Horizon Zero Dawn is an epic game that you can play for scores of hours. When I finished the single-player campaign in 2017, I was only 32 percent done with the content in the post-post apocalyptic world.
But the story of the making of Horizon Zero Dawn — a brand new intellectual property for a Sony PlayStation 4 exclusive video game — is even more epic. I discussed the tale in a fireside chat with Angie Smets, who is an executive producer at Guerrilla Games in Amsterdam and was executive producer on Horizon Zero Dawn. She talked about why it took seven years to make the game and craft the inspiring female hero, Aloy.
Fortunately, all that work paid off. The game debuted in February 2017 and it sold more than 7.6 million copies in its first year. The PlayStation 4 exclusive has a Metacritic score of 89, and its inspiring female lead character, Aloy, has more than 250 known active cosplayers a year and a half after launch.
I talked with Smets at the Gamelab event in Barcelona. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Please introduce yourself.
Angie Smets: I’m the executive producer at Guerrilla Games. That basically means I’m responsible for delivering all of our games. I’m also part of our management team, building and maintaining a good working environment back home in Amsterdam.
GamesBeat: How did you get to where you are?
Smets: Back in the days when I was going to high school, there was no such thing as a game university, any educational programs where you could become a game designer or a game programmer. But I grew up playing games. I started playing games when I was eight, with my mom. We had a Pong machine. She’d always get it out of the closet when there was a rainy Sunday afternoon and I’d play with my sister and my mom, play Pong. For a long time I thought that was the only game that existed, because it was the only game we had. Later on my mother bought me a Philips Videopac G7000. I’m not sure you’re familiar with that. It was excellent. It had color. It had better animation. So I grew up gaming on console platforms.
I thought I’d become an industrial engineer, because I liked the idea of making products that people would use, and specialized in human-computer interaction, which was a little bit closer to the things that interested me. I started my career as a designer for multimedia productions. Back in the day you had CD-ROM, the CD-I. As a designer you were very limited by what the technology could do. Sometimes you were lucky to do animation at six frames per second. Then, about 16 years ago, a friend of mine who was in technical art at Guerrilla Games – we’d worked at the same company – said, “Angie, you need to come help us. We just signed an exclusive deal with Sony for a PlayStation 2 game.”
When she said “PlayStation 2” I was already sold. At the time the PS2 was such a powerful machine, and I was already thinking about stuff that I could do with it. So that’s how I joined Guerrilla Games. Killzone was a very challenging project, mainly because we had so little experience. Looking back on it, it’s still a miracle that we shipped that game. Picture 20 young people who’d never shipped a console game. We were a bit naïve. Maybe arrogant. We thought, “What could go wrong? Other people are making PS2 games. Why can’t we?”
We learned a lot. It was a hard process. We crunched ridiculous hours because we didn’t know how to do the development process in the proper way. I remember a conversation with Michiel Werring, the tech director, where I said that if we were going to keep doing this, we really needed to get better at the whole process of making games. That’s where I’ve been focused ever since.
We did get much better, luckily. With every game we shipped, we learned so many things. I think we fostered a culture at Guerrilla where we make something, and then we take the time to sit down and say, “Okay, what are the things that didn’t go so well? What could we have done differently?” Then we try to do better the next time, become better at the process.
GamesBeat: Killzone became a hit and sold millions of units. You could have stayed in place doing that. But at some point, you decided to do something new. When did that happen, and what was some of the thinking behind it?
Smets: It was around halfway through the development of Killzone 3. What we do as a management group, we meet every week. We try not to talk too much about the day to day issues we resolve, and instead focus on the long term vision for the studio. We were asking ourselves, I think, “How many more Killzones do we really want to make?” We had the third one, and we had a PSP game, Killzone Liberation. We were growing. We were getting better. The support staff was getting better. We were asking ourselves whether we were getting the most out of our talent and our people.
We created this really big universe in Killzone, but how many more creative ideas could we find in that universe? Maybe it was time to do something new. I remember a moment of Hermen saying we should maybe start something new. Hermen’s the managing director. I think we were triggered by that idea. From a creative perspective, doing something different sounded good, sounded really appealing.
