The stress of success

Why did Red Hook crunch to finish Darkest Dungeon when the Early Access game was already a hit, and was it worth it?

Red Hook Studios' Darkest Dungeon had its proper launch on Steam last month, but it was already a hit long before that. It enjoyed a successful Kickstarter campaign that saw it quadruple the original funding target, and spent almost a year in Steam Early Access building community, generating buzz, and padding coffers for Red Hook. It's even been nominated for three awards at next month's Independent Games Festivals, including the Seumas McNally Grand Prize.

So it should come as no surprise that when Red Hook flipped the switch on Darkest Dungeon to move it from Early Access into full release, it may have been a bit anti-climactic.

"Certainly the January 19 launch was not nearly as big as the early February launch into Early Access," Red Hook's Chris Bourassa told recently. "But we anticipated that. When you do an Early Access launch, you're sort of robbing from your full release later, but we're really happy with how it's performed on both releases.

"It felt almost like we had an MMO. Keep updating content, keep it live, keep it fresh."

"It was a real unknown, so when we succeeded out of that launch, we were really exuberant and it was a thrill ride. This time out, knowing there was already an audience and we had built a community over the past year, releasing the game didn't feel like that unbridled love affair. Plus, the crunch had been a lot more severe leading up to the full release, so we were pretty tired. [We were] no less thrilled with the results, just a little worn out from the past couple months of heavy overtime. It was more of a gentle exhale this time out as opposed to a big, enthusiastic cry."

But if the game was succeeding in Early Access, why was the team crunching so hard to hit a January release date?

"We didn't want to languish in Early Access for a very long time," Bourassa said. "There can be a perception that games get abandoned in Early Access, although we had been updating the game fairly regularly. Also just from a pure Quality of Life standpoint, the pressure on a small team to keep those updates rolling and keep outbound communication visible... It felt almost like we had an MMO. Keep updating content, keep it live, keep it fresh. We'd go for six weeks without updating and we'd see a couple things pop up like, 'Has this game been abandoned?' That's ridiculous. It's only been six weeks since the last update, but still that culture of consumption is out there constantly wanting new material."

The stress of game development is mirrored in some ways by Darkest Dungeon's gameplay. The Lovecraftian RPG lets players take a group of characters through the remains of an ancestral estate, fending off evil creatures as they go. The game uses a permadeath system for the characters, and each journey leaves both physical and mental scars on the characters. Stress builds up over time, and characters begin to develop various psychoses that impact their performance.

"We would joke that working on the game was a lot like being in the game, and you could see during the course of development people's stress levels rising and falling as certain things happened," Bourassa said. "We'd even say, 'Oh, so-and-so is afflicted. Give them some space.' So we learned to talk about stress in the game's terms, somewhat jokingly, obviously, but still it definitely changed our perception of it. I definitely became more aware of the creeping stress. Sometimes prior to this experience, I'd just sort of find myself stressed out, whereas now I can feel it tickle at the back of my spine a bit as it slowly builds. I just have a heightened awareness of it."

In some ways, the game's success in Early Access made the problem worse.

"We went through every negative Steam review, parsed out the through lines, collected it all in a Google Doc and reviewed it all, so we were definitely cognizant of what was happening..."

"We sold through more than we thought we would in our wildest dreams, honestly," Bourassa said. "So suddenly [we had] this really large audience and [were] not equipped from a community management standpoint to have somebody full-time dedicated to managing those social media channels, engaging those people on forums and effective moderation of the forums. In hindsight, having seen those initial numbers from the first couple of months, we could have taken action on the community management standpoint a little sooner. But now we have somebody in that position and it's working a lot better."

That large community also meant whatever messages Red Hook received from the players were amplified. That's great when people are happy with the game, and less so when they aren't.

"We read all of it," Bourassa said of the criticism the team received in Early Access reviews. "We went through every negative Steam review, parsed out the through lines, collected it all in a Google Doc and reviewed it all, so we were definitely cognizant of what was happening and the things people were mentioning.

"Part of the nature of Early Access is the game evolves and changes. We had a lot of blowback to some of the features we introduced in the summer, which changed a bit about the metagame strategy. So I think a lot of players with a lot of hours prior to that felt like they didn't recognize the game, or it wasn't working the exact same way, and it led to frustration on their part. That was a particularly challenging moment for us because we really had to do a gut check and make sure we felt strongly we were headed in the right direction. The positive stuff is great, but we're definitely more sensitive to the negative stuff because that's the critique that we're in some sense exposing ourselves to and soliciting by virtue of being in Early Access."

Despite those stresses and difficult crunch, Bourassa uses the word "validating" a lot when speaking of the full release. Whether it's high review scores from publications like IGN, GameSpot, and Game Informer or watching streamers and YouTube personalities finally finish their Darkest Dungeon playthroughs, Bourassa said the reactions since last month's release have helped release some of the stress he'd been carrying over the course of development.

"It's validating to really kill yourself for something and bleed for it and have it find an audience and people who are enthusiastic for it and enjoying it," Bourassa said, adding, "I can't say I would do it again, but if I were back in time, I would do it again. I just can't do it again, like, next week."

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