Horizon Zero Dawn’s 1st Anniversary – A Photomode chat with Roderick

Happy Birthday Horizon Zero Dawn!

One year ago Guerrilla Games and Sony Interactive Entertainment released the third-person action-adventure Horizon Zero Dawn and Aloy has taken our consoles and hearts by storm. And what a year it was! A year of adventure and discovery, of challenging fights, of defining encounters, pure joy and success on many levels: Rave reviews by press and players, 7.6 million copies sold, a quite successful award season and last but not least a caring, vivid and non-toxic community of gamers, artists, cosplayers and… virtual photographers!

Roderick von der Steen @ Guerrilla Games

I’m very much into real life photography and have been taking screenshots for a long time but HZD was the first game I have ever played that offered me a tool I never knew I needed: The outstanding photomode. It sparked my imagination and provided me opportunities I wish I had in real life, too.
On the occasion of Horizon’s first anniversary and our team-up with Guerrilla Games for a photomode-contest we had the opportunity to ask Roderick van der Steen – one of the creators of the photomode and responsible for Lighting – a few questions about the game and its photomode. He gave us some quite interesting insights.

Lady Snipeshot: It’s been a year since the release and Horizon Zero Dawn’s Photo Mode has had a tremendously positive response from the fans. Did it ever cross your mind that it would be such a success?
Roderick: While creating the photo mode our main objective was to enable players to take photos of the world, a world that started looking pretty good at that stage in development. We enjoyed taking screenshots of the world for development purposes, so we thought people outside of the studio also would.
We never expected the incredible amount of fantastic shots that would appear in the first week, let alone the months that followed, it was a humbling and emotional experience for everyone involved in the development of Horizon. Seeing the world you help create through the eyes of people just embarking on their journey through it was, and continues, to be amazing to witness.

Lady Snipeshot: When you see social media pages flooded with HZD Photo Mode pics, how does that make you feel knowing that you had such a hand in it’s creation?
Roderick: It makes you feel pretty proud, mainly because it meant that the choices we made, and put effort into developing, enabled players to create content which became an extension of the game experience itself. You have to realize that we worked on this game for many years; I myself was involved since 2011. 6 years is a long time to work on anything, and because we push everything so hard to give people the visuals, the framerate, and the experience we would like to get ourselves as well. So when the product gets released you want people to like it, to see its beauty, admire the technical achievement, enjoy the story, love the gameplay …. And then seeing people take so much time, in-between doing all before mentioned things, to frame a shot, tweak the exposure, colours, borders, gestures, facial expressions… It is the best compliment we as developers can get.

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Horizon’s heroine Aloy is the favourite main subject for many users of the photomode.

Luziferian: When/In which phase of development did Guerrilla decide to include a photo mode in the game and for what purpose and what were your reason to implement it?
Roderick: The paper design was done somewhere mid production, but it wasn’t until at some point mid-2016 when I asked what the status of it was that I was told it had been shelved, and that due to time and production considerations it was deemed to be something we would release in a patch after launch. So you could say that the desire to have it in the game was there for a long time, but the creation had been initially delayed until after the game was done. The purpose and reason for creating the photo mode was to enable players to take photos of the world and through that experience get another layer of enjoyment from the game.

Duncan Birnie: Are the tools available to players in Photo Mode, the same as those available to developers when making the cinematics?
Roderick: Funny enough it turned out the other way around. So, as a bit of an insight into our pipelines, we have a rather open tool chain. Meaning that because we want to be able to craft an exact look for each shot/scene/part of the world, we expose a crazy amount of controls to shaders, engine features, and we can drive a lot of things by using our nodegraph systems. All that control comes at a cost, complexity, which makes it harder to do simple tasks. Setting up depth of field (DOF) for instance is quite annoying. It involves setting values for seven different features. For the photo mode, we implemented the DOF settings, which tweaks those seven values at the same time, and with an easy to understand aperture value. The cinematics team saw that and wanted to use it as well, and although they use a slightly tweaked version, they could now quickly get to the look they wanted to achieve. This is just one example, but we made the photo mode do some things which are not easily possible in our cinematics toolchain, just as much as that the control we make user friendly for photo mode makes it harder to achieve certain looks which are easier in the cinematics toolchain.

