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Early Access, Kickstarter, and Darkest Dungeon

Originally a Kickstarter project, Darkest Dungeon by Red Hook Studios has gone on to take the ever popular rogue-like format by storm. The basic gameplay revolves around fairly traditional dungeon crawling and turn-based combat, but the systems, themes, and aesthetics layered on top elevate the game to a higher level. However, I love Darkest Dungeon not just because it’s a fantastic game, but because it proves that Kickstarter and early access are worthwhile and can be done right.

Both platforms are so often lamented, and it’s easy to see why. There have been many high-profile failures, not just in terms of overall quality, but in project management and general shadiness. Mighty No.9 for example. Not only was the game (to put it lightly) sub par, but the actions of Inafune’s studio Level-5 Comcept were more than a little troubling. There were unreasonable stretch goals, publisher deals, and even other Kickstarter campaigns during Mighty No.9’s development. All of this came from a supposedly respectable developer and so it’s no surprise people have begun to lose faith. The situation with early access is even worse, especially on steam. The lack of quality control means that hundreds of broken, low-quality games have made it onto early access. It’s not a good look.

Darkest Dungeon did Kickstarter right. Nothing was hidden from the people backing it and there were no ludicrous, impossible promises made. Go and look at the Kickstarter page now and what was advertised is exactly what we got. It sounds simple but so many developers get it wrong and end up under delivering. On Kickstarter perhaps more than anywhere else, you have to be transparent. It’s easy to make promises and watch the money roll in, but eventually, you have to deliver.

If you want to see early access gone wrong then you won’t have to look very hard. The notorious After Reset released essentially as an alpha. There was no gameplay, only a small level you could wander around in. Early access is not a place to prove a concept or have customers be your alpha testers for you. You have to produce something that is worth paying for. If you throw up an inferior game that simply isn’t finished (Earth Year: 2066) then you are doing it wrong. Steam literally define early access as being “a full purchase of a playable game”, not a proof of concept, not a tech demo, a playable game. This is what so many developers don’t seem to understand. If you appear on early access with a vision, content, and polish, you will be so much better for it.

Once again Darkest Dungeon showed everyone else how it’s done. When it was first launched on Steam early access it was still a solid game. Sure it wasn’t finished, but there were already hours of content and the game was damn good in its own right. It didn’t hide behind missing features to protect itself from criticism. What must be going through the minds of developers who throw up half baked crap in the hope of making a quick buck? The shortsightedness of that approach is baffling.

But now we come to what I believe to be the real issue when discussing Kickstarter or early access, misdirected anger. People are beginning to actively rail against the platforms themselves, not those responsible for abusing them. You have to bear in mind that both platforms are perfectly sound ideas, but deluded or malicious developers have twisted them towards their own ends, souring their image in the public eye. I’ve seen this slash and burn approach before. There are many people who simply believe that free-to-play games should not exist, forgetting that in itself, free-to-play is not a harmful concept, it can be done right. We can look to games like Hearthstone to see that.

I can understand why people feel an animosity for these platforms, I really do. But to dislike them because they are being abused is regressive. Reform, not total destruction is the answer. These ideas are new and so, of course, it’s going to take a bit of time to get them right, but we need to believe that we’ll get there eventually. Otherwise, we’ll just end up going backwards. If we didn’t have either Kickstarter or early access, Darkest Dungeon might never have happened. That is why we should work to make these systems better, not avoid or do away with them entirely.

Robert Webb
I was born in Oxford in 1998 and have been gaming for almost my entire life. I want to see this industry evolve as a storytelling medium and deliver experiences that stay with people. Interactivity is a narrative device that only games can employ, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it can take us.

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