After starting my review of Darkest Dungeon, I decided to email Red Hook Studios asking for an interview with Chris Bourassa, head of Red Hook Studios and co-creator of Darkest Dungeons. Thinking that I’ll either not hear back from them or receive a quick and generic “thank you for your time but no” message, I was quickly shown how wrong I can be when an email within four minutes just stated in reply, “I’d be happy to.” In this interview, Bourassa discusses his success on Kickstarter and his inspiration for creating Darkest Dungeon.
Sheldon (S): Where would you say was the main inspiration for Darkest Dungeon. Where was the first spark where you were sitting there and just went, “Oh, we should make Darkest Dungeon!”
Chris Bourassa (C): Well, the initial seed of the idea came as almost a reaction to the existing RPG’s that are out there. I play MMO’s from time to time, and you know the gear progression is really important in those types of games. So I was just kinda joking, ya know, “It wouldn’t really matter how big my shoulder pads were. If I was underground fighting skeletons I’d be shit scared.” And we were chuckling about that and then kinda stopped laughing and were like, “why don’t RPG’s ever talk about the sword-arm and not the sword?” Ya know? They’re all about the sword and not about the guy who’s swinging it. And then, it just gathered momentum and snowballed from there. What about the human cost to adventuring? And then we started talking about movies like Aliens or Alive or Band of Brothers. The Thing, where these groups of people are put under extreme duress and pressure and what that actually does to people.
It started out with talking about the human part of adventuring and then grew to the stress and awfulness that is actually entailed. ‘Cos when you actually start thinking about what it would be like to be an adventurer, it would be pretty awful. It’s probably the worst job ever, especially if you’re just paired up with all these guys that don’t even know. You hope they’re good at their job, and pretty soon you’re fighting for your life against these horrible pig creatures, running out of food, and contracting syphilis. So we just found that to be really, it started out as sorta charming and ironic and funny, and then the more we talked about it the more we said “no, there’s a game here.”
Me and my business partner Tyler Sigmund and I, we would just get together weekly or bi-weekly, have a couple of drinks, and talk about games and movies. We’d always just circle back to this idea, so as time went on it became more salient. Finally the timing lined up, and we thought “we should probably make this game.” As indie developers, we felt we couldn’t compete with the loot piñata of Diablo or Torchlight. We can’t make all those assets, and those games have perfected that formula, they’re fantastic. So there’s no point in trying to go in the ring with them. We’ve always loved classic computer games, CRPG’s and that kind of thing, but we would need our own take on it, so it was obvious that this was the right move.
S: Yeah, it’s been pretty interesting because a lot of games, like Amnesia, they’re starting to implement a sanity system. Before, in Diablo and such, it would be like “Oh yeah, your hero can do everything and isn’t phased by anything.” And now people are starting to think “oh yeah, those things are scary.”
C: Exactly, it’s not just “drink the red juice and feel better about anything.” And I should say, I’ve really enjoyed Torchlight 2, and Diablo through the ages. So it’s not that those games are bad or that I’m scoffing at them at all. It’s just that they’re one end of the spectrum, and we just found it very interesting that the other end of the spectrum had never been explored. Almost like a “dungeon” if you will.
S: A very dimly-lit one.
C: And so yeah, we were off. We also wanted it to make it a little board game-y, a little retro in terms of its presentation. Just to kind of acknowledge those influences and those roots. Like, Eye of the Beholder 2 and Pool of Radiance and those kind of old-school games that we grew up with.
S: And so from that point on you guys created Red Hook Studios and began work on Darkest Dungeons?
C: Yeah, we formed the company to make the game, really. ‘Cos we didn’t know how it was going to do, and we thought “We’ll just get it done in a year.” And we’re seasoned developers. We all have 10+ years in the industry. We’re like “Yeah, we’ll do it in a year. Just gonna be some drawing, and it’ll just be kinda neat and quirky.”
S: And now you have a full game, you had a Kickstarter that was very successful.
