Ahead of Horizon Zero Dawn’s launch I talked with the game’s producer, Samrat Sharma. Much of our chat went live yesterday, focused around why the team decided to give the player only limited control over the open world’s robot machines. But we also talked about the future of the series. Horizon Zero Dawn is not just a first-party exclusive but Playstation’s best-selling new IP of this generation, which certainly suggests it’s going to become a new franchise. I wanted to know not just about being in this situation, but also whether Guerilla even wanted to make another HZD.
Games like HZD are huge projects. From the initial concepts to release, Guerilla has had a team working on this game for six years. At the end of such a long development the team is in a position to look at what they’ve created, and what more they might want to do with it. But does someone like Sharma even want to make a sequel, to dive straight back in? Not every game has to be a grand franchise.
“The honest answer to that is that we love the world,” Sharma said. “The team has a lot of faith in the character and the world we've created and there’s a lot of lore that we have that people haven't seen yet. But we haven't really sat down and decided what to do next.”
There are things Sharma points to in HZD that he feels Guerilla could develop further. He’s really into the lore. “There are different machines that we have seen certain behaviours of, that we know have other behaviours that they can exhibit. There are different tribes we've seen, and facets to those tribes we haven't discovered. There are bits of the lore that we know are there, but they're not in the game, because we didn't think they suited all the themes yet. There are bits we could explore but we haven't really decided yet.”
Before the team would begin work on any sequel it would have to agree on a specific idea, rather than just more HZD. “The way our process works is we haven't set out a vision for what we want to do next,” Sharma continues. “Something I say a lot is that 'Ideas are cheap, anyone can come up with ideas, execution is everything.' People have ideas in their head but once we have the vision for what people want to do next we can start seeding it with the right ideas.”
With any game’s development, there is a point when what the team is making starts to take a solid shape. No new mechanics, locations, characters, or plotlines can be added in, it’s a matter of completing and polishing what is already there. That happened for Horizon about 18 months ago, Sharma tells me. “Otherwise you can't plan for the project. From that point onwards you're just trying to make the best game.” This is why developers, having just finished a huge project, often do have ideas for how to improve it - because they haven’t been able to change the fundamentals very much in the last stretch of development. “There are bits that [the team is] itching to do,” Sharma explains. “Things they want to do, things they want to explore.”
Obviously Sharma’s not going to tell me about any ‘visions’ he has for HZD2, so instead I ask what that kernel was in the case of HZD.
“The first concept was five or six years ago,” Sharma recalls. “That was a small team that set out and started fleshing this world out. At the time most the team was working on Killzone: Shadowfall.
“There were a few things that were key to the initial pitch that we've always kept and never veered from. It had to be a lush, vibrant environment, the word we used internally was 'Post-post-apocalyptic', the apocalypse has happened, the post-apocalypse has happened, and this is now when humanity starts clawing its way back. The giant machines were obviously in the initial concept design as well. They're there, they exist, and these are the odds that you must face. And then there was Aloy, this capable yet doe-eyed girl who doesn't know what's going on and must explore and learn to really understand her place in the universe. That was the initial pitch and everything flowed from there. Those were the three things that we always wanted to keep. A great universe filled with giant machines in lush vibrant environments and a capable character who hunts them.”
If you’ve played HZD, you’ll know how strongly those aspects do indeed come through.
Sharma also told me that the thing he personally is most proud of is how closely the team stuck to its vision of Aloy. “It may sound cheesy to some but I think that there's this vulnerable, yet capable girl who discovers who she is...,” Sharma says. “She's incredibly empathetic. As you play the side-quests and main quests, you realise she feels for humanity. She has this general unconditional love for everybody, that's just who she is because of her circumstances.”
Aloy is brought up as an outcast, her tribe won’t speak to her if they meet in the wilds, and she has to fight to prove herself worthy of their attention. This upbringing is returned to consistently through the story as she encounters different kinds of outcasts all throughout the world. “She just wants to help people. In the face of incredible odds, in the face of giant machines shooting lasers at her she doesn't stop helping people, she continues doing that. In her quest to find who she is she helps so many people. That's a universal truth of what humanity aspires to be.”
Our time ends, and Sharma explains what he means by cheesy while encapsulating those six years of work in a rather unforgettable way.
“I'm incredibly proud of who she is as a person that we've kept that intact, that little message: regardless of giant mouth lasers shooting at you, don't give up.”