What exactly are the challenges in bringing an entirely new game like Horizon Zero Dawn to life? We spoke with senior producer at Guerrilla Games, Joel Eschler, about the nitty gritty of crafting a new IP.
Meet Aloy. A huntress estranged from her people, she must fight to regain their trust and save her world from the Machines that now ravage the post-apocalyptic terrain of Horizon Zero Dawn.
Back before development even began on the new project, the team at Guerrilla were itching to create something different to their Killzone games. They wanted something new, and Horizon Zero Dawn [HZD] was the last man standing after a exhaustive pitching war.
“There were a whole bunch of different ideas at the start,” acknowledges senior producer Joel Eschler. “A lot of the team had been working on fairly similar style games. We wanted to challenge ourselves. HZD was the most difficult pitch, but it was the one that resonated most. There was this fascination with a lot of members of the team, and a lot of people in general at the time, with the whole ‘what if?’ scenario: what if there was this apocalypse? The artists wanted to create a beautiful world that was kind of broken, and an apocalypse was the perfect setting for that. It was cool of Sony to sign up to us choosing the most difficult pitch that we could come up with.”
Once they had decided on the direction they wanted to take the game, they needed a protagonist. According to Eschler, Aloy was one of the most organic decisions the team has ever made.
“For HZD, there were these three pillars we were working with, even in the pitching phase. First was that it had this kind of natural, lush environment that has taken over the world, and then there were of course the Machines, and finally there was Aloy. She was less of a conscious effort, or a focus-tested decision, in that she existed for as long as HZD existed. Everyone in the studio just kind of latched on to those early visions of her, and her and HZD had always just gone hand-in-hand with each other. Internally, everyone’s been really happy, and we’re ecstatic with the response to Aloy so far.”
While the inclusion of this strong, female presence may have seemed straightforward to the studio, that certainly doesn’t mean that the inception of a new IP is without its trials and tribulations. Eschler explains that the team faced a number of challenges during production.
“Internally, the first big challenge is getting buy-in from the team. For a game that’s going to be in development for so long, there are always risks involved, especially when it’s a new intellectual property. For us to take on something so much bigger than what we’d previously done was a big ask. The first step was definitely convincing everyone in the studio that the next six or so years of their lives was going to be worth it. The games industry can be a difficult place to work in at times. It was made easier by the strong vision we had for Aloy and the world in which she lived in – everyone was really excited to get their ideas into motion.”
Having worked on the space sequences and cityscapes synonymous with the Killzone franchise, the enveloping wilderness of HZD was relatively new territory for the studio.
“Some of the first challenges were the technological ones – going from a linear world to an open world meant we had to expand the engine capabilities, especially in order to show settlements and Machines that might be kilometres away. There was a really big drive to show nature taking over the world 1,000 years in the future. Rendering organic models like trees and foliage and everything is a lot more difficult and expensive than buildings and things like that, so we had to come up with technology that could procedurally-generate those kinds of things.
We came up with some really clever ways to generate areas and climates, where the engine would look at stuff like what would the climate of the world be like, what would the height be like, what kind of animals would live here, what kind of plants would grow here, what would the water flow be like? All those kinds of things were taken into account, and that allowed us to build a game that was huge, without having to have actual hands touching every corner of the map.”
Freedom of exploration was also an important foundation that Eschler made sure the team built upon.
“We had to hire a whole new team of writers to craft this open world, and to make it interesting and interactive. With first-person shooters or more linear games, you can predict where the player will go, and you know that when a player goes around this corner, there’s got to be this explosion. With HZD, players can go everywhere, you can do anything; you can decide to go down any particular skill tree with Aloy, so we really had to try to think outside of the box. We had to make sure no matter which path they chose to go down with Aloy, that it was fun and that the robots interact with the right things in the right locations. There were loads of new challenges, but it was a real testament to the team to see how well they took it in their stride and took control of everything.”
The world that Guerrilla have so lovingly crafted has a mysterious past – what caused the apocalypse to begin with? – and protagonist Aloy is equally as intriguing. The stories of what happened to each are intentionally interwoven.
“There’s two stories; our lead writer joined a little bit after the main game had started development, so there’s the background lore of this world – what happened, who these tribes are – that we built up beforehand.”
Eschler also notes that Aloy has troubles of her own. “You start off playing Aloy as a child, and you discover she is an outcast from her tribe. Pretty early on you discover why that is; early sections of the game are her trying to work out why she’s an outcast in the first place, what the politics of the tribe are, and her trying to prove that she’s worthy to explore. In the beginning it’s really about Aloy trying to discover who she is, and once the game opens up a little and you get to explore this big open world, there’s a kind of parallel between Aloy discovering her capabilities and what she can do in the world, while there’s the player discovering what they can do and how they fit into the world at the same time. I think we did a really good job at creating the same sense of discovery between both Aloy and the player.”
Now that the game is in the hands of the players, its reception will determine where the studio takes its new IP. The senior producer has high hopes for the future of Horizon Zero Dawn.
“A lot of effort went into the world-building and the concept art for HZD, that didn’t even make it into the final game – especially for the tribes and some of their stories that just didn’t make sense once we put the finishing touches on. We really hope this resonates with people, because I certainly think there are a lot of stories left to tell.”