Expansions for narrative games are becoming too big for their boots. Jem Alexander thinks these smaller triple-A experiences are a great way to remove financial pressure from developers and players alike
Sony’s rather bizarre E3 press conference opened with a strong trailer for Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, which eclipsed everything else in the showcase that wasn’t God of War shaped. This despite the fact that it’s a piece of downloadable content for Uncharted 4.
But Naughty Dog has already taught us with The Last of Us: Left Behind that DLC can actually work better when it’s not tied to a game disc. Standalone side-stories for the best narrative games are becoming more common and, from a development perspective, it makes absolute perfect sense for all involved.
Left Behind is a prequel to The Last of Us and as such it works great as a cheap entry point to the universe for those unwilling to pay £40 for a game they’re not sure about. It makes less sense for The Last of Us, perhaps, since it’s such a fantastic game that everyone should own it, but the point was still well made by Naughty Dog.
The switch in character focus and the shorter play time made this a tighter, more concise game than the original. When your DLC is arguably (and I will argue the point!) a better game than its progenitor, you’ve got to wonder whether spending so much time and money on giant triple-A epics is always worth it.
Uncharted: The Lost Legacy looks like it’ll be doing something very similar. Whether it will match Uncharted 4’s full glory remains to be seen, but the change in focus and the opportunity for players to explore a separate part of the universe is incredibly compelling for fans. As well as for people who haven’t yet tried the Uncharted franchise and who might appreciate a more affordable entry point to the series that isn’t already a console generation old.
When your DLC is a better game than its progenitor, you've got to wonder...
Likewise, Bethesda announced during its press conference that a Dishonored side-story will be released as standalone DLC. Dishonored: Death of the Outsider again gives players a new character to play and therefore a new perspective on the story of the series. A shorter experience which is cheaper to make for the developer, less expensive for the player and less of a time commitment for all involved. Which is the perfect storm for something rarely witnessed in triple-A development: experimentation.
The ability to take a triple-A franchise and truly explore it by switching up mechanics, characters, timelines and more is something that comes with a huge risk when you’re talking about building another £20m+ epic. Much more palatable for publishers and developers to spend a fraction of that on a tighter experience that can satisfy fans and keep them sated until the next big release.
But maybe you don’t even need a next big release? With Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Ninja Theory is offering a triple-A experience that lasts “half as long” as a big budget game, but for half the price. A fantastic idea that players appear to have embraced wholeheartedly. Because let’s be honest, not everyone has the time nowadays to play your 20+ hour magnum opus.
This feels like the perfect companion to episodic games, like Life is Strange and the many Telltale series, which are also a very compelling proposition for cash and time starved gamers. I’d love to see this trend of experimental, tighter, short experiences that have full triple-A quality continue to grow. Let’s build on the universes fans have fallen in love with and find surprising ways to explore their favourite characters and worlds. While saving a few quid in the process. And a lot of precious time.