Duncan Birnie: To what extent did you base the Photo Mode tools on real life cameras?
Roderick: Most of it is based on camera and photography concepts, but using field of view instead of mm, while still having a relation to real world cameras.

Luziferian: Did you involve/consult photographers for feedback when creating HZD’s Photo mode? And when so: How did this cooperation look like?
Roderick: I am proficient with a camera myself, which was one of the reasons I decided to work with the team on the photo mode in the first place. So being both a photographer and working on photo mode helped a lot: getting the flow for the menus to feel right, getting the colorize LUT’s to work within a certain range of light, those kind of things work together. As such, it was very easy to come to results fast, because there was no translation step to be made.

Luziferian: Based on the experience and community feedback for HZD’s Photo mode will you consider to implement a similar feature in future games? What would you do different?
Roderick: People have always felt a need to draw/paint/photograph experiences they had in life, and gaming in general can be an incredible experience. Certain moments in games will stick with you forever. Being able to capture them at a nice quality and maybe have some creative control yourself in the process makes it all the more engaging. Also, seeing shots made with photo mode printed on fine art paper takes it to a whole different level as well. It makes the content become tactile and physical. I would encourage anyone who has made a nice shot in photo mode to have a print made, it instantly elevates the work you put in to an even higher level.

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Luziferian: Entering cauldron Epsilon in the Frozen Wilds is one of my favourite moments the game has to offer – and I absolutely wanted to capture it!

Spiff: You’ve mentioned that HZD’s Photo Mode was not originally destined for the initial release. Presumably, your implementation of Photo Mode further along into the game’s development process wrought unique challenges. Was there any hurdle you encountered that was especially rewarding to overcome (besides the obvious time demands)?
Roderick: Absolutely, when you work on a feature in a game which has a lot of ties into the UI and UX and game tech systems, you quickly become aware of design decisions which were made earlier in the development and were tailored towards the game itself. The programmers involved with the photo mode worked very creatively to enable the features that we wanted to add, and, within the limitations of the framework that was available to us. They deserve all the credit for enabling people to frame the camera properly, blend the different colorizes, have acceleration on the sliders, making the game do things while it is paused that it’s not used to doing (which is a -lot- harder than you would expect), and with every setback come up with a solution to make it work. The main hurdle that was overcome was that we pushed the whole development so hard while not really having the bandwidth to comfortably built it, and the people involved put in such valuable input to the overall design that it went from being a feature that was going to be patched in, to a feature that became a phenomenon that enabled people to share their experience so vocally as not been often seen before. The initial release sparked ideas within the development team to add features like the face poses, and body poses, the location info (“Greeting’s from Sunny Meridian”), which in turn required a lot of other people to jump on the photo mode development in order to make it just right.

Spiff: What do you believe video game Photo Modes are missing these days that you would like to see improved upon in the future (i.e. – features, implementation, accessibility, social functionality, etc.)
Roderick: I would like to see that photo modes would be more easily accessible, just like your camera on your phone is. By simply having it right there in the pause menu, automatically increases the need for them to be more accessible.
Some games have made them so that you look through a camera, or a phone, or something similar. This creates a barrier between the gamer and the game world, that’s not something I want. People want to start out with a clean, pure canvas, and then they can choose themselves what to add and what not to add. It’s the same as sharing images only within a game centric social environment, never limit the player in sharing their content on the media they want to share it on. High quality output, to share or print wherever people want. In the end, the quality of a photo mode depends on how you develop it. If you have one person developing it, you get their vision on what a photo mode should be like. Having people give input on a photo mode from any department within a games company creates something special, something accessible.

Thank you to Roderick and Anne @ Guerrilla Games who made this interview possible.


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