“It took us until lunchtime to get Forza 3 running in 4K” - the game’s creative director on Xbox One X and the future of Forza

Microsoft has now added Forza Horizon 3 to the list of Xbox One X Enhanced games, bringing 4K, HDR and other enhancements to its open world Australian road trip. I spoke to Playground Games’ creative director Ralph Fulton to find out more about the process: what’s it like actually enhancing a game? What can you actually add? And, resolution aside, what difference does Xbox One X actually make? 

Where does the process actually start for Enhancing a game on Xbox One X? 

It kind of starts with, for us, with the delivery of our first Xbox One X development kit. We knew about it before we got it and we’d seen the specs. Your tech guys get pretty excited about having new toys to play with. So when it arrived there’s real excitement; let’s see what the thing can do. What can we get out of it? I think the first impression we got from it was just how easy it is to develop with. I think it took us, the day we got it, until lunchtime to get Forza 3 running in 4K, and that includes getting it out the box and running the setup stuff. So it was super super easy for us. And from there it was about ‘how are we going to use that power?’

“I think it took us, the day we got it, until lunchtime to get Forza 3 running in 4K”

Our choice for Forza 3 was pretty simple: the choice we made was to go for visuals. For us, that’s true 4K - 3840, 2160 - native 4K. And then looking at the pretty substantial overhead once we’d done that on both the CPU, GPU, and figuring out how we could still continue to enhance the visuals. So what are we going to do? It was let’s go for 4K and continue to ramp up the visuals, enhance the visuals.

So what are you actually spending all this power on? What are the sliders you’re ramping up?

I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying even within this enhanced version there is still headroom in terms of the box’s performance. We haven’t spent it all. When we think about a number of features there which you could notionally move sliders on, it’s not quite that simple. I think you have to take a focused, and maybe holistic, view on the things you’re going to improve upon. 

So for us, on Forza Horizon 3, there are a couple of things that are really front and centre. The car is one. We’re incredibly fortunate in Forza in that we overspec our cars just as a matter of course. Even this generation we’ve been building cars at a higher detail than we can draw in the normal course of gameplay, so we had future-proofed our vehicle models. Then you start to think about the other things that are important in Horizon 3. The sky system was kind of revolutionary: it utilised 12K capture [and] we captured in HDR, even before we knew about the HDR capabilities of the Xbox One S. That’s a really important thing for us because at any one time it’s probably taking up about half the framerate. 

So you start to think about the graphical features you want to start enhancing to take advantage of those features - the car, the sky, and also the vastly increased resolution. You start to think about reflections, you start to think about environment shadows, you start to think about motion blur. Which is something we’ve significantly improved just to make the driving experience smoother. You start to think about the road detail as well, so we’ve upped the anisotropic (texture) filtering across the environments - I think it’s at 16x where it was at 8 before. The point being you’re getting more detail out of the road surface which is such a crucial part of the gameplay experience in Horizon. So you don’t just start moving sliders randomly, you think about what the extra resolution, particularly with HDR, is giving you and then you start to pick the things that will be most complementary to that experience. 

You mentioned future proofing cars. With games more frequently getting post release enhancements or improved re-releases, is thinking ahead going to be even more important for developers? 

I think it’s easy to say without a doubt that’s a smart thing to do. I definitely think we’re now on the verge of mass adoption of 4K technology. And it feels like we’ll be there for a while. I do think you need have to have an eye towards the future to make sure you are prepared for it when it comes. I think an example of that is when we went out to Australia to start capturing sky we did it at resolutions we couldn’t possibly hope to include in the Xbox One or Xbox One S version. Those decisions which were kind of forward-looking served us really well around the launch of the Xbox One S, and I think it’s that foresight that you need to employ.