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How Darkest Dungeon II's developers evolved their Early Access process

Red Hook Studios had to build a better way of doing Early Access to make Darkest Dungeon II.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

May 8, 2023

7 Min Read
A screenshot of two Darkest Dungeon two characters. One wears a turban and carries a skull, the other is cloaked with a spear.

What's the difference between Darkest Dungeon II and game development?

One is a long arduous journey defined by frequent bickering, stressful encounters, and demonic bosses. The other is Darkest Dungeon II.

With that perhaps too-obvious joke out of the way, let's move on to our usual business: exploring the very successful Early Access process behind Red Hook Studios' freshly released sequel. The first Darkest Dungeon was something of a game industry milestone: a Steam Early Access title that sold a bananas number of units (over 6 million copies since 2015) and a pioneer in how mid-sized developers can make the most of their presence on Steam.

For Darkest Dungeon II, Red Hook signed a deal with Epic to execute their Early Access journey on the Epic Games Store, and in the process have already managed to sell over 300,000 copies. Now that the game is fully released, we wanted to take a moment to check in with Red Hook's developers and see how their second run of Early Access went.

The answer? Very differently. Co-founders Chris Bourassa and Tyler Sigman took some time to explain how their team adjusted their methods for navigating this ever-evolving path of video game development.

Darkest Dungeon II had multiple layers of "early access"

In theory, the Early Access process is like beta testing. Players who participate are supposed to know they're working with an unfinished product, and as long as there's a certain level of shippable quality, they know they're there to give feedback and help make the game better.

The reality couldn't be further from that.

"We've kind of learned that you need an experimental branch of your Early Access game," Bourassa explained. "And then we have private test groups before we even go to the experimental branch, before we go to the main Early Access branch."

That's effectively three layers deep of "testing" new builds. And even before that, the private test groups have a forum to communicate with developers and discuss features before they go into a build.

"It's kind of crazy but it really speaks to the way people perceive Early Access now," he added. "It's a lot more like live operations, like games as a service. [Player] expectations can certainly bleed into that territory."

To talk about why Red Hook made these updates (experimental branches and private test groups weren't a part of Darkest Dungeon's production process), you need to talk about corpses. Specifically, the corpses in the first game. After enemies were slain in battle, their bodies would stay on the battlefield, and become a kind of obstacle players had to plan around in combat.

A screenshot showing off combat in Darkest Dungeon II.

It's not a system that was present in the early days of Darkest Dungeon's Early Access journey. And when it was added, lots of Darkest Dungeon players hated it. So much so that some sent death threats to Red Hook. "I don't mind a death threat, I just want it to be nicely worded," Bourassa joked.

Sigman said that in the time since the corpse system fiasco, Red Hook's had time to gain "perspective" on how that kerfuffle came about. "It was really a community management thing," he reflected. "We had not yet built infrastructure...for rolling out [a substantial] change."

Now Red Hook has many layers of "buffering" to make sure such changes don't feel too sudden for players. The game's presence on the Epic Games Store meant that supportive fans of Darkest Dungeon were more likely to be in the audience than more fair-weather followers. Changes are first teased, then announced by a talented team of community managers. If the private test group hates the change, Red Hook has time to re-evaluate it and see if it needs changes or should just be scrapped. "by the time it's gotten to the main branch, it's already gone through a bit of vetting, and our communications side is ready to talk about it."

Does that mean the death threats were somehow worth it? No. But Bourassa and Sigman agreed that the corpse system experience "matured" the studios' processes. "A lot of the learnings and how we approached [Early Access] this time weren't just on the success of branding updates or whatever on the first game, but on the missteps, you know?"

Sigman did clarify that if you look back at the corpse system saga, you won't find that Red Hook was somehow stubbornly sticking to its guns, or isn't willing to make changes. "We soul searched on them and found they were right for the game," he insisted. On Darkest Dungeon II, lots of changes to the progression, relationship, and traversal systems all needed serious reworks to become as functional as they are today.

The frustrating reality is that despite awful death threats, Red Hook managed to build a better production process and method for communicating with players. Does this mean that more developers building systems like this can help reduce toxicity in game communities? Would players see death threats as justified because they pushed a developer to reshape how they talk to players? We've seen recently that player toxicity against game developers is growing so prominent that most developers think it's a serious problem.

A story like this certainly shows how developers can better communicate with player communities, but it doesn't feel like the end of what should be a journey to end toxicity in game communities.

Motivations for making a sequel to Darkest Dungeon

Darkest Dungeon II is the first sequel Bourassa and Sigman have worked on—or the first one that's shipped, at least. When Red Hook Studios was trying to imagine what they'd make after Darkest Dungeon, the pair said that if they decided to make it a sequel, they didn't want it to "invalidate" the first game.

There's a lot of sequencing approaches that are purely iterative, and they do invalidate the first game," Sigman mused. "If you're trying to do, the latest and greatest visuals, your game's gonna [be] invalidated in five years anyway."

Because Darkest Dungeon has a unique and more evergreen art style, it freed Red Hook from needing to chase that "latest and greatest" demon. What did catch their attention was the idea of a Darkest Dungeon campaign that wouldn't require dozens of hours to complete.

A screenshot from Darkest Dungeon II. The stagecoach crosses over a bridge.

"We never really meant for people to have to play 100 hours to see the story," Sigman admitted a bit sheepisly. Because the team still loved the world, characters, and combat system of the first game, that narrowed down what systems they'd try to build for a fully standalone sequel.

That's why Darkest Dungeon II has much more of a roguelike structure than its predecessor. Players can complete runs in anywhere from 4-6 hours—battling monsters on the wings of a gothic carriage instead of managing a base to prepare for old-fashioned dungeon crawls.

And if you want to be a tad mercenary about it all, developing a sequel that doesn't "invalidate" your prior game expands your sales power on Steam. Red Hook is already able to bundle Darkest Dungeon and all of its DLC as one package. Eventually it'll be able to sell both games in tandem to diverging audiences. Players who want to focus on basebuilding and dungeon crawling can still play Darkest Dungeon, and excited fans and series newcomers can get a quicker, punchier experience with Darkest Dungeon II.

Aside from some of the aged elements of the first game (look, time marches on for all of us) it lets Red Hook treat its games as parallel products, rather than cannibalizing ones. It reminds one of sales strategies from the tabletop games world. If a company like Stonemeier Games strikes pay dirt with a game like Wingspan, it can still sell other titles like Viticulture, Scythe, and beyond.

On top of making a pair of stellar gothic horror RPGs, the Red Hook Studios team stands out in its efforts to advancing the game development process. With Darkest Dungeon II out in the wild, there's plenty for developers to learn whether they're on the back of a stagecoach of the damned, or perusing the studio's production processes.

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About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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