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Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds Interview - Quest Design and Creating a Strong Narrative
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 04:49pm 06/11/17 | Comments
We chat with one the lead designers of Horizon Zero Dawn about open world quest design, narrative, and the new The Frozen Wilds expansion.

For Aussie Tim Stobbo, the journey to become Principal Game Designer at Guerrilla Games is a fascinating one. Many years ago, he was working at another large studio, Team Bondi in Syndey. Working on the highly anticipated LA Noire. We won’t get into the troubled history of that release or the eventual closure of the studio, but from there Tim went on to form his own indie studio with a few ex-Team Bondi members with a shared goal to create story-driven games. In reality though that meant contract work for other studios, a situation that Tim notes “wasn't satisfying for me, so I started looking around for other places to go.”

That other place would be Guerrilla Games, who gave Tim an early look at Horizon Zero Dawn and its heroine Aloy. “I was absolutely blown away. I didn't want to work anywhere else,” Tim recalls. “I started around the end of pre-production, right as we kicked into high gear, building the world.” Tim’s role on Horizon Zero Dawn would be Senior Quest Designer which involved working on story missions, side missions, and “working with the narrative teams that were pitching story ideas and doing narrative design on a bunch of that stuff.”


It’s the narrative side of game, the ability to tell stories that first drew Tim to the medium. But on top of that with the introduction of large open worlds to explore, like the one in Horizon Zero Dawn and other more inspirational titles for Tim like Red Dead Redemption that inform his overall narrative goals. “Figuring out story arcs is something that you want to do, thinking about characters, and thinking about the world as a whole,” Tim explains. “And then, once you've got those stories, you think about where they go in the world. And in some sense, I think, having an idea of what the world will be makes it easier because you're thinking, ‘Well, we know there's a big city here,’ or, ‘We know there's a river here.’”

“And you can place your stories around that, and you can build encounters around that, rather than just having a giant, white canvas, and you can put anything, anywhere,” Tim continues. “That's sort of the terror of the white page.” But for a project as large in scope as Horizon Zero Dawn, and the new The Frozen Wilds expansion, working within a larger team not only allows for but demands collaboration between various realms of expertise.


“We know where The Frozen Wilds is going to take place, and we know what story we want to tell, and we know what the art team wants to build, and what they think the world will look like,” Tim tells me, talking about the development process. “At that point you have a lot of meetings and a lot of discussion about, ‘Well, we need something that looks like this,’ and then we just need an encounter. And they might say, ‘We can build this for you, but we've got this amazing place that we think you should put the encounter in.’"

That strong collaboration between art, design, technology, and narrative might just be what separates a title like Horizon Zero Dawn from, well, just about anything else you can think of. “Having a really strong narrative team and an incredibly skilled art team means that, as quest designers, we're kind of really blessed. We get to just work with all this amazing stuff that we're given, and we can tell really-cool stories,” Tim adds.


With the release of The Frozen Wilds still a few weeks away (at the time of our conversation), Tim instead delves into the design process for a specific narrative quest that he worked on during the development of Horizon Zero Dawn. “All right, so, I can give you an example of a story quest that's called ‘To Curse the Darkness’,” Tim explains. “It's a quest that's about halfway through Horizon Zero Dawn. And when I first started working on that quest, it was very different to what it is now. So, the quest, as it takes place, is Aloy infiltrates a main base to try and take down a network.”

“And it's an interesting quest because it's pretty action-heavy,” Tim continues. “You get some stealth elements, you get some really good narrative elements, and you have a really big set piece that ends it. When I first started working on the quest, it had a lot of those elements, but it took place in an underground bunker. And we had a bunch of reasons why we didn't want to do that, and so this was a quest that we sort of got to redesign and rework during the production of the game.”


“And, so, that was myself, the lead quest designer, the lead concept artist and the narrative director saying, ‘We know that the quest needs to do these things, because it's part of the main story. What can we build in terms of narrative that solves the problems we want to solve and why we don't want it to be in a bunker? And what would just be super cool and what would fit?’”

Tim continues, “And, so, we sort of get the idea, ‘Well, if this is the key network, we've got to have it in an important place.’ But, you know, you sort of go through that problem-solving phase and once you've solved all the problems, and you're really happy with the story, you have a meeting that gets everyone else in the team on board, and start figuring out the scheduling and how stuff will get built.”

From there it’s a matter of building what’s known as grey-boxing, a version of the game without key art assets merely there to allow for immediate testing and feedback. “And then we iterate, and we iterate,” Tim adds. “It’s a lot of meetings at the start to figure out exactly what you want to do and how you want to tell the story, and then every department is sort of working in parallel to get from that first concept all the way through to completion.”


One key aspect of the design work that goes into something like Horizon Zero Dawn, is this long and drawn out process to get it right. Not only that, but involving each team to ensure that what players end up seeing and experiencing exceeds the original vision. “As the designer, just seeing stuff slowly come online is amazing. ‘To Curse the Darkness’ has a hectic chase scene along a wall and when I first set that up, it's really grey-box and basic,” Tim concludes. “And then artists come in and they're like, ‘Well if you change this, it'll be amazing.’ And then the machines come online, and it's just the most exciting process. I love it.”

With the success and response to Horizon Zero Dawn being almost universally positive, one wonders what it is about certain open world titles where story seems to matter more than others. And quests themselves never feel superfluous or simply there just to pad out and add a bit of extra playtime. For Tim the answer to that is the collaborative spirit at Guerrilla Games, and working with a diverse team with the same goals in mind.

“Having that to rely on is so inspiring for quest designers, and, I think, for the writers as well,” Tim tells me. “It's really easy to come up with really compelling stories when you have the amazing tribes and amazing world [of Horizon]. We also have this insane, crazy backstory. And I think what elevates the quests is that we're never trying to make you do anything mundane, because we want you to love the game. And, so, that in combination with being able to tell interesting stories just means that the quests can be really compelling.”


Which leads us to The Frozen Wilds, the new expansion for Horizon Zero Dawn that shifts the location to the wintery north, providing not only new visual themes and locations to work with but a chance for the team to take stock of what it has accomplished so far.

“Horizon Zero Dawn was built around amazing landscapes, and it's got this sort of nature documentary feel,” Tim explains. “So, it’s not hard to find other beautiful areas of the world. And for The Frozen Wilds the artists immediately had all these visions of mountain peaks and, you know, misty mountains and forests.”

“We also get a chance to look at what we loved about Horizon Zero Dawn, and see if we can find ways to make it even better. Or if we find things that we maybe ran out of time to do on Horizon Zero Dawn, now we have a chance to do them properly. We can find what we did best and make it even better, and find new things too that players will love.”

Thanks to Tim Stobbo and PlayStation Australia for their time in arranging this interview. Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds is out November 7 exclusively on PlayStation 4