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Playground spent 18 months developing the first 10 minutes of Forza Horizon 3

“First impressions change how players perceive a game,” says creative director Ralph Fulton

Forza Horizon creator Playground Games spent the majority of a two-year development cycle iterating and polishing the first ten minutes of the series' third entry.

The revelation comes from a talk by founder and creative director Ralph Fulton at this week's Nordic Game Conference - one of several talks curated by GamesIndustry.biz. His presentation focused on the importance of making a good first impression with consumers.

"Humans form their first impressions incredibly quickly," he told attendees. "We apparently decide whether we like someone, or whether we want to do business with them, within the first three seconds.

"So what happens if you don't make a good first impression [with your game]? In the most extreme cases, your player will stop playing."

He elaborated that even in console games, where consumers have paid around $60 to acquire the game, they can still be quick to drop it and move on to other titles. He used a few statistics gleaned from achievements data on Xbox to illustrate this.

Between 10% and 20% of players across the Forza Horizon series don't get the first achievement, something Fulton insists only involves "driving around in a car for a bit". It's not just Forza players, either: the Playground founder claims 27% of BioShock Infinite players don't get the first achievement for reaching the city of Colombia at the very start of the game, while over 30% of Minecraft players never open their inventory - something explained in the tutorial.

The reason, Fulton suggests, is these games didn't make a good enough first impression.

"First impressions change how players perceive a game," he said. "The opinions they form during the first few minutes change how they see everything after. For example, if you start with really good visuals, they might forgive some of the flaws later on because their brains are already telling them this is a good game."

Playground Games actually did a study before starting work on Forza Horizon 3. Two groups of test subjects were given a slice of a Forza game to play: the opening race, followed by the first hour's worth of content. One group raced in the Ferrari 485 Italia, while the other raced in a more ordinary car. When there were asked for their initial impressions of the game, the Ferrari group rated the game higher in terms of visuals, fun and intent to play again.

While Fulton acknowledges this is "not a particularly mind-blowing outcome", what was interesting was the reaction later. After the initial race, both groups played exactly the same hour's worth of content - but the Ferrari group still rated the game much higher overall.

"Put your best foot forward," Fulton urged in the first of four takeaways.

By best foot, he meant the best content or that which best represents your game. Developers were encouraged to really question whether their opening contained the best audio, the best visuals and the best gameplay. Studios may begin their game with a character creation process, tutorial or narrative intro, but while Fulton said these are "all legitimate things to do", they might not be the best way to hook the player from the beginning.

As an example, Forza Horizon 3 opens with a cinematic that sets the tone of the game, then seamlessly throws players into their first drive. Their choice of character doesn't actually come until after this, as Playground wanted to demonstrate the racing experience first.

Fulton says it takes up to three-and-a-half hours for Forza Horizon 3 to really get started, introducing all the mechanics and giving players free reign in the open world. Since Playground couldn't rely on players to give the game that much of their time, the team chose from the beginning of development to concentrate on the first ten minutes - something that ended up taking 18 months to perfect.

In February 2015, the studio decided this ten-minute initial experience would be split between the opening drive and the first of the game's Showcase events, originally planning for the latter to be the most ambitious and complex in the series.

The following month, Playground finalised the 2D layout of the game's open world and planned a route that would show off the diverse ecotypes of the Australian setting: players would start near the outback and race through rainforests, green fields, a luminescent cave and finally a sun-kissed beach.

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The introduction of the Lamborghini Centenario actually changed the game's opening sequence in several ways

By June 2015, a basic framework for the open world had been built and the team tested out their planned route. Concept art was drawn to represent the vistas they hoped to show the player on this opening drive, views that would highlight the best parts of the world or hint at things later to come, such as the city.

While many of these concepts are recreated faithfully in the final game, some had to be altered or dropped. A rickety wooden bridge was widened to make it more playable, preventing consumers from getting frustrated at falling off or colliding with the edges. The rainforest was less dense than originally intended because Playground did not want to sacrifice speed and performance, as it would have done with so many draw calls.

Other alterations stemmed from the introduction of Forza Horizon 3's hero car, the Lamborghini Centenario, which replaced an older model the team has been using. The Centenario proved to be too fast for players to take in the views Playground intended, prompting slight changes in the terrain and route.

This also brought about the decision to swap the vehicle players are racing in halfway through. A quick cutscene takes racers out of the Centenario and into a more rigorous buggy, as the former was too fast and too unwieldly to make racing across the beach and rougher terrain an enjoyable experience.

"Plan early and iterate often," Fulton said in his second takeaway. "It's a great thing to say, but harder to do."

By way of example, the showcase event was actually scaled back over time as the team discovered it wouldn't be able to achieve its vision to the quality it wanted. Originally, players would be racing against a Jeep that would be scooped up by a helicopter, swinging beneath the aircraft as it flew ahead, before being dropped to the ground to finish the race. In the final game, the Jeep is already suspended beneath the helicopter but still falls down for the finale.

This prompted another of Fulton's takeaways: sometimes you just have to start over. There are some things, the creative director said, that "no amount of polish will fix".

However, his fourth and final takeaway was that developers should "invest all you can in polish".

"It's the most important thing in your game that will give players a good feeling about purchasing," he said. "It glues all your ideas together.

"When you're cutting, cut scope, not polish or quality."

As a final example, he showed the cinematic that precedes the first showcase event. In addition to introducing the concept of the Horizon Festival and further setting the tone for the game, Fulton revealed it also masks up to 15 seconds of loading time. Playground opted for a zero tolerance policy of loading screens, as these would take players out of the experience and break the impression that the game is consistently of a high quality.

Fulton concluded by observing that Forza Horizon 3 continued to gain users long after launch, and around the release of each of its expansions, and maintains that those first ten minutes are a large part of why people are still playing.

GamesIndustry.biz is official media partner for Nordic Game Conference 2017.

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