Interviews

Talking with Paul Deakin the Audio Director of Days Gone

December 9, 2019

The audio design in Days Gone is one of several reasons why it has been vastly praised by players in 2019. From the authentic sounds of the motorcycle, to the horrifying sounds of Freakers, and the sounds that make up the Pacific Northwest through dynamic weather and wildlife, every component plays off each other to create an immersive experience. Audio is just as important as any other element in the development process of a game. It helps tell the story, while enhancing the gameplay and pairing the music, dialogue and sound perfectly together. The attention to detail from Bend Studio both visually and by sound, created an impressive display of an open-world game.

That’s why I wanted to talk with the Audio Director from Bend Studio, Paul Deakin. Paul shed some light on his role in Days Gone and his responsibility as an Audio Director. He reveals the process of creating the different sounds of the Freakers, including the humming of the Screamer and the ferocious vocalization of the Rager bear. Along with sharing his insight about the ambient wildlife system, the small details heard from the motorcycle and more fascinating tidbits.


The Broken Road: Thank you for taking the time to answer some of my questions Paul. I’m glad to have you on The Broken Road.

Paul Deakin: Hi Kevin, thank you for inviting me to chat about Days Gone and audio! It’s an honor to be able to spend some time chatting with you. 

The pleasure is all mine. Let’s begin, shall we? First, can you tell us what the Audio Director is responsible for at Bend Studio? What is your day to day tasks during development?

If it’s okay with you, I’d like to firstly answer the question “What is audio responsible for?” because I see that as something much more important than one person’s role. I see the role of audio in a game as a crucial part of the overall experience; but also something with very much the same goals and purpose as every other discipline: to tell an intriguing and exciting story.  More than anything else, we’re storytellers, and it is always my belief that we should keep that at the forefront of our mind throughout the entire development process, and for every decision we make.  More specifically, audio should support and help drive the emotion and tensions of the narrative and gameplay, and complement the art style. It should enhance immersion, be dynamic (constantly adapting to player actions) and have a signature tone that befits the world we’re creating. Part of my job is to ensure the three pillars of audio (sound, music and dialogue) gel together nicely and ‘belong’ to the world that we’re creating. 

I think the responsibilities of an Audio Director vary from studio to studio, depending on the team size and structure. At Bend Studio, my role as Audio Director is to work with each of the three audio teams: Dialogue, Music and Sound Design, and provide direction to help bring the game to life through sound. Having said that, I like to be as hands-on as possible and work alongside our amazing audio folk. I love being involved in the creative and technical processes just as much as being responsible for shaping and defining the overall tone. For example, in Days Gone, I designed our ambient wildlife system (The Deaco-system™ ☺) and took it from raw recordings to scripting, and through final implementation and tuning. The implementation and scripting of game audio, is just as much fun (for me) as designing, say, Rager Bear vocalizations (those were a lot of fun, too! ☺). I really love every minute of my ‘job’ and look forward to what we strive to accomplish on a day-to-day, week-to-week and year-to-year basis!

How did it feel to be nominated for Best Audio for the Golden Joystick Awards this year? Congratulations to you and everyone at Bend Studio!

Thank you! It’s exciting and such an honor to be a Golden Joystick Awards finalist! We’re a relatively small development team and so there were plenty of long days during the last 6 months or so of production. Seeing audio receiving a mention (on social media, by folk like your good self – thank you for your thoughtful and kind words on Twitter!) and nominated for awards is very gratifying. It’s great to see all the hard work pay off.

*Days Gone did win PlayStation Game of the Year and Best Storytelling for the 2019 Golden Joystick Awards.*

Hearing the Freakshow track come out of your speakers immediately gets your adrenaline pumping because you know a horde is nearby. How closely did you work with composer Nathan Whitehead to queue the tracks from the score to specific gameplay points?

