RPS Exclusive: Hinterland Designer Diary

Tilted Mill are one of those developers who are quintessentially PC. Risen from the ashes of Impressions Games, the hugely respected studio behind the Caesar, Pharaoh and Lords of the Realm series, they coolly made their own name with their first title, Children of the Nile. Things didn’t go so well when they picked up the reigns of Caesar its fourth instalment or Sim City for the recent Societies, but the extensive, redemptive patching of the latter proved this was definitely a company that cared. The real proof of this was the announcement they were going to go it alone, self-publishing their own titles – starting with an enhanced version of Children of the Nile and, just last week, followed up with by fascinating RPG/city-builder hybrid Hinterland: a game most of RPS (excluding Crazy John Walker) were desperate to play.

Below the cut, the game’s producer and co-designer Mat Williams writes exclusively for RPS about the thinking behind Hinterland – and why it has much in common with that most ubiquitous of man-fads, poker.

Hinterland and Poker
In poker you have little or no control over the hands you’re dealt. You might start strong, or you might start weak. You might draw great cards or you might draw poor ones. Furthermore, you have little or no information about what your opponent holds. Once you’ve placed a bet you can’t go back, you have to live with your decision. But there’s always an opportunity for another bet, you don’t have to wait long before trying to adjust your strategy. In poker you make strategic decisions based on highly random conditions and there’s always something at stake. If you lose, you lose, and there is no going back. These are some of the interesting dynamics I wanted to explore in Hinterland.

Most computer games contain save/load mechanisms, easy re-tries, or are so forgiving that it’s effectively impossible to lose. This means your actions and decisions are basically consequence-free. Imagine a game of poker with no stakes… not quite the same. I play a lot of non-computer games whether they’re board games, card games (more on that later), or sports. In all of them there’s a winner and a loser. In some cooperative board games like Arkham Horror, there’s a distinct possibility of a loss for everyone playing.

In most traditional games the opponent with the higher skill will win out. One of the ways to mitigate this is through randomization. In a completely un-randomized game like chess the opponent with the higher skill will always win. In a game like Scrabble, where there is some element of luck, even with a great divergence in skill the weaker player can sometimes win, but will usually lose. At the far end of the spectrum you have games like craps, which are completely random, and have no skill factor.

In poker the highly skilled player will usually win over time, but the high random factor means that in any given hand anyone can win. Unlike poker, where all opponents are playing the same game, in Hinterland the opponent is the world itself, and the world doesn’t play the same way as the player! The only skill level that counts is the skill of the player trying to establish his town. But just like poker, in Hinterland the hand that you’re dealt can vary widely, and forces you to make tough strategic decisions, that vary from game to game and within the course of the game, without having perfect knowledge of the current conditions, or the upcoming conditions.

A single hand of poker can go very quickly – you might just look at your cards and fold immediately. But an evening of play is made up of a lot of hands, and as you play you can learn more about the opponents you’re playing against, and adjust your strategies. A game of Hinterland follows this same pattern. There’s randomness, but that randomness repeats in a consistent manner, allowing you to learn and make strategic decisions over time. The more games you play, the more you learn about the probabilities and glean the patterns that do exist, allowing you to get better over time. Because the games are relatively short, you have a lot of room for experimentation. You can try different strategies, you can roll the dice several times.

In poker, some people play for pennies and other people for thousands of dollars. Some people want to play with wildcards and some don’t. But they’re still basically playing the same game. In Hinterland when we first started play testing many areas of the game, particularly combat, were much more randomized than they ended up being in the final version. You ultimately had little or no real control on your likelihood of success. It was too much like rolling dice! But approaching it this way allowed us to know just where to draw the line with respect to randomness – not just in terms of ‘how much’ randomness, but specifically which elements needed to remain highly random and which needed to be a little more directed, in order to bring out the strategy game. We used a similar approach with respect to the custom game options, gradually adding more options to allow you more varied starting conditions, to create the experience you want to have. Similarly, the difficulty levels allow you to choose the stakes you’re comfortable playing at.

I like where we’ve ended up. Like poker, in Hinterland even the best player can be faced with challenges and decisions they haven’t seen before. Winning at the higher levels is a genuine accomplishment, made all the more sweet by the possibility of loss. You can win big, you can win small, you can lose, and you’ll probably have fun doing any of them.

