The Long Dark by Hinterland Games
Published: October 1. 2014
Canadian developer Hinterland Games crafts its vision of first-person survival in The Long Dark
The Long Dark is a first-person survival simulation of a relatively rare breed. It emphasizes exploration over outright combat in a stark, post-disaster setting, and takes a more restrained approached than other titles like it. Players take on the role of William Mackenzie, a bush pilot who crashed his plane in the middle of nowhere; wolves quickly begin to circle his wounded body, and mastering basic survival skills becomes essential to progress.
“We wanted to create an experience that encouraged exploration and with deep survival simulation gameplay, but without any of the conventions of the zombie genre,” recalls Raphael van Lierop, creative director on The Long Dark at Hinterland Games. “[The game] is our view into the ‘quiet apocalypse’—what happens to civilization when we lose access to all our technology? How does that affect the way we interact with each other, and how far will we go to survive?”
Rather than languishing in an office park, the studio and by extension the game are inspired by the fact that Hinterland is headquartered on the edge of the Northern Vancouver Island wilderness. “We can walk five minutes and experience true wilderness,” he says. “That gives you a different appreciation for how thin the line is between a ‘state of nature’ and civilization.”
To bring The Long Dark vision to life, Hinterland brought together a team of experienced industry veterans, rather than simply wrangling recent graduates with nothing to lose. “Most of us are at that point in our careers where we want to create something meaningful without compromising on things like family time or quality of life,” says van Lierop. “We built the studio around the belief that it's possible to create amazing entertainment without making these compromises, and as a result the majority of the team are distributed across multiple locations. I didn't want to move my family around for work anymore, and I wasn't going to ask other people to move theirs.” He says the team thinks of itself as a "post-geographical" studio; while they regularly get together in meatspace to build rapport, the majority of the work is done in a distributed environment. “We rely on various tools, a willingness to communicate and basic professionalism to ensure this is a viable way to create world-class games.”
One of the tools employed to get this rather ambitious job done was, of course, Unity. “We chose Unity early on because of its robust tools and feature-set, its cross-platform nature, and reasonable licensing costs,” says van Lierop of the decision. “It's been an incredible fit for the game—we've been able to get features and content up and running really quickly, which has been a huge advantage in our prototyping and general development of the game.” To an extent, the software has helped the team hone in on exactly what kind of game it’s making. “With it being so easy to get gameplay up and running and the workflow being very friendly to iteration, it's helped us to refine our ideas and make important decisions around what we can experience in the game versus what we might believe or read about in a document,” he explains. “It's one thing to describe something, and an entirely different thing to experience it. Rapid iteration is key, and it's great to have tools and tech that don't get in the way of that.
“It was surprisingly easy to get things up and running in Unity,” says technical director Alan Lawrance. “The ease of use of the editor and asset importing was a huge help, and the Unity Asset Store was key for bootstrapping our prototyping efforts, both for code and assets.” After the team did its due diligence on Unity and selected it for the project, it had a first-person camera and controls integrated on the first day; he also points to the documentation and community forums for Unity as a huge help in getting up to speed and overcoming early roadblocks. Lawrance explains that the team is using the Unity terrain tools for its expansive outdoor spaces, and has been pleased with its power and flexibility, as well as the performance of large terrains in game. On the audio side, Hinterland is using Audiokinetic's WWise software, to create reactive audio landscapes, while NGUI has been employed to handle the game’s UI.
“The Unity Asset Store has been a great resource for us, and has allowed us to significantly speed up the prototyping phase of our project,” says Lawrance. “I mentioned that we had a first-person camera and controls the first day, and that was due to use using the Ultimate FPS package from the Asset Store. Something we are still astonished by is the amazing value you can find on the Asset Store—sometimes we'll just need some placeholder assets, and the Asset Store is a great way to find that kind of thing for a very low price.”
Lawrance had zero Unity experience prior to working on The Long Dark, and has experienced several breakthrough moments as he’s gotten up to speed with the software. “One [thing] in particular is architecting systems to take advantage of the component-based nature of game objects,” he says. “As a C++ programmer, I was used to using polymorphism for extending functionality, but using components is a far cleaner and robust way to add functionality that otherwise might have been done through inheritance. I'm really a fan of using components, and it's great that they are the foundation of the Unity object system.” He’s also thankful that he realized early on that it makes sense to search the Asset Store or the community forums for solutions to problems before spending time trying to solve them himself. “The wealth of resources and knowledge for Unity is pretty incredible, and it's always growing. As a small team, we need to leverage existing solutions and knowledge as much as possible.”
The Hinterland team took a relatively unusual path to gathering community backing when it launched its Kickstarter last year, building its trailer from live action video rather than game footage. “We wanted to use our launch video to introduce the team and concept, and get people excited about our pedigree,” says van Lierop of the decision. “We believed that one of the biggest things we were selling was our credentials, and our ability to make the game. There are a lot of Kickstarter projects out there—ambitious ones, that are frankly probably beyond the capability of those teams to actually produce. For us, we wanted to dispel any concerns about our skill and experience in actually delivering the game we were proposing.
“We also felt that in some ways it was very early to put forward gameplay because we're still in pre-production, and we know how things can change,” he continues. “We released some gameplay footage about halfway through our campaign, to help people visualize the experience more effectively, because we knew we were asking people to take a leap of faith, and that there's a certain amount of skepticism about new ideas. It's hard to say whether or not we would have been more successful in showing the gameplay footage first. In the end, we hit our goal and generated a huge amount of buzz, while also building the beginnings of our community, so we're really happy with how the KS campaign turned out.”
The game has been one of the biggest challenges of the team’s career, certainly, with its own share of highs and lows. “So far I think our greatest challenge has been to adapt our thinking to account for shorter-term goal setting and a more agile, iterative environment, which is one of the advantages of being small,” says van Lierop. “Most of us worked with very large teams on our last big triple-A projects, so it's been amazing to work with a smaller, more focused team—but you also have to get used to a different pace of progress. You're more agile but things move forward more slowly. I think it's a good trade-off, though.”
The Long Dark's sandbox survival mode is now available in Early Access (PC and Mac) with the full game to release in 2-3 months for PC, Mac and Linux. For more information about The Long Dark, visit: www.intothelongdark.com
A Few of My Favorite Things
A list of Hinterland’s favorite packages from the Unity Asset Store:
The Long View
Befittingly, the Hinterland team plans to bring its first-person title The Long Dark to Oculus Rift when it launches. “We're excited about VR,” says creative director Raphael van Lierop. “We just came back from Steam Developer Days, where there was a big focus on the future of VR in games, and we're pretty excited to be one of the developers experimenting in this space. We think the slower pace of The Long Dark, and the immersive first-person simulation, will really lend itself to the VR experience on Oculus.”