C: It was kinda like the response fueled a little bit of our initial, you know, scoping. We didn’t know the longevity of it or what kind of success we were looking at. We knew that we would want to keep costs low, keep the team low, so that we didn’t need a big homerun to make some money. Because being older, we have a higher opportunity cost. We can’t live on Ramen; we have mortgages and children that kind of thing. So it was already a high risk proposition to dip into the savings and such to survive while we were making the game. We thought “Alright, we’ll just get it done really quick, and it’ll be a fun little experiment.” But then our first trailer got a lot of positive response, and so we thought “Alright, there might be a legitimate audience for this beyond smaller kind of little flash-in-the-pan sort of game.” And so we kinda looked at it, and that was a big encouragement for us to double down to make the game we hoped we would make, because we’re always ready to opt for plan B in an event that this goes sideways. ‘Cos nobody wanted to go bankrupt.
S: So how long would you say it took to get Darkest Dungeon to go from a concept and day one of founding Red Hook Studios to your first Kickstarter day?
C: We started two years almost exactly, so we worked for the better part of May to February when we launched the Kickstarter, and then the Kickstarter ran for a month. Then we worked for the rest of that year, basically prepping for early access. We exhibited at PAX East and PAX Prime. We then released our Early Access at the beginning of this year.
S: I hadn’t seen the Kickstarter, ‘cos I wasn’t savvy to Kickstarter at that point. But then my one friend was playing Darkest Dungeon and I was like, “Oh, what is this?” And now I’m here. So at the start of your Kickstarter you guys asked for $75k and you guys reached that well within 24 hours.
C: Yeah, we got that right away.
S: How did it feel to know that you guys had such a strong backing right from the get-go?
C: It felt amazing. We worked hard to sort of engineer that. We had that trailer released well in advance, we were collecting an email addresses for a mailing list, we emailed that mailing list and said “Look, success is it’s own father, so the best thing you could do for us, if you’re passionate about the game, is to back us on day one. Because we knew if we could get funded quickly then we might get some knock-on, sort of, news coverage. So that actually worked; we funded very, very, very quickly. And that was awesome, and it did sort of have that knock-on effect where sites picked up “Oh wow, this game funded in a day. Amazing!” I will say, had we only achieved our asked of $75k we still would’ve been able to make the game, but it wouldn’t have been as robust a game, you know? We wanted to be able to make something a little bit richer, but we were prepared for a worst-case scenario, but thankfully it didn’t come to that.
S: Yeah, at the end of the Kickstarter you guys had, what, $300k?
C: Yeah, $313K at the end.
S: Were you expecting that much backing after that day-one, where you had that full support? Were you expecting it to go that far out?
C: Uh, no, I mean by the end of it, we were kinda just reeling and numb *chuckles* we just didn’t know where it was going to stop. Like, the first day it was just pure adrenaline. I don’t think I stood up all day. I was just at my computer screen for 24 hours refreshing it in, emailing everybody that I knew, trying to stoke the fire a little bit. And then, running a campaign is a lot of work, so Tyler and I pretty much full-time, the entire campaign, were working on community management, talking to people, crafting backer updates, preparing art for the page. All that stuff. So, it was pretty exhausting, so by the time it was over, we were sorta stunned. We couldn’t really process what it meant. I mean you don’t really get paid for another month or so after, so it kind of feels surreal, it’s just a number on a screen and the promise of better days. But yea, it was great to be able to ease a little bit of the financial pressure, although most of that money is just pumped right back into development. We didn’t take a whole lot as far as paychecks go.
S: If you had to give one big tip, like the biggest thing that really helped push your product on Kickstarter, what would you say that would be?
C: Well, I think the biggest thing is not to go in cold asking for money. If I knocked on your door, we never met, and said “Hey, can I have money?” You’d say “Get the fuck off my lawn.” So in a sense, you can’t approach Kickstarter any differently. You can’t show up blind with your hand out, looking for funding. I think that’s a mistake. You can’t treat Kickstarter as your coming-out party. You need to be out, people need to be, at least in some small sense, aware of what you’re doing. And then Kickstarter has to be a compliment to an already moving train, but it can’t be the impetus to get the train going. I really believe that I think people make a lot of mistakes sometimes where they use Kickstarter as their announcement party and then, by the time their campaign comes to close, they’re barely funded or not quite funded. But people do know more about the game now, and that could’ve been mitigated by just hyping and delaying the campaign enough that you could get word about your project earlier, so that you can arrive to a warmer audience, and people know a little more of what you’re about.
