GamesIndustry.biz was able to corner Horizon: Zero Dawn art director Jan-Bart Van Beek at a conference in Italy and chat with him about the creation and success of the open-world action RPG, its recently released Frozen Wilds expansion pack, and the general competitiveness that studios have to deal with in the video game industry today. Guerrilla Games apparently drew some inspiration from Fallout 3 and Skyrim:
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.
"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.
"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."