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.
GamesBeat: You were also coming up with the notion of an open world action-RPG at the same time?
Smets: I think we heavily underestimated those aspects.
GamesBeat: Just how big a world it would be?
Smets: Yeah. The first Killzone was a very linear shooter. We were used to that. We hadn’t had to deal with a gaming environment where the player could go anywhere. That was an aspect we underestimated. We did have the ambition. I remember the first version of the map we came up with. It was about five times the size of GTA. It was very big. I think it showed what the ambition was, though. We wanted the world to feel really big. We wanted you to be able to explore, to finish the story and still be at 35 percent completion.
It took us quite a long time to realize that it wasn’t so much about the size of the map. It was figuring out what we wanted the content density to be. We didn’t want a huge map that felt empty, and you just had to walk everywhere and got bored. At the same time, we didn’t want everything to be too close together. We needed you to feel this was an open world that you could explore.
GamesBeat: We’re talking about a creative process that happened eight years ago. All these ideas seemed very new at the time. I think everybody was coming up with post-apocalypse worlds, but then you had this idea of a post-post-apocalypse world, a place that’s green and recovering into life.
Smets: Yeah, a lot of post-apocalypse worlds were coming out, but they all painted this dark and somber picture of what the future could be. I think because we came out of the dark and somber world of Killzone — 10 years of Killzone is a lot of Killzone. We wanted to take a more hopeful look at the future. The world can also be beautiful in the future. Why not paint that picture? That’s how we came up with the world of the post-post-apocalypse. The first humans mess everything up. Nature takes over. Then we start again. That was one of the things that inspired the whole team, this idea that we could start from scratch, with a blank canvas.
GamesBeat: You had this worry that there might be another game out there that was too similar. Ninja Theory had Enslaved?
Smets: This was really early on. We’d just had the round of pitches done and everyone was excited about the Horizon pitch. I remember getting a text message from JB [Jan-Bart van Beek], the art director, full of cursing. He had a link to some pieces of concept art that they’d used to announce their game. It wasn’t a lot, but the few pieces that they’d released showed an overgrown city, with beautiful nature. It had a woman lead character, looking very cool. And it also had a little flying drone robot. All of these were key ingredients we had in Horizon. We were thinking, “Oh, we thought were on to something super new, but look what they have.”
We weren’t happy about that, but at the same time Killzone 3 was just about to ship, so we did have a lot of time to think about our next steps. Basically, the rest of the studio jumped in on shipping Killzone 3. I think we got really lucky there. By the time Killzone 3 shipped, which was five or six months later, Ninja Theory had released Enslaved, and it took a really different direction than the one we were planning. At least that meant we could still explore Horizon.
One thing that did come out of that is we decided to develop a second idea in parallel. We thought this situation was a bit scary. We shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket, so let’s do a second prototype that’s a little bit less ambitious, a little closer to our existing skill set and technology. That was called Dark Science. It was a brawler game about a mad scientist. It had humor in it. Completely different tone, very different game. It was much closer to what we could already do.
GamesBeat: It sounds like it didn’t have a female lead character.
Smets: No, it didn’t. It had zombies. Those were our zombie characters.
GamesBeat: Did you pitch both of these ideas to Sony?
Smets: We shipped Killzone 3. We started a small team, around 20 people, and they started developing both Horizon and this Dark Science concept for about five months. That’s when E3 came up. After E3 we have this great meeting at Worldwide Studios, this post-E3 summit, where the studios get together and they share their knowledge, their ideas. I really love what Shawn was talking about around Worldwide Studios yesterday. As developers it’s great to be part of this sort of family of studios. We are all very different in how we work and the games we make, but you feel you’re in this group, and you can learn a lot, particularly from teams who have a slightly different way of working. You can get some really good ideas.
We figured, well, we’re part of this bigger family of super experienced developers — Naughty Dog, Media Molecule, Santa Monica — so let’s ask them what they think about our two concepts. We made two presentations and showed them at the meeting there. It was really great to be able to talk to them. When you work for a long time on a concept, it’s hard to see everything very clearly.