Mat Williams

Hinterland is available on Steam now.


  1. Feet says:

    I think this game is one I’d need to try before I… buyed. Yet I can’t see a demo available on Steam. I read some mostly positive things about it on Dubious Quality, and this coupled with the above have got me more interested. I think though from the impressions I’ve read that the game looks to be too close to a Diablo clone and not close enough to Dwarf Fortress. Do correct me if I’m wrong.

  2. Syl says:

    I’ve been very interested in Hinterland, but I haven’t picked it up yet. (I’m going to get The Witcher: EE first). Has anyone played the title? I’ve heard that it’s a bit buggy and the graphics are subpar, both of which can be fixed eventually.

  3. Jim Rossignol says:

    It is fairly ugly, but peculiarly compelling. I’ve had loads to play the past couple of weeks including MASSIVE EXCLUSIVE AWESOMENESS that I can’t talk about here, and yet I keep going back to Hinterlands. Maybe I’ll get round to writing about it next week, when I’m done with awesomeness.

  4. Feet says:

    Please do, the concept sounds totally awesome, but I’m unsure if they’ve got it quite right and could do with a more trusted opinion from someone at RPS.

  5. cyrenic says:

    Does the name of the MASSIVE EXCLUSIVE AWESOMENESS game rhyme with Far Cry 2?

  6. Erlam says:

    This game looks interesting — if there’s a Demo I’ll check it out.

    On the subject of Car Fry 2 rhymes, am I the only one with skeptical views on it still? I haven’t been impressed by what I’ve seen.

  7. Amalorn says:

    Much fun to be found here. if I’ve only an hour or so to play a game, this’ll win at the moment. In fact that’s what I’ll do righ-

  8. Weylund says:

    No, you’re not. And I’m not just skeptical — I hate it. Because it looks like – yes – Fallout 3.

    But seriously, the first Far Cry was fun but disjointed. The second looks like a much bigger opportunity for more of the same. Everything I’ve seen or heard about it was interesting in that “gosh that sounds impossible, wonder how they’ll muck it up” way.

  9. Leelad says:

    I saw hinterlands and tarren mill

    It’s in my mind!

  10. SuperNashwan says:

    Mitigating the effect of skill isn’t what makes poker fun (although it does make it accessible, one of the key elements to its popularity) and I really can’t see it making a video game fun. In fact it’s one of the things I’d have on a list of anti-fun things that shouldn’t be put in a game, or at least in a single player environment. Look at the fuss made over Puzzle Quest’s supposed randomness that had people swearing the computer was cheating. People hate to lose when they’ve not made a mistake and rightly so.

  11. yns88 says:

    Weylund: I don’t mean to sidetrack the topic here, but how does Far Cry 2 look like Fallout 3?

    The only similarity between them is that they’re both first-person games coming out in October with names starting with F and where you sometimes hold guns. So tell me, why do you hate Far Cry 2? Is it the F, or the fact that it’s coming out in October, or perhaps the fact that you get to shoot weapons in it?

    In any case, I’ve heard Hinterland was much too shallow to feel right as a proper dungeoneering / sim game, so I’m going to hold back until I see some real evidence showing otherwise.

  12. Weylund says:

    @yns88: Far Cry 2 looks like Fallout 3 in that the protagonist that we’ve seen so far is a stocky dude with a weapon strapped to his back, and the promo art for Far Cry 2 has been kinda long on the “desolate, almost apocalyptic” look. That said, my statement was almost entirely a joke.

    I think I covered my reasons for feeling skeptical in my earlier post… that’s pretty much the sum of it.

    Hinterlands, to be more on topic — the graphics actually look really nice. And an RPG / city building game would be fun. I’ll probably check it out when it demos.

  13. Noc says:

    SuperNashwan: There are two philosophies of game playing.

    One is the idea that your time playing the game is like a project . . . you’re building up something and trying to reach a goal. Finish the game, win all the scenarios, unlock everything, get 100% completion, et cetera. People hate losing, because its wasted work; they were trying to accomplish something, and they didn’t, so it was just an obnoxious waste of time.

