HORIZON ZERO DAWN
EXCLUSIVE: TAKING PS4 TO THE NEXT LEVEL WITH GUERRILLA’S INCREDIBLE ACTION RPG
our years ago, Guerrilla Games moved offices. Its previous home was a little farther down Amsterdam’s Herengracht canal, in the Dutch equivalent of a listed building. No substantial modifications could be made to the structure without jumping through a series of hoops designed to be so complex that there wasn’t any point in trying to do so. So the company was faced with a choice: stay the same forever, or go somewhere else entirely.
It chose change, of course, and seemingly developed a taste for it. Four years later, Guerrilla has unveiled Horizon:
Zero Dawn, a game that has challenged almost everything the studio has learned over its 15 years in business. After releasing five Killzone games in nine years, Guerrilla is creating a new IP. After making its name with a series of linear, level-based games, it is crafting a vast, seamless open world. It has shifted from first- to thirdperson view, shooter to RPG, from tight scripting to sandbox systems, and sci-fi to – well, that’s where it gets tricky.
As the robotic dinosaur on our cover makes clear, this is still science fiction, but the setting is vastly removed from the intergalactic cyber-Nazi conflict of Killzone.
Horizon’s is a world in which animal-like machines freely roam the wilderness 1,000 years after the fall of humanity, a period long enough for nature to reclaim the land from civilisation’s steel and concrete. Mankind lives on, but it is primitive, living in small tribes, crafting basic weapons to hunt with. As a concept, cavemen fighting robots after the apocalypse sounds like a bit of a mess. Surely when you pitched that to Guerrilla’s art director, Jan-Bart Van Beek, he would laugh you out of the room? Whose idea THIS was it, anyway?
“Uh, that would be me,” Van Beek admits with a blush. His was one of 40-odd suggestions put forward when, after production ended on Killzone 3, Guerrilla’s senior management sought the entire studio’s input to decide what would follow PS4 launch game Killzone: Shadow Fall. The list was whittled down, and just two pitches – Van Beek’s, and a combination of three or four separate concepts – were put to a company-wide vote. “We knew [ Horizon] would be an enormous risk right from the get-go,” Van Beek says. “The other project was a bit more in our comfort zone. So we said [to the staff], ‘What do you want to do? Do you want to do the big, risky thing that might end all life on Earth, bringing risk to the studio in terms of getting the talent in, getting the technology to work, literally changing everybody’s way of working? Or do we stay a little bit safer?’ The studio voted for the crazy thing, so that’s what we went for. It’s been a big, big change.”
The result justifies all that upheaval. While the concept may not leap off the page, it sings on a big screen, those disparate, seemingly incompatible elements coming together to produce something that stuck out at an E3 dominated by numbered sequels, remakes and reboots. Aloy, the game’s redheaded protagonist, facing off against the 30-foot-high Thunderjaw with a bow, a crude blade and a handful of primitive tools is hardly your typical power fantasy. This is David and Goliath stuff, except here Goliath is covered in armour plating, has five bodymounted weapons, and a dozen different attacks.
Yet a Thunderjaw also has its weak points. One is on its belly, inviting Aloy to sprint straight at it, transition into a slide at the last second, and quickly aim upwards to loose off an arrow. The other is on its flank, protected by some of the 90-plus plates of armour that can be individually knocked free, with arrows to the circuitry beneath doing three times the damage of a shot to an armoured body part. Despite its size, a Thunderjaw is lightning fast, kicking up dust clouds as it powers after you, destroying any scenery unfortunate enough to be in its path. But its prey is also fleet-footed and nimble, sprinting and rolling out of harm’s way to create the space to line up her next shot.
