Red Hook Studio

You can’t be brave if you’re not scared: The road to the Darkest Dungeon

You can’t be brave if you’re not scared: The road to the Darkest Dungeon

A note from Ben: Tyler Sigman has worked in both video games and board games, and we chatted at E3 this year about his upcoming project. He wanted to discuss some of the behind the scenes aspects of creating and releasing a game, and he walked me through the concepts of his team's upcoming project. I was intrigued, and said that I'd love to host it. This is part one to what will likely be a long series.

This week, Red Hook Studios announced our upcoming game Darkest Dungeon. Before I say more, check out the “Terror and Madness” teaser trailer here:

We are super excited about the game, and hope it will bring a fresh experience to one of the oldest and best video game genres. Go check out our website if you want to know more. But now I want to talk about how we got here.

See development from the jump seat

Some of you may have read a guest post that I wrote on PAR last year about creating, prototyping, and selling my boardgame Crows

The feedback from that article was great—people seem to enjoy knowing more about how games get made and sold. The article was Ben’s idea, and I appreciated the opportunity to write it.

On the development side, for many years game developers have enjoyed reading “Post-mortems” on Gamasutra.com and the old Game Developer magazine. A game Post-Mortem focuses on what went right and what went wrong in a project. However, Post-Mortems, and my Crows article, were written after a project is completed.

When we kicked off Darkest Dungeon, we started thinking that it might be interesting for gaming enthusiasts to see what’s happening in development as it happens. Effectively a “Pre-Mortem.” So this series of posts was born.

The difference between this and a typical DevBlog is that DevBlogs usually focus on feature reveals, screenshot releases, and other marketing campaign items. These are great, and we have one too.

However, in this series of posts on the Penny Arcade Report, we hope to share a bit more about the actual decision-making process and the challenges of development. This includes business decisions (Which platforms to release on? How to price?), creative direction and art direction (How to set a style? How to maintain consistency across the game elements?), design decisions (Feature trade-offs? Systems design challenges?) and more. We plan to be as transparent as we can.  This probably means we’ll make some dumb decisions now and again and you’ll get to read all about them as they happen. But even mistakes are a vital part of the creative process, and a purely sanitized version wouldn’t be accurate.

Today’s game industry is RIDICULOUSLY dynamic, with marketplaces rising and falling, business model revolutions happening, and the quality and frequency of independent games continuing to rise. Heck, this year is marking the launch of two new consoles, and we have a new machine and OS to consider for future planning, too! (SteamOS/Steambox). These things happen in real-time, and there is no fixed roadmap or how-to guide for the independent developer. Hopefully you’ll enjoy a small window into our journey.

All that preamble aside, let’s move on to the first topic!

The Paradox of Ideas: It’s Hard to Find a Good One

They say ideas are a dime a dozen.  And it’s true.  So true, in fact, that having an idea doesn’t make you special or get you any closer to creating something great.  This is accurate regardless of whether you are an aspiring creator or a veteran one.

For most independent developers, the problem is not coming up with ideas, but rather deciding which ones to pursue. Opportunity cost is a HUGE issue. Allocating time towards an idea means that you are not working on something else. It sounds silly, but this is a major deal. You only have so many hours in the day and so many orbits around the earth to work with.  You need to allocate your time wisely.

This leads to the Paradox of Ideas: ideas might be a dime a dozen, but good ones aren’t.  When my friend and eventual partner Chris Bourassa brought up his idea for a dungeon crawler that focuses on the emotional toll of adventuring, it immediately resonated.  In his words:

It started as a sort of sarcastic half-joke. The thing about dungeon games is that more often than not, actually being in the dungeon is taken for granted – which is ridiculous when you consider how truly awful these places are. I know if I was down in a pit somewhere, it wouldn’t matter how much my sword glowed, or how big my shoulderpads were, I'd still be scared as hell. The accepted formula for many MMO’s and dungeon runners is to gloss over the stress in favor of the stats.

