How the Risky 'Horizon Zero Dawn' Transformed the Studio Behind 'Killzone'

How the Risky 'Horizon Zero Dawn' Transformed the Studio Behind 'Killzone'

Concept art for Guerrilla Games' 'Horizon Zero Dawn' Guerrilla Games

Inside Dutch game developer Guerrilla Games and their quest to build an open world epic

Inside Dutch game developer Guerrilla Games and their quest to build an open world epic

Until recently, Amsterdam-based Guerrilla Games – one of many Sony Interactive Entertainment-owned creative studios around the world tasked with building PlayStation-exclusive games – was known solely for the technically brilliant but narratively underwhelming Killzone series. The original 2004 PlayStation 2 game and its three sequels on PlayStation 3 and 4 were always excellent demonstrations of what Sony's hardware was capable of, but they lacked some of the the enduring personality of contemporaries like Halo or even Call of Duty.

On February 28, Guerrilla surprised everyone with its creative 180 for the release of Horizon Zero Dawn, its long-gestating "post-post apocalypse" RPG, filled with robot dinosaurs and tribal cultures, threaded together with an ingenious far-future eco-peril story. After all these years of giving us great-looking games about shooting at space-Nazis, Guerrilla showed us what it was truly capable of: a hugely ambitious open-world role playing game that was not only critically lauded, but sold over 2.6 million copies in its first two weeks and provoked comparisons with greats like The Witcher 3.

The studio itself, situated within an old Amsterdam block overlooking the canal that's been tastefully converted to a more modern aesthetic – embodies a sensibility of openness and collaboration. Its open-plan layout and floor-to-ceiling windows ensure that almost every corner is bathed in natural light. The layout of the studio itself is intended to be a welcoming and creative environment for the 270-strong staff, and the decision to move there in the middle of Horizon's six years of development is no coincidence. "Dutch people are not very hung up on hierarchy," offers Angie Smets, Guerrilla's executive producer, when pushed on the studio's approach. "So, if an intern has a good idea, he can go and chat to Hermen [Hulst, the studio's managing director] about it. They might disagree on whatever the idea is, and that's perfectly OK. I genuinely think that's something within our culture. It's a direct culture. If we don't like something, we'll just say we don't like it."

It may come off as a trite soundbite that any senior manager would trot out to convince you of a healthy work culture, but after spending time with the team at Guerrilla, it appears to be true. Throughout the day, I'm introduced to countless people with all kinds of job titles, but there's no sense of where on the ladder all these people stand. They're simply colleagues.

Lead quest designer David Ford, who previously worked on The Elder Scrolls Online at Zenimax, and narrative director John Gonzalez, an open-world veteran who led the writing team on Warner Bros.' Shadow of Mordor and Bethesda's Fallout: New Vegas, both moved to Amsterdam from the US in the middle of the game's production. They were recruited to help transition the studio away from first person shooters and shape it into a developer that could scale the emotional heights of the ever-growing action-RPG genre.

Both men are visibly enthusiastic when they talk about their new lives in one of Europe's great cities. "Amsterdam is a very different beast than living in the US," offers Ford. "There are a lot of cultural things that take you by surprise. The funny thing was, when I moved from Texas to Baltimore to accept a job with Zenimax, people I told were all like, 'Oh, Baltimore, have you seen The Wire?' When I told people I was moving to Amsterdam, uniformly they were all 'Oh, that's great, you should definitely do that. Amsterdam, that's amazing.' It's a famous, historic, beautiful, clean European city, so for people in America, it's more of an aspirational thing."

It's just as well for Guerrilla that the two men took to Amsterdam so easily. As managing director Hermen Hulst recalls, he first raised the notion that the studio would do something that wasn't Killzone while on stage at GDC in 2009 just weeks after Killzone 2 had released on PlayStation 3 to great success. Sony had even sent out a release at the time noting that the game was "the biggest initial success at retail of any first-party PS3 title to date." When Horizon eventually emerged as Guerrilla's next long-term project, everyone at the studio was aware that the game would take the company well out of its comfort zone. New talent would be required.

"We started thinking, we've done a number of Killzones now. Wouldn't it be nice to break out and use all the acquired knowledge and try something else?" offers Hulst, detailing an extensive six week pitching process that saw all corners of the company offer their ideas on what Guerrilla should do next. "There's only so much you can find in terms of new challenges that aren't intrinsic to a concept. At the end of the day, you're also constrained by genre, so we decided to break out of that."