While the combatants are pacy, then, their battle is surprisingly tactical, thanks largely to the imbalance of power: the hulking robo-dinosaur against the modest, situational potential of Aloy’s slender toolset. We’re shown footage of a four-year-old prototype – a Killzone 3 character model running around a low-res world fighting a Thunderjaw that looks like it was made out of Duplo – in which Aloy uses a machine gun. It immediately shows how appealing the core concept is, but also the extent to which it would be spoiled by the sort of weaponry Guerrilla has been using for the past decade and a half. “What we saw with these prototypes,” game director
Mathijs De Jonge tells us, “was that as soon as you give someone a machine gun, it’s just spray and pray. It just becomes a cover shooter. We wanted the player to feel
THIS IS DAVID AND GOLIATH STUFF, EXCEPT HERE GOLIATH IS COVERED IN ARMOUR PLATING
primitive, so we decided that the tribes would have very limited knowledge of technology. They don’t understand what’s going on with these machines, or how they work.”
They have, however, learned to use some of what the machines will leave behind. Grazers, the deer-like creatures seen in the E3 demo, have transparent canisters of green fuel on their backs, used to craft explosive arrows. They’re powerful tools, dealing out hefty damage, but also dislodging armour plating or mounted weapons. That’s providing you can line up a shot against a charging robotic T rex, of course, though electric arrows will help with that, stunning the beast, holding it in place for a precious few seconds. The same applies to the Rope Launcher, the only other weapon Guerrilla’s wearyingly modern marketing plan permits discussion of, which can be used to tether the Thunderjaw’s head to the ground, eventually pulling it off its feet, or to lay explosive tripwires to reap a harvest from a herd of Grazers. Machines from which these resources can be plundered will be found in specific parts of the world, much as tigers are to be found prowling specific zones of Far Cry’s Rook Islands or Kyrat, though randomly generated encounters will cut down on the to and fro. Guerrilla is working, too, to strike a balance between having the resources used to craft the more powerful ammo types be scarce enough to discourage overuse and ensuring you’re not left without an essential tool when you need it most. The presence of the Grazer herd to top up your explosive arrows just before the demo’s Thunderjaw battle is an example of that, though Aloy’s life won’t always be quite so convenient. Robot parts will also be available through other means – most likely merchants and traders – though Guerrilla’s giving none of those specifics away yet.
Nor is it prepared to show us too much of the world. Replaying the E3 demo, De Jonge turns around at the start, drops off a ledge and shows us some fine water tech, before giving us a brief glimpse of the climbing system as Aloy clambers back to the starting point. Many features were also switched off for the demo in Los Angeles – not because they’re not ready, but because colliding emergent systems could have crashed Guerrilla’s E3 coming-out party. For instance, the Watcher, a raptor-like machine that scans for threats and calls for support when it finds one, had its ability to call in backup disabled. Despite such precautions, one behind-closed-doors demo failed to go to plan when a Grazer wandered into shot just as De Jonge was firing an explosive arrow at a far-off rock, the plan being to startle its herd into charging into his cluster of explosive tripwires. The errant beast instead took the missile straight to the face.
That, of course, is the beauty of an open world: things rarely go as either the player or the designer intended. “It’s something we’d try to do with Killzone encounters as well,” De Jonge says. “We had the AI, and the encounter space was set up in such a way that it required very little designer scripting. That was a high-level decision; we didn’t want to have things that felt like they were exactly the same every time you played them. By taking out all the scripting and just leaving it up to autonomous AI, you get an unpredictable, highly replayable sandbox. That’s what we tried to do with Killzone, a linear, corridor-based shooter. In relatively small spaces, it works. Now it’s a new challenge! But the principle remains the same, in a way: we don’t want designers to specifically script these encounters. Even though now you can approach them from 360 degrees, the principles of level design still apply.”
Some principles are the same as those in Guerrilla’s previous work. Many more are totally new to the studio. While De Jonge is right to say that those precepts of level design remain true, it’s a radically different proposition to build a combat bowl where you can find cover and sightlines from any entry point, rather than just the mouth of the corridor that brought you here. And you can’t make a believable open world from such bowls, either, instead designing bubbles for individual encounters that float in the stream of the world as a living, dynamic whole. Pacing those encounters is also a completely different matter in a continuous, coherent landscape driven by systems. De Jonge and team aren’t yet prepared to talk about how large the world itself is – though not, it seems, because the
“THEY DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT’S GOING ON WITH THESE MACHINES OR HOW THEY WORK”
marketing plan precludes it, but because Guerrilla doesn’t think it’s especially important.
