(You can listen to the interview via the Soundcloud file at the end of the article.)
Remember when modding used to be something you rarely heard about? For many gamers the idea of altering their favorite games outside of what the official developers may have intended is still a foreboding concept, but modding is hardly the back alley scene of potential computer ruining programs it’s often painted as.
I dove into the modding scene a bit while playing KotOR 2, experiencing firsthand how mods can be used to enhance and elongate the longevity of popular gaming titles. Modders ensure these games remain fresh and can even serve to complement a developer’s vision, at times finishing what the original creators were rushed through.
Not too long ago I wrote an article about Darkest Dungeon’s progression through Steam’s Early Access, a tale about the game’s trials and tribulations over the last nine or ten months as Red Hook Studios works tirelessly to ready the game for release on January 19th, 2016. Soon after the article’s publication, I was approached by Joseph Bougneit, a fellow Darkest Dungeon fan who’s been modding the game ever since it was released on Early Access. Joseph (aka Joey) has been working on a few different mods for Darkest Dungeon since early February, the most popular of which is known as Pitch Black Dungeon.
It struck me as rather odd for someone to start modding a game before it was even officially released, so I sat down with Joey – through Skype of course – to discuss his now ten month old mod and motives for modding a game so early in its development cycles.
His passion for Darkest Dungeon became readily apparent in the first few minutes of the interview. He was so excited to talk about the game that I didn’t even have to really ask questions and many times opted to just make remarks or statements to steer the conversation.
You started modding the game incredibly early!
Joey: There was no official modding forum, no legal information on modding. I actually had to contact Tyler, the co-president and designer for Darkest Dungeon just to ask him about the legality of it.
You talked to Red Hook even before you started modding?
Joey: I had pretty much finished the mod and gotten everything written up and thought, “You know what, I want to be a little safe” and contacted Red Hook. Tyler got back to me very quickly and said that they’re incredibly supportive of it and they want to look at getting tools up for modders in the future, but to just include a little blurb about Red Hook not being responsible for any damages.
The game hits Early Access, not even really halfway done, and less than 10 days later your mod comes out.
Joey: I Kickstarted it and I love the idea behind it. I was just waiting for that day, stayed up and everything, and I just kind of binge played it for a couple days. I fell in love with it.
I grew up with my dad playing stuff like Heroes of Might and Magic, Ultima, Dungeon Master and all that stuff. I’ve just been a dungeon crawler lover since I was a kid.
Once I figured out that the files were editable, two days later, February 5th, I created Lighter Dungeon.
How’d you figure out the files were editable?
At any time while you were modding the game did you think, “Maybe I’m making changes that the developers are going to make anyway later on?”
Joey: I never really thought about it, but some of the changes that I implemented in both Lighter Dungeon and Pitch Black Dungeon have later gone into the game. Very small things like battle field medicine on the plague doctor having a 100% base chance to cure was something I made pretty early on in Lighter Dungeon and later it got buffed in game.
I can’t say they saw my mod and made the changes, but it’s kind of funny that we had similar ideas with those.
Darkest Dungeon was your first foray into modding. What do you think of the modding scene in general? Especially now that you’ve gone from being an outsider looking in to heavily modding a game yourself.
Joey: When you go from not being a modder to being a modder there’s a lot that changes. It’s difficult to explain.
Namely there’s the big controversy about paid mods. I think a lot of people think it’s a good idea but I think most modders would say they don’t do it for the money. We’ll take donations if you’d like to give them, but we certainly don’t ask for them. I can’t speak for most modders, but I think most modders don’t do it to get paid and that’s something I’m definitely in the same boat with. I do my modding for an entirely different reason and I would never charge money for it.
People think it’s amateur game development, and in many ways it is. It’s taking the framework of something else, putting your creative juices into it, and delivering different content to the user.
Are you looking more towards becoming a game developer now than you were before you started modding?
Joey: I think I’m a lot more focused now. I originally made Lighter Dungeon and Pitch Black Dungeon, would later on I would do one called Twisted Dungeon. They were very small tweaks and balance chances. It wasn’t a lot of work but it definitely required knowledge of the game’s economy and combat system. Modding Darkest Dungeon for re-balancing is a very good way to show off your designing skills.
The changes I originally made were small. These mods were pretty much under 1MB each at that point and I didn’t take it as seriously then as I do now. But I would definitely say after putting in the time with Pitch Black Dungeon I definitely, without a doubt, am a lot more focused and I know exactly where I want to end up in the game development industry now.
How Does Red Hook Feel About Mods?
As it says on the game’s Steam store page, “Darkest Dungeon is a challenging gothic roguelike turn-based RPG about the psychological stresses of adventuring.” It’s the first game to be created by Red Hook Studios, an independent video game development studio founded by Chris Bourassa and Tyler Sigman.
