Darkest Dungeon might be the out-of-nowhere Steam sensation of the year. For the game, that's been a double-edged sword.
The punishingly difficult, psychosis-inducing dungeon crawler launched as an Early Access game, but it was already in better shape than a lot of "complete" releases. People flocked to it — significantly more than anybody, least of all the game's developers, expected. Ever since, there's been a tension to its life as an Early Access mainstay: developer Red Hook's grand plans versus players' wishes. It's not an uncommon tug-of-war with Early Access games, but it's multiplied by 666 given how many people already loved Darkest Dungeon just the way it was. Many of them disagree with changes that have given enemies better defence and higher crit chances, implicitly forcing players to stick with certain party formations and, in turn, limiting their freedom.
That brings us to a couple features that came in July's big update: corpses and heart attacks. These features, contend many players, ruin the game — or at least make it significantly less fun. Corpses pile up in battle, cluttering up space such that it's usually a good idea to destroy them to get at other enemies. Problem: this isn't very fun, and it takes time your characters — slowly descending into a sloshing vat of madness — don't have. Heart attacks, meanwhile, are the culmination of characters' stress. If they can't deal, there's a good chance they will drop dead. According to players, it happens a lot, sometimes when characters aren't even all that stressed out. Again, people feel like it's a needless frustration; they don't think it really improves the game.
After weeks of unease and countless irate forum threads, Red Hook has finally reached an interesting compromise with players. They're going to keep features like corpses and heart attacks in the game, but — while the game is in Early Access — players can simply turn them off. Thus, Red Hook gets to keep iterating on their design in hopes of realising their full vision, and players still get a fun game.
Red Hook explained in a Steam forum post:
We believe that corpses and heart attacks are important mechanics for the game, not only for the reasons initially discussed in the Corpse & Hound design notes but reinforced by our observations since. However, today we are introducing a set of gameplay options (accessed via the normal Options menu) which allows you to turn them off.
Just as we were willing to experiment by adding these features, we are willing to experiment with ways to allow you to shape the DD experience a bit to your liking. As many of you know, we have been reluctant to add difficulty related options until now because focusing on our intended version of the game has been our number one priority and our experiments and changes during Early Access have all been in support of iterating on that. But it would be foolish for us to not consider the fact that the Darkest Dungeon community is now big enough to include diverse groups, some of which would like to play the game differently than we might have envisioned. Although we've always been unapologetic about how important it is that Darkest Dungeon is punishing, unforgiving, and sometimes not even "fair"...at the end of the day we want those of you who own it to have fun and that can't be forgotten.
By default, those features will be enabled, because Red Hook feels "they are important in context of the broader experience." They hope to collect information on their use in order to improve them and hopefully make them, you know, fun.
It's a cool way to overcome such a contentious impasse, and I wonder if we'll see other developers start to do this with controversial additions to their Early Access games. It's tough, after all, to keep a game fun while experimenting with untested ideas and features. Kudos to Red Hook for both keeping true to their vision and listening to their players.