I think the feedback was pretty clear. All the love went to the Horizon concept, but they did point out that it was pretty crazy in terms of ambition. “It’s an open world action-RPG and you guys have zero experience with that. It’s super huge in scope.” On the other one, Dark Science, to make that game would be much easier. It was the safer choice.
Then we went back home to Amsterdam and we asked the whole team that same question. We gathered everybody in the canteen downstairs and we showed them the two pitches, the two concept presentations. Then we asked them to rate all of the concepts. We gave them five questions. Which one fits the best with our technology? Which one has the most risk for character development and storytelling? Everybody said that Dark Science was the safest to go to. But then the last question asked which project you wanted to make. Everybody picked Horizon.
We decided, then, to go with Horizon, knowing it wouldn’t be the easiest journey for us. It was the one that the whole team was behind, that we were most passionate about. So off we went.
GamesBeat: Women as heroes in triple-A games are becoming more common in the last couple of years. You guys were talking about this seven years ago, though. At the time, there wasn’t a lot else to look to in that area. How did you decide to do that, and what kind of discussions did you have about it?
Smets: Honestly, we never considered the gender of the lead character. In the very first pitch we had, she was already there. She was a girl. Nobody even questioned it internally. It wasn’t a topic. We were really concerned with getting a good lead character. In the Killzone series we always tried to have these cool hero characters, but in the Killzone games it was always the enemies, the Helghast, who were the stars of the show. We were very focused on building a good lead character. And she was a girl, but honestly that was never a point of discussion. It was only later, once we starting the concepts to more people….
GamesBeat: Outside the company, did you get more questions or reactions?
Smets: I think from the publishing side, they definitely questioned if she had to be a woman. We said, “Well, we don’t think it’s an issue.” What we always do with our concepts is focus testing, concept testing. We figured it would be an issue with the testing population. But the opposite actually happened. The tests confirmed that people were very excited about the gender of the lead character.
It also showed that there were still some problems with Aloy as a lead character, though. Initially she was much younger than she ended up being. She had a bit of a Disney princess, miss-perfect quality to her. That’s one of the reasons why it’s great to do focus testing with people, get a fresh set of eyes. We worked on Aloy for two years, on everything — hair, outfit. I remember watching a video from one of the focus tests. Someone pointed out, “I think it’s great. She looks like a strong character. But how believable is it that such a young girl would be so perfect and taking on these robot dinosaurs?”
It was a good point. We made her a bit older, a bit tougher, a bit louder. We changed her voice. We got Ashly Burch, a great V/O actress. We also got some freelance concept artists to do art for us. Our concept team had been working on her for so long that we wanted to get some fresh perspectives. One of the concept artists really nailed her in terms of style.
GamesBeat: You’re a woman in the lead of a development team. What did having a woman in the lead of the game mean to you?
Smets: Honestly, for a long time, not that much. I thought it was just normal. Maybe that says a lot about who we are as a developer. We’re very international. Half the team comes from other countries, including five people from Spain. In Dutch society, gender equality is pretty normal, and I think that’s reflected in the studio. I never felt I was treated differently in my career because of my gender.
It was more once I became more senior and began speaking to other people in development that I became more aware of the struggles that still exist. I feel very lucky to never have had to face that. As the project progressed, particularly after we announced the game, seeing the love for Aloy really touched me. Of course we were hoping that the response to the announcement would be good, but people really rallied behind Aloy. I think it was only two days after that we saw the first cosplayers putting outfits together. It was really heartwarming. It still is, actually. It never goes away, I guess.
GamesBeat: It seemed like an innovation in the game industry, to have this. She was actually fully clothed.
Smets: How silly is that, right? If you back to our Killzone games, though, I think that ties into our design philosophy. We don’t objectify characters, male or female. We have a philosophy where we want to create realistic worlds. We’re really doing science fiction in that sense, not so much fantasy. Everything needs to look as if it really could have been built. You see that in the outfits of the tribes in Horizon.
