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Interview: Hinterland On Going Indie, Avoiding Zombies

The Un-Undead

There’s a lot that can be said for the life of a successful triple-A developer. Job security, financial stability, and having your name in the credits of a game that sells millions of copies are all nice to have. So why would someone in the enviable position of being one of those big-name developers decide to quit their job and make an indie game with a few friends instead?

It turns out there’s quite a few reasons, actually. Mitch Bowman spoke to three gentlemen from Hinterland Games, a new indie studio put together by a handful of long-time industry veterans, to find out what they are, and how they're affecting the development of The Long Dark.

Raphael van Lierop

“We lived through the transition to next-gen, when the team size ballooned and the budgets got huge, and the expectations increased – and the stress increased too," says Raphael van Lierop, the Creative Director of Hinterland Games, and Dawn Of War/Company Of Heroes veteran. "And the rewards didn’t necessarily increase in a corresponding way. I don’t mean the financial rewards, I mean more the personal reward of working on some of those games.”

Alan Lawrence, former Volition lead and Hinterland’s Technical Director, has a similar opinion of triple-A development. “After you work on these big projects, you sort of fondly remember what it was like to work on a smaller team,” he says. “When I started on Freespace for the PC it was like twelve people, and I always felt that was the time I enjoyed the most, and felt like I had the most impact in some ways, so I wanted to get back to working on a small team.”

Dave Chan, the new Audio Director at Hinterland formerly responsible for BioWare's sounds, remarks, “I had been on the multi-year, massive team games where, y’know, sometimes you’d walk into the lunch room and there’d be five new people you’d never met before. And I just thought well, I don’t really want to go back into that world.”

All three of the aforementioned Hinterland developers have had long, successful careers in the world of triple-A development. They’ve worked on some legendary titles, from classics like Baldur’s Gate II and the original Dawn of War, to more modern hits like Far Cry 3 and the current-gen Red Faction games. Between them, they have well over 40 years of experience at big studios, and now they’re ready to try something a little bit different.

Dave Chan

Hinterland Games has been set up to be about as different from the big, corporate studios as they could imagine. Ostensibly headquartered in a small town on Northern Vancouver Island, right in the middle of a seriously majestic tract of the Pacific Northwest, Hinterland is actually made up of people from a bunch of different places. They work remotely from their respective homes, in locations all across North America.

Raph, who spearheads the studio’s operations from his home on Vancouver Island, says there’s a good reason they operate the way they do. “I’ve jumped back and forth between Vancouver and Montreal a few times, and it always takes a toll. We know a lot of people in the industry who have moved a lot for jobs, and often those jobs don’t pan out. For me, family is a huge focus, so I said right away if we’re gonna do this and make a studio, this is gonna be a family first studio. We’re going to be dedicated to creating amazing games and doing great things, but we’re also gonna make sure that we can still have a life outside of that.”

Alan Lawrence

This is evidently an attractive proposition for the folks who have joined the Hinterland roster. Alan, who works from his home in Bloomington, Illinois, tells me during our interview that being able to stay in Illinois and raise his two young kids was a crucial factor in his agreement to join Hinterland in the first place. Dave is staying put in Edmonton, and the rest of the team is strewn about in places as far-flung as Toronto.

So what is this ragtag band of veterans doing with their time, now that they’ve gotten this new studio together? They’re working on something called The Long Dark, which in their words is a “first-person post-disaster survival sim.” With an art style that resembles everything good about that of Telltale’s The Walking Dead games, and some great clips of audio narrative to be found on their Kickstarter campaign page, everything I’ve seen about the game paints an intriguing picture, even without any gameplay footage on offer just yet.

“From the very beginning, we said there’s no point in us trying to make some sort of triple-A mainstream game," explains van Lierop, "because if we were to do that, then why don’t we just stay at the studios we were working at. Why don’t we just continue doing what we’re doing? So if we’re gonna be independent, if we’re gonna strike off on our own, we kind of have a responsibility to do something different."

Hinterland promises that The Long Dark will be something pretty out of the ordinary, as they stretch their legs and exercise their indie-dev freedoms. And Raphael isn’t the only team member who’s enjoying the new-found possibilities that come with being an independent studio. Dave Chan offers an interesting analogy about the way they’re doing things:

“It’s kind of reminiscent of the old Warner Bros cartoons. If you talk to anyone who worked at Warner Bros back in the early Bugs Bunny era, you find out that they weren’t making cartoons for kids, they weren’t relying on market research and focus groups and all that – they were making things that made them laugh. And that’s the way that we feel about The Long Dark. This is something that we’re going to sit and play.”

Fortunately, it looks like The Long Dark will also be eschewing the zombie trope that has overtaken the vast majority of recent survival-oriented games. With the abundance of quality zombie games already available, and the likes of Dying Light and State of Decay headed for the PC in the near future, it’s probably in Hinterland’s best interest to stay as far away from that sort of thing as possible.

“As much as I like The Walking Dead and Left 4 Dead and things like that," says Dave Chan, "I was also intrigued by the idea of… here’s a post-disaster world, but no zombies." The Long Dark will be pitting the player against challenges that land far closer to home: other people, and the stark realities of trying to feed and clothe oneself in a world that has undergone a “quiet apocalypse.” Chan goes on to say, "The classic conflict they teach you about in writing classes and things like that is man against nature, man against man and man against himself. That’s kind of the way that I look at The Long Dark, and believe me that’s enough conflict – it’s more than enough to create a really compelling story around.”

“I’ve been a fan of the post-disaster/post-apocalyptic kinda stuff for a long time, and knew that doing yet another zombie game was not the right way to go,” adds van Lierop. “For me, those scenarios have always been interesting because of the pressure cooker aspect of how it brings out the best and worst in people. I thought, we can do that with storytelling, but we can also do that with gameplay, and we can do that in a game in a way that no other medium can do. We can put the player in control of those decisions and they have to live with them afterwards, and maybe they’ll learn something interesting about themselves by doing that.”

Given the Hinterland's history in the industry, and huge amount of experience on a bundle of classic games, it seems like a relatively safe bet that they’ll be able to deliver on at least the majority of these ambitions.

The Long Dark has two weeks to go on Kickstarter, and is almost halfway to its $200,000 CAD goal.

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The Long Dark

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Mitch Bowman