Games Like Days Gone Will Become Very, Very Rare

Carving through Bend Studio's recreation of a freaker-infested Oregon, I couldn't help but think about Hideo Kojima.

The Metal Gear Solid creator was talking about 5G and the future of gaming, particularly in a streaming, data-centre driven era. Kojima's an auteur, so he enjoys talking and thinking about new technologies a lot.

But he's also a massive film buff. So it's no surprise that when asked about what might happen to video games, given such a drastic shift in the delivery mechanism, he referred back to TV and film.

"In the age of television, cinematic techniques have become obsolete," a translation from the interview says. "[Viewers] can change channels, so a 'grab' is required at the beginning."

Because there's an excess of choice, and it's all accessible within seconds, the structure of shows have changed.

At the same time, I was reminded by a line from a friend. I'd asked for some new TV to watch - this was before the Game of Thrones juggernaut - and inevitably, friends would ask if I'd watched The Wire, Mad Men or Breaking Bad.

I'd seen the first two, or at least as much as I wanted to see. But I hadn't seen Breaking Bad at the time, and so that became the instant recommendation. "You have to watch it," a mate told me, but they added a qualifier.

"Just make sure you watch past the first season. It takes a while to get going."

The first season of Breaking Bad takes just under six hours.

Something that wasn't apparent at the Days Gone preview, which featured two chunks of the game from the first act, was just how long it takes to level up.

It's not because the game is necessarily stingy with the amount of XP doled out between missions. Some missions take no time at all. One 'mission' asked me to head back to a camp to check on a survivor, a teenage girl who'd been hiding around her family home for two years, waiting for her parents to return.

They're nowhere to be seen, but the player-character Deacon suggests to the girl that they might still be alive at the work camp. So she heads there, only to discover that it's basically run like a prison.

"They won't let me leave," she whimpers.

This mission and cut scene runs for about five seconds. 2000 XP is earned.

But this is the rare exception to the rule.

The opening hours of Days Gone seem pretty straightforward. Your bike's been trashed, your biker brother Boozer has had his arm effectively mutilated by a blow torch, and you need to scrounge up enough gear to sustain "the journey north".

So scrounge around you do. The game initially has you running errands for a camp run by Copeland, a slightly unhinged prepper who runs "freedom" radio broadcasts about how the passage of the National Security Act in 1947 gave the government the right to take over all roads, railroads and hospitals.

Days Gone feeds you these story missions one at a time, and in the opening hours your bike has bugger all fuel capacity. There's not much in the way of ammo and crafting materials, either. You can carry more ammo via a pouch on your bike, but you'll need to level up your trust with that camp before they'll sell you level 2 bike parts. Or level 2 weapons, medkits, and so on.

So you act as a glorified bounty hunter, camp butcher, whatever they need you to be to improve your standing. Until you unlock a second camp, run by a former prison warden, and then you have to do it all over again. Reputation and credits don't carry over, which makes sense given that nobody is pulling cash out of an ATM in a post-freaker world.

But logical though it might be, it also slows Days Gone's first act to a complete crawl. And that first act lasts a lot longer than six hours.

All of this doesn't account for the extra time you need to do stuff, either. Days Gone is a light survival game at heart, and you'll have to regularly allot time to hunt down a fuel can, scouring areas for beer bottles, rags, kerosene, and the other bits and pieces you'll need to make sure you're not completely screwed.

Sometimes this searching can take ages. The best example is with the freaker nests, masses of straw that you'll find plugging up the occasional doorway, semi-trailer, and anywhere that the not-zombies have decided to call home.

You're not required to deal with these freaker nests. But you can't fast travel beyond that point without dealing with them, so eventually, you'll have to spend time clearing them out.

But the nests can be spread out over a massive area. And Days Gone doesn't offer any hints about their general direction, even with Deacon's equivalent of Batman Vision. When you're close enough to the nest that you can already see it - usually with some kind of straw and blood strewn around somewhere - you'll eventually get an audio cue, followed by a minimap icon.

But it might take ages to find that. Some of the nests are a few hundred metres apart, and most of the time you'll be running to and from these locations - because otherwise you'll have to run around on foot looking for a gas can. And maybe you'll just have to sit on an objective for a few minutes because a horde has woken up, and there's nothing you can do about those in the first ten hours but wait.

