One Hit Wonders of Game Design: Hinterland

Role-playing survival game is willing to take risks

Hinterland is one of those games that I keep harping on in blog posts, as it was the closest to being one of my favorite games of all time. Sadly, Hinterland came out at the wrong time both from the developer’s standpoint and the industry.

Hinterland was an action RPG with light city-building. Your mission was to tame the wilderness section by section while providing enough food for your people, and paying your taxes to the king. At the start, you choose your lord from several different classes, this affects your starting equipment, special bonuses or weakness and your upgrade choices on level up.

After that, you choose the starting conditions of the world which determine the difficulty and affect your score multiplier for bragging rights if you win.

The basic flow of the game was that villagers would come to your town looking for a spot to set up. Each person had a food cost that must be met and can provide services and tax to the town.

Anyone who moves in to your town can be recruited as part of your party to go out into the wilderness to fight. All villagers and your character could be equipped with loot found while exploring, with some of the loot can boost the capabilities of your people back in the town.

Hinterland is similar in its basic design to Little King Story from earlier in this blog series. But while LKS was linear, Hinterland was randomized and was more akin to an action RPG. The combination of building your city and supporting it with the loot you find in the world while improving your people was a great dual progression system.

Sadly Hinterland had a lot of issues in terms of quality. The graphics were poor, there were game crashing bugs and many of the citizens were imbalanced with the rest of the game. For example : party members who naturally level up as opposed to those who show up at the same level had better stats.

What that meant was that if you kept 3 villagers alive they can help you steam roll through anything and renders the other choices moot. The problems with Hinterland can be traced to the time it was put out.

Hinterland was the fourth major game to be released from Tilted Mill. There previous three titles while interesting takes on the city builder genre, did not sell well. Hinterland was their first Indie title and the developers said that they were releasing it at a budget price. The reason was that at this point, they did not have the funding for another major game release.

The term budget price has a different definition depending on the studio in question. Back then a game from a major developer released at a budget price meant that it would not have a lot features and the developers weren’t going to spend a lot of time on it.

But an Indie developer releasing at a budget price, meant that there was quality, but the game wasn’t developed with as many bells and whistles as a full retail release.

The quality of Indie games both in terms of graphics and gameplay have improved dramatically over the years to the point that they can compete with retail games. 10$ or below hits like The Binding of Isaac, World of Goo, Dungeons of Dredmor among others, were high quality titles that gave retail games a run for their money.

If Hinterland was released today with the design philosophy of the Indie market, things could have fared better for the game. As it stands, Hinterland’s concept of combining city building and action rpgs is the basis for my dream game: The one that I want to make just for me and damn everyone else. A fully featured city builder that allows you to go out into the world to fight and find resources with a customize party would be a dream come true.

  • “The important part to remember is that the term “Indie “is different today than it was in 2008. Back then a game released at a budget price meant that it would not have a lot features and the developers weren't going to spend a lot of time on it.”

    I have to disagree with this. Vogel has been releasing quality indie RPGS for ages. Sure, they're backwards graphically but they have tons of content – dozens and dozens of hours of play time. I can point to other games: Proudfoot's games (hailing from the 90s); Knights of the Chalice (though that might not have come out yet, it wasn't that much later that it did); The Space Empires games (dating way back); and I have to be forgetting a bunch of stuff. Depths of Peril was out that year. Jets N Guns was an old man at that point (iirc). There's plenty of small studio/indie/etc releases that were better done than Hinterlands, and many were certainly comfortable going toe to toe with the big boys.

    I don't think the meaning of “indie” had anything to do with it. Its possible part of the problem was Tilted Mill doing software in a way it had never done before.

    I think a bigger issue is that this was something fairly new. It can trace roots back to other games, but it was trying to fulfill a new niche really. That's not easy.

    It's too bad, because I would like to see this style of game tackled again. It had some interesting ideas and if we could get other people making it, we'd probably see some interesting evolution

  • You have a point about the indie term. I remember with early interviews and talk from Tilted Mill about Hinterland, they were talking about the game being a “budget release”. I'm going to edit that sentence.

    They didn't want to spend a lot of time on the design of the game, and wanted it to be a quick sell.

  • I think “budget release” is the perfect way to describe it.

  • I definitely want an improved Hinterland. This game has the concept of the type of game I want, but it was just not polished enough. The game can get stumped, no regenerating baddies to gain experience with could screw your game.

    The games closest to Hinterlands which are in the Pipeline are Firsaken Fortress and Dead State. I hope these two games deliver.

    • Same here, fingers crossed that if Medieval Mayor from Tilted Mill does well, that they’ll revisit Hinterland at some point.