I reached out to Red Hook to find out firsthand how they felt about people like Joey modding their game before it was even released. Even during what’s surely a hectic development period, Chris responded to my inquiry with the following statement:
“I think it’s awesome that someone is passionate and driven enough to put their own twist on the Darkest Dungeon experience this early in its life cycle! It’s tough for us because we’re still in development, and while we’re excited to support modding in the future, we’re focused on our full release at the moment. The result is that our changes to the core game may periodically break mods that have been made, which may cost authors some extra work. We’ve tried to be really clear in communicating that building a mod for the game right now will require regular upkeep.” – Chris Bourassa, Creative Director
Having not played the mod himself, Mr. Bourassa couldn’t comment on the mod and it’s contents, stating that everyone at Red Hook was too dedicated to getting Darkest Dungeon ready for it’s January 19th release to play anything else. Of course that meant the mod hadn’t influenced Darkest Dungeon directly, but he also went on to say, “we get mountains of excellent feedback and suggestions through forums, twitter, facebook, reddit and email – and we’re grateful for all of it! We discuss community feedback a great deal, and will continue to refine, balance and expand the game – during early access, and post-launch.”
The Pitch Black Dungeon Mod
Joey’s Pitch Black Dungeon mod started out as a way to simply increase the difficulty. It focused on re-balancing the game’s economic progression and heavily limited the viability of suicide runs. As he said, the mod was “pretty much under 1MB”.
The he got serious and decided to add the affix system, giving mobs prefix and suffix traits that randomized the type of enemies you came across as you progressed through a dungeon. You could find yourself facing a Resistant Brigand Fusilier one battle and then a Brigand Fusilier of Bleeding the next – the former of which is immune to stuns while the latter applies bleeding with every attack he lands.
Changes made in the mod include:
- Almost every ability in the game (hero & enemy) has been added onto, redesigned, or re-balanced
- 450+ enemy variants have been added
- 3 times the amount of quests can be generated with some additional custom quests added
- 79 new and unique potions spanning 30 different types can be found during your travels
- 8 new diseases as well as a full disease re-balance
- Unique dungeon generation to encourage tactical provision management
- Enemy and hero balance changes
- Entirely re-balanced economy
- Additional corpse mechanics that include fermenting, fumigating, reanimating and skeleton hordes
- Meet fallen heroes in combat and try to remember who the real enemy is…
- Mini-bosses that can be found in each dungeon
Listing all the changes and additions the mod now features would make this already long article never-ending, but of course Joey expanded on many of the new features.
In the mod you give corpses a new life of their own. They can reanimate into skeletons and have a fumigate ability that adds a nice blight debuff that’s extremely annoying. What did you think of corpses when they were first released and what caused you to make some of the changes that you did?
Joey: When they were first released I didn’t have any problem with them. The moment they were released I started looking at ways I could make them more interesting and do more with them. I absolutely love the idea of them.
In many ways they make the game easier and more difficult. You can’t just take enemies on like an assembly line and chop them up, but in many ways keeping corpses in the front rows open up possibilities for your ranged attacks and makes ranged classes more useful. I don’t see where people were coming from about it being more difficult.
Where did the idea for the affix system come from?
Joey: I believe that came to me while I was in the bathroom honestly. Ironically enough a lot of my ideas come while I’m taking a shower or something.
While I was developing the 4.0 update I was working on the heroes and I had the idea, “What if there were different kinds of enemies?” I knew I couldn’t do anything artistic so I had to think about other RPGs and how they handled it, and I thought an affix system would be pretty interesting.
Originally the plan was to have one, maybe two affixes for each enemy. Eventually I decided to just make three for all of them, and it just got to the point where I started developing a whole bunch of different affixes. I took a look at games like Path of Exile and a lot of other RPGs that had similar systems and got inspiration from them.
It really makes the combat different. I wish I could do more, like have unique artwork for each affix, but I think what I’ve done so far – having three subtypes for each tier and enemy, which, in total, is around 450 or more additional enemies – it makes each encounter, even if it’s with the same type of enemy, really different.
Making such drastic additions and changes is something that could easily become imbalanced. What do you do to keep the game balanced?
Joey: Balancing is really difficult and definitely takes up a large portion of my time. Once you start adding things into the game, like the huge amount of affixes or the rank 3 and 5 ability tweaks, balance just goes crazy.
You really have to play around with it and make really safe choices, but sometimes you have to throw some risks in there. When you throw in affixes like hex-proof, which makes an enemy immune to debuffs, it becomes a lot more difficult. You can easily, with the tweak of one or two numbers, make the entire game unplayable.
