Playground Games’ Forza Horizon 3 was the best-selling Britsoft game of 2016 - putting to one side GTA V’s incredible staying power - and the biggest Xbox One exclusive. To date, it’s already sold 2.5m copies worldwide, helping blast the Forza franchise to lifetime sales of $1bn.
With this milestone in mind, MCV heads to Leamington Spa to speak with Gavin Raeburn (pictured, far right), CEO, and Ralph Fulton (pictured, right), creative director, to find out how the company went from a start-up with a handful of employees to one of the biggest players in UK development in just three titles.
We talk about the company’s core business, its strategic relationship with Microsoft, the upcoming Project Scorpio, its expansion to two teams (see Widening Your Horizons), keeping the franchise fresh, Brexit and much more.
"I think there’s never been a better time for the UK dev scene."
Gavin Raeburn, Playground
It’s impossible to talk about Playground Games without first discussing its deal with Microsoft. Playground only makes games for Xbox One and Windows, but beyond that it shares technology and assets with the first-party developer Turn 10, which makes the Forza Motorsport titles. We wonder whether using those assets was part of the original pitch to Microsoft?
“Largely yes, actually. Looking back, the original pitch is what you see now in Horizon, so it was the music festival married with racing on real roads. If we could show you the original pitch document you’d go, ‘My word, that’s exactly what I see’,” says Raeburn.
He continues: “I think they obviously saw, ‘Well, this is a good fit for what we’re doing.’ But we didn’t know what we were looking for when we originally made that pitch. It could have been a Project Gotham Racing. It could have been a Mario Kart. It could have been anything. But luckily they saw something they liked in the pitch.”
However, despite the huge success of Top Gear over the past decade, it’s odd that many racing games have had a bit of a mainstream wobble.
“You have dozens of shooters released a year, [but] there’s a handful of good racing games. It just takes a couple of misses, and then publishers, who are investing tens of millions in these games, start to get nervous. So for a new team to be pitching, ‘Look, we’re gonna grow a new team and we’re gonna be the best racing developer in the world,’ it’s hard to get that message across.”
Thankfully, it did hit home, and Raeburn is warm in his praise of Microsoft’s ability to shift copies of Horizon: “I don’t think there’s any better people in the business for marketing and selling games. They’ve been fantastic for Horizon, and a big part of the success we’ve had. And I’m not saying you can’t get that from publishers who are working on multiple platforms, but the kind of focus you get, the presence at E3, which you’ve seen that we’ve had, certainly helps.”
Of course, even the best marketing can’t sell a product gamers don’t care for, so what does Raeburn attribute Horizon’s success to? He talks about “discovery, freedom and beauty” resonating with a large audience, but also makes a key point about the pacing of the game.
“We have a good mix of ‘lean in’ and ‘lean out’, as we call it, gameplay. So, ‘lean out’ is where you’re relaxed, you’re enjoying just discovering around the world, but then you’ve got the ‘lean in’ moments in the races. And that, I think, is very different to a lot of other racing games, perhaps, which are more ‘lean in’.”
It’s an intriguing point, and one that’s insightful in today’s market, where players can spend huge amounts of time on a single title. Letting them take their foot off the throttle, quite literally in this case, while still playing and having fun, seems like a brilliant move.
We wonder if being based in the UK made pitching to Microsoft harder? “It wasn’t with Microsoft, but I do take that point. I think [there’s] perhaps an unknowing bias where publishers would rather work with developers in their own territory because they feel they understand that territory. But that wasn’t the case with Microsoft, again to their credit,” Raeburn replies.
And did he think Brexit would make it harder to do business from the UK? “We get paid in pounds, so it hasn’t hit us at all so far. That’s not to say it won’t, but from Microsoft’s point of view, we’re now a lot cheaper than we were. So they’re happy.”
The weak pound can hardly be called a strategic move by the government, though, so did Raeburn think the politicians were actively doing enough for UK games businesses? “Honestly, I think they’re doing fantastic.
The tax credits have made a really big difference and has been one of the things that has helped us, you know, grow the second team as well, the security it gives you there. So that’s great.”
“We’re always invited down [to the] House of Commons to meet various people to talk about the gaming industry. I think it’s seen as an important business for the UK. It’s something that we do well. I think the government do recognise this.”
Between the tax credits and the weaker pound, we might actually see a boon in UK development. On the other hand, the recent closure of nearby Guerrilla Cambridge shows the opposite trend.
“In many ways, I think there’s never been a better time for the UK development scene, because the triple-A developers we have here are truly world class. And there are so many start-ups who are working in mobile or on Steam games, and these could be the new triple-A studios of the future. You just need one breakout hit, like Rocket League, for example, and bingo, you can create a triple-A studio. So I think there are a lot of new players in waiting,” Raeburn enthuses.
Project Scorpio is going to dominate Microsoft’s efforts in 2017 - so we’re curious about Playground’s take on the new hardware. It looks as though Scorpio will run current titles, such as the Horizon series, with superior graphics, but Raeburn is looking further afield than that.
