Heide and Speak
Guerrilla Games' senior producer talks Sony, independence and how to tackle new IP
Guerrilla Games has experienced the highs and lows of the industry over the ten years since its founding, from the infamous Killzone backlash to being bought by a publisher which not only allows, but actively encourages independence.
During those years it's learnt hard lessons about setting and meeting achievable expectations, what it means to own a AAA franchise and how quickly a loyal fanbase can bite the hand which feeds, as well as seeing ever increasing critical and retail success for its games.
Today, it's a different outfit to that which sometimes struggled through the development process of Killzone and its sequel. Smarter, more comfortable and far better connected with its fans, the new Guerrilla Games is in a strong position and looking to expand with a brand-new IP.
GamesIndustry.biz took the chance to sit down with senior producer Steven Ter Heide to catch up what's happening at the studio, and what he thinks about the new directions the industry is moving in.
Q: So how are things going at Guerrilla? You must be in crunch mode for Killzone 3 now?
Steven Ter Heide: Actually right now, we're doing a lot of playtesting, we're getting a public beta started soon. We're fixing bugs, mostly, and making it prettier.
Q: You unveiled 3D and Move support not too long ago. I know you place a lot of importance on the feedback from your community - what was their response to the addition of 3D and Move?
Steven Ter Heide: I think there was some initial scepticism - 'why are they focusing on that when I want this or this?' But as soon as they start seeing the bigger picture, the whole package, they understand that 'Okay, we're addressing your feedback, but on top of that we're doing other things as well, with 3D and Move, so we're creating more options for the players.
So, if you're a hardcore Dualshock fan, by all means play with the Dualshock - that's what Killzone's for - go nuts. But at the same time we want to attract a new crowd as well. Can we create that bridge between PC gaming, or casual gaming and bring those kind of people into Killzone?
That would be great for us, if we can open it up a little bit in that respect. So, it's options on top of what we're doing and as soon as people got that message, that it's optional - 'I don't have to play Killzone in 3D, I don't have to play it with Move', then it's all fine.
We also had some other people respond really, really well, saying "I'm actually going to buy a 3D TV just because I've seen Killzone and that's the game I want. That's a great response, that's great feedback for us.
Q: And is that fan feedback still part of the ongoing process of development or are you past that point now?
Steven Ter Heide: Fan feedback is always very important to us, especially now we do a lot of these kind of media events. Although we start talking to the press a lot more, we're getting a lot more forum feedback. We still read that as well.
It's very difficult to make drastic changes at this point, if someone says we should do something completely different, that's not going to happen. But we we do look at what we're doing right, and what things we haven't really touched on. So we take a lot of feedback onboard.
In speaking to yourselves for instance, there's only a very small message which we can get across, there are always things we miss out on. We can't show a complete picture so people get confused. They have different questions so we try and address those through being on the Killzone forums, adjusting to interviews, taking all this new information with us and responding to what's out there.
So we're still doing all that. Right up until the playtesting in the public beta we'll still be able to take on board that feedback and integrate it into the game, but we won't be making drastic changes - we're not changing planet or anything.
Q: How has that process of feedback applied to the new IP? Has it influenced it at all?
Steven Ter Heide: There are a couple of aspects to the new IP. Obviously we've been doing Killzone for a while now, so as a studio there are people there who've been working on Killzone for close to ten years. They're saying, okay, we'd like to do something new, something different.
What that is, we don't know. Obviously we're going to play to our strengths, we're not suddenly going to start making football games. That's not on the cards for us. At the same time we want to say, 'what would the fans expect, if Guerrilla is making a new IP, what kind of games would they expect to come out of that?'
So those are the sorts of questions that we're asking. What are you looking for? But first and foremost we want to make a game that we like, as we did with Killzone. So the next franchise is again something that we would like to make ourselves, what that's going to be, I've no idea yet. We're full-bore on Killzone now, so we've had no time to think about the new IP.
Q: How does it feel, as a studio which has been making Killzone for nearly ten years, to be stepping into unknown territory?
Steven Ter Heide: Well, I don't think Killzone will go away any time soon, it's a big franchise for us and it's important to Sony, so it's not something that we'll put to the side and say, well we'll only do this other thing now.
I think there's a lot of opportunity and a lot of room left to explore in the Killzone universe, but at the same time I think that doing something new, in a different style maybe, perhaps a different type of gameplay is also quite exciting. I think we have to find a good balance. We want to become a two-project studio at some point so we have to figure out how to that.
There's great examples out there. The guys at Insomniac have been doing that trick for a while now where Resistance and Ratchet sort of bounce off each other. So there might be different sort of things that we can learn from those sort of guys.
Q: There's quite a sharing community between Sony-owned studios. Has that started to affect the way that Guerrilla works?
Steven Ter Heide: Not really. We're still very much an independent studio. That's what a lot people thought initially as well, from our end - not just looking at it from the outside. Does becoming part of Sony mean we'll have all of these corporate rules enforced, will there be a change of culture, will we become Sony Amsterdam rather than Guerrilla?
We're not. We're very much Guerrilla. And that's not just because there's a little bit of water between us and the London office. The people we work with at Sony are smart enough to see that, for a studio to do what it does, it needs a certain culture, a certain identity. If you take that away, turn them into something different, you might actually lose the thing that you bought them for.
