Days Gone: Developer talks The Last of Us comparisons, game length, and zombies vs. freakers

Sony Interactive Entertainment Bend Studio was founded in, to the surprise of no one, Bend, Oregon. Naturally, Days Gone, the studio’s first new IP project since the original Syphon Filter in 1999, takes place in a version of Oregon after a pandemic outbreak that renders the majority of the population as deranged, cannibalistic creatures called Freakers. Or, as everyone else will call them, zombies -- just don’t tell them we said that.

We recently got the chance to attend a preview event in which  where we played more than four hours of a new preview build for the game and came away extremely impressed, which was refreshing considering how poor first impressions were a year ago.

After spending an afternoon with the game we got the chance to sit down with Jeff Ross, Game Director at Bend Studio, to chat about the game, its themes, and some of the more exciting mechanics that makes the world tick behind the scenes:

Gamecrate: You’ve been working on Days Gone for the entire life of the project, is that right? You said it started six years ago?

Jeff Ross: Yep, that’s right. Uncharted: Golden Abyss came out February of 2012, we spent some time kicking around ideas before we settled in on Days Gone and we started on it in the Unreal Engine about six years ago.

GC: That’s a long time to spend working on a single game.

JR: It is, it’s a massive game. It’s a big game with a big story with a lot of characters, mechanics, and systems. The graphical fidelity is just insane and it takes a lot of time to develop and finish that. We’ve been really grateful for the time to be able to do that.

GC: When we look back at what 2013 was like in the game industry, a lot of really big titles came out back then like The Last of Us, which must have had an impact on this game’s development since it came out that year. Can you speak to that a little bit?

JR: Yeah, you know we’d obviously pitched our concept and began developing it before that, but Days Gone is a massive, open world, story-driven game. They’ve got a story and we’ve got a story, but that’s really where the similarities really and truly end. When you start playing you realize this is a massive world with all kinds of dynamic systems, a lot of player choice for when they engage the narrative, when they break free and engage open world storylines. So what really inspired us is a lot of the entertainment over that time, like Sons of Anarchy, The Walking Dead, and a lot of other similar content.

We thought we had the technology to create a massive version of that world and to create the horde, which is unlike anything you’ve ever seen in a game. They’re constantly moving and flowing together and have a tremendous amount of speed. It’s something that really fit the genre and emboldened us to move forward with all of these decisions.

GC: Whenever we saw the announcement trailers over the years at E3 and even last year’s E3 demo, the horde has been a big focus. That seems to be one of those core ideas that you built the game around with actual hordes to fight. Where did the inspiration for that came from?

JR: You know we had a tech demo that one of our engineers put together that just showed massive numbers of enemies coming at the player and we realized, ‘Yep, that’s it!” It was like a tidal wave. Our Head Designer since we revealed it at E3 comes up and says, “How are you doing this magical swarm technology and AI behavior?” And it’s just that they come straight at you. It’s terrifying. There is no other thought and what that does from a player perspective and point of view is one of trying to use the environment and every tool at their disposal to try and get the advantage on this giant group. We had this tech pretty early and it was just so visceral and brutal it was a galvanizing moment for this title.

But at the same time, even though some of our messaging has had a lot of that front and center, you can’t have an entire game built around just taking down hordes. The game is so much more than that, the horde is just the apex predator in this entire ecosystem we’ve created. It’s not just freakers but freaker animals, regular animals, as well as humans. The dynamic of all those elements behaving together and interacting within the system we had to build in the world is something we felt like we could all relate to and ask ourselves, “If that happened, what would I do?” That was the germ of this entire game.

GC: Speaking of the game concept, let’s talk about the name: Days Gone. Whenever you pause the game, you see the number of days gone. Is there some thematic significance other than just showing the passage of time?

JR: Well we think that there’s multiple. The most literal is on the screen like that, but we see it as implorical, allegorical, whatever the players want to bring to it. Like good art it’s got a lot of different meanings to everybody and we don’t want to say the original idea because people will interpret it on their own.

GC: Does the game have a day-night cycle in real-time?

JR: Absolutely, the world is an open, dynamic, systems-driven experience with a story too. The entire experience is predicated on the fact that these are dynamic systems you’re not in control of. It’s an ecosystem of enemy behaviors. Freakers have predictable patterns that rarely change like mostly sleeping during the day inside their nests and they come out at night, whereas humans come out during the day. Animals are a bit of a mixture just depending. But if it’s raining then the freakers will come out more during the day because it’s dark.

If you’ve ever been to central Oregon then you know the weather is actually really random and it can change at a moment’s notice so that’s pretty authentic. What it leads to are these really cool dynamics of not knowing what’s going to happen. Like in your demo, if you look at people playing the game next to you for the same amount of time they probably had different weather patterns depending on where they’re at and what’s happening.

