How Hinterland manages a workforce spread around North America

Raphael van Lierop wanted to stay on Vancouver Island—without compromising on talent. Remote working was the answer

A scene from The Long Dark, by Hinterland Games.

A scene from The Long Dark, by Hinterland Studios. (Hinterland Studios)

A couple years ago, I wrote a story about how Raphael van Lierop, an industrious video game designer, was starting his own studio. The interesting thing about his company, Hinterland Studios, was where he was basing it and how it was all going to work.

Van Lierop had tired of the game business grind, where designers usually have to relocate to one of Canada’s big hubs: Vancouver, Montreal or Toronto. He wanted to remain in his home of Cumberland, B.C., a tiny town of just over 3,000 people on Vancouver Island.

Unfortunately, the island wasn’t exactly awash in capable game designers, so Van Lierop had to get creative. When he launched Hinterland Studios in 2013, he did it as a distributed company.

The idea is similar to telecommuting, where employees work from home a few days a week and communicate with the office by phone and internet, but it’s also completely different. Rather than going into the office a few days a week, a distributed workforce only rarely congregates centrally, or sometimes never.

Hinterland was going to be a studio that would use internet-based tools to design games, with employees collaborating from all around rather than all being located in the same building. They’d meet up in person once every few months, but otherwise all of their interactions would be done electronically.

The plan helped Van Lierop secure big-name talent for key positions. His technical director, Alan Lawrence, was based in Illinois. His art and musical directors, Hokyo Lim and Marianne Krawczyk, were both in Los Angeles. Some of his programmers were in Edmonton.

They got to work on The Long Dark, a survival experience that may very well be the most Canadian video game ever made. In it, you play William McKenzie, a Canadian pilot who has crashed in the Canadian wilderness. The only thing that would make it any more Canadian is if the Trailer Park Boys showed up with a big bucket of poutine:

An early version of the game was released for PC users via Steam Early Access, to good reviews and more than 350,000 units sold. It’s now also available on Xbox One as part of the console’s Game Previews program.

The Long Dark is still a work in progress, with the idea being that players can see how it’s progressing on the way to its final version.

I checked in with Van Lierop a few weeks ago to see how the distributed company approach was serving him. It turns out he couldn’t be happier.

“We have the best of all worlds,” he says.

Hinterland Studios has doubled in size since 2013, up to 20 employees now. The company is now operating as a sort of hybrid, with half of those employees working within an actual studio in Cumberland and the other half still scattered about North America. When The Long Dark began to see some success, designers started to want to move to the island.

Despite the hybrid shift, employees still work in a distributed manner, with most communications happening electronically. They use Slack, the file-sharing and chatting tool, Skype and Basecamp, a project management application, to do most of their work.

Some of the local employees also benefit from the distributed system, given that they still have to commute for close to an hour. That sort of thing is de rigeur in big cities, but it’s excessive on Vancouver Island, Van Lierop says, so they telecommute a few days a week.

“The team is really integrated. Anyone who has moved here has done so for quality-of-life reasons. There’s been no pressure for them to move on the basis of getting a job with Hinterland,” he says.

The distributed model also serves as a competitive advantage since it allows the company to recruit people on more than just their willingness to move.

“Early on I had no intention of bringing anyone over to the island because it was a very risky startup. I just didn’t feel like I could offer anyone any kind of certainty over what the future could bring,” Van Lierop says. “Now, we’re able to pull in talent based on their interest in the project, their fit for the team and their skill as opposed to where they happen to live.”

Telecommuting and distributed workforces have been a flashpoint of debate over the past few years, most notably around the time that Hinterland started up. Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer in 2013 killed the company’s work-from-home program, saying it wasn’t good for the business culture.

Van Lierop agrees to some extent—face-to-face communications and meetings are still necessary because they can often result in unexpected ideas springing up. But it also doesn’t have to be a case of either-or, which is why all the employees meet up every few months.

“Those communications still happen, you just have to be a little more deliberate about them,” he says.

The upside of the distributed workforce is clear, though. For smaller startups, it’s a way for innovation to happen outside of big cities. That’s especially important in Canada, where thousands of entrepreneurs are forced to relocate to bigger hubs if they want to realize their ideas.

Hinterland Studios may be a sign of things to come, where smaller regions like Vancouver Island can start to become internationally competitive.

“Hinterland and The Long Dark never would have happened without embracing that distributed model,” Van Lierop says. “There just wasn’t the talent based on the island.”