Horizon Zero Dawn is almost upon us and while our review is already up, our coverage doesn’t stop there. At a preview event for the game held in Manila, Philippines, we got the chance to try out its retail build as well as speak to Guerrilla Games Lead Concept Artist, Roland Ijzermans, to ask him a few questions about the game’s origins and the studio’s transition from Killzone to a completely new IP, and lots more.
PlayStation LifeStyle: Given how big the focus was on multiplayer for Killzone, why didn’t Guerrilla include multiplayer in Horizon? Was this ever considered?
Roland Ijzermans: That is a difficult question to answer. The scope of the project was so big, we already had to postpone from Christmas until now to get it to the quality and the content that we wanted there. So multiplayer is not one of the features that was in that initial sculpture. We had enough trouble finishing the game. Not trouble, challenges finishing the game as it currently is.
PlayStation LifeStyle: What was the motivation to do something so vastly different from Killzone?
Roland Ijzermans: This came from within the studio. When we were making, at the end of Killzone 3. The company said, “Okay. Everybody can make a pitch. What is the new thing that we’re gonna to make? We made Killzone. What is the next big thing that the studio is good in, that will match our profile, and something we can make?” So a lot of ideas came from that and one of these ideas was Horizon. It was too ambitious. So we started to other ideas first. We worked on that for half a year. But everybody gravitated towards Horizon in the sense that that had so much appeal for the team to work on. So I think it’s a love child of the studio in a sense that it came from our company art director Jan-Bart van Beek pitched this idea. His idea, some of those pillars are still here today. Most of the pillars. But it was mostly a storytelling thing. What if humans are no longer like the dominant species? What if we go a thousand years into the future and everything is crumbled and we just have nature again? And in that nature we put awesome mech designs. This is everything we want to make. And he had made this dramatic story about it and everybody loved it. But now it’s like, okay, open-world. Gameplay. What are we gonna do? How’s it gonna work? So whilst we were making Killzone 4: Shadowfall, a small team split off. Key figures. And started testing. Can we do this? Can we make an open world? Does our engine do that? Can we fight robots? Is it any fun to fight a robot? Or are you used to throwing stones at the Coke machine and that’s boring? How does that work? How do you go about that? So what are these tribes like? You speak of all these different tribes? How do they interact? What do they do? So that was kind of, we wanted to get an answer by the end of Killzone 4. So, okay, yes, it’s a nice story. But, yes, it’s also a nice game. So when the team rolled off Killzone, those answers were satisfying. And the team started working.
PlayStation LifeStyle: Is it difficult moving from a linear FPS to an open-world third-person game?
Roland Ijzermans: Yes. For me, as a concept artist, it’s like a completely new open canvass that you can start on painting and taking out all the detail. We spent a lot of time investigating, studying, how, what nature does to the earth when it regrows and how decaying cities look like in different stages of time. And besides that, studying what tribes could do there. And that entire robot thing. So coming from a Killzone scenario which is much more a linear experience and tunnel visions where we as a team were used to speccing out room by room. This is the experience. Now it’s like, it’s not a room by room. This is the world. This is my playground. And what are the playthings in the playground?
PlayStation LifeStyle: Can we expect to see some nods towards Killzone in the form of Easter eggs or other secrets?
Roland Ijzermans: You should look very hard.
PlayStation LifeStyle: Just how big do the creatures get in Horizon?
Roland Ijzermans: I think if you’re stopping on top of a Tall Neck, which is the giraffe-like radar dish creature. You have reached the limit of robots that are still functioning. In the scope of things, the Long Neck (sic) is as big as it gets. I’m sorry, it’s not as big as it gets. It’s as big as we’ve shown and I think as an interactive thing, that’s as big as it goes.
PlayStation LifeStyle: What can players do after finishing the main storyline? Are there collectibles to finish finding? Is there a New Game+?
