Days Gone developer gets a second chance with PC launch

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Days Gone had great promise as the next big narrative-based zombie game from Sony’s first-party studios. When Sony first showed it at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in 2016, it had a mind-blowing scene where the antihero Deacon was being chased by 500 zombies (known as freakers) through a lumber mill. But then the Days Gone by, as it took Sony’s Bend Studio seven years to get the game finished for the PlayStation 4.

When it came out in the spring of 2019, it was buggy. I soldiered through the game and played it over a few weeks, finishing the game. I enjoyed the storyline of the bitter bounty hunter who lost his wife in the zombie apocalypse. I would have rated it 90 out of 100, but because of the bugs like mismatched audio I gave it a 75. The developers patched the game continuously, but it still has an average Metacritic score of 71. Now Bend Studio has a chance to make amends with the PC version of the game that is coming out today.

Now the game will have a chance to shine again with 4K visuals and a frame rate of 60 frames per second, compared to the original HD game (which could also run on the PlayStation 4 Pro) and a frame rate of 30 frames per second. That should hopefully make the problem of being chased by 500 freakers a little more pleasant if such a thing is possible. The forests of Oregon look beautiful, but those freakers are still quite ugly.

I spoke with Eric Jensen, lead open-world designer, and Zachary Lewis, senior user interface programmer, about the PC version. And I asked them about the Days Gone sequel but they were mum about that.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: Humans are the worst enemies in the zombie apocalypse of Days Gone.

GamesBeat: Can you tell me what you do?

Eric Jensen: I’m currently a designer on Days Gone. I was the lead open-world designer for the project.

Zachary Lewis: I’m a senior UI programmer. I worked on Days Gone for PS4, and I focused on the majority of the UI tasks for the PC port.

A strong reaction

GamesBeat: It’s a game that inspired a lot of emotion from the people who played it. The game came out and drew a lot of reaction, and now you have a chance to revisit it here. Did you take some of that reaction into account in some ways?

Jensen: At the core, the experience on PC is matching the experience that you can get on the PS4 and PS5 right now, as far as the game itself. Post-launch, April 2019, we kicked off quite a few initiatives to push out new gameplay content. We had a couple of months dedicated to our challenge mode, where each week we released new challenges. We added new difficulty modes, New Game+ and stuff. We had an opportunity to build up our community on PlayStation. Then, with the launch of PS5, we were able to bring in even more people.

With PC, it’s obviously a completely different market than PlayStation. We saw that as an opportunity to reach more people. We’ve had a strong and loyal fanbase for this game, and it’s exciting for us to be able to add more people to that.

GamesBeat: How much of it did you want to keep the same versus having a chance to change things?

Lewis: As far as the PC port goes, all of the core game content is identical to the PS4. The majority of our work was spent making sure that the experience on the PC matched our vision of what it was on the PlayStation. We went through every menu, every cinematic. We had to touch all of those to make sure that it would properly work for ultrawide screens, all those kinds of tasks. That’s technically changed content. But the game you’re going to experience on PC is the same story and gameplay you experienced on the PlayStation.

GamesBeat: I had some nits about it when I played it at the time. I was just looking back at my review. When you’re on a motorcycle, I wished you had the ability to turn around and shoot backward. That never came, right?

Jensen: There is a targeting system while you’re on the bike. While you’re riding you can tap and do almost a fire from the hip. That’s almost 360. As you move the camera around and you’re driving the motorcycle, you can take on enemies that are behind you.

Lewis: I remember testing this stuff. With it being a bike, we found that–we wanted players to focus on driving the bike. We had a couple of prototypes of 360 free shooting and stuff, and it just never felt like the Days Gone experience that we wanted.

Freaker hordes at 60FPS

Above: As many as 500 freakers will chase you in Days Gone. And now the action happens at 60 frames per second.

GamesBeat: The big battles, the freaker hordes, I remember that there were ways I could figure out how to finally escape them in an easy way. At the lumber mill, I could go in the tunnel, and they would only follow me so far before they stopped. I could snipe them from there. Then I could go back in and there’d be fewer of them. In some ways that was good to discover, but in others it felt like a crutch solution. I wasn’t whether those kinds of things worked in the gameplay or not. I’m not sure if you had an opinion about that. There was another one where I could go up on a roof where they could never get to me.

