Guerrilla Games boss Hermen Hulst talks about jumping from Killzone to robosaurs

For the last 11 years, Dutch developer Guerrilla Games has been crafting future war shooting galleries with the Killzone series, but now, with Horizon: Zero Dawn, the studio is branching out into the unknown. Guns have been dropped, a new heroine (with a splash of Ygritte and Ripley) is in the lead role and team members from CD Projekt RED and Bethesda have been brought in to help craft the action-RPG. In the latest issue of Official PlayStation Magazine, Guerrilla MD and co-founder Hermen Hulst discusses what's involved when a shooter-friendly studio takes on a brand new genre.

Horizon Zero Dawn was conceived out of a studio-wide pitching process after you wrapped up work on Killzone 3, and is actually a combination of a number of ideas from the team. What happened during that time?

We decided it was time for something new for the studio, so we sent out a brief to the entire team here at Guerrilla Games [for a new IP], and that brief was really quite wide. There were certain requirements, one of which is that – and it’s an interesting one – it should be a game that makes sense for Guerrilla to do. So not so much a puzzle game or a racing game. But then, the question is what is a game that ‘suits’ Guerrilla from a development perspective? From a core capabilities and a skillset perspective? So we received a wide range of concepts back from the team. There were probably about 35 or 40 that we reviewed, and we looked at certain trends in them and certain core elements, and we decided to take some of that forward into a prototyping stage. We actually, at that point, still took a couple of concepts further, but the Horizon concept was, even from very early on, already appealing to all of us and so we decided to concentrate on that.

As the MD of Guerrilla Games, what decisions and factors do you consider when green-lighting a new project?
So this concept really originated from within the studio, so it starts here – the creative process is led by the studio. We make a game that we really want to make, but we’re not oblivious to the publishing factors and the commercial realities. One step back; we’ve always attempted to make really interesting universes, and we’ve always wanted to make beautiful games. And with Killzone, that was in the destroyed beauty – that gritty kind of beauty. This time, we just wanted to make a game that was beautiful. And that’s it, just beautiful, period. So we had certain internal desires and we wanted to do something different, something that was more open.Obviously we speak with the publishing side of the PlayStation business as well, and we have formal phases that we must go through. But again, it’s a process that’s led by the studio first.

An open-world RPG is quite the change for Guerrilla – how heavily have you had to recruit for this project? We know of Witcher and Fallout veterans joining your ranks...
In many ways, however different Horizon Zero Dawn is from the Killzone series, there are also a lot of similarities.We are still after fantastic graphics andwe are after technical combat. But, yes, there are certain elements that are new to this studio. An open-world, for instance, required a huge effort from our technology team to get the systems ready. But also the game design elements such as RPG mechanics and story writing for this kind of game are very different and more difficult and demanding than for games that are more linear. So in those areas we have been very proactive in our recruitment effort.

You were first out of the blocks on current-gen with Killzone Shadow Fall – what did you learn from that project and how much more are you wringing out of PS4 for Horizon?
It’s been a huge, huge benefit for the studio when starting... Although, well... we actually commenced on the Horizon Zero Dawn project before we commenced on Killzone Shadow Fall. So I was going to say it’s been a huge benefit that we started with a mature engine, but the mature engine came into existence whilst the development of Horizon was ongoing! But nevertheless, because we were working on Shadow Fall, of course, to obviously have an engine ready at launchof PlayStation 4 was a boon to us.

That said, I recently had a conversation with Michiel van der Leeuw our technical director about the challenges on this project, and I believe that the challenges that we have on Horizon Zero Dawn – specifically the open world nature of this game, but also the artistic and graphical fidelity that we’re after and that people expect from us off the back of our past games in the Killzone series – getting all that to work has probably been... No, not probably! It has been a muchbigger challenge to the team and to the studio than getting a PlayStation 4 engine ready at launch of PlayStation 4.

Do you treat the dinos almost like puzzles, Shadow Of The Colossus-style?
When you see a demonstration like you saw at E3, you can imagine in the heat of the combat it’s fairly difficult to read exactly how to take on these enemies with all this weaponry and the combat abilities that they have. But we will provide you with the tools to prepare yourself for battle... that’s what I can say about it at this point!

Horizon’s an action-RPG, but when people hear the letters RPG they think of The Witcher or of Skyrim. Is Horizon offering that same role-playing depth?
I guess you’re wondering where we are on that spectrum of, on the one side more action-orientated games like Assassin’s Creed, and on the other hand you have your Elder Scrolls and these kinds of series. I think we’re in-between. We have elements in both directions, and that probably puts us somewhere in between. It’s really difficult to talk about how deep the role-playing experience is without being able to show it yet, because people start speculating on it too much. Once we have something to show we’ll talk about it in more detail.

The latest issue of Official PlayStation Magazine, with Horizon: Zero Dawn on the cover, is out now. Download it here or subscribe to future issues.