    The other philosophy of gaming is . . . I don’t want to call it the “Sandbox” method, because it’s not necessarily connected with sandbox games, but I’m going to use the metaphor anyways. When a little kid goes and plays in a sandbox, he’s not trying to build huge, intricate and persistent castles. He’s having a ball throwing sand around and making little sets for his toys to play in, then having even more of a blast knocking the whole thing down afterwards.

    In a lot of roguelikes, there’s not very much to do besides go out and die humorously. One of the first things I saw when I was getting into Dwarf Fortress is a large banner of bolded text that offered the advice that “LOSING IS FUN!” And some of the most fun times I’ve ever had in TF2 where the times when I tried to pull off something silly and ended splattered across six different walls.

    It is a different method of gaming than a lot of us are used to, and I’m not sure if it’s even one I’ve become fully enamored of; I HATE losing to the AI in anything, for instance, and will usually terminate a single player game that’s going badly instead of fighting it out to the end like I’d do with another player. But it’s definitely an approach that has merits, and one that’s been left by the wayside by a lot of games in recent years, and deserves some new exploration.

  14. Kalain says:

    I am interested in this game, and have followed (partly) it’s development. It does seem like a nice with some neat touches, but i’d like to hear someone elses opinion on it.

    May I call for a mini RPS Verdict on it, since I’ve bought the games you allowed Optimus Prime to score 3+ thumbs up for it.

  15. The Hammer says:

    Does the name of the MASSIVE EXCLUSIVE AWESOMENESS game rhyme with Far Cry 2?

    I’ll take your Far Cry 2 and raise you with a Planetside.

    On the subject of Hinterlands, I’d love to play a demo too. It sounds like a game that really appeals to me, but I want to see if it’s presented right first.

  16. Ging says:

    Hinterland is awesome fun, it’s sort of a mini diablo with a mix in of city building goodness. Just with I could’ve found a dragon egg earlier! :(

  17. unclelou says:

    Not bought Hinterland myself yet, as there’s too much other stuff out , but I was looking at the hompage earlier, and they’ve announced a patch which seems to change and add quite a few things based on player feedback, so it’s definitely one to keep an eye on.

  18. MeestaNob! says:

    RPS boys, any word of a demo, I’d definitely like to try something like this out.

  19. Troy Goodfellow says:

    I’m not sure I get the poker comparison, but I will give Hinterland a mild recommendation. Jim’s right – you keep coming back to it – but it’s comfort snack food, not a meal.

    The good news is that the next major update will fix many of my problems with the interface. Hinterland’s biggest problem is the lack of clear information in pretty important places.

  20. Indian says:

    Yeah like the above said, we can pretty much compare several rts to a poker game. Its just no other developers have come up with the idea of using poker to describe their games.

  21. Tom says:

    Yns88 said Hinterland is much too shallow… He’s partly right.
    It’s almost never overwhelming but it’s always involving.
    My guess is that people complaining are playing on easy (5 years old challenge) or normal (9 years old challenge). The fun for real gamers begins on Hard or Hardcore/Ironman.

    After a few games, each taking a couple of hours, there’s little new to discover. No easter eggs or secret hidden stuff… still I keep coming back to it instead of triple A titles on which i spent sh*tloads of dear money on.

    YMMV but if you stopped wetting your bed before the xbox was released, you should give Hinterland a try.

  22. Heliocentric says:

    Truth be told. The things i want to know are told by a demo. Does the fixed camera give me a neck acid and a sense of overly limited vision. Is the combat interactive enough for me. Is the character skill selection rich enough for me to example, play the role of a healer while my farmer and blacksmith beat seven shades out of the enemy. The no saves thing, is it obnoxious? I have 2 kids when i game i will have to stop often and without warning. If i need to go back to town to save or am punished for saving or indeed one time use saves or limited saves. Any of those would be a deal breaker. Right now i can get mass effect for the same price. I’m holding off on that because its a linear experience i can happily have waiting for me. Bioware have proven themselves, tilted mill are still rogue to me. Get a demo! Failing that rps pass judgement,

  23. MrDeVil_909 says:

    I’ve been very interested in this game since Bill Harris mentioned it and I still am. I do have a bit much on my plate at the moment and I’ll join the chorus asking for a demo.

