Days Gone is known for a harsh but beautiful world that is unforgiving and will push you to its limit. You must adapt to your surroundings if you want to survive. Whether that’s a horde of Freakers, enemy marauders, infected animals or a roided out Freak as Deacon likes to call them, they are all coming for you. That’s one of the mechanics that sets Days Gone apart from other games. The open world is full of life and it doesn’t allow you to take a breath. The game wants your heart to race, it wants you to use your whole arsenal and it wants you to use strategy. That’s when you know you are playing something special. So, how does a big open world like this come to be?
I spoke with Lead Open World Designer Eric Jensen, who oversaw and worked on creating the open world design in Days Gone. Eric is a huge part of Bend Studio’s success over the years. He started his career with Bend over 14 years ago where he worked as a QA Analyst for Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror. Now, he and the rest of Bend Studio produced their biggest game to date last year and it displayed the type of incredible talent that is located over in Bend, Oregon. It’s always a pleasure to learn more about their development process and gain an understanding of the type of hard work that went into it all. Eric shares plenty of interesting insight here, including his role in Days Gone, crafting the open world and those sweet PlayStation trophies.
The Broken Road: As a Lead Open World Designer, what were your main responsibilities in Days Gone?
Eric Jensen: I worked on, oversaw, or collaborated on most systems, content, and interactions outside of missions. This included all of the Ambush Camps, Infestations, NERO Checkpoints, Hordes, Encampments, camps jobs, dynamic encounters, open world population, and collectibles. I think that’s everything… 🙂
The trophy photos relating to the storyline were all scripted by you to capture a cinematic moment that tied to the trophy itself. Usually in games, our trophy photos capture a blurred picture or even a black screen. Hopefully, this kicks off the new norm for trophies in future games. What made you choose to do it this way?
Yes! I absolutely hope that more people adopt this technique. The best thing about Trophies is they offer a record of the games you have played, for better or worse. When you think back to all of the games you’ve played in your life, for the most part the only proof of those accomplishments are your own memories. I see Trophies as a cool opportunity to both show off those accomplishments but also to remember them yourself. That’s where the Trophy screenshots come in to play.
I’ve always loved the idea of capturing the moment when you accomplish something in a game but quite often they end up as black loading screens, some menu screen, or an in-game shot with very little context of what you achieved. Apparently it’s a little known feature, but the PS4 has a screenshot cache function where you can trigger a Trophy screenshot in advance of the Trophy unlocking. Insomniac’s Spider-Man used the same technique with their story act and boss Trophies.
Since Days Gone was a story heavy game I chose key moments within the story to tie Trophies to and then found the coolest frames within the cinematics tied to the moments. I would add a key frame to each cinematic then when it was hit it would capture that screenshot. When the mission was complete and the Trophy popped, it would then attach that previously captured shot to the Trophy. My hope is to continue this technique and advance it in the future so players have something cool to look back on after they have completed their favorite games.
You oversaw the trophy names too, correct? That must be a fun job to have! Tell me, how many references do you initially try to throw in?
I did! Myself, David Lee (Community Manager), and Elyse Lemoine (Senior Narrative Designer) worked together on all of the Trophies. Jeff Ross knew how passionate David and I were about Trophies so he gave us the opportunity to lead the charge with them. Looking back at Trophy lists from some of our favorite games we noticed it’s always been an opportunity for developers to have a bit of fun that may not always fit the tone of the game.
Very early on we knew we wanted to have references to other games as well as some of our favorite movies.
We have references to Die Hard, Shaun of the Dead, The Fast and the Furious, GTA IV, Ghost of Tsushima, Burnout, and even Syphon Filter. I also snuck in SpongeBob Squarepants and Wu-Tang Clan in to a couple Trophies.
It was a lot of fun, but it was also a lot of work to try and come up with clever names that also made sense to what the Trophy was. I think my favorite was “Days Gone in 60 Seconds” for defeating a Horde in under a minute in Survival Mode.
Many people may not realize it, but the open world of Days Gone was designed by only 5 to 6 people and you were a big part of that. How did the team accomplish such a great feat?
Yea, the open-world design team was at its peak 6 people. I will note though, that we absolutely could not have accomplished any of that without the help of other designers, artists, animators and programmers.
With such a big world, and such a small team, we had to go about everything a bit different than what we were all used to or even comfortable with.
