Interview with Days Gone Open World Designer Philip Wilson
December 22, 2020
The world of Days Gone was carefully crafted by Bend Studio. From beautiful vast landscapes of lush forests and snowy mountains, to the dark pockets of the apocalyptic world with infested caves, abandoned vehicles and rundown buildings. Each piece of the environmental puzzle is there for a reason, to provide the player with a sense of reality and immerse you in the journey of Deacon St. John. Open world games are filled with activities, encounters and stories to explore making it easy for a player to sink in hundreds of hours into a game. What goes through the mind of a designer when creating some of these gameplay moments?
I had the pleasure to ask Open World Designer Philip Wilson some of my lingering questions about his role in Days Gone. Philip has worked at Bend Studio for over 14 years where he started his career as a QA Contractor on Syphon Filter: Combat Ops. From there, he went on to work as a QA on multiple games including Syphon Filter: Logan’s Shadow, Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror, Resistance: Retribution and Uncharted: Golden Abyss. In 2015, Philip began his role as a designer on the large and ambitious world of Days Gone. Philip shares with us the things he worked on in Days Gone, his process on designing them, tips to achieve gold in the challenge he created and more.
The Broken Road: Let us begin by understanding your role as an Open World Designer for Days
Gone. At Bend Studio, what would a normal day look like for you during the development process? What were your primary duties in Days Gone?
Philip Wilson: In Days Gone I was in charge of creating the Ambush Camps, Enemy Camp Jobs, and some of the early Boozer missions like getting Boozer some meat. I put together logic for some of the events you see in the world while driving around in the open world. I also worked on the guitarist in the Lost Lake encampment.
Typically a normal day would start out with me checking for any new issues that might have come up from the testers in Quality Assurance. After that I would focus as much as possible on making sure everything was functioning as expected when running through the camps. Most days would have some unexpected surprises but that is what makes game development so fun and exciting.
When designing the ambush camps, what are the top priorities you focus on? What do you hope to accomplish for the player in each one?
When creating the Ambush Camps I would work very closely with the Environment Art team on creating the layout of the camp. We needed to make them fit into the environment and support the combat gameplay that we were going for in the camps. My top priority when creating Ambush Camps was to support each player’s play style, whether you come in guns blazing or decide to take it slow and sneaky. I also really wanted to allow the player to drag hordes or other enemies into the camps and have them work properly. Letting the player approach the camps on their own terms was always really important. I also wanted to create some surprising experiences, a few of the camps have some hordes nearby that like to get involved if you get too noisy.
Out of the 14 ambush camps scattered across the map, do you have a personal favorite one you designed?
While I do like them all for different reasons, I think that my favorite is probably the Belknap Caves camp. It has a little horde sleeping in a cave below and the camp itself is on a huge rock pillar. That one can be a bit of surprise if the horde comes out after going loud. It is a pretty small horde but it can be a lot if you aren’t really prepared for it. There are also lots of bear traps in that camp which can catch you by surprise. Actually there is a bear trap that I placed that our Lead Open World Designer Eric Jensen stepped on whenever testing out the changes in that camp. I ended up naming it “Eric’s Bear Trap” and it still exists in that camp to this day. Another favorite is the Spruce Lake Ambush Camp. That one is both a NERO Checkpoint and an Ambush Camp. There is also a horde sleeping that wakes up if you are too loud. You can actually clear the camp without waking up the horde if you are quiet enough.
Was there anything you wanted to implement in the camps early on in development that did not make it into the final game?
The first thing to come to mind was a dynamic campfire that I had early on in development that any NPC could use. This would be a campfire that existed in the camp that would be off during the daytime but when nighttime happened they would go over to the campfire, light the fire, then sit down next to it. They would also stoke the fire periodically as the flames would start to die after a little while. The problem is that it created an inconsistent messaging about the camps as it was harder to tell if they were active or not when approaching them so the decision was made to keep the fires on all the time.
You also created the Ambush Camp Rush challenge, which tested a player’s skill by taking out a camp as fast as possible. This is the ultimate camp with well-armed patrols, traps and a timer. When designing a challenge like this, how much trial and error goes into it until it feels fun, rewarding and challenging all at the same time?
