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What's behind The Long Dark's long tail?

Creative director Raph van Lierop talks about how Steam is set up for self-perpetuating success, and why survival games and post-apocalyptic stories are so popular

It's been a big week for Hinterland Studios. The Vancouver Island-based indie launched its wilderness survival game The Long Dark on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4. It also released a cinematic short based on the game with narration from Christopher Plummer, and announced a feature film adaptation with Resident Evil franchise producer Jeremy Bolt.

While its official launch date was this week, The Long Dark was in Steam's Early Access program for almost three years as a regularly updated sandbox game. And even though it's out now, the official launch only includes the first two parts of a planned five-part episodic narrative called Wintermute that will roll out through this year and next. So when Hinterland founder and creative director Raphael van Lierop spoke with GamesIndustry.biz earlier this week, he was keenly aware that as far as the game and the team had come, there is further yet to go. The big differences of having officially launched the game are that it now includes some story mode content, it's available on the PS4 (which lacks a proper equivalent to Early Access), and it's more expensive.

Like some other Early Access games, The Long Dark bumped its price up for the proper release, going from $20 to $35 in May. There isn't a particularly long track record of games that have raised their prices over the years, but in Hinterland's case, the impact it had on the balance sheet was ultimately modest.

"There was definitely a change in the number of units, but the absolute revenue was the same or greater," van Lierop said. "With a higher price point, obviously you're attracting a different audience on Steam and it's a little bit of a harder sell for a game that's in Early Access because generally the Early Access price point is lower than that."

It's perhaps surprising the game's sales didn't shrink more considerably given how price sensitive the userbase on Steam is. Van Lierop admitted that the storefront is "driven by the sales culture," but not as a criticism or lament. To the contrary, he suggested it has been a boon for The Long Dark in particular.

"People don't talk about it that much because a lot of it happens behind the scenes, but I think one of Steam's magic bullets is the wishlisting system..."

"People don't talk about it that much because a lot of it happens behind the scenes, but I think one of Steam's magic bullets is the wishlisting system that exists there," van Lierop explained. "What you see happening on the backend is that when you go to a big sale event like the summer sale or the winter sale, if you sell well or are selling well and/or have positive user ratings--fortunately for us we had those things going for us and have a great relationship with Valve and Steam--they promote your game during the sales. So what ends up happening is you convert your current wishlists to sales."

Van Lierop said The Long Dark has converted about 26% of its wishlists to sales over time, while he believes the Steam average is closer to 18%.

"So you convert a bunch of people that currently have wishlisted the game since the last sale, and the visibility on the front page generates a lot of new wishlists," he said. "So often by the end of the sale, you'll have converted a whole bunch of people to sales, and you'll wind up with more wishlists than you started with. It's a self-perpetuating system in a way.

"In that regard, the base price obviously has an impact on how effectively you can convert because a lot of people are looking for that $9.99 or less value. Putting the game out now for $34.99 with the promise of three more episodes coming and continued updates to survival mode, it gives us more headroom over the long term. In a way, we've reset our players' expectations around the value for the money and it gives us more flexibility for the future around how we discount the game for Steam and other platforms and maintain that average revenue at a level we need it to be."

Since its official launch, The Long Dark reached as high as second on the Steam best-sellers list, behind only PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds. While the two are very different games, they share a genre concept that has become increasingly popular in recent years: Survival. Games like Rust, Don't Starve, Ark: Survival Evolved, Day Z, No Man's Sky, and more are tasking players with scrounging their worlds for basic necessities, battling against the elements, or making moment-to-moment gameplay require near-constant upkeep. And they're making a lot of money doing it.

tld2

The Long Dark pits players against the harsh Canadian wilderness

"Three years ago, I would have attributed the success [of survival games] to it feeling a bit fresh," van Lierop said. "Certainly, it's not fresh any more. I can't speak for other survival games, but for our game, I think there's something about the striving for survival against all odds kind of thing, and the sense of desperation but also triumph that comes from the small things, like surviving to see another sunset, or finding that can of peaches just as you were starving to death, whatever the moment ends up being. There's something about it that resonates with people. I don't know if it speaks to state of the world around us right now. I think there's something about facing your own sense of mortality, even if it's in a game, that really connects with people.

"Stepping back to the larger survival genre, it's just an evolution of what we already saw 10 years ago with RPG systems getting added to every game. Suddenly every shooter had a progression system, and now we kind of take it for granted. And I think we're starting to see the same thing with survival mechanics. Suddenly every AAA game now will have a survival mode with a hunger/thirst/fatigue bar or whatever.

"Let's face it, the world is a mess right now, and the post-apocalyptic scenario doesn't seem as far away as it might have a few years ago."

"It's a set of mechanics that I think a few years ago a lot of mainstream AAA developers making action games would have looked at and thought, 'Who the hell wants to manage a bunch of that crap? That's for The Sims or whatever.' And actually, a lot of people want to manage that stuff. They want to feel that sense of vulnerability and have a layer of maintaining their needs on top of whatever other mechanics may exist in their particular game, whether it's a shooter or whatever. In our case, I'd like to think it's a bit different because we're only a survival game."

There's another trendy topic at play in The Long Dark: the apocalypse. Like so many other contemporary pop culture successes, The Long Dark is set in the strangely popular setting of a world where society has collapsed.

"There's something fascinating about having to consider what tomorrow might look like in the aftermath of some kind of disaster. Whether in our case a geomagnetic disaster where no technology works anymore, or a zombie apocalypse or some kind of viral outbreak or whatever the premise happens to be, I think there's something really fascinating about considering the question of what you would do. How far would you choose to go to survive, to protect your family, to protect yourself?

"And let's face it, the world is a mess right now, and the post-apocalyptic scenario doesn't seem as far away as it might have a few years ago," van Lierop said. "And every week it seems to get worse. Not to be cynical, but that's just the reality. And maybe there's some kind of escapism that comes from thinking about a world where all that shit is gone, and now we're just down to the baser survival instincts. Let's not worry about what Donald Trump's gonna tweet next; let's just worry about where we're going to get our next can of beans, right?

"So maybe it's simplification of a world that's out of our control, and thinking what happens if we just reset the whole thing? Let's not worry about our mortgages and what people think about us on Facebook and Reddit and all that crap; let's just worry about where I'm going to get my next meal, how am I going to take care of my family, what are my neighbors going to do while I'm sleeping?

"We're constantly inundated with news of the world around us and that can be really debilitating and anxiety-producing at times, and maybe there's something that feels simple about straight up survival...I don't know if post-apocalyptic fiction is more or less popular when times are like this, but I'm guessing people think a lot more about these scenarios, and for some of them playing a game like The Long Dark might be like testing the waters. [laughs]"

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