Inside the Killzone
Guerrilla's cofounder and managing director speaks out on Killzone 3, the importance of fan feedback, and the current state of the gaming industry.
Guerrilla's Killzone franchise has found itself in some contentious positions over the course of its life span. The development of the first game in the series brought about cries of "the Halo killer" from the press. The second game found expectations dramatically raised due to a target render video prominently displayed during a Sony Electronic Entertainment Expo press conference, which prompted questions of whether or not its high visual standards could actually be achieved. Despite all of these things, Guerrilla has seemingly remained steadfast in delivering its own vision for Killzone, and with the fourth game in the franchise completed, we got a chance to speak with Hermen Hulst--cofounder and managing director of Guerrilla Games--to talk more about the design process behind Killzone 3, the franchise as a whole, and the good and bad characteristics of the video game industry.
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GameSpot: For the original Killzone, you had to deal with the "Halo killer" moniker. For Killzone 2, you had the target render video from E3. It seems like Killzone 3 was the first time there wasn't any manufactured pressure from the outside. The team was able to focus on its own goals.
Hermen Hulst: Going back to a few things you're saying, the Halo comparisons were a press thing. I met the journalist who came up with that recently, and he apologized. It was a blessing and a curse in a way [that we were being compared] to a well-established game. That was an honor to us in a way, and it really raised the exposure to the franchise. It was also kind of awkward because they're such different games. We never really thought of them as a benchmark or even as a reference--even though, of course, [Halo] is an FPS.
It's a very different story for the second target you bring up. The studio [created that target render] as a benchmark. We created that as a concept trailer to capture the core experience of the game. It wasn't just a graphical benchmark--it was the intensity and the visceral gameplay style. All of that was captured. Then it was exposed to the outside world when we weren't ready. But that had little to do with it, so the pressure was a secondary thing to that trailer.
The pressure for Killzone 3 was self-imposed in that we didn't want our fans to wait for another four to four and a half years. We've suffered from that in the sense that after four and a half years, your game might be forgotten about. There are very few people that still play multiplayer on the servers. Now, I think we can bring a game to a loyal and still very active user base. We still have mindshare with a lot of the people playing Killzone 2. That's been great. That's one thing we wanted to do. For a lot of teams, I guess it's normal to have a two-year cycle, but for us, it was new and that was the big pressure with Killzone 3.
GS: What have you learned in terms of streamlining development while moving from one Killzone to the next? Have you seen any drastic changes in terms of how Guerrilla makes games?
HH: I think the single biggest thing is that we always had an extremely junior team compared to some of the competition that had very veteran teams, usually US-based. This was the first time we were actually able to do a project where the vast majority was veteran game developers, and that makes a big difference. You require fewer people to come up with new things and to develop through with the required level of polish. That was probably the single biggest change for us--to have that team ready. Then, of course, we could start from day one because we had a great base [to work with]. Killzone 2 was such a solid foundation for us that we said, "OK. Let's use that." Initially we actually said, "Let's not even go too deeply into technological improvements. Let's focus on the variety. Let's theme every level nicely and differently." I think one of the biggest gains over Killzone 2 was that it has such different environments, pacing, and gameplay--that's what we wanted to focus on initially. And, just the guys that we have on the team, they started developing, optimizing, and finding new ways to create more variety and more feature-driven gameplay. That was also a different mind-set from the previous game and a very deliberate one too.
GS: How do you respond to feedback? Are you actively looking at what fans want?
HH: It's part of our development philosophy. We listen and we listen rigorously. We browse through every review, forum post--we're very methodical that way. We list what people really, really like, and we take that and we try to push it as far as we can without changing the essence of it. On the other side, we look at the things that weren't as good. We try to take those things and really flip them over. Internally, we call it a funny name. We call it the "top and bottom-up approach." In the original Killzone, AI and multiplayer were examples of some of the worst-reviewed elements. We turned them around into some of the better-reviewed elements in Killzone 2. People thought it was a little monotonous through the first half of Killzone 2, so that's a really good example of something we took and really made sure that every level plays and looks differently. Also, within every single level, there's a lot of diversity and variety.
GS: Over the course of development, do you look at what other games are doing? Do you ever feel the need to integrate popular features from other games, or do you say, "We just need to stick with what we're doing"?