What would it actually be like, I wondered, to be down there in the dark with three other frayed-at-the-edges soldiers-of-fortune? I probably wouldn’t even know the other guys that well. What if one of them was a real jerk? Come to think of it, I've managed art teams on large productions, and I've seen what deadline pressure can do to people.

Not only seen - I've had to manage staff through their ups and downs, all while trying to get a product out the door. It's safe to assume that finding myself starving, lost in the dark, hunted by ghouls, and partnered up with a jerk would be infinitely more stressful…right?

Stress does some pretty incredible things to people – it can break you down, debilitate you, or unexpectedly empower you. My jerk partner might really step up and come into his own, or he might actually become a real pain – a nightmare even! 

And so it went, like looking through a key-hole – this small, ironic observation was actually a window into something much bigger, much richer than it appeared. The more I rolled it around in my head, the more fascinating it got.

Over the course of months and even a couple of years, we would bring up different game ideas as part of our poker-night catch-ups, but conversations between us organically would drift back to Darkest Dungeon. I was a design-oriented sounding board, because I was wrapped up in developing HOARD and other games.

The Darkest Dungeon idea was strongest anecdotally—it was easy (and fun!) to imagine all manner of events where the flaw or reaction of a character might trigger an interesting gameplay moment. It became a game of “what ifs”:

  • What if the Cleric was afraid of Undead?
  • What if the Bard was depressed and wouldn’t sing?
  • What if the Crusader’s rage made him equally an uncomfortable teammate as it made him a great warrior?

And this, to me, is one of the key differentiators between an “idea” and a “good idea.” An “idea” is usually flash in the pan and relatively shallow. It might sound great off the bat, but as you poke and prod it and try to build game systems around it, you run into brick walls. A “good idea”, on the other hand, gains momentum as you work on it, running and flowing into new conceptual ground that you didn’t know about before. This one had that quality.

Of course, it wasn’t just a matter of imagining bad things happening. The crux of the idea was that there are human factors in adventuring. Watch the incredibly moving Band of Brothers mini-series or read about the winning season of your favorite sports team. These stories are not merely about robotic soldiers marching forward or emotionless athletes generating RBIs. They are stories about long odds, incredible challenges, and psychological baggage overcome.  Courage under fire.

Wargames have long modeled the concept of morale, understanding that a unit’s firepower is only one part of effectiveness. Put simply, how good is your best sniper if he’s panicked about his next meal or hasn’t had a break in weeks?  Some videogames, for example XCOM, have incorporated an element of fear and morale into the mechanics. Anyone who’s played it knows the powerful moment when a soldier loses his proverbial “stuff” in the midst of battle, and how it can disrupt the mission.

Oh, the humanity

But even fear and morale are not enough. We wanted to take things further. The real underlying mechanic is stress. So why not an RPG where all human responses to stress are modeled?  Fear, check. Greed, check. Apathy, check. Sadism, check. The list goes on.

But this also brings us to another key point: it’s a classic rookie mistake to promise the world without any consideration of achievability. “Ambition is free but delivery has an extra charge.”  Once we came down off of our brainstorming manias, we had to ask ourselves two hard questions. Could it be done? And should it be done?

The “should” was easier to answer. We knew that making a game about stress needed to be fun at the end. We create entertainment, not research projects. This meant that behaviors and afflictions needed to have gameplay relevance and be exposed mechanics that you could interact with as a player. We will write much more about this in later posts, but the game could not just be a Magic Viewer in which you passively watch bad things happen to the characters.  You had to play it.

The “could” was the hard part. Modeling personalities, stress response, and the like is no easy task. A few people we bounced the idea off early on said it sounded impossible. Fortunately we were in no rush, so we spent lots of time hammering on the core gameplay systems from a conceptual point of view.  As a dyed-in-the-wool systems designer, I loved it… and it terrified me. After many, many sessions, we felt that we had roughed out the key pieces and how they interact. At that point, we thought we could do it. So we began the process of starting the project for real.

But can we do it? The answer will be written on these pages and in the bits and bytes of Darkest Dungeon. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!