Interview: John Garvin – Creative Director On Days Gone
Bobby: I’m kind of curious about is what’s your first plan after the game launches and everything’s on the open.
John: You know in terms of work, I’m super excited because you know the last time we shipped a game, the internet wasn’t what it is now. I enjoy watching reaction videos of people playing the game. I’ve been watching a ton of reaction videos of our trailers and stuff and it’s just fun to see people react to something you spent so much time working on and creating. It’s really exciting to seeing others responding to it, so I’ll be doing that a lot. And then I’m going to be sleeping which will be good!
Bobby: How was working on a game like Uncharted: Golden Abyss compared to working on a game like Days Gone?
John: Uncharted: Golden Abyss in many ways prepared us for Days Gone. As a writer and working on the characters and the setting, one of the things I’ve learned working with Naughty Dog on that franchise was how o up the quality of the presentation and the cinematics and the dialogue and the video. I worked with Amy Hennig and she was really good. And all those guys (at Naughty Dog) are really good at what they do.
John: So, that upped our game quite a bit. The hardware for the PlayStation Vita – a lot of people don’t realize this but it’s super powerful. The art rendering techniques are very similar to PS4 in terms of their powering renders and shading. There’s a lot of technical stuff that we got a head start on. But here’s the other way they were completely different development experiences, we’ve never done an open world before, we’ve never done a vehicle-based game before.
John: We’ve never done something this ambitious and it was just the challenges of trying to make a dynamic open world that was dangerous all the time. Mostly developing something was fun to play. I’m happy with where we ended up! It was a great six years developing this game.
Bobby: What influenced you to begin developing Days Gone? Were there any novels, comics or TV shows?
John: You know, there are so many influences! Everybody consumes video games and TV shows and comic books and novels, and I think everybody does it. Then, you’re excited by something that you see. The challenge is that you need to do something new and you need to do something the players haven’t really experienced before. You know on the surface, there may be similarities, but you know like the dynamic hordes (referring to the hordes seen in Days Gone).
John: We wanted to create an environment where there were 40 Hordes of Freakers in the open world. They’re there all the time and they’re alive and they’re going to their feeding grounds and they’re hibernating and whatever their cave or whatever it is they’re having that be something that the player could experience in real time. That concept of having the technological challenge of creating a horde of 500 creatures of the open world challenge and having them be alive interacting with the world those are things that were driven as much by our desire to create something we hadn’t seen before.
John: I’m always drawn to human stories and human experiences like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s one of my favourite novels of all time. And I think the reason why it was accepted literally because it’s a story of a father trying to find a future for his son it’s not just about the brutality of that world that he’s in and that fight for survival it’s about more than that.
Bobby: My first experience of encountering the Horde took me by surprise, I wasn’t expecting what would happen when they showed up. They overran Deacon and the next thing that happened was game over! It’s never been done before, having so many enemies attacking you like that.
John: We try to give warning! Nathan Whitehead our composure wrote this awesome music for the Horde that will queue up when the Horde is around you! You’ll start hearing the music begin to build up and you’ll hear that and that will warn you that there’s a Horde in the area. Also, you could look at the environment and you could see on the ground, which we call Horde signs. It’s like they chew up the ground wherever they go, and they leave their crap everywhere. There’re visual and audio signals that the Horde is around.
Bobby: From start to finish like how many iterations did you go through before you finally ended up with the iteration of Days Gone out on April 26?
John: You know, it’s funny. The core concept was there right from the very beginning. We had you know, early in 2013, just a few months early development we brainstormed a bunch of ideas and we had different concept teams working on different ideas.
John: We had a concept painting done by one of our concept artists and that was one of our first pieces that shows this guy – who ended up being Deacon St. John. He was on the rooftop of an old sawmill, and he had a Horde of 500 creatures chasing him up there, and not just chasing him but doing it in a sort of water flowing between objects kind of way. So that was there from the very beginning.
Bobby: How many iterations of Days Gone did the studio go through before ending up with what we see in the final game?
John: I’ve been making games for 30 years now. All games are iterative and it’s like you will iterate until you run out of time because it’s always about trying to finetune the experience and just making it more fun. So, nothing major changed the things that changed were the nuanced things – things just don’t know how they are going to work until can play them. For example, the skill tree for the different kinds of skills that you could earn and unlock, we reiterated quite a bit and the way crafting and how the AI works. How each creature types work. You know there’s a lot of pieces in motion and we worked on some of those systems for years.
Bobby: During my playthrough, at the beginning of the game which so happens to be the E3 demo from last year, Deacon and Boozer are chasing Leon. Eventually, we catch up to him – the choice to either kill or spare him never happened. Instead, Deacon kills him and collects the bounty. What happened to that choice system that was implemented? Was there any reason why it was removed?
John: Yeah. That’s a great question. That demo was based on Alpha code. We were still heavily iterating at that time. And you know and one of the things we strongly believe in we like to play it fun. We don’t make it fun, you play it fun. We had hundreds of focus testers who played the full game as long as two years ago and we just got a lot of feedback.
John: It was a cool idea and it was an idea we fought for a long time because it was all about morale. The bottom line is that it just wasn’t very fun because that early in the game you were forced with that decision. You had no context for it. You had no idea what the overall impact of that choice was going to be. So, we ended up cutting that system but ultimately the decision made the story stronger because then you could really get a sense of who Deacon was.
Bobby: Regarding Sam (Witwer) being in games before and we’ve seen him through television. Sam mentioned you gave him a lot of freedom to express himself as Deacon. How much of him was the influence of Deacon and how much of you were you?
John: It was equal in terms of the character. What I love about what Sam achieved is just a naturalness to the performance. You expect kind of a rough guy doing rough guy things, and it’s like, you know when you’re doing it, it’s something that’s very much more natural than that. I just really wanted to have the regular guy who is no superhero and he can’t run fast or not like a special ops soldier, although he does have a military background, that he’s just kind of an everyday guy.
John: What Sam brought to that role, and again, this is something I learned while working on Golden Abyss – the performance is all about figuring out who the character is on the stage with the actors that he’s working and it’s all about relationships. So, when you put Sam and Courtney Draper together who played Sarah, or you put Jim Pirri who played Boozer, their interactions with each other really helped form early on who the character was. We spent a couple of years earlier in development exploring who these characters were or what was going to feel the best in an open-world game and then getting back to the question of have you seen this before. For me, it was just like OK, this kind of a natural relationship especially in a story where we’re asking you to follow along for 30 hours felt pretty good. Sam was a huge part of that.
Bobby: Sam is a natural and his performance translates so naturally to the screen. Seeing him in this role, I can’t picture anyone else as Deacon.
John: I think what’s going to revolutionize games is the way performance capture has this high level of fidelity now where literally I didn’t have to do as much dialogue as I might add in a previous generation game because the performance system captures everything. Same thing with its fees and its voice and its body at the same time. And you see these moments in that story where something’s happening at Sandy but seeing a thing is just reacting to space and you know it still comes through. I think that that’s going to really help the natural most college characters in video games.