Exploring the Darkness: Tyler Sigman Talks About Co-Creating the Darkest Dungeon Games
Deep insights on the indie gaming world, roguelikes, Kickstarter, and the difficulty debate
As one of the most unique and well-regarded turn-based tactical RPGs ever created, Darkest Dungeon won piles of awards and praise upon its release in 2016. Just prior to the release of Darkest Dungeon 2 in October 2021, we sat down with the game’s co-creator Tyler Sigman for a wide-ranging discussion.
Thanks for joining me Tyler. At SUPERJUMP we love to celebrate creators and talk about their journey. Did you have games that inspired you growing up?
Arcades were super influential. When I think back to gaming experiences, I remember a spot where there was an arcade I would go to with my brothers. Now I drive by it all the time, and it’s a shoe shop.
I played the 2600 Atari system with my roommate. There was a game Adventure that was mind-blowing at the time because you were this single-pixel carousing around doing things, and it was super immersive even though you’re a pixel.
But the game I reference the most is Sid Meiers’s Pirates! on Commodore. I had a Commodore in the mid-’80sI like sand it remains super influential because there were so many different games and people were so creative.
I liked Pirates! on the Commodore a lot because it was such a cool and immersive theme. Being a swashbuckling pirate and going on an adventure, and the emergent narrative of the story; your career and experience were based on what you did rather than a linear path. For example, Uncharted is great, but you don’t deviate, you’re really just executing. Or The Last of Us, which is a great game, but it’s such a different experience. You’re really just being shown a sequence of events, and the only control you have is how fast you complete them.
Pirates! was wild because it asks you ‘What character do you want to play?’ and it drops you into the Caribbean. ‘What do you want to do as an occupation?’ okay you could be a merchant, a pirate, a pirate hunter. You may be romancing the governor’s daughter and trying to marry them. And then your crew gets unhappy and throws you overboard, and then you live on an island for a while. Pirates! was the first real sandbox game that I had played and remember being blown away by it.
Role-playing games were influential because I also played Dungeons and Dragons on paper with my brothers. These games asked you to bring creativity to it. Now that I think back, it was influential because it taught me to think creatively and that maybe you can create something, and what you create matters.
Hearing you talk about it, I would love to play a version of Pirates made in 2021 or at least check out the '80s Commodore game!
There is something about the video game industry back then that is like the indie industry now, where anything goes and you could try crazy-ass ideas and really cool stuff may succeed. Compared to the AAA side where there are specific product designs that they have to fit into. But in the 80’s it was like the wild west, and since the teams were small, one person’s crazy idea could make the game. An idea could come out that would never get out AAA-wise, and I think I still really love that.
How do you like being a game developer in the 21st century with the rise of indies? Does it make it harder or easier?
What I love now is between crowdfunding, Steam with digital storefronts, and digital distribution, it’s made it possible to be a designer because you don’t have to go through a publisher. Before this digital era, you needed a publisher and someone who could get the games into retail stores. If you were a creator and didn’t know how to get a game into Target, then you couldn’t do it.
There is no barrier beside the work. Like Eric Barone making Stardew Valley. He wanted to make a specific game based on Harvest Moon and Sims, worked on it for years, and was able to bring it out and it was a hit. The point is, a person putting in the hard work is the challenge as opposed to, ‘oh man, I have to find out how to get my game sold at Best Buy.’
Even though there is so much competition and so many games coming out, it’s still a really exciting time because you have all the tools and ability and nothing is stopping you from putting a game on Steam. You buy the developer account and put the game on Steam. Does it mean you will succeed? No. Your chances of success are low, but they’ve always been low.
When I started working in video games in 2004, there was not much of a path for indies. And now compared to 2004? There are so many more paths to get your game out there, and that makes it an exciting time.
But before you went into the game industry, you made board games. Can you talk about these and how you made the transition from board games to video games?
I became interested in designing games in high school or college, but I wasn’t looking at it as a career. At that time, no one was bringing video games to the market, but a board game was, ‘well maybe I could sell a board game design.’ But I didn’t have money and I didn’t know anyone in the industry.
