Horizon: Dawn Zero Interview – Roland IJzermans

We sat down with Guerilla Games’ Lead Concept Artist, Roland IJzermans at a recent Horizon: Zero Dawn media event in Manila.

Roland shared with us many interesting insights into the design concepts behind the game, the amount of details poured into making the world of HZD believable and both mysterious and enthralling at the same time.

(Fair warning: there are minor spoilers)

So I guess you must have been asked a lot about these questions. Can you give us an introduction about yourself and your role?
So I have a background in industrial engineering at the University of Delft. It’s a very technical background, as most concept artists have an art background. I like designing cars, and coffee machines…those kinds of things. So I joined the Guerrilla team, and made the Lost Boys as my first game with the company. I then worked on the entire Killzone franchise and when, six years ago, they said, “Okay, we need to start thinking about something new. What are people thinking about?” A lot of people from the team pitched ideas. There were about 40 ideas, and Horizon Zero Dawn was one of those ideas. We really like the scope of HZD as it was just outside of what the team then could do.
In the sense that it is the first non-shooter Guerilla Games title?
That’s right, the genre, RPG genre, and then open worlds. We had been making linear action shooters mostly.

So my part in this is as a Concept Artist. The team on the concept art team also grew tremendously. We had about 10 to 12 people in my team working on the Killzone titles, and our internal team grew to about 20, 30 and then 40 at the peak. We also hired between 10 to 20 headcounts from external vendors who worked with us by feeding into the conceptualization and the detailing of everything.

What does it mean to be a concept artist in the gaming industry, coming from someone with such an industrial background?
I think throughout the Killzone series, we took an approach on concept art where we try to make it look convincing and believable. I know Horizon: Zero Dawn is a big fantasy world. But if you stick to the rules that you apply to yourself, I think it helps to make science fiction, science fiction and not fantasy.
And more believable.
Exactly! It becomes more believable.

We put a big emphasis on believability there. We talked to a professor who does the robotics at the university where I came from in Delft and he had a look at our designs. So we go like, “This is what we think future robots look like. What do you think about these things?” And he had comments to help in our design to make it believable, at least in the physics sense. It was like, “This robot exoskeleton. If you have so much weight, and you’re supporting that from the outside, that’ll never work like this. So you should cut down your weight here, and there, and there.” And I know it’s silly because you’re only making a virtual computer game, but it helps us a lot and helps everybody who’s working on this to feel very confident.

It’s a very interesting though process there, to incorporate elements of industrial design into your concepts.
It’s part of the thinking. We spend an incredible amount of time on them. When we designed these robots visually, they also need to be designed from a gameplay perspective. And they need have a place in the world from a narrative perspective. The first robot we did was the Thunderjaw; it’s a big dinosaur robot. It was also the most difficult one to create. It’s almost a nightmare for the studio. It took a year and a half, I think, to finish it. The first robot looked like a DUPLO robot [laughter], with LEGO blocks. And so, does this idea of hunting a robotic beast, shooting a piece off, taking that and using it against it, can we make that work? We thought it was a very exciting idea. But when you’re holding a controller, it still needs to work.

So fine-tuning that took a lot of time, as we want these robots to have all these pieces where you can shoot it off. How do you communicate that back to the player from a design perspective then? And that goes into an art loop. Is it visually clear that this is where you need to hit it? So we came up with the idea of Aloy being able to ‘focus’ on these weak spots via a high-tech device which the player picks up early in the game. These machines coming from a past technological era, and the idea this focus is used to kind of scan these things and look for defects or whatever, it helps the player find out more information. And that’s crucial when playing Horizon: Zero Dawn. You need to use your focus, study the creature, look at the components, and then pick the right weapon to take out the right pieces. That’s what we want to achieve from a design standpoint and we feel is the exciting part about hunting these robots.

I’m curious about the part of the game where a younger version of Aloy found the Focus device. Was that an original part of the game design, or was it only added later in the game’s development?
You are spot on. It was not part of the original pitch.
It did feel like it was something that was tacked onto the game.
Yes. There were a lot of games using concentration models, different kinds of a visual overlay, to help clarify in the high-fidelity graphics what it is that you as the player needs to pay attention to. This allowed us to do that. It also allowed us to make Aloy special. She has this information. She’s the one with the focus. So it helps elevate her and make it believable that she is the one that understands these robots. To us, they’re machines, so they are just software and hardware and therefore can be compromised by hacking. The focus device allows Aloy to do just that. That puts Aloy in a unique position within her tribe to give her a certain advantage.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is also a very unique game because it’s a juxtapose of two very different worlds. Or eras.
Yes, high tech and low tech. Old and new. The irony is that old is high tech in Horizon.
From an industrial design or even a concept artist’s point of view, what kind of unique challenges did you and your team faced?
How do you go about thinking about a world 1,000 years in the future? You look at ruins today that are 1,000 years old. What does nature do to that? It turns out man is the biggest destroyer of ruins. If we had left Rome alone, it would still look a lot better than the Colosseum is currently looking today. I think man has been on a path of destruction since the second World War. So we read up on a lot of books, watched a lot of documentaries about nature reclaiming Earth. There are interesting books – I think it’s called Life After Us – that touches upon this theme and goes about it very scientifically. For instance, glass is one of the first material to go, then aluminum. And so on. So we took these learnings as a starting point. But we also took some artistic freedom, because you want to recognize that dilapidated building in the game used to be a hotel. So maybe the letters of the hotel are more resistant to nature than the structure itself. If everything just collapses and turns into piles of rocks, they’re not that interesting anymore, won’t they? So you need to preserve the right aesthetics to tell your story. It’s artistic destruction, and artistic degradation to an extent.
You talked a lot about environment. Are there any other industrial material that you look up to for inspirations in your industrial design?
Yes, it’s been very nice looking at the tribes. It’s almost been anthropological looking at them. They are in this setting. I don’t know if you’ve seen the different settings in Horizon yet, but there’s a variety of ecosystems. The Nora (Aloy’s tribe) are in a very forest-y area up in the mountains, with very rocky terrains. Their society is about hunting. They go out and hunt. So their attire reflect that. Their huts and their architecture is very safe and enclosed, and are different to some other tribes that have found safer locations, where they can sit under the sun and think about their culture. So the Nora are actually very primitive in the game. They take their pieces of metal from the robots. Their wiring in their clothing is made from the wiring from the robots, and that was a conscious choice. That is the things they have to work with.