Nathan did a superb job composing the score for Days Gone and it really resonated with fans. He worked closely with our music team in San Diego and Santa Monica to hit all the right notes (pun intended) for the numerous emotional beats and gameplay loops. There’s also a lot of work that continues after the music is written and recorded, in order to make the interactivity of it play nicely with systems and the general unpredictability of an open world game. In Days Gone, this involved other teams (our audio programmer, music editors and designers worked to ensure scripts behaved correctly and the multiple layers of music triggered appropriately to enhance tension and relief at the right moments). As you pointed out, the Freakshow track was particularly effective in creating that sense of anxiety for the player, indicating nearby Freakers or hordes. There are several layers/intensity levels to all the music in Days Gone which are activated and deactivated by game data. In the horde example you mention: values such as number of Freakers in the vicinity, distance between the Freakers and the player, Freakers’ awareness-level of the player which all contribute to creating that contextual tension and anxiety. 

The screeches and screams you hear from the Freakers are haunting. What was the process in creating their distinctive sound?

There were two main goals with Freaker vocals. Firstly, since the fiction states that Freakers are humans infected by a virus, we did not want to over-process the vocalizations and make them sound like ‘creatures’ or ‘monsters’. They are, after all, still humans (albeit infected, feral, and animal-like in behavior). The second goal was to ensure the player would be able to identify the different types of Freakers from the unique sounds they make. For example, a screamer obviously screams, but when she’s not screaming, she needed another distinct sound that would not sound too much like a female swarmer, so as not to confuse the player. One day, while I was thinking about the fiction of the screamer and her role in the story, it came to me that, since she’s a loner who just kind of wanders around (pretty aimlessly), she might hum to herself (like a crazy old lady – is it okay to say that?) – almost as a way to show that the real human inside her still exists and the ‘Freaker’ is fighting to get out (or maybe the other way round? Yeah, that. ☺). The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. But then I realized that a hum alone wasn’t enough. We needed something more; and something in the hum that would sound ‘off’ to give her a special kind of creepy feel. So, after recording the hums, I dipped the edited sounds in a bit of ‘special sauce’ and scripted her vocals in such a way that every few lines of her peaceful (yet ‘off ‘sounding) humming would be interrupted by a sudden vocal ‘tick’ – again, trying to illustrate that there’s an internal fight going on between human and Freaker. Of course, whenever she spots the player, full Freaker instincts take over, and she screams her signature scream to call in a small group of swarmers. The screamer sound design really ended up resonating with players and some did not discover the humming until late-game since you have to be pretty close to her to hear it. If you listen to all the other Freaker types in the game, they all have unique sounds that, once the player has encountered them, are easy to identify. Personally, I love the newts and they were a lot of fun to record in the studio! ☺

At what point did you realize to incorporate the NERO recordings through the controller speaker? Was that always part of the plan to utilize that feature?

Ha! Great question! Simple answer: the moment I saw that there were going to be 51 of them! I really felt they needed that typical Dictaphone/digital recorder vibe. Sure, we could have done that with filters and let them play out of the regular speaker, but I thought this was a nice opportunity to use the controller speaker and separate the recordings from the rest of the game mix. Some players loved it, some didn’t. It’s hard to please everyone ☺

Days Gone is layered in detail. You mentioned to me before about the motorcycle engine pinging as it cools down. Are you a rider yourself to incorporate this type of detail? How much talk was there surrounding the team about making everything with the bike perfect?

I’m a rider of mountain bikes ☺ I haven’t yet taken my motorcycle course (I scheduled it this summer but had to cancel due to other commitments). With regards conversations about the detail that went into designing the sounds of the bikes in Days Gone, there were many, and they continued even right through to the final few weeks of production and into DLC (since we had a number of bike challenges). The engine sounds were recorded first (many years ago, in fact!) and then we set about a plan for the other elements (suspension sounds, damage, road surfaces, rocks being kicked up by dirt, skids, burnouts etc.), making sure we were using game data to drive how the bike sounds respond to player input, terrain, engine load, weather etc. There’s also a ‘wet’ version of most terrain types (e.g. dirt becomes mud, asphalt gathers puddles of water). Knowing that the players would spend a lot of time with/on their bike, our goal was to make sure there was enough variety in the sounds, including some subtle details such as the pinging sound of the engine cooling down after Deacon dismounts. I wouldn’t say it was ‘perfect’ (but thanks for saying that!) but we were happy with the final result. In addition to the different engines, some of the upgradeable parts (exhausts, for example) also had a subtle effect on the overall sound of each bike. I always wanted to add a horn for the player to attract the attention of nearby hordes to lead them into enemy camps, but I think we ran out of buttons on the controller (or at least, that’s what Design told me ☺).

