Kathleen McLaughlin
The Bulletin

Watch the demo

To see a trailer of “Days Gone,” a new game created by Sony Interactive Entertainment Bend Studio, visit https://youtu.be/bGej8K1r8KI

Mount Bachelor and the High Desert landscape of Central Oregon are unmistakable in “Days Gone,” a third-person shooter video game created by Sony Interactive Entertainment’s Bend Studio.

“Days Gone” was previewed during the gaming industry’s annual conference, E3, in June, and since then, the extended game-play demo posted on YouTube has accumulated 2 million hits, Creative Director John Garvin said. In the works since 2012, “Days Gone” is the biggest-budget project ever undertaken by the studio, he said, and there’s a lot riding on its commercial success.

Because of “Days Gone,” created for Sony’s PlayStation 4, the studio’s staff, which works out of an office on Bluff Drive near the Old Mill District, has grown from about 45 people to 103, Studio Director Chris Reese said. There are no plans to downsize after the release, the date of which has not yet been announced, he said. In fact, Reese and Garvin said they’re confident that the studio has plenty of work ahead of it and could even grow.

“We have a longer term plan,” Reese said.

If successful, “Days Gone” will not only immortalize Oregon’s High Desert, it will further fortify Bend Studio’s position in the world of game development. The studio, which has existed under different ownership and different names since the late 1980s, is best known for creating the “Syphon Filter” series in the late 1990s.

“Syphon Filter” did not become a household name, but it received critical acclaim and is respected by gamers who prefer a third-person perspective, in which the action figure is visible on the screen. Sony would not release sales data for “Syphon Filter,” but according to gaming industry trade press, the first title in the six-title franchise sold about 1.7 million copies in the first year.

Shawn Wallbaum, owner of the Game Quest used video-game store in Bend, said he played most of the “Syphon Filter” games and recommended them to customers.

“It wasn’t just a straightforward shooter,” he said. “There was some strategy to it.”

But much has changed in the gaming world since the late 1990s. For starters, the budgets for so-called AAA games, the industry equivalent of summer blockbuster movies, are enormous.

Big budgets

“The AAA publishing business is a hit-driven one that requires massive investments, not unlike Hollywood productions,” said James Brightman, editor-in-chief at GamesIndustry.biz, an online publication covering the industry. And with those investments, which range from $40 million to $60 million before marketing, come high expectations for sales, he said.

Bend Studio would not disclose the budget behind “Days Gone,” but Garvin said it’s the largest he’s ever worked on, and Reese said it’s comparable to other AAA game budgets. With no release date, “Days Gone” does not have a retail price, but most newly released games cost about $60.

It’s hard to know at this point what Sony expects from “Days Gone” in terms of sales. Gamers say that the release date will be telling, with a fall release indicating that Sony wants “Days Gone” available to consumers in time for the Christmas buying season.

If other companies’ benchmarks are any indication, “Days Gone” will need to sell at least 2 million copies in the first year, Brightman said. Nintendo said during a recent discussion with investors that it’s aiming for at least 2 million copies for any new game, he said. A few years ago, a “Tomb Raider” title sold more than 3 million copies, but the game’s publisher, Square Enix, was disappointed because it hoped for 5 million to 6 million copies, he said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Sony had similar expectations for ‘Days Gone,’” Brightman said.

World apart?

“Days Gone” is being compared to other post-apocalyptic and zombie-genre games, and Garvin, who is responsible for the concept, admits that he was inspired and influenced by the hit zombie television show “The Walking Dead,” as well as the movie “World War Z.”

Garvin doesn’t think the zombie genre is any more played out than superheroes or romantic comedies. He was drawn to it because of the stories it can inspire.

“It allows you to create a world that has instant danger … and where the pressures are so great that it sort of pushes people to the limits of what they’re capable of.”

Garvin said he was also inspired by the biker-gang television show, “Sons of Anarchy.” The main character in “Days Gone” is a former outlaw biker-gang member named Deacon St. John, who somehow survived the pandemic that killed most other people and turned others into blood-thirsty bad guys called “freakers.”

“Days Gone” will set itself apart from many angles, starting with the narrative, Garvin said. Deacon’s family is dead; his friends are gone, yet he fights to survive, he said.

“Why the struggle?”

Garvin said the game will answer that question.

“There is a huge story in this game.”

Inspired landscapes

Most post-apocalypse shooting games take place in an urban wasteland. Garvin said he knew that the natural beauty of his native state would create an interesting contrast to the game’s dark theme.

Bend Studio settled on the concept, character and environment early in the creative process. The next hurdle was to take advantage of the latest available technology, Reese said. The size and complexity of the freaker horde that gamers will encounter in “Days Gone” is unlike anything available on the market so far, he said.

Garvin said the credit goes to longtime Bend Studio engineer Norman Chang.

“He’s the one who was literally able to put together the physics code that allows us to have that many objects that are all animating and all have AI (artificial intelligence) and all doing their thing and colliding with the environment,” he said. “That’s not an easy task.”

Another technical feature of “Days Gone” is that it will instantly render changes to the weather or time of day. In other words, a player can choose to send Deacon out on a night mission and see day fall to night before his eyes. “Days Gone” is an open-world game, which means players can explore the environment as they choose.

Garvin, who grew up in Medford and studied Shakespearean literature at University of Oregon, also populated the game with motifs from Oregon history. He said he made sure to include an old wigwam burner, a silo-like structure where sawmills used to burn sawdust.

Grit and guts

While a lot of work went into the “Days Gone” narrative, it also has plenty of gore and violence. As Garvin played the game on a giant flat-screen TV in his office, Deacon encountered a freaker lurking behind the wigwam burner. When the creature attacked, Deacon pulled a sawed-off shotgun off his back and blew its head off.

“That’s our game,” Garvin said with a laugh.

“Days Gone” is stocked with what gamers call “contextual kills,” which means they can use the environment, not just their weapons, to defeat the enemy, Garvin said. During the extended game-play trailer, Deacon walks through an old saw mill fighting off freakers and impales one of them against a large saw blade.

Even if gamers don’t find “Days Gone” to be the most original or mind-blowing title ever released for PlayStation 4, they might buy it for reliability. Glitches have become so common in games today that it’s almost as if the publishers have stopped trying to release a finished product, said Wallbaum, the owner of Game Quest. That was never the case with Bend Studio’s “Syphon Filter,” he said.

Bend Studio is one of several game-development studios that Sony owns. It was founded by computer-game makers Marc Blank and Mike Berlyn in the 1980s. They hired Reese as a programmer in 1993 and changed the name to Eidetic. Sony, which had hired the studio to develop “Syphon Filter,” acquired it in 2000.

Bend Studio has a reputation within Sony for producing titles that showcase the company’s proprietary consoles and doing so in a reliable way, Reese said. Before going to work on “Days Gone,” Bend Studio created “Uncharted: Golden Abyss” for the launch of PlayStation Vita, a portable gaming device that, according to Reese, influenced the design of PlayStation 4. More recently, Bend Studio has helped evaluate PlayStation VR, the virtual reality headset for PlayStation 4 that’s due out Oct. 13.

“It’s important to have really good, solid teams that can deliver on projects, deliver on schedule and deliver a good product,” Reese said. “And we’re one of those.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7860, kmclaughlin@bendbulletin.com