The release of Episode Three of The Long Dark is in December 2018. So we used the time to get an interview with Raphael van Lierop. In here we spoke about the ongoing development, plans and roadmap for 2019. However, we also asked him about their long-term view: What will happen after the five episodes? What about a new game? and what did we hear about a Hinterland zombie survival game?
Our interview partner:
He studied at Bishop’s University, Sherbrooke, Canada (B.A. English Literature) and has been working in the gaming industry for a long time, e.g. for Relic Entertainment (Warhammer 40,000) and Ubisoft Montreal (Far Cry 3).
Raphael and his family live at Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.
We had the interview via e-mail.
Björn: Episodes four and five are announced for 2019. Do you plan to publish them together as a package, like Episodes One and Two?
Raphael: The current plan is to release Episodes Four and Five independently of each other. We get better at creating new experiences and presenting content with each episode we build, and we like to be able to apply those key learnings at each step along the way. The episodic release model allows us to do this, and also means that each episode benefits from all the general improvements that have been made to the game since the previous episode was released. It does slow things down a bit but in general, the game constantly improves which means the player’s value for time and money is always increasing as well.
The current plan is to release Episodes Four and Five independently of each other.
Björn: What can you tell about the game mechanic which support the story? Is there a final decision on how it will work?
Raphael: We’ve updated our dialogue mode interface, removed the Trust system — which added complexity and contributed to the general “fetch quest” feeling some players felt about the first releases of Episodes One and Two — and have updated our narrative presentation so that it all occurs in first-person. All dialogue will also be fully voiced now.
Björn: And this new system starts with Episode Three?
Raphael: These changes are retroactive to Episodes One and Two, which have also been entirely rewritten and re-recorded (although the high-level story arcs remain largely the same).
Björn: What kind of game mechanic upgrades are being planned? Maybe some new animals or new items, like the announced bear spear?
Raphael: In the Redux version of Episode Two, we’ve added a new bear hunt gameplay, which now takes advantage of the Bear Spear. This gameplay will eventually find its way into Survival Mode as well. For Episode Three, we’ve added some new gameplay mechanics as well, but we don’t want to spoil them by sharing them too early. We’ll be talking more about those additions in the weeks before release.
Björn: Will there be time for another update before Episode 3 in December?
Raphael: We’ll do a quick update to enable our annual Four Days of Night Halloween event but besides that, we won’t have time to produce a substantial Survival Mode update before we release the Redux versions of Episodes One and Two, and Episode Three, in December.
Björn: Can you tell me anything about the roadmap and the goals from now to the end of 2019?
Raphael: Our goal in 2019 is to complete the five-episode Season One of The Long Dark. We’d also like to release more Survival Mode updates, and more features to support community growth and creativity.
We’d also like to release more Survival Mode updates
Björn: Creativity of the community is a good keyword. How about Mod support for The Long Dark?
Raphael: Providing Mod support in The Long Dark is still a goal. We’ll have more to share about that in the new year.
Björn: Is there a chance for a more simple challenge editor that works in-game, like the custom setting codes players can share with each other? Wouldn’t it be great if players could create challenges for each other?
Raphael: Our goal with Mod tools and documentation will be to support as many types of user-created content as we can. We see user-created Challenge modes as a good way to extend the game and for players to bring their own creativity to the world of The Long Dark, but it’s too early to say how feasible that is. We’ll have more specifics to share on our efforts to support modding The Long Dark in the new year.
Björn: Do you already have ideas for paid DLCs for The Long Dark after 2019?
Raphael: I have a lot of ideas for how we could expand The Long Dark with paid DLC. But, we don’t feel that the community would be excited to pay for DLC before the core game is completed, so we probably won’t put any effort towards paid DLC until Episodes Four and Five are finished.
That said, I think there are many possible ways to expand the game and world of The Long Dark in the future, with paid DLC, including new stand-alone Story episodes, new regions, new challenge “packs”, new clothing, and gear items, etc.
There are many possibilities for DLCs […] new stand-alone Story episodes, new regions, new Challenge “packs”, new clothing and gear items, etc.
Björn: You recently wrote on Twitter that you would “almost” like to do a zombie survival game. It was a joke, but what game settings can we expect from Hinterland Studio in 2020?
Raphael: Yes, I was joking. I was mostly focused on the idea that so many zombie games today feel similar, and it would be an interesting creative challenge to come up with something really unique in that genre.
I almost, ALMOST, want to do a zombie game just to show the world there's still some sliver of creativity to mine there.
Almost, but not really.
— Raphael van Lierop (He/Him) (@RaphLife) September 3, 2018
But I’d prefer we put our energies into creating original gameplay experiences and fresh new settings. It’s too early to talk about our next projects now, but you can expect that whatever we make will share spiritual similarities with The Long Dark. That’s not to say our next game will be a survival game, but it will have thoughtful gameplay, a beautiful setting, and hopefully serve as an interesting canvas for both player stories and some of our own authored experiences.
Björn: Back to the community: What was the most important thing you figured out during developing The Long Dark by listening to your community?
Raphael: Probably the most important thing we’ve learned from listening to our community is that — there’s no such thing as one “community”. We’ve sold over 2.5 million copies of The Long Dark to date, so this notion that there’s a single community that wants the same thing is really flawed. The Long Dark community might form one “city”, but each city has neighborhoods that might play the game very differently, or like very different things about it, and want very different things for it.
I think this realization has helped us to understand that while it’s very important to hear your community and to take their tastes into account, ultimately it’s our job to create compelling experiences based on our own internal vision for what we want The Long Dark to be. That’s why people buy our game.
ultimately it’s our job to create compelling experiences
We won’t make everyone happy that way, but it’s impossible to make everyone happy. The best we can hope for is that all our players trust and accept the way we’re evolving the game and that they see we are being fair and consistent in how we approach it. Hopefully, that earns us some space to continue updating, and enough trust that players forgive us when we make mistakes along the way! In the end, we love the game more than anyone, and we want it to be the best experience it can be for our players.
[comment Björn: There is a lot of creativity in the community. Hinterland now published some survival diaries with voices of professional speakers; Fan Fiction in The Long Dark world]
Björn: What was the most annoying request or feedback from the community?
Raphael: Community requests are a fascinating way to understand how different players see our game. So, none of them are annoying. They’re just a tool we can use to better understand how our community is changing over time, and are a window into what players may feel is currently lacking in the game or how they might like to see it evolve.
We’ve always made it very clear that our roadmap is determined by our internal vision for The Long Dark and that it’s informed — but not driven — by community input. So, while some players might feel frustrated that they continue asking for things we don’t put into the game, most of them understand that we’re working from our own internal lists and accept that. And in the end, I think this is part of why The Long Dark feels “pure” and cohesive, as opposed to a hodgepodge mess of ideas from hundreds of different people.
Björn: One question about you: How many people are working at Hinterland Studio right now? And what exactly are they working on?
Raphael: We have about 30 full-time people working at Hinterland at the moment, with a couple of contractors. Apart from a few that hold more studio “support” roles, the majority of our team is actively developing The Long Dark. The contractors are focused on the Nintendo Switch port, as we didn’t want to derail our Episode Three and Redux efforts by diverting internal people to that project.