Story Mode Progress — December Community Update
It’s time to talk about Story Mode again. Since this is the last community update I’ll be posting in 2016, this is also a good time to reflect on the last year of development on The Long Dark. The two stories are connected.
2016 has been a challenging year for me, and for Hinterland. We opened the year with the plan of launching Story Mode this past Spring, but I just didn’t feel good about where things were at, given the compromises I felt we were making to do that. I wanted to push further, do more, with the game, knowing that after all this time of you waiting for Story Mode, it would have to be something truly groundbreaking to really live up to your expectations. And to live up to our expectations.
It’s been a constant balancing act between keeping our Sandbox players engaged and happy with updates, and also having the majority of the team working away on Story mode. Since it’s difficult to share Story progress without spoiling it, people sometimes feel as though we’re not working on it, which is frustrating for them, and for us. We deal with this by trying to stay focused on our launch and remember Miyamoto’s adage: “A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad.” We appreciate all of you who continue to support us patiently.
A sample of the 2D style we’re using for cinematic moments.
One of the areas we’ve tackled this year is character realization. Prior to our Spring delay, our plan was to present all our characters in 2D motion-graphics sequences. We’re still using that presentation style for specific parts of our narrative, but I really wanted to push more of the storytelling directly into the gameplay space and I wasn’t happy with the idea that all our storytelling and character interaction would happen through 2D cinematic scenes. Despite the fact that our cinematic style is beautiful, I felt that we were somehow selling ourselves — and the game…and our community — short, by not trying to get more of this interaction into the gameplay space itself. This has been an aspiration of mine ever since I started working in games — inspired by Half Life and Half Life 2, and their progeny — an aspiration that has remained unfulfilled in all the games I’ve shipped to date. I guess I’m stubborn that way.
I don’t know that we’ll get to Half Life quality interactive narrative in the first iteration, but getting more of our characters living and breathing in the world is still our target, and we’ve spent a lot of this year working on achieving that goal. But taking on 3D characters ended up being a much bigger undertaking than we expected. The whole 3D character pipeline was entirely new for this team, game, and engine — we hadn’t made any of these characters, really, apart from a test (which you saw in our April Story Mode update — the man near the fire; his name is Methuselah and we’ll have more to say about him in the future) and wildlife, which have very different requirements. It took us several months to work through the kinks in our content pipeline, get the tech working well, and in the end the initial results were not satisfactory.
We’re continuing to iterate on what we have, and still struggling a bit with the tech and the content, but we’re getting closer. In the end, we’ll present our storytelling content through a combination of 2D motion-graphics scenes, and some in-game 3D moments, choosing the presentation style that best supports the creative goals of each particular moment. It’ll just have taken much longer than expected, to get there. On the good side, the possibility of having limited 3D character content in the world does open up some useful creative doors to other systems that would be hard to pull off without 3D NPCs, including better ways to reflect how your survival decisions as a player may affect other people you encounter, which is one of the key ways we want Story Mode to build on what Sandbox already offers. In Sandbox, you focus exclusively on how your choices affect your own survival — a very ego-centric experience. In Story, we want you to think beyond yourself, and consider how your choices affect others.
In Story Mode, you’ll finally get to see how the Aurora affects the world around you, introducing new hazards…and new possibilities.
With the Sandbox update we just released — Resolute Outfitter — we’ve added the last major core gameplay system that remains before we launch Story Mode. We have two or three additional major systems we’re working on that we’ll be launching *with* Story Mode — and these are pretty significant in how they change the way the game feels — it’s likely that both these systems will also find their way into Sandbox, but we’re still working out those details.