Jensen: One thing with Days Gone, we wanted you to be able to take on the threats however you wanted to. We didn’t want to constrain the player, because in that situation you don’t want to feel constrained. There are methods to taking these things on that might take you a lot longer, but might seem easy. Or you can do it in a quicker manner, using all of the tools that we presented you, and take it out using traps and getting around things on your motorcycle. With the horde, you can split them off. If you can get them to split up by going through a building or around an obstacle, you immediately take that number and split it in half, and it’s a bit more manageable.

Our mantra throughout development was always that we made sure the player could play the way they wanted to play. Having a motorcycle that allows you to just run away from danger, that’s entirely an option for the player. That was our goal. We didn’t want anybody to ever feel stuck and so overwhelmed that they felt like they were just going to die. You have an out, an escape, at all times.

Lewis: That’s one of the cool things about the addition of the challenge modes. Some of the challenges put you in similar situations as you find in the game, but you can’t leave. It says, “Hey, fight for your life. See how you can do in this fixed scope.”

GamesBeat: I do remember there were also some very small things that might have been considered changeable. The first horde that you come across, there’s a big pit, and then you can ride around the top, with the rail cars and things that. I remember the vision of the fight was pointing right down into a ravine, something like that. If you only turned the bike around and pointed in another direction, it would have been far easier to get away. I remember dying a bunch of times because I would ride into the ravine and get into trouble.

Jensen: That one was probably intentional. Whenever you have an opportunity to revisit something you’ve created, there’s ways that pull at you to create the special edition, create the George Lucas version, and change your original piece of work. But I think what we’re trying to do here is unite these two audiences. We have a loyal fanbase with PlayStation. We have a completely untapped community of people on the PC side of things. Rather than divide people by potentially making changes to the PlayStation version that only the PC people can experience–it’s about trying to deliver as similar an experience as possible.

That doesn’t mean we’re not putting in options for the PC audience so that we can cater to their needs, as you do with any PC title. Zach can chime in a bit more on how deep we went into that. But that’s the biggest difference between the PlayStation and PC versions. We wanted to make sure that when you play on PC, you’re able to play the way that you’re able to with your setup, your controller or keyboard or whatever.

Above: Days Gone for the PC is now available.

GamesBeat: What did you think about working the bugs out? Both over time on the PS4, but also getting the chance to have a pretty clean game at the outset this time.

Jensen: A lot of the patches and stuff were to fix bugs, in addition to adding the new features and gameplay. The PS5 version we did to bump it up to 60FPS, and now this PC version, benefit from all of those fixes and changes we’ve made over time.

GamesBeat: How did you get it to 60FPS? Was there a big overhaul involved?

Jensen: Specifically on the PS5, we just set the cap to 60 and hit it. That extra horsepower from the PS5 definitely helped. On PC, the framerate can be ridiculous, depending on your setup.

Lewis: We spent a lot of time and effort getting our specs down, figuring out what should be tuneable, what would be good options, what would be good levels of quality. If you’re on a killer PC you can push everything to max at 4K and get above 60. If you’re on a lower-end machine you can always lower some of the settings and still get a very solid framerate. That was one of our big efforts. We didn’t want to limit players based on what hardware they had.

4K graphics

GamesBeat: What benefits from the 4K upgrade and everything else?

Lewis: The world of Days Gone was beautiful on PS4. It looks great on PS5. If you have the hardware, you can push the settings up to the point where this game looks even more spectacular on PC. It doesn’t change how you play. It doesn’t change the amount of thinking and strategy you need. It will just give you a little bit better view when you have some downtime and you aren’t getting chased by a horde of freakers.

Jensen: The cool thing with that, with options like scalable field of view, that gives people a completely different perspective. When I’ve been playing, I’ll typically keep the field of view kind of default when I’m on foot, but if I’m on the bike, I’ll pull it out so that I can really see my peripheral view, which is really cool. Even further, with the ultrawide support, riding on the motorcycle on an ultrawide screen is incredible. The amount of environment that you can see in that single frame is really cool.

With the ultrawide support, our lead cinematic animator went through and reworked every single cinematic in the game to account for ultrawide screens. We don’t have black bars or anything outside of the standard 16:9. We opened it up to a full ultrawide aspect ratio and made sure that the crew, so to speak, off to the side of the camera is not in frame or anything like that. Each cinematic, the same care we put into it for that 16:9 PlayStation audience is now fully supported with ultrawide monitors as well.

