The win­ter’s tale

How Mi­crosoft wooed The Long Dark’s cre­ators for Game Preview

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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”

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