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How The Long Dark was almost lost in the woods of early access

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

According to Raphael van Lierop, creative director at Hinterland Studios and one of the makers of the stylish Canadian-themed survival game The Long Dark, the community of players that support early access games has a morale problem.

It's the result of dozens of early access developers who have lost their direction or simply gone dark, leaving players in the lurch. His talk, among the first to be presented at this year's Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco, was designed to inform developers interested in pursuing the early access marketplace, and to stiffen their resolve in the face of a group of irritable players that have been let down time and time again.

"The risk [with early access] is that you live with other people's mistakes," van Lierop said. "One of the eye-opening experiences for us on Steam's Early Access platform is how much hostility there is towards it from the Steam community itself, and from people in general. They've been burned so many times before, and you're probably going to burn them too. Sometimes you have someone that comes along that actually hasn't even played your game, but they're still happy to jump into forum discussions, or even into Steam reviews, and reinforce their anger about another early access experience that they had that has nothing to do with you.

"The risk with early access is that you live with other people's mistakes"

"You're kind of inheriting all that doubt when you go to the platform."

Van Lierop himself is a veteran of several triple-A games. He helped to launch Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, Company of Heroes, Far Cry 3 and Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine among others. Altogether, van Lierop said that the team at Hinterland have helped launch nearly 60 games. This isn't their first time at the rodeo, so to speak.

But it was their first time dealing so closely with the public, and van Lierop had strong words for developers that were eager to follow his lead. Community-informed development, as he termed it, can easily lead to a situation where the inmates are running the asylum. It takes a strong, confident team to stay in control.

"Community-informed development is taking feedback and incorporating it into your game," he said, "not making the game that the community wants you to make."

The reason for his caution comes down to the simple fact that only a small fraction of Hinterland's players have ever provided feedback on the game.


Whether it was on Reddit, Hinterland's own forums or on Steam's message boards, only a half to one percent of the people who have bought the game have taken the time to share their thoughts.

Making matters worse he said, they're not a representative sampling of players.

Instead of listening to the people on the forums who yell the loudest, van Lierop stressed that developers should be gathering data on exactly how people play their game. As an example, he said that his team determined early on that The Long Dark attracted two different kinds of players; those who connected with their game as a poetic, emotional experience, and those that were looking for the most hardcore survival simulation they could find. Those two sets of players, he said, could have lead the game into dramatically different directions. To determine who they should listen to, they ran a test.

The people that show up in the forums aren't always the same people who bought the game

"We created what we called experience modes," van Lierop said, "called pilgrim, voyager, and stalker. Pilgrim is for people who really like wander through the world and soak it up. … Voyager was kind of balanced between exploration and survival. It was, sort of, the way that we envisioned the game to be played from the beginning. Stalker was made to be really challenging, for people who were looking for that experience.

"What we ended up realizing was when we would pull data about 60 percent of our players actually chose that middle setting, which was pretty awesome. Almost 25 percent picked the pilgrim, and it was only 12 percent that played the stalker mode."

It was this minority of players, this 12 percent of users who were the ones participating in the forums the most. It was the people looking for the hardcore experience who were most unhappy with the game, and they came into the forums to express their displeasure. But by catering to their needs alone, Hinterlands ran the risk of alienating the silent majority of their customers.


In the end, van Lierop said, the community that shows up to have a dialog isn't always representative of the group that purchased the game. It's a developer's job to stick to their vision and make the game that they wanted to make all along. It's that game, he said, that was sold to Kickstarter backers. It's that game that was advertised on Steam's Early Access, but it's not always the game that a small minority of the player base came into the forums to complain about.

"I don't believe that it's our job to make the game that our community wants," van Lierop said. "I think it's our job to make our community want what we have made. So we're engaging them in that process, we're taking their feedback. But ultimately they've given us money because they believe we can create something amazing for them. And that's our job. Don't lose sight of that."