Perhaps not one of the biggest, but one of the most pleasant surprises of E3 2021 was the unveiling of Forza Horizon 5 in a relatively substantial gameplay demo during the Xbox showcase - with a November 2021 release date to boot. It was a given that this enormously polished and entertaining open-word driving series by Playground Games would return, but we didn't know when; for its first four entries it had been on a strict biennial schedule, but the UK-set Forza Horizon 4 has now been entertaining people for almost three years with little sign of flagging, thanks to a well-judged and assiduously maintained weekly and monthly update schedule, as well as easy accessibility on Game Pass on both Xbox and PC.
It was to be expected that Horizon 4 might break the rhythm. While still emphasising beautiful and optimistic open-world driving fun and esoteric car collection, 4 brought a cautious but deliberate shift in emphasis towards 'live' gaming, with its constant updates and its living map populated by default with other players. It was more successful in some areas than others; the game is constantly rewarding to dip into, but (as with many previous Forza Horizons) it has struggled to make its rather chaotic online multiplayer offering as sticky as its solo challenges.
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This is where Forza Horizon 5 enters the scene. Moving the action from Playground's home turf of Britain to the deserts, cities and rainforests of Mexico, Horizon 5 looks set to be another technically refined and thoughtfully put-together diversion from the master craftsmen at Playground. Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to talk to creative director Mike Brown - who presented the E3 demo - about the game, and Playground's hopes for it.
Mike Brown: So, whenever we're starting a new Horizon game, the location is the decision we start thinking about first, and it's the one that we always spend the longest thinking about. Right from the beginning we had an objective that we wanted Horizon 5 to be the biggest Horizon yet. And then it doesn't take that long from thinking about that objective until you realise that there's not any point being bigger if it's more of the same. So, therefore, it has to be diverse as well.
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And Mexico as a country - it's almost like the whole world in one country, because you have volcanoes, snowy mountains, canyons, jungles, rolling hills, ancient cities, like really modern beachfront hotels, various different flavors of desert. And all that comes together to create an open world that is just so much fun to explore - every area you go into, you're seeing new things, experiencing new things. Then you add on top of this incredible, diverse open world the fact that Mexico has this culture that's known and loved all over the world: the art, the music, the people. I think we ended up in a place where there just couldn't have been a more exciting option for the Horizon festival.
On that point - a part of the spirit of Forza Horizon is providing recognisable virtual tourism to people, right? But you also want to avoid falling into stereotypes - which is easy enough to do when you're portraying the UK, you live here. But when you're tackling a culture like Mexico's, how do you get that balance right?
Mike Brown: It's a great question, and I think there's an answer that will touch on a few different areas of Mexican culture. The answer is - we're a UK developer, a predominantly British team, and so we need to work with people from Mexico. From the very start, on our research trips we were working with locals who were from Mexico, who were actually photographers, but they really knew their local areas, they knew the sights, they knew the things that were the most beautiful things in their region of Mexico, and they were able to act as something of a tour guide for us and help us to explore and find all these amazing things. That helps us explore the world and make sure we're representing it, and make sure that the things that Mexicans would want the world to see, we're putting in the game.
As well as that, though, as I touched on, there's this really broad and beautiful culture of Mexico. So we've worked with Mexican artists as well - we saw one of the murals in the gameplay demo during the E3 showcase. There's quite a few of those all over the world, and all of them have been created for us by various Mexican artists. We've worked with Mexican musicians, so we've got some original compositions by Mexican artists on the soundtrack. We've also licensed some existing Mexican music as well so that each of the radio stations has some Mexican music on there to give it a really strong flavor. And finally, we've worked with Mexican scriptwriters and Mexican voice actors so that we can be sure that all of our Mexican characters don't sound stereotyped and sound really authentic.
One of the things I've always loved about Forza Horizon is the way that it portrays car culture. As a classic car nerd, I've always felt pretty well served by your car selections! I also really enjoyed, in 3, the focus on Australian car culture. Are you doing something similar for Mexican car culture in 5?
Mike Brown: Unfortunately I can't talk specifics about the car list at the moment. But it is a thing that we pride ourselves on - that we get really invested in the car culture of whichever location we happen to be visiting. This time, it's Mexico. Obviously, Mexico doesn't have as many of its own car manufacturers as, perhaps, the UK or Australia, but it does still have a really rich car culture. There is this really rich and vibrant car culture in Mexico that I think actually is very endearing. Unfortunately, I can't talk about the specifics of it right now. But I think when it comes to finding out what's there, that people will really love it.
How does this new Expedition mode factor into the overall structure?
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Mike Brown: Yeah, so you'll take part in a number of Expeditions throughout the campaign. Each one of them is kind of a - I'd call it a high point in the campaign. So it's like one of those events that you'll build up towards, and then you'll get the opportunity to take part in an Expedition, which will see you head out and explore a new area of the world which you probably haven't seen yet. They're led by a character that we saw in the demo yesterday - his name is Ramiro, or Rami. And he is Mexican, he loves Mexico, he acts as something of a tour guide while we're there. His character is really enthusiastic that the Horizon festival has arrived in Mexico,and he's going to show us all the amazing things that there are to see.
