The Long Dark’s Raphael van Lierop Talks Staying Alive and Game Preview on Xbox One

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Within the massive Xbox booth at last week’s E3 2015 was a pretty revolutionary game. The Long Dark is big news in the Xbox One community, not just because it’s one of the first survival titles on the Xbox One, or one of the most popular community-driven, indie games on any platform, but because it’s something of a poster child for Game Preview on Xbox One, an exciting new way to deliver games to Xbox fans.

We caught up with Raphael van Lierop, Founder and Creative Director of The Long Dark developer Hinterland Studios, at E3 2015, to ask a few questions about the journey his game has taken from idea to ID@Xbox.

Xbox Wire: The Long Dark is one of the first titles to come to fans via Xbox Game Preview. Tell us a little about what that means for your game, and for people who want to play it.

Raphael van Lierop: We have an excellent community of players already on The Long Dark, which has been available for about nine months via Early Access on Steam. Microsoft decided they wanted to bring a similar kind of program – meaning open development, where the community gets to participate with the development of the game by providing feedback on early versions – which became Game Preview on Xbox One. Microsoft approached us to see if we were interested in bringing The Long Dark to the program. We have a great reputation on Steam: [The Long Dark] is high-quality, it’s not buggy, we update very often, and we have a very positive community, so I think that helped – but we jumped at the chance to be a part of Game Preview.

Xbox Wire: So what exactly is The Long Dark?

van Lierop: The Long Dark is a first-person survival simulation. It’s really survival in its truest sense: There’s no zombies, there’s no supernatural elements, it’s just you being dropped into the middle of the northern Canadian wilderness with essentially just the clothes on your back, and you have to figure out how to survive.

Xbox Wire: I’ll be honest. The first time I played The Long Dark, I died in, oh, about five minutes.

van Lierop: [laughs] That’s kind of a common experience. It’s really quite a challenging game. We don’t hold the player’s hand, we don’t provide any tutorials, we don’t really provide any help. And that’s intentional. We really want to recreate that feeling of being lost in the wilderness and not knowing anything about what’s around you, and having to figure it out for yourself.

My team is all triple-A game veterans, we’ve all worked on big franchises over the years, but for me personally, I felt like I wanted to create a game that provided a true challenge to players. So, getting away from some of the empty, hollow rewards that we give players in games, and going back to the basics of simulation roots. We created a really detailed, robust simulation of the wilderness, and we put all the information for the player into the world itself, or into the UI. For example, when your character is very cold, you see the breath on the screen, not a “temperature meter.” When it’s really windy or the weather’s changing, you see that all visually in the game. And those become cues that, over time, the player learns to read, just like you’d learn to read that in nature.

So, going back to your point about dying in the first five minutes: One of the things I love about The Long Dark is that players’ success is directly due to their choices and their skill in the game, as opposed to some artificial progression through levels. And what we’ve found from our community is that they find that very rewarding. It’s challenging, but when they succeed, it’s their success, and it’s what drives them forward: constantly wanting to one-up themselves. And on the other side, one of my favorite quotes from our community is: “Most of the time, in The Long Dark, the thing that kills you is yourself.” And that’s true – it’s because you made a poor choice at some moment, and maybe that poor choice doesn’t kill you right away, but maybe two days from then you might die as a result of a chain of events that you can draw a line directly back to that choice. I find that super rewarding.

Xbox Wire: So what’s available right now for people to play on Game Preview?

van Lierop: What people can play on Game Preview is the same as what people can play on Steam now, which is our Sandbox mode. It’s a free-form, non-narrative, survival sandbox experience, with the only objective being to survive as long as you can. Later on in the year, we’ll be launching our episodic story mode, and what’s exciting about that for people buy The Long Dark on Game Preview, is they’ll get the Sandbox mode right away, and then access to the episodes when they launch later this year.

Xbox Wire: So how did the transition to Game Preview work? How is it different from other systems you’ve worked with?

van Lierop: One of the pillars of the Game Preview program, as opposed to say Early Access on Steam, is that it’s a curated program. So Microsoft is hand-picking games that they think would do well in the program, [games] that have quality teams behind them, and quality concepts behind them, that have already proven themselves to some degree. That’s because Microsoft wants to make sure the high level of quality of games that are available to people on Xbox remains everywhere, including on Game Preview.

I think, frankly, Microsoft very smartly recognized that this is a very new concept for console gamers, and that … consoles have always been a highly curated experience. Gamers know that if a game is for sale on the Xbox One, it’s had a process of vetting behind it, and that’s a key pillar for Game Preview, as well.

And so Microsoft approached us on the game, I think largely because of our success on Steam. And over time, as we got to know the people working at ID@Xbox and started to get more comfortable with the idea [of Game Preview] – because remember, this was secret at the time, nobody knew about it – we thought, “It’s really in our DNA at the studio to be pioneers.” And the thought that we would be the first survival game [of this type] on Xbox One – on any console – and also one of the first titles on the Xbox One Game Preview program, that was what ultimately sold it for us. We wanted to be at the forefront.

And working with the people at Microsoft has been a really positive experience. As a small, independent developer – and most of us have worked for big publishers before – you always have that trepidation about partnering up with a big entity like Microsoft. But the team at ID@Xbox has been super-great about making that process as streamlined as possible, and it’s got a very familial environment to it. We’ve had tons of support from them to get the game through certification and on the console in time to launch – I mean, [going] from having no Xbox One version to approval for the Xbox Marketplace was a 26-day process. Which is incredibly fast.

A big part of that was that we had people at Microsoft who were just trying to help us get on the platform; they were able to help shepherd us through their process – which, honestly, isn’t really tooled for the kind of development that we do. And to their credit, I’ve been able to speak to very senior people at Microsoft, who’ve approached us and said, “We really believe in this open-development model. Help us understand how you guys are doing this, so that we can do it better.”

Thanks to Raphael for taking the time to talk to us during E3. Be sure to check out The Long Dark now on Game Preview for Xbox One!