We researched, first—we talked to anthropologists a lot at first, to learn more about what defines a tribe. It’s all about resources. They make clothing out of the resources they have access to. For Aloy’s character, there’s a certain type of animals that live around her, and you see all those materials coming back in her clothing. They’re not very advanced, so they don’t have advanced ways of producing textile. Very basic knitting is something they can do. Then other tribes are more advanced, making more refined textiles. There’s one tribe that knows how to work metals, so you have metal objects coming back in their costumes.
That’s something that I think is just a tradition in our studio. Even with the robots, we tried to make them look like they could really exist. There are a couple of engineers on our concept art team who think about, if you wanted a robot dinosaur, how could you really build one?
GamesBeat: Yesterday we heard Todd Howard talk about how it took them 10 years to get to this point on Starfield. For you, the whole game took seven years. Some of this is starting to look a bit intimidating to developers, I think, that when you’re working on an IP from scratch — why do you think it took this long to get it done? It was five years before you got to your reveal.
Smets: Five years, yeah. But it was a lot of fun. I get that it’s intimidating, but it’s also a lot of fun to get to create a whole new world. There are two sides to it, I think. Sometimes you think, “How will we ever resolve this?” but there are also many moments where you say, “Wow, we’ve got something really cool here.” There’s a lot of love and passion happening at the same time.
The first year was a really small group. It’s not as if you put the whole company behind a new project. Sometimes these ideas — you just need to think about them a little bit longer. You can’t just speed everything up with more people. You need that iteration time, time to think things through.
GamesBeat: Within that seven years, do you remember any big challenges or points of crisis that you had to deal with?
Smets: Oh, so many crises. I think we always — or I always look at a crisis as a game. How are we going to fix it? Very forward-focused. I think a lot of the people on the team feel that way. There were a few critical moments. One was after we were two years in, two and a half years in. We spent the first half year in the concept phase. We do a lot of prototypes, particularly for an open world game. We had a broad set of prototypes, and after two years we figured that was a good moment to do an update to our publishers at Sony, show them our progress. It would be another six or seven months before Killzone: Shadow Fall was done and the rest of the team would move over.
We integrated all the prototypes into a more coherent experience. We showed all of that to the publisher, and the feedback was not what we were expecting. We felt pretty good about our presentation. We had videos of gameplay. Some people were enthusiastic, but there were also some people who raised big concerns. They were not sure if it was going to be mass market. They really had their doubts.
We went back and started thinking. There’s always a day where you’re just disappointed, because you’ve built this beautiful thing and you want it to be loved by everybody. But I think after that day, we had to be honest with ourselves. Apparently this concept, where we’re at right now, doesn’t communicate the vision that we have for it. The concept isn’t selling itself well enough. We see things in it that others don’t. We need to get more eyes on it.
We did more focus tests, and that was brilliant. For instance, it showed what was wrong with the lead character. We didn’t see ourselves, anymore, that she was too young, too “perfect princess.” There was also an issue with the world. People loved this idea of beautiful nature and robot dinosaurs, but they didn’t get the backstory. They didn’t get why the world was dangerous. And the gameplay we showed—it was competent gameplay. But we had concept art that showed the promise of you hunting, Aloy as a hunter. We didn’t really live up to that.
All this was great. We finally had a better idea of why the concept wasn’t selling itself and what the issues were that we had to tackle. That’s also one of the reasons we realized that we had to bring in a strong narrative director, someone who could tell the story of the entire world.
GamesBeat: Somewhere along the way it made sense to figure out how to shoot an arrow into the eye of a dinosaur and pull it down with a rope.
Smets: There were a lot of things that sounded good on paper and didn’t work out so well for real. We started over a lot of times to get that core combat loop where it had to be. I think we thought we would be able to do that more quickly, but it took way more iteration. It was just before we announced the game in 2015. I think the six months before that is when the combat loop finally got together. We finally had a proper demo showing that core gameplay loop.
