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Long Dark dev criticises Manor Lords for lack of updates, Hooded Horse CEO replies that not every game needs to be "some live-service boom or bust"

Medieval town-builder under no publisher pressure to expand

The key art for Manor Lords, showing a knight atop a horse observing a castle town.
Image credit: Hooded Horse

The publishers of recent city builder sensation Manor Lords and elder survival sim juggernaut The Long Dark are having a mostly gentlepersonly skirmish about how many significant updates a game should have in early access, and the potential consequences in terms of both developer overwork and players losing interest.

Yesterday, Hinterlands CEO Raphael van Lierop published a LinkedIn post describing Manor Lords as “a pretty interesting case-study in the pitfalls of Early Access development when a game with a small team (and heavily marketed as such) hits the reality of a hungry audience”. Much like RPS’s in-house bourgeois serf-botherer Nic Reuben, Van Lierop is keen on Manor Lords, describing it as “of very high quality”, but has a bone to pick with the shortage of major additions since release.

“It launched with a pretty strong base game but without much content,” van Lierop writes. “A heavily systems-centric game needs either a range of maps, game modes, or some amount of proc-gen dynamism to keep it fresh.

“Manor Lords has none of those things. So once you played 5-10 rounds of the game, there's nothing more to do. The fixed maps and resourcing simplicity mean there are not many different permutations of the early game because the starting conditions are almost always the same. This is not great for an RTS/city-builder.”

Van Lierop claims that Manor Lords developers Slavic Magic are unable to meet the need for expansion because the studio is essentially one person, Grzegorz Styczeń (he’s had some help with the sheepgut-based soundtrack), but feels nonetheless that Hooded Horse should have worked with Styczeń to roll out some juicy changes closer to launch.

“As a result of the lack of updates, the CCUs [concurrent users worldwide] have plummeted since launch (which isn't that unusual - it's the current trend for a lot of Early Access titles that blow up these days),” he writes. “But given the huge number of wishlists and hype around it leading up to launch, this is something the developer and publisher should have been better prepared for, IMO.”

“Early Access is a marathon, and when you launch you need to have your next major content expansion pretty much in the queue,” the post continues. “The game has been out for 2.5 months and there have been three fairly small patches with no new features or content.

“As such, I've put the game aside and don't expect to look at it again for another 6 months, at which point I'll probably be focused on playing something else. It's really hard to get people's attention back once you've lost it.”

Van Lierop concludes with the advice that early access game developers plan “2-3 major updates with new content and features (in addition to whatever hotfixes you need to roll out)” within three months of release.

That’s not how Tim Bender, CEO of Manor Lords publisher Hooded Horse, sees the situation. He describes van Lierop’s post as “exactly the kind of distorted endless growth/burden of expectations/line must go up perspective that causes so much trouble in the games industry”. He’s also unconcerned by Manor Lords falling behind its initial vast popularity, poking fun at “the apparently dark reality that some people, after enjoying their purchase of a premium, single-player title, might decide to go on and play another game (The horror! The horror!).”

Bender says that he has cautioned Styczeń not to pay attention to comments about players drifting away from Manor Lords. “Before the release, I had a chat with Manor Lords’ dev. I told him that after release, he was going to hear from all sorts of commenters talking about missed opportunities because he failed to grow as fast as they wanted, and judging the game a failure by some kind of expectation they formed.

“I told him to ignore all that — to focus on his core vision for the game, and to keep in mind that the Early Access road is long and that he should not feel any sense of pressure from the expectations of others — for both his own health and stress levels over the coming years and for preserving the state of calm and peaceful mind that supports his creative vision.

“If this industry is to find a more sustainable path forward, we need to move away from takes like [van Lierop’s post],” Bender concludes. “Success should not create an ever raising bar of new growth expectations. Not every game should be aimed at becoming some live-service boom or bust. And a release should not begin an ever-accelerating treadmill on which devs are forced to run until their mental or physical health breaks down.”

Missing from the discussion is a sense of how much cash Slavic Magic and Hooded Horse need right now to sustain on-going Manor Lords development. I think Bender is in the right of things, but in van Lierop’s defence, he’s calling for a specific rate of new expansions to keep players coming back, not crunching for "endless" growth. Hinterland themselves aren’t big on overwork in the name of fattening the roadmap – The Long Dark’s opening screen includes the words "made without crunch by people who care about their players at a studio that cares about its people".

We spoke to Bender ourselves earlier in the year about how Manor Lords will change during early access. He described Styczeń’s approach as “collaborative” and “community-engaged”. If you’re fond of the game and struggling for things to do within it, maybe take a leaf from the Reubensday Tome and stalk the livestock.

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