So the Expeditions act as almost a curated experience through the world where you'll have a character who really excitedly calls out all the cool things you can see. And they also offer us an opportunity to showcase some of our new technology. There's one where, as you're on the Expedition, a tropical storm rolls in and it's really dramatic. There's another one that goes up the volcano and, wouldn't you know it, the volcano's active at the time, because of course it is. They offer us an opportunity to showcase a lot of the really exciting things that the game has to offer in a curated, story-driven experience. A lot of those things can and will happen in free-roam just naturally, while you're exploring, but this gives a more curated way to do it. At the end of each Expedition, you open up a new Horizon festival site, and with that opens up a load of new races.
Seasons were such a great hook for Forza Horizon 4, not just for the game, but as a way to structure the content updates over time. Will there be anything similar in 5?
Mike Brown: Yeah, there will be seasons in Forza Horizon 5. Obviously, Mexico has really, really different seasonality compared to Britain, but it's actually super interesting. Because Mexico is this massive country with really huge elevation changes, you find that when the seasons change, it can affect different areas of the world in different ways. That's true for real Mexico, so that's the way we've tried to recreate it in the game. I think probably one of the clearest examples is that during the winter, in the dry season, up on the top of the volcano, it'll be fairly deep snow, you can get blizzards. But it is the dry season, so you head down the side of the volcano, head out towards the coast, and it's baking hot - it's a bright, sunny day.
Can we expect weekly challenges and monthly seasons along the same lines as Forza Horizon 4?
Mike Brown: Yeah - throughout Forza Horizon 4's live program, we've learned a huge amount about the way our players consume that content, how our players play the things that they like. And all those learnings come into Forza Horizon 5. So yeah, that seasonal structure with a Festival Playlist, with new activities landing every week - it's not the same as Horizon 4, but it certainly takes all the things that we learned from Horizon 4 and brings them into 5.
As someone who played Forza Horizon 4 from the start and a lot, I loved that structure. It was always a compelling reason to revisit the game after a while and see what had popped up. But I know it could feel overwhelming for someone new to the game or someone who hadn't played it for a long time to log into and feel like you were being bombarded with updates and events and various meta-goals, and you weren't sure what was feeding into what. How do you sort that out and streamline it for players, whilst also giving your hardcore enough to get on with every week?
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Mike Brown: Yeah, it is a challenge, because there's a ton of different entry points into the game, of course. And Game Pass creates an unusual gameplay characteristic as well. Because Game Pass means you kind of have this library permanently, you'll have a lot of people who play for a number of months, and then they go on to another game, because Game Pass - and then they'll come back six months later, in a way that was pretty unusual historically. When people bought a game they played it, they finished it and then they'd move on, and it was quite unusual that people would then come back months later. We see that a lot more now - and you're right, Horizon 4 could be a bit overwhelming, because we're updating it so often, adding new things all the time... That is the kind of thing that we are looking to make better in Horizon 5. I think, in the structure of the game as well, we have a nicer intro and handoff between the main campaign and that live service Festival Playlist - it's a bit more of a natural transition to that during the campaign.
It must be quite tricky setting the pace of those Playlists and of the season updates to make sure the amount of content is right, both from a production standpoint and for the players. Do you feel like you hit a sweet spot with 4? Or do you think they're still tweaking to be done there?
Mike Brown: I think in terms of the hours of content that are there to take part in in the week, I think we did land on a bit of a sweet spot... You can go too little, and then people don't feel like there's a great deal to do in the game. But when you go too much, then it can start to become quite intimidating, and when you look at it all and you do one activity and you're 1% done, it can feel like it's a bit of a daunting task to then go and do it all.
I think where we landed on the playlist, where it takes maybe two and a half hours to do it all within a week - that might be an evening session on the game, which I think fits into people's lives really nicely. People live their lives in weeks naturally. They go to the gym on a Wednesday, they watch TV on a Friday, they go to the pub on a Thursday and play Horizon on a Saturday. It just slots into their lives really nicely like that. And, obviously, usually with a new car as well. So for those people that love collecting cars, which is I think most of our players, they usually get a new car every week, which I think is a really great reward for working through that stuff.
So one thing I noticed with 4 was that you were given a lot of freedom when you're moving through the campaign as to what cars you use - the game would, for the most part, adapt itself to you, to what you wanted to drive at that point. And then that more curated experience that would take you around the garage and get you to investigate all the different cars and styles of driving would come through the Playlist more than through the campaign. Is that a structure you're going to continue with in 5?
Mike Brown: We've actually made some tweaks to that. So whilst we really value the freedom of being able to just grab whichever car takes your fancy and take on some races, Horizon 4 did kind of let you use the wrong car on the wrong track without telling you that that might be a problem. We still want to allow that freedom so that you can do that if that's if that's what entertains you. But the game now does a better job of educating, perhaps, new players new to the genre on what are good car and track combinations. So as you're going into a race there is a bit of information there which will tell you what the race is going to be like and what cars might be good for it, and then it tries to shepherd you towards appropriate vehicle selection. It's not forced in the same way that the Festival Playlist is, but it tries to better educate players to make sure they have a good experience.