GC: So the weather is regional as well?

JR: Yeah so different regions each have their own weather systems. Belknap, for example, is a desert region so it’s going to rain less there and snow less and in Cascade it’s going to rain more but not snow as much as the southern regions. The world is a huge character in this game, but so is the weather on top of it.

GC: We played Days Gone previously at E3 and a pre-E3 event so this is our third demo of the game and this time there was a flashback scene. It was unexpected because we thought you were telling a more linear current day story. It was really powerful. Are there more flashbacks or more emotional moments like that in the story?

JR: Everybody in this world lost people, but it’s not a clean break. People try to move forward, but you’re obviously gonna be scarred by it. Deacon, remembering his wife, is something that he does a lot. He has his ritual where he goes to her grave, clears out the freakers, and tends to the grave like people do family members. And it’s something that keeps him relatable because he’s not just this cool outlaw guy driving a motorcycle in the apocalypse; he’s got feelings, he’s hurt, and he’s the walking wounded. And it’s really important to have those touchstones throughout the entire story. It’s important to frame Deacon as someone people can care about so that there is something there that makes him worth believing in.

GC: In the menu, there were multiple “storylines” as they’re called. Is that a way to categorize stories into threads rather than naming them “side quests” or “side missions” for players?

JR: The storylines are a really important concept for framing all of the content in the game. Nothing in this world exists just because. It’s something where we wanted to build an experience that’s hugely relatable and build logical extensions of what people would do. Everything a player does is advancing something in the game. Whether that be Deacon and Boozer trying to stock up on supplies and move on North out of the region or Deacon remember Sarah the storylines allow us to frame everything you’re doing and remind people, subtly, that it all matters.

GC: So instead of opening up a mission log of random things you don’t really remember the significance of, you’ve got buckets you can put things in to attribute to central plot themes.

JR: Yeah exactly.

GC: In the camps, there is something called “trust” you can increase. How does that affect your relationships?

JR: These are closed communities that don’t want to deal with outsiders so they want proof that there are good people helping out. Some of them are specific like doing jobs or going on runs as a bounty hunter for them and doing stuff to earn trust. But you can’t really get enough that way so you’re gonna have to choose to earn it another way, such as proof of making the world safer. So if you bring in the ear of a freaker, that’s proof you killed one in the region and they’ll trust you more.

As you unlock higher tiers of trust you get access to better items like bike parts, fuel tanks, engines, paint jobs, and that stuff. You can also control which camp you build relationships with sooner, so you could turn in all the ears at one camp or another depending on who has the items you think are more important. Camps will specialize in types of items like bike parts or guns, for example. Players can choose what to focus on.

GC: Are there customization options for deacon himself? Like, can you change what he is wearing or how he looks?

JR: No, Deacon is proud and wears his cut. Those guys identify by that so they’re true to character and won’t dress differently.

GC: What are your feelings on the zombie genre as a whole? Six years ago was a very different landscape in the industry and things have changed, but how do you view it now?

JR: First of all, they’re freakers not zombies. There are important differences. But in terms of a transformed world with completely different environments and rules that govern how we interact with one another was always the more fascinating thing about this and the freakers are just one of the variables to bring extra danger and apply pressure. What we specifically bring to the genre is just the complexity of the open world in the way the humans and animals and freakers all interact. We have predictability with how the freakers and humans act along patterns but then unpredictability with the weather and shifting schedules. Or if you clear an area of freakers you might think you’re safe but you just changed the danger to humans.

All of that plus the massive hordes. We have over 40 open world hordes in the game and the gameplay patterns that come out of that technology alone is remarkable. Especially the gameplay strategies that it creates with having a plan A, B, C, D, and staying dynamic. That’s the difference. The player is constantly strategizing.

GC: You said 40 open world hordes, does that mean after you defeat a horde they reform or come back?

JR: There will always be a disparate threat of random freakers, but the coalescing into a larger group, once you break that up, it’s not gonna reform itself.

GC: The game seems like it would have been very conducive to a cooperative experience. Was multiplayer ever something you considered at all?

JR: We’ve always been a single player studio with third-person action adventure shooters and really, this was already a big enough game to take on and do that right that we just wanted to focus and execute on making it a perfect AAA experience.

GC: Then how much content do you think there is in the game? Like if someone wanted to clear the main story and not 100 percent it but just a normal playthrough?

JR: Oh it’s easily 30-hours if you tried to focus just mostly on the main path, but it’s so easy to get distracted and do other things. There is just so much and it’s so massive it’s hard to measure that. Probably a lot more hours, I can’t believe we made a game this big.

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Days Gone launches on April 26 exclusively for PlayStation 4.