Community Update: Story Mode Progress

04.04.16

Dear Community,

Spring is here and many of you are wondering, “where is Story mode?”. We get this question every day! Multiple times a day. We love your excitement for Story Mode. We’re excited about it too. But we seem to have hit some place where anticipation for Story Mode — anticipation we are tremendously grateful for! — has eclipsed our ability to talk about anything else we’re doing.

So rather than continue to ask for your patience as we work to make something great, I’m going to take some time to explain something about our work on Story Mode, which will hopefully answer some questions/comments you have for us.

Let’s take a step back to the beginning of this project. Sit down and get comfortable, because this is going to take a while.

WARNING: There be spoilers.

In June of 2012 I started Hinterland with the intention of creating an exploration-focused survival experience set in the Canadian wilderness in the aftermath of some kind of disaster. I don’t think I knew what the disaster was yet, I just knew that it wasn’t going to have anything to do with zombies. I wanted to avoid the B-movie cliches and try to explore a more “literary” approach to this subject matter — inspired by books like The Earth Abides, The Dog Stars, and of course, The Road — basically, literary genre fiction that addresses the question of how humanity survives in the face of drastic disasters on an epic scale.

Back then I raised some money to hire a very small team and make an iPad prototype of this game idea, so that’s what I did and that’s what we made. We soon realized that the iPad was much too limiting, and that it would force us to compromise on our vision for the scale of our world and the player’s sense of immersion in it, so we abandoned that in favour of a PC game. But after putting several months of work into a prototype, we felt unsure how to gauge the level of interest in our “art-house indie survival game set in Canada”. We realized that we needed to start getting some external feedback on our ideas.

So in September of 2013, we turned to Kickstarter. We saw it as an early proving ground, to see if we might have something unique enough to pique people’s interests, as well as a way to start our community. Keep in mind, there wasn’t really an established survival “genre” at that point — DayZ was still in its early infancy, and games like Rust and The Forest didn’t even exist. So, we had no reason to feel certain about how appealing our concept would be, particularly because we were railing against the “accessibility” of large-scale triple-A games (which most of us had been making for years) by creating something we felt was very non-mainstream and really had no right to be popular or successful.

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Our early in-game UI, ca. mid-2013

After our Kickstarter succeeded, we felt that we might have something people cared about. We continued working on the game, building the first part of our world and experimenting with some of the first mechanics in the game, which persist to this day — our “Condition” system where the player has to monitor various aspects of health in order to remain strong, our wildlife spawn system, our gear decay system, our dynamic weather and time of day, etc. In June of 2014, about 8 months after our Kickstarter wrapped, we had the first iteration on Mystery Lake and a set of core mechanics we felt pretty excited about. We were ready for our first playtests!

We released a playtest build to our first backers — we started with a set of about 10 who had been our “superbackers”, people who had pledged $1500 to our Kickstarter. We got some great feedback, and started relationships with what would become our core “Scouts” playtesting group, many of which remain active playtesters today! We then started rolling the build out to the next wave of backers, and the next. As game creators who had worked solely in the traditional “closed” development model, where we’d work on a game for 2-3 years and then launch it when it was finished, hoping that our hard work, and the efforts of the marketing department, would ensure success — we were just thrilled by this new development methodology! This new world of open development, where we could share our work-in-progress and get immediate feedback to help us improve the experience — this was an intoxicating realization for us. Looking back now, after 80 updates to The Long Dark, and hundreds of games on Early Access, we all now take this for granted. But for us, sharing our first playtest build was a revelation. We felt like we were stepping out from behind closed doors and seeing the light of day for the first time. We were immediately hungry for more feedback!

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Another shot of early in-game UI, ca. mid-2013

But, we realized we had two problems. First, our playtest sample was too small. Even if we gave the build to all our backers (which we were reluctant to do at the time, because at that point we were still very indoctrinated in our triple-A mindset of holding back the game until it was finished), we wouldn’t get enough data to really tune the mechanics, which were already getting quite complex for a small team to build and test. So, we needed a larger test pool! At that point we were learning about Early Access and thought it might be part of the answer. But now we had a second problem. Our game was supposed to be a narrative experience, and nobody would want to play a story-driven game before it was done. We wanted to make sure that the first time people experienced our story, it would have its full impact. How could we get useful playtesting feedback on mechanics, without ruining the player’s first experience of the story?