Everything we created needed to be built for versatility and adaptability. This allowed us to spend a good amount of time designing and polishing a piece of content that could be used all over the world without feeling repetitive or too copy pastey™.
We also built a lot of dynamic systems that would adapt to the state of Deacon or how the player was playing the game so that no two experiences would play out exactly the same.
Think smart, work hard, and you can do a lot with a small team.
You seem to have your hand in a lot of the development for Days Gone. What else did you do for this game that the general public may not know about?
I helped out a bunch with the UI. I designed and implemented a lot of stuff on the Map Menu including the Region panel that shows all your progress in each location, as well as the Fast Travel system.
I helped design and maintained most of the Inventory, Crafting, and Collectible systems.
I designed and helped implement the Trophy menu that shows all of your progress on unlocking Trophies.
I came up with almost every fake brand or business name in the game. I also went to Garvin with the name for the town of Farewell and NERO, the National Emergency Response Organization.
Name one thing that you are most proud of working on in Days Gone.
It might sound a bit obvious, but I’m incredibly proud of the Open World and the team that built it. We had never built an Open World game. We had a small team. It may have taken a bit longer than we originally expected. It really seems to have resonated with people and it’s the thing that nearly every player spends the most time engaging with. So, for that I’m very proud of the Open World we built for the players of Days Gone.
‘This World Comes For You’ holds very true to the dynamic of Days Gone. It’s more than just a saying, as it is the core for the open world gameplay. Was this always the vision, or was it an ever-evolving door to try and set it apart from other open world games?
We knew very early on we didn’t ever want the player to feel comfortable just standing around in the world. We knew we didn’t want traditional slow-moving, shambling enemies, which meant they would likely always be chasing after the player. Then you throw in hungry animals that aren’t too picky about what they eat anymore, and a bunch of ruthless Marauders that are going to kill anything that gets in their way of surviving, and you have a world that is always coming for you. When we first got a version of the open world population up and going and some of our dynamic encounters triggering, it was brutal. It was very clear that we were headed down the right path. After probably 1000’s of hours of play testing and user testing we dialed it all into what shipped with the game.
Was there anything else that you wanted to throw in the open world that had to be cut for some reason? Whether that is a certain style ambush, an additional animal to hunt, different collectibles, etc.
From the first day we knew we were going to have the game take place in our homeland of Oregon, I wanted a Freaker sasquatch. Myself and Greg Callahan (who sculpted the incredible Deacon vs Freaker statue) talked about it from the beginning. Bigfoot is kind of a big deal in Oregon and we both thought that it would be awesome to have one in the game. It would have been so cool but unfortunately, we didn’t get the idea of the ground. Or did we? Maybe there’s one out there somewhere that hasn’t been found. There isn’t. Or is there? There isn’t. =(
The world is constantly alive. When I’m riding the broken road, I will come across wolves chasing deer, Newts crawling off rooftops, bears attacking Freakers and so on. When creating this interactive and seamless world, what is the biggest challenge you came across during development?
Making the world feel alive, lived in, and active was quite difficult. You can’t just throw population in the world and hope that it looks real. We had to create rules and mark up a bunch of stuff in the world with information that we could read in order to produce the correct population. The Hordes seek out the nearest food and water sources. Deer are going to be attracted to water and seek out the same plants that Deacon can collect. We tried to give everything a purpose and a goal in the world, in order to make it as believable as possible.
I saw your name a couple times up on the leaderboards in the challenges as they released in the summer. What was your favorite challenge, and which character would you usually choose to play with?
Haha, Lord knows I tried. I think I was only ever near the top of the leaderboard a couple times and it didn’t last long. Man, the Challenges were so much fun. Both to work on and to play. The Horde challenges are always a blast, but I think my favorite was the golf cart challenge, Dead Don’t Ride. It just had a charm to it that I hadn’t seen in games in a Crazy long time. Also, we were able to feature songs from artists in the studio which was awesome! While I don’t think I’m at the top of the leaderboard on any of them anymore, I did get Gold in all of them in order to get all the Trophies. =)
You can pick up Days Gone on sale for only $19.99 in North America right now on the PlayStation Store!
Thank you to Eric Jensen and Bend Studio for coming on The Broken Road to help celebrate Days Gone Week! You can catch all the latest news about Days Gone from Bend Studio on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.