The dynamic weather is something I always marvel at when playing. Not only with the appearance and how it affects gameplay, but certain sounds that play off it. For example, the sound of the motorcycle wheels kicking up mud after it rains. How do these types of sounds get captured and inserted into gameplay?

I asked one of our awesome sound designers (Christian) in San Diego to answer this question. He was responsible for a lot of the bike detail, including the sounds of the tires on some of the various terrain types. Here’s Christian’s answer:

“Using a large bin of mud, and my hands, I performed a variety of behaviors with the mud that I imagine a bike tire would encounter, from slow to fast rolling sounds, to burning out and having sloppy globs of mud getting kicked up. Later that day I noticed that my wedding ring was missing and realized that there was only one place it could be. Thankfully, after spending a relatively short time scooping, and splodging some more, there it was… in the middle of the mud! In the end we were left with a small library of sounds that I used to script different behaviors with our in-house authoring tool. Some sounds would crossfade based on speed, while the rate of other sounds playing would change based on the rate of tire spin or speed of the bike, for instance”.  

What sounds implemented in the game proved to be the most difficult for you to get right?

Haha! I’m not sure how to answer this question because there were a number of “most difficult” sounds to try to get right ☺. Finding the Rager bear voice was a long process and took a number of iterations before we landed on what I really thought sounded ferocious and infected enough to belong to and live in the Days Gone world. The challenge was two-fold: create an infected sounding bear that wouldn’t sound too much like a ‘regular’ bear, but also make sure it does not sound like a ‘monster’ from a fantasy setting. Initially, I began working on some concept vocalizations using bear growls, roars, pants (and so on) as a foundation, and layering in other animals and processing them, in order to differentiate it from a ‘regular’ bear. This never really worked for me because I could still hear too much ‘bear’ in there. Plus, it was challenging to find other animal vocalizations that blended nicely together, without the result sounding like precisely that – a bunch of other animals! No matter how I processed them, I could still hear what ‘went into the sausage’.  

So, back at the drawing board, I started to re-think the approach. I was looking through some folders of “creature sounds” we’d received, performed by various voice actors and, although most of them were men-with-deep-voices-trying-to-imitate-large-scary-animals, I thought it might be a good place to start, provided we could find the right voice. I requested some audition material and received a few back but one really stood out among the others. A great VO artist (Harry Schultz) has an amazing TV/trailer voice (think “in a world…” style); a really clear, deep, bassy tone which I thought might sound perfect! So, I took some of his samples he’d sent and began working with them as a foundation for our Rager. As I processed the sounds he provided with some other animal sounds we had, everything started to come together really nicely. I felt like we had something unique, while still sounding somewhat bear-like: a pissed off, infected, ferocious bear (now and forever affectionately referred to as ‘RFB’). It still took a lot of iteration and careful massaging, but it was such a relief to finally have the beginnings of a unique and fearsome Rager bear. We played a sample of the resulting sounds to folk here and everyone loved it. We hired Harry and went into the studio – Harry was an absolute pleasure to work with and (I’m pretty sure) much easier to direct in the studio than a grizzly!

Are there any other small audio details that you are proud of that may not have been noticed by most players?

