The 'Magic Formula' Behind Horizon: Zero Dawn's Success

SURPRISE! It's a bonus episode of Kotaku Splitscreen, featuring Guerrilla Games' boss Hermen Hulst, who shares some insight as to how Horizon: Zero Dawn turned out so special.

In this 20-minute interview, Hulst and I talked about how Guerrilla went from the dark gritty landscapes of Killzone to the vibrant world of Horizon, how they learned how to tell stories, and the magic formula (or lack thereof) that made Horizon so great despite the fact that the studio had never made an open-world role-playing game before.

Listen here:

Get the MP3 right here, or read an excerpt below:

Jason: Something that I find really fascinating is that usually in the video game industry, when you have a new IP, it has to go through some growing pains before it gets where it wants to go. For example, we saw this with Uncharted and Assassin's Creed, the first game has a solid foundation but it's not until the second game, once the team has learned to make that type of game, [the quality] is much better. With Horizon it feels like you guys have really nailed it out the gate... What's the magic formula? Is it just having so much time, because you worked on the game for so many years?

Hulst: I think first of all it's the acknowledgement that you need quality in all areas: world design, characterization, gameplay, but also the story. You've gotta acknowledge the fact that in some areas, you're not strong enough, and you've gotta build that expertise, so that's the first part of it. The second part is, if you make a game in a new genre, your playtesting, and focus testing, and all the appeals testing that you do becomes even more important, because your intuition is not as well-developed yet, as it is when you make more games in a certain genre.

I think we should also acknowledge the fact that PlayStation as a publisher has been generous and has given us ample time, has given us more time at some points, to really go for the quality and get everything right, and give us time for all the individual ingredients to click together, and really make a very well-balanced world with a well-told story with a character that can actually carry that story. And the fact that PlayStation has allowed us that time, I think speaks for that quality orientation of the publisher.

Jason: You mentioned focus groups and testing features — were there any examples you can remember of times during development where you were going one way and then it turned out to be the wrong direction for the game, and you had to turn around or make big changes? Can you think of any examples where you had to overhaul or you had some big challenge, some sort of obstacle?

Hulst: These things tend to be very detailed. I think at some point we had a, not a robotic mount, but we had a horse in there and that just didn't feel right, and people weren't sure if that fit well into the world that we were putting together and the story. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of things that are slightly broken, and in themselves they're not gonna ruin your game, but when you get all of them right, it creates magic. That's how we approach that — all the leads of all disciplines are involved in the playtesting. They're actually forced to watch people play their game, not just look at some spreadsheet that comes back with some scores. You've gotta understand and watch people play your game. That's how you learn to make it better.

Jason: You guys were in development for six years? Seven years?

Hulst: We started the pitching process late in 2009. So 2010 we started concepting. We should probably acknowledge the fact that for five, six months when we were finishing Killzone: Shadow Fall there was hardly any activity on Horizon: Zero Dawn. I would say all in all about six years, maybe six and a half, is the full production cycle of Horizon: Zero Dawn. So it's been a very long time. But that's kind of what you need when you do your first game in a new genre, it's a new IP, it's your first open-world game. It takes time. But we didn't always work on it with a full team — we started with a few guys and scaled that up to maybe 20 people for the first few years. I don't want to make it sound more expensive than it was.

Jason: So it's safe to say it won't take six or seven years for the sequel?

Hulst: No. We're going to have to see, but we obviously learned a lot of lessons, as we did from doing a launch title. So we'll bring that into our development processes going forward.

Listen to the full interview for more. As always, you can find Splitscreen on Apple Podcasts and Google Play.


    Just can't get into this game. Same problem I had with TLOU.

    Not sure whats wrong with me.. Love Robots + Dinosaurs + Zombies.

    Maybe I'm allergic to PlayStations. =\

      How much time have you given it?

      For me, it started out as a fairly plain open world game. Then the combination of story and dinobot fights then sucked me right into the game. The more machine types you start encountering, the more weapon types you find, the more interesting the combat becomes. The more of the story you encounter, the more you want to delve into it.

      The main characters and story are petty damn good, it's everything else that makes it hard to wade through.

      As for the TLOU though, you might possibly be a monster lol

    I am in two minds about this game... the visuals and raw gameplay are brilliant, but all the UI, NPCs, the story and the way the Lore is present is very very ordinary. I think it has a lot to do with the 'Far Cry' style, show us where everything is. it would be more exciting if you didnt know what was about to jump you.

    HZD should have been Monster Hunter World with robot dinosaurs but instead it was just a mediocre "Do all the activities" game with a fairly standard Sci-Fi story stretched over it. It was a spectacular bit of mediocrity but nothing in it really stuck out as something I felt games should do more of.

    Personally, this was one of the best I've games I've played in close to 40 years of playing video games, and I can't wait for the sequel.

      100% agreed. Absolutely loved everything about it from start to end.

    Slogged through this game until the bitter end out of sheer determination. I think I've decided that this will be the last ever 'press and hold button to pick up a bit of plant' game I can handle. At least 50% of the time playing this game is spent waiting for a long hold button to press to complete picking up something.

    'Better not look down!' says Aloy at one point climbing across a cliff. Minutes earlier this character was choosing to deliberately jump off a giant robot dinosaur and throw her grapple hook to save herself in mid-air just for fun..

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