After launching into Early Access in September 2014, Hinterland Studio's The Long Dark finally released properly at the start of August.
Not only has the game sold 1.3m copies to date, there's also a film version on the way, too. We catch up with creative director Raphael van Lierop about the project's success to date.
So, The Long Dark smashed 1.3m units by the time it launched out of Early Access. Congratulations – why do you think the title has attracted so many people?
The game has some unusual staying power – I think that comes down to interest in the survival genre as a whole, and then the fact that The Long Dark stands apart from most other games in the genre, due to gameplay approach, aesthetics, and having a narrative mode. We seem to attract a different kind of player, one who is looking for a more thoughtful, more mature experience
What was the thinking behind The Long Dark?
We set out to create an exploration-survival experience set in Canada that would emphasise the environment as the primary antagonist. We wanted to see if we could create an experience that didn’t depend on combat to be compelling. Furthermore, we wanted to see if we could create both a successful player-driven sandbox experience, and a more authored narrative experience using the same core mechanics, all to a high degree of quality with a small budget and team.
Why did you decide to launch The Long Dark into Early Access? What was your experience of this platform?
Early Access allowed us to test our assumptions with a live audience who would be engaged in the development process, and would help fund our ongoing development. We came to Early Access with the hope that our niche, artistic survival experience would find a small audience, and were surprised to discover that our approach to exploration-survival was relatively unique within the genre. Since bringing the game to Early Access in September of 2014, and then later to Xbox One Game Preview in June of 2015, our community has grown to nearly 1.4 million players. Building the game with this community’s support has been an incredible experience, and we’ve learned so much along the way.
There seems to be a changing of public perception around Early Access, with its reputation becoming increasingly tarnished over time. Was this ever a concern for you?
There’s always been a lot of skepticism about games in Early Access, even when we first launched back in 2014. Some of this skepticism is deserved, based on the previous performance of games and development teams who went astray before their games were completed. Throughout the development of The Long Dark, we’ve always been very mindful of the legacy of Early Access and the nature of the relationship with our players. Despite the platforms clearly stating that Early Access games should be purchased without any expectations in mind, clearly we want our players to be committed to our game and our work, and to support what we are doing long-term, even if they are only paying once.
So we’ve always approached this as a long-term relationship with our customers. While we haven’t been able to make all of them happy, we’ve definitely done our best to do so. I hope that the fact that we’ve now launched The Long Dark out of Early Access -- one of only a small handful of Early Access survival games to have done so -- that people might have a bit more confidence in the model in general. That said, we still have a lot of work in our future, and we don’t consider launching our 1.0 to be the end of the road. It’s really just the beginning of a new chapter in the relationship with our players.
How did The Long Dark film proposal come about?
Back in 2014, film producer Jeremy Bolt reached out to me to talk about The Long Dark, but purely as a fan of the game. We got to know each other better over the years since, and eventually when I felt ready to tackle the adaption of The Long Dark to new platforms, Jeremy was my first choice for a partner. There’s been a lot of interest in developing the game as a TV series or film over the years, and really Jeremy is the only person I’ve spoken with who really understands the game, gets what is special about it, and is committed to creating something that preserves the creative integrity of the experience. He knows that The Long Dark is not summer blockbuster material. We’re approaching it more as an art film with 'indie' sensibilities, as it should be.
There have been many attempts to do video game films, most of which have fallen flat. What lessons have you taken from other game films for The Long Dark?
One of the main pitfalls seems to be losing creative control. The studio may want to take the project in a more commercial direction and rarely are there people involved who really respect games as a medium. In our case, we’re going to make something much more modest, with Hinterland being a full partner in the production. So, we’ll have a level of creative influence over the film that most studios, I imagine, don’t end up having. Besides that, I think that often movie tie-ins fail to understand what is compelling about the games they are based on, or it’s just not possible to adapt gameplay elements well to a non-interactive linear medium. In our case, The Long Dark film can focus on the striving for survival in post-disaster world, so films like The Road and even The Revenant touch on elements of our gameplay and the tone of our setting in a way that would be recognisable to our fans but can also reach a new audience who has no experience with the game.
What’s your long term ambition for the Long Dark?
We have three more episodes to complete in our first season, Wintermute. Now that the first two episodes are out in the wild, I can see where we hit the mark, and also where we missed it. So this feedback will get incorporated directly into our work on Episode Three and beyond.
And then, if people are still compelled to experience more about the world we’ve created, I’d like to take our survival mechanics into new seasons -- get out of Winter and see how we can bring our player experience to other times of the year, other locations in our fictional setting. Long-term, I believe we can offer one of the most compelling, atmospheric exploration-survival games out there. But as a small studio we have to build it one brick at a time, and try to ensure our reach doesn’t “exceed our grasp”, as it may have in our launch content.
There are other projects we’d like to tackle within the fiction and world of The Long Dark, as well as new original IP, and hopefully we’ll be able to talk about those in the not too distant future.
Currently, though, we are focused on post-launch support, ensuring everyone can have the best experience possible, and then we’ll be hunkering down to chart out the future of the game and the studio. Launching a multi-platform game, worldwide, with a team of under 25 has been a huge undertaking, and our launch has been challenging, so now it’s time for the team to rest and reflect on our next steps.
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