Joel Eschler is an Aussie native who began his career at 2K Australia as a QA technician and worked his way up to producer before making the big leap to The Netherlands to work at Guerrilla Game son Horizon Zero Dawn. Now an industry veteran of nine years, Joel’s credits include the Bioshock series, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!, Borderlands: The Handsome Collection, and of course, Horizon Zero Dawn.
Q: How did you manage to move from QA to producer?
Joel Eschler: It actually happened fairly quickly! Back at 2K in the early days of XCOM and BioShock – maybe it was six months into being a tester – one of the junior producers or mid producers left and moved to London. As soon as I heard that, I went straight to our studio manager and said, "hey, I want that job". He said yes, and any opportunity that came up I put my hand up for, and took the time to make them not regret the decision. Before long I was travelling over to Irrational Games and spending time and 2K Marin and all these different studios. The games industry is a funny place: there are a lot of unique stories for how people get where they are. For me, it was never my intention to work in games, but I'm really happy it ended up that way.
Q: When did you join Guerrilla Games, and what drew you to that studio in particular?
Joel Eschler: I joined Guerrilla at the beginning of last year. It was definitely Horizon. 2K shut down in 2015, and I was looking at what to do next – talking to a lot of studios in America, looking at a potential move to stay with 2K. Guerrilla was on my radar a little bit because they were in Amsterdam, but the Killzone series wasn't something that I was super into at that time. And then when they released the trailer for Horizon Zero Dawn I was just like, "Okay, I need to pay attention now." It was actually kind of lucky that shortly thereafter, I was actually contacted by Guerrilla asking me to come over for an interview for a producer position. I flew over, spent a week with the team playing the game and checking out Amsterdam, and I was sold pretty quickly just on the passion of the team. Even at that point, with the quality of the game I knew it was going to be something special.
Q: Is there a panic when a studio like 2K Australia folds and you know everyone is going to be looking for jobs at the same time?
Joel Eschler: No, whenever a studio shuts down you kinda feel like the prettiest girl at the ball, because about an hour after we got the news, I think it leaked to Kotaku, and pretty much every single one of us had about 10 emails from recruiters from everywhere around the world. I think everyone just wants every person to find a job. The unfortunate ones were the ones who had families and roots in Canberra, and couldn't move, or it was difficult to move. It's a bit sad for them because often they need to leave the industry and look for a different kind of job. It was really sad when 2K shut down, but a lot of us had been there for quite a long time – some had been there 15 years – and this was the kick in the bum to challenge ourselves. Not necessarily in the games that we made, but more in a life sense, to try and live in a different country or culture. For me, I definitely felt safe living in Australia, living in Canberra, having everything familiar. But living over in Amsterdam with people from so many different cultures and backgrounds, it's really awesome.
Q: Was it tricky adjusting to life in Amsterdam?
Joel Eschler: No way. I think Amsterdam is a really easy place for an English speaking person to go and hang out, because everyone there speaks perfect English, and I think the infrastructure is really awesome. So, some of the difficulties like getting around and knowing to get at the supermarket and those kinds of things are easy. And the studio itself is set up to allow ex-pats to move there pretty easily; it's a fully English-speaking studio. Some of the differences there are: the Dutch definitely value the work life balance much more than say the US or even Australia. So people go home at the normal times and spend time with their family and have fun, and take all their holidays every year which is really awesome.
But it's also – and it's not just typical of Guerrilla but Dutch companies in general, I've been told – is that a flat structure is a lot more common. So during a company meeting when Herman (who is the head of our studio) is up there giving a talk, anyone can ask a question or say anything from the most junior position to the most senior position, and at no point is anyone there thinking "why are you asking a question?" There's an equal level of respect, which is really cool and quite unique compared to a lot of studios I've spent time at.
Q: In your experience, how does game development differ at Guerrilla compared to other studios?
Joel Eschler: Having a proprietary engine to me is something that's unique. My entire career before this, all of the games I worked on were based on Unreal. So we were typically waiting for Epic to release new content or updates and we were expanding the engine. But Guerrilla's engine has been worked on for the entirety of the company's existence, so from the first line of code to the newest, the same tech director has been there. And those guys just push themselves to the limit every single day trying to pull the most out of the PlayStation and render the most awesome stuff. I think that's really cool, owning that engine and being… sometimes when you work with an engine like Unreal, you don't have full access to all the source code, whereas these guys know exactly what it can do. They can answer questions and know they can push to get extra stuff out of it.
Q: What does a senior producer do at Guerrilla?
Joel Eschler: Specifically, I look after environment art and some of the other art aspects for the game. So, I manage all of the environment art team, I build the schedules, and I look for the best workflows and pipelines for interacting with other disciplines. As we build quest locations and different types of enemy encounters and things like that – new trees, new grass, everything like that – I aim to make sure it gels, everyone knows everything that they need to, and that we are working towards our milestones. It's also looking for strategies to make sure they're hitting their quality bar as well. It's looking for ways that maybe we can get more out of the team without necessarily putting in more work – just making that process a lot smoother.
