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Behind the Scenes with Horizon Zero Dawn’s Animalistic Machines, From Concept to Creation

Horizon Zero Dawn does not launch until March 1st and yet the title has already captivated the gaming community. The steady stream of teasing screenshots and tempting videos has whetted many appetites and made the game the most anticipated release of the year. We have been introduced to Aloy, the red-haired heroine caught within a robotic post-apocalypse, and also to the animalistic machines who plague the land. But how were these ‘monsters’ brought to life when their only resemblance to our everyday animals are the legs they rely upon for motion? Guerilla Games let us in on the process and handpick their personal favourites.

These hulking beasts may be the enemy but fans have quickly taken these baddies to heart, immortalising them on canvas and in costume. They are iconic, possibly more so than Aloy, but they didn’t start out looking this way, as director Mathijs de Jonge explains.

We didn’t know how animalistic we should go for the machines,” he confessed. “We did crude models and mockups at a very early stage. We did some machines that were more like scorpions but we noticed that shooting at it was really problematic… the legs were so thin you barely had any surface to hit.”

Whilst toying with the idea of out-of-this-world beings, the team found the gameplay suffered due to a shift in the emotional investment of the player.

We shied away from these because it gave the game a completely different feel,” director Jan-Bart van Beek added. “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!”

Guerilla Games now had their inspiration: mechanised beasts with large surface areas. The team then combined this “skeleton” idea with the notion of layering in collectible components that the player can shoot off and utilise elsewhere within the game. But Mathijs is quick to indicate that Horizon’s animals share very little if no likeness to anything you’d see on earth, using The Watcher as an example.

It’s animalistic but you can’t say exactly what type of animal it is,” he said. “[W]hich was what we were aiming for – it should resemble a combination of animals but not a literal translation of a singular one.

The team did experiment with rabbit-like metallic machines, but as Mathijs put it, “that looked so weird.”

The wildlands will feature small game such as geese and boar for you to hunt tribal style with bow and arrow. The inclusion of larger targets was also debated but their interaction, and more specifically their altercations with the machines proved a difficult scenario to choreograph.

We initially considered having larger predators like mountain lions and bears,” Mathijs added, “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.”

It is probably for the best as poor Aloy must also contend with other humans, living within settlements scattered around the game’s world. Combat Designer Troy Mashburn happily shares his memory of when a group of humans under pursuit from one machine ran into another, with an unscripted battle ensuing as a result.

[I]t just happened,” he said.

Managing Director Hermen Hulst also shared his experience with unintended altercations; whilst prepping for a machine encounter a humanoid faction unexpectedly wandered into the mix.

All of a sudden I had a much more intense fight than I was planning to have!” he recalled. “That sort of thing happens all the time.”

Jab-Bart describes them as “ancient war machines”, Lead narrative designer John Gonzales calls them “the masters of this Earth“, and Managing Director Hermen says “they’re the stars of the show.” However you look at it, the 25 unique species that inhabit that world fit in somewhat naturally with its ecology. They belong there, they live there, and they thrive there. Each is different to one another and exhibit certain behaviours and senses similar to the animals we are more accustomed to.

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,” Hermen said.

Hunting will also be more elaborate than a simple point-shoot-kill procedure. Each machine will have its own Achilles heel, the identification of which will prove vital if you don’t want to be swarmed by a pack of WD-40 thirsty wolves.

If you’re tactical about where you’re shooting [the machines] you can do a lot more damage,” David Ford, Lead Quest Designer, explained. “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.”

And despite the inclusion of instant-kill body parts, Ford assures fans that it in no way lessens the thrill.

It’s an incredibly satisfying experience because they never quite get to the point where they’re trivial.”

Hulst is in aggreeance with Ford.

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 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.”

Preview players have praised the machines for their craftiness during battle, and soon learn to respect their capability. They fight as a pack with no lull in their attack for a weakened Aloy to revitalise and regroup. A split second loss in concentration is all it takes for a hulk of a tail to throw you across the ground or pummel you into it.

All the machines need to be awe-inspiring, threatening, overwhelming and overpowering,” Jan-Bart said in a nutshell. “We wanted to portray a sense of majesty – we want you to look at these landscapes and have them take your breath away.”

Guerilla Games pick their favourite 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.”

Jan-Bart, 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.”

Horizon Zero Dawn launches on March 1st.

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