Horizon Zero Dawn - interview with Joel Eschler
2017's first major new IP is about to land - Horizon Zero Dawn.
To celebrate the launch of the game, I was fortunate enough to get some time with Guerrilla Games senior developer Joel Eschler.
An Aussie, Joel's worked on such titles as the Bioshock series, The Bureau: XCom Declassified, Borderland: The Pre-Sequel to name but a few.
And of course, Horizon Zero Dawn....
So tell us about Horizon Zero Dawn, it's gone gold and it's on its way March 1st - you must be excited to have it out there?
The game's been in development in one way or another for about 6 years, there were a couple of years there where it was in a pre-production phase, with around 6-30 people really fleshing out the concepts and exploring the back-story of the world before the full team jumped on board after Shadowfall shipped.It's a really good feeling as we're about to ship.
It's an original IP, that's becoming more difficult to get out into the marketplace these days?
Yeah, for big companies, it's easy to say yes to known commodoties and properties and it's always more difficult to build a marketing plan around an original IP. But internally, at Guerrilla, it excited all of the devs, so I think you need to have fresh ideas to get the best out of people and that's what worked for Horizon Zero Dawn and the team. It was the riskiest proposition they've had before them.
The original concept came out of a pitching competition in the studio where a number of people pitched ideas and Horizon being an open world game which the studio had never done, a new IP which is risky, a completely new art style which is more focussed on natural foliage and jungles; it was the riskiest and also the one which excited us the most.
As game developers and as creative people, you're always wanting to do the most challenging thing out there to surprise people in the market. But for Sony, I'm sure they look back and ask "Did you really have to pick that one?", but now, at the end of the day, we're really happy that we're allowed to do it and I think Sony's really happy too.
It's already picked up a heap of pre-release awards, that must be encouraging?
It's really awesome as you live in a vacuum as a game developer, especially before a game is announced. And it's really scary when the world gets to see what you've been working on, but we've been really lucky and really humbled with the response we've gotten for Horizon Zero Dawn, whenever we've shown the game.
What can people expect - it's more than just big robot dinosaurs in an open world with a huntress, right?
Yeah, it's an action RPG, set in a post-post apocalyptic Earth, so this is 1000 years after society has crumbled and nature has taken over. The world as we know it, is a remnant and a piece of history for those still living in the world. The human race is no longer the dominant species - that now goes to the machines, as you'll have seen in trailers and the gameplay. They roam around the world and have their activities. You are Aloy, a really skilled hunter, but you find out at the beginning of the game, she's actually an outcast.
Shunned from society, she is not a member of any given tribe. She grew up in the region of the Nora and they are a tribe who hunt machines and pride themselves on being skilled hunters. She grows up, wanting to be skilled and accepted - or at least, be accepted enough to discover why she's been cast in and what her place is in the world.
How quickly did Aloy rise from the process? What was the concept of bringing her to life?
It's interesting because I think a lot of people thought, there were a lot of meetings and a lot of discussion went into this but Aloy was always Horizon, for as long as Horizon was Horizon. The initial pitch and imagery was the post-post apocalyptic world, the nature, the machines - and Aloy. So she really has been part of the world from the beginning and we definitely built a narrative around her. The world can exist without Aloy - but this game is her story and she is central to her journey, to her world.
Even when you're aiming for a strong female empowering lead, characters tend to naturally form around the developers. Aloy is the hero of the game, so she's going to be strong in one way or another from the start, but as we developed what the world is, what the mystery is and how we feel players may enjoy uncovering the mysteries, we thought this is all new to Aloy as well and she's discovering it. It all went hand in hand - but we're really happy to see the response people are getting from Aloy.
You've mentioned mystery a lot already, how worried are you about spoilers leaking out on this?
I mean, you can't block spoilers, but we have a really big story to the world and a lot of things to uncover, ideally we want people to play through it and discover this for themselves, rather than have someone ruin it. We put a lot of effort in keeping things under wrap ever since the reveal; there's been some teases to the cauldrons and some entrances to some underground locations which are central to the story and the mystery of the Old World and what happened. Really I'd love it if the first time you play through the game, it's kind of the Wow moment of the reveal.
The robots have struck me as being something of a David Attenborough feel, give me some idea of how you landed where you did with the creatures?