Roland Ijzermans: There are collectibles in the game. There are a lot of kind-of world activities like hunting grounds that score you to a certain score. And I like doing them. I like improving my time on them. So they can reiterate on that. There is, I think the most interesting thing about the game, I think, is exploring the universe, what it has to offer, and unraveling mysteries. So there’s a lot of side storylines that you can investigate. If you just run through the main storyline, you only get a small percentage of the full picture.
PlayStation LifeStyle: When designing the robots, did the team use existing dinosaurs as a template, or dream up their own creations from scratch?
Roland Ijzermans: So with the robot we wanted to design something that would blend in with nature. We had the idea that evolving robots a thousand years from now would be copying things from nature. So that justifies kind of why we took that design approach. It’s also helpful in player expectation so if it moves like a cat and it looks like a cat or if it’s, you have certain expectations, so it’s “Ah it’s going to be a hunter,” it’s gonna prowl on the grass and do this and that. So we are referencing some of that to get the proper player expectation. It’s not always obvious. Maybe you’ve seen the Watcher. The two-legged creature. We took a lot of Meerkat inspiration. The way it stands and looks around. So some of the animations look very one on one. And in some case it’s bored from different animals. So it is, as much as we can, we take it from nature and then we turn it into a mech.
PlayStation LifeStyle: Is the term Zero Dawn story-related?
Roland Ijzermanst: Very much so. It will get a lot of meaning. For the one that play the game or once you know the story. That will fall into place.
PlayStation LifeStyle: Will Horizon Zero Dawn have any story or side mission DLC?
Roland Ijzermans: I’m here to talk about this one and not about future plans.
PlayStation LifeStyle: When concept art for the game leaked years ago, how hard was it to not spill the beans entirely? How liberating is it to finally release the game?
Roland Ijzermans: The hurt is the biggest. With these type of leaks that it’s snippets of what it is that you’re trying to make. So we feel very anxious in saying, “but wait, these are concept sketches and this is what we’re trying to make and we really want to reveal those kinds of things.” Similar to players or people online that seem to want to indicate that they’ve played the game and know storyline but it’s clear that they haven’t done so but they’re just fictionalizing something. It’s very tempting to go in and say, “yes, no but it’s like this and like that,” but that would be just snowballing the effect and turning that into a big spoiler-fest whereas I strongly believe to just sitting down and experiencing the game for what it is, is the way we intended for players to experience and not to read it online or not to puzzle it together from concept art. So it’s like telling somebody the complete details of a movie and say go ahead and see it but that’s no fun. What’s the point there? So it is tempting. It’s like our sound designer. He says, when he talks about the creation of his sound. He says, “Yeah I’ll show them some examples but I’m not going to show all of them.” Because he said he did that on a few Killzone examples and he got the feedback that every time someone reloaded, he had shown that he made it with a stapler, the sound effect, people saw the stapler in their hands when they were reloading this thing. So best is not to tell them and just enjoy the product.
PlayStation LifeStyle: When it comes to the third-person action elements in Horizon, did the Uncharted 4 team offer any advice or guidance?
Roland Ijzermans: There’s a healthy competitive atmosphere between the two studios but we have people going back and forth sharing ideas and thoughts. But it’s not been a big factor. I’m speaking from a concept art level. I can imagine on a technical level there’s more going on I’m just not aware of.
PlayStation LifeStyle: Did the studio take inspiration from or change course due to games that were released during the course of development?
Roland Ijzermans: No. I’ve noticed during the development of Killzone, there can be ideas that you think are very fresh for locations, it can be anything, that suddenly people in other IPs also pick up. We did a shanty town in one of the Killzones and then suddenly everybody was doing shanty towns. I think there are certain things that came out during the past six years that had a similar train of thought in the sense why not make something more that embraces natures. But those are generic themes. And sometimes it’s a certain color or something, it can be anything. We have character similarities in other IPs, but I think, all in all, we managed to create a package that was still unique to its own.