How Forza Horizon 3 took over as the most beautiful game on Xbox

A Lamborghini on the beach in Forza Horizon 3. That is a real Australian sky in the background

Last October, game developer Playground Games sent six employees from its studio in Leamington Spa with a tiny town 120 miles south-west of Sydney called Braidwood, New South Wales. Armed which has a custom built 12K-resolution camera worth hundreds and hundreds of pounds, they weren’t there to capture the scenery or film movie sequences using a cast of actors. They were there to record the sun.

Released in September, Forza Horizon 3 is widely credited as among the most visually impressive console games available. A driving simulation operating out of and around a fictitious car festival, the sport gives players a huge selection of miles of accurately modelled Australian scenery to discover, from dense jungles to sun-bleached outback wastelands.

There are races to get in, challenges to try and many new vehicles to unlock, nonetheless it’s the developer’s obsession with detail that’s really stood out. The game comes with a neat indication of where real-world simulation is heading with this ever-more graphically ambitious industry. And it all begins with those skies.

If you’ve played Forza Horizon 3, you will get noticed them: dramatic, ever-changing panoramas of cloud, punctured by light rays and together with evolving weather patterns.

For the earlier game inside series, Playground did what most studios do: they designed a bunch of cloud models, then lit and rotated in the individual in various approaches to suggest a seemingly changeable skyscape. For the third title though, the art team were built with a new idea: think about taking a hi-res camera, pointing it at heaven and capturing the full expanse over several hours, as being a detailed time-lapse sequence.

For quite some time, it had been just that – a crazy idea. Until they ever done it.

“We shot a pre-production test within Leamington Spa, just being placed in a field,” explains the lead lighting artist, Jamie Wood. “And might know about got as a result, frame by frame … there seemed to be so much more nuance towards the lighting changes. In just an hour or so, there was more variety than the full of the system we used last time.”

So the program was hatched for you a team to Australia to capture the country’s very specific lighting, weather and cloud formation patterns. It wasn’t nearly replicating pretty cloud shapes: inside Forza series, as well being a lot of modern online games, the overall game’s lights are physics-based.

In plain english, the action simulates a sensible sun. All the variations learn how to and shadow that this player sees inside the world are calculated in real-time, depending on how light is dispersed and just how it is occluded by objects between your source as well as the surface; whether that’s a rain cloud blocking the sunlight, or buildings casting shadows along the road. And the direction and time period of those shadows is calculated using the real-world light direction.

forza horizon 3
“It was an amazing romantic idea,” says Wood. “To make research footage in the light on the market and bring that in to the studio and project it into the action; to provide players the experience of those cloud scapes and exactly how that lights the globe. But that it was a very risky concept, that has a lot of sensible push-back internally, there we were thinking: should we do this?”

For a start, the creative director, Ralph Fulton, needed to weigh in the practicalities of sending experienced staff to the Australian bush for a few weeks of expensive development time.

“I mean, how would you insure them for as well?” Fulton said.

And then there was clearly the logistics and uncertainties of an reasonably unprecedented shoot. Wood said: “During our two year development period we just had one window to capture an Australian summer. We needed to plan a great deal in ahead.”

Eventually, three teams of two executed the shooting process, starting in October 2015, and running through the entire Australian summer. Each team headed out in the countryside near Braidwood, put in place a camp, pointed you at the night sky and waited the way it took a large number of high-resolution images over 24-hour periods.

“The skies are captures for an interpolated number of frames, being a movie however with shorter increments,” says Wood. “Per frame, we derive an image-based specular cue for reflections in addition to a diffuse light. So whatever the sun’s doing, whether it’s got really sharp shadows or its very hazy, it’ll be picked up frame by frame.”

But travel for the other side from the world? Why not utilize Leamington test footage? “The heat in Australia generates a wide range of different clouds that any of us don’t usually see here,” says Wood. “You have a wide range of big cumulonimbus and amble clouds. But it’s more related to the arc on the Sun, the timings of sunsets and the way dark it gets at nighttime.

