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First released in 2016, Red Hook Studios' gothic roguelike Darkest Dungeon has been an enduring success for the indie studio.
But there was a time, a few months before it landed on Early Access, when things looked bleak: the studio was out of money, and tensions were high.
“Before we launched into Early Access, we were broke, we were out of money...it was very stressful,” Red Hook cofounder Chris Bourassa said at GDC today. “Finally at the eleventh hour this group came forward and said ‘we’ll give you 500 grand’, and my gut was like...no. We should live and die by our own decisions on this.”
Nevertheless, Bourassa says he did try and argue for taking that cash — he had a mortgage, everyone on the team had obligations, and they were broke. But after the argument, they decided to stick it out and hold on for ~3 months until they could hit Early Access.
“Looking back, it was the right decision,” said Bourassa. “But it was very important that we talked it out among ourselves.”
He was speaking alongside fellow co-founder Tyler Sigman about the ups and downs of creative partnerships, something the pair are well-qualified to speak on after taking Red Hook from the back of a napkin to a high-profile indie studio.
“Having two bosses is not always...it’s not streamlined,” said Sigman. “But we truly believe the game would not have been successful without that messy, imperfect structure.”
Prior to founding Red Hook the pair had known each other for years, meeting at another studio (Backbone) and then becoming friends after they each moved on. Poker games were a big part of this bonding experience, and the pair came to appreciate each other’s skills and ambitions.
“We actually tried a webcomic, but it didn’t get very far,” added Sigman. “When the timing was right, we both had disasters at our respective companies that were very fortuitous.”
Thus, in 2013 they joined up to form Red Hook, and quickly hit a potentially partnership-ending snag: who's the boss of this new studio?
“Spoilers: nobody’s the boss,” said Sigman. “There was talk about 50/50, and we talked about 51/49 for symbolic reasons, but we settled on 50/50.”
Sigman says this forced the pair to work through something very hard in the beginning (“quite a scene in that Starbucks,” says Bourassa, with a chuckle), and that helped build a foundation for the work to come. In hindsight, he recommends developers in similar situations try to make sure to have that talk about the split (50/50 or otherwise) before a project starts, rather than during.
"Spoilers: Nobody's the boss."
“It definitely challenges the ego, right, to have to figure out ‘okay what’s my role, and what’s my identity’,” said Sigman. “An outcome of that tension is that you make better decisions together.”
This stretches beyond game design or art direction to encompass business decisions, marketing, planning, and more. Both Bourassa and Sigman seemed earnestly appreciative of each other onstage, talking up each other’s strengths: Bourassa touts Sigman’s keen eye for systems and details, while Sigman spoke highly of his partner’s artistic skills and gut sense for what makes a good game.
However, the pair also remind fellow devs that things change, and partnerships aren’t meant to last forever — they suggest it’s a good idea to re-evaluate your goals every 3-5 years, and have hard conversations about whether your partnership should continue.
“Those are hard discussions, but they’re real things you’ll probably have to face over the course of several years,” said Sigman, who ultimately chose to take a break from the team after some of the afore-mentioned hard conversations with Bourassa.
As part of the talk, the pair shared some "golden rules" for partnerships in games (or anything, really.) The number one rule? Don’t let anything fester
“If something lasts for more than a day, the ‘victim’ has an obligation to raise it as an issue,” said Bourassa. “This is very tricky, because it might not be anyone’s fault and it might not be easy to see the cause. So the other person has a responsibility to listen carefully, and treat the problem with respect.”
“You defuse assumptions fast,” added Sigman. “It’s easy to construct a sort of Tolkien-esque backstory of why this person did this thing and hurt your feelings...but when you just go right to the heart of it and talk, then often you found out oh, no, they just did it obliviously. They had no idea it bothered you.”
For example, “having a partner who’s very competent and focused on another part of the project, you can create a real nice narrative about how much work you’re doing,” warns Bourassa. “It’s very easy to fall into that pitfall of thinking the grass is always greener, and the other person has it easier.”
He recounts how pressured he felt to deliver high-quality finished work for the game, and how he started to feel resentful because he thought other parts of the Early Access game only needed to have work that was in progress.
Sigman, for his part, says he felt some resentment about having to do a lot of small, seemingly easy tasks that were (he felt) never talked about or recognized but still challenging and time-consuming.
“Trying to maintain that tension of ‘we made this together’ is not always easy,” said Sigman.
“Yeah, it’s a creeping thing,” adds Bourassa. “Like, Valve emails Tyler about the game. I’m CC’ed, but...you can start to feel like you’re getting lost.”
So they sat down together to talk, frankly, about what they wanted (credit for the game) and how they could each achieve it. They agreed to share or alternate interviews, to frequently mention the other person, and in general to set clear, achievable rules to ensure neither felt too overlooked.
“If something is truly something we don’t want to live with, or we think it’s bad for the company or the game, we can veto,” said Sigman. “It’s a little bit like the nuclear keys: you each need to turn the key.”
“It really helps relax the pace,” added Bourassa “ I can see things I’m worried about, or I might not like, and I don’t need to jump on them because I can rest assured that when it’s time to make a call, I have to greenlight it. And the same goes for Tyler.”
Both Bourassa and Sigman were adamant that partnerships must evolve, and you have to be ready for that to happen. There were a significant number of life-changing events during Darkest Dungeon’s development (births, deaths, and the like) that changed both men.
They were both ready for things to change at any time -- Bourassa says he was the “51” in the “51/49” conversation, noting that he had a sketchbook filled with Darkest Dungeon art and it was agreed that he could take that book and walk away if things didn’t work out.
But things did work out, and in hindsight, the pair say the key to a successful partnership is to basically think of it like a marriage: both partners feel like they’re putting in 65 percent, but they still make time to recognize each other’s contributions.
“I think it’s important to feel like you’re always in a state of overperforming, but you have to take time out to praise and recognize the work your partner is doing,” said Bourassa. “And restore some intimacy. We go on dates! We’ll go get steak and some red wine, and just try to get out of our heads and away from the game.”
“The bottom line is that we need each other,” concluded Sigman. “We look at each other and know we couldn’t have done it without each other, and that forms a basis for working through the kinks.”
“In hindsight, maybe we shouldn’t be giving any advice,” added Bourassa, with a laugh.