Guerrilla Games: "We've gone from designing rollercoaster rides to theme parks"
Horizon: Zero Dawn art director Jan-Bart Van Beek on the acclaimed new IP's origins and why games offer more unique worlds than movies
Jan-Bart van Beek isn't just the art director for Horizon: Zero Dawn. He's the reason for its very being.
Back in 2010, with Killzone 3 nearing completion, every employee at Guerrilla Games received a challenge: to come up with ideas for new game designs or, better, new franchises. As well received as the Killzone games were, the studio recognised that the shooter genre was becoming too competitive and it needed to branch out in order to survive.
Fast forward to 2017, where van Beek meets with GamesIndustry.biz at the annual View Conference in Italy to reflect on what has been a pivotal year for Guerrilla. Horizon: Zero Dawn launched back in February to critical acclaim, as has this month's standalone expansion Frozen Wilds.
Even seven years on, van Beek remembers the pressure of meeting that original brief: "We wanted to something that was action-orientated, character-driven, something that was an exciting leap away from Killzone, because we'd been doing Killzone for about 15 years.
"They're nice titles to make, but when your next door neighbours are Call of Duty and Battlefield, you become an 'also-ran' and we wanted to do something we could really shine at. So we decided to move away from our bread and butter - making first-person shooters - and work on something the studio was excited about making, something new.
"We had about 30 to 35 pitches that came in, and one of those was Horizon - my pitch. I'm happy that one got picked. That's a once in a lifetime opportunity."
Van Beek's original concept already had many of the ingredients that define Horizon: Zero Dawn in its final state: robot dinosaurs, a post-apocalyptic world reclaimed by the beauty of nature, and even protagonist Aloy.
When asked how he came up with the concept, van Beek says it "wasn't necessarily an attempt to do a 180" from everything the studio had previously worked on - even though it eventually became that. Instead, it began as an exploration of what Guerrilla could do beyond what the team calls "wide linear shooters" like Killzone.
Back in 2010, the two-year-old Fallout 3 particularly intrigued the art director. The scale of Bethesda's post-apocalyptic gun-toting RPG appealed to the team, as they sought new ways to give players both agency and freedom.
"When your next door neighbours are Call of Duty and Battlefield, you become an 'also-ran'. We wanted to do something we could really shine at."
"We were excited about things that aren't as contained," van Beek explains. "When you're making a first-person shooter, the whole magic trick is controlling every single heartbeat of the player. They're very well scripted, very well crafted but the moment that it's done, the rollercoaster ride is over. They're really expensive to make - you have a 150-man team making a six to eight-hour experience, and that's where all the effort goes.
"From a design perspective, we were more interested in these sort of systemic games where you set things free to interact with each other and there's more emergent gameplay, where the player can do things you didn't expect as a designer. That's much more exciting than crafting these very narrow experiences. So we've really gone from designing rollercoaster rides to designing theme parks, and that's what excited us."
Upping the ante from rollercoasts to theme parks meant a lot more work than the team were used to, but Guerrilla Games took their time with Horizon and studied other titles in the open-world genre to see what new ideas they could bring to it.
"Initially, it was daunting because you don't even know where to start," van Beek recalls. "We began with a sketch of the map and quickly found that certain distances were way too far to travel. It would have got really fucking boring even after an hour because you'd have spent so much time running around.
"We've gone from designing rollercoaster rides to designing theme parks, and that's what excited us."
"You look at other games and see that there's a rhythm to these things that was sort of hidden to us before. Take Skyrim, for example: it's literally 80 metres between inflection points. You start seeing patterns on how others have solved it, and then you try to find your own patterns that work for your type of game.
"Initially, you start where the sky's the limit - then you realise no, no, no there's a very clear limit to these things: what you can make, how much content you can make while keeping it fun and exciting, how you can keep it explorable enough so that people will find something at a steady pace so they're still excited to go into the world."
While van Beek and the Guerrilla team were happy to take inspiration from other games in terms of structure, they were very careful not to get caught up in the visual and art styles of those titles. The desire to build a truly unique world led van Beek to actively avoid other video games - in fact, throughout the entire development period he even avoided trailers for upcoming titles.
"Not necessarily as a conscious thing," he clarifies, "but also because we were so involved with making our own thing, watching the latest beautifully-rendered cutscenes of Battlefield wasn't really relevant to what we were doing.
"Initially, you start where the sky's the limit - then you realise no, no, no there's a very clear limit to these things"
"Watching movies is also kind of dangerous, because you sometimes see concept artists lift ideas wholesale out of it. The way that we like to design these things is that it has to intrinsically come from the IP itself. You can't just take something else and go, 'oh, that seems to fit' - we need to have a whole rationale for why something would be in our world, otherwise it shouldn't be there."
