The winter’s tale
How Microsoft wooed The Long Dark’s creators for Game Preview
The Long Dark is leading the charge for Microsoft’s Game Preview programme on Xbox One “We’re bringing a new genre of game to an audience that has never really experienced it”
The debut game from Hinterland was never likely to be conventional. While it’s no longer unusual to leave behind bigger-budget productions for indie gratification, the studio’s self-professed pioneers also quit Montreal, Canada’s second-largest city, for a small town at the foot of a mountain range on Vancouver Island. The Long Dark is a product of its environment in its beautiful Canadian wilderness as much as its tough spirit. It’s a game less about surviving and more about confronting the inevitability of death. Its rewards might seem meagre, but evidently it has tapped into something primal: our instinct to carry on in the face of overwhelming odds. With more than 425,000 sales to date, it’s already a hit, and it’s not even finished. The majority of those shifted copies are the game’s Early Access incarnation on Steam. But The Long Dark has also recently found a new home as one of the first games in Microsoft’s Game Preview programme on Xbox One. Microsoft approached Hinterland before Christmas last year, but creative director Raphael Van Lierop was highly resistant to the idea at first. “It was just because we’ve really benefited a lot from being small and agile, and Steam allows us to be incredibly independent and autonomous,” he explains. “We don’t have to depend on Steam or Valve for anything. They give us the tools and we do everything on our own, and we like that. I think that’s been part of the success we’ve had in Early Access – we can iterate and update our game very, very quickly. If there are bugs or issues, we can have fixes up within the hour.”
Why, then, would the team step outside of its comfort zone and into a relationship with Microsoft, or move its game onto a walled platform? That would, on the face of things, require Hinterland to sacrifice some of its agility. Van Lierop admits he was once of similar mind. “We’ve all worked [for] traditional publishers in the triple-A space, so we’re all kind of hardwired to expect large companies to be slow. So that was one of my huge concerns about the idea of working with Microsoft and having to plug into their processes and whatnot.”
But Microsoft was persistent. It returned to Hinterland to discuss an idea it had for a new initiative, which would become Game Preview. “At that point, it started to sound interesting to me,” Van Lierop tells us. “We really have benefited from that kind of opendevelopment Early Access model on Steam. And I think we’ve learned a lot about community and interaction and how to balance feedback with our own vision. [Everything] we’ve heard from our community is that we’ve done that well.”
It helped that Microsoft appealed to the company’s trailblazing spirit. This was, after all, the first time an Early Access-like initiative had been attempted on a console, and The Long Dark would be one of the first wave of games under the Game Preview banner. Suddenly, this was a more interesting prospect than simply porting the game. Equally as importantly, the developer saw a chance to bring The Long Dark to a new audience. The survival genre, which has flourished on Steam in the months and years since The Long Dark was conceived, has yet to truly cross over to consoles. “We’re bringing a new genre of game to an [audience] that has never really experienced it before. We’re the first survival game from that Early Access culture on consoles. It [represented] too many pioneering opportunities to pass up,” Van Lierop explains.
With Microsoft still tentatively gauging interest in Game Preview with developers earlier this year, Hinterland had banked on porting its game around summer or autumn. Then came the call: Microsoft was going to announce Game Preview at E3. Hinterland responded, telling Microsoft it wanted to be ready for LA. The platform holder doubted whether the studio would be able to port The Long
Dark in time; at this point, the show was just six weeks away. As it happened, Hinterland needed only five. “We did the whole transition from PC and Mac to Xbox One – through certification, full UI, everything – in 26 days.”
Since then, Hinterland has reaped the benefits of a different kind of unity from its chosen game engine. While the console and PC markets might ostensibly seem to have different wants and needs, the game’s design hasn’t changed in any meaningful way. “It turns out Xbox players aren’t looking for dramatically different things than [those] on PC,“Van Lierop says. Meanwhile, on its forums, the studio has fostered a friendly community of Steam players that has actively welcomed console players into the fold. In turn, the Xbox audience is apparently enjoying the rare opportunity to participate in the ongoing evolution of a game during its development. There’s a modicum of irony here, of course: how strange that a game about facing mortality should prove to be, as Van Lierop puts it, “such a positive experience for everyone”.
Hinterland’s Raphael Van Lierop says that while Microsoft’s infrastructure didn’t initially seem to be a good fit for Early Access games, “there are people there who are very dedicated to changing that”