When one of video gaming’s first open-world adventures, The Legend of Zelda, debuted in 1986, players were swept into a virtual world that appeared to stretch in all directions. It was only revealed years later that the inspiration for the game came not so much from fantasy novels or cutting-edge technology but rather from the memories of its renowned designer Shigeru Miyamoto, who recalled his boyhood adventures exploring the forests, hillsides, and caves near his home in Sonobe, Japan.
Across the Pacific Ocean and roughly three decades later, three DigiPen BA in Game Design graduates — Geoffry Hammon (2015), Sawyer Paradise (2016), and Jacob Fieth (2016) — found similar inspiration in the landscape around them as they worked on PlayStation’s newest AAA open-world title, Days Gone.
“If I went up on the roof right now and looked to the west, I could see the Cascade Mountains and forests,” Paradise says. “If I looked to the east, I’d see desert.”
That roof he’s referring to sits atop the offices of SIE Bend Studio, located in the scenic environs of Bend, Oregon, where the three alumni have been working for the past three years on a game that draws heavily from the location in which it was developed.
“There’s a big river that goes through the middle of town that people float and surf on when it’s hot,” Hammon says. “But then during the winter, we’re only half an hour away from one of the largest skiing areas in the United States.”
In Days Gone, players take on the role of Deacon St. John, an ex-outlaw who traverses the Pacific Northwest on his trusty motorcycle as he attempts to survive a world overrun by zombie-like “freakers,” two years after a global pandemic has brought civilization to its knees. Like the region it’s modeled on, Days Gone spans snowy mountains, lush forests and valleys, cascading rivers and waterfalls, cavernous deserts, and abandoned tourist towns that share quite a few similarities to Bend and its surrounding communities.
“It’s cool to have a game set in the Northwest in general,” Fieth says. “This area doesn’t have a lot of games set around all the different types of environments you have here.”
Of the three graduates, Hammon was the first to join the SIE Bend Studio team. He connected with the company in 2015 when a group of PlayStation recruiters, joined by two of SIE Bend’s lead designers, came to campus. After an on-campus interview that led to a student internship, he eventually came on-board as a full-time technical designer. When the studio started ramping up for production on Days Gone in 2016 and needed more designers, Hammon suggested his classmates Paradise and Fieth, who quickly got scooped up as game designers as well. Together, they’ve been working on designing the open-world gameplay of Days Gone, something that’s quite a bit trickier than designing for a more classically conceived linear video game.
“In a linear game, you know where the player is and you know where they’re going, so you can set up obstacles in their path and build encounters around that,” Paradise says. “But [in Days Gone], we don’t know where the player is and we don’t know what they’re doing. Our content has to be playable from any and every direction, with any loadout the player could possibly want to use.”
How did they make sure they were hitting the mark? In part, the three designers say they relied on extensive playtesting and observing how players interacted with the game world in a multitude of scenarios and environments.
But much like the interlocking ecosystems that sustain life in the Northwest, the three say the real key to making a robust and memorable open-world game has been designing each of the game’s systems so they are constantly interacting with and connecting to one another. After that, the fun starts to naturally emerge on its own.
“You build a lot of different systems, and if they work together really well, a lot of that is organic,” Hammon says. “You build a gun system and you build all these different kinds of freakers and everything, and if you throw them all together in one place, they’ll just do what they’re going to do and it’s usually pretty interesting!”
Paradise was primarily responsible for designing all those open-world enemy hordes the player encounters while roaming throughout the game — some of which can encompass up to several hundred enemies at once. “We had this very cool horde tech when I came on,” Paradise says, “but we didn’t really have a plan for using it outside of missions at the time, so I built the open-world systems around that — scouting out the locations where they need to go, [figuring out] how they’re going to behave during the day and during the night, and trying to get them into areas where it would be interesting to fight them.”
Given that so much of the game is built around post-apocalyptic scarcity of resources, Paradise also built an automated system that could repopulate items throughout the entire world based on playtesting data, tweaking item quantities and locations to hit the perfect sweet spot between difficulty and player engagement.
Paradise’s horde and item population work also ended up playing into the area Fieth found himself working on the most — designing the game’s NERO (National Emergency Response Organization) checkpoint locations. Scattered throughout the world, these long abandoned makeshift clinics for treating and quarantining infected citizens are essentially giant treasure chests for the player — containing loads of hard-to-come-by supplies, as well as an injection syringe that permanently upgrades one of Deacon’s abilities.
Players, however, can’t simply waltz into these checkpoints and begin looting. Instead, Fieth designed each NERO checkpoint as a self-contained puzzle. The player must restore power to get access into the locked building — that’s where the Freaker horde comes into play. “If you turn the generator on, there’s a speaker system that could also turn on and alert the enemies nearby, including a horde,” Fieth says. “Once we got everything implemented, a lot of it was just cool happy happenstance that the two systems worked together so well, but we also had to tweak some things and work together sometimes if we wanted a certain situation to happen. We’d have to make sure hordes were placed specifically in certain areas around NERO checkpoints.”
Hammon, for his part, primarily concentrated on designing the game’s gun and motorcycle systems. “We knew we wanted the survival aspects of the game to tie into it. We tried really hard to get all these different pieces to interact with one another,” Hammon says. Rather than being “just another mode of transportation” that the player crashes and trashes before moving on to a different vehicle, Deacon gets one motorcycle for the whole game, and it’s up to him to keep it running.
“We spent a lot of time figuring out: How does the player repair their bike? How do they fuel their bike? How do you upgrade the bike, like getting a bigger gas tank?” Hammon says. Similar questions pertained to the game’s gun systems, such as how best to carefully balance ammo scarcity and gun power while constantly factoring all of that back into the world’s post-apocalyptic economy.
If there’s one lesson Fieth says he learned at DigiPen that’s been invaluable to his design work on Days Gone, it’s all about organizing his work both smartly and efficiently. “Learning how to break down larger assignments into smaller chunks you can easily tackle was really helpful on this game,” Fieth says. “Learning how to build things fairly quickly to get them to a point that they’re playable, where you can then test and iterate on them quickly, that was a really valuable skill.”
Now that the game’s out, the three can spend a little bit more time in the real Pacific Northwest landscape they’ve spent years turning into a digital playground. “It’s cool to see stuff you recognize in the game from your own backyard,” Hammon laughs. Even still, Hammon admits that in the event of a real freaker pandemic, he hasn’t planned out his hiding spot in Bend yet.