Basically, I started designing board and card games at the dawn of PDF commerce. And it was right before PayPal, and then PayPal happened right when I was doing all this. The idea that you could pay online to unlock a digital file and download a PDF? It was revolutionary. It was right when people were just starting to buy books as a PDF, and there was this general sense of, ‘wait, pay for a digital thing? Why would you do that?’ So I realized I could make games online and sell them as PDFs. And then I didn’t have to invest in creator costs, because I didn’t have $20k sitting around to publish a board game. But I could put it up on PDF, and someone could pay $5 and download it.
The downside is that they would have to print out the cards. So you’d print out the 10 sheets of cards, cut them up, and then you could play the card game. It was not an ideal match of a medium, but what it did was allow me to try making games, publish them, and learn about marketing games without any money.
So I got experience that way, and it was the first three games that I made. Night of the Ill-Tempered Squirrel, Witch Hunt, and Shrimpin’. They were all inspired by movies or very silly things. And during that time Cheap Ass Games was super popular. They were board games that came out in cardboard style, but really well made and inexpensive, like $7. I tried to emulate what they were doing but digitally. And I was designing levels and other stuff for games just for fun. I was self-taught because there was no ‘game design school’ at that time.
Eventually, I started learning more about the industry and a publisher picked up my PDF games and actually produced them physically. They still aren’t fancy or anything, but that’s how I got experience.
I noticed Darkest Dungeon had a Kickstarter for a Darkest Dungeon board game. Did you help design or take part in the project?
We partnered with Mythic Games. It drove me crazy, but I had to face that I didn’t have time to design, produce, or market the Darkest Dungeon board game. So we decided to partner with somebody because that felt like the best way to bring it to market. And Mythic Games has done some really cool stuff. I was enamored with their Joan of Ark game, I thought the production quality was really good and the miniatures and looked cool. We had some meetings with people at Gen Con a couple of years ago and decided to give them a shot. The campaign crushed it, did really well. Raised 5 million or something?
Yes, the Kickstarter support was incredible and raised $5.6 million.
We really like Mythic Games and they have some people that are really passionate about Darkest Dungeon. The important thing for us is that someone wasn’t going to take a system, and just skin it, like ‘we have this board game already designed and make it Darkest Dungeon and it’s a win for everybody.’ No, we wanted the mechanics designed from the ground up, thinking about the actual game.
Mythic has been great and working with them has been awesome and it’s sort of like fan service, having that out there for people to buy. It’s not a primary revenue driver for us, but personally, I really wanted to see a Darkest Dungeon board game, Chris Bourassa did as well, my business partner. It’s really exciting to get that out there and I want to see the miniatures.
For Red Hook we are small and we just like to focus on doing one thing. That’s our strategy. We try to do one thing really well. And it gets hard if you’re trying to juggle a million other things.
How did you and your co-founder Chris Bourassa first connect? Was it by chance or were you looking for someone to partner with?
We worked at a studio together called Backbone Entertainment in Vancouver. When I switched into games full time in 2004, he was an artist there on a different project. We gradually got to know each other and became poker buddies.
We really respected each other's abilities. I knew he was a great artist, and I think I had done okay at designing some games there which I think he took notice of. When we started thinking about working together, we were friends but not so close that it was the reason we wanted to work together. We wanted to work together because our skills were complementary.
The short answer is we kept working at different studios and doing different things and weren’t sure what we might do together. And then all of a sudden in 2013 we both freed up from studios, and we had this idea for Darkest Dungeon. We were like, ‘now is the time, let’s do it, before we get scooped up into another studio.’ And we felt like we weren’t getting any younger. We didn’t have investors but thought, ‘well, we better do it now, because if we go and work for Microsoft for 5 more years, we won’t do it then.’
It’s harder and harder as you get older to say, ‘I’m going to go from a decent salary and have a decent living to nothing.’ And then hope in three years that it pays off.
Yeah, that’s a huge risk.
That’s the poker side of us, always willing to take a calculated gamble. It was interesting to us because we hate having bosses too.
