking at bugs, discussing how we’re going to fix them, and trying to get the game shipped. It’s very difficult to have that zoomed-out player and critic view of how good the game actually is. You’re making all these decisions, but there is still some nerves heading into the week of launch just hoping that players love the game as much as we do.

What were some of the details that you hadn’t initially thought of in early builds of the game that you ended up tweaking in the end?

That’s a really interesting question. There’s often a bit of conflict between recreating real life and making it look exactly like the real world, and making it fun and playable. And that’s where you have to make those changes that hopefully people don’t notice. It’s the kind of thing where like a tree, some of the trees in the game, your car hits them and your car stops there—the trees with a thick trunk. But some of them are not as thick and we have to try and make those calls about, what are we going to have that will stop the car and what will we let the car sort of drive through and knock over? You lose a bit of speed but you’re still having fun. And those are the areas where it’s not super realistic—where you can hit a palm tree and sorta carry on. But it’s those things where you kinda have to say, well, is it fun to weave through the trees or is there a tree type that we need to change the physics on so the car can just plow through it? Those are the sort of things you’re changing in the last weeks or so.

I was reading up on some of the production and I remember being like wow, y’all drew every cactus spine in this game? Are y’all okay?

We try to attract developers that want to make the best games. And sometimes your job is to make foliage. So when you attract people who are driven to make the very best games in the world and then you say that for the next three years you’re going to be making some really great plants and foliage, they get to it. They know their job is to make those things look real, through every last detail. Model every single needle on that cactus. For them, that’s what making a great game looks like. When you have a team like that where the guys that are doing the clouds, the road surfaces, the people who are detailing the reflections in the car paint—when all those people are pulling in that direction and striving to make some of the best games out there, that’s when you achieve those incredible details and cool stories. Like a cactus that has 14,000 individually-modeled needles.

Y’all also modeled the details of the interiors of homes and buildings. Something so many games like this might overlook.

If you went and pressed against that window and it’s fogged, you’d be like, that’s a shame. Those were the kinds of bugs that were keeping me awake at night toward the end of the project—where we had a home but if you looked inside it, it was clearly a restaurant.

Oh yikes.

There were quite a few there where we had to make some tweaks to make sure the inside was matching the outside.

Is it weird given this game is based in Mexico, that international travel to Mexico has become this contentious topic in the wake of the pandemic?

I guess we could call it lucky that we started development at the end of 2018, so a lot of our research trips took place in 2019. We had a number of teams visiting different parts of Mexico, gathering references, and taking photos of literally everything they could see, trying to get a feel for Mexico. When we do that we speak to local photographers. We say, hey, we wanna reference this town, can we find a local photographer? Photographers usually know their local areas really well. They know the landmarks, hidden bits and forests that look amazing when the lighting is just right. So we’ll hire them, frankly, as tour guides. The fortunate thing is that when we couldn’t travel to Mexico anymore we had a contact list of local photographers who we could say, “Hey, we can’t come back over there but we need photos of this bridge in one case.” We’ll ask them very nicely to capture that reference for us. Whilst there was a travel ban in place we weren’t able to get back but fortunately toward the end of development we were able to go again. Last time we were out there we had our audio team in the Baja Desert for a few nights making sure the background noises of the desert are as real as they can be.

I remember FH2 receiving some flack about not including Monaco, which is the luxury car capital of the world. Of course that was a couple iterations ago, but how did you approach ingraining Mexico’s car culture into FH5 in a way that felt genuine?

We just really did our research. It’s no secret that Mexico has a love affair with the VW Beetle or the Vocho, as they call it. That is such an iconic car all over the world but we found that within Mexico, there were some fantastic stories. We also had a culture consultant [Lalo Alcaraz] helping me and making sure we were representing things as authentically as possible. Because he was great we ended up hiring him as a scriptwriter as well. I told him about the story we wanted to tell about the Vocho, and he was like, “Wow, are you kidding me? My first car was a Vocho!” Holds up a picture of him from like thirty years ago standing next to this Beetle. That’s a story you get in the game. You meet Alexandra and you help her find her grandfather’s long-lost Vocho rusting in a barn. She restores it and she actually puts in a few different configurations for you so she turns it into a Baja Boogie—almost a drag spec car. We just show that it’s a car that has incredible versatility; there are so many ways you can set up and drive it in different ways. That speaks to Mexican car culture because Mexicans love to customize things and make them their own.