So, I guess some of the staff at Guerrilla have really diverse backgrounds and one of the lead visual designers actually had a background in engineering. And as we started to think about hvaing these machines in the world where nature has taken over, we started to think about what their purpose in the world is. Some of them is to collect debris, tree or water to transport them or convert into other materials that can be used and so we thought about what would be a useful design to serve this purpose for this machine; should it have inflatable areas, it needs to be fun to fight, should it have the ability to combine these materials to shoot fire out.
They were created from a functional as well as a natural perspective from their design. They went through many iterations - I personally can't wait for people to see the artwork we're putting together for the game, so you can see the early concepts and how they started out as more robotic before they progressed into their final version. They grew into more natural versions. Some of them have inspiration from kangaroos or ant-eaters and we looked at the movements which we used in their animation. It was a fun research-gathering experience for the guys; we were lucky enough to have that long pre-production cycle to really work out everything before we started building.
Guerrilla's made up of a lot of seasoned industry professionals who have gone through Feature Creep and through hard crunches, I think we're pretty good at checking ourselves, so we never got carried away.
We've been doing external test for years and I think pretty early on, the feature set of the game reached more than people getting their money's worth for what's in this game. Reaching that point fairly early on was good for the team; there were other things that people wanted to layer on, but we could sit back and say that even without it, the game is really good.
Are you worried by comparisons to Far Cry and Tomb Raider in terms of the gameplay?
Every game that you make takes inspiration from every other game, that's good. I think it's smart to look at what works and try and make it better and we definitely take inspiration from lots of different places while taking in our own world and trying to elevate recognisable gaming features. If people enjoyed those games, then they'll definitely enjoy Horizon and they'll see new things they like. Then in a couple of years, there'll be other games coming out where people say this is a lot like Horizon! But that's just games for you. We all want to make them better.
There was a map which leaked this week, and it looked massive. Is this an open world that's full?
There are many different tribes in this game, and many different settlements - both big and small from the ones. We showed a little snippet of Meridian in the recent trailers. Even I take a step back and I think others do, to say we actually managed to pull this off. Coming from the more linear Killzone games in the past, where everything is fine-tuned as players will see it to working in a massive open world in Horizon, it was definitely a challenge, but it was a challenge that the team fully took on board. There's not a corner of the game that doesn't have love to it.
Is this the first game in a series - will there be more Aloy?
I really hope this game resonates with people and they enjoy it. Right now, a lot of the team is taking time off now we've gone gold. A lot of the team are actually taking the opportunity to play through for the first time from start to finish. I hope it's successful and I hope people love it. Aloy is the one we resonate with and we're proud to tell her story.
What's the one moment you really love in the game?
Something that happens when we have people playing the game for the very first time. We had an event in Amsterdam where we had 5 Aloy cosplayers that we flew in to play the game for the first time and during the opening section, you're in an area called The Embrace. It's quite a large area where you can spend many many hours doing these side quests and things, and the game feels pretty big. Then you reach a point when the world opens up to be so many times bigger and you have this amazing vista over a landscape where you can see Meridian city and the spires, the jungle, the snow-capped mountains, the Spires - and you just think "Holy crap, this is 10 times bigger than I thought it would be."
I just love seeing their reaction when people get to that point.
What's your favourite robot in the game and why?
Thunderjaw. Just because when I'm roaming the environment and I see it off in the distance, early on, I'm just I'm not going anywhere near that thing. Then other times when I get really close, I think I can take that thing and it crushes trees, smashes rocks and kills me. It forces me to play the game a bit differently. Earlier on in the game, you kind of can brute force your way through it, but with the Thunderjaw, you really need to think tactically and take advantage of all the features in the game. There's a lot of behaviours built into enemies that can leave them existing on their own, but they're also built to react to what's around them. There are different machines, Aloy, destructible rocks ; there's water, burrowing enemies and all these different things and variables - a lot of research was done into animal behaviour. But a lot of engineering time was done to make this all work together.
Give us a spoiler from the game...
(Laughing) I'm trying tot hink of anything I could tell - I'd get into trouble with anything I may say!
Horizon Zero Dawn hits the PlayStation 4 on March 1st.
You can pre-order it here -