The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
The Washington Post: What was the spark that led Bend Studio to embark on the creation of “Days Gone?” How did it move from the concept stage to full scale production?
John Garvin: That’s a huge question. Since 2013, that’s going back to just after we shipped “Uncharted: Golden Abyss,” which was a launch title for the Playstation Vita. Vita was a really powerful piece of hardware that sort of rivaled the PS3 in some aspects. And you know, some of the rendering techniques that we used on that hardware actually put us in a pretty good position to move to the PS4, so you know our executive at Sony, asked if we wanted to move to the PS4. We’d sort of proven ourselves. We wanted to try something brand new.
We’re always looking for new IP, new ways to help sell the platform and we jumped at the chance, right? So we’re like sure, we’ll come up with an idea. It’s a collaboration between all of the creative heads. As a writer, I come up with a lot of ideas all the time and some of them were feasible, and some of them aren’t. Some of them are marketable, and some of them aren’t. But this concept early on, having a character that I hadn’t seen before, you know, like a Deacon Saint John with his sort of outlaw motorcycle background ... at the time I was pretty impressed with Kurt Sutter’s writing on “Sons of Anarchy” because again, I don’t know if you ever saw that show, but it’s surprising in a way because it’s not what you think it’s going to be. It’s based on “Hamlet” so the writing is very tragic, but very relatable, as is the relationship between the protagonist, Jax Teller and his friend Opie. The first couple seasons were fascinating to me. Particularly the concept of a bond that goes beyond family, that is sort of impenetrable. I mean there’s something about that kind of a bromance I thought would be fun to explore in a video game. I hadn’t really seen that before.
So Deacon really has three main relationships. you’ve got Boozer, his motorcycle, and Sarah. Jeff Ross [the Game Director on “Days Gone”] said he really wanted to do an open-world game, which was something that Bend Studio had never done before. And at the time, in 2013, we thought this is something that we haven’t ever seen. It’s like an open-world game that’s dangerous all the time. It’s got this kind of a character, you’ve got a primary form of transportation, your motorcycle, these are all elements that we hadn’t seen before. So we thought to combine these together Trying to create a narrative-driven experience in an open-world setting is very challenging to do because it’s so easy for the player to be distracted by doing other activities in the world. We wanted to say, okay, what if we could thematically link this whole thing together so that everything you’re doing propels the overall story forward in a way that still gives the player the freedom that they have come to expect from an open-world. I think that’s kind of where it all started.
The Art Director, Don Yatomi is an amazing concept artist who helped visualize ideas that may be challenging to present any other way. So a core part of the story from the beginning was the freakers, right? Call them zombies, if you will. But we call them freakers because they’re still alive. And, you know, they’re a horde that behaves in a way that’s sort of unified. They have a hive mind. They all sort of flow together and have a common purpose. And again, that’s something that we hadn’t seen in an open-world, ever.
Yatomi did this concept painting that showed this guy — he didn’t even have a name, yet — standing on the rooftop of this old saw mill and this horde of creatures, four or five-hundred of them were moving towards him en masse. This painting completely sort of visualized what this thing could be like. At the time, “World War Z” had just come out and was pretty popular. Seeing that many enemies on screen was something that only the PS4 could do or do well and that combination of hey, here is a character who could be kind of a bad ass — and is sort of broken inside — and, you know, hey there’s this open-world setting in the Pacific Northwest. These things all sort of jelled together into a few key images that helped us sell the execs on what we thought could be something you that haven’t seen before.
WP: I was wondering if you could just speak a little more about the elements of the game that you found unique or, as you said, that you hadn’t seen before. Is it that you hadn’t seen a character who is a blue-collar protagonist in a motorcycle gang? Was that really the thing that drew you to this multi-year endeavor?