He continues: "It's really important to focus yourself on creating that visual identity. Something that you're confident that if you put it in front of someone, they would recognise it as the product you're designing. It can't borrow too much from other things, it can't even be inspired by other things, it has to be its own thing. That's hard, it requires a lot of work, and it often requires you to go back to the drawing board and reimagine it all over again."
As art director and creator of the original pitch, van Beek had to strike a difficult balance between allowing members of the team to contribute new ideas while still ensuring the vision remained consistent. Just as he says the story was "very, very tightly controlled", from an art standpoint it was crucial to "define the pillars of the game."
"That's the first thing that happens is that even before we design a single thing," he explains. "These pillars dictate things about the style of storytelling, the style of art, the style of gameplay, and we don't move from there.
"Your world can't borrow too much from other things, it can't even be inspired by other things, it has to be its own thing. That's hard and often requires you to go back to the drawing board"
"So if someone comes up and says, 'oh, let's do Terminator-style humanoid robots', we're like 'no, that's exactly what we're not trying to do'. There's a very strict cage in which we allow movement, and there's a lot of movement within that cage, but the cage is there.
"Once we've defined the core, if an idea doesn't work within that, we can the entire idea. For Horizon, that critical point was designing the Thunderjaw, the big T-Rex robot. We couldn't just iterate and maybe end up with something else - we had to nail that and a few of the other big robots, otherwise the game would never work. At some point, it's literally like a do or die situation."
Van Beek was also keen to design something that stood out a little more than the Killzone games, something that was more colourful and inviting. Guerrilla has already proven it could present a compelling dystopia, but did it have more to offer?
"Coming from Killzone, we knew what dark and decrepit looked like, how we could make Blade Runner, Ridley Scott-type worlds but I wanted to use all that ingenuity and talent to see if we could make worlds that instantly appeal to people," says van Beek. "Worlds that have a sense of hope and adventure to them rather than this dystopian, dark nightmare future that's intended as a warning."
"I wanted to see if we could make worlds that instantly appeal to people, that have a sense of hope and adventure to them"
As stunning as Horizon: Zero Dawn is, particularly in an age where the AAA industry is pushing towards 4K perfection, it was vital that the game satisfied more than just the eyes. For van Beek's part, this meant the work he produced needed to be more than impressive, it had to be unique.
"I once heard our marketing guy say that visuals don't matter any more - all games look good," he says. "If you make AAA games above a certain budget, the graphics are going to look good. It's a given.
"There are aspects of art direction that can veer one way or another, which is something you see very clearly in something like Overwatch. That team has very clearly made art directional choices that previously people would have avoided in first-person shooters because it wasn't mature enough. The variety there makes you stand out to some degree."
"We really wanted something that would feel fresh, something that people would never do in a major movie because it's too expensive, too risky"
He continues: "We wanted something that had a sense of relevance, that people could understand, but at the same time is unfamiliar and fresh. We really wanted something that would feel fresh, something that people would never do in a major movie because it's too expensive, too risky. You could do it in a comic book, but video games are the medium that really allows you to do these really crazy things. It used to be '80s and '90s Saturday morning cartoons, with their crazy exurberant worlds, but we can still do them in games.
"That's what we find exciting about games, that there's still this levity to it, where you can go crazy and come up with combinations that people don't necessarily expect. Gamers are generally more open to accepting new ideas, so it's an ideal market."
It's a fair observation. While there are seemingly countless post-apocalyptic fictional worlds across games, film, TV, comics and all other forms of entertainment, you would be hard pushed to name another franchise that blends this with robot dinosaurs and prehistoric-style tribes.
But van Beek stresses that simply designing an intriguing world is not enough - it needs to contain stories that compel players to explore it, that get them emotionally invested in what befalls its inhabitants. While Horizon's story was well-received, the art director believes the video games industry still has a lot of work to do before it can tell stories that ensnare the masses to the same level that TV and film do.
As our time wraps up, he ponders what impact AI-driven storytelling and "really believable avatars" could have on a title like Horizon, or how far the idea of player agency can be pushed.
"How much should we try to control the story rather than letting players find their own story and just providing the context of the world?" he says. "In some ways, Westworld was an eye-opener for a lot of people who are dealing with narrative in games. It was interesting, but could it actually be designed? These vastly sprawling interactive story networks that multiple people can interact with... And there are certainly aspects [of interactive storytelling] that only video games can do and no other medium can do."