Simple. Separate the mechanics from the story. Right? But that hadn’t ever been done before.

And so the notion of Sandbox was born.

We created a Sandbox that had no narrative other than what was implied by the world. We intentionally left a lot of things more generic than we ultimately intended for them to be at launch, to avoid spoiling anything about our world. We brought Mystery Lake to Early Access, launched it, and held our breath.

And you liked it. You really liked it. We had 95% positive user reviews (and still do! — thank you for that). After our first Steam Winter sale, three months after we launched the game, we’d sold over 250,000 copies. We were elated! We rushed to continue building on this momentum. We added more mechanics, more regions, more items, more “stuff”. We built out the Sandbox with a depth and variety of mechanics and content that we could previously only have dreamed of. We continued refining our world, refining mechanics, refining interface — basically sweeping through every bit of the game and removing all the little points of friction we could find.

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The Long Dark enjoys overwhelmingly positive user reviews on Steam.

And Sandbox took on a life of its own. What started as a test-bed for mechanics became its own experience that stood independent of the Story. What started as a small budget and modest ambitions became something much, much bigger than we could ever have dreamed.

The thing that excited me most was what this would mean for our story. The modest story of grounded Canadian bush pilot Will Mackenzie was too small for our ambitions. I wanted a bigger world, more locations, more characters. I’d always wanted to tell a grand story about “The Long Dark”…the days, months, and years in the aftermath of a grand-scale disaster that would bring humanity to its knees. I worked on the story with my writing partner, Marianne Krawczyk, and we reworked it. And reworked it. The themes haven’t changed and many of the moving parts are the same as in our very earliest conversations, but the world has evolved and the fiction has become stronger and the vision more clear.

What are some of the decisions I’ve made that have expanded scope and increased development time and cost?

First off, the amount of story we’d launch with. The original plan was to launch a 2-hour episode and then continue to expand on it. But you can’t launch a 2-hour game in this competitive, Steam-refund, Youtube-orientated marketplace. So, instead, we’ll be launching Story Mode with the first 2 episodes of our 5-episode Season One, amounting to between 4-6 hours of Story gameplay.

The original plan was to play the story of Will Mackenzie. Instead, you’ll be playing the story from two points of view — Mackenzie’s, and Dr. Astrid Greenwood. Why add another playable character? Two reasons. The first reason is that it’ll let us tell a better story, the story we really want to tell. The second reason is because it’s 2016 and I have a daughter and she should be able to grow up in a world where she has strong female characters to play and look up to. (I also have a son, and he should also have the choice to play a strong female character if he likes. And not in a Mass Effect kind of “be male or female Shepherd” kind of way, but in the kind of way where you play two distinct characters, and experience two distinct points of view.)

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The original plan was to have all character interactions and story moments happening in 2D motion-graphics cinematics, divorced from the game world. Instead, we’re delivering all our narrative moments in the world, in first person, with full 3D characters, with motion-captured animation and and facial expressions and all the things that help bring characters to life.

Initially, the story would take place in the same world as our Sandbox gameplay. But as our Sandbox audience grew we felt it would make the game feel “cheap” if they were simply experiencing story in the environments they’d already been playing in for, in some cases, 100s of hours. Instead, the majority of Episodes One and Two take place in brand new regions that will launch for the first time with Story Mode, so nobody will have seen them before.

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Great Bear Island, the setting of The Long Dark. Grey areas are the current Sandbox. Episode One takes place in the green areas. Episode Two takes place in the pink areas. Over half of Ep 1 and Ep 2 takes place in entirely new areas of the game world.

Besides all that, we’ve added mechanics to the game that are unique to Story mode, things you won’t even see in Sandbox until we launch the game “for real”. Without giving away too many spoilers, these mechanics relate to how you choose to survive in a world with other survivors in it, how do you navigate this world and the knowledge you’ve gained in it, and how is the presence of the Aurora changing the world around you?

