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Here’s how Horizon Forbidden West found the perfect side quest formula

Speaking at GDC 2023, lead quest designer Tim Stobo explains how Horizon Forbidden West's most poignant side quest came to be after years of iteration.

As Horizon Forbidden West gears up for its first DLC, Burning Shores, next month, Guerrilla Games is out in force at GDC 2023, lifting the lid on the development of the game.

One area that Forbidden West was applauded for, and that marked a big improvement over its predecessor Horizon Zero Dawn, was the quality of its side quests – something that helped it nab a spot on our best PS5 games list. In a talk at GDC, Guerrilla’s lead quest designer, Tim Stobo, reveals how the studio – after a lot of iteration – found its perfect side quest design process right at the end of development, something that was used to create arguably the game’s most poignant side quest.

Zero Dawn, despite being a critically acclaimed first entry in the Horizon series, was critiqued for having rather generic side quests. Stobo explains that in that game, these missions were something of an afterthought, and that pitches were submitted, discussed, and either approved or denied in the space of just one meeting.

Horizon Forbidden West side quest GDC: Aloy speaks to two women in the side mission In The Fog

Another downside to Zero Dawn’s optional quests that Stobo found was that they were not evenly distributed across the map. While there were 22 in the game, eight of those were mainly started and focused around the starting region of the map, or on the city of Meridian.

Guerrilla looked to change up its approach to their creation during Zero Dawn’s Frozen Wilds DLC – Stobo says it accepted 37 pitches for the five planned quests from developers, but approved none of them straight away. Instead, the leads cherry-picked some similar and interesting concepts from across all the pitches, and “mashed them together” to create “Frankenstein” side quests.

This was, in Stobo’s view, a marked improvement – all five felt more unique, with each of them focusing on a different “mechanic”.

But things had to change for Forbidden West, which had the target of having more than 30 side quests (the game shipped with 28). Guerrilla also wanted “chained” side quests, where certain missions relating to the narrative or an NPC followed on from the previous one.

Horizon Forbidden West Side Quests GDC: Tim Stobo delivers his talk on side quests at GDC 2023

The way in which side quests were pitched evolved a few times over the course of Forbidden West’s development, but the main change was the addition of a contextual document that would tell devs exactly what was needed and what was off the table for each one. What’s going on in the main questline? What would compel Aloy to help with this side quest? What area of the map will it take place in? Which mechanics and rewards are available at this stage in the game? All of these questions helped shape pitches for future ideas.

Over time this was refined and combined with group workshops to make the best ideas possible, something that directly led to the creation of Forbidden West’s amazing side quests.

However, right at the end of the game’s development, “the final test of our process” presented itself, according to Stobo. The team had done a great job at spreading side quests across the whole Forbidden West map – however, “two big ideas” were scrapped at the last moment, and a small gap was left. To fill it, Stobo tasked the developers to make one final, last-minute side quest.

This would turn out to be the most poignant and emotional side quest in the game. Yes, that last-minute, gap-filling side quest was In the Fog, which sees a daughter enlist Aloy to help find her missing father, who you later discover has dementia.

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In the Fog was the final product of a process that took almost two entire development cycles to perfect, and Stobo says the team really “captured lightning in a bottle” as a result. He also says this process was justified by the comments of a playtester, who praised Guerrilla for the way in which they handled the emotion behind families dealing with dementia.

At first glance, it’s easy to look past a side quest as filler, but it’s clear that, in Guerrilla Games’ case, these are meaningful additions that take time – and a lot of iteration – to get right.

Stay tuned for more coverage from GDC over the coming days and weeks.