It’s cool that there’s that little bit of cultural exchange.

The way Alexandra tells that story gives it real heart. It’s about her grandfather and the things passed down to her through the family. Even that touches on the culture, because Mexican stories often have family at the heart. We wanted to try to recreate that as well. Even though it’s about a car we anchor it in the family.

What were some of the things that Lalo Alcaraz saw and said, “Oh ok now, we’re actually not doing that?”

He was really great at pointing out a lot of character names. Our character names to a Mexican-American ear, they didn’t sound real. In one instance the name was in Portuguese rather than American Spanish. [Laughs] I don’t think we’ve done anything heinous. We came to the game with really great intent to celebrate Mexico. There were things like... our piñatas didn’t look particularly authentic. There were bits of dialogue he was really able to bring authenticity to, especially when we have Alexandra and Romero—they’re cousins—they have a bit of banter between each other which he helped us perfect, and I think comes across nicely in-game.

Great to have another set of eyes and ears on these games. Why was it important to decentralize the Horizon Festival?

That’s an interesting note. I haven’t been asked that before. There are a few reasons. One of the reasons was that when I looked at the racing content in Forza Horizon 4, I felt like it lacked a certain identity, and that different race types could end up blurring together, leaving players a little unsure about what kind of race they’re doing. Do I need a rally car or a BMW M3? I really wanted to give each of our racing types—from cross country to asphalt—an identity or branding of their own. So we asked, what if all of these types of racing at the Horizon Festival are just a silver brand underneath the overall parent brand of Horizon? From that we thought, what if each of them had a festival that exists in the world celebrating that activity? Maybe that can be a main beat of the campaign: we arrive in Mexico, we have a festival set up but Mexico’s huge, right? Maybe after the Horizon Festival is set up then we expand into other areas across the country so that we reach more people but also celebrate the diverse racing content that Horizon has, and give each of those brands room to breathe and sense of place.

There’s so much to do. Spreading the world out has an impact on the world map. How do you balance out icon overload?

There is an intentional design philosophy here. We love it when you set your route somewhere and you’re driving maybe three miles and then you don’t actually make it to your destination because there were things along the way. Like, “Ahh, there’s a speed zone, let me get that,” or “Oh, there’s a Horizon story, I love those.” We try to build the world such that those things fighting for your attention are overlapping where they are in the world. I guess that does lead to a lot of icons on the map. But it creates a world where there’s always things that are attracting your attention and when you engage, the game rewards you as well. Everyone in the game is excited you’re here and wants to see what you’ll do next. And we liked that and tried to build that in the open world design.

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FH4 was the first to become a live service for Playground Games. What were some lessons y’all picked up from that challenge?

It was really interesting, actually. It was a live service game but it was also a Game Pass game, which makes for a real challenge. The business model is slightly different when you’re in Game Pass. So, we tried to build features that encourage you to play with a friend or tell your friend that you’re playing this game and that they should play too, to make it so that almost everything in the game can be played with that specific friend. Because with Game Pass if you subscribe to Game Pass and your friend does too, you both own those games. So if one of those people are playing that game, it gets more people in our ecosystem. It might be slightly different from other live service games because we don’t need to be charging for everything. You can do really well by just bringing a large number of people into the game. That’s what I think we got really good at. Building in the content that keeps you playing and entertained, [and] keeps giving you things nearly every single week—new features and challenges. The friction for your friend joining you in Game Pass is really low.

I imagine the social aspect is a big reason why so many people are playing. It was pretty smart to strategize around that. I remember playing Forza Horizon 4 at launch and then playing later on and thinking to myself, wow, this is a really different game. Do you find that FH5 could become a different game later on in its life cycle?

We have big plans with the FH5 Live Program. We’ll have even more content in this game than in FH4. But that feeling that you’re describing, the feeling that it was a different game was born out of the fact that it was our first live service. We were learning—finding out what people loved and what they didn’t like so much. Refining it and getting better at it. As a designer, it’s a really fun space to play and create in because we’re just trying to make people happy. We brought a lot of those learnings to Horizon 5 at launch. But the world will change; it will move on. The things that people want to see in their games will change over the next few years, so we want to continue learning.

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