GamesBeat: Does anything change as far as difficulty level, scarcity of items or anything like that?

Jensen: In a couple of the updates that we provided post-launch on PS4, which the PC version will be getting, we added a few new difficulty modes, including our survival mode. It changes the amount of resources. It gets rid of the UI. It ups the challenge level. For those players that like potentially banging their head up against the wall every once in a while, we offer that. But we also have the complete opposite end with easy mode, which gives anybody and everybody in between the opportunity to play at whatever difficulty they want.

Lewis: As we were working on the PC port, I remember having a discussion. Like a lot of the people on the PC port–we’re PC gamers. I found the game to be easier on PC because of our full mouse and keyboard support. All of our key rebinding let me tune the game to exactly how I like playing on PC, and I found myself doing a lot better than I did on console. I had to go in and set my difficulty for my PC playthroughs a bit higher than I would on console.

Above: Sony is mum about Days Gone 2. The pitch was reportedly turned down.

GamesBeat: What is some of that experience like, going back and fighting a horde battle? What do you notice that is different in the details?

Jensen: Just being able to take on a 500-freaker horde at 90+ frames per second in 4K or ultrawide, it’s a completely different experience. I’m a big photo mode fan, so I’m always taking cool pictures while I’m doing it. Being able to take advantage of the 4K while being chased by 500 freakers is impressive.

Speaking of photo mode, one of the things that we added for this, specifically for the PC version, we have our super resolution photo mode. Basically, whatever resolution you’re playing the game at, you’re then able to multiply that resolution and output a screenshot that’s even higher resolution than when you’re playing the game. It’s cool for people who might have limited hardware. Maybe they need to play at 1080p or lower some of the graphics settings. You’ll be able to have a higher res photo mode so you can take pictures and post them and not be worried about how they might look.

GamesBeat: With the PC there’s always the risk that it’s harder to do in some way, that there could be bugs related to hardware compatibility. How do you plan for that and address it?

Lewis: It’s just a lot of testing and being careful with what we change or what we update. I remember one of our developers was talking about how he has three computers at his desk. He’s hot swapping his graphics cards to test all these different configurations. We definitely did a ton of testing to make sure that the game plays great for as many people as possible.

Jensen: Obviously this is not the first time that our studio has made a game for a different console. If you go way back in our history, before we were even owned by PlayStation, we made games for the Apple Newton. In recent times, outside of PlayStation, this is our first endeavor. But we had a very dedicated team of PC gamers within the studio that was super excited to work on this. The thing that made it easier for us is that because we developed Days Gone on Unreal Engine 4, that engine is already suited for different platforms. That made the transition a lot easier.

Days Gone 2?

GamesBeat: What would be your carefully rehearsed answer for people who want a Days Gone 2? Or your loose cannon answer if you want.

Jensen: Obviously right now our focus is on Days Gone PC. As with anybody who creates things, we’re constantly looking at what we’ve done in the past and what we’d like to do in the future. But at this time we’re not announcing anything.

GamesBeat: For some of you, has it been nine years of work on this game?

Jensen: It’s getting up there, yeah. But I think the awesome opportunity–it’s been two years since we launched the game. I’ve seen just as much excitement in the last month as we had when we launched the game, which is kind of cool. You don’t often see that kind of resonance with fans. We’re incredibly proud of what we’ve accomplished with this game and the community we’ve built around it. Seemingly they’re louder than ever, so we’re excited to welcome more people into the Days Gone fandom with the PC release.

Above: The vistas of Oregon in Days Gone.

GamesBeat: Did you drop anything in that people might discover, any Easter egg type things?

Jensen: I don’t think we–as much as people would like to have more Easter eggs in there, I think we got all those out of the way with the initial release. But there is some cool stuff that’s active with the survival wheel. The survival wheel that we did for Days Gone was pretty unique, because it was–we tried to make something that was all-encompassing for weapon select and crafting and traps and stuff like that. But we designed it for the PlayStation controller. Zach got to do some cool stuff to adapt that for the PC.

Lewis: I worked on the initial design as well as the ported one. It’s definitely trickier when you go from an analog stick with fixed movement to a mouse that can move anywhere on screen. We had to think about what players want to do. Do they want to be precise with what they’re picking? Do they want to be fast with it? What are the best ways? We prototyped some, and we wound up with a couple of options that felt good on PC with the mouse, as well as for players that don’t want to use a radial wheel to select their weapons on PC. We also have the option to let them just scroll through with the mouse wheel or the number keys like other PC titles.