HH: I personally don't think development works that way. I think if you do that it feels very shoehorned in. At the very beginning, you need to look at your game. Now that we've been developing more games within a franchise, inspiration increasingly comes from within. You look at the current Killzone game--we brought in features like the jetpack from Killzone: Liberation. We brought in the bigger weapons like the mounted weapons from the original Killzone. Some of the wider, more open areas--like the harbor area and the Icy Incursion level--those were pretty much inspired by the original Killzone. I guess if you're working on a game and it's going so poorly, you're working with a publisher, and you're not getting green-lit for instance, you might have to go back and do another analysis of where the bar is at the moment. We didn't have any of those things on Killzone 3. We started developing, picking up where we left off on Killzone 2, and we just made the game we wanted to make.
GS: Since you're working with an established franchise where people think they know what to expect, did that make development more difficult or challenging knowing that people have these expectations? Does that hinder possibilities for innovation?
HH: The good part is that people understand FPSs, and there are certain things like controls that they have issues with. They're very eloquent in expressing what they'd like to see, so that's helpful. But you can't really ask the users to design the game for you. Typically, in my experience, people don't really tell you what they want to tell you--what they think they want. For instance, on the multiplayer side, we didn't really see anyone ask for a more cinematic or story-driven mode, but that's something that we, as a group of people sitting together--me and the creative leads--wondering how we can integrate the experience more. How can we bring some of the strength of single-player into multiplayer? These things are more design-led than feedback-driven.
GS: For Killzone 3's multiplayer, what was the general philosophy behind presenting something that's a little more streamlined versus the nature of the class system in Killzone 2?
HH: We definitely wanted to--and I'm going to use a terrible word here--make it more accessible. But accessible to me doesn't mean selling it out to the masses. To me, it means just making sure people don't spend as much time with administrative tasks. I don't want people to browse through server lists. Again, with some of the feedback, people love Warzone--the quintessential part of Killzone 2 multiplayer--but sometimes a game can weigh in at about 30 to 40 minutes. [For those people] that have 25 minutes right before lunch or before going to work, they wanted something else. That's why we brought in a very classic mode--Guerrilla Warfare team deathmatch. That's just listening to the fans, and the other thing is just coming from us--that's an innovation we wanted to bring.
It's a bit of both. I guess the fans tell you the things you need to do because without it, it's kind of flawed, and then innovation needs to come from the creatives.
GS: Obviously, Killzone is steeped in the imagery of World War II, and while we get glimpses of how evil or sinister the Helghast are, the games never go to the extreme of depicting them as genocidal. Is that an intentional thing--not to draw too many comparisons between the Helghast and the Nazis?
HH: Not so much in a moral sense, but more in an aesthetic sense. We like to do the things that we think are right and they look good. I don't think we're really a team that thinks we should push what people expect or pass that boundary for shock value. I think that would be very wrong from an aesthetic point of view. I think the Helghast, particularly this character Jorhan Stahl--played by Malcom McDowell--you can really see that he's a prick. He's a real a******. But he also kind of does it in an understated, very cheeky way. When we did the motion capture, we actually changed the character to make him look more like Malcom McDowell. That cheeky part of it, I guess, has a certain fun factor to it. You can go all evil and go to concentration camps and get your inspiration from there, but we're making a game. It's entertainment, and it needs to be--at the end of the day--fun, sometimes competitive. But sometimes, it also needs to be lighthearted. There needs to be some comic relief, which is what we try to do. So, no, I would never want to push it in that area.
GS: Is there any fatigue from working on the same franchise over the past few years?
HH: Strangely enough, there isn't. We are now much more at a point where we're comfortable working in this franchise. You also get to understand your own franchise--your own creation--much better. That's also very liberating in a sense when you have that deep understanding of what's possible. I think it opens up creativity. We're not at all fatigued by having done--if you include Liberation--four games in this franchise. Also, our team was very small at the beginning, and it's grown massively. There were a lot of guys that just completed one game or a project and a half, and they specifically came to us to work on Killzone. We feel a lot of excitement about the game we just created. People, frankly, are very happy with it.
GS: In your experience over the past few years, are there things about the industry that you see are moving it in a positive direction?
