Guerrilla Games' Stefan Groenewoud talked about working on Horizon Forbidden West, explained what it means to be a Technical Artist, and spoke about the scopes of games.
In case you missed it
Stefan Groenewoud on working with materials for environments
80.lv: Please introduce yourself to those who don't know you.
Stefan Groenewoud, Technical Artist at Guerrilla Games: I’m Stefan Groenewoud. I enrolled in a 4-year Game Art course at the Media College in Amsterdam. During this period I got an internship at Guerrilla as an Asset Artist on Killzone Shadow Fall. After my graduation, I did a year of freelancing on a few unreleased projects but also a major released project like The Witcher 3 and shipped textures for GameTextures. I then got hired at Splash Damage where I’ve had the chance to work on Dirty Bomb and the Gears of War: Ultimate Edition. After almost a year I decided to go back to the Netherlands and teamed up with Guerrilla where I'm about to mark my eighth year this summer!
Horizon Zero Dawn Experience
80.lv: How would you describe the years of working on Horizon Zero Dawn? What were your main tasks?
Stefan Groenewoud: When I joined Guerrilla back in 2014, Horizon Zero Dawn hadn't been announced yet. I saw a lot of potential but I couldn’t have predicted the impact the game would have on the industry and the fanbase it has created ever since. My title back then was Texture and Shader Artist but we also helped out wherever necessary (not just shaders). This included improving textures on old assets and creating new assets which got requested towards the end of production.
Some time later, I started writing scripts and automated processes, then my title got rebranded to Technical Artist as it made the most sense with the variety of tasks we handled.
80.lv: How did the development of Horizon Forbidden West begin for you?
Stefan Groenewoud: As a Tech Art team, we already had an idea where we wanted to improve certain shaders and workflows. We did have to reinvent areas of development; where we normally used Photoshop, we replaced it with Substance 3D software. Instead of sculpting rocks completely by hand, photogrammetry meshes were used. But we also wanted to stay true to the style players were used to from the first game. So it was a balancing act and took several iterations to get it right – to have a familiar yet improved feel for players.
Being a Tech Artist
80.lv: Could you explain the job of a Technical Artist to beginners reading this article?
Stefan Groenewoud: I have had the advantage that I could use my background as an Environment Artist. I was familiar with the approaches and workflows the artists were using and knew how to create efficient and stunning art. As a Technical Artist, you try to bridge that gap between the technical side and the artistic side of game development. For each studio, this position is defined a bit differently but in my case, I create new shaders/materials, help optimize content so the game runs smoothly, or make the artist’s life easier by writing scripts, tools, or processes, for example; to automate redundant tasks or tasks that would otherwise take a lot of hours to process.
80.lv: You used Substance 3D and ZBrush a lot when working on the first part, right? What were your main tools for the sequel?
Stefan Groenewoud: During Horizon Zero Dawn we didn’t use Substance 3D that much; however for the certain assets in The Frozen Wilds, Horizon Zero Dawn’s DLC, we did use the Substance Packages. We had to familiarize ourselves with the new tools as we went from sculpting details to generating them procedurally.
The great benefit of using this system was that we were able to easily tweak and update textures/materials by exporting all our substances at once with a few scripts. Sharing nodes and being able to control the look of materials from one spot is a huge benefit nowadays.
80.lv: What were the main challenges when developing Horizon Forbidden West?
Stefan Groenewoud: I think that for any cross-gen platform game it’s hard to find the right balance between quality, quantity, and scalability. There is a major leap in hardware advantage, so ensuring the content work on old vs new hardware will need more care. What helped us is that we focussed on creating new tools and scripts that work tightly with our Decima engine.
The Scopes of Games
80.lv: Games are becoming larger and more beautiful with every PS5 title. What’s your take on the scopes of games?
Stefan Groenewoud: I feel that larger and more beautiful games will require more people and longer development times to maintain or improve the quality standard. Games have become rapidly complex as they have to look better each year and feel more immersive.
For this complexity, we will figure out tools and new software will be developed. Where we will see more procedural approaches and Machine Learning based tools so we avoid doing this manually and run into production cycles of 8+ years for example.
In many recent games, we already see this but photo scanning is going to be a lifesaver for photorealistic games, as it gives artists a head start and the ability to directly place assets in the environment, and with libraries like Megascans, you get the high-quality LODs with it for seamless content optimization and integration.
In terms of recent games that impressed me which already somewhat adapted this workflow is Forza Horizon 5. Recently, Playground Games shared a glimpse of their processes with Digital Foundry.
80.lv: As a member of the PlayStation family, could you share some advice for artists willing to get into this legendary team? Where should one get started?
Stefan Groenewoud: I think the most important thing is to try to find a niche, something you’re passionate about, and develop in that area of expertise. Keep practicing and stay motivated or eager to learn more. Getting into games seems hard (which it is at the very beginning) but there are a lot of resources available to help you figure out where to start. You have 80 Level, ArtStation Learning, YouTube, Gnomon, there are too many to briefly list here.