A Conversation with Herman Hulst


Hermen Hulst is the Managing Director and Co-Founder of Guerrilla. The company is known for the critically acclaimed first-person shooter series Killzone. In 2017, the company released Horizon Zero Dawn, an open-world action-RPG that was a dramatic departure from the studios' previous work. At D.I.C.E. Europe 2017, Hulst will be discussing making the dramatic leap from Killzone to Horizon Zero Dawn. In the conversation below, he touches on his keynote address, some of the surprises Guerrilla encountered along the way, the company's Decima Engine technology, and dangerous beauty. 

At D.I.C.E. Europe 2017, you’ll be talking about Guerrilla’s journey from Killzone to Horizon Zero Dawn. What were the biggest changes and challenges within the company from the early 2000s up to now? 

Wow! There were such a wide range of changes. For one, we had always focused on games in a particular genre -- the first-person shooter genre. With that comes a certain set of expertise, which you would expect from a studio that operates within that genre. So when you move into a different genre, you're looking for new areas of expertise. We moved from first-person shooter to open-world action-RPG, so we had to build out our narrative capability. The requirements in that new genre are much higher in narration then they are in the fps world. 

There were also areas where we had no expertise in whatsoever -- quest design, for instance, and open-world design. Those were all teams that we had to essentially build from scratch. So there were a lot of new people and a lot of new capabilities. Also on the technology side, we had to really completely and deeply overhaul everything we had built up until then. We had great technology, but obviously suited for the development of first-person shooters. That said, our technology at its core is very flexible and well-suited for making it work for a new genre, but that was a huge effort. 

Was the bigger challenge on the personnel side or the technology side? 

It's really difficult to differentiate between that. It would depend on who you ask. If you ask my tech director then he would obviously be very focused on the technology side, making sure that his tool's pipeline is suitable so that people could actually build quests. For me, I'm actively involved in hiring new talent and building teams. Personally, that’s where more of my focus has gone. 

With Killzone being a well-established brand and Horizon Zero Dawn being a fresh one, was the company more nervous or excited about working on something new? 

There was a lot of both. There was a huge amount of newness that we took on. It's our first open-world game. It's a new IP. It's got a very different visual style; we went from the grittiness and edginess that is Killzone to something with a lush and vibrant nature. It's more about beauty -- creating a world that people want to be in instead of evacuate out of. It's our first RPG. It involves quests and so many new systems. The sum total of new areas probably made it such a huge jump. And yes, that made us very nervous. There were times when we absolutely weren't sure it was the best thing to do. I'll be talking about that in my keynote -- about that journey and how the decision came about. I'll be talking about where we were as a company and that specific time in our company when we made that decision, as well as how we procrastinated that decision, because it's a huge delta from what we did in the past. 

You mentioned procrastination. Was this something you've been wanting to do with Guerilla for several years? 

In the keynote I'll be talking about how long this process has been. During the Killzone 3 days, we already started wondering about doing something new. "Is the time there now? Can our creatives do their best work within the same franchise? Is there enough room for wild design ideas?" We actually made the decisions to start investigating new roots towards the end of Killzone 3. That's when we started the internal pitching processes of new ideas. So we've been working on this thing for six-and-a-half, seven years. That's a very long time. 

Making the transition from Killzone to Horizon Zero Dawn in that seven-year cycle, was there anything that came out of nowhere and surprised you? 

Many things, actually. I don't want to give all of them away before my talk, but one insight that I'll share with you now is that moving genres is, of course, very difficult. Everybody intuitively understands why it's difficult. You have to learn so many new things. But because you have such deep expertise in a different genre -- in your original genre -- you actually bring a lot of expertise across. Being new to a particular genre -- in our case the open-world action-RPG genre -- your legacy of being first-person shooter developers actually helps in many areas and becomes a key strength. You have a lot of experience with things like tactical combat, precision in the controls -- all those things that are expected factors in the fps world you bring across. These are areas where we have deep expertise. That gives you a bit of a competitive advantage. That was something I hadn't expected going into that creative pivot that we undertook as a studio. 

While Horizon Zero Dawn has been tremendously successful in a relatively short amount of time, there are many Killzone fans that have enjoyed Guerrilla’s work for more than a decade. Should they be worried about the company's focus going with the new IP? 

I get asked that question a lot through Twitter and other social media channels. It's really heartwarming to hear that there's such a strong appetite from the loyal Killzone fanbase. It's a franchise and universe that we still love with a passion at Guerrilla. It hasn't been easy doing something so completely different. Whether or not we've put a permanent period behind the series, it's too early to make announcements on that. All I can say is that we've always loved the Killzone universe and the Killzone series, and we still do. We share that passion for the game with a lot of our fans. 

The Decima engine is extremely impressive and full of tremendous potential. Do you see it becoming a larger part of Guerrilla in the immediate future? 

Technology has always been one of our key strengths. It's Michiel van der Leeuw's, our technical director's, brain child. Decima builds on the legacy of Guerrilla. It dates back to the late '90s when Michiel wrote his first code. It's always been very central, but I would argue that the biggest leap that our technology has undertaken has been with the rebranding of our technology into Decima. And that was all on the back of the incredible challenge to go open-world and to make it ready for Horizon Zero Dawn. It was a tremendous challenge for Michiel's team and the progress they've made has been fantastic. It's something that we're investing in heavily and it's very important to the studio. 

One of the most fascinating things about Horizon Zero Dawn is that its world is so beautiful, yet so dangerous. Are there any artists or works of art that you find dangerously beautiful? 

[Laughs] That area of danger and beauty -- that's really where all great content comes from, especially in music. I've always found that in a lot of music I've listened to over the years. When I was a student, I'd listen to The Rolling Stones a lot. Those guitar riffs have an edginess to them, but there's great beauty in them as well. I found that a lot in David Bowie as well. In general, danger and beauty can come from the same place.

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