HH: Yeah, there are a lot of things. Game development is becoming very broad. There are guys like us that make the very deep, big, and epic cinematic experiences. I was just talking to a guy that was working on a game, and he was at his [GDC booth] showing it off and said just two guys are making it. That's awesome. We're talking as developers, and the world is so different. I'm working with eight guys on special effects, and he's making a full game with two or three guys. That scale is very different, but also recently we've seen games for different audiences. Also, you were talking about fatigue in a genre, but increasingly we're seeing more influences from other genres and cross-influences between genres. I think we're at a point where no one really knows what's going to happen next, but you see so many different teams doing different things--it's a really cool phase in this age of our industry.
GS: There has been a huge emphasis placed on AAA, big-budget games, but we're also seeing independent developers rise to some prominence. Can the two entities coexist, or is this all going to come to a head at some point? What needs to happen to create a stable video game industry?
HH: We need to make sure the whole thing keeps growing. It seems like there's enough space for all of us at the moment. I would hate to see a situation where there wasn't a market for the bigger experiences like we make, and sometimes people ask these questions about disc-based games--does it have a future? What it's about is how deep and how big the experiences are. It's not about delivery mechanisms. They're just very different experiences. They're made for different people or sometimes for the same people but for different times of consumption for their entertainment. For what we're doing--and I know it because I talk to our fans a lot--there's massive demand. You know how excited people get. The fan mail we get and the participation--it's heartwarming. I don't see there being less of that.
GS: As a studio, is their a growing sentiment or pressure to keep fans active with a franchise in between major releases? We're seeing offshoot games appear on platforms like Facebook, as an example.
HH: Not so much pressure, but I think these are tools that we have at our disposal to keep people involved a lot more. We have our own community manager, and I think it's great to have somebody on the team that talks to the fans on a daily basis. He's sitting in an office right next to me, and his name is Victor, and I talk to him. He knows at any given moment what the sentiment is. That's a great thing to have, to be that close to your fans. It doesn't go through the PR man. I don't think we've been in a situation like this before where we're that close to the people we make our games for, and that's really cool.
GS: Where do you see the industry in five years? We're seeing these trends with mobile devices and things like that picking up steam. 3D is another big one.
HH: There's a couple of things that we've experimented with in Killzone 3. 3D is one that I've said before is here to stay. Compare it to the transition from mono sound to stereo sound. It's really cool, and these experiences are increasingly immersive, and that's what we're doing with a game like Killzone. We want you to be in the middle of the action. We're experimenting with how things look on the screen through 3D, but also the input with motion controls. I think you'd be crazy not to try out these kinds of things. It's such a big part. You control your gun, then you get Move, and you want to toy around with it. If you spend that much time polishing and designing how to operate your weapons and then you get a new control scheme, and you don't experiment with it? That would be really weird. We took that and we tried to [bring it] even further. We designed a gun from the Killzone universe and made the Sharpshooter out of it. So on the control side of things, on 3D, and on the screen side of things, whatever is there, we'll try it out and kind of see what sticks for us.
GS: We have a few fans of the Sharpshooter in the office.
HH: Yeah, and it's cool because now that we've shipped a game, we have ideas on how to progress that. It's probably too early to talk about it, but there's some really cool ideas on how to progress from where we started. When we talked about listening to the fan base, I think we're the kind of developer that's very careful not to alienate people that are the core fans--the people that have spent the most hours playing Killzone. If they tell us to use DualShock, then we'll do both. But we still will always experiment, and when there's new technology, we'll toy around with it and see if it works. And we'll try to get as many people as possible to try it out, and if they like it, great. If they don't like it, by all means play it the way you used to.
GS: Finally, do you feel like the video game industry has lost anything over the years? There seems to be a different mentality present now than in the earlier days. Is there any element of that the industry should try to get back?
HH: Give me an example of something that's been lost. The reason I'm asking that is because I think it's pure nostalgia. Usually, when I hear questions like that, it comes from the guys that were there in the early stages when the industry was still in its infancy. If you see the kind of project or the nature of the projects being developed back then, you still see that now. But now we're talking about things that might be an iPhone game or an Android game. These guys are still there. If there are a couple of friends that have a good idea, there's a platform for these guys, and I think it's probably easier now than it has ever been to try things out. It's really quite easy. I don't think we've lost anything. I think we've tapped an enormous amount of creative talent. We're in a good space.
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