John Garvin: Those are kind of separate questions in terms of what the gameplay has to be, what makes the game unique. It can’t be the character, because there have been tons of blue-collar characters. And there have been tons of characters that are broken at the start of the story. That’s kind of what makes a story right? It’s like you really have to have a character who’s got, you know, fatal flaws or flaws certainly. And hopefully the story is about their redemption and watching them sort of grow and change. I think that’s what almost all good stories are trying to do.
But in terms of what made us believe in “Days Gone” from the beginning, it was trying to create things that we hadn’t seen before in games. The 2016 demo is still one of the key missions in our game where you’re fighting this horde of 500 creatures. The challenge was how you do that. Like, how does a single man — because Deacon is not a superhero, right? --— fight against that horde? He doesn’t have super powers, and he doesn’t have super weapons, or magic suits. He’s just got whatever a normal guy in a post-apocalyptic world would have. He’s got those tools and that’s it. So the challenge of making that an experience that wasn’t frustrating and that, you know, was super fun to play ... I think that certainly is one of the things that make it unique.
And a question I get all the time is well, you know, is this just a zombie game? There’s been a lot of those. It’s like, well, it’s not a zombie game, because you know, certainly in a broader sector, if you’re talking about any sort of story where human beings have been transformed into feral creatures, whether they’re living or dead, sure, in that sense we’re a zombie game. But in the sense that you haven’t played this in a video game where there’s literally an open-world ecosystem, and we call it the freakosystem, because these creatures are not only trying to kill you, they’re trying to kill everything. So there’s animals in the world, they’re trying to survive and there’s other human beings in the world. And there’s infected animals and then there is human freakers with are all sorts of mutations for different types of human creatures that are all sort of loosely at least grounded in what could really happen. So the way they interact with each other in the open-world makes it dangerous for the player on a lot of fronts, but it’s also a tool that he can use to take a rager bear, for example, and get its attention and drag it into an enemy camp. That’s the kind of thing that we have not seen in a video game before. And I think that really makes “Days Gone” unique. And it’s, unfortunately, one of these things that’s really hard to demo.
If you spent an hour with the game you probably didn’t see any of it. People tend to be drawn towards either super unique mechanics that are easy to demonstrate like, ‘hey, it’s a new mechanic.’ We don’t have a ton of new mechanics. What we have is a set of polished mechanics that are used in a world that’s set up in a way that we haven’t seen.
WP: It seems to me that what you are highlighting is that there is this world in which these creatures have been transformed and it’s not only humans but animals, too. But as far as a strictly open-world zombie game goes, wasn’t “Dying Light” that basically?
John Garvin: Well, it’s not the fact that the open world is filled with creatures. It’s the fact that there are dynamic systems. It’s a systems-based-game and “Dying Light” was not. So, it’s like once you get out of that first hour of “Days Gone” you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. You can have five guys in your office playing the game at the same time and they’re all going to experience something completely different because the way you play the game is going to have different variables. The way the creatures interact with you — based on the time of day and the weather — creates so many permutations that it makes it completely unpredictable and I think that’s the real joy of the game. You’ll see this, I think, once the video streams start coming out in a couple of weeks.
We did a demo last week for some press who came through the office and there was an ambient event — and I know the game as well as anyone — there was an ambient event that I had never seen before. It was like, ‘Whoa, I didn’t even know that could happen in the game.’ And the open-world team has been working on all these different events that can happen anywhere. And it’s just, uh, you know, it’s just a matter of what your circumstances are that will trigger it or not. So it’s the variability and the dynamic nature of the systems in the open-world that makes “Days Gone” unique.
WP: Were there any significant changes made during the development process?
John Garvin: Oh yeah. I mean always. The first year we spent, I spent personally trying to nail the tone of the game because early on it was a little more tongue-and-cheek. One of the things that I’ve learned about gamers that I love is we’re actually kind of a sentimental lot. We actually want to have a story that takes itself seriously. I mean we want to have fun while we’re playing, but we want to have, I think, what most mass audiences want. They want to go to a movie and they want to laugh and they want to cry and they want to feel scared. So having, you know, the freedom to try to tell a more sort of adult human story and not have it just be all sort of tongue-in-cheek was something that, you know, we relished from the first year of development on.