And in terms of the online modes, like Online Adventure and Eliminator, is it going to be a familiar suite from 4? I saw Eliminator was in there.
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Mike Brown: So - we have rebuilt our multiplayer suite, as you call it. It's called the Horizon Open now. That name signifies that it's for all, it's intended to be more low pressure, more inclusive, more accessible, I think, than our Ranked Adventure could be in Horizon 4. Horizon 4's Ranked Adventure made winning, like, super important. It made people really, really want to win a lot, and get very angry when they couldn't. So we're trying to address that balance. Winning is still obviously the objective, and still what you want to do, but it's not intended to be the be all and end all of it. We're trying to make an experience that is more welcoming, fun and engaging without, hopefully, some of the frustrations that people found in Forza Horizon 4.
And what about stuff to do organically with other players out on the map? Because when Forza Horizon 4 first launched, I think the main thing to do was Forzathon Live. And, for me anyway, that didn't quite work. It felt like it was great seeing all these other players driving around, but I wasn't sure what to do with them.
Mike Brown: It's a good call out. So, Forzathon Live has been retired and replaced with the Horizon Arcade. Whereas Forzathon Live gave you one game mode on the hour, every hour, which was cool, it had a negative in that once you'd completed it, it just kind of ended. You were left to your own devices and everybody just kind of drove off, which always just felt a little bit sad.
Horizon Arcade means that there's these public events on the map going on all the time. Really low friction, you can drive into the area to take part, there's no loading screens, no menus or anything. Rather than the one game mode we had in Forzathon Live, there's now 12 different game modes as well, they're all intended to be little, fun minigames, and they're all collaborative as well. So none of them are a case of like, we're going to find out who's the best driver - it's all things you can work together as a group to overcome the objective. And as soon as one finishes, because they're happening all the time, it'll just route that group to the next one. You can just drive away and not take part if you want to, but the kind of natural flow is that you stick together and you go into another one, you just kind of hop around the map taking part in these different minigames.
The other thing that we saw in the [gameplay demo] is a feature called Forza Link. Forza Link is like a little AI assistant which is intended to help you find things that are relevant to do with those other people that you meet online. It knows your campaign status, your progression, the kind of things that you like to do, and it also knows that for everybody else. So if you're driving along, and maybe you love doing the Trial, you're somebody that likes the Festival Playlist - you could be driving with somebody else who also loves the Trial but you'd normally have no way of knowing that. Link can also know that you haven't actually done it yet this week, it'll pick out content you haven't yet completed. So it might pop up with a prompt where you can ask this person to come into the Trial with you. And just hit the button, it'll ask them, they can say yes, and in the case of the Trial, it actually just starts matchmaking immediately.
It's intended to be tracking you and all the people you meet online, what things that you like to do, and then suggesting content that you could do together based on that - just to remove all those barriers to make it as simple as possible to get into online activities with other players.
Tell me more about Events Lab - your gameplay mode creator.
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Mike Brown: This is one of the features that, as a game designer, I'm most excited about. It's actually based on our internal design tools. We've had to take those tools, which were very much meant for game developers and get them fit for consumption by our players, which was a pretty huge undertaking. But it does mean it's very powerful. It's a rule-based system where you put in: when this happens, this is the outcome, when this happens with these conditions, then this is the action. In the video that we saw yesterday, there's quite a lot of rules in play. Some of the ones that are probably easiest to understand is the creator has placed all those bowling pins, and then attached a rule to those bowling pins that every time a car hits one, it adds 5000 points to the group score. All the players together are working to try and smash as many pins as they can to achieve a goal - as a group, they're doing that. It could just as easily have been set up so that everyone's playing for themselves, or you could have it be teams. The rules can do other things as well, like, make the car get heavier, or reduce gravity.
Why have you built this mode? What are you hoping to achieve for players with it?
Mike Brown: The Forza community has always been a community of creators, from the livery editor to the tuning systems to the photo mode, and over the last few Horizon games, we've been unlocking more and more of these creation tools. And every time we do it, the response has been great. This isn't the end, because honestly, I think we'll probably be adding functionality to Event Lab for months and years as the community tells us what they want it to do. You can create single-player gameplay experiences, you can create races in it, it can do all that stuff. And depending on what it is that you've created, they can be then surfaced to players in different ways. Sometimes they'll just appear on the map, if it's a race that you've made. But we as developers will be looking out for those really cool modes that people have made and then we'll be promoting them via the Festival Playlist or in the Horizon Open as well.
Has developing for Xbox One as well forced any kind of considerations on you, rather than developing purely for the Series consoles and PC?
Mike Brown: Well, since Horizon 3, we have already been on PC, and that means that we're already used to delivering a game on a whole range of system specifications. So having to have the game work on Xbox One, Xbox Series consoles, PC, it isn't that different. I think having to support the Xbox One consoles is exactly the same amount of effort as it is to support a lower spec PC. We're actually feeling pretty great about all versions of the game, to be honest.