At Digital Nationz 2014 at Vector Arena in Auckland, New Zealand I was invited by Xbox for a one on one with one of the key developers for Xbox One’s exclusive racing title; Forza Horizons 2.
Ben Penrose is the Art Director of Forza Horizon 2 and leads a team of artists and creatives at Playground Games in Leamington Spa, UK. Forza Horizon 2 uses the next evolution of the best-in-class Forza graphics engine to deliver full day and night cycle with spectacular weather, lighting, and visual effects.
As I sat down with Ben in the media room I asked him to give a brief overview of his role and how that relates to the development of Horizons 2.
Ben: So my role at Playground is I am the Art Director, and that generally involves putting together a plan for how we want the game to look and the visual concepts that we want to explore with the game.
So, that involves working very closely with some very talented concept artists and we develop lots of visual themes around what the Festival could look like, what the Party environment could look like and at the same time some of the luckier guys in the studio do go out to some cool locales and they take hundreds of photos and video.
Then what we do is use them as a body of research and create an ‘art bible’. That really defines how the game should look and hopefully communicates it really succinctly to the rest of the studio.
From that point on it’s really a case of pushing to get even closer to what those aspirations are inside the original pitch and making sure it that if it veers of track you can pull it back into the right space.
Also communicating to the guys that aren’t on the Art Team [and bring it in] to what they are making. So [that] we are all on the same page.
Shane: Gamers that played Forza Horizons (and still play it) will remember the story of racing against Darius Flynt. What can fans and new comers to the series expect in Forza Horizons 2? Does Darius return?
Ben: As with the first one there’s some background narrative that kind of gives background as to what you are involved with. With regards to the Festival.
They are the reasons that you are racing these glorious cars around this part of the world and as in the first one it is a minimal part of the game, so it’s to add a bit of colour. It’s not like it’s a hard core Story Mode like you would expect.
So Darius Flynt is not in the sequel. There’s a new roster of characters with a couple of nods to some old ones. [Will] be interesting to see if people spot some of those.
Shane: The car roster for the previous Forza Horizon was huge and kept growing, is the roster for number 2 larger?
Ben: In number 2 we are shipping with over 200 cars. In terms of next gen it’s the biggest car roster that Forza has had so far. It’s bigger than Forza 5 and one of the things that’s really cool about working with those guys [developers of Forza 5] it’s a staple that we constantly are able to constantly build on top of.
When they produce lots of cars we inherit those, plus we decide to make some more and vice versa.
Shane: Forza 5 was the first racing title for the Xbox One. Has Forza Horizons 2 improved on that title in any way? Is there any integration if players own that title aswell?
Ben: So, there’s a massive integration. The whole foundation of Horizon 2 is based on Forza 5.
So we take what those guys have produced and look for ways to extend that initial starting point. Obviously there are things that we have to try and achieve with Horizon.
In this case specifically the off route aspect, the weather and so, night time. We would update all of the cars and the engine of the game to accommodate the features. You know, rain collects on car bodies, headlights light up, dirt builds up around the wheel arches, etc.
There’s lots of things going on. And it’s a constant development to what was originally put in place [referencing to Forza 5].
Thankfully what those guys did was really great. Alot of the core things in there that we could really work with, like the physically based rendering method, [this] was something really big and is only really achievable on the next gen hardware.
It lets you really describe certain surfaces on a physically accurate level like glass or carbon fiber. You get the way light bounces off those things in an accurate manner.
Shane: Following on from that question; Forza 5 – Forza Horizons 2 – what’s the difference from an Art Directors point of view?
Ben: I think anybody who plays the two games should be able to feel what’s different about the two. Forza Motorsport is your hardcore racing game [which] concentrates on real life circuits and the whole simulation aspect.
Forza Horizon is much more focused on being accessible and just generally having abit more fun with the concept. Driving cars through really pretty environments.
I think it does spin slightly more towards the Arcade kind of sensibilities but underpinning all of that the quality aspect from a full racing sim and Forza 5 is indeed present in Horizon.
There’s a good balance between the two and a good level of variety in terms of tthe experience that [gamers] can have with each of the products.
Shane: If you were to sum up Forza Horizons 2 in one sentence, what would that be?
Ben: Well as the Art Director it would be beautiful. Yeah, I think sod it, I’ll just go with pretty.
Shane: Bonus Question – What was your favourite toy (or game) as a kid?
Ben: It’s between two, so hard to choose. It was either the original G1 Optimus Prime Transformer, or the Black Knight LEGO Castle. Like back in the 90’s. Google it, it’s a proper classic.
Shane: Ha. Excellent. I dont know the Black Knight Castle, but I definitely will [Google it]. Thank you Ben for meeting with me and talking with ShanetheGamer.com.
Ben: No problem Shane, it was a pleasure.