Guerrilla Games’ Jan-Bart van Beek on being involved with one franchise for over a decade.
In the last couple of decades, I have spent countless hours playing video games but there is only one game that dominated my every waking (and sleeping) moment for the last 12 years. A game that crept into my system and changed the machinery within. That game is Killzone.
I always wanted to build cathedrals. Not literally the brick and mortar buildings, but something of size. Of importance. Something that I never got to do in advertising. I found my three years at an ad agency to be of a depressing emptiness. Advertising is a fleeting business. Hardly anything has permanent value. You just drag yourself from deadline to deadline only to see your work in magazines or on billboards for a couple of weeks. I couldn’t stand the thought of doing this same job year in year out with nothing to show for all my hard work. So I quit. And in October 1999, I joined Lost Boys Games in Amsterdam.
Here I found like-minded people. Guys that wanted to create something unique. Something big. Something that had never been done before. Killzone was all that. The Dutch press has named the game a lot of things: ‘The Biggest Multimedia Project In The Netherlands Ever’ and ‘Twice The Budget Of The Most Expensive Dutch Movie’. We don’t see it that way. We never think of the game in terms of money or prestige. We make a game every four years or so, and try to be the best we can. We work as a team and completely focus on the job at hand.
And when it all comes together, all the hard work, all the ambition and talent, that one moment is such an unbelievable feeling of inspiration. But there is pressure as well. Nothing is more important than to get it just right. Because if you mess it up the first chance to redeem yourself with a new game is years away. So everybody has that same complete focus to create the absolute best. You can always do more, want more, make it better. More, more, better, best. After a few years of repeating that mantra over and over you lose your sense of perspective. It has become the most important thing in the world.
With time you learn that you can’t win every battle over every little detail, but it takes quite a few battles to finally realize that. Thankfully I did, otherwise games development would be one long heartbreaking process. Ten years of developing Killzone leaves a trail of great ideas and brilliant features that never made it into the final games. It’s hard to let go of those ideas, especially when they seem to be the best you ever had. But letting go is a big part of creating a game.
Ten years of Killzone is also ten years of Guerrilla Games and our own personal growth to mature and seasoned game developers. To be honest, it’s a small miracle that we actually completed the first Killzone. Green as grass and with no previous experience in creating anything remotely resembling a first person shooter on console. Our most experienced guy made Jack Jazzrabbit, a 2D platformer on PC. This was a different beast. Guerrilla Games was formed through a merger of three small Dutch companies and with just 30 people we were the largest studio in Holland. And we didn’t know Jack about developing a game.
Compare today’s studio with that of five years ago and you’ll be amazed. Compare it to that of ten years ago and you’ll be shocked. At that time, we thought it would be a bad idea to have producers. We didn’t have any real game designers. And we had just two departments, Art and Code. Nowadays, we have ten producers and a dozen departments that work together very closely. Our development process was held together by pieces of duct tape. I remember a period of time without a working game-engine. It was not working for almost three months! We just kept on working, hoping for the best. Flash forward to now, we have a multitude of completely automated gating and checking mechanisms that prevent major slipups. Now people get irritated if the game doesn’t work for two hours and rightfully so.
Every now and then something comes along and tests our technical wits and experience to the fullest extent. Something we haven’t tried before or something that wasn’t possible before. Five years ago we avoided those moments. Now we tackle them head on. And more often than not we are surprised to find stuff actually works. A great sense of achievement. We are finally at the point were technology no longer limits our creativity.
Millions of gamers
I realise I haven’t said much about Killzone as a game. I find it hard to say anything unbiased when you poured your heart and soul into it for the last decade. I’ve played the games a thousand times and yet I never really played it. I know every nook and cranny by heart, but I will never experience Killzone as a player that bought it in a store. I can’t play the game without constantly reviewing it. But frankly, it’s not about me, it’s about the millions of gamers around the world that play and enjoy Killzone every day. I get a kick out of creating it.
Maybe in ten years I get another opportunity to reflect. I have no clue how that story will turn out. Maybe we have had two more hardware generations. Maybe there are no controllers anymore, or no consoles even. The ever evolving nature of the video game business makes it a fascinating place to work in. Every 5 or 6 years or so, the hardware guys bring in a new magic black box and everything you have learned over the last couple of years goes out the window. The constant learning and discovering keeps my work fresh and exciting. I will be doing this for a long time to come. •