Lots and lots of trial and error. When putting the Ambush Camp Rush version together I just wanted to take a camp and turn everything in it up to 11. There are more enemies, all of them patrol all of the time and there are more traps laying around. The moment that you alert more than one of them you blow the possibility for clearing the whole camp with stealth. I had to make sure that the player had opportunities to actually kill the enemies without the whole camp noticing, that took a lot of trial and error.
Watching other people try to take it on was really important as well since everyone plays the game differently. Seeing what they struggled with and accounting for that was a big part of making the challenge. I wanted this challenge to feel possible for anyone after playing through it a few times and finding the items that more suit your playstyle. It’s worth it to go around the camp a few times to see what is there so you can best decide your route through the camp getting what you need to be successful.
For players still trying to achieve gold in the challenges, what is the best advice you can give them to succeed in Ambush Camp Rush?
There are basically two different approaches that I wanted to work to allow for a Gold in Ambush Camp Rush. I wanted to make it possible to get a gold in either stealth or if you wanted to go in and just shoot everyone. With that in mind I would suggest choosing the path that suits your style a bit more when going for the Gold score.
If you want to go for a stealth run I would suggest going for Gold in the Camp Ghost, Berserked, and Crafty Sub-Challenges. Getting gold in these alone will give you 20,000 points. I would suggest ignoring the time for the most part using this route (though it will give you more points if you go faster). Remember that if you defeat a berserked enemy with a trap it will count for both Crafty and Berserked. This path is not nearly as reliant on maintaining a combo but you will need to get some extra points when running around. I would suggest using the Vampire ring for this.
The loud path through the level I wanted to primarily focus on achieving a Gold in Quick and Painful while keeping a combo going and maybe getting a bronze in one of the other Sub-Challenges. You get combo for crafting items, picking up items, and getting kills. To help keep your combo up make sure to equip the Joker ring so that you can pick up items while sliding. It also help to have the Bullets ring equipped so you can
reload your weapon by rolling this should allow you to keep shooting instead of reloading. If you start running low on combo time make sure to craft some items to get it back up. The key to this method is to keep your combo up.
As a player yourself, are you a guns blazing type of guy or do you prefer the stealthy approach when entering enemy camps?
I always prefer to start with stealth. It’s more fun to me to pick off the enemies one by one. I also am a pretty big fan of bringing other enemy types into the camps when possible. This causes a bit of chaos that I can take advantage of. However, this rarely ever goes as planned. I usually end up setting off a traps in the camp so it tends to turn into a guns blazing playstyle but that isn’t typically my preferred approach. I do hold my own when it comes down to it though.
Whether it was during development or post-launch, what was your fondest memory with Days Gone?
There are a few moments like playing the game for the first time at home was really amazing. It was finally a real game that people could play and enjoy. Seeing my daughter’s name in the credits was really cool as well, she was born a few months before the game launched. But my favorite thing was seeing people react to the guitarist in the Lost Lake camp. The guitarist was always planned but how it was implemented changed later on in development. I had an idea of how it could work once we got all of the animations online and I got it implemented. I think that was one of the last things that I added to the game before it shipped out. Zander Reese really knocked the songs out of the park. I have a soft spot for the song “Mirrors”. Check out the camp guitarist every night at 7:00 PM at the Lost Lake encampment.
With Days Gone being included in the PS Plus Collection on the PlayStation 5, there will be even more players to ride the Broken Road for the first time. What are your best tips to survive in a world that always comes for you?
Enjoy your time out there in the Farewell Wilderness, at times it can be very dangerous and at other times very serene. If you find yourself getting ambushed too much make sure to take out the Ambush Camps. If you aren’t sure where they are just look for the smoke. If the ambushers don’t have a camp they won’t attack you nearly as often. Make sure to keep your bike full of gas as well. It is always better to top off the tank than to run out of gas while running from a horde.
Try Days Gone for free right now on PlayStation!