“Because the sun’s rays actually drops reduced below the horizon in Australia in summer of computer does here, you will get these pitch black nights and intensely quick dramatic sunsets – as well as the sun will probably be much higher in the night sky during the day. We took light probes and captured everything data – we didn’t ought to guess what the sunlight would be like.”

All in this is visible in the sport. Whizzing across the cliffs beside Byron Bay at sunset, the sun quickly drops from broad daylight to almost hallucinogenic orange, the strong midday sun above Surfer’s Paradise, cutting great sharp shadows in to the road – everthing adds to your visual grandeur.

But on this era of HDR visuals, where subtle gradients of light are detectable, some in the most impressive effects in modern games may come from how light is treated if this hits and reflects off objects. “Forza Horizon 3 runs on the voxel-based global illumination system to calculate light bounces in real-time,” says Fulton. “This system uses the HDR sky, other light sources and offline-generated occlusion data to exercise which surfaces the lighting bounces onto.

“For a simple way to understand the impact that bounced light might wear a scene, have a look at locations with complex shadows much like the entrance with a cave or crevices within a rock formation – in Forza Horizon 2, those shadows would have stood a single colour value which meant the shadow could well be uniform everywhere there were no direct light. In Forza Horizon 3, we calculate how light – and therefore colour – bounces into partially occluded areas so shadows have a very much higher variation in darkness and colour. The depths of an tunnel, without the need of direct and minimal indirect light, will likely be almost black; whereas the sides of shadow will bleed naturally from dark to light according to indirect bounced light.”

In the conclusion, the group caught 30-days importance of 24-hour sky shoots, which can be used to create the action’s naturalistically evolving skyscape. In free roam mode, the action will effectively “play” an entire day’s footage across the action sky, the details streamed in, immediately, through the hard-drive. “If you sit from the same place, you’ll see heaven elapse because it did in person,” says Fulton. The only difference is, in the action, the footage is increased so that a Horizon day doesn’t last 24-hours.

“One from the knock on effects on this system was which it made our days considerably longer than in Forza Horizon 2” says Fulton. “Speeding up time beyond some point helps make the cloud movement look ludicrous. I believe benefits the overall game – sunsets are longer, sunrises are longer, but we mitigate the slower passage of your time by using in-game events – a cutscene, the start of an race etc – to jump around a lttle bit and prevent monotony.”

The weather method is connected too, when dark clouds roll in, the rain starts on cue, altering the top feel.

“People have asked us, why are you so obsessed with the sun?” says Fulton. “Well, it’s an immense part of the frame. In a driving game you could have sky, car, terrain, road. But it’s more importantly: the night sky is the lightsource, so everything within the world benefits from a sensible system.

“Through the detail from the light along with the reflections, the cars, the leaves around the trees, the tarmac, every one of them benefit from the higher detail lighting data that’s coming from the sun. So the full scene looks better – besides the blue bit on the top.”

The teams shot for three weeks, a challenging task that required outdoor camping with the cameras, which will get clogged with dust and grit.

“We had to clean the lenses every half sixty minutes, and also the light sensors after every shoot,” says Wood. “We also was required to change the lenses every sun rise and sunset. Because we had arrived capturing the full dynamic range on the Sun, once it dropped away, we’d need to have a more sensitive camera set-up for night.”

There have also been the local wildlife to take on, including unidentifiable but scary-looking spiders climbing in the camera cases, as well as other terrifying fauna.

Wood said: “Something kept landing on my own arm during one shoot, it had been a fly the size of the mouse. One on the locals discovered it on me and said, ‘whoa, that thing isn’t your friend, you need that off right now’”.

The vagaries on the weather also added for the challenge. “You’re on the mercy of what the sun is doing that given day,” says Fulton. “There was a wide range of amateur meteorology happening, attempting to predict the periods we should be out from the field.

“We stood a list of the many skies we needed for the overall game, but it had been down to luck if we’d manage it. Sometimes we’d get yourself a whole week of identical clear days. It was the priciest blue sky we’d seen.”
The car’s the star
Lamborghini Centenario
A similarly obsessive amount of detail went in the car models. When the deal was struck to add in the new Lamborghini Centenario in the sport, still it hadn’t been announced, so Playground had to send out a staff member to Italy to photograph the main one production model available. He took 1000s of images and measurements, but once again, there is significant time pressure.

