Dev Diary – March 2021

Dear community,

It’s time for an update on Episode Four progress, which I’m sure is the topic at the top of all your minds right now.

Episode Four Progress

Blackrock Penitentiary
The aurora illuminates Blackrock Penitentiary, Great Bear’s maximum security fortress and the main location in Episode Four.

We’re at the stage of episode development where I’ve been able to complete a couple of full run-throughs of the entire episode from start to finish. This is an important stage as it shows us what we have as a contiguous experience (this is different from how we build and test during development, which is often more in chunks that are out of order), and therefore highlights what is working and what isn’t. When you can experience the full flow of the episode from start to finish, you can get a sense of the overall pacing, the relationship between narrative and gameplay, clarity around objectives and motivations, peaks and troughs in the player’s activities, and generally a sense of how the whole thing fits together.

This is the period of episode development where we usually change (or remove) things that aren’t working, and add moments or content here and there where we feel the experience needs to be shored up a bit. It might be something as minor as a single line of dialogue or editing some objective text, all the way to cutting a section of a mission or adding an entirely new piece of narrative (as we did throughout Episodes One and Two when we released the “Redux” versions in 2019). In the specific case of Episode Four, this includes adding a new section of gameplay and a new mechanic we’re experimenting with. It’s a bit late in the process to be doing this, but we just feel the episode needs a bit more of a “punch” in some areas so we’re testing things out to see how they feel, and hopeful that we can make it all work and feel intriguing.

In terms of overall progress, I can say that the episode environments themselves are mostly finished, apart from a few small areas that are getting completed right now. After that we’ll roll into the polish phase for environment content. All the cinematics are complete and have had multiple passes with full voice-over, so we’re now moving into the lighting phase on most of them, and audio (sound-effects and music) which is the last phase. We’re tightening up some objective text, adding collectibles here and there where they are needed, and layering some secondary “side mission” content to reward you players who like to explore off the beaten path a bit.

We met Mathis in Carter Dam at the end of Episode Two, when he threatened Mackenzie within an inch of his life. Things have not improved for Mackenzie since then.

The whole team has done a great job despite the challenges of COVID, but I’m particularly proud what the animation team has managed to pull off in Episode Four, despite not having access to our motion-capture equipment (due to COVID and it not being safe to travel to the studio). Instead, they used home-based capture suits and a lot of keyframed (i.e. hand-made) animation including for facial animation, which is a big departure from some of the time-saving tools and tech we were able to use for our Episode Three development. The narrative moments in Episode Four are some of the most complex we’ve produced yet in The Long Dark, many involving multiple characters with heavy acting beats, so seeing them turn out so well is a real testament to the team’s work ethic and creative problem-solving. We also hired our first lighting specialist at Hinterland for Episode Four, so you can expect the general quality of the lighting to improve significantly, both in terms of execution and how it’s used to highlight atmosphere and the sense of drama.

We have at least a couple more months of production and then a testing and optimization phase, which could take a long time or be resolved quickly, depending on how things go. Being on the Switch now, and also continuing to support a low-spec on PC that goes back to our Early Access launch in 2014, means every major addition to the game introduces a lot of extra optimization and testing work. So, as per our usual studio policy with regards to release dates, I’m not going to guess at this point — we’ll share a date when we are closer to launch. But, we’re in the final stretch now. You can expect a teaser trailer and a date announcement before we launch; we aren’t planning a surprise launch.

Just like everything in The Long Dark, there’s more to Blackrock than meets the eye.

What Comes Next?

With Episode Four development coming to a close, I’m finishing up the writing on Episode Five so the team can roll into that development. But, this also brings to mind a big question for Hinterland — with the end of WINTERMUTE in sight, what comes next for The Long Dark, and for our studio?

This is obviously a lot on my mind lately, not only because I’ve been working on The Long Dark for nearly 8 years at this point, but because incubating new project ideas and building prototypes to prove those ideas is a time-consuming process. It’s important that these things have the space and resources they need in order to find success. The expectations around our work are a lot different in 2021 as compared to when we first launched The Long Dark in 2013. We’ve also learned a lot in the past years, become a stronger studio and better developers, and want to build more sophisticated and more meaningful experiences for our players. These things require time and resources.

One of the gifts of The Long Dark is just how expansive it has the potential to be. The world and gameplay systems themselves are highly extensible, although we have run up against some technical limitations going back to decisions we made in the early years of the project — things we’d do differently if we were building something from scratch today, but things that we can’t really change at this point without tearing the entire game apart and rebuilding it. That would be time-consuming, expensive, and would delay a lot of other things we’d like to be doing.

We’ve been hearing a lot from our players that you would like to see more content beyond WINTERMUTE and the free Survival updates and events we produce a few times a year. Given that we’ve never charged for content beyond the purchase price of the game, our revenue has come entirely from new sales of The Long Dark. We’re really fortunate that the game still has a vibrant audience and continues to sell really well for us, allowing us to cover our costs and make a tidy profit which we pour back into the business. But in thinking about new projects and how we’d like to build them, and how important it is to maintain our independence and avoid putting ourselves in a financial position as a studio where we lose that independence, we have to start weighing the future of The Long Dark against the future of the studio.

To be clear — we are 100% committed to shipping Episode Five for all our players, as part of your game purchase. That’s a promise we made back when we did our Kickstarter in 2013, and that’s a promise we will deliver on. What I’m talking about here is what comes *beyond* Episode Five. Since so much of what we’ve done as a studio has been informed by what you’ve told us about what you hope for the game, we’d love to hear from you.

We’ve set up a simple survey that will give us some idea of what you’d like us to do with The Long Dark after we finish Episode Five. There are also questions about what you’d like to see us do with Survival Mode, which while it can always be improved, has technically been complete for a while now. Please take a few minutes to review the survey and share your thoughts so we can take them into consideration as we plan our future. We aren’t committing to anything beyond Episode Five, but depending on how passionately you want us to keep expanding The Long Dark, and provided we can make it work from a business perspective, we are open to considering a variety of things. We love The Long Dark as much as anyone, and would love to see it continue to grow and flourish into the future. For us, it’s more than a game. For me, I still want to push forward and show that Hinterland is the industry leader in creating thoughtful survival experiences.

Milestones

We don’t tend to focus too much on these things publicly, but I’m really proud of what the team has made and it’s not often you get to celebrate these achievements, so I just wanted to share with you the exciting news that sales of The Long Dark have now surpassed 5-million units, with another 3.5-million active players coming to us through Xbox GamePass and the Epic Game Store (through the free give-away there at Christmas), bringing the total to over 8.5-million players to date.

That is a shocking number to me, when I think back to the humble origins of The Long Dark (which was then called, simply, “Survival Story”) back on a whiteboard in my basement home office years and years ago. One of the most exciting things about this number is how international our audience is! We’ve been humbled and amazed at how popular our little Canadian survival experience has resonated with players around the world. Thank you for your support over the years, and we look forward to continuing to deliver delightful experiences to you in The Long Dark, and hopefully in other games in the future! For us, there is a joy in exploration in its many facets, and we are excited to continue sharing this journey with you.

Onward!

In any case, it’s back to Episode Four reviews for me! I hope this developer diary has been informative and answered some of the questions you have about our progress, and we hope you like the teaser content we’ve shared here. Expect more news about Episode Four in the coming months including a teaser trailer, episode name, and a release date. And please take some time to respond to our “Future of The Long Dark” survey. While we’ll always make our own decisions about what is best for the game and our business, we love to hear from you and feel privileged to have your participation in this virtuous feedback circle.

Thanks for reading, and stay safe out there!

– Raphael