That’s been a theme this year — the gameplay relationship between Sandbox and Story mode. My original premise for The Long Dark was that Sandbox would be the proving ground for systems, and Story would add the narrative layer. In general, this is how most open-world games function. That said, most open world games build their narrative layer in conjunction with their systems layer and due to our splitting the two “modes” apart, largely for the purposes of keeping spoilers out of Sandbox mode — the Sandbox game has, to some degree, evolved to take on its own life as its own experience. It needs its own things to be successful — it has its own “heartbeat”, as it were. And a hungry community needs to be fed! Thus, Sandbox continues to grow, in some ways, beyond the gameplay needs of Story mode…
That’s not to say that Story Mode isn’t built on a foundation of Sandbox mechanics, but I think I over-estimated the extent to which Story Mode could be layered on top of Sandbox, without changes to systems or tuning. Some systems that work really well in Sandbox actually work against the player goals in Story, and vice versa. So, this year we’ve been working through that process — pulling Sandbox mechanics into the Story game and refining them, streamlining them, tuning them differently, to support the more narrative-driven experience you get in Story. And likewise, there are some mechanics that are built for Story mode and will exist there first and most “purely”, and could get adapted for Sandbox afterwards.
In Story Mode, we’re introducing new regions designed to help present the backdrop of The Long Dark’s quiet apocalypse.
With the pressures of wanting to make significant progress on Story Mode without abandoning our players who mostly care about Sandbox, I grew the team to about 25 developers this year, with — at various points — most of them working on Story Mode content and systems, and either small “maintenance” teams working on Sandbox updates, or — depending on the complexity of the update — occasionally pulling a large portion of the team into helping finalize or test Sandbox mechanics (as we just did for our latest update). I’d say this has been the biggest challenge for our team, and for myself personally. I’ve led large game teams before — up to 150 developers — but in trying to stay lean on management overhead and also having a lot of the team being distributed (i.e. not everyone works in the same physical studio space), at some point we hit a size where things just became a lot more complex to manage and to move forward. We’re working through it and have taken steps to improve certain aspects — including opening up a second physical studio space to house about ⅓ of our development team who were all living in the same city but working apart — but to some degree these are challenges you solve while on the run, laying track while the train is running, and it’d be dishonest to pretend they don’t have an impact on development progress.
So that’s a lot of words but what you want to know is — where do things stand with Story Mode? Well as always, in the interest of withholding spoilers, I’ll keep things high level. We have about 6 hours of playable Story Mode gameplay, currently split into two episodes, and these are the episodes we will launch with. The first part serves as a prologue and sets the tone of the story and explains something about the world you find yourself in. The second part continues the story of Will Mackenzie, and what he encounters and learns about the quiet apocalypse of The Long Dark. Astrid’s story, unfortunately, will not be playable at launch, but her Episode will come soon after. We are still planning to release five episodes in Season One, all of which our Early Access/Kickstarter/Game Preview players will get automatically as they are unlocked, for the price they have already paid. We have some cinematic content, we have some in-game character moments, all the voice recording for Mackenzie and Astrid is done, as it is for most of the supporting characters (but not all). We’ve created two whole regions that are new to Story Mode (not counting the new Sandbox region we’ve just released, Forlorn Muskeg), one of them is finished and being polished, and the other is getting a bit of an overhaul for story reasons, but it’s close to being complete, and is pretty unique for our game. We’re about to start scoring the game — Cris Velasco, who I was fortunate enough to work with on Space Marine, will be composing the score for Story mode, to complement the beautiful work done by Sascha Dikiciyan in the Sandbox score. We’ll be starting that after the holidays. I have some more design work to complete on the remaining systems I mentioned earlier, and then we can finish those as well.
Unfortunately, this guy didn’t quite make it in for 2016. As you can tell, he’s not very happy about it.
As I’ve said before, I won’t provide dates until they are close enough that we are 100% guaranteed to hit them, but I feel really good about where Story mode is at the end of 2016, and we’ll have lots of exciting stuff to share — including new announcements — some time after the holidays.
As with the last community update, I’ve teased a few of the things we’ve been working on for our Story Mode launch throughout this post. Enjoy, and thanks for reading. In the meantime, please make sure you check out our latest update, Resolute Outfitter https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHK7nfv9dRM , which introduces a whole new Region, as well as an extensive overhaul of the Clothing system, a Frostbite affliction, and tons of other fixes and gameplay modifications.
On behalf of the entire team at Hinterland, I wish you and your loved ones a great holiday season. 2017 is going to be a huge year for Hinterland, and The Long Dark. We’re glad that you’re here with us.