It means a lot of testing and seeing if you can get some additional testers, but I guess I’ve always just been pretty decent at balancing. Despite the vast variety of changes and additions I’ve made, I feel the mod’s economy is pretty well balanced and so are battles.
Do you find yourself being more sympathetic when you see balance issues after dealing with some of your own?
Joey: Yeah. If you’re a regular player and you see something imbalanced you kind of get angry and thing, “What was the developer thinking?” But a lot of it is just calculation, and there’s a lot modders and developers just can’t test because we spend at least 90% of our time working on the mod or the game instead of playing it.
A lot of the changes that are made, at least for Pitch Black, I just calculated and I have to make very careful choices about what I buff or debuff. It’s really something that’s difficult and I would say that I’m more sympathetic than I was before I started modding.
Do you have a group of friends or people that help you playtest before each release?
Joey: I have one close friend who playtests. Her name is Sarah, and she’s been a real trooper through it all. I put a thanks up to her on the splash screen of the mod. She’s done such a large amount of playtesting for my 4.0 update and the updates past it.
I have a big thread up called “Seeking Pitch Black Dungeon 4.0 Beta Testers” and the only person who’s ever showed interest was her. Sarah took a lot of the work out of my hand, making it so I could mod on one screen and what her play on another.
I wouldn’t say you outright prevent suicide runs, but you certainly took steps to make suicide runs less profitable. Even early on you can only do suicide runs with two people, instead of four, and you also have a mechanic in the game where if you fail you don’t necessarily everything back.
Joey: One of the first changes to Pitch Black Dungeon was failure loot. Way back in version alpha, February 9th, I removed trinkets, heirlooms, gems and the gold was capped. You still lose everything if there’s a party wipe, but if you retreat from a quest you only keep half the gold you find.
Like you said, I haven’t completely nullified the ability to do suicide runs, but I don’t know how you would profit from doing them at this point.
You said a lot of the changes came in 4.0. When did 4.0 come out?
Joey: I started to design it midway through August. The original changes I was going to make were to hero abilities. I was going to re-balance and rework abilities so that at rank 3 and 5 there were additional effects that would happen. While I was designing that, I would come up with another idea that I thought was really great, and that just kept going until I had to step back and say, “Whoa, I’m getting in way over my head.”
If I go back and look at the original pre-4.0 changelog it’s only 8 pages. 4.0’s changelog ended up being 25 pages. It was about two months of work to design it, test it, implement it and get it shipped.
How much time did that two months translate into man hours?
Joey: I was working seven days a week on it, anywhere from 7 to 12-13 hours a day on it. I don’t know the exact amount of hours, but I was definitely working on it every single day.
Some people would say, “Hey, you should take a break or something.” But this kind of is my break. I love doing it so much that it’s very therapeutic to see the changes.
It can get a little exhausting when you’re sitting behind a spreadsheet or one file for the entire day, but once I see those changes in game it revitalizes my creativity and vigor. Right as I see something that I changed in game work without any errors or imbalances it feels awesome and I can keep going.
Do you spend more time developing the game now than playing?
Joey: It’s always been that way. I’d love to sit down and play and not have to worry about it but uh-
CAN you sit down and actually play the game?
Joey: Sometimes I go ten or fifteen minutes playing without thinking about something I can change, but it always comes back to something I can tweak. I haven’t played vanilla in a while. Most of the time I’m testing my mod and the changes. There’s definitely a huge amount of time I spend developing my mod compared to actually playing it.
The Realities of a Dedicated Modder
Over a two month period Joey spent more than 400 hours working on his Pitch Black mod and he continues to tweak, add to and refine it. He, like many other nameless dedicated modders around the world, works tirelessly day-in and day-out to provide an enriched, unique gameplay experience for gamers everywhere with little to no recognition or appreciation from the community.
Many people still see mods in a negative light, largely due to being burned in the past due to poor development or abandoned mods that never followed through with their promises. But there are many dedicated modders out there who have poured months of their lives into their projects. Not for money or recognition, but simply because they’re gamers who enjoy adding to and enhancing their favorite games for themselves and the community at large.
This was just a portion of the hour-and-a-half long interview I had with Joseph Bougneit, which you can listen to via the audio file attached at the bottom of this article. You can get a copy of his incredibly easy to install Pitch Black mod here and become a beta tester for future versions by commenting on his forum post entitled “Seeking ‘Pitch Black Dungeon 4.0’ Beta Testers”.
If you enjoy Darkest Dungeon, which is available here on Steam for the very worthwhile price of $19.99, then you owe it to yourself to give the mod I try. I absolutely recommend it for anyone who feels the game is too easy or grindy in its current Early Access iteration.