Miles Morales and the “Sony Half-Sequel”
Are smaller stories within existing game worlds the wave of the future?
I recently, finally, finished Insomniac’s superb PS5 launch title, SpiderMan: Miles Morales. As one of the biggest games to have accompanied the launch of the PlayStation 5 console, it was always going to be a smashing success for Sony. But the devs went above and beyond to craft a great story and solve the thorny problem of making combat fun from the very start. Throw in a well-acted and likable lead, and heaps of loving detail included in the game’s Harlem neighborhood setting, and the title shines even with its shorter-than-the-original length.
Speaking of that length, many fans expressed at least a bit of disappointment when it was revealed that this would not be a full-fledged Spidey sequel. But this type of release has been in keeping with Sony’s strategy regarding some of its biggest IP over the last several years, creating what I have dubbed the “Sony half-sequel”. Standalone DLC, follow-ups, whatever you want to call them, they leverage assets and ideas from their original games to produce a new game in roughly half the time and for far less budget than a full sequel.
With full-length AAA games easily pushing budgets past $50 million, and development cycles routinely taking 5–6 years, who can blame Sony for wanting to do something a little different? The half-sequel route keeps the IP in front of gamers, increases the cost-value proposition for the publisher and developer alike, and generates revenue in the meantime. Gamers benefit as well since these half-sequels typically come in at a lower price point due to their typically shorter length.
Relatively few game franchises (or development studios) can stay relevant if they disappear from the public eye for the better part of a decade. Sony Bend spent 7 years working on Days Gone, and Naughty Dog developed The Last of Us Part II for almost 7 years, but those are exceptions to the rule. I have to imagine Sony is kicking themselves for letting Media Molecule take the better part of a decade to bring Dreams to light, a decision that could result in that studio’s closing. Smaller projects, more modest in scope and with less grand budgets and dev cycles, may just be the wave of the future.
Let’s look at a few examples from the recent past and then peer into the future to see if Sony will continue to use this strategy.
Infamous: First Light
Perhaps the earliest example of the half-sequel in the PS4 life cycle, First Light was a standalone DLC that centered on a supporting character from Infamous: Second Son, the full game that preceded it. The setting (Seattle) is the same and the gameplay mechanics are similar, so Sucker Punch Studios was just getting great mileage out of what they had already created.
Releasing only 5 months after the original game, the development cycle was so short because so much was reusable. The developers had another story they wanted to tell, so instead of shoe-horning it into the main game, they created a whole new adventure and sold it at $15 for roughly 5 more hours of gameplay. Today, First Light is talked about as a part of the main line of the Infamous franchise and is widely regarded as having been superior to Second Son. No surprise then that Sony took notice and went down this path again.
Uncharted: The Lost Legacy
Created as a standalone follow-up to Uncharted 4, Lost Legacy is a totally new adventure without the eponymous Nathan Drake. Focusing instead on the co-star of the fourth game, Nadine Ross, and Nate’s one-time love interest Chloe Frazer, the story revolves around Chloe hunting for treasure in India.
This one falls directly into the half-sequel wheelhouse as it uses already established characters and gameplay elements that are familiar to players of the Uncharted series. While the story may be new, the fundamental building blocks of the title are all recycled from the rest of the series, using assets that were already in place. Naughty Dog didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. And at a $39.99 price point, $20 cheaper than full-price titles of the day, the game was an absolute bargain for fans that were already suffering from Uncharted withdrawal.
Spider-Man: Miles Morales
And now back to this, the game which will likely set the half-sequel standard for years to come. Once again, the developer took a supporting character in the original game and spun him off into an original story using all the building blocks they already had laying around. In this case, those blocks were the beautifully realized New York City that Spidey and Miles swung through in the course of their neighborly duties.
Insomniac spent an insane amount of time and money to create the island of Manhattan in painstaking detail, so why toss it away and wait 5 years or more for a proper sequel? They went back to Harlem, added a lot of love and detail to make it feel even more lived-in than the rest of the city, and set the game’s excellent story right in the middle of it. Harlem becomes a major character in this new adventure, just as important as any human.
