My favorite demo from the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) was the Days Gone gameplay demo at the close of the Sony press conference. I saw it again later in a small group session with the developers from Bend Studio. Sure, it was yet another post-apocalypse game, but this one stood out above the rest.
The demo worked well because it felt like it was a scripted scene featuring lead character Deacon St. John as he tried to battle on the run with a horde of zombie-like creatures, dubbed Freakers, in the open world of an abandoned sawmill. The demo had pulse-pounding music that got faster as the intensity increased. Deacon kept finding ways to evade the horde in the nick of time, and the demo included cinematic moments in between the action, such as when he escaped into a garage to catch his breath. Slowly, Deacon ran out options, and he became trapped.
The Freakers were fast, and they came running. Deacon kept emptying clip after clip. But still they came. Finally, he retreated to the top of a small silo. Then the camera pulled back, showing how hopeless his situation had become. Still, he yelled, “Come on! Come on!”
In a small group, we spoke with Bend Studios developers Ron Allen and Darren Yager. I also asked them more questions on my own. They talked about their “horde tech” and how they put together the demo and the world of Days Gone. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: The zombie tide seems to go when you make noise. Is what we saw in the demo an example of a level going bad, or is that what you want every level to be like?
Darren Yager: We’re still early in development, but right now, this is something like our worst case scenario. We’re still adjusting the amount of guys and their alertness and things like that.
Ron Allen: This is just a very small sample of the game. It’s very intense, something we thought we could show that would be very impressive. But this particular area of the world — I’m sure you saw the body bags he was running through. They were using this area to burn all those bags, and then something happened, and it turned into what you saw.
Our guys are actually alive. They’re “Freakers.” That’s what we’re calling them. This game is set two years after a pandemic wiped out most of the population and turned most of the rest of humanity feral. In a weird way, they’re trying to do everything you’re doing. They’re trying to survive. You can come upon areas in the game where they’re just looking for water to drink. They’re trying to stay alive.
GamesBeat: How many enemies do you have on the screen at any one time?
Yager: A lot. We’re still optimizing.
Allen: We can’t wait for the Neogaf stuff where everyone’s trying to count how many guys are on the screen at once.
GamesBeat: How scripted is that, and how open, as far as where you can run and things like that?
Yager: Most of it is just open. Ideally, how we expect people to play in a scenario like this — we didn’t really go into aspects of stealth gameplay versus run and gun. You can play how you want to play. The way we set this up, you’re going after a bounty. If you’re really quiet, you can scope the area out and see what’s going on and find the best way to approach. In the demo, we obviously did that poorly and failed to get to our extraction.
As he was saying, this is a body-bag dump. You know going in that this is going to be a difficult mission, a difficult job.
GamesBeat: The things in the environment, like that buzz saw, are we going to frequently find those out in the world? They’re not just specific set piece points?
Allen: Definitely. We’re still working on it, but there’s a ton of environmental interaction. We use things like that to create space between you and the enemies. If you just run away, these guys are faster than you. They’re going to catch you and kill you. This area is put together, so you can use the terrain to put some distance between you and them.
Yager: The goal is to make these things pop in the environment. You learn as you play that you can use them. Obviously, as you see them more and more often, you’ll understand what to do when you use them.
GamesBeat: Where do you think it fits in the wider genre? It seems like it has some inspiration from 28 Days Later, but it’s very much not like The Last of Us or some of the other zombie games.
Yager: These guys — there’s a virus of some sort that’s affected them. They’re alive. We’re not doing the usual zombie tropes where you have to shoot them in the head. If I shoot them in the arm or cause some other massive wound, they’ll go down. They might be more aggressive, but still, as far as behavior goes, it gives us more creative options.
We’re still working out exactly what we want to do. We’re still working on these guys. But hopefully, they’ll be different from what you’re used to seeing.
GamesBeat: Speed is one big differentiator.
Allen: Yeah. We take inspiration from a lot of places. This is the culmination of everything we like. You only get one shot, and this is what we felt would work in one package.
GamesBeat: Survival is obviously a goal. But he’s also a biker-gang bounty hunter. He’s not setting out to find a cure to the virus at first and save the world. He doesn’t give a shit or does he?
Allen: This is about Deacon’s story. There are multiple stories going on. As I’m sure you know, we pride ourselves on running a deep storyline throughout everything we make. John Garvin, our writer and creative director, won’t have it any other way. This is more about the human condition. It’s not just about going out and slaughtering things.
Yager: Hopefully, the trailer gave you a sense of his past, what life was like, and what he did before this. Obviously, day to day he’s trying to find a reason to live, and we’ll develop that as the game goes on. But this is a very focused, story-driven game.
Allen: That was our strategy at the press conference, to show a storyline before we showed anything else. If we showed this, people would assume that this is what it would be. We wanted to lay out that we have a story, and it’s beautiful. This game is going to be very unique, different from everything else out there. Then we can show this.
