The creators of Days Gone have heard the criticism that there are too many zombie games out there, including some from Sony’s Naughty Dog studio that are among the finest games with the walking dead ever made. Nobody wants to create just one more zombie apocalypse game, even if it features a different setting from the usual urban rubble.
I played the latest build of Days Gone, making my way through a level about an hour into the game. After starting with a narrative experience, Days Gone shifts into a kind of open world in the Oregon woods, where you can choose a variety of missions aimed at improving your chances of survival despite scarce resources. Then I sat down with John Garvin, the creative director at Sony Interactive Entertainment Bend Studio, for an interview. Sony will likely show this part of the game at its booth at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in mid-June.
But even after this peek at a new level, you’ll still have to wait. Sony recently delayed the game until 2019 so that the Bend can make it better. (And it would make sense to stay out of the way of Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2 as well). That may also make sense if Sony is planning to launch The Last of Us Part II, another postapocalypse zombie game, sometime this year.
I talked to Garvin about the crowded market for zombie games and how his team at the Bend, Oregon, studio is trying to differentiate their game from the rest. Days Gone features some amazing technology in displaying hundreds of freakers running around at high speeds trying to chase the hero down. But it also features a unique narrative.
At the core of Days Gone is a challenging experience of driving a motorcycle through the trails and winding roads of the Oregon woods, and it has a dangerous world full of infected bears, wolves, and other animals. I like what I’ve seen so far, but Days Gone will have to deliver more than a zombie open world with a bounty hunter narrative to get fans excited.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: I liked the game ever since that first demo [at E3 in 2016]. It’s interesting to see your progress, as far as what you’re showing now. How do you look back on previous demos compared what you’ve decided to show here? I see a different side of the game, more of the open world.
John Garvin: When we debuted the game in 2016, we obviously started with the horde. We wanted to show one of the things that really makes the game unique. That accomplished that. And then last year we were trying to show the dynamic nature of the world and how you can complete missions and jobs in different ways. This year is the first time you get hands-on.
Personally, I think what I find most fun about the game—the bike handling is really good. The guys have spent so much time tuning the physics for the trails and the kinds of environments you ride through. If you spend much time just fooling around on the bike, there are a lot of mechanics for that. You have the drifting mechanics, where you press the circle button and do donuts and get around sharp corners really quickly. It’s the combination of all that — being able to ride the bike, the on-foot mechanics, the way the world is always active, always alive, always trying to kill you.
GamesBeat: You confront a lot of problems there. I saw the wolves going after another guy. And the—what do you call them again?
Garvin: The freakers.
GamesBeat: They came after me. In the open world, it seems like a space full of animals, people, and zombies. A lot of danger.
Garvin: That’s something we’re still tuning. I feel like as soon as we get that 100 percent dialed in—we don’t want it to be so overwhelming that you’re constantly being killed or being attacked or running out of gas or getting sniped by ambushers or whatever. We also want there to be this sense that danger is always around the corner. I think we’re close to that now.
I’ve been watching a lot of people play today. Like you said, there’s a good spread of the kinds of things that can happen. Wolf attacks aren’t as common as you might think, but when they happen, they’re memorable. I saw this guy get attacked by one wolf, so he starts running. He stops, turns around, aims his gun, and he gets blindsided by another part of the pack that came around to one side. We want them to feel like—even if you were to get killed by something like that, it would be memorable. “Oh, yeah, I ran into a bear, and it killed me, but it was an awesome moment.”
GamesBeat: The horde, then, how common might that be? The encounter you had in the first demo, is that a relatively rare event, where you have hundreds of them after you?
Garvin: No, the horde encounters are going to be pretty common. They’re a part of the story. In the first hour of gameplay you run into them a couple of times, although you don’t interact with them. And then, as you’re playing through the Cascade wilderness, the first part of the game we dump you into—if you go through the world and start exploring, you’ll run into these horde infestation zones. You’ll see that come up on the screen.
If you look around, you’ll find the cave or the mine or whatever it is they’re hibernating in. You’ll be able to see where they feed, because there are mass graves in the world. They feed on these huge piles of corpses. You can also find where they go to water. Part of the life cycle of the world is seeing how the horde is going to move. Depending on where you go and what you do, you can run into them.
Early on in the game, you can try to take them on. Hordes come in all sizes. There are hordes that are 30, 40, 50, more like a swarm, up to the size of the horde you saw in the 2016 demo, which was 500 I think. You run into them throughout the game.
GamesBeat: I heard a couple of different things from people’s reactions. Some of them liked it, liked the things that make it unique, but I’ve heard other people complain that the zombie genre has worn them out. Do you feel some of that? Would you have any response to that, or some awareness of how to deal with that reaction?
Garvin: That’s come up a lot. I have mixed feelings. To be honest, I don’t understand the comment, people saying, “Oh, zombies are played out.” Really? Walking Dead is still the highest-rated program on TV. I’m looking forward to the World War Z sequel. I read the book. I Am Legend was pretty awesome. I just don’t get it. To me it’s like saying, “Well, superheroes are played out.” There’s a lot of superhero content out there, but–
GamesBeat: You hear some of the same people saying that The Last of Us was just another zombie game, which I’d say is pretty far from the truth.
