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Road to the IGF: Red Hook Studios' Darkest Dungeon

'Developing in Early Access is like working while naked in a transparent cube suspended above Times Square. But Darkest Dungeon is a stronger game for having gone through it.'

Kris Graft, Contributor

February 8, 2016

6 Min Read

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.

Darkest Dungeon is a side-scrolling psychological stress test, struggling to help them deal with a myriad of unnatural things that threaten their physical and mental health. You aren't just fighting off monsters--you're fighting off grief, dread, and fear. It's involving (and harrowing) in it's own unique way.

The game has been nominated for IGF awards in the categories of Excellence in Audio, Excellence in Visual Art, and the Seumas McNally Grand Prize. It also won Best RPG and the Golden Sushi prize at PAX East 2014.

Gamasutra asked Darkest Dungeon's producer and design director Tyler Sigman and creative director and artist Chris Bourassa to tell us about their development process.

What's your background in making games?

Sigman: Besides tinkering with and modding games like Warlords 2 Deluxe, Wargame Construction Set, Myth, etc, I got my start making downloadable PDF board and card games like Night of the Ill-Tempered Squirrel, Witch Hunt, and Shrimpin’ via my small company Mythrole Games in 1999. I landed my first full-time game designer gig at Backbone Entertainment in 2004 (which is where I met Chris) and designed the turn-based Age of Empires: the Age of Kings DS there. I then became a partner in indie developer Big Sandwich Games, where we made the twin-stick-strategy-arcade-MOBA-like-dragon-weird-hybrid game called HOARD.  In between all that,are about a dozen other published digital and paper games, including the tile-based boardgame Crows. I’ve also got dozens of digital and boardgame prototypes sitting around in various stages.

Bourassa: I actually got started in Vancouver as a ‘pre-indie.’ I created a homebrew sidescroller Hateful Chris, and successfully pitched it to a major publisher in 2002.  After working on a PS2 version of the game for a year, the project was canceled, and I moved to Backbone Entertainment.  There, I worked on a Rifts N-Gage game, a Sonic PSP title, and co-created the Monster Lab IP which saw release on the DS and Wii.  I later moved to Propaganda Games, where I took over concept art and character art direction responsibilities on the ill-fated Pirates of the Caribbean: Armada of the Damned game.  After freelancing for a variety of studios including Relic, Microsoft, EA, Games Workshop, Privateer Press, and others, I decided the time had come to make a go of being indie again.

What development tools did you use/are you using?

Sigman: We have a home-rolled lightweight cross-platform engine made by our first programmer, Kelvin McDowell.

Bourassa: The artwork is drawn in Photoshop, and animated in a versatile 2d animation package called “Spine” by Esoteric Software.

How much time have you spent working on the game so far?

Sigman: Chris and I did a lot of prepro via concept meetings and brainstorming sessions, so by the time we kicked off development, we at least had a pretty good idea of what we were trying to do. But we formally began development in April 2013. We Kickstarted in February 2014, Early Access’d in February 2015, and hit full release on January 19, 2016. We originally were aiming for about 18 months of development, but this being videogames, things have a way of stretching out!

Bourassa:  We spent a good year or so meeting up outside of our day jobs and talking through the design and structure of the game.  I still have those old sketchbooks - they’re packed full of screen layouts, fresh ideas, false starts, and breakthrough ‘eureka’ moments!

How did you end up with such a distinctive voiceover talent as Wayne June?

Bourassa:  Prior to having kids, I was a total night owl.  I’d paint into the wee hours listening to music and audiobooks.  Somehow, I stumbled onto Wayne’s readings of H.P. Lovecraft, and I was hooked.  The tenor, tone, and delivery was just spot on.  This was years prior to starting Darkest Dungeon, but it planted a seed in my mind that I had to one day find a way of working with this guy...

Sigman: Chris discovered Wayne’s awesome readings in some Lovecraft audiobooks and we listened to those before DD was even a twinkle in the eye. When the time came to put together an announcement trailer (“Terror and Madness”), we realized we needed a narrator to help get some things across. We were sitting around thinking of how we needed to cast somebody similar to Wayne June, and trying to decide how to find somebody. Then it hit us that Wayne actually reads things for a living, and we might actually be able to ask him to read something for us! Once he turned in his work for Terror and Madness, we knew we needed to write him into the full game. It’s one of the best decisions we’ve made.

What inspired the art style for Darkest Dungeon?

Bourassa: I wanted the game to feel old and worn - like the time and place in which it's set.  I referenced a lot of illuminated manuscripts, medieval woodcuts, and other period work.  Durer was a great resource, as were several eastern European painters.  Just looking old wasn’t enough, though - the game also needed to feel fresh and somehow modern, so I pulled from my favorite comic book artists like Mignola, Davis, Bachalo, and Kalvachev.

Dark pooling blacks, gritty, loose coloring, and a flat overall style worked nicely together to reinforce the game mechanics and tone we were after.  The final ingredient was a pinch of ‘cute’ - to help make the characters iconic, and bring a dash of levity to an otherwise singularly morose affair!

What was the toughest part about developing an Early Access game?

Sigman: It’s like a white knuckle rollercoaster ride. We’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of success, but we’ve had some tough moments, too. Developing in Early Access is like working while naked in a transparent cube suspended above Times Square. Your lows and highs are there for everyone to see. But that’s kind of the point, and DD is a stronger game for having gone through it. I remain extremely bullish on both Kickstarter and Early Access. But my advice is to make sure to swallow your Dramamine before taking the plunge.  Community management and live game support are things that take extra skillsets and resources beyond what is already hard enough: making a good game.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?

Sigman: I’ve had very little gaming time for a while. Carrying DD across the finish line has been an all-encompassing thing. However, I have played a little Her Story, Kingdom, and Armello. The first two are appealing because of how fast it is to get into them and they both do some innovative things that feel like new experiences.  Armello is a real joy to behold, and League of Geeks are some of our soul-brothers-and-sisters. Can’t say enough good things about them and I’m excited to run into everyone at the IGF!

Bourassa: I have not had any time to play anything in the last year, sadly.  The terrible irony of making games is that it sometimes prevents you from playing them!  I’m looking forward to catching up a bit this year, though, and Armello is at the top of my list.  Like Tyler said, LoG IS a great group of people and they’ve been very supportive of us throughout development.

Don't forget check out the rest of our Road to the IGF series right here.

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