And somewhere in there we also shipped the game on Xbox One and helped Microsoft launch their own “early access” program at E3 2015 last June.

So, these have been some big years for us.

And keep in mind that you are getting all these new features and all this new content for the money you’ve already given us. When we launch Story Mode, you will get Episode One and Episode Two, as well as Sandbox, for the price of Early Access. And you will also get all the other episodes in Season One, when they launch. So we think that this is pretty great value, if things like play time and content scope matter to you.

I sometimes reflect on those early months of the project, and what we had, or what we thought we had, and then I look at where we’re at today, and I look around me at the 20 full-time team members who make their living pouring their passion into this game, and I look at the over 750,000 people who have bought the game on Steam or Xbox One, and I look at the opportunity we have for the future of this game and the studio, and I look at all the times we’ve been approached by studios who want to make a movie or TV show or a novel or anything creative really out of this fictional world we’re building, and I look at a list of recent highly-anticipated “indie” games that have launched to less than expected fanfare or commercial success, and my old “triple-A” stripes show themselves again and I think to myself: Don’t ship it until it’s done. Hold on to it until it’s ready. You have too much riding on this. You only get to launch this once. This is your future. People are counting on you.

I’m not sure if any of this information makes any difference to you. I just think it’s important to get a better idea of the reasons why things are where they are. When we launched our Kickstarter and then Early Access we said we’d ship Story Mode in early 2014. Then we said we’d ship it by the end of 2015. Then it became Spring of 2016. And each time, you’ve given us the benefit of the doubt and accepted the delays. And now, Spring 2016 is here, and you are waiting for Story Mode. Where is it? It’s been promised to you. You paid your money. Where is your Story Mode?

But it’s not ready. And I won’t ship it until it’s ready. So, I’m sorry but you will just have to wait.

And I believe, with all my heart I believe, once you get it, you will agree that the wait was worth it.

And you won’t get another promise from me about when it will ship, until we are close enough to being done with it that I can say with 100% certainty, and give you a definitive date that I know isn’t going to end up with us pushing out an experience we aren’t 100% satisfied with.

But we also know that it’s no longer fair for us to continue asking you to believe that without us sharing more about our progress. So, moving forward, we’re going to be doing a few things to keep you more in the loop, including:

  • Regular progress updates on Story Mode. Some of these will be “spoilery” but we’ll do our best to warn you so you can opt out if you want.
  • We’ll be returning to a regular Sandbox update cycle. Although we thought we could “go dark” with Sandbox while pushing to finish Story Mode, we also know that the longer we go without updating the Sandbox, the more momentum and community good-will we lose. This also means we lose valuable playtesting feedback. A healthy Sandbox is key to our ongoing success, so we’ll be reviving that, with a new update launching within the next couple of weeks.
  • We’ll be launching a public Experimental Branch for all our current players, giving you the opportunity to check out and provide feedback on “work in progress” features that will eventually end up in Sandbox. This is partly needed because you guys like the game as it is and it’s become hard to experiment with things without alienating some element of our community. An Experimental Branch will let us push out more regular incremental updates and gather data that helps us refine or abandon mechanics we don’t think are working.
  • Feature Roadmap. We’ll also publish a work-in-progress feature and content roadmap covering our Story Mode launch and beyond, so you can see more about our current plans and ambitions for Story and Sandbox in The Long Dark. You can see the start of it here: http://hinterlandgames.com/the-long-dark/roadmap/

We’ve also put together a video so you can see a bit more of the content we’re adding to the game for our Story Mode launch, including overhauling our entire environment to have more density and support environmental storytelling so you get a true sense of the world and what has happened before you showed up, a variety of visual improvements, the Majestic Aurora, and one of our Story Mode NPCs.

Phew. So that was a lot of information, and I’m sorry about being so long-winded, but there was a lot to talk about and I hope that after all this, you feel like you have a better understanding of what we’re working on and you’re waiting for.

Thanks for your continued support. Without it, we wouldn’t have made it this far. All we want is to make something that is great, something we can be proud of for the rest of our lives, and the only way we know how to do that is to go all out. We aren’t saving anything for the swim back to shore.

We are going all the way. Come with us.

With respect,

Raph

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