Forza Horizon 5 Interview: “We made accessibility one of our key project initiatives”

Forza Horizon 5 is Playground Games’ next adventure with its vast, open-world, racing simulation. This time, the game takes us away from the series’ last venture with Forza Horizon 4 through the United Kingdom with changing seasons, to Mexico to enjoy the exotic weather and storms. And this time around, Playground Games has made accessibility a critical part of the Forza Horizon 5 development and spoke with Can I Play That? to show us exactly what to expect when the game launches on November 9, 2021.

The game has already teased disability representation earlier this year with recent early previews from other outlets reiterating the option to have prosthetic limbs for their avatars and also pronouns. Outside of that, there’s not been much revealed, but after sitting down with Mike Brown, creative director of Forza Horizon 5, and Aaron McAree, Senior Level Designer, we were able to see some improved features and even new features in action.

Forza Horizon 5 Accessibility shortcut and studio focus

When Forza Horizon 4 was released back in 2018, accessibility wasn’t a focus for Playground Ground, at least not to the extent that it is currently. The game launched with subtitles that were remarkably questionable and became the main critique in our original review. While a post-launch patch fixed the subtitles up wonderfully, the studio has taken a more proactive approach to accessibility for Forza Horizon 5.

McAree tells us that the studio had disabled players spend time with the developers, talking about accessibility and their own experiences with games and barriers they face. This allowed the studio to decide on how they could “give the best experience to the most amount of people as possible” he says.

A car driving fast over a bridge in Forza Horizon 5

“We made accessibility one of our key project initiatives,” Brown tells us, clarifying that, “it’s not a commonly used development term, but that’s the things that we call our core game features, things like expeditions, Horizon stories, and accessibility.”

Brown continues, “it sits alongside those really big campaign features. What that does is it means it won’t get cut, it’s a real upwards facing into the actual organization commitment from us, it’s an important thing that we are going to make investments into.”

“We made accessibility one of our key project initiatives,”

McAree shares that the sessions spent with the disabled players that came to the studio were attended by every team in the studio, from audio, UI, environment, and other teams which they say inspired them. Some members from the studio were also able to attend the London Game Accessibility Conference in 2019. “That was a very eye-opening and worthwhile endeavor,” McAree says.

A tease at the menu

We’re shown the accessibility menu that is available from the game’s starting screen and will always be available when booted up. We’ve got a deeper look at what’s available in our Forza Horizon 5 menu deep dive which goes beyond the accessibility menu. McAree talks about the keyword highlight option for subtitles where the font for important words is formatted bold, although suggests that there may be updates to this feature to make them yellow and stand out more.

Brown jumps in to show off the color filters, detailing that in the last game the color filters for colorblindness impacted the entire game. Forza Horizon 5 now has sliders to have different filters applied to the game as a whole, or the player can now just impact the interface colors and leave the world as default, giving more control for user preference.

“We introduced a new difficulty level, ‘Tourist,'” McAree says, explaining how this mode will push a player’s starting position to higher up on the starting grid to allow them the time to get ahead. They continue, “When in Tourist mode, if you miss a checkpoint, usually that pack of cars would just be off in the distance, what [Tourist mode] does is slows the pack right down.” Once the player has caught up with the pack, the AI will carry on posing a challenge.

Upcoming sign language interpreters

Brown then loads up a video, showing us a new upcoming feature, “This is going to be being added to the game in an update post-launch,” they tell us. “So, for all the game cinematics, we’re going to be adding a sign-language interpreter for both ASL and BSL.”

We’re told that the studio needed all scripted content locked in place before they could start working with interpreters which is why the feature isn’t going to be available at launch. What we were shown was in-game cinematics being played out with subtitles present, but also a sign-language interpreter in the bottom right.

Forza Horizon 5 accessibility design sprint team posing by playground games logo
The Forza Horizon 5 accessibility design sprint team with Playground Games developers. Photo credit + permission: Tara Voelker, Xbox

Speaking to Xbox Game Studios accessibility lead Tara Voelker, the idea behind this feature was explained. Following an Inclusive Design Workshop, an internal Xbox workshop that Tara has talked about during GAConf. “one of our subject matter experts, Cameron, noted that for some sign language users, English is their second language.” Voelker says.

“After learning this, several of the team members realized that using your second language all the time to play games was probably exhausting. They wanted to make a better experience and after seeing that Xbox broadcasts were already doing picture-in-picture sign language for events, they thought ‘Could we do that? Would that work in a game?'”

Xbox’s push

Throughout the interview, Xbox’s accessibility initiatives kept being mentioned, noting that the company encourages developers to open their eyes to accessibility in video games through working with the disabled community and other Xbox Game Studios. McAree also notes that the studio worked closely with the Xbox accessibility team, using their Xbox Accessibility Guidelines to ensure that they are meeting specific requirements and that these are “very much a continual discussion.”

“the team flagged certain accessibility features as essential for ship and didn’t budge”

Voelker says that “Playground Games has worked incredibly hard to make accessibility integrated into their work. They purposely focus on using subject matter experts to learn from, taking those learnings to focus on features, and collaborating with supporting groups such as the Xbox Game Studios Accessibility Team to ensure the team has met their goals in ways that create great experiences for players.”

“For Forza Horizon 5,” Voelker continues “the team flagged certain accessibility features as essential for ship and didn’t budge, which they were able to do because it was an investment at a leadership level.”


Forza Horizon 5 is slated to launch on November 9, 2021 and will be available on PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series S, and Xbox Series X. If you want to see why the game scored a 9/10, you can read our review, but if you’d like to rummage through the menus, check out our menu deep dive.

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Ben
BaylissEditor-in-ChiefHe/Him

Ben is the one in charge of keeping the content cogs at Can I Play That? turning. Deafness means that he has a focus on discussing captions, but with experience in consultancy and advocacy, he covers what bases he can. Having written about accessibility in video games at DualShockers, GamesRadar+, GamesIndustry.biz, Wireframe, and more he continues his advocacy at CIPT. He was actually awarded a Good Games Writing award for an article he wrote here! He enjoys a range of games, but anything that’s open-world and with a photo mode will probably be his cup of tea. You can get in touch with him at: ben@caniplaythat.com

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