After four months since the release of Days Gone, the PlayStation exclusive has seen tremendous success around the world. As of the end of July 2019, Days Gone was ranked the second best-selling game in the UK in physical sales and has sold very well in other European countries ranking in the top 3 in Austria, Sweden, Switzerland and Portugal, according to GfK Entertainment. Days Gone was also ranked in the top 10 in best-selling games so far in the USA, according to NPD. Along with their continued success, Bend Studio has released plenty of post-launch updates and free content, including survival mode, bike skins and weekly challenges that span across twelve consecutive weeks. The last challenge releases on Friday, September 13th, along with New Game Plus.
Days Gone is an open-world action-adventure game set in post-apocalyptic Oregon. You play as Deacon St. John, a drifter who rides the broken road trying to survive. The landscape is beautiful, but horror is around every corner not allowing you to catch your breath. Two years after the outbreak, millions of cannibalistic and mindless Freakers roam the world. Other survivors and even infected animals hunt you as you fight to stay alive. As terrifying as the world has become, what lies in the core of the game is brotherhood, trust and hope.
Today, I had the great privilege to speak with the Game Director behind Days Gone, Jeff Ross. Jeff was a designer for sixteen years at Bend Studio working on titles such as Syphon Filter, Resistance: Retribution and Uncharted: Golden Abyss. After six years of tireless effort, I wanted to find out a little more about the behind the scenes making of Days Gone during this time, and hit on points of the game that fascinated me during my playthroughs. Jeff took time out of his busy schedule to answer my questions about some of the thinking process during the development stage, the balance of design and gameplay, the strong narrative aspect of Days Gone and more.
The Broken Road: First of all, how’s your ankle doing? I hear Lost Lake has a pretty good doctor.
Jeff Ross: I was afraid Addy would try to use that Liston knife on me, so I opted for Bend’s fully functioning, state of the art hospital. Sorry, Addy! The ankle’s feeling much better now (just over one month into the healing). It turned out be a really small fracture from a relatively low-speed bike crash at 25 mph, it still had a pretty big impact on my day-to-day life. If I hadn’t of been geared up with proper riding boots it would have been much worse. Let my story be a reminder to everyone to ride safe.
What is one thing you had in the script that you really enjoyed, but didn’t make it into the final cut? Whether that is a character moment, side quest, extra storyline, etc.
We considered adding jobs called Survivor Stories. These were moments where Deacon could overhear people in encampments, learn about their struggles and unresolved emotional issues born from the sudden onset of the apocalypse. These were opportunities for Deacon to embark on adventures to find key objects, use tracking to determine the fate of loved ones, and other ways he could help bring closure to these survivors. It was a way to flesh out the world and expand the story lens to show the devastation was shared and not unique to Deacon. We ultimately realized these would be too distracting from the main narrative and decided against developing them. As it turns out we had plenty of other content to make an epic game.
What was the most complicated issue to work on during the development process? Horde mechanics, motorcycle movement, random encounters, gameplay balance or something else?
Of course it was all hard, but we had some developers who executed at the top of their game for the horde, motorcycle, open world, and everything else. The most challenging task for me was balancing and tuning an epic 30+ hour game. With narrow deltas between the start and end states for things like guns, melee, attributes, skills, and bike upgrades it really meant playing incredibly long loops to get a feel for their changes over time. Of course the more I played the better I got at the game, so I had to find a way to filter out my biases and try to see the game through the eyes of first time players.
What made you decide on the name Freakers?
This was all John Garvin. He’s a bold Creative Director who’s never content with easy answers. And he had this concept pretty early on. He was really just trying to capture whatever colloquialisms might emerge as survivors tried to describe creatures that were new to their world. Theoretically you could travel to another location where the locals had different nicknames.
When creating the horde at the Old Saw Mill, was 500 Freakers the magic number that you wanted to hit for the player to experience? Was there a time that you wanted to significantly increase or decrease that number?
We had to counter-balance performance limitations with our desire to visually fill the space with enough enemies to seem daunting or impossible to take-on. When you’re creating something new like the horde you really don’t have any data or examples to use as a starting point. I have to admit that we started with some wild guesses just to start the conversation, and 500 was design’s starting number, expecting to be talked down. But kudos to the engineering team for sticking with it and making that work. I really don’t think it would have been that compelling otherwise.
The motorcycle is not just a toy to use for transportation, but another character in the game. Do you have more ideas on how to continue that direction for design and upgrades for a possible sequel? Maybe attaching weapons to the bike, creating a sort of Mad Max style?
I’m really happy with how the bike systems turned out. We have a key philosophy, “the bike is essential for survival.” Combined with the Action Survival pillar, we were able to make tough design decisions (things like saving at the bike, adding saddlebag ammo upgrades, and requiring the bike for fast travel) that helped fill the open world loops with tons of tension that became a trademark of the game. Finally, Days Gone will always be grounded in a believable day-after-tomorrow reality and tone that keeps players grounded. We’ll continue to push the creative gameplay limits, but we never want to transport players out of that grounded reality.
From the very start of the game we see Deacon and Boozer chasing down Leon and ending with Deacon killing him. Toward the end of the game, Deacon goes back to that same spot to save Manny. Are these two story points supposed to show the transformation of who Deacon became by the end of this journey?
The Days Gone story is a complex, highly-interwoven tapestry. Every detail, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant is intended to serve the larger story and world.
The details in Days Gone are truly something to witness. From the movements of Deacon’s finger for trigger discipline or shifting gears on the motorcycle by using the clutch and gear shift, to blood splattering on Deacon’s hand from a knife blow. How important was it for your team to get these little things right?
Details like these are essential for immersing and keeping players locked into believing our world is real. I have to be honest and admit I didn’t even have to ask for many of these details—each team in the studio pushed their elements as far as they could, and the result was often times me being just as surprised as you whenever I discovered these nice little touches.
The stories are what attracts me to video games. What I love so much about Days Gone is that everything you do relates to the overall narrative with the intertwining storylines. Not only does this impact the story elements, but it makes the gameplay feel worth it. What made you choose this style over the normal open-world checklist missions?
John and I made a decision early on there would be no superfluous activities in our world. Everything available to players would have to advance the narrative in some way (whether it was the main story, or secondary world building). The Storylines menu was added quite late in development, mainly to as a way to reinforce how everything mattered to the story, especially when players spent significant periods of time in the open world between missions with cinematics with overt storytelling.
I hate to put you on the spot Jeff, but how are you doing in the challenges so far?
There was a time I used to joke I was the best Days Gone player in the world because I got to present the game in public demos like the E3 2016 Sawmill demo. But with the release of our challenges, my days at the top are gone. The players are really good, tactical, and cleverly using the rings and patches in ways to go back and run up their scores. I’ve resigned myself to achieve Gold in every challenge, but making a run for the top of the leaderboards just isn’t in the cards.
What is your favorite challenge, and which character do you prefer to use?
First of all, I love the crazy variety our designers have come up with. They also did a great job generating sub-challenges with a lot of depth. Having said all of that, I love the raw simplicity of Surrounded especially played with Boozer, my bald brethren.
I would like to give a big THANK YOU to Bend Studio and Jeff Ross for their support and coming onto my blog to speak to me. I am very grateful for this opportunity and I couldn’t say thank you enough. You can catch all the latest news about Days Gone from Bend Studio on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.