It's worth noting that you level really, really slowly in Days Gone as well. Compared to other games, at any rate. You can get trace amounts of XP (20-35) by running over, headshotting and cutting down the freakers any way you see fit. But the majority of XP comes from missions, and those missions are doled out one at a time. More frustratingly, the best benefit of those missions - the ability to unlock and buy new things, which has the biggest impact on gameplay - depends on what camp you're doing the job for.

But what I can't escape as I roam around Bend's freaker-infested Pacific Northwest is just how old the game feels. I'm not talking in terms of dated visuals or certain tropes with the zombie genre, but just the basic design and rate of incentives. It's deliberately, almost painfully slow. It reminds me a little of State of Decay, in so far that the ability to move forward is always limited by the amount of time you've spent making sure you have everything you need first.

Gamers are used to a bit more balance when it comes to their incentives. It's fine to artificially gate players from grinding on their own by heavily incentivising story missions and limiting how many activities are available. But that is usually weighed against some choice, where players can continue working their way down a questline or supporting a single faction so they can reap the rewards that faction has to offer.

Days Gone doesn't have that balance. It offers a giant open world, but funnels progression through an incredibly narrow channel. It's a slow game: slow to start, slow to reveal itself, slow to progress, slow on upgrades, and slow on character development.

Days Gone: The Kotaku Review

It’s worthwhile to think about the number of people around you who are waiting for the world to end. There are people who must do it for a living: government employees who specialise in disaster relief and crisis response, civil engineers, military personnel—people who must imagine the end to make sure it never comes. But there are others: Fundamentalist evangelicals waiting for a rapture. Libertarian preppers who shun government and pride themselves on self-sufficiency. Conspiracy theorists and internet nihilists. Anyone remotely concerned with the future of the planet.

Read more

In generations past, this was entirely normal. You had to make a significant investment - $60, $70 or $80 upfront - to buy the game, so chances were you were going to hang around to get "your money's worth", whatever length of time you felt that was. That offered some measure of leeway for a game to set the stage and introduce its characters, without needing to jump into high gear too quickly.

But the world has changed. Access to other games has rapidly expanded. Gamers don't have the ability yet to browse through new titles and start playing immediately, like you can on Netflix/Stan/Amazon. And there's still patches, loading times, and things that need to be cached beforehand.

But that wall is coming down, whether its through data centres, the slow expansion of better internet, or new business models and offerings like Apple Arcade and Google Stadia. And for the next round of games going into pre-production this year and next, this won't be a feature on the horizon, but much closer to a market reality.

That's why games like Days Gone will become such a rarity. It's not so much to do with its tropes, a reflection on biker culture or how it approaches the zombie genre. It's a design principle, one that's systemic to the industry. The principle of an upfront investment, and the amount of time the average player is willing to give a game before they move on, is rapidly shrinking.

Days Gone, at least in the 25 hours I've spent with it this week, is entirely fine. But in a few years, will players slog through the 10 or 12 hours of gameplay before everything starts to come together, when they can switch off and play something else in a matter of seconds?

Maybe if the payoff was as good as Breaking Bad. Days Gone? I'm not so sure.


Comments

    This game is sounding a lot like Mad Max, which I actually enjoyed but I'm definitely waiting till it inevitably drops in price.

      I never got around to that. It looks like my kind of open-world game, but there's so much on the list already. Really want to go back through Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Horizon, and do a revisit of Fallout 76.

      And then there's the board games piling up, ooft

        It's Mad Max through and through and a pretty standard reputation/upgrade progression model with a good amount of distraction and exploration, the kind of template we used to see more of some time ago.

        It might not stack up to many of the big name open world games but it makes up for it by being very solid and true to the source material both in lore and visuals.
        I didn't think anyone could make nothingness look so bloody good.

      I got Mad Max for $5 on Steam and still felt like I wasted money.

        How far did you make it through?

          115 minutes, guess I could've refunded it haha. Just felt like another generic open world with your standard checklists etc etc. Played it all before.

        Yeah it's really not for everyone, it got me by being a hell of a lot better than I was expecting.
        Reminded me of older adventure games from past generations.

      I really need to go back and finish Mad Max's third act. I kinda of want to commence a newgame+ (with all my old grinding intact) just to revisit the narrative and the exploration notes afresh.

      The hook was vehicle combat with the harpoon and savage slug-fests where you couldn't drive and the balance was great between them... but one of the things I feel more pages should've been written about was how it was such a beautiful game.