“Most studios don’t publish their actual numbers,” senior producer Mark Norris tells us. “Skyrim’s superinteresting, because Bethesda released the development kit [for modding], so you can load up the map and see the size of the world. Oblivion was 41 square kilometres. Skyrim was 41 square kilometres. And they just announced that Fallout
4 is the same size. They talk [instead] about density, and Mathijs and I have spent a long time talking about content density. How much content can we fit into a world of a certain size, whatever that size might be?”
De Jonge looked long and hard at what makes Skyrim work to guide the metrics his team would use to populate its world. Indeed, Guerrilla spent a lot of time looking at other open-world games early on, not for ideas to pilfer, but so it could begin to understand what technology it would need to make. The Guerrilla of four years ago was a studio built to serve one very specific purpose: making
Killzone. Horizon would require a totally different structure, with new teams working in new ways on new tech.
It’s been a complex, even painful, transition, but it could have been worse: while new staff with vital skills had to be brought in, Guerrilla managed the process without mass layoffs or hiring sprees. When Shadow Fall shipped, as is common across the industry when projects conclude, people chose to move on; rather than seek like-forlike replacements, the studio filled the slots with the staff it would need to make its first open-world game. John Gonzalez, the lead writer on
Fallout: New Vegas and Middle-earth: Shadow Of Mordor, was brought in to lead the writing team; Pawel Swierczynski, cinematics director on The Witcher III, joined Guerrilla’s new internal cinematics unit. The design team has swelled by about 50 per cent, but the studio itself has not grown by as much as you’d think. Guerrilla now employs 180 staff, a few of whom are still supporting
Killzone, with another handful playing around with new ideas in secret. Shadow Fall was made by a team of 150.
It’s a matter more of mindset than headcount, according to Norris, who joined Guerrilla 18 months ago and has previously worked for Capcom Vancouver, Riot Games and Sony Online Entertainment. “The average age, and number of years, at the studio are vastly different to an American studio,” he says. “There, if someone’s been there five years, they’ve been there a long time. This is a studio that, not just at executive level but at every level, has people that have been here ten years or longer. There is this huge knowledge base that has really helped.”
The idea, then, was to bring in people with open-world expertise who could suggest the necessary tweaks to the tools that longer-serving staff knew inside out, which is a glib way of explaining one of the most complex challenges Guerrilla has ever faced. Just about everything would be affected: the studio’s structure, its tools, and the way they were used. The lighting team had to adjust from the handlit levels of a Killzone to a day-night cycle. The engineers have had to adapt to streaming in assets around a player who can pick their own path, after a decade of loading in
“HOW MUCH CAN WE FIT INTO A WORLD OF A CERTAIN SIZE, WHATEVER THAT SIZE MIGHT BE?”
the next area of a level and unloading the previous one. A scripting system built to serve Killzone’s specific needs (“You could do anything you wanted with it,” Van Beek says, “as long as you were making a firstperson shooter”) was thrown out and rebuilt. And while release is still a long way off, Guerrilla is already trying to get its head around the concept of QA testing a game whose bugs are caused by the collision of dynamic systems across a sprawling world.
Not all Guerrilla’s existing work was dragged into the Recycle Bin, however. Much of it has helped Horizon to stand apart from its clear influences – its Tomb Raider climbing, its Monster Hunter looting, its Skryim compass. There’s an example of this in the demo, where Aloy sprints away from the Thunderjaw and jumps through a gap between some rocks, only for the beast to clatter right through them. “Making a game like Killzone means we have very complex destructibility pipelines, which if we’d just made RPGs before, wouldn’t be something we’d have lying around,” Van Beek tells us. “Having made other games in a completely different genre means we can bring elements of them into this game as well. You can sort of see that in the combat: it’s not your typical action-RPG combat. There’s an aspect of Killzone’s intensity in there.”