Once again, the game reuses most of the systems built by the first game, but this time the developer had an even trickier task on their hands. In a game where the best combat moves and gadgets were earned over the full course of the story, how could they keep the combat feeling fresh in the new game when Miles was just starting his journey as the web-slinger? Insomniac managed this brilliantly, introducing the Venom bio-electric powers and changing the combat in the most positive way. I actually enjoyed fighting baddies as Miles much more than I did playing as Peter Parker.
Again, the game hit that mid-cycle release date, releasing just more than two years after the first game, and at the new sub-prime price point of $49.99 on PlayStation 5. With all collectibles and such, the game easily clocked in at 10–15 hours, a great value for fans of the original game. Sony and Insomniac even one-upped their own value proposition with a $69.99 Ultimate Edition that included a fully remastered version of the original game. This one will be hard to beat for quite a long time.
Now we get out our crystal ball and gaze into the murky future. COVID-19 has thrown game development into relative chaos, so the normal suppositions on dev cycles and release dates are out the window. Two major titles stick out of the crowd as ones that may be going down the half-sequel route.
God of War: Ragnarok
That loud sound you heard at the very end of Sony’s PS5 reveal livestream was a snort of disbelief for the 2021 launch date attached to the next God of War game. It’s hard to blame anyone for calling it wishful thinking, though, with the level of detail that went into 2018’s release date and the fact that this April is just 3 years since the last release. How could the developer have something new ready this quickly? But looking at it from the half-sequel perspective, it doesn’t seem as far fetched.
Sony Santa Monica built an entirely new world, and essentially a brand new Kratos, evolving years’ worth of blood-soaked revenge tales into one of a father and son coming to terms with their own relationship. There are so many stories that can be told where they are right now, and the end of the first game even hints at what comes next, so this seems the perfect candidate for an extension rather than another evolution.
We know literally nothing but the logo at this point, but regardless of the eventual release date, we are bang in the middle of the half-sequel development window. With so much still left to explore in the new ice and snow home for Kratos and Atreus, it only makes sense to expect this will be a smaller step down the path. Building on what was established in the first game, refining the combat and giving fans another taste of one of gaming’s best dishes sounds like a recipe for success.
Horizon Zero Dawn: Forbidden West
Aloy’s next adventure is a slightly tougher one to forecast, as it released a full year before God of War and is thus creeping up on 4 full years in development as of late February. Thus a late 2021 release would put it nearly to a full-game dev cycle. Having seen a bit more of this one (meaning an actual trailer and not just a logo), we can glean a few things.
In the extended trailer, which included about three minutes of developer chat over scenes from the game, they are calling it a sequel. It is clear that we are still in the same world and the same timeline as the original game. The new map is said to be even larger, stretching from Utah to the Pacific coast, and we see Aloy traversing deserts, beaches, and even underwater (!!) settings.
We also see Sylens, seemingly picking up where he left off at the end of the last game, overseeing a tribe that has learned the secret of overriding the machines. So the amount of time that has elapsed between the first game and the new one as far as the story seems to be quite small. We are told there will be dozens of new machines, along with new tribes and environmental features to contend with.
But this is still the same universe, the same aesthetic, and seemingly similar climb and fight mechanics as the first game employed. With the first Horizon title being such a huge, albeit unexpected success, it makes sense to continue the story where it is, using the same world to give fans a refined vision of what they loved so much to begin with.
It’s hard to say at this point what lasting effects the pandemic will have on game development practices. Putting out more games, more often doesn’t seem like a bad way to go regardless of the market environment. One only has to look at Microsoft and the huge time-gaps in some of their tentpole franchises like Halo and Fable to see the value of shorter development cycles maximizing the investment in creating these intricate and involved worlds. Sony has enjoyed much success and critical acclaim with the half-sequel approach, and shows no signs of abandoning it now. We just have to sit back and enjoy the show.