Hmmm, that’s a hard question because I don’t really know what players have and haven’t noticed. Off the top of my head, here are some: there’s a very light “sizzle/hiss” layer on some of the larger fires – that is triggered when it rains – to give the effect of the rain extinguishing parts of the fire. The challenge with this was that the hiss scales with rain intensity and with heavier rain comes stronger winds… which means they’re both louder. Since our hiss, rain and wind all sit close to one another on the audio spectrum, it can be hard to hear the hiss. But it’s there! Then there’s the trees which sway and creak slightly in stronger winds, sound of leaves as they blow along the ground, rain on cars as you walk by, over 50 types of surfaces for footsteps, bullet impacts, body falls etc. (many with unique ‘wet’ versions), water dripping off rooftops after rain has stopped, insects that stop chirping if the player gets too close or shoots a weapon, dogs that bark when Freakers screech in the distance, encampment ‘activity’ and walla (my favorites are the yawning and snoring from the tent city areas at night), an eerie drone when the player is near an infestation, rain on Deacon’s leather jacket (best heard when you aim your weapon since the camera is closer). I’m pretty proud of the ambient wildlife system for a few reasons: there are no animal or insect sounds in the game that are not found in the PNW – I carefully researched this and made sure they truly live in the area! There are some very rare animals that are specific to only some areas of the game, and even then, are quite elusive (i.e. may not be heard for hours). Players may not ever hear some of the wildlife in Days Gone. Ambient wildlife is very dynamic and varied, and several parameters affect their behavior. The crickets you hear in Iron Butte are different to the crickets you hear in Belknap. Frogs tend to be heard only in heavy rains and/or near large bodies of water. Those are just a few of the ‘details’ I can think of… there are many more! Can you find them? ☺

Paul Deakin working in his sound room. (1)
(2)
Harry Schultz recording voice for the Rager Bear.
Recording a real bear for the Days Gone regular bear.

Thank you once again to Bend Studio and Paul Deakin for joining me on The Broken Road! You can catch all the latest news about Days Gone from Bend Studio on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.


Scoring Days Gone with Composer Nathan Whitehead

November 11, 2019

Music plays an essential role in any video game. The greatest games include a unique soundtrack that is woven perfectly together by the story, characters, gameplay and environment. The music is what pulls the emotions out of your favorite characters and into your hearts. When you hear certain tracks outside of the game, it immediately pulls you back into that world and the memories that go with it. The music forms a bond with the player that leaves an everlasting mark and will determine how the player connects to the game. The score to Days Gone provides just that with its gritty, emotional and organic sound as you ride through the post-apocalyptic Pacific Northwest.

The composer behind the remarkable soundtrack of Days Gone is Nathan Whitehead. Nathan is a composer for film, television and video games. He is best known for composing the scores for the film franchise, The Purge. Nathan is also credited for composing Keanu, Beyond Skyline and Stephanie, along with being an arranger and producer on other titles. I was fortunate enough to ask Nathan a few of my burning questions about scoring Days Gone. He generously shared plenty of insight into his development of certain themes, what attracted him to the story, his creative thought process and connecting his music to the environment.


The Broken Road: Being the primary composer for the first time on a video game, especially a game as big as Days Gone, what were your expectations going into this new project?

Nathan Whitehead: To a large degree, I didn’t know what to expect. I expected it to be a lot of music, games are known for that. And I expected to be on the project for a long time. Both of those turned out to be true!

When the story of Days Gone was pitched to you, what was the first thing that immediately grabbed your attention and got you excited to work on it?

I was immediately grabbed by these universal and existential themes woven into the story, themes about hope and loss and humanity. The story explores Deacon’s motivations and encourages us to look inward and think about some big questions. What is our purpose? How do we move forward in the face of regrets or fears? And especially, why do we want to move forward? What’s the point? I thought this was a surprising and wonderful aspect to Days Gone. The game could’ve simply been blasting Freakers and riding your motorcycle and that would’ve been a fun game, but I felt these deeper layers of the story could take the player to more interesting and surprising places. This got me incredibly excited to be a part of the project.

The music feels so raw and emotional throughout the game. The grounded reality of a post-apocalyptic world weaved with hope and horror. How difficult was it to create this balance?

I love that the score is coming across that way! This is more of what I was so excited about in the previous question and it was absolutely the hardest aspect of the score to get right. It was such an exciting opportunity as a composer to explore ways to combine these worlds of hope and horror, as you so nicely put it. I had a lot of conversations with my producers at Sony and also with John Garvin (Creative Director at Bend Studio) fine tuning these aspects of the music. It was an iterative process as the score progressed and it was always a fine line between being too emotional and providing the appropriate support or contrast to what’s going on in the story at that moment. 

