Darkest Dungeon's Harrowing Journey Through Steam Early Access

Darkest Dungeon's Harrowing Journey Through Steam Early Access

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.

Darkest Dungeon's Harrowing Journey Through Steam Early Access

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.

Darkest Dungeon's Harrowing Journey Through Steam Early Access

"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.

Darkest Dungeon's Harrowing Journey Through Steam Early Access

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's Harrowing Journey Through Steam Early Access

"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."


Comments

    The fury needed to be nipped in the bud by a well constructed explanation and media coverage of that. Community managers may seem like an unnecessary neckbeard, but a good one can turn your fortunes.

    The angry mob has reinforced itself over the months, and it's now even immune to the external influence of the YouTube gods (sterling, totalbiscuit, etc). There's nothing you can do about that except move on.

    Making the new roguelike elements optional is a very good idea however, especially if you default them to on (don't hide your design!). I wouldn't mind a game that goes further down that path and has sliders for each rng element! It would be a great alternative to a difficulty setting.

    I like darkest dungeon.

      I liked it when I played it in EA. I thought it was even too hard, without the additional brutality! But I think there was a very fundamental philosophical difference between what the developers wanted and what I wanted.

      It seems like the very core of the game was to treat the heroes as disposable. Invest in improvements in only a minimal way, just enough to compensate for some failings if you could afford it. NOT to curate a hero family. And it turned out that whole philosophy was so deeply against my grain that I had real trouble enjoying the release - I just couldn't get into that mentality.

      I felt this comment was very insightful:
      “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.”
      There is always something deeply disappointing about when you see something get just so close... and yet so far. When the difference is everything you've been looking for... and it turns into something you can't even tolerate. That feeling's a powerful one.

      Last edited 26/03/16 11:46 am

        I liked their philosophical base. As with xcom I would go in knowing that I shouldn't get attached, that these characters were doomed. But then I would spark a glimmer of hope, only to have it dashed shortly after.

        And then I'd do it all again.

        There's probably something wrong with me, maybe underneath my thick crust I'm actually an optimist?

        Not investing in heroes would be all well and good if it didn't pretty much turn the game into such a massive grind to finish... You're basically forced to invest and just pray they don't die or become too costly to continue using.

        And if they do? Back to grinding up another one to replace them... And because of the level tiers that could mean having to grind up an entirely new group just to replace one lost member.

        After a certain point it absolutely felt like the grind was there purely to pad the playtime, or dare I say it to add artificial difficulty... And not actually for any meaningful reason.

        Having to lose heroes over and over to the attrition of upkeep costs, the frequency of diseases, negative traits, etc, is not difficulty... It is tedious. It is punishment for punishment's sake.

        It'd be one thing if the punishment the game dishes out taught you something. Something like Souls games are a pretty good example of this, as in you usually learn something from each setback. But by and large for Darkest Dungeon it is mostly just, "That'll teach you for having bad luck!" And for how much of a time investment it can be, that's not something I'd call remotely decent.

        Last edited 26/03/16 12:02 pm

          Dark Souls is actually comparatively benign. You may lose some souls if you don't spend them before you drop them and then die without having retrieved them, but you never actually get penalized beyond that. You can never get worse. You don't lose your levels. Let alone so many that you can't finish.

            Oh Souls games are absolutely generous by comparison.

            They were just easily one of the best examples I could think of where failure generally has an aspect of learning brought with it, instead of just flipping you off and handing you a note with 'Fuck you!' written on it for reasons completely beyond your control.

            Yeah you can. You can attempt to reset your stats in Dark Souls 2 and find out that because you didn't have a certain item, all your stats are reduced back to the start without losing your level.

    The biggest risk with Early Access is when it goes on for too long. You have a hardcore fanbase who have the devs' ear on changes they want to see to balance, but the end result is a game being tailored to and tweaked for players who have been playing it for years.

    The challenges and balancing demanded by a veteran are entirely different to that for a newcomer, and the result can often be a game tuned for hardcore wiki-writing addicts, and not the casual Steam shopper who's curious about what just turned up on the 'new release' page.

    ***

    I remember at the first PAX AU there was a Ubi team showing off their un-released Might & Magic TCG. They were holding a little competition with folks who tried the game on the floor. Myself and a few others muddled our way through learning the game over ten, fifteen minutes under the gentle guidance of reps who were pretty enthusiastic about getting us all into a competition.

    Then one guy wanders over and asks one of the reps, "This beta build's an increment higher than build the .100.97 build; were there balance changes, or is the meta the same? The same? Well, sign me up."

    You can imagine how the reset of the little 'tournament' went.

    The expression on the reps' faces was pretty telling as they watched a multi-year beta tester destroy a bunch of 'have played it for ten minutes' scrubs, and pick up the winnings.

    There's a fundamental difference in priorities, expectations, and demands when it comes to the hardcore. And when you run your Early Access for too long, you turn your community into that hardcore. You should never, ever only listen to the hardcore because their perspective is fundamentally warped by their proficiency.

    Last edited 26/03/16 11:49 am

    Another thing that left a real bad taste in many people's mouths was fallout from the Kickstarter.

    In particular, a lot of people kicked into the game completely sight unseen and well before the positive reviews started appearing. Anyone who kicked in at the game-only tier, however, was denied a copy of the game for months after launch while non-backers were able to buy in and play immediately.

    Furthermore, the initial sale price was the same as the 'beta' tier, which meant that people who'd simply waited out the Kickstarter until the reviews started coming in ended up getting the game at the exact same price as the people who paid for the game sight-unseen on spec (and therefore might have been wasting their money).

    In hindsight, it's clear that the game at the time of the Kickstarter was pretty far along anyhow, and therefore the devs were simply using Kickstarter as a pre-order vehicle.

    The devs were pretty rude to entry-level backers and finally offered all backers keys only a week or two before the game went on sale for the entry-level Kickstarter price.

    Quite frankly, the dev's treatment of Kickstarter backers was more than enough for me to stay far away from any future Kickstarters by the same devs. Nonetheless, their blunt and dismissive attitude since has continued to cause problems for them. Given the personalities involved it doesn't surprise me at all that they left a trail of disgruntled players in their wake.

    The lesson here is that, if you're planning to go down the Kickstarter/Early Access route, don't expect that players won't have some buy-in to the game's final build. If you're going to build the game your way, in your time, and not take much if any feedback from players into account, don't pretend you care by running your game through platforms where the expectation is that you're going to care about player feedback.

    I think there was a large communication issue from side of the developers to set the right expectations. From starting off calling it a RPG to them wanting to make this a real tough game, they simply didn't communicate clearly from the get go what they wanted to do or even stating what core parts they still were making decisions on. I won't back them again.

    You can see that other developers, like the team creating Grim Dawn, have managed to pull it off successfully and the overall ratings show it.

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