The thing that comes next, though, is how do you go about that? How do you tell your publisher you want to do something different? We looked at everything that was out in the market. We were doing first-person shooters, and that was becoming a very saturated market. I think more than 50 shooters were coming out every year at the time. You especially had Call of Duty. Everybody was playing Call of Duty. They had multiple studios. They were adding studios to build the franchise. Every single year they would pump out a new Call of Duty. We felt it was impossible for us, as a small team, to compete with that.
GamesBeat: It was the Fortnite of its day.
Smets: If you go back and look at it, it definitely was. Although Battlefield was also big. They were able to successfully take on Call of Duty in those days. So we looked at that and said, “Hmm. If we come up with another shooter, is that such a smart idea? Probably not. It’s a saturated market, with two big titles already competing to see who’s the biggest.” So if we’re not making a shooter, we’re making something in a different genre. That was exciting, but there’s a risk to that, of course. We thought we should at least not rule it out. We should keep an open mind and think about what we could do.
GamesBeat: How did you generate these new ideas?
Smets: We asked the whole team to come up with ideas. We have so many talented people, and anyone can have an amazing idea, so we figured it would be better to ask everybody to help get us to a starting point. Also, to mitigate a little bit of the risk — you don’t want to start something new with 150 people, which we were at the time. It can become very chaotic. We also started a new project, Killzone: Shadow Fall, which was a launch title for PlayStation 4. So our plan was to generate new ideas, and then we would have a big project for the bulk of the team.
We took generating new ideas very seriously. We created a brief document, 10 pages, that outlined what we were looking for, to give a bit of guidance. This document was full of ambition. [laughs] It clearly said we wanted to create a franchise. It had to be epic and ambitious. It had to have passion and cinematic storytelling. It wasn’t an easy task. It also talked about how big we saw it. We really asked the team to think big.
It was amazing. We got about 40 ideas, I think, in total, over six or eight weeks. People would team up. A programmer would have a great idea and then get a concept artist to visualize it. That was great. It’s a great way to ignite the creativity of the team.
GamesBeat: How many different directions could you have gone if you didn’t pick Horizon?
Smets: A lot, but surprisingly, there were lots of recurring themes in those pitches. I think maybe the first surprise we saw was that there were hardly any first-person shooter pitches. I think we were expecting to see more of those, because of our experience. And then all of the pitches had lush, green, beautiful worlds. If you’re not familiar with Killzone, Killzone is not a green world. It’s dark and gritty. There’s lots of destruction. Apparently there seemed to be a need on the team to do something that felt more positive. A greener world. Those were the big ones.
Oh, and there was definitely another theme, which was robots. Robots as the theme for the monsters. But there was one pitch that really stood out. That was Horizon. I remember it was an idea from JB, our art director. He made this movie, taking scenes from different types of Hollywood movies, creating what we called an “originamatic”? I still remember the response it had. There was clearly something special in there.
GamesBeat: Somewhere along the line you combined the idea of the robots with dinosaurs.
Smets: Robots were in the original pitch. The dinosaurs, not quite yet. Once we started prototyping the robots, I think initially, with the Killzone DNA, they were quite militaristic, more like fighting machines. It felt off. It didn’t have the right emotional component. We struggled for that quite a bit. We even had some playable prototypes, very rough, where they were a bit insect-like, maybe? With all these small parts. It was impossible to hit anything.
Then, one of the concept artists said, “Well, maybe we should go back to this fantasy of primitive man, tribal life. You’re the underdog fighting against these amazing robots, so let’s go back in time to when humankind wasn’t the dominant species, the stone age, the dinosaurs. Maybe they should be more like dinosaurs.” I remember people saying, “Oh, dinosaurs, that’s a silly idea, sure.”
He just made a couple of paintings to start with, and even those paintings, the concept art, you could see that this could really work. We made a prototype out of Duplo level blocks that was really rough. We took a Killzone 3 character and a rocket launcher, just to start prototyping, and you could already see that, hey, this is starting to go in the right direction.
What really nailed the feel of the dinosaurs, that animalistic behavior, is when we came up with the first prototype of the Watcher, and added animation to it. All of a sudden they started to really behave. You could predict what they would do. You could anticipate, as a gamer, what you had to do. That’s where it really started to jell.
GamesBeat: One of those creatures that would just walk around looking for you, and you had to avoid them?
Smets: Yeah, yeah. The watchdogs for the bigger robots. That’s their function in the world. They’re sort of inspired by cats and dogs. You could see that in the initial drawings. But in the animated prototype you could actually see how they behave. That’s where it really came together.