    The poker comparison is interested and understandable, but where a game of poker maintains it’s allure is over the long term. If they manage to work out a system in Hinterland with an extended game that has a win or lose state over several rounds of the game it may have a wider appeal. Effectively allowing the player to lose a few ‘hands,’ but still win the game.

  24. neofit says:

    I’ve been too frustrated by time lost and lack of freedom to experiment in games that use the “save-and-exit” system as a cheap and artificial way to increase challenge. So I won’t bother with Hinterland unless they patch in a proper multi-slot save-anywhere-anytime system. They can’t or won’t? Too bad, they are not the only shop in town.

  25. Heliocentric says:

    They could compromise. One use saves out in the wilds multi saves in the town. Or maybe they are worried that under reloading conditions the wizard behind the curtain would be too obvious, by that i mean that the game mechanics would be exposed.

  26. neofit says:

    I’d rather they did as in Mount & Blade for instance, if they needed that stupid save-an-exit feature at all. When you start a game, if you know that you are too weak and that’ you’ll hate yourself for abusing the savegame system, check the ‘save and exit’ option. If you want to play “normally”, don’t check it. No option = no sale.

  27. Kieron Gillen says:

    The game’s really short, Neofit. It’s like wanting to save the game in Defender.


  28. Stromko says:

    Without consequence it’s not that interesting. If I wasn’t really risking losing my favorite villagers if I marched them into a battle that was too hard and didn’t click the healing potion fast enough, then why should I care?

    Everyone and everything important would be immortal, never in any real danger.

    Yes it sucks to lose the investment of time, but you can do better. In fact a higher-level villager is probably already available to hire by time you spawn back in town after a total party wipe.

    You might lose something unique when you suffer a setback, but you can get something better to replace it if you’re lucky. I guess this is where the developer gets the poker analogy, you might get dealt a bad hand and then suddenly your weaponsmith randomly makes you a godlike magical weapon.

  29. Dreamhacker says:

    The devs have hinted a demo is planned for post-release release:
    “BigDownload: Will there be a free demo of the game available before the full game is released?

    Chris Beatrice: That is the plan, though the timing might not be before the game is released.”

    Link: link to news.bigdownload.com

  30. cossak says:

    @Noc I agree, I hate losing against an AI opponent, especially when I’ve spent a long time on a particular game. In Civ4, I will generally quit as soon as I think I may lose, even though I may become better at the game and enjoy the experience if I played to the end. I think the reason for this is that in most games, winning is encouraged over all else, and the experience of simply playing the game is unrewarded. This is particularly obvious in games where a significant time investment is required to be able to win. In poker, losing a hand doesn’t mean that you have lost the game, you will learn more about the mechanics of the game and enjoy the experience even if you are not the best player. You also have the opportunity of small victories and potential prize winnings even if you don’t win overall. Whereas in many games, being the best player and ultimately winning the game is the only experience that is rewarded, and therefore playing and not winning is ultimately seen as pointless.

    I don’t know if the poker reference used by Hinterland(s) is completely correct, as there doesn’t seem to be any over-arching or encompassing meta-game that would compensate for losing the individual ‘hands’ or games, of Hinterland, but I haven’t actually played it.

  31. tom says:

    I want quicksave in defender!

  32. Dizet Sma says:

    cossak said:

    I agree, I hate losing against an AI opponent, especially when I’ve spent a long time on a particular game. In Civ4, I will generally quit as soon as I think I may lose…

    Quit as soon as you think you might lose? The ebb and flow of most games means, to me at least, the point I think I might lose is sometimes very close to the point I think I might win, though which comes first is not predictable.

    Also, you hate to lose against an AI, but how about a real opponent? Would you quit out of an unfinished game if you thought you were going to lose?

  33. egg says:

    @Dizet Sma

    Well, I would. When playing Warcraft 3, for instance. Or even Quake 3 sometimes (though the awesomeness of a unbelievable comeback comes to my mind now.. Hmm..).