“They continued to be building this car as there we were building our model,” says Fulton. “They announced it at Geneva in April and there we were building it to exhibit at E3 in June – nevertheless it takes few months to build a vehicle for Forza. That shoot was the final day the car was really complete – the following day Lamborghini tore it apart to create the moulds for your production parts.”

From there, it’s an activity of modelling a mesh in the car inside the art package 3D Studio Max, turning all of the images and measurements in to a highly accurate representation.

“We have to identify where different materials have to be placed from the car,” says the principle vehicle artist, Simon Gibson. “We also must construct models that will the doors to open up. We employed to try to match cinematic degrees of detail. We’re beyond that now.”

Indeed, the entire process of creating a 3D model of your car for any game has become almost as intensive as producing the exact model for production. The real Centenario production car uses a lot more than 620 various kinds of materials, including carbon fibre, various alloy metal types, and plastic and composite materials for the exterior, together with leather inside the interiors as well as heat shield materials from the engine.

Playground has sought to simulate many of these – “towards the sub-pixel level”, insists Fulton. Most manufacturers will provide their blueprints and CAD data to development studios working away at licensed racing games, to ensure that their cars are as authentically reproduced as you possibly can.

“There’s definitely a convergence now between how cars are designed and just how we make game models,” says Gibson. “We actually borrow each other’s software. But some cars don’t have CAD information, so you must use your skill being an artist to reproduce them.

“With older cars especially, the panels were hand-beaten together so in case you make an exact representation, that’s only accurate to just one car. You must think about how each car was stated in reality so as to recreate it.”

Another challenge was investigating some with the more specialist vehicles to garner modelling details from their website. When the designers thought it could well be fun to add a Reliant Regal inside the line up, it took weeks in order to one down. They eventually found a collector who’d converted one in a tribute towards the famous Only Fools and Horses van.

What’s fascinating about the gaming production process is just how these extravagant techniques are along with ingenious short cuts and workarounds. The sea is undoubtedly an expensive element to include within a game, with wave simulation requiring a wide range of complex physics. But then Playground found that another nearby Microsoft studio was focusing on similar technology.

“The sea in Forza Horizon 3 can also be the sea in Sea of Thieves,” says Fulton. “Doing proper sea tech is exceedingly complex. We knew the inventors up the road at Rare were working around the same problem. They’re doing more deepsea stuff, but we’ve got in touch with them, shared a tad of code, so we optimised it to and fro, and we all’ve both benefited.

“Our challenge was making the sea interact with all the beach, so lapping waves, foam, wetting and drying the sand correctly – that would be a whole other place of work. The 12 Apostles area is usually a sort of hero image for all of us, therefore we wanted the vehicle to be in that area racing. If you’re going for being on a beach, the sea must look good. That work paid back because driving the cars in the sea looks awesome.”

Some interesting workarounds were also employed from the sound design. When the audio team thought we would move on in the collision samples they’d sourced for Forza Horizon 2, they went with a scrapyard and recorded themselves revealing the hell beyond an old Ford Ka with sledgehammers.

“One of our own team experienced a car he would scrap, and we all said, wait a moment, we want this,” says the audio designer Fraser Strachan. “We finished up spending every day throwing stones advertising online, to simulate the sound of gritty road surfaces. It didn’t look good on the end.”

Elsewhere, if they wanted to have the isolated sound of tyres over a beach, they took a couple of microphones as much as St Andrews and recorded kite buggies. A more modest field trip than Australia, yet still a symbol from the growing significance about accurate source materials within the age of photorealism.

So does Playground think that the sun system in Horizon 3 will instigate a different era of month-long location shoots over the games industry? Wood doesn’t think so.

“The practicalities from it were crazy,” according to him. “We’ll probably lead this line of business on this to come because the looked into copying it … you’d be mad to attempt. I could inform you all our secrets, however, you still wouldn’t wish to accomplish it.”

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