Jensen: Not really an Easter egg, but one exciting little thing. With our controller support, obviously this is going to be the first time people will be able to play Days Gone with an Xbox controller, which is kind of cool. And Xbox button prompts, full UI swapping for the inputs and stuff. But we also have Nintendo Switch Pro controller support. Believe it or not, we have Steam controller support. We supported the entire Steam input system.

For both Epic Games and Steam we ported over all of our trophies. That’s big in the PlayStation community, the trophy collection, and people were big fans of what we did with our in-game trophy UI. You can track the trophies. We moved all of that over to Steam and Epic. People that join in on those platforms can go through and unlock all the achievements there as well.

Lewis: In addition to all of the other controllers, Days Gone still has native Dual Shock 4 and DualSense controller support. If you want to play it on PC the way that you played it on PS4, you just need to plug in your controller and you’re good to go.

The PC challenge

Above: Your bike is like a character in Days Gone. You can mod it.

GamesBeat: Could you have changed the number of freakers in the hordes? It’s always maxed out at 500, but would it have been possible to squeeze in more?

Jensen: I’m sure that the systems are capable of it. I’d love to see greater numbers. But again, it goes back to–we didn’t want to divide our community and our fanbase. Offering stuff as far as gameplay is concerned in the PC version that wasn’t in the PlayStation version was something we wanted to avoid. We wanted to make sure that at the core, people were able to have the same experience.

Lewis: I don’t think that our–the choices that we made for the PS4 as far as the size of the hordes weren’t limited by our technology, as you’ve seen in some of the challenges. It was more about what felt right, what made for the best game experience.

GamesBeat: When you see the hordes on the PC, depending on whether you’re a low-end machine or a high-end machine, how would you say they look different? Do you lose a lot of detail on a lower-end machine?

Jensen: There will be some visual differences between the two. But we give you the option to change all of those things. On my setup, I didn’t have to lower much in most cases. What we give you is the option to choose which things you want to raise or lower depending on your setup. If you want the detail there, but maybe you don’t care as much about the fog or some of the lighting, you can potentially scale those down and still maintain that level of detail you’re looking for.

GamesBeat: I found it hard to convince some people to pay attention to Days Gone. What would be your argument to someone who thinks, well, it’s just another zombie game?

Jensen: Something we’ve seen from the community, and I’ll sound like a broken record with this, but–the thing that stood out to the people who have been vocal to us that played the game, they really connected with the characters. Deacon’s struggle and his hope that he tried to find. Even the motorcycle as a character. I’ve been sent thousands of pictures of people’s custom motorcycles, the specific gas tanks they chose and all this stuff.

People really got sucked into the world. Not only just with the characters, but the environment itself. It’s slightly different than other open world games in that we’re trying to be relentlessly brutal with the challenge in the world, constantly throwing stuff at you and trying to keep you on your toes. We landed on some magic sweet spot with the open world and the story that we were telling with Deacon. It resonated with people. I’m excited that more people are going to have the opportunity to experience that.

Above: It takes skill to ride through the Oregon woods in Days Gone.

Lewis: I’ve also noticed that if someone asks me to convince them of something that they already disagree with, then it’s not going to change things. Our goal is to make this game available to as many people as possible. If they want to come and play it, they’ll find that it’s a lot of fun. If you force folks — no, no, really, this is good, this is a great game — that’s not what leads people to really love something.

Jensen: When you characterize something as, “Oh, it’s just this, it’s just that,” I think there really is something for everyone in this game. I ride motorcycles. That’s my all time absolute favorite part of this game. The feel of that motorcycle is next level for me as a player. For people who want to experience that, there’s something there for them. For people who like the traditional narrative story experience, we have that. Not a lot of games have married a full narrative with cinematics and all that with a vast and diverse open world. We offer something there for people as well.

GamesBeat: It must feel good to have a second chance for people to discover something special like this.

Jensen: It’s definitely a unique opportunity, two years after the release of a game, to be able to have that second game launch. We have the PS5, PlayStation Plus collection. Everyone who gets a PS5 gets Days Gone. We just had Days Gone for free on PS4 in April with PlayStation Plus. Now coming out on PC, it feels like we’ve done our due diligence in trying to make sure that there are opportunities for everyone to get a chance to play the game and understand what the community has been so vocal and excited about.

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