Story Mode Progress: August Update
The team’s been working hard on a ton of Story Mode features and content and here’s an update on some of what we’ve been up to since the last Story Mode update. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to really talk about Story Mode without hinting at spoilers, so consider this a warning that there are light story mode spoilers below:
### THERE ARE LIGHT STORY MODE SPOILERS BELOW ###
We’ve added two new regions for Episode One. One is nearly finished, and the other is being updated based on some story and mission changes, and will then be getting an art beautification pass. There are several new structures across both the new regions. Part of the new world we’ve added in Episode One is meant to help set the tone for what the world was like before “the event”. We also feel it’s important that Story Mode freshens up the existing Sandbox world for you, so in addition to adding new regions, we’re also updating the rest of the existing world.
Many of the exterior updates — like more detailed rocks, better grass, trees, etc. — will be gradually released in Sandbox updates. Most of the interiors — places like the Carter Dam, the Camp Office, Pleasant Valley Farm, etc. — have been updated with much more detailed interiors. Those interiors will be released when we launch Story Mode, so even the fans who are a lot more focused on Sandbox will be get something new to enjoy.
Episode One Playtesting
Episode One is fully playable from start to finish and we’re now doing in-house playtesting to work on pacing, flow, and polish. It’s been really interesting to see how the core survival gameplay we’ve proven in Sandbox works within a structure of open-world narrative-driven exploration. We’ve had to do a lot of tuning of various elements to find the right balance between survival and exploration. In general though, it feels really great to explore the game world while motivated by clear narrative goals — it makes for a nice contrast to the more open-ended Sandbox gameplay you’ve become used to.
One thing that’s emerged from our playtesting is that our current Episode One is much bigger than we expected. Most of our in-house playtests have it at about 5-6 hours of playtime, which is roughly twice as long as we had originally planned each episode being. This play length is determined by what narrative beats we’re hitting with Episode One, and how we’re pacing those out with our world size and gameplay “heartbeat”. We’re trying to figure out how this impacts our plans for Season One content.
We’ve also been working on all the Episode One narrative sequences. Some of these are 2D motion-graphics cinematics, in the same style as the Story Mode teaser we released last December. Some of these are interactive sequences with full 3D characters in the world. These 3D character sequences are a huge amount of work for us because they require building all the character assets, animating those characters to dialogue, building sets for them, etc. These are the kinds of sequences that aren’t normally built by small independent developers, as they are very time consuming and resource intensive. We’ve probably been quite over-ambitious in delivering these but we feel strongly about the importance of seeing these important story characters living and breathing in the game world as opposed to being limited to non-interactive cinematics.
We’ve recreated all the clothing assets in the game, to better match our updated character designs. We’ve also added several new clothing items. These items will replace all the equippable clothing gear items in the game, and also be the same clothing worn by characters you meet in the world. We’re also doing some work to improve the Clothing system, by adding some new gameplay features, and a better interface. Our goal is to be able to represent the clothing your character is wearing on a kind of “paper doll” interface, so you get a stronger sense of character “customization” that way. We’d like to support this with additional character customization features (for Sandbox) in the future, as suggested in our Sandbox Roadmap, but a lot of that work is aspirational at the moment. For now, we’re really happy to be able to update the clothing assets, to help the whole world feel more coherent. It’s probable that these updated clothing assets will end up being released in a Sandbox update, rather than us waiting for Story Mode to release them.
The team’s been hard at work on improving the sense of first-person presence in the game. These updates aren’t technically related to Story Mode as we’ve decided to release them incrementally as part of Sandbox updates, but this is a pretty huge area of work for us as it’s meant creating a whole new animation system. Adding hands and a stronger first-person presence to the game is a huge undertaking and something we held off on for a long time out of fear of the scope of work, as The Long Dark has a large number of potential interactions compared to a lot of other games, but in the end I believe that including them strengthens the sense of your physical vulnerability in the game world and will create a more immediate feeling of connectedness to the environment, which in turn feeds into the range of emotions the game can inspire.
We haven’t said much about the Aurora since we’re trying not to spoil it — but here are a few images to give you an idea of some of the things you might see in the game because of it.
We know that while a lot of you are anxious about Story Mode news, many of you are actually a lot more interested in Sandbox progress. We’re doing our best to balance the need to get Story Mode launched, with your desire for regular Sandbox updates. Currently, about ⅔ of the team is focused on Story Mode-specific content — so, mission scripting, environment art, characters, animation, audio, etc. — and the other ⅓ is working on Sandbox updates. Because most of our content team is focused on Story Mode, our more recent Sandbox updates have been be focused on gameplay mechanics and UI. This will likely continue to be the case until we launch Story Mode. We know that a lot of you would like us to expand Sandbox with more regions — but unfortunately every region we build for Sandbox is one we can’t build for Story, and we don’t want to release the new Story Mode regions until we launch it, so they are new when you play them!
We understand that for the people who are really waiting on Story mode, that our time spent on Sandbox updates isn’t really meaningful to you, and vice versa for the people who care more about Sandbox. We’ve been slowly adding people to the team to try to increase our development bandwidth, but hiring is a painstaking process for a small studio, as everyone you add to the team has a much greater impact to the project and the overall team dynamic. And, we’re pretty picky about who we add to the team. We’re trying to be wise about how we do this so that we don’t break things that are working well for us, and when it comes to hiring, wise usually equals slow.
We’ve announced launch dates in the past, in the hope that providing these dates would give you something concrete to look forward to. Unfortunately, all they did was create disappointment when we decided to delay beyond these dates. Last time we talked about dates I said I wouldn’t provide a new date until I was 100% sure we would hit it. To that end, I’m not going to say anything further about when we’ll ship Story Mode, except to re-iterate that the team is working very hard on it, our goal is to launch content that lives up to your expectations and lets us capitalize on the full potential of our work, and most of all, to create something that will redefine the “survival” genre as the first strongly narrative-driven exploration-survival experience. And as Hinterland’s first title, and as part of an ongoing episodic/Seasonal release plan, it’s critical that we get our launch of The Long Dark right, as it sets the bar for our studio’s future. Not only will it help determine whether we can achieve our full ambitions for The Long Dark in the future — it will also help determine what other experiences we may (or may not) be able to make in the future.
As always, we appreciate your support. We do not take it for granted.