Last Of Us Creators' Approach To DLC Sounds Great, But Risky

Last of Us Creators' Approach To DLC Sounds Great, But Risky

DLC is still such a new thing in gaming that it's hard to say if anyone has gotten it exactly right. Maybe BioWare? Maybe Rockstar? Maybe Bethesda? The people at Naughty Dog are taking a crack at it this week with the release of some single-player DLC for The Last of Us. They took their own path, wisely or not.

Without spoiling anything, they told me how, for better or worse, they approached making this week's The Last of Us: Left Behind prequel DLC.

They said yes to making DLC when they could have said no...

Hey, talented and tired game designers, you just finished a game you spent years making, want to make more of it? The Last of Us' creative director Neil Druckmann told me they basically got asked that. "Our boss called us in and said hey there's an opportunity here, do you want to take advantage of it?"

Could they have said no? "Yeah. Easily." But he and game director Bruce Straley went for it.

"We spent the next several days saying, 'Let's explore this,' because it's something we have wanted to do in the past. We haven't thought about it in the context of The Last of Us. What if we did this? And we, like explored a few different ideas and we kept coming back to this gap between the story we told in the comic book that's kind of a prequel about how Ellie met this girl Riley and how it affected her and the beginning of when Joel met Ellie.

"When we talked about what we could do gameplay-wise and narrative-wise and how that story could stand on its own — but at the same time give you new insight into who Ellie is and the events you've seen with her — that got really exciting.

"We said, 'Well, we've never done this. That seems like a great challenge, so let's do it.'"

They took their time...and then some...and then some more...

The Last of Us came out in June. The Last of Us DLC is coming out this week. It's February, if you didn't know. That's quite a few months. Druckmann and Straley actually took time off after finishing the game and then started Left Behind.

"We initially said, 'OK we'll come out in November,'" Druckmann remembered. "And then we were like, 'Ah, it'll be December for the holiday season,' and then, when we finally fleshed out the outline for the story, we realised there was no way we would hit December, so definitely January..."

Both men laughed when he said this.

"And then Naughty Dog perfectionism took hold," Straley interjected

"'This ending sequence doesn't work,'" Druckmann remembered thinking. "We rethought it and added this whole new setpiece and said, 'We need another month. OK, February."

"The great thing about having that flexibility — and maybe that doesn't work for the greatest business model, because you want that hit [of DLC] to be a little earlier — but we know it has to be a certain quality when it comes out of Naughty Dog's doors," Straley said. "The fans appreciate it. And we're really proud of it."

Added Druckmann: "We're willing to eat some sales to put out something we're really proud of."

What? See that line? How about I print it again and bold it, because, that's something else.

Druckmann: "We're willing to eat some sales to put out something we're really proud of."

Please, more of that, brave game creators and companies, though try not to put yourselves out of business or anything.

They listened to reviewers...and reduced the percentage of combat in their game, to boot...

Oh boy. I can already sense gaming critics getting the blame if Left Behind stinks.

"With The Last of Us, we felt we went way past our comfort zone with how few combat encounters there are, as far as keeping the player's engagement," Druckmann said. "And we saw in almost every review, people said either it was just right or there was too much combat. We said, 'Oh, that's surprising.' So with this, we were like, 'OK, let's go way past...'

"OK, fuckers!" Straley interjected, laughing with great endearment. His tone was a playful kind of "We'll show you!"

The guys say there's a lower percentage of combat in the DLC than there was in the main game. The team worked on other ways to keep the player engaged.

They didn't worry about making the DLC long...

Druckmann said they decided on a story first and then worried about how much to charge later, not really targeting a gameplay-hours count. He said they got their count for The Last of Us wrong anyway (he thought it was going to be their tightest and perhaps shortest game; it wasn't).

That all sounds like set-up for Left Beind being a bit short. But what if... what if the number of hours in a game didn't matter? I brought up the recent controversy over the apparent brevity of Meal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes.

"We understand that length is an issue," Straley said, "but it's more like, 'Did you get something out of this that you feel actually changed your perception of those characters or the world or that affected emotionally?' And if we did that then that's what we're ultimately trying for. We want to emotionally engage our players. And hopefully people will feel that that emotional engagement was enough. We're gambling on that idea. But we don't know. We're about to find out real soon."

They experimented...

OK. This one I have heard before from lots of other top developers who get a chance to make DLC after making a huge game. They all seem to love the experience of making something short.

"The timespan to do something efficient and clean and of a quality level we're proud of with the storytelling and gameplay we're proud of is super-intriguing," Straley said.

"And I guess," Druckmann added, "because it's smaller and maybe it's a mindset thing — because I don't know if this is really true — I felt like we could experiment more and take more chances with the gameplay."

As I pressed them to think of the role DLC plays with games and how it might compare to other forms of entertainment, Druckmann suggested that add-on content like Left Behind might be the equivalent of Pixar making a short to accompany a full-length movie. "Maybe shorter-form games is a thing that we can supplement our longer games with," he pondered. "Who knows, if this does well for us then there's ideas where you don't have do one of these in an existing world. You do one that's completely on its own."

How does that all sound to you, gamers?

I can't pretend that what Druckmann and Straley said about Left Behind is anything less than exactly what I'd like game creators to be thinking of when they make single-player DLC. I'll find out later this week if, creatively, their approach worked. So can you. The Last of Us: Left Behind will be out on Valentine's Day, $US15, download-only on the PS3. It's a prequel to The Last of Us, and my hopes for it are now quite high.


    There is no correct path for DLC.

