Darkest Dungeon’s creators tell us what it’s really like to go to GDC

They might also be performing black magic to get ready for Darkest Dungeon 2

Every year in spring, thousands of developers, industry insiders, and gaming enthusiasts flock to San Francisco to clog the already busy downtown streets for the Game Developers Conference. Unlike the more fan-facing shows, like PAX or E3, GDC focuses on the business of gaming. That means you’ll find more people in business suits running around than you’ve ever seen in one place, but don’t let the lack of pageantry fool you. GDC lures in some of the biggest names in the industry and holds its share of exciting stories.

The conference is also one of the biggest platforms for indie games and is holding its 21st Independent Games Festival alongside its expo. As part of the festival, indie developers show off their creations in the IGF Pavilion and GDC even hosts a high-toned and fancy to-do award ceremony celebrating indie game excellence.

Unfortunately, unless you are in the press you’d be looking to drop a fat stack of cash to gain entrance into the hallowed audience chambers for the first two days of the conference. That’s why I decided to skip all that and meet up with Chris Bourassa and Tyler Sigman, co-founders of Red Hook, creators of Darkest Dungeon and soon Darkest Dungeon 2. Their gothic RPG was nominated for the conference’s Independent Game Awards back in 2016 and both have given several talks for GDC, so they were the perfect pair to walk me through what it’s like to attend the show.

Destructoid: Good GDC so far? It’s barely started but…

Tyler: Yeah, it’s barely started so it’s like, energy levels are still high, optimism is high. I haven’t seen enough awesome stuff to get dejected yet.

Chris: Yeah, the insecurity only sets in around Thursday. The bar keeps creeping up every year.

Destructoid: This is obviously not your first GDC, you guys are old pros. You’ve both had individual talks, you’ve talked together about co-founding Red Hook, you were nominated and attended the IGF Awards. Can you remember your first GDC and what was going on?

Chris: I felt very wide-eyed and it was very inspiring to hear all of the talks, but it was a long long time ago – back in Backbone we went one year.

Tyler: The first one I went to was San Jose that year. I remember it being so exciting because I had read about and heard about GDC for many years, but I never had the money to go on my own. So, it was this mythical thing and the first time going is just you feel like…

Chris: It’s like year one at Hogwarts or something, like, “Wow, is that how it works?” And you get to actually see these people. Kenneth Scott gave a texturing talk – he was someone I really looked up to – and there he is, and he hangs out afterward. I think it was great for breaking down barriers, or the perceived barriers, between us. Like, “I could never talk to him!” But actually, he’s just right over there and he’s like, “Hey man.”

Tyler: You see all of these vaunted names on badges. There’s that whole fun game of scanning the badges and you have to decide, “Do I do the whole gush over a game thing?” They probably got that eight times today. “Do I play it cool?” But then I’m not appearing grateful for this game that they made. Really the concentration of everybody in one spot is just, really neat.

Chris: I think that’s my favorite thing – we were talking about that on the way over here – is just bumping into people. That’s my favorite thing at GDC. The talks are amazing, business meetings are business meetings, but you are just noodling around and then you bump into someone you know who is with someone you don’t and then suddenly, you realize, “Oh, you made this game.” You can really just have these amazing accidental meet-ups.

Destructoid: Jumping to 2016, Darkest Dungeon has just come out, is it a totally different GDC?

Tyler: Yes. Or 2015 because we came out on early access in 2015 and the game exploded right out of early access, so you know, yeah, that GDC was really different. When you have conversations they ask, “Oh, what are you working on?” That’s always the conversation opening when you meet someone new at GDC because you are not just talking about the weather in San Francisco or whatever, we would say that we worked on Darkest Dungeon. We’ve been in the industry a long time and worked on a bunch of things, it was the first time when we said the name of the thing we were working on and people say, “Oh!” Maybe the best way to summarize it is that a lot of our peers had played [Darkest Dungeon]. That’s the thing from 2015 and on; meeting people that you respect who say, “I played that game and enjoyed it.” It makes it seem so surreal.

Destructoid: Was 2016 the first time you had given talks or had you already done that?

Chris: No, I think my first GDC talk was that Creative Direction one and that was 2016.

Destructoid: That was the same year that you attended the IGF Awards. What loomed larger in your mind, the awards or was it the talk?

Chris: The talk.

Destructoid: Why is that?

Chris: Well, because the die is cast on the awards. You just show up, you get a glass of wine and wait to see what happens. The talk though, you can actively screw that up. I can sit and drink wine flawlessly! It was daunting to look out into the audience and see all these people who you respect and whose work you know sitting there like, “Okay what do you have to say?” It was exciting too, it wasn’t a bad pressure.

Destructoid: Do you feel the same about your talk this year?

Chris: I’m just doing a five-minute thing in the Indie Soapbox, it should be pretty easy. However, it’s always awesome to be a part of the events.

Destructoid: I don’t want to freak you out, but I’ve heard it touted as the culmination of the indie summit.

Chris: Oh, is that what the thing is? Yeah, but there is a whole bunch of other people, so they can culminate. I’ll just slip in and… [laughs]

Tyler: I had spoken, maybe it was 2012 or 2011, on a game called Hoard, it was a dragon-themed game. There are various speaking engagements we’ve had but GDC is such a big one. Also, the time slots, that first Hoard talk that I did, was one of those fifty-minute ones, and that’s a long time…

Chris: [interrupting] to be interesting.

Tyler: Yeah, to be interesting and you really want to feel like you are adding something new because there have been so many talks for such a long time that, so you ask, “Am I adding something interesting?” It’s also a rush because it gives you a great chance to contribute back having been in many audiences in GDC. It’s honestly pretty fun.