GamesBeat: I remember that. You guys were pretty nervous at the time?
Smets: Having worked on something for five years and then showing it to the world—I remember talking to a co-worker, JB, the original creator of the concept, and he just said, “What if they don’t like it?” I said, “No, they’ll like it!” We had shown the trailer we produced to quite a few people already. I said, “Why don’t you think they’ll like it?” “Well, maybe it’s just silly, these robot dinosaurs.” Well, what are you going to 30 minutes before the show starts. We’ll find out soon enough.
Luckily it turned out to be a magical moment. Hermen just said a few lines about how this was the next thing from Guerrilla, and then we had a trailer, a pretty long one, five minutes, and afterward there was huge applause. I was so emotional. It was beautiful. Over the next week we got a lot of good responses from the internet. It was a big moment.
GamesBeat: The internet was behind you.
Smets: They were very kind to us! [laughs] And so was the media. We had a core combat demo behind the scenes at E3, and they liked it. I also remember there were some—people said, “We’re super excited about Guerrilla’s next game, but let’s see if they can pull it off.” That was still the angle to it.
GamesBeat: At Sony, were they asking you if you could do this in three years, or four years?
Smets: No. I think that’s another great thing. We’ve always been supported by Sony throughout this seven-year journey. They were always very honest about any doubts that they had. Of course any publisher would love to get games done sooner, but we always explained why we needed the time we needed. In the end that worked pretty well. I’m still very grateful that we have a publisher that supports the dev team and trusts the dev team to do the right thing.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting how gaming has grown up with you guys during this whole time. You’re the only triple-A studio in the Netherlands. What is that like, as far as creating awareness of the game industry in your nation?
Smets: That’s true. Killzone 2, when we launched Killzone 2, that’s the first time the Dutch mainstream media noticed that there were people making games. Wow, it’s not just two guys in an attic somewhere, it’s apparently a profession? I remember having to answer questions at family parties. There’s always an uncle saying something like, “Oh, are you still doing that game thing? Shouldn’t you get a real job?” [laughs] That hasn’t really changed. If there were more triple-A studios in the Netherlands, maybe we’d have that game community, that culture like you see in Japan.
But it’s starting to improve. I love how newspapers like the Guardian write every day about games as a medium, like people doing books and films. It’s great that the medium of gaming is being seen out there more and more. I think the Netherlands will follow at some point.
GamesBeat: Horizon was a tremendous success, of course. What kind of impact has that had on the studio?
Smets: We’re just very happy. [laughs] That’s the expected answer. There’s always the Metacritic moments. Personally, I hate the Metacritic moments. There’s always the embargo time set by the PR team, so then — in this case, for some reason we launched in Asia first, so the Metacritic deadline — I think the embargo lifted at 9AM on a Monday morning.
I’m not really a morning person, but that day I woke up extra early. I was at the office early. A lot of people were in already, looking really nervous. The last couple of minutes we got really quiet, and then people just started pressing F5 and then shouting about the scores. Everyone was so happy that the reception went so well. That’s great, and then sales were also really amazing, 7.6 million units in its first year. We had high hopes, but that not high.
The response from the community, I think we didn’t see that coming. We were overloaded with nice messages, fan art, cosplayers, people sharing their screenshots, people sending the most fantastic things. The love from the community, I think maybe that had the biggest impact on the team. We felt so rewarded to see that we made something that was loved by so many people.
GamesBeat: It’s like a cultural impact, in its way. Everyone seemed to think Aloy was very inspirational.
Smets: It’s something celebrated by all of us. As a team, we’ve really grown. We’ve become less cynical, and more confident as well, around things like storytelling. Sometimes you fail, but you just need to keep from fixating on that and move on.
GamesBeat: You’ve gotten to do some cool new things with the engine. You licensed it out, right?
