When Bend Studio was developing Days Gone, there was never a conversation that included the question "okay, but how would this feel while using a mouse and keyboard?" From the outset, the Sony-owned studio knew it was making an open world zombie game for the PlayStation 4, and so everything else naturally spilled out of that logic.
"We knew that people were going to have a PlayStation controller in your hands," said Days Gone lead designer Eric Jensen during a recent interview with Waypoint, "so you can at least predict some aspects of what the player experience is going to be like."
The feel of the analog sticks, placement of the buttons, resolution of the television. These were variables under the control of the developer, allowing Sony Bend to fine tune the nitty gritty aspects of playing a game like Days Gone, knowing those traits would be universal. All of those things go out the window on PC, because everyone's hardware can be totally unique. And until recently, console exclusives were that—exclusives. But it's not true now.
Horizon Zero Dawn, formerly a PS4 exclusive, arrived on PC last summer. Days Gone, also formerly a PS4 exclusive, arrived on PC this week, and Sony has said more ports are coming. The world has changed, and while Sony still wants people to buy PlayStation hardware, it's come to recognize the value in releasing older games to a wider audience.
The big difference between Horizon and Days Gone, however, is how the ports were made. Horizon developer Guerrilla Games hired another studio to produce their PC port, whereas Bend Studio made the decision to work on its PC version of Days Gone completely in-house. Outside companies were used for QA work and hardware stress testing, but that's normal.
"We had a really awesome dedicated team within the studio that are all PC gamers," said Jensen, "[people] that understand the medium and the platform and and what it entails to make not only a good PC game in general and what we wanted to support out of it, but a [good] port, taking a title that was designed for a game console and one set of inputs and adapting it to something that is widely varied in support."
The reaction to the PC version, released this week, has been positive, with Eurogamer's Digital Foundry calling it a "a solid, impressive port" and praising the graphics customization options for having "so many high points that I hope other developers take note."
Jensen grew up primarily as a console person, but his family did have a clunky PC kicking around in the house for school work. Growing up, Jensen would fiddle around with the computer's settings and try to get games running on it that clearly were not meant for it. We bonded over shared memories of trying to manipulate a family PC with very limited RAM.
"During the development, we had a lot of internal discussions about 'what is a good PC port?'" said Days Gone senior user interface programmer Zachary Lewis. "We have played a lot of PC games, we've played a lot of ports, and we came up with this hit list of must-have features that not all ports or even all PC games come with."
The mistake a lot of PC ports run into is not understanding that it's a unique platform. It's not enough to get a console game running on the PC—it's knowing the audience. Just look at Mass Effect fans programming their own field of view options into the game. Being able to adjust field of view—in essence, changing how much of the game world you can see—is important because PC players tend to play their games much closer to the screen than console players. An extremely narrow field of view can produce nausea in some people.
When field of view sliders were added to Days Gone's PC version during development, it was a revelation for Jensen. It changed how he played the game that he'd helped design.
"That was a big one for me," said Jensen. "That completely changed how I played the game."
"[There were] a lot of arguments in Slack and people saying, 'well, I don't know,' and then somebody saying, 'well, I'm really invested in this, so I'm going to add it.'"
One thing that didn't change, however, was Jensen's preference for using a controller while driving around on the game's motorcycle. The PC version fully supports different inputs for driving around, but even when he's on the PC, Jensen will play the action scenes with a mouse and keyboard, before putting a controller in his hands for the motorcycle sequences.
"I've just never done driving games on a keyboard, and so the controller is just my home for that," he said. "But the fact that you can switch back and forth between the two is awesome."
Field of view is the big, often-requested feature. But PC players, in general, always want more options. Not everyone might use that specific option, but PC players are often tinkerers. The flexibility of PC hardware is a philosophy that extends to the software that runs on it, whereas part of the appeal and pitch of a console is that you plug the disc in the drive and just go.
"[There were] a lot of arguments in Slack and people saying, 'well, I don't know,'" said Lewis, referring to the studio's internal conversations about what features the PC version should get. "And then somebody saying, 'well, I'm really invested in this, so I'm going to add it.'"
A lot was obvious. Bend Studio wanted to, for example, support ultrawide monitors. The technical side was easy, but every cutscene in the game had to be re-worked and touched up, because they were not composed and lit for such resolutions. On PS4, players can send the main character, Deacon, into stealth by slowly moving the analog stick forward.
"You can't push W less to walk," laughed Lewis.
One solution: when the player crouches, they are forced to walk. Thus, stealth!
Even basic changes like mouse and keyboard support revealed design questions.
"When we first got the mouse and keyboard support tuned in and working really well," said Lewis, "I was like, 'hey, guys, is it just me or is the game a lot easier? Because I can actually land all of these shots?'"
"Having an opportunity after some time to revisit a project," said Jensen, "there's always that tug to [think] 'What if we could do this? And what if we change this?'"
In general, Jensen said the team decided against making those kinds of changes, attempting to stick to the philosophy of only altering what was required and maintaining the experience. This may come as a disappointment in light of recent news that Sony passed on Bend Studio's pitch for a sequel, meaning the PC version could be the last time the developer works in this particular universe, but Jensen said it didn't want to "divide our fan base."
The entire experience, which started just before the arrival of perpetual working from home because of COVID-19 and has continued through it, gave Jensen and Lewis a new way to think about what it means to design games not just for PCs, but for console players, too.
"You see [PC-style customization] bleeding over with the options for like resolution or performance modes in console games," said Jensen. "I think people are starting to feel more comfortable with that kind of stuff in their games."
A field of view option might be out of the question because of the way such options can impact a game's frame rate, but even if that's the case, why not let players experiment? The difference between resolution and performance modes is often 30 and 60 frames-per-second, a stark difference that, in the past, would have been seen as a problem.
"We're also starting to see some titles on the PS5 that have mouse and keyboard support," said Lewis. "And I think that allowing players to play with the inputs that are best for them is really critical to bring games to more people."
Earlier in development, the PS4 version of Days Gone wasn't going to have more than a single difficulty mode. Then, Bend Studio decided to give people more options, a flexibility that extended to its post-release support for the game. Easier? Sure. Harder? Sure. More.
The overstated complexities of PC-style customization are a natural extension of this, and hopefully developers like Bend Studio take those experiences into their next console games.