      Mad Max is one of the most gorgeous games I've played. Long before Horizon: Zero Dawn was doing its hyper-saturated trickery, Max's deserts were blasting my eyeballs with HDR glare dizzyingly close to real life. Between toxic morass, cracked red plains, and endless dehydrated oceans - from salt-flat to coral-littered trenches - I could never have believed there would be so much variety in post-apocalyptic desert biomes.

      And it's so authentic! It stays true to the spirit of the post-nuke movies (the first was just weird). It sells the short, nasty, brutish and very final, desperate violence where niceties evaporated with all the world's water. You almost feel like you're covered in dust from playing it. The engines and steel housing all roar, scrape and grind larger than life. Many Australian accents are not butchered.

      And the space! The emptiness... the expanse of the wasteland is intact. You can find encounters if you want them, but the sense of 'threat on the horizon' - predator or prey - is real.

      I'm deep in the middle of a second attempt at Yakuza 0 right now, but Mad Max is very, very close up the list for the next game for me revisit.

        Couldn't agree more.
        I passed it over on release because everything I saw and heard painted the picture of a very lacklustre game, wasn't until it popped up on PS+ that I gave it a chance, so glad that I did.
        It kinda felt like the Naughty Dog Style where no one gameplay element stood out as the top of the genre but each was expertly polished and balanced against the rest to create a brilliant sum of parts.
        I saw a lot of complaints about the driving being pretty lame but if you had tried to balance car combat with Forza levels of car mechanics it would have been frustrating and fiddly, instead of an almost cinematic flow of recognisable road warrior chaos.
        The combat wasn't ground breaking and the shooting elements were basic but you were never meant to rest on a single mechanic and the game rarely allowed those seams to come apart by focusing too long on one aspect.

        If I could add to your already perfect comment on the game, the skill/upgrade progression was deeply satisfying.
        There's too many games today that are filled with useless skill bloat you never use, incremental percentage increases that you barely notice and fillers that make it feel like your just going through the motions.
        Every upgrade to fuel/water proficiency, combat skills, ammunition and car parts made you faster, more deadly and able to explore more freely, the effect of each stood out with the very next vehicular/physical engagement and road trip.
        Better still that your increasing efficiency never made you feel invincible or over skilled, every scrap was well animated to feel hard won no matter how well you did and no victory came without desperate reversals and the illusion of sacrifice, be it in laboured actions of waking away covered in blood, bruises, dirt and vehicle body damage.

        I also need to go back and finish it, the gameplay loop did become repetitive after a while but it certainly took it's time, just talking about it reminds me of how much fun it all was.

    I thought this was going to be a reference to the fact that it's single-player and not 'games as a service'.

    It's pretty crazy how pacing has changed. I still remember first opening up AC: Odyssey (after the tutorial island) and being puzzled at how the game was letting me explore... everywhere. All the synch points.

    Glad I didn’t pick this up. I experience enough chore-like gameplay IRL lol

    I don't think it's more that it will become a rarity, rather it was already outdated because it uses design that we already know can be done better. There's nothing wrong with slow burn games that take a while to build up but the design has to complement it and it sounds like Days Gone has missed the mark.

    It's long been said that you need to grab your audience within the first 30 seconds of a speech, the first few sentences of a book, with a compelling headline and an informative lede in journalism. Games are no different. If your answer to "When does the game get good?" is 10 or 20 hours in then you've lost your audience already, especially if it's narrative driven.

    Personally i am over post-catastrophe games, I am over Zombies in general and the market has become so saturated with samey open world, there is little I see in this game to inspire.

    The game world really needs a shake up in terms of its themes and storytelling.

    I have no idea what type of game I want to play but like all the best games and movies and tv, the ones that really change entertainment, are rarely the ones that give you exactly what you want.

    One of the key things about a lot of game design is the technology available. todays technology renders a lot the old game design shortcuts irrelevant. developers have more freedom in how they implement things and designs that 5 years ago were just a pipe dream are now a reality. We used to be restricted to types of games we could make and every year now it becomes possible to create radically new designs that simply weren't achievable all that long ago.

    I'm enjoying Days Gone thus far, probably about 10 hours in now. It actually reminds me most of the Tomb Raider reboot from 2013, substituting Lara's Climbing Mechanics with traversal of an open world on bike.

    I passed on it because it looked like a gruff biker dude open worlding zombies to death with light survival and lots of scrabbling around for mats. Not that it looked bad, but that it looked exactly like a hundred other games I have played.

    Besides, I already have one open world that does literally nothing new and when Horizon: Zero Dawn is damn good, why do I need another one?

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