Hulst's only stipulations were that the studio should avoid the racing and puzzle genres. Everything else was on the table. "There was a group of five of us or something, and everyone came in and presented their ideas to us in the beautiful old office we used to have," he says. He describes a well-appointed wood-paneled boardroom in a 17th century canal mansion, with ornate ceilings and walls hung with period paintings. "I have to admit, when people came in to present I did feel pretty grand."

In all, 36 different game concepts came before Guerrilla's top brass – "some full ideas, and some just elements," notes Hulst, noting an "AI programmer specifically came in to philosophize how we should develop AI in our next game." For a team that had spent nearly seven years plugging away on Killzone games, to suddenly open the doors to completely new ideas from people working in all areas of the studio was liberating. "I remember [it was] very cool just to see all the ideas, and I remember we organized a session in the staff canteen on the Friday afternoon," says Smet. "We had four or five of the... well, they weren't like the actual top five ideas, but just five really nice ones that we asked to present to in front of the rest of the company."

"One of them was a game that was going to be impossible to make," says art director Michiel van der Leeuw. "It had the most grand characters, time travel, and the most brilliant locations, and if you just look at it, you'd be like, yeah it's insane, it's beautiful, it's really entertaining, but I don't know how we could ever have made that."

In the end, just two made the cut; Horizon was one, along with another that the studio is keeping close to its chest. All anyone will admit is that it was the safer of the two options. Horizon was considered a big risk.

Horizon was originally pitched by art director Jan-Bart van Beek, who conceived of some of the elements that remain in play today – a focus on nature, a red-haired hero, and robot dinosaurs. Hulst admits that Guerrilla "very much had cold feet," that it was too big a risk to try so many new things at once. "It's quite good practice to be ambitious and be innovative, but you should really try one or two new things at a time and keep certain variables tight," he says.

When it became clear the Horizon pitch was going to win the day, Guerrilla began its scouting process. As van der Leeuw puts it, whatever the new IP had been, the studio already had a wider goal to grow the teams that create quest and narrative content, and Horizon was the perfect excuse to bring in some fresh talent. "This has been a huge opportunity for me," says Ford. "There are fabled developers and fabled franchises. I know I've always wondered what it would have been like to have been there for Uncharted, or Assassin's Creed and Assassin's Creed 2 – what it would be like to be a part of a group putting something together that really makes waves in the industry. I don't want to get ahead of myself, but I feel like this is a special game. Just playing it myself, I value it. No matter what happens with Horizon, I feel honored to have been a part of this."

The early indications – both in terms of reviews (it has a Metascore of 89) and sales – are that it's a huge hit, which is no mean feat for a brand new franchise these days. What's the secret sauce? According to Guerrilla, it starts with self-reflection. Studio leadership was well aware that it had areas with much room for improvement, and they set out to address these head-on after the Killzone series was put on pause after the 2013 release of Killzone Shadow Fall for PlayStation 4. It was a challenge, the management team agrees, that could only be reconciled by bringing in new people and giving them the creative freedom to do their jobs.

"I really like how Hermen says they basically narrowed it down to two concepts: one of which really made a lot of sense for us, and the other was Horizon," says Gonzalez. "I think they knew they had something potentially really special, but it was also something that went beyond the established competencies of the studio. They needed to bring in some people who had worked on open-world games and who would also work on narratively intense games."

No one at Guerrilla expresses any kind of agenda when it comes to gender equality ... there was an awareness that female leads in games are often sexualized – a precedent the team had no intention of following

"The immediate appeal of working on Horizon was obvious," says Gonzalez. "It didn't make intuitive sense. You'd look at it and go 'how did you end up with this far future world where there are all these machines, but there are also all these people who don't understand technology?' So there was immediately all this mystery that I wanted to get to the bottom of. That really hooked my interest as a writer."

He was also immediately heartened by Guerrilla's keen willingness to prioritize the game's narrative integrity, which is often the first thing to go when big projects like this meet a cast-iron launch date. "This seemed a situation where it wasn't going to be necessary to fight for the importance of story," he says. "The studio had already come to this conclusion, and luckily that was born out in the experience of working on the game."

With a focus on narrative came another novel task: the need to create a heroic lead. In Killzone, the orange-eyed Stormtrooper-esque Helghast – which Hulst admits still appear in his nightmares on occasion – are as iconic as it gets. But the studio had never before created a lead character it needed its players to truly love – or spend so much time seeing on their TV screens (Killzone games are first-person, so you rarely saw the hero on screen). With Aloy, signs they were on the right track came fairly early on.

