Dev Diary – May 2020

Hello everyone,

I hope you’re all doing well in these strange times we find ourselves in. It’s time to update you on some of the goings-on at Hinterland these days.

COVID-19

Like many of you, our entire team is currently in Lockdown. British Columbia was one of the earliest Canadian provinces to have verified cases of COVID-19, back in January, so we were pretty aggressive in shutting down the physical studio. We had everyone work from home for half of February, and then by the first week of March we decided to just shut it down for at least a few months (back then everyone was still thinking week-to-week and this was tricky for planning so we figured it would be less disruptive just to assume we’d all work from home for at least a few months). We’ve all been doing this for about eight weeks now so that “few months” is probably going to end up being a few months more than that. I don’t expect us to go back to working in the studio until the Fall or later. Even when it becomes safe to start slowly re-integrating into our “old lives” (as much as that will even be possible), our priority will continue to be ensuring our team is safe and protected. We won’t go back to work in the studio until we know we can ensure our staff will be safe.

We’re pretty fortunate that our work can be done largely virtually, although we do miss sharing time together in our physical workspace. During pre-COVID times, everyone at Hinterland had the option to work from home a couple of days per week, so everyone was already well equipped with home offices and our internal communications and development tools were already set up to support working from home. As a result, this transition hasn’t been as disruptive for us as it has been for a lot of businesses.

That said, I’d be lying if I said the lockdown situation hasn’t impacted the team or our production. We all suddenly find ourselves working from home, with our kids and families around us, worried about their safety, access to supplies, what school will look like this year, what it’ll look like next year, and how this global situation may change how we live and work together…potentially forever.

We were able to add a counselling component to our employee benefits package, which gives the team access to professional support if they feel like they need to talk to someone. We also got everyone on the team an annual pass for MasterClass, and we’ve set up Zoom rooms for things like a Friday “Happy Hour” hangout. There’s been a lot more sharing around hobbies and personal interests and it’s been great to see how everyone has pulled together to support each other.

We’ve been thinking about the world at large, and the disadvantaged people who are most affected by this situation. Earlier this month, we ran a fundraiser on Steam to raise money for the United Nations Foundation and the World Health Organization’s fight against the spread of COVID-19. We donated 100% of the proceeds from that sale (including the 30% platform cut) and managed to raise nearly $200,000 to put towards these global efforts. One of our core values is taking care of others, and we feel really fortunate to be able to harness the work we do — the creation of video games — into something that can make a positive contribution in this challenging world. It makes us feel a little less helpless, I guess.

We’ve also been thinking a lot about you, our players. We know a lot of you are feeling trapped at home, and so we’ve been trying to keep you engaged by running various activities on our social channels, including game key give-aways, and suggestions for ways to make the most of Social Distancing. We’ve also been working on some new game content to keep you occupied.

NEXT SURVIVAL UPDATE

The team has been working on a Navigation-themed update to Survival Mode. Without spoiling things too much, I can tell you that it’s a suite of new features that will enhance the usefulness of the in-game Map, without sacrificing our current Landmark-based navigation paradigm. Also, the new features will all be optional, so any players who enjoy the game as it currently is can choose to ignore them. We’re also finally adding an Autowalk accessibility feature, as this has been requested by various players in our community who struggle to play the game without this functionality.

The team is currently tracking towards a mid-May release for the next update. We’ll share more details as we get closer, so make sure you follow the studio accounts if you want to see those. As always, we’ll release a fully narrated update video along with the update launch, to help explain how some of the new features work.

EPISODE FOUR

The team has also been hard at work on Episode Four, since wrapping up the Episode Three launch at the end of last year. I spent the first couple of months of the year completing the outlines for Episodes Four and Five to make sure we wrap things up in a satisfying way, and also leave some questions for the future. Since I completed those, the team has been working on creating the Episode Four mission content and world assets since then. In Episode Four, we also take up some of the hints we laid out in Episode Three, and begin answering some of those questions and mysteries.

One unexpected issue we’ve encountered due to the COVID situation is that we don’t currently have a good way to create our story content, like cinematic sequences or dialogue mode, as these depend on being able to get into the studio with our actors, record their performances, and then process those performances into data that we can then apply to the 3D characters. We’ve been working on some fallback plans to figure out how to do as much of this as we can while maintaining social distancing, but this will definitely put us behind schedule. We’re still aiming to get Episode Four out this year but we’re not committing to any specific dates at the moment, because we’re still trying to understand how this will impact our production schedule.

In any case, we’ll keep you apprised of our general progress. For the time being, I’ve focused the team on what they need to do to stay healthy and to take care of themselves and their families, while doing the best to continue making progress towards our shared goals. Our plan is still based on delivering Episode Four in 2020, and we’ll continue to work towards that.

MOD TOOLS

As an update on this topic that’s popular amongst some people in our player community, we’ve created a small internal team to focus on carrying out our Mod Support/User Generated Content strategy for The Long Dark. We’ve also been working on a global strategy for the studio, so that the effort we put into mod support/UGC for The Long Dark extends into the future as well.

The first step is to outline what we believe the right kind of modifications and user-created content types we can support with the game, as the engine (Unity) and the game itself were not really designed with Modding in mind. We’ve also begun to identify the tools and technology we’ll need to create to support this effort. When the time is right, we will present our plan and begin consulting with the community to learn more about what you would like to see out of our Mod Support efforts. While we may not be able to do everything you want, we’ll do our best.

MAILBAG

Many of you might have followed my (almost) weekly Milton Mailbag post in the official forums. Unfortunately, due to the weekly time commitment required (each Mailbag post typically took me 2-3 hours to put together), I wasn’t able to maintain regular updates as we were finalizing Episode Three, and I just haven’t been able to justify the time since then, for the relatively small number of people (around 1,000-1,500 per entry) who would read the posts. But, I still want to respond to questions and engage with you around The Long Dark — I just need to find a more efficient/effective way to do this. One option we are considering is switching this to a video format — essentially, I would put together a video (it would not be anything fancy, as I’d be recording it in my home office) on a monthly basis (more often if we’re able), where I respond to 3-5 community questions. I might not end up going into as much detail in this format, and I may not be able to respond to 20-30 questions each week, but I think this will be a pace and time commitment I can sustain. If any of you would like to see the Mailbag become a regular video segment on our YouTube channel, please let us know on social or in the forums.

SWITCH VERSION

Not much to say here. The game is pretty much ready to go, apart from performance. We’re still working on that, trying to hit a reliable 30 frames-per-second in all areas.

XBOX GAME PASS

We recently brought The Long Dark to Xbox Game Pass. This is an evolution of our ongoing relationship with Microsoft, going back to helping them launch the Game Preview program back in 2015. We’re excited to welcome a new generation of Xbox players into our community, and we look forward to learning more about the specific pros and cons of having a game inside a subscription service. While I have concerns about what this business model might mean for independent developers like Hinterland, Microsoft has been a great, respectful partner for us over the years and we’re excited to bring the game to a new audience while also gaining some key learnings we’ll need as we adapt to new industry business models in the future.

To any Xbox Game Pass subscribers reading this dev diary right now — welcome! We hope you’ll stick around for the long term. Please join us in our Official Community, sit by the fire, and stay a while.

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That’s pretty much it for this instalment of my Dev Diary. Keep your eyes peeled for the May Survival Update. It should land in the second half of the month. Apart from that, if you want to stay abreast of the goings on at Hinterland, please feel free to sign up for our newsletter, join our Official Community, or follow our social channels

Thanks for reading, and enjoy the next update!

– Raph