PlayStation 5 owners can play Days Gone with up to 60 FPS and Dynamic 4K through the PS Plus Collection for free with an active PS Plus subscription. If you’re on the PlayStation 4, Days Gone is still available to play on PS Now for a limited time until January 5, 2021. You can sign up for a free 7 day trial on PS Now to begin riding the broken road.
Actor Jim Pirri Chats About His Role as Boozer
April 24, 2020
When we play a video game, the stories we see unfold aim to provide us with entertainment. They tug at our emotions by making us laugh, cry, or jump when we’re scared or anxious for the characters in dire situations. The best stories provide a connection between the player and the character due to a specific theme, such as love, tragedy, revenge or redemption. At some level you have an understanding of the character’s pain and the actions they take. Stories that impact you as a player only come to light by the performances and delivery of the actors who play these characters.
Jim Pirri, the actor who played William “Boozer” Gray gave the audience that type of performance, which made Boozer a standout character in Days Gone. Behind the writing of Creative Director John Garvin, Jim Pirri took the role of Boozer and brought him to life. You may have heard Jim’s voice in other video games before too including Red Dead Redemption 2, Dying Light, Final Fantasy XV, Call of Duty Infinite Warfare, Injustice 2 and many others. He has also appeared in numerous television shows including Batwoman, Victorious, Friends and voiced in last year’s Netflix Original Love, Death & Robots. Today, Jim chats about his role as Boozer, his relationship working with Sam Witwer (Deacon) and dives deeper into some of Boozer’s main story beats.
The Broken Road: You and Sam Witwer had great chemistry together on camera. One of the things I loved most about Days Gone was the brotherhood between Deacon and Boozer. How was it working with Sam?
Jim Pirri: He was the best! He made it super easy because one, he’s so good and two, such a cool super chill guy. He made it very easy to have that type of loyal brotherhood relationship because he is just a really good guy and an amazing actor. He couldn’t have made it easier.
The comical beats between Deacon and Boozer are done very well following a tense situation. How much did you enjoy saying all the arm jokes?
I loved it! I’m nothing if not a corny dad, so loving all the dad jokes. John Garvin the director/writer was kind enough to totally give us carte blanche and freedom with allowing us to improvise. He was always, how would you say it now say it in your own words. It gave us a lot of freedom to mess around and play like that. Which, I really think helped that relationship go that well that you were referring to in the first question. Thanks to John for setting that up.
As an actor, how do you prepare for a scene as dramatic as getting your arm amputated? At that point, how do you relate to Boozer in that situation?
The simple answer is I use my imagination. I just imagine it. Acting is nothing other than playing pretend, hopefully at a really high level. What I did was I imagined what it would be like. I get the script like the night then start imagining it and working on them. For me, it’s as simple as that. When we shot it, I was focusing more on how the pain would feel and conveying that. Apparently, I am much more a crybaby than Boozer is. Boozer is a lot tougher than I am. I was just focusing on communicating that pain. John was like, no we can’t have Boozer doing that. That’s where you find the difference between yourself and a character. So we adapted and ended up playing more on the anger against the Rippers. It takes something like that to really point out the differences between you and your character which I find really funny.
The mission, ‘Drinking Himself to Death’ is a fan-favorite. I must know, what was it like voicing a drunk character singing old McDonald?
It’s the best! It’s so much fun to portray that stuff as an actor. But, the trick is getting the pain underneath it, which also is fun for us actors. I love portraying three dimensional characters that have a reason for acting stupid or silly and self-medicating in any way because that’s how we are in life. When you play the game, it gives you a deeper experience and makes it more real. Its awesome to do stuff like that. It kind of increases our understanding of humans in tough spots, which we all are at various times and I really like that.
Boozer’s story was filled with a lot of emotional trauma even before the apocalypse with the death of Joany. After wrapping Days Gone, was there one lesson that you took from the character of Boozer and put into your own life?
I will say that the looking out for his brother and his family of choice. I really like and admire and respect the hell out of that. I definitely try to do that with my friends as well, looking out for them in this crazy pandemic. You know it’s much simpler in the way I’m doing it and not nearly as risky, but that’s something I try to embody in some form or another and aspire to.
