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Darkest Dungeon is one of those rare great indie titles that made a great splash in the media even before the official release. It was an instant hit on Kickstarter and it was extremely successful on Steam Early Access. The dark style, unusual gameplay and great polish made this game a bit hit. It’s crazy, when you think that this incredible project was created by a small team of two friends: Tyler Sigman and Chris Bourassa. We’ve reached out to Chris from Red Hook Studios and talked about the creation of this incredible indie hit.
About Red Hook
We formed Red Hook Studios specifically to make Darkest Dungeon. Tyler Sigman and I had been talking about partnering to work on a game since we met years ago at a now-defunct Vancouver studio, Backbone Entertainment. We maintained our friendship over the years and through several job changes, and we’d meet up to talk about different potential ideas we could collaborate on. When we hit on the concept for DD, we both realized that it could be something really special. We’re excited to have gone indie, to be small and able to steer our own ship!
Finding The Main Gameplay Concept
The game’s concept began as an observation that RPGs generally tend to view adventuring through a very romanticized lens. Heroes are immutable, aspirational, and all-powerful. But heroes, real ones, are human. They are flawed, nuanced, and capable of failure. In fact, it is these flaws that allow true heroism to shine – they accentuate heroic acts by virtue of contrast.
We knew from the outset that we wanted to create an uncompromising RPG that celebrated the humanity of its heroes and forced players to make permanent decisions with imperfect information.
The game was built around the affliction system – it’s the heart and soul of the experience. The idea of human heroes succumbing to stress, and the resulting loss of player agency was always at the core of what we were trying to create. We iterated, debated, and massaged its implementation here and there, but generally it stands today much as it did at it’s conception.
We also looked at classic CRPG crawlers, and a healthy dose of Lovecraft, Poe, and a few other authors from that time period. We also looked at a lot of films – horror and otherwise – that featured a small group of people under extreme pressure, or people coping with overpowering and traumatic scenarios. Aliens, The Thing, Band of Brothers, 12 Angry Men -they all do a great job of exploring the dynamics that can emerge when a group is stressed and confronted with difficult choices.
Finding the Perfect Style
We wanted to create something 2d; to pay homage to the classic CRPGs that we grew up with – Eye of the Beholder, Bard’s Tale, Pool of Radience, etc. Initially, we had designed the game to use an iso/top-down view for exploration, paired with a side-view battle camera. I felt that the characters would become unrelatable if you were stuck looking at the tops of their heads – also, the intimacy and claustrophobia of the side cam was lost, which eroded the mood and tone of the game. The decision to go full side-view meant fewer assets, and more importantly, that game would maintain it’s character-centric, intimate presentation.
I designed the art style to reinforce and enhance the tone and design of the game. I looked at illuminated manuscripts, medieval woodcuts, and modern comic books. Essentially, I wanted the game to look as though it had come from the time period it was set in. Like you were playing a (horrific) storybook rather than a videogame.
Hard lines and edges reflect the uncompromising gameplay, pooling blacks create the impression of being lost in the dark, and the empty eyes on the characters help convey a sense of hopelessness and weight. That said, I wanted to make sure there was just a dash of cuteness in the style to facilitate a greater sense of iconography, and also to remind players that, despite all of the morbidity, it’s a game.
We use a custom C++ engine built just for the game. At the time we started, Unity had not yet released it’s 2d toolkit, and we felt that since the game was not particularly technically demanding, we could get by with a dune buggy instead of a Range Rover. We have a few exporters and other custom tool we’ve written, but nothing groundbreaking.
We announced the game before coming to Kickstarter, and used the intervening time to collect email addresses and build a mailing list of our very earliest fans. The campaign prep was about 5-7 weeks prior to the launch, and took a full time effort from both Tyler and myself. We worked hard to refine our pitch, to ensure that it was easy to articulate, and quick to communicate our vision for the game. We wanted to fund quickly, since oftentimes that can generate buzz. So, we emailed everyone on our list, every press contact we could find, our family & friends, ex-coworkers – no stone was left unturned!
The actual budget for the game was higher than 300k – we each lived on our own financial runways (savings, rrsps, etc) during development, and we took a 75k loan early in the project to help out.
We felt that our game, being a system heavy RPG, would really benefit from the involvement and feedback of an early access community. We also looked at the souring trend of Early Access as an opportunity – by bringing something polished, fun and very playable to early access, we could inspire and engage people who had written it off, and hopefully be looked at as “early access done right”.
It’s definitely a great time to be developing smaller games. There is a market for indie titles, and crowdfunding has opened up a lot of possibilities for projects that perhaps wouldn’t ave been looked at by larger publishers a few years ago. Selling an idea, however, is never easy. Big or small, your project needs to stand out in order to get noticed – it’s a crowded marketplace!