HORI­ZON ZERO DAWN

EX­CLU­SIVE: TAK­ING PS4 TO THE NEXT LEVEL WITH GUER­RILLA’S IN­CRED­I­BLE AC­TION RPG

EDGE - - FRONT PAGE - BY NATHAN BROWN

F

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

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