In 2013, after 13 years in the videogame industry with AAA studios across Canada, from Ubisoft Montreal to Relic Entertainment in Vancouver, Raphael van Lierop slipped away to rural Cumberland Village on Vancouver Island, 200 kilometres north of big city Victoria, and began his most ambitious game yet.
“It felt time to strike out on my own and do something with more of an independent, creative spirit,” van Lierop says. In his Twitter profile picture he bears a large but clean beard, coloured auburn, hazel and grey, which he refers to as a “survival beard.”
Touted as a first-person survival simulator set in the dangerous, snowy north, The Long Dark was pitched on Kickstarter on September 16, 2013, as an inaugural title for the platform’s launch in Canada. Initial proof of concept included pages of story, concept art, and gameplay details.
“Player skill comes into play in that we don’t spell everything out,” van Lierop says. “As a simulation, we are expecting our players to take the time to learn how the game systems work. There is no manual.
“The game is certainly not a mainstream title, by intent. However, the gameplay has widespread appeal, as does the setting, apparently.”
While The Globe and Mail went so far as to say The Long Dark may be “the most Canadian video game ever,” van Lierop says that the majority of The Long Dark’s backers were outside of Canada.Founded by van Lierop for the development of The Long Dark, Hinterland studio consists of veteran developers across Canada—artists, writers and coders who have collectively worked on dozens of blockbuster games. Despite the allotted credentials of the team behind it, two weeks into the 30-day campaign, The Long Dark had yet to meet half of its $200,000 base-funding goal.
The game hit the internet with a bang, however. In the first day of the campaign, The Long Dark was selected as a Staff Pick under the Canadian Kickstarter listings and earned $20,000 in pledges. Penny Arcade and Gamasutra ran their own features on The Long Dark by the following morning. Later that day, actor Mark Meer (known for his work as lead character Commander Shepard in Mass Effect) was announced to have joined the project as lead voice actor. The pace continued and, by day three, $60,000 had been pledged—30% funding. Van Lierop could be found on Twitter replying to hundreds of fans who reached out to him across the network and thanking each one individually for supporting the game.
But there was still a long way to go to reach the $200,000 goal, and Hinterland was in for their own long dark. Pledges became gruelingly slow; only $25,000 came in over the next seven days.
“If anything, we were over-exposed due to the huge initial burst of interest,” van Lierop says.
An internet comment dated September 21, 2013, reads, “The game sounds interesting, and I like the idea, but, since there’s no gameplay [footage] at all to go off, I’m not sure [about it].” The hesitant commenter wasn’t alone—sentiments echoed across the internet and by day twenty there was still no gameplay footage. With the faltering pledges, it seemed like The Long Dark wouldn’t reach its funding goal before the end of the 30 days.
“Even with my veteran team of developers, who on average have 12-plus years of experience, and who combined have shipped over 40 games, there were ‘on the fencers’ who were still skeptical about our ability to deliver a game.”
Had something gone wrong with the first half of the campaign? No, van Lierop says: It was all part of the plan.
In a separate interview on Reddit, Hinterland’s technical director Alan Lawrence said one of the only things he would have done differently would have been to post gameplay footage on day one. But van Lierop seemed confident in the campaign method.
“We knew there would be a bit of a slower period in the middle of the campaign–there usually is–and we were prepared for it.”
On October 6, 2013, The Long Dark was selected as the Kickstarter Project of the Day, and on October 7—with only nine days left—Hinterland revealed the first footage of prototype gameplay.
“We hit escape velocity,” van Lierop says. “We raised about 60 percent of our total in the last third of the campaign, and more than 25 percent of it came in the last five days.”
Announcements came like a meteor shower: Professional voice actress Jennifer Hale and actor David Hayter (best known as the English Solid Snake in the Metal Gear Solid series) joined the crew; Hinterland partnered with gaming peripheral company Razer; virtual reality support for Oculus Rift was promised; and a downloadable graphic novel adaptation of the game was announced. When the Kickstarter campaign finished nine days later, Hinterland had raised over $250,000—over 125% funding.
“There were over five hundred articles that covered our game in over twenty-five different languages,” van Lierop says. “Kickstarter is a marathon, not a sprint.”Between 2012 and the first half of 2015, 1340 successful videogame Kickstarters earned a cumulative $127,000,000—an average of $95,000 per successful project. On the other hand, only 27 Kickstarters have raised over $3,000,000–7 of which are videogames.
“In the grand scheme, our budget is very modest for the game we are making.”
So what’s the secret to Kickstarter success for indie game studios?
“Having an interesting idea for a project isn’t enough, unless it’s something people can already visualize in their heads,” van Lierop explains. “For example, any of the nostalgia remake projects.”
During the final week of The Long Dark’s Kickstarter, two other videogame campaigns found major success. Hyper Light Drifter by Heart Machine, featuring 16-bit style graphics, raised nearly $650,000 after asking for only $27,000. Mighty No. 9, Developed by one of the original designers of Mega Man as a spiritual successor to the series in old-school style, was pledged nearly $4,000,000.
“Your brilliant idea for a game is only the first step. Focus on the work and figure out how to realize your brilliant idea, even in a rudimentary way, to prove it works,” van Lierop says. “On the flip side, it’s never been more possible to create a game outside of the established industry.”As for the impact on the small community of Cumberland where Hinterland is based, van Lierop likes to think it’s been positive.
“The locals know about the studio and have been very supportive of it, and feel a sense of pride that there is a growing local high-tech industry. It gives hope that the region can diversify beyond a resource-based economy.”
With Hinterland and the success of The Long Dark, van Lierop says he hopes to buck the trend of large, urban hub development.
“The notion that you have to live in a city to make games seems ridiculous. Dedicated, passionate people always find a way. It’s not about geography, but state of mind.”
This article was original published in the Navigator Newspaper on November 27, 2013, as “The Long Dark,” and any dates have been edited accordingly.