Roguelikes were seen as a niche when Darkest Dungeon came out. People either loved or hated them. In the last few years, they have taken off in popularity. What are your thoughts on ‘roguelikes’ and their rise in popularity?
Here’s my soapbox, you ready? I need a good rant space. The term is funny too because it comes from the game Rogue (1980). I had never heard the term roguelike, maybe in deep message boards like NetHack, until not that long ago. My soapbox is that these game styles have been popular for a long time, they used to be some of the most popular computer games available.
I think we either lost the terminology or it didn’t resonate. But this whole way of structuring a roguelike game is just a really good, common sense game design. All that’s happened is that people are finding games that they like which turns out they liked years ago too. And now we are better able to talk about them.
Instead of talking about Spelunky as a game, we talk about it as a roguelike. Instead of talking about Binding of Issac as a cool game, we talk about it as a roguelike. I think people question what makes it a cool game. The elements that went into them, including Darkest Dungeon, are not new in terms of roguelikes. They’ve been around since the dawn of computer gaming but I think we just now developed a language that fans and gamers have an appreciation for being able to talk about more in-depth.
The term roguelike and the awareness of that structure and term have become more mainstream.
But to answer your question about roguelikes being niche, I think that is a correct assumption. Darkest Dungeon as a part of the creative direction of the game, we would repeat a mantra that ‘it’s not a game for everyone’.
We never had a problem that Darkest Dungeon would be a niche game, in fact that’s what we totally imagined. But it’s a way bigger niche than we expected.
The thing that makes it niche is how unforgiving it is. Not just the perma-death, but just how mean we are and the gothic horror. You add all those things together, and we describe the game as a dungeon crawler about the psychological stresses of adventuring. That’s weird, right? Not really dealing with the mainstream.
We always felt if we made a cool enough game that would appeal strongly to a small audience, that would do well enough to make it worth our while. We wanted it to be successful but we never thought it would reach as many people as it did.
What are your thoughts about the difficulty debate in video games and how that applies to Darkest Dungeon, which is a very difficult game?
As a designer, generally I think, ‘people bought the game, let them play how they want to play’. Put in accessibility, put in difficulty modes, if I want to save scum, let me save scum. I know this is hilarious coming from a designer, but in general, that's my philosophy.
It’s different in a multiplayer game when you’re comparing scores with other people around the world, but if you’re just playing alone, what’s the harm? There are games I feel aren’t well balanced or maybe I’m just bad at them, and it’s nice to lower the difficulty and get through it.
Like The Last of Us. I’d rather get through it and see the story and have that experience, and I don’t feel like I want to be a champion gamer to do it. But in other games, difficulty and execution are what the game is.
I always think rules are made to be broken, and it’s kind of like being a painter and learning perspective. The general philosophy being Darkest Dungeon wouldn’t work if we softened the edges. So for us, it was a big risk.
We are not going to let you save this character, we are going to make you live on the edge and cause a state of fear and dread. That was the ultimate experience we wanted to provide, so in that case we actively chose that path.
I respect designers that want to shape the project the way they want. You live or die by your own decisions. If you want to make the hardest game in existence like Battletoads 2, and then nobody buys it because it’s literally the hardest game ever made and you made that choice creatively? I respect that.
The thing I love about indie games is that they don’t fit into a certain formula. You have to trust your vision. Could you talk about the risks you and Chris took with Darkest Dungeon?
Sometimes your risk averseness can be countered by your ambition. Chris and I both share a lot of ambition for various reasons. We really wanted to make a mark on the industry. To some degree when you get involved in a creative field, ultimately you want to contribute something to the field.
We knew how it works when you work for other companies, you could make really cool products and have a hand at making Diablo or something, but the real excitement and what inspired me was individual creativeness.
My start in game design of making my own small board games was fulfilling, versus a small part in a big game. We both felt that way and were ambitious in that regard, and entrepreneurial in spirit.
You have to take risks to be an entrepreneur, but it doesn’t mean you have to take stupid risks. I don’t need to zip down the highway at 120mph on my motorcycle without a helmet and wearing flip-flops, that doesn’t excite me. But I’m absolutely willing to push all-in on a good hand.