“[It’s] not just backward compatibility but forward compatibility. It’s actually quite important. When has that ever happened before, where you can pick up your old disc that’s five years old, put it in your new console, and it actually looks however many per cent better? That’s quite incredible.”
But the platform could also bring a greater workload on developers, as even an exclusive like Horizon would have to work across two consoles. Raeburn isn’t phased, replying, “scalability is now more important,” in order to take full advantage of the various hardware specifications - much like with PC releases today.
The boundaries between hardware generations may be breaking down, but Raeburn argues that the platforms themselves, the ecosystems, remain as important as ever:
“For me, it’s all about the ecosystem that you’re playing your games in, and the exclusives you can get. So obviously Horizon is exclusive for Xbox. If I love Horizon enough, you would hope people would stick within that ecosystem. But I also love Live, so even when I was working on both platforms my favourite was always the Xbox because I loved being in Live. I could see what my friends were doing. It just felt like more of an immersive experience.”
In the end, it’s about the games, not the hardware, says Raeburn: “It will continue to evolve. When
people like playing large and expensive triple-A games, like you and I do, they’re not going to go away. They will morph over the years, but they will always be the same experiences, just presented in different ways. It doesn’t matter to me what the flavour or shape of the box is that delivers them, as long as I’m able to create those games.”
"There have been lessons we’ve learned through building
Playground which we shouldn’t forget."
Ralph Fulton, Playground
Speaking of software, we’re also seeing the first hints of a softening in discrete, numbered sequels to game franchises. So we ask creative director Ralph Fulton if he sees the future of the Horizon franchise as biennial numbered sequels or as something more continuous.
“I think you’re probably describing two points on a continuum, and there’s space in between there. I’ve been making racing games for eleven, twelve years, and in that time the way even boxed games are delivered and supported has changed beyond recognition.”
Fulton continues: “Across the three Horizon games, we have changed the way we think about what we call ‘sustain’. It’s basically moving along that continuum I described and I don’t think it’s like you do boxed releases or you do games as a service. I think there’s any number of points in between.
“[With] Forza Horizon 3, we shipped the game, there are monthly car packs, which you can buy individually, you can buy cars individually, you can buy all of them with a season pass at a discount, so here’s monthly content coming there, and it was always so with Forza.”
Then there’s the fairly new Forzathon feature: “It’s basically a continuous engagement, and there’s a team that is working on continually engaging our players, listening to their feedback, listening to what they like and dislike, and tailoring more content for them so that they know that they can boot up Forza Horizon, go to the Forzathon screen, and there’ll be a bunch of challenges for them to do.”
Playground aren’t yet ready to talk about the next Forza Horizon, but with millions of copies sold, the game’s core team staying in the current offices, and with all its experience in crafting open-world racers, it’s hardly a leap to say that the game will receive some kind of sequel on both Xbox One and Scorpio.
The management is bullish about the UK games business. It sees growth in development and sales, plus it’s even found a silver lining in Brexit with lowered costs for its international partner.
With the new studio opening soon, the size of Leamington’s Playground will be much increased, and with no announcement yet on the exclusivity of the new offshoot, it will doubtless be inundated with suitors for its new franchise.
Playground Games will soon be expanding to two teams, housed in separate buildings in Leamington. And it’s currently looking for the new premises, Raeburn notes: “Local government [have been] very supportive in terms of helping us find office space for the second project.” So supportive, in fact, that Playground has even been offered the original town hall for its new premises by the council - though it’s not yet made a final decision.
Obviously a new building isn’t any use without staff to fill it. Playground is a little vague on the details but it sounds like the management team have already pitched their new idea to the staff - an open world action game, without racing.
“I think we had some expectations about what the existing team would think about the second project. As it’s turned out, some people have been like, ‘Hey, that sounds brilliant. I’d love to be part of that.’ Others have said, ‘Do you know what, I love Horizon. I love what we’re doing on Horizon’,” says Fulton.
Playground will be taking on a lot of extra staff over the next few months, and it sounds like a great place to work.
“We have this five-year service award. It’s a very personal thing. But the number of those that we’ve been handing out over the last year, you think, ‘Actually, there’s a lot of people’. You look back, and the hit rate that we had, through luck or just good fortune, most of those people are still here, which is great. You do have some misses, but we’ve had a good strike rate. So I’m hoping we’ll have that with the next project as well,” says Raeburn.
We suggest that things may not run so smoothly this time, but Fulton replies: “It will present different challenges, running two teams, than we’ve experienced with one. There have been lessons we’ve learned through building Playground over the last seven years which we shouldn’t forget, because there will be many lessons we have to learn fresh building this second team.”
Raeburn concludes: “We have a few key members moving over to the new project from this one, and we’d like the new studio to be autonomous in itself but following on all the good patterns we built up. So a start-up with a blueprint of what we are here, and adapt it to the requirements of the second project.”