S: One of the main draws I would say to Darkest Dungeon is definitely the art style. I was actually sort of surprised when I looked at Red Hook Studio’s team page, and next to your name it said you’re the creative director/artist. I thought “huh, that’s an interesting one,” ‘cos that usually doesn’t happen for a video game. But we’re definitely seeing this new trend of games like The Banner Saga, more recently Apotheon, where they have a very specific art style to them. What drew you to using the specific visual theme that you ended up using? What would you call it: I’d call it Gothic.
S: That would be in the realm of correctness?
C: I mean that’s certainly the intent for sure. After talking over the game…it really came from the central theme; the sort of theme of vulnerability and human heroes, fallible heroes. Out of that we knew it was going to be Medieval, we knew we wanted a Gothic style of game, we knew wanted a Lovecraft influence. The features, the sort of perma-save, permadeath, the difficulty, all of that stuff on the game design side grew out of those creative pillars. And then on the art side, it was a complimentary set of thing. Hard edges, because the game is uncompromising, pooling blacks because the light mechanic is really important and plays to the theme of the game. No eyes, because we want everyone to feel very soulless and downtrodden. So everything in the art style has a reason for being there. Some of them are very practical, like I needed to sell people on the idea that sloppy and loose was okay, so that I could actually get all the work done. ‘Cos if I was going for really high fidelity look on everything, I’d never finish the game. So I just tried to build a style that played to my limitations as a single artist and also pull from what made sense for the game. I looked at a lot of illuminated manuscripts, a lot of Medieval woodcuts, Albrecht Durer drawings, and then we also wanted the game to feel slightly modern. Obviously, ‘cos it’s a video game. So comic books artists like Mignola, Guy Davis, Victor Kalvachev, Chris Bachallo, all my favorite comic book artists that I grew up with and sort of lost track of as the age of digital painting eclipsed everything. It’s been cool to go back to those roots, but it’s all in there for a reason. It’s all meant to sort of reinforce and serve these sort of thematic pillars of the game.
S: Yeah, that definitely drew me to the game, just seeing the first picture of the game and seeing the trailer. That and the narrator really sold it to me. Because with games like The Bastion, I felt like he had too much of a cool-guy voice for telling a really apocalyptic tale. And then [Darkest Dungeon’s] intro: “You will arrive along the old road.” And it’s just, the way that he narrates it fit in very well with the art style and writing style of the game. Did you have an issue in the beginning of development trying to mesh the art style, the narration, and the writing together? Or did it all come in seamlessly in the end?
C: Well it kinda came in seamlessly together in the beginning. We knew exactly what we wanted. The narrator’s name is Wayne Jude, and he does audio books for H. P. Lovecraft, so we knew, as a big Lovecraft fan, we wanted the game to basically meld a lot of ‘Craft feel with the Middle Ages. We kinda looked at each other and said “Well we should shoot Wayne Jude an email and see what he says.” And he said “Yea, cool.” And so the pieces kinda came into place. But again, they all came from that same central core and creative direction. That was all there at the outset. They were sort of the ingredients to sort of make the stew, so to speak.
S: We had talked a bit about the stress mechanic briefly in the beginning and how you guys came up with it. In your latest patch, you also added the ability to stress out to the point of death, which I thought was quite interesting and painful at the same time. Do you guys have a bit of an issue balancing the severity of the stress mechanic? Weighing it versus the health, which one would end up being better to focus on as a player.
C: Every game has got health, so stress is definitely our differentiating feature. The reason we made it give you a heart attack was that we were finding that players would just get afflicted and would not care and say “Well nothing can hurt me now, I’m fully stressed out, who cares? I’ll just fire this guy when we get back to town.” That’s part of why we wanted to do an early access, is to see how people really play the game, and find those kind of holes that we just never would have thought to play that way. There’s a difference between the five of us and several hundred thousands of them. People are going to have wildly different approaches to the game, and so that’s why I think we’re benefiting from this time in Early Access. We observed that behavior, we didn’t like it, because we wanted stress to always be relevant. And then we thought “Yea, even thematically, it makes sense that you work yourself up into this frenzy, and you just can’t, you get a heart attack. It’s over for you.” So you have a larger stress pool capacity than you do health, but it is more pertinent, relevant statistic, because it gets modified by those lack-of-agency behaviors.
S: When are you guys planning on releasing Darkest Dungeon? Do you guys have a date set yet, or is it just tentatively in the future being released?
C: October is what we’re targeting for release.