    RIP expansion packs. :'(

      Ballad Of Gay Tony & The Lost & Damned for GTA4 qualify most assuredly as expansion level content that was only offered on release as DLC

      The level ad quality of content has nothing to do with the delivery system, its just that people have chosen the cheap path of doing the bare minimum and charging what often feels like too much for it. That's not DLC, that's contemporary consumerism.

      Expansion packs (say like Opposing Force or Blue SHift for Half-Life) used to cost $50 at retail. A lot of DLC is actually better value than this. I'm thinking like the GTA _IV expansion like alias says, or Dragonborn for Skyrim.

      $25 map packs can suck a fat one, however.

      Last edited 12/02/14 3:51 pm

    “With The Last of Us, we felt we went way past our comfort zone with how few combat encounters there are, as far as keeping the player’s engagement,” Druckmann said

    I'm genuinely worried that this is a "solution" for developers. The player is losing attention? Time for more PEW PEW PEW.

    One of the things that drew me into The Last of Us was that they had less combat and relied on other things to keep me hooked. It was still too much but at least they tried (unlike Tomb Raider that seemed to throw in yet another combat section whenever I blinked).

    The guys say there’s a lower percentage of combat in the DLC than there was in the main game. The team worked on other ways to keep the player engaged.

    I'm really glad this is happening, I just wish that it didn't have to be a thing. Games rely too heavily on action as a crutch. The fact that the vast majority of AAA games seemed to be framed around shooting mechanics is symptomatic of this idea that people will only pay attention if they're inserting bullet X into enemy skull Y.

      I think there is an element of that definitely. The fact that one of the largest gaming demographics tends to be males in the USA probably doesn't help matters either.

      I'd imagine a large part of it also falls down to many developers trying to capitalize on time spent in each environmental location in order to pad the overall game length without needing to produce more assets. Imagine how much shorter Tomb Raider of Uncharted would be if you were able to just pass through a level and weren't stopping to fight people in each area.

        I wouldn't have minded in the case of Tomb Raider... I thought that dragged on several hours too long.

          I didn't really find myself noticing the game drag on too much in terms of overall length, but I definitely would have appreciated more sections that focused on platforming and puzzle solving over combat. That's just personal preference though. I still very much enjoyed the game, but I have several friends who agreed it dragged on longer than it should.

          Again in many games I think this falls back to a lot of gamers holding a certain expectation in terms of how many hours a game takes to complete comparative to how much they're willing to spend. It seems that a lot of the time people are quick to associate a game's play length with how much it's worth, irrespective of the quality of those gaming hours.

          Take a look at all the hoo-hah around Ground Zeroes at the moment. All it takes is a hint of "it's a tad short" and people start crying for blood. Whether it's actually worth the price of admission remains to be seen, but with the reactions we've already seen from a lot of Metal Gear fans, you can kind of understand the average developers wanting to er on the side of caution and pad their games out with a few hours of combat here and there.

    As far as the last point about small, bonus stand alone content like what Pixar does, I have one word: Portal.

      See also: Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon and GTAIV: The Ballad of Gay Tony. Neither of which (I think) needed the base game.

        Portal came packaged with HL2 Ep2. It wasn't a stand alone purchase like those. Same way as the little Pixar short before the main movie - you don't pay to watch it by itself months later.

          Well yes, Portal was part of The Orange Box but the point was that there are examples of smaller "stand alone" content to fit with this statement:
          “Maybe shorter-form games is a thing that we can supplement our longer games with,” he pondered. “Who knows, if this does well for us then there’s ideas where you don’t have do one of these in an existing world. You do one that’s completely on its own.”

            I was sticking more to the point of the previous sentence - they want to draw parallels to Pixar side projects. They may very well be mimicking a similar development process, but I was bringing up a much closer game parallel to what the end user gets. They certainly haven't adopted this approach as far as the end consumer is concerned.

    I think its better if dlc comes out late like this. when the dlc comes out before I get around to finishing the game I usually decide I cant be arsed playing it.

    Less combat? How about less stealth, screw that stealth shit. It's why I haven't finished the game. Got tiring and repetitive real quick.

      You can navigate most of the game with stealth, or you can apply a more headstrong approach if you so choose. On normal difficulty both are quite possible. It pays to be sneaky (particularly when taking on the harder difficulties), but very rarely are you simply forced.

      Besides, the game's pretty much focused on the survival genre. I would've found the characters far less believable if - from a gameplay standpoint - they went around guns blazing.

        I get what you're saying, I guess I was expecting more of an uncharted style of play.

    They could've taken a full year to perfect the game if they really needed to & I'd still buy it day one. I trust Naughty Dog's perfectionist attitude to know that they'll only release something when it's good & ready, with an emphasis on GOOD. :D

    I feel like combat sequences aren't a problem. There are plenty of games that have a lot of combat that you can argue didn't need to be there, but it's fun, and that's really the basis from which many games start.

    I think the bigger problem is not combat but justifying combat, contextualising combat, so that it doesn't feel like it's there to be padding out the game (even though it is) Give each encounter it's own unique conflict and resolution and you'll differentiate it from the repetitiveness of, "Oh, another sequence of wave after wave of bad guys."

    This is the best solution and helps both audiences enjoy the game. For those wanting "less combat", they have a sequence where yes, you had to shoot people but you did it because in this particular sequence, there is a VIP NPC objective, like a captured child that you can rescue, as opposed to just shooting for the purpose of clearing the room. It adds texture and depth to sequences and satisfies those that find their experimentation in combat stimulating.

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