Some might argue video games are a dumb risk, but we did a few things particularly well. We waited until we had a good idea that we were passionate about, and Chris and I had talked about many other game ideas but ultimately they just fizzled- so we waited until we felt like we had something we believed in. Then we would tell friends about it and they would respond, doing a little market validation ahead of time.
We made sure we had a little bit of savings to live off of, and then we decided we would go to Kickstarter. One way we mitigated our risk was by saying, ‘let’s invest a year and put it on Kickstarter. If nobody wants it, that kind of tells us something.’ If we brought it to Kickstarter and couldn’t get traction, we were going to stop, look what we did, and decide whether to continue.
If we convinced ourselves it was the way we ran the Kickstarter campaign, maybe we’d give it another go, but if we didn’t have a good reason of why it may have failed, we would have had to look at the product and said ‘no one gives a shit. Do we really want to invest another year or two of our life savings with negative feedback?’
But there is no mitigating the overall risk which was spending a lot of time making a lot less than market rate trying to make a game hoping it works out. There was no point where we had knew we made it until we launched it and people bought it.
We had a lot of friends that worked at other studios and people we had worked with that we tried to hire at the beginning, but some of those people were like, ‘I’ve got a good job at Microsoft, I can’t leave. You may spend two years of your life and not make a cent.’ So yeah, I am proud we took that risk because it was not easy.
Kickstarter really has been invaluable for indie game developers. Great point that you can gauge interest and know if something will take off or fall flat.
It relates to the question earlier. It’s a cool time to be a maker of independent products because you can reach consumers directly now. You come up with an idea, put it on Kickstarter, and see what happens. If people like it, that funds it. That kind of stuff never existed in the same way before. I’m grateful for that and our story at Red Hook. The timing of starting with crowdfunding, digital distribution…it’s good. Darkest Dungeon couldn’t have happened without it.
The article on Darkest Dungeon 2 in PC magazine mentioned a theme in the game based on The Oregon Trail and road trips. How did Oregon Trail become an idea and show up in the new game?
Oregon Trail was so influential because A) I learned to play it in school and remember it as being one of the first games in the classroom. B) It also took people on a journey. That is a very evocative way of structuring an experience, whether it be a movie, book, game. We all go on these journeys through life, I guess I’m getting pretty meta. But journeys are powerful because they are so easy to explain. You’re here, you need to get here, don’t die along the way.
Oregon Trail gave you that freedom. How much flour? How many bullets? How many Oxen? Those are some of the best parts of interactive entertainment. Oregon Trail is cool because you may not bring enough food and die. The next time, not enough bullets. It challenges you, you learn, you repeat, and that’s the roguelike cycle again. Trying, learning, repeat. That was arcade games too. Combine that with history and a cool story means it’s well designed and well crafted.
We describe it as Oregon Trail meets Darkest Dungeon because it’s easier to describe than a roguelike. People may not know roguelike, but they’ve played Oregon Trail. It’s similar. You’re literally putting people in a stagecoach in Darkest Dungeon 2 and trying to drive across the world and trying not to die. Oregon Trail has always been a great spiritual inspiration.
It’s a great concept because the randomness in Oregon Trail does speak to roguelikes.
True. You got a disease or cholera. I think the randomness is important or it would get boring. You go past a town and run into Indians or whatever, and if it happened every time you’d never play it again. And randomness is a powerful game design tool when used correctly because it keeps you on your toes.
Darkest Dungeon 2 ultimately is like get supplies, keep your people alive, and drive across the world. It’s more like Lord of the Rings, you’re not doing the task for personal gain or to make yourselves better, they’re taking the hits because somebody’s got to do it.
There is a working theme that is a little more hopeful. Darkest Dungeon is highly cynical, which is intentional. It’s more about greed and ambition. We were talking about ambition, and we all have it of course because we are human, but Darkest Dungeon is what happens when your ambition goes too far. Ambition at all costs. Whereas Darkest Dungeon 2 is a little more for friends shouldering the burden that nobody else will do. We aren’t trying to give away too much of the story yet. But there are typical Darkest Dungeon dark and heavy themes, but it’s the idea of going across the world not to get treasure, but to stop it from ending.