"I was really surprised how much the cosplayers took to her before the game was out. That was very unusual but also very heartwarming," says Smets. "We never saw that with any of the Killzone games." She describes getting excruciatingly-detailed questions from cosplayers following Horizon's announcement at E3 2015, like what sort leather is used in her outfit.

Later on during my tour, I'm shown several boards' worth of fan art and photos of both women and men in Aloy cosplay, many taken before the game came out. Another board hosts scores of detailed fan-created enemies, devised and drawn by Horizon's burgeoning community. Killzone had its fans, sure, but to Guerrilla, this level of devotion and sheer warmth feels entirely new.

"It's actually something we thought about quite conscientiously," Hulst says. "The enemies were the stars of the show in Killzone, and they have definitely become iconic, but it's still different to have a very iconic lead character in the game, and that's something that we really wanted to make as a studio – to have a character that people can relate to, that stands out, that can contribute to the outstanding family of PlayStation characters."

The decision to make Aloy an outcast – something Horizon spends its opening chapter painfully relaying to the player, culminating in a scene where she's attacked by a young, Draco-Malfoy-esque villager – was a very deliberate one.

The whole team talks about a need to make her vulnerable, yet strong, putting the player firmly in her camp from the get-go. "It was a huge goal for us to build a character who is fundamentally human in every aspect," continues Hulst. "That goes from her being an outcast at birth, which really determines her behavior, to her still being kind and being a complex personality."

Aloy was always a woman right from the initial concept. While no one at Guerrilla expresses any kind of agenda when it comes to gender equality, as technical lead Michiel van der Leeuw notes, there was an awareness that female leads in games are often sexualized – a precedent the team had no intention of following. "She had to be agile and athletic. She's an outcast but she's also brought up lovingly," he says. "There were so many elements we had to balance to make her the person she is. I like that people have picked up on her teeth being a bit crooked, her face being asymmetrical – I think people pick up on her imperfections because she's a real person."

The moment it hit home was when five Aloy cosplayers were given a tour of the studio. "They were really emotional," says van der Leeuw. "They were half crying while playing the game. One of them said something like, 'I love playing the game now, but I wish I could have played it when I was 12', or something like that." Smets smiles and interjects: "It was, 'I wish this game could have been here when I was 12, because I could have really used a role model like Aloy back then.' That really affected us."

It's no exaggeration to suggest every member of the team talks about Aloy with love – perhaps not just because of her character, but because how she and the world she inhabits have proven what Guerrilla is truly capable of. Hulst is keen to point out that Sony has always given Guerrilla creative freedom since it acquired the studio back in 2005 – the fact that all of the studio's Killzone releases turned a profit certainly didn't hurt.

But while Horizon Zero Dawn may represent fertile new ground for Guerrilla and Sony alike, its links to Killzone shouldn't be dismissed. As explained by Hulst, everything within Killzone had to have a reason to exist – some logic. That's a mantra the studio has stuck by. "One of the visual designers in the Killzone days drew a concept of a Helghast rescue boat that never saw the light of day," he says. "Now, those guys are bloody replaceable – they don't rescue folks, they leave them behind!"

The same process dominated Horizon's development; every tribe member and every building is constructed and dressed in materials particular to the geography around them and the customs of the people in that area. It's a level of attention to detail most won't notice, but one Guerrilla appears to do without consideration – even to the point where animators took time out of their day to render ants climbing up tree trunks, all of their own volition. Said ants blew minds on the internet just days after launch.

"It was one of the effects guys," details van der Leeuw. "They felt like the environment needed something to make it come alive. We'd been watching a lot of nature documentaries at that time, I think. It's a very simple hologram with a custom animation that a shader artist made because the engine is quite flexible, in truth."

No one could successfully argue those ants – or even Horizon's famed weather system – added points to the high scores the game received from critics almost across the board. No one is walking into their GameStop and handing over $60 just to see insects crawling across bark, or to experience the kind of wind and howling rain they more than likely encounter on their commute home. What all of these details do, however, is paint a picture of a studio in love with what it's doing, of a developer electrified by the juxtaposition of a human hero fighting her way through an increasingly inhuman world. Guerrilla changed to make Horizon a reality, and now Horizon is changing how people think about Guerrilla.

"I've seen a lot of things and experienced a lot of things in the industry that would lead you to become cynical and disillusioned," says Gonzalez. "I don't find that to be the case here. I feel like the level of ambition here is really high, but I don't feel like the ambition is high for external reasons, like wanting to be masters of the universe. It's high because people really care about the quality of the product. I just feel like I don't want to step away from that, you know? This is a place where I can improve myself, can bring myself to the work. I want to stay as close to that as I can."