Last Friday, we ran an article based on an interview with Hinterland founder and creative director Raph van Lierop about the official launch of the studio's Early Access survival game The Long Dark.
We omitted a portion of the hour-long discussion with van Lierop from that article because it didn't seem to fit. It was a subject we felt was significant, and van Lierop clearly peppered his comments with caveats and carefully chosen words that might not have survived the sort of paraphrasing or trimming down that happens with most interviews. We're presenting those remarks here, minimally edited for ease of reading.
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"I know it happens in community. I know everybody says you're supposed to have a thick skin"
"There's a wonderful energy that comes from working on a game that is in open development and has community feedback," van Lierop told us about developing in Early Access. "It can also go terribly wrong at times in ways that make you want to curl up in a ball under your desk. It's definitely a double-edged sword. I think it's worked really well for us and I really am proud in what we've done as a team in managing our Early Access community."
We asked for an example of a time he wanted to curl up under his desk, and van Lierop told us about a 22-day countdown campaign the studio ran. The payoff being a teaser trailer (embedded below) showing content from the game's story mode for the first time, announcing the PlayStation 4 version, and a release date. Van Lierop said the purpose of the trailer was to re-engage with people who might have given up on the story mode ever launching, and to help the team shift mindset from making the game to finishing the game.
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This is something that van Lierop has experienced on every AAA project he's worked on; a psychological shift that happened for him when a game was revealed with a big E3 trailer, or when everyone on the team started working on the bug database and polishing the game for launch with a non-negotiable release date to meet. It was a big deal for van Lierop, but what he expected to be a celebratory moment quickly showed signs of turning south.
"I've done this for a while, and I really refuse to believe that it's something we should accept, this kind of abuse that comes from community at times"
"We had some people in our community saying, 'They better be launching the game at the end of this countdown or we're going to be pissed off.' And we had to make a choice at one point about whether we'd jump in and try to defuse that expectation or let it go. And I made the call to let it go because I didn't see the point in going through all this trouble to create buzz around an announcement and then trying to defuse it as much as possible before the announcement actually happens. Like, 'Oh actually guys, it's not that exciting. Don't get excited about it.'
"Maybe I was being na´ve, and too in my own head about what was going on with the game and trying to shift psychologically to finaling, but I was really pumped about it and the team was super excited and we were really proud about what we were putting out. So we launched it and had what I would consider a small backlash from some people in our community. Not a lot of people, but it's always a vocal minority. Maybe a few hundred people on Steam and a few dozen people on Reddit who were really upset. There was a lot of brigading and we had some review shenanigans going on."
Van Lierop said the team had never seen more than 10 negative reviews on Steam in a single day prior to the countdown campaign, but on the first day after the trailer release The Long Dark received 110 negative reviews.
"It was just people on Steam saying, 'Get in there and give them a negative review to show them they can't do stuff like this to us.'
"I think there's something a little bit broken about our internet culture...where that's supposed to be something that's normal and we're just supposed to roll with it"
"I'd been hoping to go into this hopeful finaling process and finally being able to tell people this is the launch date and share with them content they'd been asking for for so long. But it shifted into this negative thing, and suddenly I was getting all this terrible stuff in emails and social media about what an asshole I am and how they hope my company goes out of business. All this stuff.
"I know it happens in community. I know everybody says you're supposed to have a thick skin. I've been doing this for 15 years. I've been dealing with community for 15 years. I've worked on [Warhammer] 40K games and World War II games. And if you think survival game communities are particular about what they want, nobody is more particular than people who like World War II or 40K. So I've done this for a while, and I really refuse to believe that it's something we should accept, this kind of abuse that comes from community at times.
"And I want to clarify, it's important for me that you make note that 99.9% of our community is extremely supportive and has been throughout this whole process. It's just a small, vocal minority of people who lost their shit at that moment, out of passion and love for the game, I guess you could say. They were really anxious about the game, wanted it and found out they weren't going to get it and they were upset.
"I probably could have managed it better, and I apologized publicly to the community for my mistake. It didn't seem heartfelt to some people, but it was heartfelt. I was sorry for them being upset, and I was sorry for us to have lost the opportunity to have that wonderful moment with our community and share that with them.
"Beyond a certain point, I don't think I owe people to be a punching bag for them when they're feeling upset"
"That was probably the only moment on this project where I felt super bummed about how things had gone. We had to shake it off and kept going, and I guess we poured those feelings into finishing. I was really surprised at the strength of the reaction from some people and how they chose to express that toward me personally. And I won't go to Reddit anymore. I don't think it's a good place. Obviously there are a lot of good players in there, and I hope they migrate to some of our other communities. But I won't give my time to a group of people who think it's OK to do that to me and my team.
"I think there's something a little bit broken about our internet culture, if you can call it that, where that's supposed to be something that's normal and we're just supposed to roll with it. Because I think it's not normal. I don't think it's normal at all.
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"And I don't think I've had it anywhere near as bad as a lot of people. I'm not trying to make my story seem that serious. For whatever I might have experienced, there are people who've experienced a hundred or a thousand times worse with doxing and all kinds of terrible stuff I'd never be able to deal with. This isn't a 'woe is me' story, but you asked for a moment, and that was the moment for me that didn't land exactly the way I had hoped.
"And you can say I was na´ve to think it would turn out otherwise. I think I was really in the mindset of being so excited about finally sharing this news with people, and putting it forward in the hopes there was a passionate, loving community that wanted to have that information. And most of them were. And some of them weren't. Some were really happy to jump on that, and for whatever their own reasons, turn it into something I don't think it needed to be.
"And since then, a lot of them have come back and apologized, and I've apologized to people for the way I reacted to it as well. And I'm always learning! [laughs] Or I try to! This is the thing about running a small studio and being an independent developer and working in this open development model: you put yourself out there.
"And I think that's good. We should be out there, and we want to be out there. But I'll draw the line, also. Beyond a certain point, I don't think I owe people to be a punching bag for them when they're feeling upset."