Guerilla Games was mostly known for middling shooters when it decided to take a risk and create Horizon Zero Dawn. Its reward was one of the most popular games of 2017.
Despite our misgivings, Horizon Zero Dawn was a large boost for Sony and Guerilla. It was a technical showcase for the PS4 Pro's enhanced capabilities; it raised Guerilla's profile, and it gave Sony a popular new exclusive. It also forced Microsoft to answer the uncomfortable question of why the Xbox One doesn't have anything comparable in its library of exclusives.
To its credit, Microsoft appears to be listening. In the wake of the successful launch of the Xbox One X, reports have emerged that Forza Horizon developer Playground Games is spearheading a Fable revival. If those reports are true, Xbox One may soon have a Horizon Zero Dawn to call its own... or even a Witcher.
Playground Games is Definitely Working on Something
Whether or not it's actually a Fable reboot, Playground Gamees is definitely working on an open world game of some sort. The studio confirmed as much in an interview with Gamesindustry.biz last year.
Founder and creative director Ralph Fulton told GI, "We feel like we've become pretty good at racing games over the years. We can always get better, we can always strive to get better but we'd love to prove ourselves in a different genre. That's another goal of Project 2, to allow us to do that. We're going to need to hire some very talented people with experience that we don't have."
Playground's pivot to a new genre is similar to Guerilla's own move back in 2011. Following the release of Killzone 3, the studio solicited pitches from the studio's staff. The pitch that ultimately became Horizon Zero Dawn was presented by art director Jan-Bart van Beek, and was judged a major risk by the studio's leadership. But the studio nevertheless opted to wade into unfamiliar territory.
In creating Horizon Zero Dawn, Guerilla Games reinforced its writing staff with John Gonzalez, who served as the lead writer on the much-loved Fallout New Vegas. The story that followed was criticized on this site, but nevertheless resonated with the broader public. It was undoubtedly better than any of the writing in Killzone.
Playground Games is similarly broadening its expertise beyond the racing genre. In last year's GI report, Fulton revealed that the studio was building a second team that would be housed in a separate building in Royal Leamington Spa. The studio already has veterans from around the UK gaming industry, and will almost certainly add refugees from ex-Fable developer Lionhead Studios.
The project will no doubt be the biggest test the comparatively young studio has experienced so far. Formed back in 2010, Playground Games has made a name for itself with Forza Horizon, which consistently enjoys excellent reviews and massive buzz. The series is known for its immense polish, huge amount of content, and above all, its astounding beauty. If any studio can pull off a Horizon Zero Dawn-type technical showcase on Xbox One X, its Playground Games.
But open world RPGs are very different animals from open-world racing games. They require great writing, interesting systems, and above all, great quest design. Witcher 3 made its name with its incredible multi-part sidequests, which organically broadened the world and provided a surfeit of interesting experiences. Great quest design is much more than populating the world with "Bucket List" stunts and Barn Finds.
If reports are true that Playground Games' project is a Fable revival, then it will also have to contend with the baggage of the series at large. While generally well-liked, Fable is mostly known for disappointment and broken promises. My lasting memory of Fable 3 is literally putting down my controller as my treasury filled with gold from real estate investments, making a mockery of the supposed "hard decisions" I would have to make to fend off a pending invasion. Playground Games will have to put their own stamp on the series without borrowing too heavily from Horizon Zero Dawn and Witcher 3.
Regardless, despite technically being a private studio, Playground Games appears set to step out of the shadow of Turn 10 and become the exclusive developer that Microsoft so desperately needs. It's unlikely that we'll see the fruits of their labor before 2019 or even early 2020—open-world games take a very long time to make—but its heartening to hear that Xbox One still has a few tricks up its sleeve heading into the second half of the generation.
In the meantime, Playground Games is fast becoming one of my favorite developers on Xbox One. If it pulls off a Horizon Zero Dawn-like transformation, it will surely vault into the industry's highest tier.