LOUISIANA NATIVE BLAKE REBOUCHE HAS BEEN AT THE GUERRILLA STUDIO IN AMSTERDAM SINCE 2015.
A game designer with a passion for telling stories through design, he worked for some of Horizon Zero Dawn’s most memorable quests. We talked with Blake about his ambitions as a game designer, his work on Horizon Zero Dawn, and his views on living in Amsterdam.
What set you on the path to becoming a Game Designer?
Ever since I was a little kid, I have wanted to design video games. When other kids wanted to be astronauts or firemen, I really wanted to make games. But being from Louisiana, there weren’t many opportunities for creating games at the time. Even my teachers in school were like, “It’s cute that you want to be a video game designer, but that’s not a real job”.
How did you intend to prove them wrong?
When I graduated from high school, I went to the University of Texas at Austin. Initially I studied Computer Science, but I ended up transitioning to Radio, Television and Film Production, because they were branching out and doing more stuff with games. I took Warren Specter’s masterclass on game design, which was really insightful and a good opportunity to learn more about the industry. Warren was fantastic, and he went on to be quite significant in kickstarting my career.
How so? How did you break into the industry?
Well, I finished school in 2008, at the height of the financial crisis. It was difficult for me to find anything to do, so for about a year I traveled and worked odds-and-ends jobs. I was almost starting to think my old teachers were right, but then a friend of mine saw a job posting for an opening at Warren Specter’s studio for designers “of all experience levels”.
There’s something you don’t see every day!
I know, it’s just about the rarest thing imaginable in this business. I was lucky because I had some prior relationship with Warren; I basically just sent him an e-mail that said: “I saw your job posting for designers of all experience levels and I would love to come work for you”. He remembered me from his masterclass and passed along my resume to HR. The next thing I knew I was hired!
Fast-forward six years – what was your start at Guerrilla like?
I hit the ground running when I got here, because production on Horizon Zero Dawn was going into overdrive. I was thrown straight into full-scale level design on some of the largest enclosed areas of the game, like the bunkers and the underground spaces. This was during the project’s transition to the Decima Engine toolset; we were moving away from the old scripting systems that had underpinned Killzone, and towards a much more powerful and capable set of systems – but also one that still had a few wrinkles to iron out.
That sounds quite daunting!
At the time it was kind of a hair-on-fire moment, but I got on the work on some really cool iconic stuff from the game, like the ”Deep Secrets of the Earth”, “The Grave Hoard” and “Free Heap”.
Would you say your start here was typical of working at Guerrilla?
Well, I think Guerrilla originally had more of an old-school, wild west mentality. The studio is known for pushing the envelope in terms of tech and art, but in recent years the focus has shifted somewhat to increasing the stability and dependability of the development process. There’s a sense that we’ve mastered our craft, and now we want to deliver these world-class games in a reliable and sensible way. We still try to push the envelope, of course, and I think that will always be a part of Guerrilla’s DNA. As our Content Director likes to say, the studio’s unofficial mantra is basically “What if we made it more awesome?” You know, what if we went bigger?
Do you think this shift in focus also extends to your field, game design?
Absolutely. Horizon Zero Dawn was Guerrilla’s first stab at the open world action RPG genre, so they wanted to make sure they got the fundamentals exactly right. The design team was restructured and expanded to be able to deliver the same level of quality in quests that Guerrilla’s art and tech teams have always been renowned for. A lot of people were brought in to complement the studio’s design capabilities with open-world action RPG know-how, myself included. I think that decision really paid off, and the design team was able to prove that the trust placed in them was well-founded.
What do you think of Horizon Zero Dawn’s reception?
I think it’s fantastic! Horizon is by far the biggest thing I have ever worked on – if not in terms of raw sales, then certainly in terms of its significance. I believe that what we’re building here really has legs; that when people look back at Horizon in ten, twenty years, it will still resonate with them. The game, and the team that built it, proved to be more than the sum of its parts. Everything came together in a way that defied everyone’s expectations.
What were your expectations of the game during development?
I have to admit there were moments where I had a sense of, “Oh my god, is this going to succeed? Is this going to work?” It’s like, when you’re on the nose of the giant you don’t see the whole thing anymore – sometimes you lose that perspective. So I would remind myself that no one could blame us for being unambitious and for not trying to hit it out of the park, as hard as we could. It also helped that we got some really good positive feedback from our focus testing sessions.
Let’s talk about Amsterdam. What is the city like?
Amsterdam is amazing. I think it’s fair to say that this city is having its time in the sun, and is entering an era of renewed global significance. Almost all of the museums have been renovated over the last 10-15 years, major infrastructure projects are going on, and there is a brand new metro line that is about to open which will connect the north and the south of Amsterdam. A lot of things about this city feel fresh and new, even though the city itself is very old, which I think is really cool. Another nice thing is that Schiphol Airport is one of the main hubs for Europe and beyond – you can get direct flights to just about anywhere from here.
Were you nervous about moving here?
Not at all! I’d actually visited Amsterdam before; I did some travelling through Europe after I graduated from college and I liked Amsterdam so much I doubled back for another visit. It really felt like home to me, very familiar and comfortable. I think it’s the most international city in the world – I read the other day that it has more nationalities represented in the city than in any other city in the world, and it has been that way since the 17th century. Lucky for me, the common tongue in the city today is English.
How are you adapting to the culture? Do you own a bicycle now?
I do, I love being able to bike everywhere. I’m an American and as you know, Americans are born in cars, we live in our cars and we die in our cars – so being able to get rid of my car and get out into the city on a bike for my daily commute is an incredible experience.
Thanks for your time, Blake!
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