GamesBeat: I noticed that Deacon had a lot of bullets. Is this going to be the kind of game that focuses more on action than resource management?
Allen: There’s definitely resource management. Yes, he does have an absurd amount of ammo here, but we made this a little easy, so we wouldn’t die all over the place in the demo. We’ll be tuning the difficulty settings in all kinds of ways. But resource management is a huge element of the game.
GamesBeat: The bike had a fuel gauge. Can you talk about how that will work in gameplay?
Allen: There is fuel management. The bike can also take damage. The bike plays a huge, huge role in the game. I can’t go into too much detail, but you can look forward to learning more about that.
GamesBeat: Is this an open world or something that’s more linear, with a particular path through the areas?
Yager: We’re super excited about this because we’re giving you the freedom to play how you want to. If you want to be the guy that goes in guns blazing or the guy that goes in and scopes out the area and scouts around, you can. You got a little glimpse of some of our crafting in the demo. He didn’t craft this particular thing, but he had one on him. He built that bomb. That’s an airbag bomb. I’m sure you’ve seen those stupid videos where a guy’s sitting on something, and the bomb launches him up at the ceiling. That’s kind of the inspiration. Using stuff like that, you can set traps and lure guys toward them. You can play the game however you want.
GamesBeat: It seems like there’s an unlimited number of them, though. Why stop to shoot them when you can run away?
Allen: There is X amount in the area, yeah.
Yager: Again, this is a situation where I caused that shit storm to start. Ideally, if I could find a better path, I’d take it. Obviously, we won’t force you to do that.
Allen: Imagine how the demo ended but if we removed that camera. That’s what we’re showing. We wanted to show the camera because it’s exciting to see the rest of the guys coming. “What’s he going to do?” And we leave it there.
GamesBeat: If he’s a bounty hunter, is that going to be the impetus to go out and venture into the world?
Allen: Being what he was — it’s the persona of the character. He has an appetite for violence. That’s why he goes out. Not everyone does. But I will stress that from the trailer, which you hopefully watched, you did see other survivors. You saw that point where Deacon was walking up and those guys were opening the gate. Unlike quite a lot of other open-world games, though, where for there to be danger, you have to bring danger on yourself, this is a dangerous world. You have to be careful wherever you go. Anybody you meet could be dangerous.
GamesBeat: Is this single-player only?
Allen: Right now, we’re 100 percent focused on single-player, yes.
GamesBeat: We’ve seen other stories deal with the concept of “zombies” that are still alive. What would you say distinguishes this take from those others?
Allen: We feel that our game is completely unique to us. Just running around our world is unique. It’s not like any other game out there, just cruising around and having fun out in the world. Starting from there, in the Pacific Northwest and in the high desert, we have some pretty extreme weather. We have dynamic weather in the game. One day, it could be 100 degrees, and the next day, it could be snowing. All of that affects the world and affects the gameplay. That alone is unique.
I can talk a bit about something you might have seen, where the little guy jumped on him. You saw the bounty that was chasing him. That might give you an idea that there’s more than just what you’ve seen. There’s a lot more that we’re going to start unveiling down the line.
GamesBeat: There were zombie games at the other press conferences. We saw Dead Rising 4 and State of Decay 2 at Microsoft. But the presentation is very different. This made so much more impact. Whether it was the emotion or the speed and the terror involved in having to deal with that. These games could wind up being similar in their situations, but the presentation here was so much better.
Yager: I’d love to say it’s all this game. To be fair, I haven’t seen all the other trailers. But I’d hope that — we have a small following, a small fan base behind Syphon Filter. To finally come out with something like this and hear people say, “Wow, I didn’t expect this from Bend Studio.” That’s been exciting.
The intensity of the demo itself is hopefully getting people interested. When you think of these kinds of games, usually, they’re slow and methodical. You have these lumbering creatures coming after you. This is just a small snippet of the game, but we’re coming at you with full intensity.
GamesBeat: It reminds me of that scene in World War Z where the zombies are all trying to go over the wall. The camera pulls back, and you see how many of them there are.
Yager: That’s what we’re really impressed with. It’s what we’ve been calling “horde tech” internally. The idea is that it just looks like a tidal wave, a flow of rushing water. That type of environment, underneath and over things, all the stuff you can go around and through, that affects the flow of the hordes. Based on the density in a given area, you’ll see a different reaction every time.
GamesBeat: It seems like the A.I. is pretty sophisticated.
Yager: We’re still tuning it. In the end, we want to make it friendly for the player, not brutal. But they’re all aware of your presence, obviously, and they’ll come at you in force.
GamesBeat: I guess there’s not much point in trying to hide?
Yager: I could have vaulted over the railing and gone down below. Who knows where that might have taken me? But seeing the little rat hole, I just ducked through there.
GamesBeat: You can’t go back to the roof and say, “Yeah, you don’t see me. I’m not here.”
Yager: Like I say, we’re still tuning. There will be ways to lose them for a brief moment, to catch your breath, and figure out the next plan.