Nearly two years ago, at E3 2015, Hinterland technical director Alan Lawrance and I found ourselves in a huge stadium in the midst of the Microsoft E3 press conference. We were fish out of water, having left the console-dominated “triple-A” industry to be independent developers dedicated to smaller, more creative projects.
It was surreal to look around us as thousands of people cheered for Chris Charla, head of ID@Xbox, on the stage below. Even more surreal was seeing the name and logo of our game, The Long Dark, flash across the screen behind Chris to much applause, as he announced the creation of the innovative, first-on-a-console, Game Preview program. We launched this program with Microsoft, as one of two games available when it went live later that day.
How did we end up there?
Rewind to about six months prior. We had started talking with ID@Xbox about bringing The Long Dark to Xbox One. A console “port” was not a high priority for us, and didn’t really scratch that itch to innovate that our team looks for. As discussions continued, hints were dropped — something new was on the horizon, an initiative that might be well aligned with our interests and studio philosophy. A plan began to take shape.
Microsoft wanted to bring open-development to the Xbox One. Being game developers that grew up in the traditionally closed development model, we found this idea intriguing and, frankly, absurd. Open development on a console? Didn’t seem like a natural fit with the more traditionally “closed” console space. In our new life as freewheeling “indies”, we were loving the freedom to do things quickly and iterate often. As “indies”, we had become used to going our own way and not asking permission for anything from anyone. How could we reconcile those two worldviews? Did we want to step back into the closed system we had, in some ways, escaped from?
It’s a huge testament to the creative spirit of people at ID@Xbox that a program like Game Preview was ever able to take shape. Open development means taking risks to open yourself, and your unfinished products, to scrutiny and criticism by an audience that is not used to seeing games until they are done and in a box. Beyond those risks, this was something entire new for a console platform. Their processes had been built up around being solid, slow, painstaking, and very precise. Imperfect things are not meant to emerge from their systems. And ours was an imperfect thing.
After the initial excitement (on both our sides) wore off, we got to work. Microsoft would have to make major changes to their processes to facilitate the kind of iteration we’d need to do to be successful with our continuing development of The Long Dark. On our side, we had to…well, get the game running on Xbox One. We didn’t have a stitch of code or content working on hardware yet. Months ticked by as we waited for things to solidify, to see if this was going to move forward. People got nervous. Microsoft asked us — “If we do this, will you be ready to launch at E3?” We committed: “We’ll be ready. Will you?” A small independent studio and one of the biggest corporations in entertainment and software. Time was running out. Would we make it?
You already know the answer. We went from nothing on Xbox One, to a launch of The Long Dark in Xbox Game Preview in 26 days. Microsoft rallied various teams to ensure new store categories, provisional ratings, and a streamlined certification process for us — to the extent that we never waited longer than 48 hours for a build to be approved, and often it was closer to a day! Anyone who has worked in console development understands how incredibly fast this is.
On June 15th, 2015, E3 launched, Game Preview was unveiled and players started buying The Long Dark later that night. We showed The Long Dark in the Microsoft booth under a massive screen looping trailers for Halo 5, Gears of War 4 and other huge franchises on Xbox.
Since then, we’ve pushed out over 30 updates to The Long Dark on Xbox One. We’ve seen our Xbox community grow to over 150,000 players, and have received a steady stream of invaluable playtesting feedback and bug reports that have helped us make the game better with each new iteration. In a rare first for a console, the player community has been able to take an active role in shaping the development of a game. We’re so proud to have been able to be part of Microsoft’s pioneering step towards more open development on the console. This collaboration with Microsoft, and Xbox players, will always be part of the Hinterland story.
As rewarding and informative as our time in the Game Preview program has been, we’re thrilled to announce that it will soon be coming to an end. This August 1st, we’re launching the 1.0 version of The Long Dark, with the first two episodes of our long-awaited story mode, which we’re calling Wintermute. Wintermute is the story of bush pilot Will Mackenzie, and Dr. Astrid Greenwood, whose plane crashes in the middle of the Northern Canadian wilderness, in the aftermath of a mysterious geomagnetic event. Separated in the crash, Mackenzie and Astrid must find each other, while avoiding the hazards of a savage winter wilderness, and seeking explanations to this new “quiet apocalypse” they find themselves in. Who can they trust? How far will they go to survive? These are questions that you, the player, will help answer.
Additionally, the game’s Survival Mode offers 100s of hours of open-world survival sandbox gameplay, with over 50 square kilometers (20 square miles) of winter wilderness to explore, featuring wolves, bears, hunting, fishing, and trapping, resource gathering, route-finding…and (at least) a hundred different ways to die. The objective there is pure survival: last as long as you can against the forces Mother Nature — cold, starvation, exhaustion — and your own decisions.
For more information about The Long Dark, and our launch plans, please visit thelongdark.com. In the meantime, we hope you continue to enjoy our non-narrative Survival Mode, available on Game Preview until August 1st. We’ll be releasing one more major update to the game before we hit 1.0, so there’s still time to get involved with development and share your feedback in our development forums at hinterlandforums.com.
Because of our time in Game Preview, we’ll be launching a heavily play-tested game on Xbox One in a few months. Without the support of the engaged community we’ve built up while in Game Preview, we’d be flying blind, with much less confidence in how our experience would be received. The open development “early access” model has helped ensure The Long Dark will be as polished an experience as possible on August 1st, and we’re honored to have had the opportunity to pioneer this program with Microsoft. If you haven’t already, we hope you’ll join us on our journey. If you’ve already joined us, we thank you for your ongoing support, and we can’t wait to hear what you think about The Long Dark 1.0 when it launches in a few short months!
On behalf of the team at Hinterland: See you in the quiet apocalypse.