  34. neofit says:

    “The game’s really short, Neofit. It’s like wanting to save the game in Defender.”
    I seem to remember reading on Qt3 or something how someone lost a 3.5 session due to a crash. OK, he never exited the game or had a broken autosave or something, but a 3.5 hours session is far from short for me. Looks like your average modern shooter :).

    And since apparently the game is as well documented as AoC is (was?), I need the ability to save, try something, then try something else, etc. (I’m the kind of guy who can spend hours making an Architect/shipwright spreadsheet in SWG :) ).

    You want me to lose a few hours just because I was curious to see if mob X will one or two-shoot me, and the sound I will make? In the privacy of my own home in a single-player game? While you are using the money I gave you in any way you want? ;) Fail.

  35. Jeremy says:

    Glad to see I wasn’t the only one who was thinking it seemed a bit like 2.5D dwarf fortress. A bit sad that it’s closer to diablo.

    If there were a demo, I’d be more likely to buy it, as I won’t now.

  36. Wounder says:

    This game is quite likely the best $20 you can spend on gaming right now. It’s not as polished as I’d like, it’s not as lengthy as I’d like… actually, there is a long list of things I’d like to see match my vision of perfection, but it’s intriguing and one of the few games I’ve found to be fun to experiment with classes.

    Also, the concern over the lack of a save system is, somehow, unwarranted. As a father of two boys under four, I value free time higher than gold and don’t deal well with frustrations like “I was forced to run and save a child from imminent death and now my game is screwed (hello, WoW!)” Don’t let that feature/bug deter you, I’d say. It’s really not that big a deal with this game.

    Also, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the Tilted Mill guys for their obvious attention to their game and it’s fans after the game’s release. Patches and (possible?) content within a month of release are going to earn my money in the future, guaranteed.

  37. MonkeyMonster says:

    Hmmm, still undecided on this but seems the general flavour is that at 20$ its a sound purchase and with expected fixes, patches and extensions its will more than make its worth in the long run… I might just give it a go, I knew you guys had to be useful for something!

  38. Sam Combs says:

    SuperNashwan said:
    Mitigating the effect of skill isn’t what makes poker fun (although it does make it accessible, one of the key elements to its popularity) and I really can’t see it making a video game fun.

    I think the randomness of poker is a big part of what makes it fun, and I don’t think Williams is trying to say that it negates skill (even though it might). I think he’s trying to say that the randomness adds a set of interesting decisions you can make, and puts the player in situations they can learn from. I think a as opposed to normal chess comparison would be more apt than poker. It’s argued that normal chess is just memorization, while random chess requires more creative thought and strategic thinking.

  39. Sam Combs says:

    Oops. I think my link broke, I meant to say a random chess (link to en.wikipedia.org) as opposed to a normal chess comparison would be more apt than the poker analogy.

  40. Uglycat says:

    Really could use a tutorial, even if all it was, was how to get food. Starved in my first game and couldn’t work out how to get food. Second game I started with a farmer so that made a bit more sense.

    It would also be nice to have a ‘start over’ button as it seems to only allow you to continue a game?

  41. Jesse McLaughlin says:

    I purchased this game because of RPS coverage and find it to be $20 well spent. Whenever I lack the free time or energy to devote to a longer game, this is what I’ve been turning too (or Mount and Blade cause it’s funny to hit people with clubs).

  42. D says:

    My my, this is unbelievable. I bought the game on day one and quickly felt it needed some polish. It’s very refreshing to find “Content Update plans” immediately followed by “Content Update ready” the next morning. This thing will run and run :)

  43. Nate says:

    I bought Hinterlands because of RPS coverage. It sounded exactly like the kind of game I wanted to play.

    I have been somewhat disappointed. I still have hopes, but that’s mostly because Hinterlands still sounds exactly like the kind of game I’d like to play. I’d recommend a demo, because as has been said, this is a game that some enjoy a lot, while some others are underwhelmed. Unfortunately, part of the reason that it’s an underwhelming game is that Hinterlands is little more than a demo.

    Interface is a little confusing, but it’s easy to get around, once you realize that there’s really only a few things you can do– kill monsters, hire villagers, upgrade buildings, swap inventory, and drink potions. There are maybe seven different kinds of villagers you can hire, and most are just slight variations of a few functions: make food, make money, buffs, make inventory items, and village defense. By the middle of a long game, you have everything you want in your village, and you haven’t even used up all of your village slots.

