Horizon Zero Dawn's Quest Design Was Inspired By Everything From Vampire the Masquerade to Skyrim

An FPS developer learns how to make an RPG.

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Horizon Zero Dawn programmer Leszek Szczepanski opened his GDC talk yesterday with an admission. "You may have heard that we previously made first-person shooters, so we had no experience with [RPGs]." Guerilla's solution? Take inspiration from other games and try and build a system of their own.

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Guerilla's investigation brought them to the usual suspects like Skyrim, but also everything from Vampire the Masquerade to Two Worlds. Witcher 2, Titan Quest, and Might and Magic VI were likewise highlighted.

What Guerilla derived from these games helps to shed a lot of light on their thought process behind Horizon Zero Dawn. They wound up taking a very technical approach to the process, putting each game on a scale ranging from "Relaxed" to "Strict," with relaxed being defined as games with few centralized systems for managing quest progression, and strict being ones with quests featuring a rigid structure and predefined elements.

In the end, Horizon Zero Dawn wound up on the stricter side of the scale, as Szczepanski highlighted in his presentation.

The team's goal, ultimately, was to be able to quickly and easily build a lot of common types of quests using various actions, which they termed "verbs." They wound up visualizing this process with the help of a wall of sticky notes, which they used to build out their quest structure.

In one example, he highlighted a theoretical quest in which the player talks to a village and is tasked with eliminating an insect infestation. The player then has the option of battling the infestation or talking to the Swarm Queen before returning to the village for their reward. The system that Guerilla ultimately developed resulted in Horizon featuring some 150 quests of varying complexity.

The wall of sticky notes.

"The system isn't perfect," Szczepanski admitted. "The list of verbs we had didn't sufficiently match our needs."

In other respects, the verbs proved to be less interesting than they had originally hoped, he told me later. Guerilla plans to revisit their list of actions and revise them accordingly.

It should be noted that we weren't huge fans of Horizon Zero Dawn's quest design, with Caty writing in her review, "The side missions in Horizon Zero Dawn are consequentially stale, in that they feel repetitive and pointless to a fault. In one, I help gather supplies for a woman's superpowered gun. I slaughter some people, get the supplies, slaughter more people with the new gun, and then we're pals. In most cases, you're fetching something for someone, you're helping someone fight (whether it's against robots or bandits), or you're finding a missing person."

My main takeaway? Building a lot of quests is ridiculously hard, especially in the context of an open-world game. But with a bit of experience and a workable system under their belt, Guerilla can now work to flesh out their quest design and tell more interesting stories for Horizon Zero Dawn's inevitable sequel.

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