As we count down to Horizon Zero Dawn’s release on 1st March, Guerrilla Games reflects on the creation of its action RPG, and shares stories about the key beats that shaped its new game. In part two, Game Director Mathijs de Jonge, Art Director Jan-Bart van Beek, Lead Quest Designer David Ford, Combat Designer Troy Mashburn and Managing Director Hermen Hulst talk the making on its already iconic machines, and handpick their personal favorites.
Even the earliest thrilling iconography of Horizon Zero Dawn could be split evenly in two: on one side, there’s red-haired heroine Aloy, bow taut and ready to fight. On the other, the hulking, immediately intriguing design of an animalistic machine.
This mechanized threats, so intrinsic to the world’s ecosystem and its overarching mystery are already iconic. The nimble Watcher of the earlier reveals has become a PlayStation event cosplay mainstay, while the hulking Thunderjaw has been immortalized in the game’s fantastic artwork.
Creating the Concept of the Machines
“We didn’t know how animalistic we should go for the machines,” confesses Horizon Zero Dawn’s director Mathijs de Jonge of the initial design process. “We did crude models and mockups at a very early stage.”
Surprising this may be given the game’s background story being humanity’s regression to a primitive culture and surviving an aggressive, dominant animalistic species, but ‘dinosaur’ wasn’t the immediate creative direction the team went in.
“We did some machines that were more like scorpions,” explains Mathijs, “but we noticed that shooting at it was really problematic… the legs were so thin you barely had any surface to hit.” The game’s director Jan-Bart van Beek (JB) concurred from a visual perspective. “We shied away from these because it gave the game a completely different feel. It’s different shooting alien-looking machines compared to robot dinosaurs, which changes the gameplay. Visually it didn’t work as well either, compared to seeing big robot dinosaurs!”
And with large surface areas and mechanisation key components, it allowed Guerrilla Games to entertain the idea of multi-layered animals with collectable components that could be shot off. Horizon Zero Dawn’s fantastical beasts – and their creator – had found their inspiration, though Mathijs is quick to point out that not one mechanized creature is a parallel of a real world one, extinct or not. “The Watcher in the game,” he uses as away of example. “it’s animalistic but you can’t say exactly what type of animal it is, which was what we were aiming for – it should resemble a combination of animals but not a literal translation of a singular one.”
That said, there was one particular, familiar type that was attempted, but become a creative dead end: rabbit-like metallic animals. Mathijs dismisses them with a laugh. “That looked so weird!”
Bone and Flesh, Steel and Cable
You’ll notice smaller game – geese, boar for example – wandering the wildlands as you explore, which ties into the fiction of tribes’ hunting for fur and meat. But Mathijs touches upon the decision not to include larger flesh-and-blood animals onto the digital reserve, pinpointing its effect on gameplay.
“We initially considered having larger predators animals like mountain lions and bears, but we thought it may get a little strange as they’d get into conflict with the machines and you’d get these weird looking fights between them,” he laughingly remembers.
Besides, Aloy’s got enough to contend with as humans are thrown into the procedurally-generated mix, stories of which both Combat Designer Troy Mashburn and Managing Director Hermen Hulst happily share. The former remembering how a group of people being chased by a machine ran smack into another mechanised pack. An “epic battle” ensued. “It wasn’t scripted to happen, it just happened.”
Similarly Hulst remembers prepping for a machine encounter, only for a humanoid faction to wander into the fray. “All of a sudden I had a much more intense fight than I was planning to have! That sort of thing happens all the time.”
The creators pick their personal favorites from Horizon Zero Dawn’s machines
Troy Mashburn, combat designer: “Shell Walkers have a variety of things you can do to them. They’re fun as you need to plan how to attack them, set traps and maybe disable them piece by piece, or maybe lob some explosive grenades and weaken them.”
David Ford, lead quest designer: “The Scrapper looks like a hyena, has more weak points but not one single critical weak point. That presents a different challenge. They have this scary projectile attack from their mouth and they’re really good at flanking and swarming you, so they can be deadly in groups.”
Mathijs De Jonge, game director: “The Watcher was one of the first machines we built in prototype in animation, about five years ago. It had no AI at the time, just animation, but immediately felt so real.”
JB, art director: “The Thunderjaw – the massive T-rex machine – is a favourite. Also because it was the first one that we did and was our proof of concept; if we could make this work then we could make the game work.”
War Machines: Masters of the Earth
JB coins the term “ancient war machines” as an apt description of Aloy’s fearsome foes. Lead narrative designer John Gonzales calls them “the masters of this Earth.”
“They’re the stars of the show,” Managing Director Hermen says simply. “I like how different the machines are from each other,” touching on the impressive species count – 25 unique kinds – that roam the world you’ll find yourself in. “There’s an entire ecology which feels natural – some behave to try and stick with a herd, so even if you lure one away they still try to have that herd mentality.”
David Ford, lead quest designer, elaborates. “If you’re tactical about where you’re shooting [the machines] you can do a lot more damage. If you’re shooting the sides or the armour plating of a Watcher for example, it will eventually go down, but during that time its buddies can swarm and overwhelm you.” Ford pinpoints the Watcher’s eye as the place to aim for an instant-kill. Yet even knowing a beast’s weak spots doesn’t lessen the thrill of the hunt – be you hunter or hunted. “It’s an incredibly satisfying experience because they never quite get to the point where they’re trivial.”
Hulst echoes a similar sentiment. “Even as an experienced Horizon player, I get a different type of fun toying with four or five Watchers at the same time – whereas at the beginning at the game just one is tough! And sometimes you’ll come across one which has a upgraded with a few skills that they didn’t have at the start of the game, so they develop with you.”
“I like how, as a player, you can learn about [machines] by scanning them and finding their weak spots and behavioural patterns,“ he continues. “There’s so much backstory that’s expressed via gameplay. We really have to switch things up depending on which machines you’re coming across at the time. And the sound team did a great job bringing them to life.”
I can attest to machine ferociousness and iconic sounds. Even combating a single Watcher late into a recent preview event I was surprised at its cunning and respectful of its power. One tail strike knocked Aloy across the glade of the overgrown city ruins I was fighting in and depleted half her health. As I readied to strike back, a sudden high-pitched whine behind instinctively had me roll out of the way. A split-second later another Watcher launched itself at the spot I just vacated. I’d found myself in the middle of a Watcher pack with no recourse but to fight my way out.
JB summed up my feelings from the encounter best. “All the machines need to be awe-inspiring, threatening, overwhelming and overpowering,” a sense of presence that every creature, great and small, carries. “We wanted to portray a sense of majesty – we want you to look at these landscapes and have them take your breath away.”