E3 is over and done with, but we’re just finishing wading through the many interviews. One of the last ones we did during the show was a chat with John Garvin and Jeff Ross of Sony’s Bend studio, the team working on the biker zombie game Days Gone. I talked with Garvin, the creative director, and Ross, the game director, about what sets Days Gone apart from other games.
If you’re a frequent gamer or even a certain type of casual gamer, you can probably think of about 10 zombie games and 10 open-world games each off the top of your head. So what is it that sets Days Gone apart? The Pacific Northwest is a cruel place, it turns out, and it’s coming for you.
The team hasn’t had an easy time getting the messaging out, though.
“It’s kind of interesting because there’s not a lot of open world zombie games, right?” Garvin said. “You really have to spend some time in the world to understand it. It’s been a challenge.” The team recently had a big exclusive with print magazine Game Informer and they ended up giving the publication a whole bunch of footage to try to give people a sense of what the game is trying to do.
The cruelty of the world is where Days Gone seems to come into its own.
“We’re trying to do a triple-A, first-party narrative, you have this Deacon St. John character that you play and he has a very, very epic story, but on the other hand we wanted to create a dynamic open world that comes for you,” Garvin said.
“That sounds like a marketing tagline, but it’s the truth,” he continued. “The world [of Days Gone] is dangerous. You can step outside of a human encampment where it’s safe and anything can happen. You can get attacked by freakers, marauders, rippers, animals.” That last part includes mountain lions, infected ravens, infected bears, and more. If you stand Deacon on a hill and step away to go to the restroom, you’ll likely come back to a dead biker.
“I do that all the time,” Garvin said. “I put the controller down, and if I don’t remember to [go to the map, which pauses the game], I will come back and invariably be dead. Something will come along.”
And it’s not just about those threats, but also Deacon’s bike.
“The bike is super important. The world was built around the drifter vibe because it ties into Deacon’s past – you gotta take care of it,” Garvin added.
Ross expanded on that saying, “The player has to manage the survival aspect of the bike. The fuel and durability. Scrapping gives you the same resources you use to build and repair weapons as you use to fix the bike when it gets damaged. That leads to really great moments where we take that asset the player has, this positive, this tool, and the world takes it away and forces you deeper into the open world to find resources and come back – that’s where a lot of the extra danger lies,” Ross said.
The team is calling their game “action survival,” and making that the core battlecry that helps them decide how to balance things.
“Especially in the PC space, there are lots of games that are intriguing because they’re these survival simulations. They’re really deep and really long, but one of my frustrations as a gamer is that I can’t dedicate that much time. I want it in a more digestible form,” Ross said.
That means respecting that their consumers have lives outside of the game and can’t always block out time to play. Making the world lethal and accessible at the same time is one of the team’s big challenges.
“We’re not trying to do a super-niche hardcore game, so we’re trying to consider – we consider ourselves customers in this way. We want to make sure that whatever kind of contract exists between the designer and the player… we’re serving the fantasy of the game, and respecting their time and effort,” Ross said.
I wondered to the pair if a hardcore survival mode might be in the game’s future. Fans of games like Fallout love playing those games in hardcore survival mode. Ross said that it’s not on the roadmap right now.
“We’ve talked about it, but it’s — not yet. I wish, someday, somewhere, if this works out, we could do that, but right now we’re focused on telling a story in this big open world.”
I have misgivings about Days Gone. On the one hand, Sony wouldn’t publish it and these guys wouldn’t be pouring their lives into it if they didn’t think there was something there. On the other hand, it’s hard to see what’s fresh about it. The talk of the world being particularly dangerous is encouraging, but even games like Assassin’s Creed have random, roving encounters on the map that could leave you dead if you step away. I’ve played so many zombie games that adding the twist of ‘open world’ to it doesn’t really spike the needle.
On the other-other hand, State of Decay 2 is so much fun that I’m still playing it months later even if it’s still super janky. On the other, other, other hand, the back-of-box blurb tells the story about a salt-of-the-earth white dude with some nice facial hair who is coping with losing a family member named Sarah at the beginning of the zombie apocalypse. That sounds familiar.
All the same, I’m eager to see where the team ends up taking Days Gone, and we won’t have to wait too long to find out. The game hits in PlayStation 4 2019, but we only have to wait until February 19 to see what’s up.