The environment plays such a critical role in Days Gone. What was your main goal in capturing the essence of the Pacific Northwest?

The environment is a huge part of the Days Gone experience and I think my main goal was for the music to feel like it belonged in that environment, that it was believable for this music and this place to exist together. I realize that’s a completely subjective statement but it’s a feel I was going for. I think the environment was one of several elements in the game that called for some rough edges and grit in the music. I wanted there to be textural similarities between the deserts, forests, and mountains and the score. I also felt that the overwhelming beauty that we see all around us allowed the score to often be understated and that really worked in our favor. We don’t need a giant fanfare when we watch the sun setting behind a snowy mountain. That visual is already so big that keeping the score smaller might make the moment even more impactful. Some of my favorite moments in the game are when you take off on your bike and you’re hit with a stunning view as you head over a pass or around a turn. These are often small moments musically, maybe just a little ambient guitar sneaking in, but my hope is that the combination of the awe-inspiring setting with understated music can make these moments special and push the overall tone of the game to have this quiet, meditative layer. I think nature has the power to evoke those qualities and I wanted the music to help those qualities speak.

Two tracks immediately come to mind when I think about your score, Days Gone and Freakshow. These two tracks were the core of the game, ranging from the main menu to fighting the forty hordes spread across the map. Can you tell us more on how those original ideas formed, and how you expanded on them?

These were the first two tracks I wrote for the game. I didn’t start out thinking these are the two primary themes of the game, I just wanted to write a track that connected to Deacon and a track that sounded like the Freakers to me. I think that was a helpful mind game to play on myself as I got started. Thinking of these from the beginning as the two central pillars of the score would’ve been overwhelming! My goal in writing Days Gone was to try and evoke a sense of Deacon’s resolve and hope but with threads of melancholy throughout. I tried to put myself in Deacon’s shoes, being separated from Sarah, not knowing whether she’s alive or dead, yet driven to keep searching and to remain hopeful. This theme was also the first time I started thinking about how the music would relate to the Pacific Northwest setting. Writing Days Gone went a long way toward establishing the palette that I would use for the entire score and, perhaps most importantly, it introduced our main melody that would appear over and over again in various forms and on various instruments throughout the game.

As for Freakshow, I knew the music needed to encapsulate the main antagonist in the game which is the global Freaker infection. The big challenge with Freakshow was that it needed to work in so many different scenarios. The music needed to scale along with the ever-present Freaker threat–sometimes as a low, throbbing sense of dread and then ratcheting up to horde-level mayhem. These aspects of the track came together fairly quickly. As the game progressed, however, I was constantly bouncing ideas off of my producers at Sony and we realized that Freakshow needed yet another dimension to speak to the tragedy of this massive human loss. The Freakers may be these soul-less feral beasts now, but each one is a person we lost to this pandemic. This ultimately led to incorporating the Freaker melody into the throbbing dread and horde onslaught elements. And it turns out this melody was hiding in the track all along. I recorded a lot of sounds and then distorted or manipulated them to create the Freakshow palette. One of these was a gnarly sound where I bowed a cymbal and ran it through some meaty distortion. This distorted, metal-ripping sound had a small melodic arc to it. One of my producers pointed this out and asked what if that was expanded upon? I slowed the sound way down and picked out this seven-note melody hiding in there. That became the foundation for the Freaker melody. I incorporated this melody on strings and piano and instantly Freakshow felt like it could navigate the tragic nature of the Freaker infection as well the dread-filled, pulse-pounding terror of the Freakers.

There are so many distinctive tracks in this score, so I wanted to dive into a few of them a little more. Sarah’s Theme is so beautiful, fulfilling and optimistic. What was your thought process when developing this track?

