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Horizon Zero Dawn – Developer Interview

In the lead up to Horizon Zero Dawn’s release we were offered a great opportunity to learn some more about the game. Last week I had the pleasure of being invited into the Sony Playstation HQ in London to speak to and interview Senior Producer for Horizon Zero Dawn, Samrat Sharma. We sat down to speak about Horizon, their vision and about some upcoming games!

Nico: How liberating was it to have a completely new IP, not being bound by anything from the Killzone lore?

Samrat: We love Killzone in the studio, we’ve always loved it, so we have internalised the lore. It is liberating working on something completely new but the way we work is to work from the lore up usually for every game, we build up the world, what it looks it, why it behaves a certain way, build a pyramid of gameplay, visual and everything. It was liberating to think of those new things once the main concept was kept but after we built the lore.

Nico: Aloy’s quest focuses on her personal history, as well as the overarching questions around the rise of the machines and fall of humanity. How difficult was it to strike that balance between the small and big pictures?

Samrat: I think that was a very conscious decision, it’s something that we wanted to do. The idea was that we wanted her quest to find out who she is mixed with the players quest to find out what this world is about and why there are machines in this beautiful lush world where the old ones, as we call them (humanity) will go. You want to know as a player and as a character, she wants to know who she is and where she came from. that worked really well together taking us forward so if the narrative of impetus for her is mixed with the basic emotion and curiosity of the player it gives that extra motivation to go through the story.

Nico: You’ve done some interesting things with the side quests in the game, some of which leading to larger story elements later on. How important was it to you to ensure that Horizon didn’t become “just another open world”?

Samrat: Extremely. So we had a very focused concept. We wanted to make a certain game and we wanted to make a game that would let people enjoy the lore of the world. It was important that you understand that this is a living breathing world out side of the story and the best way to explore this world is through this girl who wants to know who she is but other than that there is this whole world and whole history to explore deeply. Not just from the side quests but from other activities that you can do in the game, they all feed into the lore and build this world up. This is the first time we have done this IP so we wanted to allow people to really dive into this world and we felt this was the best way to do that.

Nico: Horizon offers a very different take on a post-apocalyptic society, can you tell me a little bit more about the ideas behind setting it so far in the future and as much as you’re allowed regarding the “event” that took place?

Samrat: I think how our current day became this future is the central core quest. You’re trying to find that out and Aloy is trying to find out who she is so I don’t want to spoil it. At some point something happened, there was a flashpoint event where humanity was completely annihilated and so they started coming back together and started forming tribes. Now these tribes have been there for some time, they are set in their ways and they have formed different settlements across the world and now here comes this little outcast girl who has been brought up by this really strict but still loving guardian. I can’t really say more without spoiling the game!

As far as inspiration, the inspiration we’ve taken has been from the likes of Planet Earth and watching lush, vibrant spaces and that is what we wanted to make, our desire was to make something in that space. The concept was built around 6 years ago now and everyone was immediately attracted to this lush, vibrant world and we just wanted to do it, the whole studio just rallied behind this one concept.

Nico: Picking up on that, how rewarding is it to see a game you have been working on for 6 years come to life?

Samrat: Incredibly! Some of these ideas and have been saved in peoples heads for so long and then you finally get to see it and then you finally get to see people play it. There was a preview event in Amsterdam some time ago and we got to see these cosplayers dressed up as Aloy walking in full costume and they are playing the game, controlling Aloy as Aloy! This really blew our mind because we’ve been working on this for 6 years, it is incredibly rewarding.

Nico: The game looks absolutely incredible. Can you tell me more about the Decima engine? It seems to scale well given the performance on the standard ps4 as well as the pro.

Samrat: Being a Sony studio, we were made aware of what the Pro was and what it was capable of at an early point and then we were given the dev kit to play with and understand what we could do. It was midway through development so we could structure our development process around knowing that we would be shipping on PS4 but also that we could be supporting the Pro. The Pro is an incredible piece of hardware for us, we’ve really been able to super sample the image for normal 1080p users and get rid of all anti artefacts for even 1080p users and 4k and HDR support. For us it was a really good fit when they said we could work with HDR. We have a lush, vibrant space, HDR is perfect for us and we want the colours to pop. It was a perfect fit so everything we learnt about the Pro we though “yeah, we need to do this and this” so we were able to really enjoy working on the Pro as opposed to it being a chore to support a different set of standards.

Nico: Without going into spoiler territory, we’ve heard that Horizon will likely become a new franchise – where do you see the world going in the future?

Samrat: Currently, we are focused 100% on this game and the team has finally been able to breathe for a little bit. It can, maybe, because the world has a deep lore behind it but at the moment we have been so focused on this game we haven’t thought about it much.

Nico: Has there been much collaboration with other first party studios to bring the game to life? It seems like the PS4 ecosystem is a very positive one amongst developers.

Samrat: First party studios are what we call world wide studios and we are sort of like a family, we have close relationships with a lot of studios. We have shared tech and processes. We’ve been working with so many studios I don’t want to namecheck them all, but we have a close relationship. Depending on what they feel and we feel is important between our cultures to share we definitely tend to share. It really depends though, sometimes it’s not a tech collaboration, it’s a process one or a design one, we have certain design philosophies that they might benefit from for example.

Nico: Was there any multiplayer considered for the game during any stage of development?

Samrat: We would have loved to make multiplayer but when we started chiseling down what the game at it’s core was it turned out the game was an open world RPG, which was Aloy’s story, so we wanted to focus on that. It’s a really tough undertaking for a studio that makes first person shooters to make an open world game in and of itself so adding anything else on to it seemed like overkill so we focused on that. We said “Okay this is the game and this is what we are making” and we spent a lot of time making it! *laughs*

Nico: Was there anything that you wanted to do with the game that you couldn’t?

Samrat: Yeah, there were a bunch of ideas that got cut simply because they didn’t fit the game. There wasn’t a tech or time restriction. As you know we were meant to launch in November but we had to push that to February, but it wasn’t a tech or time restriction as our engine is fantastic. Its was more because they didn’t fit the game or it didn’t feel natural for Aloy to do those things, but they were minor. Well, in the grand scheme of things we hope it was minor!

Nico: Last question! From a personal standpoint, are there any games coming up that you’re looking forward to?

Samrat: I’ve been focused on the game so much! What is coming out?! Ah, Zelda is coming out isn’t it? I’m a big Zelda fan! And in first party, at some point, God of War comes soon, which I can’t wait to play. From a personal stand point, can’t wait to play Dreams, it’s not a game anyone has played before and what ever I have seen before it is completely different. We love our friends as Media Molecule and I definitely want to play Dreams, I am super excited for it!

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