Story-driven downloadable content packs for games like Horizon Forbidden West can be a great deal for game developers. They're bite-sized versions of the broader game that can drive sales, be targeted toward passionate players invested in the game, and can be showcases of what a team perfected making the original title.
But as with all things in game development, designing such can come with major tradeoffs. Because you can't guarantee how many players will experience a story that's gated behind an additional purchase, you have to be careful of how far it advances the game's narrative.
On the other hand, you don't just want to deliver a "side story" for players who make that purchase. Then you're grappling with how many resources you have available, since much of your team is probably rolling over onto another project. And if you're Guerrilla Games, you're having to make hard decisions on if this DLC pack will be available on all consoles players can access Horizon Forbidden West on.
All of these are tricky questions—and with the release of Horizon Forbidden West: Burning Shores, the studio's now had a chance to evaluate different approaches to designing DLC. Studio narrative director Ben McCaw and lead writer Annie Kitain took a moment to discuss the making of Burning Shores, and explained how Guerrilla Games changed its approach from the making of Horizon Zero Dawn's DLC The Frozen Wilds.
Why Burning Shores gave Aloy a love interest
In Horizon Forbidden West: Burning Shores, Aloy ventures down to the ruins of Los Angeles, and quickly makes friends with a hunter named Seyka. Seyka's a member of the Quen tribe; a faction of corporate worshippers Aloy encountered in the back end of of Forbidden West, and she and Seyka join forces to investigate a mysterious tower blasting anything that gets too close, their interests aligned in saving both of their people.
Their interests also become aligned in uh, each other. Right after Aloy (literally) crash-lands on Seyka's hunting expedition, the two are exchanging glances and muttering compliments about each other's gear and hunting styles. It's a cute setup for a romance. Neither character is exactly brash and forward about their interest, since both of them have spent months prioritizing the safety of their people over their own personal needs.
Kitain explained that exploring Aloy's romantic interests felt like a "natural next step" in the Horizon series, especially after the events of Forbidden West. "At the start of Forbidden West, she [goes from] someone who is trying to take on all these burdens of the world by herself to someone...who's accepting her friends, accepting Beta as a sister."
"Having that be her foundation going forward gave us this opportunity to think about 'where does she go next from here?'"
Now here's the rub. Aloy and Seyka's romance is the first time Guerrilla has revealed that the series protagonist is part of the (post-apocalyptic) LGBTQ community. Does it matter that this representation is showing up in a game's DLC, and not its main storyline?
Kitain and McCaw didn't quite discuss this topic, but did explain that Guerrilla made a concerted (and arguably ambitious) effort to design this DLC around Aloy and evolving her character rather than just an introduction to a new end of the world. In Frozen Wilds, Aloy didn't go through any personal character growth, and the game's writers chose to center the story on a chieftain name Aratak and a shaman named Ourea (with an AI mistakenly being worshipped as a Spirit filling out the main cast).
McCaw said that the development of Burning Shores was a "response" to The Frozen Wilds. He said there are "advantages" to designing a DLC pack as a side story, but also "limitations." "It doesn't allow you to explore the [protagonist] the same way," he said.
"We had this opportunity to put a cap on Forbidden West, and we knew we could just say more and do more with Aloy's character. We decided to embrace that—to make this [Aloy's] next chapter."
Burning Shores is a "farewell" to making Forbidden West
In maybe too many ways, making Burning Shores was a "goodbye" for Guerrilla Games. In the saddest way, it's a farewell to actor Lance Reddick, who returned to the team to record a few scenes as Machiavellian schemer Sylens before he suddenly passed away this year.
Kitain said it was "bittersweet" to launch Burning Shores without Reddick there to celebrate with them, noting that it was "fortunate" to have his character bookending the plot of the DLC. His role in introducing and then closing the story gives players one last chance to connect with the widely-praised performer.
McCaw noted that the Guerrilla team has previously endured a major loss with the passing of Patrick Munnik. Munnik was honored with an in-game memorial in Forbidden West, but any tribute to Reddick will have to wait until the next major game in the Horizon franchise (which will also have to grapple with his absence from a narrative perspective, since Sylens' supporting role was a major driver in the series' plot).
"These moments are really difficult," he said, explaining that the studio tries to keep the friends and family of actors like Reddick in mind. He said he felt "very lucky" to work with him on one last performance. Both McCaw and Kitain expressed how much they miss him already.
Guerrilla never intended Burning Shores to be a farewell to one of the actors it worked with, but it was a swan song for the making of Forbidden West. Depending on the production, a studio may choose to immediately begin work on downloadable content once work finishes on the main game. According to McCaw and Kitain, there was a short gap after finishing Forbidden West before work began on Burning Shores.
When you design DLC with that strategy, it does mean the development team does have a period of reactivating development processes that were wound down with the finishing of a huge game (a process only made more complicated by COVID-19-driven remote work).
Some studios like Ubisoft, Bethesda, and BioWare will schedule time to develop multiple DLC products. But Geurilla's work was one and done—meaning this is the last time its team will use the tools and methodologies that went into Horizon Forbidden West.
"This was a great farewell to Forbidden West," for us, McCaw said, adding that it's a moment where the team gets to ask "what can we do better?" before moving on one last time. "The minute you start looking at the next thing, a lot of things have to change," McCaw said in reflection. "We're all grateful to get a big breath here, and then start the fun and constructive process of [asking] 'what can we do differently?'"
And if you're curious where the Horizon series is headed next, McCaw expressed excitement about how Burning Shores was able to fully take advantage of the PlayStation 5's hardware. Indeed, if you spend any time in Burning Shores, you may notice that the game's leaf and object textures have a ridiculous level of fidelity, along with those pesky clouds that reportedly couldn't work on the PS4.
It's likely that kind of PS5-first technology will be at the heart of the next major Horizon game—unless of course, it only comes around in time for the PlayStation 6.