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Interview With Ben Penrose

Interview with Forza Horizon 2's Art Director

While I was only in Sydney for less than two days, I had the great pleasure of attending this years EB Games Expo, held once again at Sydney Olympic Park from October 3rd to October 5th. With many of the big name publishers and developers attending the expo in its fourth year, the crowds were once again huge as gamers once again descended upon the city for three days of gaming, cosplaying, Q&A’s, shopping at a giant EB Games store and even more gaming.

Thanks to the team at Microsoft Australia’s Xbox division and the team at Ogilvy PR Australia, I was able to nab some time with their special guests – Ben Penrose from Playground Games (Forza Horizon 2) and Marcus Smith from Insomniac Games (Sunset Overdrive). These were the first two interviews I had scheduled early on the Friday morning, and will therefore be the first two interviews that I will be transcribing over the next couple of days.

The very first interview with Ben Penrose, who served as Art Director on Forza Horizon 2, can be found below.

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For those not familiar with the series/game, can you share a bit about what makes the Horizon games different from the core Forza series, and some of the more notable improvements in the latest instalment?

Forza Horizon is an open world racer, which is probably the biggest difference from Forza Motorsport. Generally it’s a game where we want the players to have as much fun as they can in a big, beautiful open world with a very socially connected set of tools, so they can connect with their friends very quickly. It is also set in Southern Europe can very pretty.

In terms of new features above and beyond what has already happened, we now have dynamic weather in the game – which is a first for Forza entirely, so that’s really cool. I like to think we’ve done the Forza franchise proud in the way we have represented weather. We’ve tried to do it in a kind of level of detail that everybody’s come to expect from a Forza game.

Have you had the chance to play it yet?

*My audio was interrupted by loud noises at this point and the next 20 seconds of recording was almost inaudible. My full thoughts on Forza Horizon 2 will be available in a review shortly.*

[..] I’m usually pretty iffy with racing games but I actually seemed to do pretty well with it.

That’s the thing. I think everybody wanted the game to feel a bit more accessible than Motorsport was because it was very hardcore, simmy type stuff. We wanted people to just enjoy the open world and have fun with cars.

You describe the open world as being “big” and “beautiful”. Were there any particular Vistas or Highlights that stood out above the rest?

The beauty aspect was for us is a big thing. We wanted to make the game good looking but we also wanted to pick subject matter that was considered beautiful in real life. So the sort of thing that you would want to see while you are driving your Lamborghini at top speed… if you are lucky to have one. So, the Amalfi Coast, the rolling hills of Tuscany and Provence… they were the centerpieces for us. Getting those things right was a big deal.

With a large line-up of vehicles on offer, can you provide a bit of insight into how a particular vehicle goes from a real life model into a digital replication?

In Forza, the cars are all scanned with lasers so they are millimeter perfect. That turns into a piece of CAD data. That data gets taken over and replicated by the artists who bring that car to life with all the correct material characteristics. So carbon fiber looks and feels like carbon fiber. Metal reacts like metal. Rubber is doing the same. Then what we do is take the car set up like that, take it into the game and we put a really gorgeous lighting model around it to hopefully bring the whole thing to life, and make all those things / features that were put into that model sync.

It sounds like you are now able to get a much better result much easier than before.

Thanks to the new hardware, we’ve been able to shift to a new rendering model which is referred to as a physically accurate rendering method. What that means is that on a previous platform you might describe a surface with an image or a texture that you’d wrap around a mesh. While now what we do is say this material has these characteristics – it’s shiny, it’s polished, it’s rough, it’s matte… and all those properties are taken into consideration with the rendering method and then it replicates that material as accurately as physically possible. It’s great… it means that all the individual parts of the car really sing and stand out.

You really sound passionate about it!

I am passionate about it. I have been making this game for two years and very proud to be a part of it.

While Forza Motorsport 5 was released exclusively on the Xbox One, Forza Horizon 2 is going to be available on both current and last generation Xbox consoles. Taking into consideration the capabilities of both consoles, were there any content sacrifices made in order to support a multiplatform release?

Absolutely not. Playground Games dedicated all of its resources and time to making Forza Horizon 2 as best as it could be for the Xbox One. Sumo Digital are looking after the 360 version, and that was done intentionally so we could exclusively focus on the next generation version.

The racing and driving genre has proven to be timeless in gaming. How do you think Forza Horizon 2 tests the boundaries of the tried and proven formula, and how do you think development teams will change as this genre enters this new generation of gaming?

I think the open world racer is still quite a young format, and something that a lot of people are still exploring in terms of how do we make the most of that way of delivering an experience in a racing game. I think that Horizon 2 has definitely acquired its own flavour, its own way of doing that. I think that’s the thing that we bring to the genre that is fresh and new. I think that generally it seems like people are connecting to that in a very positive way.

For the genre and future of the genre, with the new hardware there are so many more facets of the driving fantasy that people can tap into – whether its the same kind of stuff we are doing with Horizon where it is about the open road and freedom or if it is something more intense and simulation based like motorsport.

Were there any particular struggles that you came across when you were developing the game?

Just the struggles that you would expect when you are developing a video game. It’s always an interesting process where you’re constantly trying out new things and pushing to get the best results you possibly can in the time you are making the game. I would call them less struggles and more like a fun challenge to try and see how much you can do – and how you can put as much as possible into a game you are trying to make. I think at the moment its interesting where we are with the new generation of consoles, because we’ve just started to learn exactly what it is we can do with them. We were learning about them right up to the end, “we can do this now, we can do that”. In general I think games coming out for the rest of this year and into next, I think we will be seeing some very amazing stuff.

One of the issues I find with a lot of games, especially with an online multiplayer element, is that you start to get into them, and then in a month / few months the community is dead. How do you think that Forza Horizon 2 will be able to avoid this.

I think Forza’s legendary for having a really positive and engaged community, and a lot of that comes through from the feature sets that are always available in a Forza game. We’ve tried to totally take advantage of that, and also respond to what it is that Forza players want. We’ve listened to what they wanted beyond what we did in the original Horizon, we’ve listened to what they were asking for after their experience with FM5 and before. So, hopefully we’re working on an already tried and tested formula, and also delivering some new things to people that are going to get them excited again.

What advice do you have for those looking to get into a career like yours?

I think the main thing is to just be stubborn as hell and if you want to do something, don’t listen to people if they say youare doing it wrong… necessarily. I think you just kind of have to put your head down and get on with whatever craft it is you are trying to perfect, you need to dedicate time to it and make sure that you’re actually improving yourself in whatever you are trying to do. So speaking personally when it comes to art, I actually got into the art side of video game by spending an entire Summer watching all of Wimbledon and polishing up my portfolio every single day constantly, until I got to a point where I had something I thought was worthy of sending out to people. Thankfully it worked. So I think whatever it is you’re trying to do, spend some time every day trying to get as good at that as you possibly can and make yourself known.  Get out on the internet, blog it, get yourself a website, just scream to everybody about it, as many people as possible need to hear what it is you are trying to do.

Launched a couple of days ago, Forza Horizon 2 is now available for purchase on the Xbox One, with an Xbox 360 edition to follow in the near future.

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