Forza Horizon 3 was a big moment for Playground Games. The open-world racer sold 2.5 million within its first three months, it was one of the best-selling games of the year, and it comfortably drove the Forza franchise over the line to become a $1 billion franchise.
It was by far the biggest success in the UK developer's history -- emphasis firmly on 'was'.
"By all our metrics, Forza Horizon 4 is exceeding Horizon 3," creative director Ralph Fulton told GamesIndustry.biz on our recent visit to the company's new second studio. "We're absolutely delighted about that.
"I think we were stunned with Horizon 3's success because it almost felt like an outlier, and after it came out people said, 'Well, you'll never top that' -- which was nice of them. So there was that pressure there, even more than there had been previously, about how we would top it and continue to improve on that success.
"The fact that we've done it with Horizon 4 is a constant thrill. We see the numbers live on our dashboards, and it's not slowing down. We have the eyeballs of a player base that we never dreamt of for a racing game."
Studio director Gavin Raeburn added: "You think you have your largest community around launch and a couple of months after, but we just see it grow and grow -- and there's no real marketing around that. It's just the community talking to their friends, it's the relationship we have with them. It's a growing, living game."
Xbox and Playground have actually released official numbers, which showed that the game reached seven million players by January this year. But Fulton told us the "trajectory has continued upwards," and millions of players are racing around the game's microcosm of Britain every month. This week's release of the newly announced Lego Speed Champions expansion is likely to boost the community even further.
There are a myriad of reasons for the latest game's success. Part of it comes down to the triumph of Forza Horizon 3 and the boost that gave the series' reputation, but another major factor has been the introduction of Game Pass, the all-you-can-eat Xbox subscription service.
"We were stunned with Horizon 3's success, and people said, 'Well, you'll never top that'... That we've done it with Horizon 4 is a constant thrill"
Ralph Fulton, Playground Games
Game Pass was, unsurprisingly, all over the Xbox E3 press conference earlier this week, with every trailer reminding you that first-party titles are available at launch to subscribers at no additional cost. The platform holder has repeatedly indicated that Game Pass remains central to its strategy going forward, and has even spoken about bringing the collection to other devices.
In the run up to Horizon 4's launch, Fulton admits the studio "literally didn't know what was going to happen" after a simultaneous Game Pass and retail release. It was a good bet that fans who loved Horizon 3 or even the first two would buy and own the new title, but would the ability for subscribers to dip in and try damage Playground's chances of bringing new players into the fold?
"All of this is learning with Game Pass because it's so new," said Fulton. "One of the things we speculated about was how engaged the Game Pass player would be compared to the owner. But what we're seeing as the numbers level out and the playerbase matures is there's not a terrific amount of difference in terms of how long they play for, average hours played per player.
"Lots of other minor metrics around engagement show that they are within a margin of error of the owners, the people who actually paid for the game. Which is incredible, and kind of ran contrary to what we expected would happen."
Raeburn added: "It was surprising, but then I would say from my own experience, when I'm playing a Game Pass title my view of it is the same. If you're enjoying the experience, you stay with it - it doesn't matter where it came from."
Fulton continued: "There's no downside to Game Pass players. The reason we do this, the reason we set up Playground, was to deliver great games to the largest audience we possibly could, and Game Pass has widened that funnel and brought so many more players to our games. It's win-win for us."
Of course, Playground would say that. As of last year the studio is owned by Microsoft, and as of this week is one of 15 studios developing content for Xbox (and, by extension, Game Pass). But Raeburn assures that the acquisition has had "surprisingly little" impact on the way the studio is run, noting that Microsoft was "buying the success of the company and the team, and that meant changing as little as possible."
"When I'm playing a Game Pass title my view of it is the same. If you're enjoying the experience, you stay with it - it doesn't matter where it came from"
Gavin Raeburn, Playground Games
"If you visit Playground today, it feels exactly as it did a year ago. There's no interference or anything you may notice from higher up -- just a continued great relationship," he said, adding that working closely with the platform holder on the first three Horizons meant "it did feel like we were part of Microsoft already."
Nonetheless, the addition of Forza Horizon 4 to Game Pass has demonstrated the service's ability to dramatically expand an audience. Raeburn tells of the praise Playground receives from people who aren't usually into racing games but enjoy Horizon, and with a much lower price barrier (£9.99 per month for Game Pass, vs a full £50 purchase), more Xbox owners are able to see whether the open-world racer is to their taste.
As more subscription services emerge, it's likely developers will need to tweak their design processes, aiming to engage subscribers as early as possible to encourage them to keep playing. People who have paid £50 will arguably feel more obliged to pour a decent amount of time into a game before giving up or trading it in, if only to justify their initial investment. But a subscriber with hundreds of other games to choose from will simply quit and delete the moment a game isn't satisfying them.
Playground already has plenty of experience creating compelling openings. It spent 18 months crafting the first ten minutes of Forza Horizon 3, and almost certainly spent just as long (if not longer) on Forza Horizon 4's intro, which shifts between four seasons and race types in a similar span of time.
No doubt these lessons will be expanded upon for the inevitable sequel, but Fulton says the studio has also learned the importance of monitoring play patterns long after launch. It even has a dedicated live service team constantly trying to identify where Horizon 4 loses any players.
"The team have been really proactive in going in and analysing that, making changes to the game to try and keep players in that prologue and get them into Horizon Life proper with the shared world, all the social features and Forzathons running every hour," he said.
"That's when the game becomes really sticky. There are people who have played the game an astonishing amount. But getting them to that is something the team has been thinking about a lot, and not making changes on the fly but using that four-weekly cadence we can update the game with."
Raeburn concluded that this and an increased focus on discussions with players has really changed the way Playground continues to develop its games. "It's been a revelation," he said. "We sit down each week, we look at the figures and the community feedback. I think the dialogue we have with the community is the new thing, and also being able to respond to that with a sizeable live team. It creates just a great connection with the people playing your game. We're doing things now we just could not do on our last game, making substantial changes to the game to make it more sticky and to give players the content that they want."