    Your own character is never able to do anything except move, cause damage, and take damage. Inventory items never affect anything other than your ability to do one of those three things.

    The monsters are very beautiful, and there is a little bit of variety. Not all monsters are present in any given game (although most are). Unfortunately, there’s not much correlation between monsters and difficulty. You could start out fighting level 1 dark elves and end up fighting level 10 berserkers, or it could be the other way around. AI is bizarre, especially for a game where one of the only decisions is whether or not to run from an encounter; casters stay still, while melee types chase, making it a simple matter to separate an Orc warrior from his shamanic backup.

    The concept is interesting, and with enough added content, Hinterlands could be a good game. But as it stands today, playing Hinterlands is like playing the first level of Diablo over and over again to get the best time. It’s a grind fest that never rewards the grind; it’s a fantasy game that fails to be fantastic.

    (And yes, thank you, I’ve played on Hardcore. It’s not that different from one difficulty level to the next.)

  44. cossak says:

    In response; well, I’m not going to quit if I feel I have a reasonable chance of pulling through but if, for example, I have been playing a game of Civ4 for a couple of hours, peacefully building up my civilization, building relationships, and then one of the AIs which is significantly more powerful declares war and starts destroying my troops and cities, I’m not going to finish up playing the game for, potentially, another hour or more if I don’t feel like I can win, even though I might. My point wasn’t that I only play games if I can win, but that not winning is completely unincentivised (is that a word?) to this type of level where only winning matters. I think certain racing games suffer the most from this, grid mitigates it quite well through the personalisation of the racers in front of you whether you are in last place or first, making each place feel like a small victory rather than 1st place being the only worthwhile outcome of a race.

    I think some of these issues still apply in multiplayer games, particularly RTSes, where more experienced players will expect the other players to leave when they think the outcome has been decided, even though the game could still go a number of ways. This is due to time issues as well, admittedly, and is one of the reasons why I wouldn’t quit a game of DotA just because I’m losing, but these feelings are still there.

  45. M_the_C says:

    I have to agree with your point on Racing games.

    Once you have completed a track and you wish to improve your time, finding that you made it to the second corner 2 seconds slower most likely means you won’t beat your previous score, so you give up and restart the race.

  46. Opie says:

    Game could be okay but with the lack of any levels of zoom, your often faced with attacking enemies that are off screen somewhere, strangely for a developer that is supposedly so conscience of quality of their products and who wants to go “indie” they have been strangely quiet on whether they will be putting out a patch that allows the gamers (us) to be able to zoom out a bit.

    At the moment, the games current zoom makes the game look worse than diablo II at 800×600 of which I must say that I still see more landscape in D2 then in Hinterland, in my opinion it’s pert close to being the crippling agent of Hinterland (the lack of any zoom levels)

  47. harvb says:

    I’m quite enjoying it, despite my initial misgivings, and it’s kind of addictive. But oh my goodness why on EARTH didn’t they allow you to scroll with the keyboard? I’ve got RSI and everything.

  48. sakasiru says:

    I was never a fan of hack& slay, but I played this game for hours and hours because it is simply fun. Nothing deeply philosophical, no high end graphics, but fun!
    As for those that think they have seen everything of the game already: TM just put up a halloween special, and I´m positive more such things will be coming up – and most importantly – will keep coming! TM is known for not abandoning a game shortly after release ;-)

  49. Jack9 says:

    I bought the standalone application (pre-Steam release) based on a youtube video and a written review.
    Out of the 40 or so times I’ve started hinterland, I’ve been able to play 3 times. It usually freezes during the loading of the game or the resources*. Reinstallation did not help. Other than that, it was a lot of fun and passer’s-by all wanted to know what it was when watching me play. I hope the Steam version runs better.

    *My own development experience has led me to the conclusion that Torque is a horrible engine prone to problems with very specific causes that are near impossible to figure out.

  50. Shaun Davis says:

    Hey just a heads up, I wanted to let everyone know that Xio Dibin speaks English. I hope I posted in the right location?