I want to give you a hypothetical situation here. Let’s say the roles were flipped with Deacon and Boozer, and Boozer put Joany on the helicopter. Do you think Boozer would have handled the situation the same way Deacon did?
Absolutely 100%, without even thinking about it. That’s all I got to say about that one.
I have a two-part question for you. What was your personal favorite moment in Boozer’s story? What did you enjoy the most playing this character?
There’s a few moments. One of them was getting Jack. I’ve been working on it by that point for about three years and a lot of its very intense and dealing with as they say in the game, being in the shit. To have that moment, was a real breath of fresh air. Even though we’re just acting it, you’re imagining it and thinking about these things a lot and trying to put yourself in that position when you are portraying it. When you have something like getting a puppy, especially for Boozer who loves dogs so much it’s like the best thing that could happen to him. Knowing as an artist that its also going to be something that helps him find his way back towards a better life, is also really cool from that point of view.
What a badass he was. That’s honestly it, to be that much of a badass. In my real life, I am not. But I wish I were, and it was really fun to be able to play someone like him. That was the best.
Boozer is a beloved character in the Days Gone community. So much so, as there is a virtual photography theme held each month called Boozer Appreciation ran by your number one fan, @Sim_nell. When you were first casted as Boozer, did you ever think that this character would be so well received like this?
No, not at all. I was just doing my job. Just trying to do the best I could portraying this character with the awesome writing that John gave us. That’s all I was trying to do, and this is a total surprise and very very appreciated.
After a long day of work, how many times do you say to yourself “there’s a bunk calling my name?”
Right now I’m not, but when the game first came out I ended up playing it straight through like two times in a row, which is very rare for me. A lot of times I don’t make it through my own games, not because they’re bad but because I’m really impatient. But this one, I just got sucked into the story, and also just love the game. When it’s those sessions where its three in the morning and you got to get to bed and stop playing because you got work to do, I was definitely saying it a lot. I’m not saying so much anymore, but maybe I’ll start up again.
Finding a puppy for Boozer was such a happy moment in a world filled with darkness. Jack is probably more of a star now in player’s eyes than Deacon and Boozer! Are you a dog person yourself? If so, what kind of dog do you have?
I’m definitely a dog person, although I don’t have a dog. I haven’t been able to have a dog other than for short periods in my life for various situations based on primarily where I lived. I was lucky enough to foster a Pitbull for a short time while the agency found a home for her. She was awesome. Then I dog sat for a friend of mine who was working on a project overseas for about a month or so. I always loved their dog; they had this boxer name Rosie. She was the best! I loved that dog. I felt so happy to be able to interact with her, walk her, play with her, and feed her. However, I know the dogs I would get. I always wanted a Newfoundland. I love big dogs. I definitely would like a Newfoundland, although here in LA I always worry about the heat being a little hard for them to handle with that thick coat. Like I said I also love Boxers, just personality wise. I also would like a Blue Heeler. I think that’s what I really want is a Newfoundland and a Blue Heeler. That might be because that’s what Mad Max had in Rogue Warrior, actually I know that’s where that came from. Those dogs are awesome! I like smart dogs and kind of mutty looking too.
You can pick up Days Gone on sale for only $19.99 in North America right now on the PlayStation Store!
Credit: Photos 3-7; @Sim_nell
Talking Iron Mike with the Actor Eric Allan Kramer
April 22, 2020
The characters of Days Gone were not like any other cast I’ve seen in games. They were original, diverse, human and relatable. Each one played a key role in the story and their actions made sense. Without this group of characters, Days Gone wouldn’t have felt the same. That speaks to the level of writing and the performances by the actors and actresses. One character that left an imprint on player’s hearts was Iron Mike. Iron Mike represented hope in a cruel world, and was a crucial part in Deacon’s journey.