I think the biggest challenge in making “Days Gone” is that it’s a systems-driven game and you can’t really play it until all the systems are in place. So, I didn’t beat the game for the first time until like December of 2017. You just can’t have an open-world scenario where you have to go and take out an ambush camp if you want that to be up to the player, how they do it, you have to have the stealth mechanic, the melee weapons, the range weapons. You have to have the freakosystem, you have to have all the marauder AI, all that stuff has to be working at the same time. And that just takes time. So iterating each one of those different systems and putting them all together, iterating those — things underwent a lot of changes.
WP: How did you know when you hit the right tone?
John Garvin: That’s a really good question and, honestly, I don’t have a really good answer for that. It’s just once I got to the point where ... a lot of feedback early on just came from the execs. And a really good example of this is Connie Booth [VP Product Development] who has been my producer for over 20 years. We worked on “Syphon Filter” together and she’s been there as a sort of story consultant. In fact, I think I even gave her a writing credit on “Sypon Filter: Dark Mirror.” That’s how involved she’s been. Early into the development cycle of “Days Gone" she encouraged me to take it more seriously, not be so quip-y and not have so many non-sequiturs, you know, if Deacon and Boozer are riding along, try to have the whole thing feel more like “The Road” than “Tango and Cash,” I guess. So a lot of that came from Connie Booth who had a good ear for what was resonating and what wasn’t.
I got feedback from everybody early on and once Sam Witwer, the actor who plays Deacon, and I did a couple of reshoots early on we said, ‘hey, let’s try this more serious tone,’ it worked really well.
WP: Is there anything new that you hope to bring to the open-world genre?
John Garvin: Yeah, there’s a few things that we’re bringing that I think are new and I’m sure that your audience will correct me, if I’m wrong. So I’ve already discussed the dynamic nature of the enemies, and how they’re enemies of each other as well, and how the player has to deal with that, but can also weaponize it. So, I think that’s new. I think the, uh, the way we do fast travel is new. Fast travel is a staple of open world games. It’s like you want to encourage the players to explore and you know, be in the world and not use shortcuts to get around things. But these games are huge and eventually the players are going to get tired of traversing the same routes over and over again. Although in “Days Gone” we have found through our testing that turns out to not be the case just because the bike is so much fun to ride. In “Days Gone,” we make the player earn that [fast travel]. You have to clear infestation zones that are along the route, and your bike has to have enough gas, and you have to be close enough to your bike in order to be able to do it. So we do have fast travel in the game, but it’s different than any other fast travel we’ve seen.
I think just the bike itself makes the game pretty unique because you only get that one vehicle. In a lot of open world games vehicles are disposable. In “Day’s Gone” you really have to take care of this bike or you’re not going to be able to survive. You’re not going to be able to finish the game if you don’t have your bike with you. That means you have to keep it fueled and that’s something that has been done before, but it’s certainly not done to the extent that we do it.
WP: Were there any particular challenges that you think your team resolved with aplomb?
John Garvin: Yeah, so many different things across all the departments. We started with the Unreal 4 engine, but we really needed to build an open-world and a lot of features in Unreal didn’t support what we needed to do so we ended up doing our own version of the way the world is rendered. And that turned out to be one of the huge wins for the game because it doesn’t look like a lot of other games, Unreal or not. The tiniest details have self-shadowing. Everything is done in real time. There’s no pre-baking for any of the lighting. So the game looks amazing throughout its 24-hour-day-night cycle and all of the weather systems. I think the tech team working with the design team to create a world that is dynamic as it is. And have that affect not only the way it looks but how it plays across all of the system. So the way the bike handles, the way the freakers behave, the way humans behave, changes depending on the time of day and the weather. Those systems took a lot of work. And, again, the tech team and the design team getting the horde to work. One of our selling points on the game was having 500 creatures on screen at once and having that be something that was fun to play was a bit of a challenge.
