When Darkest Dungeon first launched on Steam Early Access in February 2015, it was almost universally beloved. A unique, polished, fleshed-out experience on Early Access? It was practically unheard of. So it was all happily ever after from there, right? Hardly. For a few months, things went according to plan. The punishingly difficult dungeon-crawler RPG/trauma simulator soared on wings of praise from critics and masochistic fans alike. As our own Kirk Hamilton said at the time: "Darkest Dungeon feels remarkably far along. It's got a lot of levels to play through, a bunch of characters, a ton of different gameplay elements all woven together and apparently fully functional. It's deep, chewy and complex. You can't currently play it to completion, but that doesn't make it feel any less complete."
Eventually, though, honeymoon periods end, and some end nasty. For Darkest Dungeon, the wake-up call came when developer Red Hook Studios added two controversial mechanics in July 2015: corpses and heart attacks. Darkest Dungeon's combat is all about positioning, and corpses added an extra layer of sometimes frustrating complexity to that. Meanwhile, heart attacks could cause characters to permanently die when they reached a certain level of stress, causing some players to complain that the game relied too much on randomness rather than authentic difficulty.
Red Hook defended their design decisions, and the response from some players became increasingly vitriolic. "I remember asking, 'Is this the right feature for the game?'" game designer Tyler Sigman said to me in an interview. "And then, 'Even if it is, should we walk it back because there are enough people upset? Even if we believe in this feature in our hearts?'"
"We would just sit on Google Hangouts, me and Tyler, and try to argue every possible perspective," added creative director Chris Bourassa. "We'd switch camps on each other. We did a lot of soul searching. The prevailing dread was just that we'd had such universal accolades that it was a bit of a system shock for us. We were worried that all of that was suddenly gonna go away because of one change. But aren't we allowed to make changes in Early Access?"
In August 2015, things reached a fever pitch. Darkest Dungeon's forums were overrun with angry messages, some aimed at the game, others questioning the development team's integrity as people. Some were just profanity and yelling. Plenty devolved into verbal war between players for and against the changes.
Ultimately, Bourassa, Sigman and co decided to make a tough but necessary alteration to Darkest Dungeon. Acknowledging that heart attacks and corpses weren't tuned to the point of being the pulse-pounding, dead-waking features they'd envisioned, they gave players the option to turn them off. It wasn't an ideal situation, but it was a smart way to deal with an Early Access change that brought out the pitchforks and torches in droves.
This quieted some of the outrage, but not all of it. A vocal contingent of angry players continued banging down Red Hook's doors, to the point that they had to institute a strict code of conduct for their forums in October 2015.
"We split all the social media 50/50, essentially," said Bourassa of the game's Early Access launch. "It was just insane. The moment we sold so well, we should have hired a community manager. I think it was naive of us to think we could drop into forums and be judged only by our content, our work ethic, or whatever it might be."
"There was such a high, good general feeling around the game at first," said Sigman. "It was like, 'Maybe we don't need tons of help.' That was definitely a mistake."
As time went on and Darkest Dungeon approached its full 2016 release, it became known for having a small yet vocal group of spurned protesters following in its wake, latching onto conversations and voicing their dissatisfaction. Some of them felt like the developers screwed up a near-perfect game by changing key mechanics and making the game too easy or too hard. Others accused Red Hook of "censoring" their forums of what they perceived to be legitimate and civil criticism.
At one point, they began spamming game critic Jim Sterling to get him to go after Red Hook for old changes (the aforementioned corpses), newer stuff that arguably made the game easier and their decision to clamp down on discussions. These things apparently constituted "Early Access corruption". Sterling, known by some as Steam's official unofficial boogeyman, flatly refused. He'd taken a long, hard look at Darkest Dungeon after the corpse and heart attack updates, but he ended up liking the game's full release a lot.
Bourassa and Sigman, though, didn't really feel like the game's quality was even the focus of the anger at that point. It'd become personal. It's why Red Hook ignored or shut down some of said discussions, despite the controversy doing so caused: they weren't productive.
"For me there's two kinds [of criticism]," said Bourassa. "There's the strong negative reactions based around a game itself and tactile, demonstrable changes that went into a game. But where it gets tough for us — especially when it comes to the summer, last-year-type issue — is that the feedback went from purely about the change to about our motivations, our integrity as people, our competence as developers, and became hyperbolic in that sense. That's painful."
"We're human," said Sigman, "and we always joked even before that stuff that it's like being in Darkest Dungeon. One of the hardest parts of the game's development was still trying to read all that feedback. Some of the stuff that was really intense or crazy, we'd still read to try and find good feedback. Some people are intense about how they voice things, and there can be a nugget in there. But there are some people who are kinda lost causes. It's no longer about the game."
Bourassa described it as "a campaign to do damage", and while it was tempting to try and dissuade those people, efforts to do so ultimately proved futile. You could make a case that, early on, Red Hook tried too hard to please everybody — folks who wanted nails in their cereal instead of marshmallows and people who were hoping for something less brutal. In the end, Red Hook had to pick a path and stick to it.
On its face, it was an odd situation. Red Hook released a really good game, but they were ultimately met with a bile storm that even the nastiest Darkest Dungeon boss would have trouble belching out. They didn't do everything perfectly, but they tried to give players options when they felt like it wouldn't compromise their overall vision of the game. But that's what happens when you disturb a holy grail, even when you explicitly tell people the thing you're making is not meant to be a holy grail yet.
"Darkest Dungeon must've been within sight of something that they felt would be exemplary," said Bourassa. "But we didn't steer it in exactly those directions in exactly the way they felt we could've done it. That can create frustration."
The whole situation is, however, exemplary of the nature of Early Access. It's a system that's come to symbolise player influence. Thing is, it's easy to mistake influence for complete control and overriding authority, to buck and stomp like an angry bull when control's wrested away. Early Access offers developers opportunities for feedback and revenue that never would have been possible before, but it's also fundamentally changed the conversation between developers and players. In many cases, it's good and helpful, and players help make games better. But sometimes they're wrong, or their suggestions don't mesh with developers' visions for their own creations. With a complex and punishing game like Darkest Dungeon, the line becomes frighteningly blurry.
"We've always committed to it being a very tough experience with lasting consequences that's putting you in an uncomfortable decision space," said Sigman. "Sometimes when you give players the tools they want, it will actually reduce enjoyment."
"It's tough because we really like our community. We wish everyone could be happy."