Horizon: Zero Dawn may have been Van Beek’s idea, but it could not have been made without the support of the studio as a whole. Killzone: Shadow Fall may have been Guerrilla’s first PS4 game, but it is Horizon that represents the true generational shift for the developer, an idea selected by studio staff who knew full well how much they would need to change in order to make it work. Perhaps in another company, they would never have been given the choice, their next project presented to them as a fait accompli and a few dozen of them laid off so their employer could bring in new people with the right skills. Guerrilla, evidently, is not that type of studio.
“It’s been a big leap for the company, going from this one thing we’re known for and then going, ‘OK, we’re going to be a different studio that makes a different kind of game,’” Van Beek says. “It’s quite rare, I think. If a studio makes racing games, they stick to racing games. If they make shooters, they stick to shooters. I don’t think you can make these things as a single auteur-designer – it’s very much a team sport.”
Yet you’d forgive Van Beek for feeling more pressure than his colleagues. It is his idea, after all. There have been changes along the way, but his original vision – of a female warrior battling machines after mankind’s fall – has held true, despite the occasional protestations of his colleagues (Norris admits to having lobbied for Aloy’s name to be changed). And, of course, despite many people struggling to visualise such a disparate collection of themes combining coherently. “In my head, it always worked,” Van Beek says, “but at certain points during the project, I would say to myself, ‘Hang on. Really? We’re making this? Aren’t they just going to laugh at us?’ The most terrifying thing was the E3 announcement – worrying how everyone was going to see it. Maybe they’d just think it was silly.”
Nope. One studio wall has been freshly plastered with the host of awards the game won at E3, and on the day of our visit, Guerrilla learns that Horizon has been named Best Original Game in the prestigious Game Critics Awards. Yet there is an awful lot still to do. For all the difficulty of the metamorphosis from shooter studio to RPG maker, open-world games live or die on something far trickier to pin down than tools or pipelines. They are a parlous balance of elegance and emergence, of dynamic systems bumping into each other with such chaotic grace that they feel as if they could have been scripted. Guerrilla will have to make such elements play nicely together with the same finesse it has applied to the seemingly contradictory aspects of its core concept. It has successfully broken free of the constraints of Killzone’s corridors, unbound itself from the conventions of the FPS, and rebuilt itself in order to meet the steepest challenge it has ever faced. Now comes the hard part.
“AT CERTAIN POINTS, I WOULD SAY TO MYSELF, ‘HANG ON. REALLY? WE’RE MAKING THIS ?’”
FROM TOP Art director Jan-Bart Van Beek; game director Mathijs De Jonge
With its sweeping natural vistas and world devoid of man-made architecture, Horizon is the visual polar opposite of a Killzone game. “It has a completely different vibe,” says Van Beek. “Going the other way and building these large, natural landscapes is very rewarding”
FACING PAGE A pair of these lanky machines show up at the start of our demo. They look like a perfect workout for Aloy’s climbing skills.
ABOVE LEFT Given Aloy’s vulnerability, stealth is vital. Foliage will be colour-coded to signal what conceals you.
ABOVE CENTRE Dislodged enemy guns are the closest that Horizon will get to
Killzone- style weaponry. Aloy can use them, but their weight slows her down.
ABOVE RIGHT The machines’ glowing eyes may seem like a callback to Killzone, but it’s more about being able to read their intentions
FROM TOP Lead producer Lambert Wolterbeek-Muller; senior producer Mark Norris
ABOVE Van Beek says the tribes’ primitive look is key to Horizon’s concept. “It really helps to show how humanity has fallen,” he says. “It’s not a Walking Dead-style story where humanity’s still at a contemporary level.”
RIGHT In Van Beek’s pitch, Aloy was modelled on Sharon Montgomery in the 2000 film Pitch Black
ABOVE LEFT Although we’re told an airborne experiment in the prototype was left on the cutting-room floor, an open world needs a fast travel system, and this beast could well provide it.
ABOVE A levelling system offers a steady increase in power and skill points to be spent in a tree that is completely open from the start. You’ll also craft new outfits that offer you buffs