I had the opportunity to ask the man himself, Eric Allan Kramer who played Iron Mike some questions about his character. Eric Allan Kramer is best known for his roles in Good Luck Charlie and Lodge 49, but has appeared in numerous shows and films such as, True Romance, Robin Hood Men in Tights, American Wedding and recently appeared in the new show On Becoming a God in Central Florida. It was wonderful to talk about one of my favorite characters in Days Gone and to understand a little more about Iron Mike. Eric provides an in-depth look at who Iron Mike is, what type of person he may have been and his relationship with Deacon.
The Broken Road: This was your first acting gig in a video game, correct? How was your experience, and how did it differ from television shows and films?
Eric Allan Kramer: Very first. And probably the best way to get my feet wet in that world as everyone was incredibly helpful and available. Also some solid actors to play off of. The suit took a little getting used to but I was surprised as to how quickly I became comfortable in it once we started playing the scenes. Very different from one camera shows and films as you never had to move the camera, reset and relight to cover different angles. You were covered the entire time and could just run the scenes, very quickly finding a rhythm and flow. If anything it felt closer to Multicam shows.
Most people know you from the TV show, Good Luck Charlie as Bob Duncan. I remember watching this show in high school! What similarities if any do you see between these two characters, Bob and Iron Mike?
Ha! Not much, I think… Except both have to deal with other people who feel they know how to do things better. And I guess they are both exterminators in a sense, yes?
One of my favorite quotes in Days Gone comes from Iron Mike;
“We make the world what it is, by what we do. All of us.”
This quote resonates a lot right now with our current world state. What type of positive words do you think Iron Mike would say to the people?
I think he would say to look for the people doing good and encourage more of that. Help when you can, point out to others what can be done when you can’t.
How would you describe Iron Mike to someone who has never played Days Gone before?
Iron Mike, I think, is a guy who you want and, at the same time, shouldn’t have in charge. He is a compassionate leader, caring and looking out for the best interests of his community. But at the same time he has lived and seen too much. He is as broken as the world around him and I think that stops him from making decisions that he knows need to be made. He leans too much on compromise and lets his desire for how he wants things to be win out over reality.
How much of yourself was portrayed through your character?
I think there is always a bit of yourself that you bring to every role. Not sure how much of myself I recognize in Iron Mike, but there were certainly moments in speeches he had that hit home in a real way.
When Deacon first arrived at Lost Lake, he was reminded that if he stepped foot in the camp again Iron Mike would kill him. In your mind, what do you think changed in Iron Mike’s head to bring him back in?
Iron Mike always, whether he admitted it or not, looked for the good and the positive in people. Maybe because he felt he lost that in himself. Deacon’s journey was an honest one and I think Mike saw that, felt that, even if he believed Deacon was blind and it was foolish.
Iron Mike and Deacon have almost that tough father/son relationship. He even says that Deacon reminds him of his younger self. What type of man do you think Iron Mike was before the apocalypse?
I think Mike was probably a hell raiser. Lived on the edge. I don’t think you survive very long in that kind of post apocalyptic world without having that in you.
In the scene with Iron Mike and Deacon in Sherman’s Camp, the revelation of how it all went down was dark and really made you feel for Iron Mike. As an actor, how much does a scene like this impact you while you are giving out the dialogue?
What’s great about this game is the humanity that is at its core. Situations and dialogue like in that scene make the world and those characters far more real. And, as an actor, characters like that are very rewarding to play.
Even with Iron Mike gone, his legacy will forever mark the lives of Lost Lake including Deacon, Boozer, Rikki and Addy. Do you think Deacon can fill in those big shoes?
If anyone, Deacon can. I think the two of them showed each other the best of themselves along with a warning of the dark that lies underneath. I’m sure Deacon will carry that with him.
If you could change one thing about Iron Mike, what would it be?
I would keep him alive in case there is a Days Gone 2… Although, I don’t think we could ever rule out his spirit coming back and tearing someone a new one.
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 Allan Kramer for coming on The Broken Road to help celebrate Days Gone Week! For Iron Mike! You can catch all the latest news about Days Gone from Bend Studio on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Lead Open World Designer Eric Jensen Rides The Broken Road
April 20, 2020
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.
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? ☺
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:
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 Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.