Smets: We gave the engine to Kojima Productions, which has been wonderful for us and the team. We’ve had a great collaboration. We play very well with the Kojima guys.
GamesBeat: Has he told you what Death Stranding is out?
Smets: [big laughs] Who wants to know?
GamesBeat: It’s a very elaborate process, though, checking out the engine, right?
Smets: That was a quite unique situation. He’d gathered about 50 world-class developers and signed a deal with Sony as a publisher, but they didn’t have the technology to make a game. I can’t think of anybody else who was ever in that position. Mark Cerny took Kojima on a tour of the studios around the globe to see how they operate and the technology that they have. He visited us, and we were really excited, because of course we’re big fans of his. We have a lot of respect for what he’s done throughout his career.
Our tech director and art director had this 190-slide presentation explaining every bit of our engine, what it does, how it works. They came over and had a great day. It’s always nice to speak to other developers. At the end we gave him a memory stick with a copy of the engine and said, “Well, if you want it you can have it. If you don’t want to use it, that’s fine too.” We put it in a nice little box. He’s part of the Sony family now, right? You help each other out.
Working together with Kojima is a lot of fun. It’s set up in such a way that our developers speak directly to the developers on the Kojima team. It’s a very direct way of communication. Of course there’s a language barrier, but we have dedicated full-time translators who translate all the communications. We can work together even though we’re on different sides of the world. It’s nice to have found a group of like-minded game developers. It’s very inspirational for everyone.
GamesBeat: Until Dawn also used your engine.
Smets: Supermassive Games, yeah. That was the Killzone engine, an older version of the engine, rather than the open world version.
GamesBeat: In some ways that seven years of investment is paying off in some unexpected ways, then.
Smets: You don’t ever expect to share your engine with another team, I guess? But I think the seven years paid off, first of all, in a great game. It paid off in the company getting there in our development process. The engine, that was a lot of work. Our engine was really tailored for linear shooter games. It was not tailored to do an open-world action-RPG. We had to work on very low-level systems to get it to stream. There’s a whole tools layer on top of that as well. That also took a lot of time, to get the tools to the place where they had to be.
In retrospect it was really lovely to do our DLC expansion, The Frozen Wilds. The tools were ready at that point. We had a very happy team. We had this great fan response. People enjoyed the game. We added a beautiful page to the map of Horizon. That was a super nice period.
GamesBeat: It’s very interesting that you thought about these things eight years ago, and you wound up still being so trendy when you came out. You had a woman in the lead. You had a bow. You had a grapple line, I think? All these things that became cool in games in the last couple of years, you had them already. Just lucky guesses?
Smets: I don’t have the recipe for it. I think there’s a thing with creative people, where you have a gut feeling? You pick up on certain ideas and elements.
GamesBeat: How many people out there have played the game, and how many of you have finished it? There are some spoilers we could talk around. What I’m curious about—you have your ending, and the credits roll, and then there’s an extra ending on top of that. It kind of resets everything you thought had happened in the first ending. Did you always envision that kind of dual ending?
Smets: I can’t really talk about what’s next, but we obviously didn’t invest seven years into creating this big, rich world and all of the technology for nothing? I hope everyone is super excited for the future.
Audience: We’ve seen a studio like Guerrilla grow up in the Netherlands, and companies like CD Projekt Red in Poland and other European countries, but we don’t really have equivalents in Spain. What are the steps you think need to be taken for Spain to build companies like that?
Smets: It’s a difficult question. I’m not very up to date on the latest and greatest in the Spanish game development community. But I don’t think you start a triple-A game studio just from one day to the next. If you have a team and you believe in what you’re doing, take it step by step, and make sure your long-term goal — if your goal is to become a triple-A studio, always keep that in mind. Just keep going.
Audience: Over such a long period of time in development, did you ever have slowdowns? Were there times when you weren’t sure what you were doing? Is there a way you were able to overcome those kinds of situations?