Because really we want the game to look awesome everywhere, but it's a huge game world. For example, a lot of the vegetation throughout the world, almost all of it is procedurally generated based on climate systems and weather systems and knowing what type of tree or what type of bush would grow in this type of area based on its proximity to water or whether it's cold or hot there. If we were to go and hand place that kind of stuff, we would need a team dramatically bigger than what we have, but because we looked at the kind of time that would be needed there and built smart systems for it, we were able to have this humungous game world with this density of content.
Q: I hear art director Jan-Bart van Beek (JB) pitched the game. Which departments dictated the direction of development on HZD?
Joel Eschler: The original vision was definitely his, and it was that contrast between the beautiful post apocalyptic world of nature taking everything back and these machines – that was kind of the original idea. But JB got much more involved in the design to build the world lore. We were lucky enough to have a small pre-production team for a couple of years, so they could really think about : in this whole world, this particular area, what could have formed this tribe's beliefs? Do they think the machines are a technology to be feared, or a mystical creation? Should we use them to build things, or should we fear them? That influenced tribe design: their clothing, the settlements they live in. That was how the world was fleshed out, and that was before the main narrative flow of the game was created.
Q: Fallout: New Vegas lead writer John Gonzalez wrote the game's story. How much did he have to work with at the start?
Joel Eschler: JB and some of the others early on had that vision for the world as a starting point. When John came in, he really honed that into a clear narrative, and in particular, Aloy's story was what he had the driving force on. And of course, [he was] developing these loose ideas that they built from design and art perspective into real backgrounds and history, because throughout the game you can play Aloy's journey and unravel the mysteries of the world, but then there's the smaller stuff – the more personal content for people that live in the world. There's also little narrative titbits like paintings, bits of technology you may find, or audio logs or data points that have this other narrative that really flesh out the world. That's what John is really good at – he's really good at building a believable world that a story can exist within, but which other stories can exist within as well.
Q: Because HZD is a new IP, there must have been a huge temptation to throw all kinds of things in there. At which point did you decide 'this is the game we are making'?
Joel Eschler: it's definitely a rolling process of different milestones because there's going to be certain people that are really passionate about certain things and really push for them. But the team is really good at adapting quickly to new direction and getting behind each other. So you have your key typical milestones like the end of pre-production when you agree on a feature list, and you do the scope check and everything, but you have your other in-between ones, and really I'd say in the last 12 months there's been a really clear vision of the game – we've just been trying to get that polished. There's maybe only one thing I can think of that we cut from the game in the last 12 months, but it was pretty minor, and I think that was really good because we could really spend this time playtesting constantly. Just making sure what we had in there – which was a lot more than they thought they were going to pull off when they first pitched the game – really being able to polish that. I think on just about every game I've worked on, it's that last six month period that the game goes from being a good game to a great game, and we're lucky enough that we didn't have to remove any features – everything that we were working on staying in.
Q: What was the mood like at the studio when it was clear the game needed to be delayed? Were people excited they had more time, or fearful of more crunch?
Joel Eschler: It was received pretty well. I think the team in general with the amount of content that is in there was suspecting that it was going to happen. I think the game could have come out in that period, but I think internally we knew that that extra few months of polish was really going to pay off – especially when you look at the amount of time that's devoted to the launch of hopefully a new franchise. We thought it was worth it, and luckily Sony agreed to give us the extra time. They believed in the product, which was really cool. People were happy because we had all our features in there – it was just being able to spend extra time playtesting and polishing. There were definitely some long hours, but again, the crunch period on this game was nothing compared to some other projects I think. Everyone had everyone else's back, and no-one had to kill themselves at the end there.
Q: That's good – I wouldn't want that guilt hanging over me as I played it. How early did you know about the PS4 Pro? Obviously Horizon was one of the key titles getting a Pro patch.
Joel Eschler: The game for the majority of its development was targeting just the PlayStation 4. I don't know exactly when our tech director found out about the Pro because he's in contact with Mark Cerny and much more involved with tech on the PlayStation side, but it was pretty late on. Luckily we didn't have to spend much time or effort to get the most out of the PS4 Pro, because all of our content is authored in 4K at least, just from a future-proofing perspective. So after a programmer spent some time making sure we could output at full 2160p resolution, it really just allowed us to show the detail that was already there in our assets.
Q: Has the current political climate – Brexit, Trump's protectionism – had any affect on Guerrilla?
Joel Eschler: Not that I can think of. Around the Brexit time there were a couple of people with sad faces at the studio who were working without visas at Guerrilla – they were a little bit worried. Guerrilla would sponsor them for visas, but still… But it hasn't affected our hiring plans or anything like that.
Q: Anything else you'd like to add?
Joel Eschler: I'd just say it's been really cool at Guerrilla the last couple of weeks. Ever since we went gold and knew we didn't have to scramble to get last-minute fixes in, almost everyone at the studio has taken the time to start playing the game. You never know what to expect when you're so close to something and see it every day whether it's going to be good or not. Even if you're confident everyone is doing awesome work, there's so many things that need to come together to make a game great, but even the most cynical people within the office I see smiling and coming up and saying they're really enjoying it. It's been really awesome to see.