What survival game design means to the studio behind The Long Dark

Raphael van Lierop, founder and director at Hinterland Games, discusses what survival game design means to his studio when designing The Long Dark.
Raphael van Lierop is founder and director at Hinterland Games, the independent studio behind The Long Dark, which pits players against a frigid Northern wilderness. Much of the original design thinking behind The Long Dark related to my enjoyment of exploration-survival experiences like Stalker and Fallout 3. I felt that the most compelling part of those experiences was the exploration of abandoned, forgotten places, and the sense that there was always one more building to search just over the horizon. The starting point for The Long Dark was asking if we could build a compelling experience around just that -- exploring, moving through the world, finding resources, and balancing that loop around the threats and obstacles you would encounter along the way, almost all purely from the natural world, and avoiding all the B-movie tropes of the zombie survival or survival horror genres. It's always been important to us that the environment be a character in the game, and that the player's mastery of the game world come from their own willingness to take risks to explore that environment, analyze what the game is telling them as they do so, and then make good decisions around that. So, our gameplay is built around an exploration-focused core loop, supported by a deep survival simulation. We are not primarily a combat-driven, or crafting-driven, experience, like most of the other survival games.

"No hand-holding" in The Long Dark

One of our firmest design principles is simply, "no hand-holding." This speaks to our belief in our player, our trust that they will make the effort to figure out something that isn't spoon-fed to them. This is why we refer to the game as a simulation -- because our "no hand-holding" design philosophy hearkens back to the days where games were challenging and didn't do all your thinking for you. They provided the information, but the player had to figure out what to do with that information if they hoped to succeed.
"Our 'no hand-holding' design philosophy hearkens back to the days where games were challenging and didn't do all your thinking for you."
Player feedback has also been a big part of our design focus from the very beginning, because we didn't want to clutter our beautiful world with a ton of HUD elements. But the simulation is very detailed and we expect the player to track a lot of information and knowledge so they can make good decisions. This has pushed us to find novel ways to communicate gameplay-relevant information through the world itself. For example, rather than have a thermometer on the HUD, we have breath vapor emitted in front of the player camera. The density and opacity of this vapor tells you something about how cold it is outside. We supplement that with teeth chattering sounds, or monologue where the character comments on the environment (e.g. "I'm too cold to think"). These are all first-layer cues that then prompt the player to dig deeper into other tools that provide more granular information. This approach has been central to our design philosophy from very early on in the project, and while it's meant we had to find tough work-arounds, we believe the effort to support the strength of player immersion in the world has been highly worth it.

Iteration upon layered systems

Another important pillar for us has less to do with design and more to do with development methodology: that is to say that our process is highly iterative. We tend to build our systems in layers, getting the first layer in and then iterating based on our own internal playtesting and feedback we pull from the community. If the first layer is sufficient, we leave it alone so it can mature and settle in to the rest of the gameplay foundation. As the game evolves and the community matures, we continue tweaking and improving various systems. Sometimes we pull things out if they don't seem to be working. Other times, we see a system has earned its place in the game but needs some extra love, so we take it to the next iteration -- more depth, better interface, a tighter presentation pass, etc. So, as you can see, we have a very player-experience centric view on things, and a lot of our design philosophy and development methodology is built around that view. We work from high-concept down to mechanics -- we have a clear idea of the experience we are trying to create for the player, and all our systems, tuning, and aesthetics are built around that intended experience. We've never approached The Long Dark as a series of genre-conventions with our own wrapper. Anything that's in the game is there because it has proven its worth in supporting our vision.

Surviving survival game design

One of the toughest challenges is finding a good balance between what players expect from a "realistic" survival experience, and what elements you can make function in a game, while having it be compelling. You'll get a lot of feedback about how to make your experience more realistic, and while those things might add to the authenticity, they may not all improve the game. We don't talk a lot about "fun" in designing The Long Dark, but we do talk about whether or not something is compelling and will drive someone to want to keep playing. Knowing where it's best to abstract things, and where it's best to embrace realism, is one of the toughest design challenges we face. The way to navigate it is to constantly question if you are remaining true to the core values of your game and the promise of your player experience. If you can feel good about the answer to that, then you're going to be fine.
"Knowing where it's best to abstract things, and where it's best to embrace realism, is one of the toughest design challenges we face."
In our Sandbox mode, currently in Alpha on Steam Early Access, the only player objective is to survive for as long as possible. As we update the game, we provide more and differentiated ways for players to optimize their situation and push themselves a little further, since survival is really what's driving the player's compulsion. We regularly review existing systems or tuning that might not be working quite right, based on player feedback, and consider how things are perceived against our intention for them -- sometimes those things don't line up as closely as you would like, and you have to tweak them. With every update, we generate a list of new things we'd like to add, things that aren't quite working that we'd like to fix, new ideas we'd like to experiment with, and then things we just need to maintain or polish. The things that are added are edited and playtested within the entire Sandbox so we can understand how they influence the game as a whole. We have a small group of internal playtesters we call the Scouts -- they are pulled from our community and are our super testers -- and they get access to early dev builds to help us playtest, provide us with impressions, feedback, help us find bugs, etc. We use this feedback as our basis for the first-pass on tuning and balancing. Once we've stomped all the bugs we can find, and have brought the build to a point where we feel happy with it, we put it out to the community and see what they think. Then we spend a few days hotfixing, look at the feedback, and then head right back into the next update cycle. This micro-loop of updates then fits into a larger roadmap for the game. So we get a little further along our roadmap with each update.

Learning from The Long Dark's audience

We've been learning that not everyone sees "survival simulation" the same way, and that there's a wide range of tastes regarding how challenging or realistic a survival game needs to be to be compelling. We've been learning that players in general want a game that rewards them for thinking, and doesn't penalize them with meaningless randomness. We've been using this feedback and working hard to incorporate it into a set of game systems with outcomes that the player can feel ownership of. We think we're on the right track, and in general our players seem to agree (validated by our 95 percent positive Steam reviews). Mostly, we've been learning that players embrace a challenge and don't mind failing as long as the failure seems fair. As one of our community members captured so perfectly when he said -- "usually the thing that kills you in The Long Dark is yourself."

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