Smets: It’s something you probably see in any game project. All of our games have had periods where motivation isn’t very high. Particularly if you hit a couple of hurdles that are really hard to fix, or a few too many, it’s hard. What I tend to do — I don’t know if this could work for everyone, but if you go back a few months, go back a year, and take some of the prototypes you had then, the videos you had then, you can show them to people and say, “Look, we’re making progress. There are problems we need to resolve right now, but we’ve come a long way already.” Try to let them see the good things we’ve already done.
For us at Guerrilla, the year before we announced at E3 was probably the toughest one in terms of motivation. We did a big focus test where we identified a couple of big problems. We were motivated to fix them, but it was pretty hard to fix them. It wasn’t as easy as we were hoping it would be. When you know that at some point you need to show it to the world, you want to show your best work. Having a great response after you reveal a game, that’s always the best thing to motivate any team. People need that motivation. But looking back at all the things you’ve already done, I think that’s one tip I’d have for you.
Audience: Over such a long period of development, what were the biggest changes in how the game worked, how you envisioned the game that made a big difference?
Smets: Oh, definitely, many of them. Usually it goes in a more iterative fashion, though. With the robots, it started with the idea of dinosaurs, and then we thought that making them more animalistic would be the right direction. From there, if we wanted them to go animalistic, you also need to create an animal ecology of robots. That’s how that idea evolved. In the end we had a robot ecology, different robot animals for different functions. In the beginning we had more purely fighting robots. If look at the two next to each other, it’s a big difference, but that iteration goes in steps.
We had other big ones. In the first three years of development Aloy had a horse. She was riding on a horse. She didn’t just mount the robot animals, she had a horse. That’s something that started out looking cool, and we put a lot of time into it. You need to figure out the AI of the horse, to make sure its movements are very smooth.
Then the new narrative director came in, John Gonzalez. He was really looking at the world we were trying to create, and he said, “We need to make Aloy more special. She’s the one special character.” The robots were becoming more dangerous. They weren’t domesticated robots anymore. So what he proposed was to get rid of all the big animals in the world – all the horses had to go – and then Aloy would get the Focus device. She was the only person in the world who could hack a robot and mount it. That would make her special.
That was one of the biggest changes we did in terms of world-building, and it even had a huge impact on gameplay. That was a bit more effort, and not everybody agreed about it in the beginning. All the big animals needed to go? Let’s say you’re an AI programmer and you’ve been working on this horse for a couple of years. You don’t want to just throw it away. But that’s a good example of one of the bigger changes we made.
GamesBeat: Was an artificial intelligence always the bad guy? That’s another timely decision
Smets: Um… Yes? In the first years the story was all over the place. When John came he was really able to build a cohesive world and explain everything in the story. But the AI, I think, yeah.
Audience: You talked about building lots of prototypes as part of the concepting progress. Can you tell us more about that? How would you advise developers going into a new genre or new mechanics?
Smets: What we did, we started very broad. We didn’t take any prototypes to a point where they were so polished you could actually release it. We just went broad and prototyped a lot of high-level concepts. Then we started narrowing it down from there. The good thing is, as you become better at doing those quick prototypes, you can do even more of them. You don’t get too stuck on one or another. It’s hard to say goodbye to a prototype if you’re really invested into it over a long time. It’s important to get the discipline to iterate and build on what you’ve done. It’s hard to say goodbye to ideas that looked great on paper, but just aren’t fun.
It’s a sort of funnel. You start with many ideas and you do quick iterations. You sit down with the concept for your game and you try to see how these ideas fit in. When you start on a prototype you probably have an idea of what the mechanic or the system would deliver, but you should do a quick check – does this still deliver what I wanted it to now? If there’s a problem, do I see a solution for it? Just try to narrow it down.
You need to be honest with yourself. There’s a difference between something working versus wanting it to work. You might want something to work and be great, but if you can step away and look at it honestly, it might not.
Disclosure: The organizers of Gamelab paid my way to Barcelona. Our coverage remains objective.