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The makers of Forza Horizon 3 put real sky in the game – here’s how they did it

These days, video games are bursting with detail and crammed with realism.

Cars look like they can leave tyre marks on your mum’s carpet, planes are using your porch lights to line up for landing and explosions risk singeing the dog’s bed.

The days of making a stickman jump onto a stick platform to fight stick monsters are long gone. But even by today’s standards, the makers of Forza Horizon 3 took graphics in gaming to a whole new level.

One of the Lamborghinis in Forza Horizon 3

One of the Lamborghinis in Forza Horizon 3

A team from British firm Playground Games, which has developed the latest title in the popular racing series, built a revolutionary new camera, shipped it across the world and slept in the wilderness with deadly spiders to film one thing – the sky.

“They camped in the Australian Outback for the summer. It was hard, because everything wanted to kill them,” said Ralph Fulton, Creative Director at Playground. “Every hour they had to change the camera lenses, but that also meant ‘de-spidering’ the camera because there are little crevices which are perfect for spiders to hide in.”

The result is that the sky you see in Forza Horizon 3 IS real-life sky that was filmed in Australia over several months. And because it is real sky, it also produces real light that “refracts, bounces and reflects in a physically correct way off every surface” in the game, Fulton added.

Forza Horizon 3, Xbox, Windows

Forza Horizon 3 is due for release on Xbox and Windows 10 this month as part of Microsoft’s Play Anywhere initiative, which lets gamers buy the title on one platform and play it on both. Players can drive more than 350 cars – including the Halo Warthog – across open-world maps set in Australia.

To ensure the game was authentic as possible, Playground Games spent around £100,000 building a 12K High Dynamic Range (HDR) camera rig, which no one had ever done before. The team then shipped it to Australia to film real footage of the Outback.

What they captured “completely changes the look of the game” and gives it a “generational leap forward in visuals”, Fulton said.

“We looked at Forza Horizon 2 and where we could improve,” he added. “We built an incredible atmospheric simulation in our sky system in that game, which still exists in Forza Horizon 3 and is fundamental to the lighting; but when you see clouds in real-life, they morph and fold in on themselves, and that’s very difficult to do with traditional methods. However, it’s an effect we get with our camera [in this new game].”

The Playground team took “hundreds of thousands” of photos of a range of weather conditions in Australia and physically shipped a terabyte of data a day back to the UK, because “you can’t email files that size”. Once back in the studio, the data were worked on by lighting artists and rendering engineers to stream it into the game.

The results of the hi-tech operation sit alongside standard photogrammetry in the game, which makes roads, walls and trees look very realistic.

Fulton was pleased with the outcome.

“I have high hopes [for this game]. That’s testament to the work Playground has done over the past couple of years. It’s the biggest and the most technically challenging game we’ve ever made, but it’s also the best one we’ve done so far.”

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