PlayStation NZ was kind enough to invite Netguide to chat with the Senior Producer for Horizon: Zero Dawn, Joel Eschler. He talked about the design and some of the gameplay elements of the game. Be sure to come back at Netguide later this week to read our full review!
Netguide: What made Guerrilla Games decide to retire the Killzone series in favour of making Horizon: Zero Dawn?
Eschler: Well the Killzone series isn’t necessarily retired, but our focus is definitely on Horizon at the moment. It kind of came out during that transition between generation of consoles. Internally there was a pitch competition where it was open up for everyone. Anyone was able to pitch an idea for a game. The pitch for Horizon was the machines and the beautiful destroyed world along with Aloy. That was enough for everyone in the studio to agree on to dedicate six years of their lives to make this game.
Speaking of robots/machines, how did the setting of the game first come about?
It’s interesting, although I wasn’t really there for the inception of the game but I worked pretty closely for the art director of this game, Jan-Bart van Beek, and he had the initial idea. As an artist, he was drawn into lush environments but he was also inspired by ‘80s cartoons. This includes things like dinosaurs and zoids and things like that. Having that juxtaposition of technology and overgrown environments along with the initial spark was enough to tell them to think that they have got something here.
Approximately how big is the world in Horizon: Zero Dawn?
That’s always a difficult question to answer. It is really, really huge. I worked on some really big projects in the past. I think the biggest one would have been BioShock Infinite and this is magnitudes bigger. In terms of scope and art and real estate it’s ridiculous. What’s been shown so far is the embrace region of the game which is the Nora tribe where Aloy grows up. That area is quite large as you can spend the same amount hours as summer release games in that area alone. The game opens up and it’s much bigger. I think a leak of the map came out earlier this month so you can see that it’s huge. I’m really proud the team managed to pull off the same high level of art execution and art execution of the entire world.
Can you talk more about the robotic dinosaurs/creatures of this game without giving away too many spoilers?
A lot of the stuff we don’t want to talk about is so that people can go out and discover it when they play through the game. You will discover when you play the game, where they came from, why they exist and what their purpose is. You can also see how they’re constructed too. The machines are different within each different tribe in the world of the tribe. The tribe at the beginning of the game, the one Aloy is with which is the Nora, they kind of exist as the dominant species. The Nora train to be able to hunt them. They can get resources from them so they can build fire or armour. They can also use them to fortify their houses and that sort of thing. They also try to become really skilled hunters. They mainly use the machines as a resource but the other tribes see the technology as something that can be exploited.
What are your inspirations for developing Horizon: Zero Dawn?
I think as a game developer you try and read as much as possible and watch as many sci-fi movies and play other games. I don’t think there is one point of inspiration, but there is a big fascination with...
Transformers such as dinobots?
You know...Transformers isn’t something that has really come up a lot within the studio. There is a big fascination with post apocalyptic stories and questions on what people will do with a crumbled society. I think that was really fascinating to everyone at Guerilla. To take another 1000 years into the future and to see what happens when it really does fall apart and you are no longer the most dominant species in the world. The history of the Earth is no longer our history. It’s a new history we don’t know about with ruined buildings and our way of life is not a nostalgic reminder as it’s more of a mystery to these people. These people have no idea what they are. I think it’s a combination of inspirations with a lot of post-apocalyptic stories plus people love robots and dinosaurs.
Can you describe in more detail the main character of Horizon: Zero Dawn, Aloy?
There was a lot of effort put into development to build the story of the world around Aloy. Disregarding Aloy as our main protagonist, we have all these different tribes and we have the history of the robots. There’s this rich layer of narrative to discover besides Aloy so the journey of the player and for Aloy is following a similar track. Aloy is an outcast from an early age and is shunned by the tribe. You’ll find out why pretty early on, but she grows up and wants to prove her worthiness. She wants to become a really powerful hunter and to exist on her own terms. She grows up in this Embrace region where the Nora tribe is based in. Eventually, you do get to see the larger world and all of this is new to Aloy. She’s never heard of it before aside from certain rumours from travellers. At that point, both Aloy and the player are discovering the world at the same time. It’s kind of like a coming of age story for her. She needs to find out who her mother is and her place in the world. She also needs to unravel the mystery of the machines and where they come from. She is strong on her own merits as she wants to be her own person.
Can you describe the weapons and items you can use in Horizon: Zero Dawn?
It depends on how you want to play the game really. You could play the game with the bow or with the spear that she has. Primarily I use the bow, just because it’s really cool to do headshots. You can also use your focus to pinpoint the weaknesses of the machines and try to take them out. We also have the tripcaster, so you can lay traps. By using the focus, you can tell the path they are going to take so laying traps will be easy for you to do. You can also use the sling to launch bombs at them too. If you are a stealthy player, you can try and go from cover to grass to different hiding spots. Alternatively you can go all-out and craft and modify your bow to use fiery arrows and more. There should be enough options out there for people to really play in a multitude of ways.
How much more graphical grunt were you able to get out of the PS4 Pro with this game?
Well this game was in development for years and years before we knew about the PlayStation 4 Pro. Our goal was always to be the best looking game on consoles. To do an open-world that was lush and you can see as far as the eye can see with a beautiful landscape is amazing. You can roam around in high fidelity and go roughly anywhere you want. It’s also worth mentioning almost all of our assets output in 4K from the get-go. We were really set up well once we find out about the PlayStation 4 Pro. On the base PS4 we target 30fps, but on the Pro combined with a 4K TV and HDR we are running at 2160p with checkerboarding. This means all of the effort we put into making the game are all detailed high level assets. You can just see them in more high detail, but we still run at 30fps when run on the Pro. On a 1080p set you may not see the individual leaves swaying like you can on a 4K TV. In general 4K TV gives us a level of extra crisp detail.
If Horizon: Zero Dawn is successful, do you plan on making it a franchise?
At the moment most of the people are taking time off (laughs). Getting a game to Gold in January means that Christmas holidays cannot be a thing. Therefore people are taking time off. If you look at the studio today, a lot of them are actually playing the game. If you are an artist or something like that, you only really work in your area. During the last part of development, other team members would have seen things they haven’t seen before since the world is so large. People in the studio are now playing the game for the first time from start to finish.
Last question, why should people get excited over Horizon: Zero Dawn?
The things that I think that are unique and special about this is how beautiful the game looks everywhere you look and also it’s got lush environments with trees, grass and foliage that move. I remember back in the day I played Knights of the Old Republic and it had actual 3D grass that was moveable and I thought it was the coolest thing ever! Even today a lot of the game don’t do that so it’s just one little thing I love. The beautiful world in Horizon contrasts our world we live in of buildings and cities. The mystery of the game is the biggest draw as well as fighting the machines plus the story of Aloy.