But what if a group of people found out how to melt metal? In the game, there is another tribe that has made that discovery. How do we make known to players where they get the metal from? How do they melt it? What do they make with it? How does that influence their belief system? And how is that reflected? Because all the player sees is the characters in these clothes and the conversations he or she has partaken.

So we create style documents of 80-100 pages about different tribes talking about type of clothes, talking about their environments. What is it they take? How is their society structured? And that sets a basis for the narrative and for the art. We think that it helps solidify the universe. Everything has a reason to be there within the rule set that we have created. Yes, and there has been days that have been crazy. You come out of a meeting room with 10 people, talking about a tribe all day long that’s purely fictional and doesn’t exist anywhere [laughter]. But you’re talking about it like you are talking about an Amazon tribe somewhere. It’s like, “Oh, how do they make these? How does this work? Where do they get that?” It feels almost like archaeology in a non-existing universe. And those are my best days. I love doing that.

If there’s one thing that I’ve noticed from the Killzone series and even Horizon Zero Dawn now, is that Guerrilla Games’ design and art style tend to have a very industrial element to it. Is that done on purpose?
I think so, yes. I think one of the defining factors that have been mentioned about Guerrilla products is the visual style and the visual identity. And I’m very glad that that was acknowledged within the company as well. We got very interesting people on the concept art team, both internally as well as external parties. We even have a graphic novel designer. They have been a great help, especially spec-ing out that idea about the tribes and their backgrounds. And they invest a great deal into narrative and drives the functionality of these things.
If you think about that, we never sign off on ideas. That can never be an argument when we are going through our design process. Things can have a certain appeal, but if it has an appeal, the emotional appeal, we want to be in line with what we feel the game stands for. And that’s a very abstract way of saying things. We had machine guns from Killzone Shadow Fall. Our early prototypes with the DUPLO robot, we were shooting at it with machine guns and real guns on Killzone, as we were thinking, “Okay, there’s high tech and there’s primitive tribes.” It made no sense. In nature, firing these machine guns took away from that essence of hunting these creatures out open world. So we took out the machine guns and wanted to go back to a more primitive gameplay – hence Aloy’s bow and arrows being her primary weapons.
Okay. My last question is. Not long ago Kojima Production has announced that they will be using the Decima engine (built for Horizon: Zero Dawn) for their upcoming game, Death Stranding.
The Decima engine from Guerrilla. Yes. Yes. We’re very proud of that.
Do you see that as an additional pressure for the game to do well post-launch?
My thoughts on that are that we are very grateful that Kojima is using our technology.
Do you see that as a form of endorsement for the game?
That, I don’t know. I find that a harder question. He has picked the Decima engine for his own reasons. I can’t read his mind, so I don’t know why he picked the Decima engine. I do believe that the two teams, both companies, have something in common. And I think that’s something he saw, with a strong emphasis on creativity being pushed without any hold back on technology. I think there’s a similar kind of raw creativity with trying to squeeze every bit out of the PlayStation that we can. He has helped us tremendously with that learning curve. His experience with games is different than ours, but now, with Horizon Zero Dawn, there’s some similarity. We are learning for him, and I think he’s putting the Decima engine to proper use.
Were there any inputs from him during the closed production of Horizon: Zero Dawn?
I think there’s been cross-pollination from both teams. We have almost bi-daily meetings with the Kojima team, and they fed in valuable inputs. I remember a small technological thing that we missed, with particles not emitting lights somehow. It’s very good to have a fresh set of eyes on it. People saying, “Well, why is this done this way?” We might reply, “Yeah, I don’t know. We have been working like that.” “But maybe you can do it like this because we’ve seen it elsewhere.” That helps us keep a fresh look on technology, and that’s what we are very grateful for. And it forces us, ourselves, before we can send it out to anybody else, to have a good look at our tool set, at all the stuff that we are doing.

Kojima’s productions are very cinematic. So he needs the tools for that – our tools. I think it helps the Guerrilla Studio tremendously by putting this as a product out there. It’s called the Decima engine, and we need to start optimizing so that the engine can always evolve. Does that make sense?

Yeah [laughter]
All right then. Awesome! [laughter].
Thank you so much!
Thank you so much for listening.

Horizon: Zero Dawn will be released on 28th February. You can read our review of the game right here.

Aaron Yip

Aaron Yip is an industry veteran with more than 15 years of experience. When not spending time on his gaming PC and consoles, he can be found in Hyrule solving ungodly puzzles and collecting gems.