Many bigger games have ‘untouchable heroes’ who rarely show weakness. I really enjoyed Darkest Dungeon for having flawed heroes that suffered from afflictions, addictions, mental illness, and deteriorating psyche and stress from dungeon crawling. Was this idea personal to you and Chris and how did you come up with it?
I would say the original idea was not personal. Chris was like, ‘man, what would it have really been like being an adventurer?’ Things had gone so overboard with Final Fantasy-style weapons and it’s such a power fantasy where even the power itself was having to be over-exaggerated to make it feel exciting.
You play Diablo 3, you just crush things. You hit one button and destroy 97 monsters. And your sword just keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger… Things were becoming a caricature- if you go back to some of the most influential fantasy, stuff like Lord of the Rings, it wasn’t a power fantasy. It was a human tale.
These hobbits were the real heroes, which were the weakest and smallest and they just want to guard, eat, and drink. So I’m not shitting on what these RPGs have become, I enjoy playing a lot of them. The core idea of Darkest Dungeon was ‘well what if you went the other direction if it wasn’t about the sword and ability to swing it in the face of certain doom.’ As soon as we had that idea it was compelling and became personal. Everyone goes through certain stress and hardship and experiences certain fear tests in life to do the hard or the right things.
Everyone has co-workers when the chips are down they are with you fighting the fight, and then some co-workers as soon as things get stressful they lose their shit. So it gets personal looking at your own life experiences.
I know you personally are interested in mental health being an interesting aspect in games, so I wanted to add that it’s very important to us that Darkest Dungeon plays on the human response to stress. But we never want to say it’s a game about mental illness. Because those are just human qualities and we don’t try to make a judgment.
Everyone is flawed. The flawed heroes are the ones being heroes. From a human standpoint, we all have our demons and we all have people in our life that are fighting demons.
We have fun in Darkest Dungeon, joking around and certain things are satirical, but we never ridicule the idea of faults themselves. In fact, it’s the opposite, that’s what makes us human. Most Lovecraftian games use a sanity meter. You’re either sane or not sane. For us it was a stress meter because it doesn’t imply sanity or insanity, it implies some people handle stress better than others.
Tom Brady can handle stress pretty well, he can throw a football when everything is on the line. Where some people get stage fright or can’t perform or speak. We never make judgments about those, we just try to make a game about that dynamic. As opposed to sanity or mental illness.
But we have a lot of fun with this stuff- someone has a problem with alcohol, well they will always take that spot in the tavern. And now it’s a gameplay element because shit… the caretaker is in that spot and now I can’t put this character there! Well, I guess I better treat them.
So it’s funny to us when you have to start doing game management. ‘Oh, I have to send Dismas to the sanitarium to cure his deviant tastes because they wouldn’t let him in the brothel. And I need to go to the brothel because I have to reduce his stress.’ And when you hear yourself saying those things it’s really funny. That’s why for us it’s still always a game. It’s not a study of human psychology, it’s a game inspired by human foils.
Who wouldn’t fall apart in that dungeon crawling situation? That’s a gameplay element I had to learn, balancing the character’s stress meters. It’s difficult to balance stress in and out of the game.
We even use that now, because art imitates life. Well, life imitated art. Human stuff inspired Darkest Dungeon, and now we joke internally, ‘so and so is afflicted, don’t talk to so and so- give them a day and let their stress meter come down. Let them go to the tavern to drink.’
We use game terms with each other, ‘hey, my stress bar is at 9 just so you know.’
It’s a good way to communicate, maybe I should try that. Any video games you’re playing now?
Life has made me a little busy, so I’m not playing anything. I was just starting to get into Elite Dangerous recently which was fun because I bought a Thrustmaster Joystick and wanted to try that out. A lot of Apex for a while. Summertime I am outside more, playing disc golf.
Great to hear! Thanks so much, Tyler for taking the time to share your experiences and talk about Darkest Dungeon 2, I really appreciate your time!
Sign in or become a SUPERJUMP member to join the conversation.