I think optimistic is a great word to use for Sarah’s Theme and it was something I thought a lot about when I was writing this track. I thought of Sarah’s Theme as a reminder for Deacon of the connection he has with Sarah and of what’s important in life. I wanted this track to say there is a reason to be hopeful even when surrounded by massive loss. Optimism is a powerful part of that and, I think, is ultimately the way our hopes and dreams become reality. I wanted some of that unbridled hopefulness and optimism to come across. I also thought about how our memories stay with us and can become sources of strength and purpose, but they can also manifest in negative ways rekindling old fears and regrets. With Sarah’s Theme, I thought about the magical early days of a relationship, how those memories can stay with you forever. I strove to infuse some of that electricity into the music and make it this bright contrast to the Freaker-infested world around us.

The Rager Bear has a heavy muscular tone to it with a great deal of tension. As you were creating this theme, did you look at gameplay of the Rager bear to realize what you wanted to accomplish, or was it mainly concept art and story that drove your creative process?

This is another example of the amazing creativity coming out of Bend Studio. When I first saw the Rager Bear I thought it was so perfectly terrifying and appropriate for the world of Days Gone. Bend sent me both concept art and some game capture as visual references, but story was always a critical component at every step as well. I think being mindful of how every element fits into the story is a key contributor to Days Gone’s overall emotional impact and that was something John Garvin really reinforced. I wanted the music for the Rager Bear to feel as threatening, massive, and raw as the Rager looked. I wanted it to have these jagged, serrated edges but also feel lumbering and have serious weight. For me, the Rager was the moment where the threat level in the world of the game took a massive leap beyond what I had imagined–if there are infected bears, what else would we encounter?

Every time I listen to Finding NERO, my mind goes back to each encounter I had with them in the game. The way I would sneak around in the bushes to avoid each soldier, while listening for any clues to unravel the mystery. How did you capture that sense of mystery in the melody?

I think one thing that helped with the sense of mystery was that Finding NERO is so unlike any other music in the game. In general, we felt the overall Days Gone sound should not be too rooted in sci-fi and it should be more organic and rough-hewn. But NERO was an exception and I wanted the music to have a precise, high-tech feel that stood out in contrast to the rest of the score. As for the melody itself, I never know where melodies come from! I knew that the tune should be simple, and, for some reason, those four notes seemed to suggest to me that something was going on beneath the surface.

In I Remember, you feel that connection to Deacon’s sadness, especially within the first minute of the track. Then the song begins to elevate filling you with the joy of the happier moments he had. What kind of discussions did you have with Creative Director John Garvin about these moments of the story between Deacon and Sarah?

I think most of my conversations with John were about Deacon and Sarah. We talked about them being, on the surface, a bit of an unlikely pair–the brilliant scientist and the crude biker. But through this contrast we learn that Deacon and Sarah are more than caricatures from these extremely different worlds. These moments show us more nuance and all these little details of their relationship. We start to see this special chemistry between them. I think John’s writing shines in these moments and the amazing performances from Sam Witwer and Courtnee Draper completely elevate these scenes. We also discussed the unexpected, complex turns that pop up between Deacon and Sarah. (Spoiler Alert!) Deacon finally finds Sarah alive and the encounter is not at all what he expected it to be and not what players will expect. I loved the complexity here. It felt believable and was some tricky territory musically. John and I had a lot of conversations about what was going on at this huge moment in the game and how to approach it musically. These were some of the most difficult but satisfying moments to score.

If you had to pick one, what was your absolute favorite track to work on for this score?

It is extremely hard to pick a favorite! If I have to name a single track, it’s Days Gone, the main theme of the game. I remember writing this track and being completely electrified by this story and this amazing setting. I was feeling so fortunate but also completely daunted to write music for this world and I think that is really the sweet spot for a composer.


Go Behind the Music with Nathan Whitehead in the video below:

You can listen to the official Days Gone soundtrack by Nathan Whitehead on Spotify and other music streaming services.

Order the Days Gone soundtrack on vinyl now at mondotees.com.

I would like to extend my gratitude to Nathan Whitehead for taking the time to come onto The Broken Road to answer my questions. Thank you!


An Interview with Jeff Ross the Game Director of Days Gone

September 12, 2019

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 ambitious choices that were made, 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 TwitterFacebook and Instagram.

[Sources: NPD via: VentureBeat; GfK Entertainment via: TheSixthAxis]