Garvin: The Last of Us is a really good example of why I think the basic comment is so wrong. If you have a compelling experience—The Last of Us is one of my favorite games of all time, by the way. The story was amazing. The experience that they created was amazing. No matter what your background is, whether it’s aliens or zombies or superheroes or a Western, if you tell a good story and you create a compelling experience, players are going to like it.
But yeah, we got hit with that from the very beginning. “Zombies are played out. I’m so tired of zombies.” I think what they mean by that is, “Slow-moving shambling creatures with no backstory and no thought put into it.” I do remember playing a few of those five or six years ago. I don’t remember a ton of games like that recently. I don’t understand the visceral reaction that some players have to zombies. To me, I’ll play any game if it’s fun, if it’s compelling, if they’ve done a good job.
GamesBeat: You have some things that get your heart racing. The speed of the zombies, the number of them, the notion that they’re coming from all directions. That seems to help differentiate it a bit.
Garvin: It’s funny. We’ve never thought about it that way. The only thought we put into differentiating it was the horde. Like I say, I saw World War Z and I loved the tech they put together for not just individuals, but that flowing sea, sort of the fluid movement of them, how you can have so many creatures on screen. That got us thinking. What would that be like? How would you play that? How would you create a game around that? How would you be able to fight that and win? That was really the only thought we put it into, “We’re gonna make a zombie game and this is how we’ll differentiate ourselves.”
The rest of it just kind of evolved out of trying to make an interesting world, more so than trying to make the zombies different. We really felt like the Pacific Northwest, there have been a couple of games set here, but there’s never been anything set in the high desert. The high desert is this sort of compact ecosystem, formed by volcanic activity millions of years ago. We have all of this unique environment that looks very different and plays very different. It’s very extreme in terms of how you can have these narrow canyons, these trails, all this off-road stuff.
If you put a zombie horde in that, what would that feel like? If you have a beautiful forest with this awesome meadow, if you have a wrecked car with freakers around that, what’s that going to feel like? Just trying to figure out a way to have the environment play as big a role as the creatures you’re taking on.
GamesBeat: You’ve talked about the bike as a character, about how you’ll be able to upgrade it. What’s that aspect of Days Gone like now?
Garvin: We just had a focus test with 20 players. They got to play the entire game. It was fun watching it, because you can customize it. There are unique paint jobs. Every player had their bike looking completely different from everyone else’s. That’s one of the few areas where we do have customization, not just in how it looks, but how you want to upgrade it.
How much do you care about managing fuel? You can put in a little work at the beginning of the game to upgrade your fuel tank so you very seldom have to worry about running out of gas. When I play the game, I always make a habit—whenever I’m in an encampment, I’ll fuel it up while I’m there, and then not worry about it so much. I don’t spend a lot of time earning trust at an encampment to be able to upgrade my bike that way, but some players might. It just depends on how you want to play.
The bike is definitely a part of Deacon. It’s the only one you get. You want to make sure that it’s repaired. You don’t want to leave it behind. You have to have your bike in the world. You can’t go buy another one. You can’t just whistle up a new one.
GamesBeat: I can imagine a lot of things happening to the bike. You can’t just treat it like a car in Grand Theft Auto?
Garvin: [Laughs] You can trash your bike. If you take it off a cliff, if you start crashing into a bunch of things, it’ll get down to a point where basically the bike has zero health. Once you get there, it won’t run anymore. It can still move along very, very slowly, but then what you have to do is go out and find scrap, this generic term we have for items you find in the world that you can use to repair things. You have to bring that back to your bike and repair it. Or, by the way, you can also go to encampment and pay those people a lot of credits to go get your bike and fix it.
GamesBeat: I remember the structure of Uncharted: Lost Legacy, where you’d have a linear stretch, then a big open level, and then it got linear again. Are you following a similar pattern?
Garvin: I don’t think so. We have a very linear first hour of the game, but even in that there’s a couple of wider segments. There’s this truck stop you go to called Crazy Willy’s where you can complete things—you can approach that any way you want. Same thing for the next mission, which is called “Walk a Mile In His Boots,” where we force you out on foot to go and get your bike back.
But after that, it’s a pretty traditional open world. You have missions available. There’s always a golden path mission, a story-based mission. There’s always something to do that will progress you through Deacon’s journey in the game. There might be a couple of missions later on where we introduce new characters, for example, or a new area. But they’re not linear in that way. One thing that’s a challenge for an open-world story is having enough differences in what you’re engaging the player with over 30-plus hours to really keep it interesting. We don’t lock the player into too many linear sequences.
GamesBeat: What are they allowing you to say about release dates? Are you shipping this year?
Garvin: I think they’ve announced that it is shipping in 2019. We’ll have an announced date before long.
GamesBeat: What do you still have to work on? What are you polishing or trying to get right?
Garvin: Right now we’re just tuning. Tuning and polishing. The open world team is working hard to get the number of ambient events dialed in. The mission designers are busy polishing every part of the game. We have engineers polishing the animation. We have the audio team going through and polishing up all of the sound effects. Every part of the game is being polished. It’s 100 percent playable, like I said. I’ve beaten it. We feel pretty good about where we’re at, because now we can really pay attention to making it more fun and looking as good as we possibly can.
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