WP: What are the most exciting aspects of the game’s combat systems to you?
John Garvin: I know that the design guys really focused on creating a set of mechanics that could work together and be fluidly interchangeable. And I think that that’s the thing that makes “Days Gone” sort of unique. The three main ways to play the game are run-and-gun obviously, where you make a lot of noise. You’ve got shotguns and they do a lot of damage or stealth which is where you’re sneaking around hiding in bushes and behind objects and trying to get up behind enemies and taking them out without them being aware and then, you know, planning your attack. So, you know, setting traps and bombs and uh, you know, other explosive devices and then luring enemies into it. These are all different and valid play-styles. And then having them all work together is the challenge. Right? So you really want to be able to go into an enemy camp and say, ‘I think I’m going to stealth my way through this.’ And something goes wrong and one of the enemies starts shooting and it brings in a horde and now you’ve got freakers attacking at the same time that they are. And so now you can’t stealth anymore. So now you have to run-and-gun. You don’t want to draw too much attention to yourself, you know, so maybe you’re setting a couple of explosives off and then, you know, hightailing it out of there. So, having that experience fluidly change between melee and ranged combat and stealth — I think that is one of the things that makes the game so much fun to play...
One of our taglines internally is ‘thinking is surviving’ cause it’s not just about being good with a controller and being able to, you know, run and switch weapons on the fly, although that will help you stay alive. It’s literally about just being aware of what’s going on around you and being able to change the way you think about things very, very quickly.
WP: I understand that in the game’s parlance, the infected are referred to us freakers and not as zombies since technically they’re not undead. But I think it’s fair to say that most of the people who direct a cursory glance at “Days Gone” will think of it as a zombie game. Why did you decide to make a game that fits within such an already crowded genre?
John Garvin: Um, it is a big question, and it’s super interesting. The classic Romero zombies are dead and they’ve been reanimated somehow and are shambling around somehow and they serve no purpose in the world other than to wander around and if you get too close they want to eat your brains and that’s pretty much it. That standard trope of zombies is pretty widespread, right? That’s what “The Walking Dead” is. There’s another type of zombie, the more recent type which is “I Am Legend” or “28 Days Later” zombies, which are infected humans that are really fast and powerful, and different. And I think we’re probably closer to that. So in the sense that, yeah, if you call everything in that genre zombies, I’ll cop to that we’re a zombie game.
But here’s the thing, what would the world be like without them? You know, Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” is one of my favorite books and the movie is pretty decent as well, but you’re not turning that into a video game because then you’ve got this guy and he’s wandering around in this empty world and he’s got these pockets of human beings to take on once and awhile. And, you know, that’s not a game. It’s like the thing about shooters is that there has to be something to shoot and there is really not that many [options] available. Like, you have enemy soldiers, aliens, demons, zombies. I mean, what else is there? I think that’s probably one of the things that critics don’t take into account when they make comments like that. They just don’t realize it. To me it just comes down to trying to make it more relatable because for me the freakers are a huge part of the story. It’s not just filler in the open-world. There is a story behind the virus. There is a story behind how they’re mutating, which can affect the gameplay. There’s NERO, National Emergency Response Organization, our sort of cross between FEMA and the NSA and they’re out there studying them for some reason, and they’re learning things and if the player wants to they can learn way more about them. And so, you know, again, there’s just a lot of work that goes into trying to create a new species, to be honest.
I wouldn’t call them mutants because that introduces another science fiction trope, right? I think what you want to do is try to create a new species or a new enemy type and maybe by the time people play the game, they will understand why we don’t call them zombies, why freakers aren’t just re-wrapped creature types with a new name and hopefully they’ll understand that we have done something kind of new here and dynamic in a way that we haven’t seen and it’s got a whole back story to it and there’s something going on with this enemy type that we haven’t seen before. And it’s hard to do that, it’s hard to create something new for the first time.