The Production of Horizon Zero Dawn

In March of 2017 during GDC event in San Fransisco Neil Druckmann interviewed Hermen Hulst about the recently released open world masterpiece.

In March of 2017 during GDC in San Fransisco Neil Druckmann interviewed Hermen Hulst about the recently released open-world masterpiece. Here’s our transcription of the interview with Hermen Hulst and a few interesting additions about the game’s art director Jan-Bart van Beek.

Finding The Perfect Idea

We started in 2010 with putting a brief together to the entire team. Our studio culture sort of makes us reach out and harvest all the creativity from our group. There were hardly any guidelines. We wanted to do something new. It did not exclude the possibility of another kind of game in the Killzone universe. It was also fine. We didn’t want to do puzzle games or racing games, but other than that – anything goes. I believe 45 guys and girls pitched. That was November or December 2010.

Those pitches were all over the place. There were obviously a lot of shooters, but overall they were very different. Artists had a big advantage here. Particularly guys who can make beautiful images, that sell easily. Some people just pitched an idea that was not a full game, but a mechanic or a solution to approach AI. We had large very big ideas as well as small but very focused ideas. We actually took two of these ideas forward. One was this steampunk idea, remarkably similar to The Order: 1886. We took that and transformed it a little bit into a superhero kind of thing. It was closer to home for us, more linear in nature. And the other one was Horizon: Zero Dawn.

To pick up the idea I’ve assembled a little board – Michiel van der Leeuw (Technical Director), Jan-Bart van Beek (Art Director), Angie Smets (Executive Producer), Mathijs de Jonge (Game Director) and a few others. That was the group that people pitched to. We had a discussion. In my world a dialogue about something is always better than a scoring chart. I just want to feel how enthusiastic people are. This approach usually works well.

It was not easy. We were very scared. A big part of the decision was making something that was just beautiful. With Killzone there’s obviously beauty of it to me. We kind of call it gritty beauty. We wanted to put the player in the world, where you didn’t want to evacuate right away from it. We wanted to place a player in the world and have him spend time there. It should have been just fun to explore and be in it. It was all about chasing beauty.


In some ways, it’s super close. If you look at the top up the pitch of it: “The lush BBC nature documentary, robotic dinosaurs, the red-headed lead character in it”. All of that was in the original pitch, which was actually done by Jan-Bart van Beek  – our art director. It almost sounds too perfect, like we executed the original vision. But at the same time, if you look at the core combat, the original mechanic had the main character running with a rifle and shooting robotic dinosaurs. That very quickly felt weird. Just conceptually making so much noise in such a beautiful forest was jut wrong. This was one of those moments when we realised that we didn’t just have to produce the tribe’s cultures in that world, but also think of the appropriate weaponry.

Jan-Bart van Beek (or JB as they call him) has been the art director at Guerrilla Games for 11 years.

As a graduate of the Royal Academy of Visual Arts in The Hague, JB always wanted to build cathedrals, or at leas something just as epic and important. So after 3 years in the ad agency, he decided to change the career path and apply to Lost Boys Games in Amsterdam. In 2002 this company was renamed into Guerrilla Games.

Ten years of Killzone is also ten years of Guerrilla Games and our own personal growth to mature and seasoned game developers. To be honest, it’s a small miracle that we actually completed the first Killzone. Green as grass and with no previous experience in creating anything remotely resembling a first person shooter on console. Our most experienced guy made Jack Jazzrabbit, a 2D platformer on PC. This was a different beast. Guerrilla Games was formed through a merger of three small Dutch companies and with just 30 people we were the largest studio in Holland. And we didn’t know Jack about developing a game.

Compare today’s studio with that of five years ago and you’ll be amazed. Compare it to that of ten years ago and you’ll be shocked. At that time, we thought it would be a bad idea to have producers. We didn’t have any real game designers. And we had just two departments, Art and Code. Nowadays, we have ten producers and a dozen departments that work together very closely. Our development process was held together by pieces of duct tape. I remember a period of time without a working game-engine. It was not working for almost three months! We just kept on working, hoping for the best. Flash forward to now, we have a multitude of completely automated gating and checking mechanisms that prevent major slipups. Now people get irritated if the game doesn’t work for two hours and rightfully so.

Jan-Bart van Beek (link)

With Horizon Zero Dawn JB took another huge step in the new direction. It was pretty similar to his decision to move away from advertising and into games.

Invisible Challenges

We’re making a first open world game, a first RPG. We had no tools whatsoever. We started with the Killzone toolset, that was not adequate for making a game like this. The entire toolset had to be created from scratch. We wanted to make a game that was of similar kind of resolution to a first-person shooter, but it was open world. The engine needed a complete overhaul. It was a huge task for our tools guys. But that’s why we love them so much, they make things that the actual player never sees, but they make all the people on the team super happy.

If you want to learn more about the technical challenges of the Horizon Zero Dawn production check out this talks at SIGGRAPH 2016 and GDC 2017. Jaap van Muijden talked about the procedural nature of world building in DECIMA engine and Andrew Schneider discussed the way his team did the clouds in the game. These are very technical but very interesting talks.

Low Points in Production

During the 6 year development we’ve had a lot of low points. I think it generally took us a long time to crack the core combat. It took a year and a half to make that first T-Rex the Thunderjaw. During that year everyone was starting having doubts. What are we doing? You are firing arrows at that huge overpowered machine. How will that ever work? When we cracked that we knew that we’re going to have at least a good game in terms of gameplay. But it took an awfully long time to get there. Another low point is secrecy. It took us almost 4 years before we could tell our friends and family about out project. To not being able to share with the world your project is hard.


Alloy is our construct. We’ve created her. But the voice talent of Ashly Burch was massively influential. I believe she came together relatively late in the process. When we brought in our narrative director John Gonzales he became instrumental in bringing this hero to life. Ashley’s performance really inspired him. There was a lot of back and forth between how she delivered her lines and what he would write next and have her say. There was a very good dynamic between them. It was a bit hard, cause people on the commercial side really wanted to get this short description and we couldn’t. She came into existence while we were creating her.

Another big moment was getting the right face for this character. We were looking at age, looking at some big names, models. And then one of our producers was watching a Dutch movie and this is where he saw this girl Hannah Hookster. She had that cheeky kind of fierce, funny attitude. She ended giving her likeness to the character. For the performance and motion capture stuff awe’ve used a parkour actress. Alloy is basically three different people, which makes her a very complex character.

After a big project like this, you usually try to give people some time off, but there’s always stuff todo. Like the day one patch, the launch trailer. And these weeks, when we are coming to GDC, meeting their ex colleagues – these are the actual vacations for the team. Some of our guys went out to support Kojima Productions. We also did events in 15 countries.


Horizon Zero Dawn is setting a new bar for most of the games companies out there, including Naughty Dog. It’s Star Wars Episode 3 level of story, Bladerunner level of world building. It’s an insane journey into the world that is painfully beautiful to look at. It’s one of those games that you just don’t want to finish, cause it hurts so much to let it go. If someone from Guerrilla Games is reading this – we just want you to know how grateful we are foreign able to experience this incredible project. And if you would want to share anything about the production – we’ll be happy to feature your amazing developers and artists. You guys are amazing.

All the images in this thread are taken from the NeoGAF Horizon Zero Dawn screenshot thread.

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