Things can change quickly in Early Access development. You may remember Darkest Dungeon, an excellent roguelike that launched on Steam's in-development sales service in February. We enjoyed the game when it was showed at PAX and the Early Access launch version. We haven't reviewed the game because it's still in Early Access, with developer Red Hook Games continuing to make sweeping changes to the title.
Some of those changes were not met with the love of the community, with the real pain points spread over two different patches. The first was the Friends & Frenzy update at the end of May, which added the Man-At-Arms and Arbalest classes, a new building, and the Heart Attack mechanic. Managing stress was always a part of Darkest Dungeon, but with the new mechanic characters with way too much stress could suffer a heart attack, dying instantly. Some players loved the added difficulty, while others noted that it made certain enemy encounters far too punitive.
In July, Red Hook launched the Corpse & Hound update for Darkest Dungeon. The patch added the Houndmaster class to the game, the ability to lock-in positive quirks at the Sanitarium Treatment Ward, diseases, and corpses in combat. The latter feature was the issue, with corpses of fallen monsters now remaining on the battlefield. These bodies take up a spot and keep the enemy's formation together. To remove a corpse, players have to deal damage to it, essentially making it an extra life bar.
Red Hook even explained their thought process behind the mechanic in the build notes: "Corpses do a couple things mechanically, but the main objective is to enhance positional strategy further and provide more nuance and tactical alternatives to the time-honored strategy of 'just bash the guy in front until there are no guys left.'"
Together, heart attacks and corpses turned Red Hook's community against them. Many felt the changes made the game too hard and introduced unneeded tedium. While the game still retains a Very Positive rating for user reviews on Steam, a look at the Most Helpful reviews shows some unhappy players.
"The game transformed from a Brutal-yet-Fun Planning-Focused Dungeon Crawl to nothing more than a by-the-numbers resource grinder with some Cthulhu-analogous imagery pasted over it," wrote Steam user Phasmaphobic. "It has become a game too contrary to the premise that was initially sold to me. I came for the fun of the Dungeon Crawl Gone Bad, but left after the devs decided to focus more on creating a Grueling Tedium Generator. I was looking forward to spending dozens, even hundreds more hours in this one, but unless those mind-grating mechanics are either improved or outright stripped, I cannot recommend playing another minute in this one."
"Recently there have been several game design choices that have pushed the game from 'hard but enjoyable' to 'too many things that make the game tiresome', which I have been sorry to see," added Steam user Fatbill.
Red Hook responded to the outcry today in a post acknowledging that players have been angry with the changes. Their answer? Allowing players the option to turn off the controversial mechanics.
"While many of you have enjoyed these new features, it's very clear that many others do not. In some cases, you feel that it has fundamentally altered your personal experience with the game–turning it from something you loved into something you don't," wrote Red Hook's Sean Green in the blog post. "The feedback has been clear that sometimes this comes down to a single feature even. Simply put: that's a huge bummer for all of us."
"We believe that corpses and heart attacks are important mechanics for the game, not only for the reasons initially discussed in the Corpse & Hound design notes but reinforced by our observations since," Green added. "However, today we are introducing a set of gameplay options (accessed via the normal Options menu) which allows you to turn them off. Just as we were willing to experiment by adding these features, we are willing to experiment with ways to allow you to shape the DD experience a bit to your liking."
"Our official vision of the game leaves these two features 'on' by default."- Red Hook's Sean Green
In the post, Red Hook stresses that corpses and heart attacks are their full vision for Darkest Dungeon. The developer absolutely believes in those ideas, but it's shifting to keep its community happy. Red Hook is changing because it has the ability to make a dissatisfied part of its community happy.
"For clarity, our official vision of the game leaves these two features 'on' by default," Green explained. "This does not mean the features are the best they can be yet, but we feel they are important in context of the broader experience. Those of you who would like to enjoy the game without corpses and heart attacks now have the option to. In addition, we'll be collecting metrics on their use so we have a better understanding of the entire community.
"We are going to continue to pursue our vision for the game–after all, that's why we are all here in the first place. But if we can do better at providing ways for different people to enjoy the game in a way that suits them, we'll be on the lookout for how to do it without compromising what the game is all about."
Some would say that Red Hook should've stuck to its guns, instead of listening to the whiners. Those folks would argue that those who are vocally dissastified with the current state of Darkest Dungeon are infringing on the developer's creative freedom. They not.
The truth is "creative freedom" is brought up when a fan likes what a developer has created and is used as a way to shut up people who disagree with them.
Game development - if you want to do it as a career - requires not only making what you want to play, but also compromising with a number of different forces. That can be members on your team, publishers, time, finances, and even the community. Unless you're working on a very small team of one or two people, your final vision is a series of choices and compromises made to create not only the best art you can make, but also the best product.
I've written about developers having to cut features and ideas they care about due to outside forces. That's pretty normal. I've talked about when developers have made changes due to community feedback, only to face anger for not sticking to their original vision. I've also talked about players willing to ignore the idea of creative freedom when it suits them.
When former Bioware writer Jennifer Hepler noted that she wishes there was a "no gameplay" mode for players who are only concerned with the story, I thought that was a cool idea. Others disagreed in an uncivil manner to something that was little more than a suggestion. Because again, "creative freedom" is what's upheld when a developer does something you like. When you disagree, then they really should be listening to consumer feedback more. People flip between both stances; whatever is needed to make you correct and those who disagree wrong.
So let's make things clear again, using words I've written before:
If you have something to say about a game's art, story, mechanics, or whatever, say it. As long as you do so in a civil manner, then you are doing the right thing. Speech is good. More speech is great. And occasionally, businesses will make decisions about the things they create and distribute based on your speech and the speech of others. They may release more. They may retract or change what they've already put out into the world. That's their prerogative. That's the way the system works. That's commercial art.
Frankly, I applaud Red Hook for giving their players the options to turn off those features, while also acknowledging "this is the way it's supposed to be played." I always think more choices are a good idea. And if Red Hook had decided to stick with their vision, I would've been fine with that too.
There's no one way forward and trying force the industry onto a single path is pretty disingenuous. Developers, you're free to create whatever you want and let the market judge. You're also free to change your vision as you see fit, whether for personal reasons or feedback. Players, you're allowed to tell the developer what you like and don't like about their work in a calm and reasonable manner. Heck, you can even be unhappy when they don't listen to your feedback. Those are the freedoms we have. Use them.