We want people to trust the name Guerrilla. So we haven't lost that, but at the same time we've gained a lot because, initially if you go to these trade shows and these events, you meet other developers. It's a very small circle. But the conversations you generally have... 'What are you working on?' 'I can't say.' 'What are you working on?' 'I can't say either.' 'Nice talking to you'. That's pretty much it. You're all under NDA it's very difficult to go into specifics.
But because you're part of the Sony family, there's such great first-party studios out there, I can now go up Alex and say, 'what are you guys doing? How this working, how's that working?' We can share all of these things. So in that respect we do get a lot back. We get a lot more insight into what works for them.
Naughty Dog are obviously on top of their game, Santa Monica have done a number of great titles, so we can find out what works for them.
But there's not a lot of things that you can just transplant, because you have your own identity and we're based in Amsterdam, we're not on the East or West coast of the US, we're not in the UK, so we have different sources to pool from.
But at the same time it's good to share those experiences and see what those guys do really well, and what we can learn from them.
Q: How is the Dutch development community? Is it suffering in the same way as the industry is in some other places?
Steven Ter Heide: It's a much smaller community, but at the same time you do notice a couple of these things. Smaller studios that go under, but the bigger ones stay afloat because most of the bigger ones have already aligned themselves with publishers.
Of course you have to put out quality stuff and make yourself attractive to publishers, but there being less studios means it has less overall impact. I can imagine in the UK it's much bigger news because a lot more people are employed in the games industry, wheras in Holland that's not the case. I don't think it would hit the national news in the same way as it does in the UK or the US.
What we do find, is that because we take on board a lot of people from other studios, because Holland has such a small pool to draw from itself, we have about twenty different nationalities in the building, in a team of 140 people.
It's about half and half, with half being Dutch and half being international, we draw from everywhere. So if studios in the UK struggle we sort of say, is there anyone here we can use? We're still recruiting, we're still very much growing, there are still opportunities for those people to come on board with Guerrilla.
Q: How do feel about the issue of government support for the industry? It's been a big issue in the UK. Should we have to stand on our own two feet?
Steven Ter Heide: I don't know the details, I don't know what the tax breaks were like or what was promised. You hear stories about how Canada is providing all these tax breaks - but I don't know the ins and outs sufficiently to really answer that.
I would say that standing on your own two feet and seeing if you survive, that's the ultimate kind of capitalism. I don't know, it's a fledgling industry, it's still growing. I think we've seen a lot of growth over the last couple of years. I think we'll continue to grow, we just need to get smarter about what we do.
Same with the music industry, and even further back, books. Everything goes through transitions and having to grow their own way. I'm not sure what the best way is to take things forward, to be honest. Whether it's seeing what works and let evolution work things out, or whether we should be supporting some of these things...
Q: EA has said that its game budgets have peaked, have yours? What do you think that means for the industry?
Steven Ter Heide: I think what you'll see is a wider spread. With things like PSN or XBLA, it's more accessible for smaller companies or even a single person to make a game again, like it was back in the day.
You can be a breakout success still, there are stories there with very few people. I think the range of budgets that people can work with, that's growing wider. With less money you can be successful and make more money.
With the bigger budget games, like in the movie industry there's a lot of pressure - because they have to make their money back. But there'll certainly always be big budget titles because audiences will always want to see these over-the-top kind of no-holds-barred titles.
I don't know where the budgets are going but they'll probably continue to rise for the next couple of years because the amount of stuff that you need to put into games, the stuff that the audience is expecting, that's still growing as well. I don't see it levelling out - both spectrums are going to continue to grow, from top to bottom.
Q: You're obviously very passionate about the FPS genre - do you think that there's still room for innovation in the genre?
Steven Ter Heide: Absolutely. I think what you see now is that the FPS genre is turning into the action genre. Take a title like Red Dead Redemption. I wouldn't call it an out and out shooter per se, but that's your primary interaction with most things in it.
I think the genre is becoming broader, I think it's leaning more towards what movies do, where you've got your buddy cop movie, but that fits within the action genre. I think you'll see those sorts of things. It'll expand, start borrowing things from other genres - like Borderlands did by bringing RPG elements into it, more open world elements. Rage is another example - incorporating a lot of vehicle gameplay.
Things will broaden and people will have to find their own niche. Killzone's always been about this sort of over-the-top Hollywood action, where things just blow up in spectacular fashion - that's kind of our own niche. But I think we'll try and incorporate elements from other titles, there's still a lot of room for innovation there.
Q: Finally, with the raft of new start-ups we're seeing in the wake of larger studios closing, what would be your advice to someone starting a new studio in the current climate.
Steven Ter Heide: Think big. Think about what it is that you want to accomplish and basically go for it. It's very tempting to start small, and work on smaller games and slowly grow, but you have to have an end-goal in sight and say 'how do I get there, what steps do I have to take, how do I build my engine, how do I make my technology positions, what's my artistic vision, what kind of talent do I need to attract?'
You have know what it is you want to be and absolutely go for it. I know it's risky, but I don't think there's any other way. Playing it safe doesn't hack it, you have to be able to take risks. It's easier said than done, and it's easier for me to say when I'm working with a big publisher and having that support, but I think for an indie developer it's really important to aim high and take that risk.
Go for the title you really want to make rather than trying to work your way up.