Chris: There are, like, three stages I find. First, the excitement of the talk getting accepted, then you get two months of impostor syndrome where you ask yourself “Why am I talking? I have nothing to say that everyone doesn’t already know. It’s all common sense,” and then I always rally at the end and say, “I’m just going to try and have fun.”

Destructoid: You touched a little bit on this, but is GDC, in your mind, different than other conferences? What sets it apart?

Chris: It’s the biggest gathering of most accomplished professionals.

Destructoid: Even more than E3?

Chris: Yes, because E3 is an outward-facing sizzle marketing show and PAX is more like a public-facing exhibition and a celebration of games and that’s all great, but GDC is focused on the education side of it. I know that they have an exhibition hall but, honestly, that’s not why I come here. It’s really all about finding out things like how they did the animation on God of War, you know, really learning from people who are either on the cutting edge or have these amazing indie stories.

Tyler: The details are more interesting to us because we can experience a game – you know E3 is trying to wake people up and say, “This game, you should buy it when it comes out.” What’s far more interesting to me at this point is: what struggles did you face all throughout development? That’s infinitely more interesting. I will say I really enjoy some of the small regional talks, but GDC, the sheer scale of it, you know? Honestly, the problem is that it’s so big and there are so many conflicting things that you can’t experience it all. Especially now that I have meetings and all. The last couple of GDC have been almost entirely meetings and things and then occasionally I’ll sneak a talk in or I’ll watch something in the vault.

Destructoid: Is it hard to sneak away with Darkest Dungeon 2 underway?

Chris: I think we’re in an okay place where we are in the project, we’re okay to do it. I think as things move on, we may be less able. It’s only four or five days and it is an important chance to catch up informally with other developers that we only see once a year, really, to hear how they’re doing and to keep those relationships alive. I don’t even mean business relationships. They’re kind of like these weird annual friends, you lease this friendship for a week a year.

Destructoid: Is it easier now, with the success of Darkest Dungeon, to get talks accepted? What’s the process with all of that?

Chris: Definitely, I think it’s easier – I don’t want to speak for [Tyler] – but I don’t want to end up in the talk circuit. I want to make sure I have something to say that will be of value to somebody. I did a bunch last year, I got to travel to a couple of places, but it’s less of a priority now. I feel like, I want to go away and learn some new stuff and then come back and share that. Something new, as opposed to constantly referencing this thing from five years ago, and then seven years ago, and then twelve years ago, and I am still talking about Darkest Dungeon.

Tyler: The process is that you apply with a summary of what you want to talk about. It’s definitely easier now because if you put yourself in the shoes of the conference curators, they need to make sure that there’s interesting content. It’s easier, not just with a successful game, but if there’s a story to tell. There are a lot of people who are working on interesting things, but they need to pick things that are relevant that they know you’re going to deliver the talk. In rare cases they do reach out to people and say “Hey, we’d love for you to talk about this thing.” That happened once, but that doesn’t happen until you’re fortunate enough to have some success. It’s a fair amount of work, and they stress that, and it should be.

Destructoid: What was going through your mind during the IGF Awards? Are you staring down these people who are up against you?

Chris: I don’t think it’s against! Everyone there has accomplished something amazing and really, to participate in the entire process is the best part. Yeah, it would be great to stand up and do your ‘thank yous’, but really at the end of the day, you look across at every other table and it’s just all of these accomplished people. It’s just cool to be included in that group.

Destructoid: Did you notice a bump for Darkest Dungeon after the ceremony and as a bigger picture, do you think GDC as a whole is a good platform for indie games?

Tyler: Yeah, I think IGF has always been a good way to highlight – like, “Oh, here are ten really interesting games.”

Chris: It helps to legitimize, but I don’t think we noticed a sales spike or anything.

Tyler: I think it deepens, honestly, where a game is in its life cycle and what the story of where that game has been. Our game sort of exploded day one of early access, so our tale is a little bit different from some other games where the IGF nomination is really the first laurel for them, the one that puts them on the map. It would probably be crucial for some games. Our game’s story was a little different. It was really more that it would be a great honor if we got the award, but we were fortunate to have already gotten a lot of validation.

Chris: We had already been out, really, for a year and we had been reviewed. We knew what the game was going to do. It would have been nice, but I saw, when Oxenfree won, they were all really emotional and that has forever been rooted in my mind. How much that meant. If we had won, it would have been really cool, and a big honor, but I think it meant more to [the person accepting the award for Oxenfree]. This is just my perspective sitting at the table. It seemed to have a really profound effect on her, and I felt like that was really special. I think that’s a case of the IGF going, “This is a game that deserves your attention.” I thought it was great.

Tyler: It’s easy to root for because there are people making awesome games.

Destructoid: Do you have any really great GDC stories?

Tyler: The first time I got to see Sid Meier talk. Meeting the people who inspired you to make games. Most of us probably make games because we played games that were influential to us and instead of just saying, “Oh, that was fun” we said, “I want to do that.”

Chris: And, “How did they do that?”

Tyler: So, for me [the Sid Meyer talk] was a big moment.

Chris: Doing a talk was a key moment for me, that was a really big deal for me in my career to have been able to do that. I have to say that one of my best memories from GDC was in a dive bar with Jeff from Power Up Audio, listening to 80’s music from a jukebox. Everyone was laughing and telling stories. Although it has nothing to do with the actual event, it’s [GDC] that bring everyone together and really, you’ll be talking about the talks you saw that day and who you bumped into. That decompression is quite special.

Tyler: We’ve also generated some traditions, which I can’t share…

Chris: [Puts on a fake deep voice] Oh, yeah! We kill a chicken in the night and drink it’s blood… [laughs]

Tyler: There’s always so many interesting things going on. I guess, because the game industry is so dynamic that every single year is just full of changes. This is the place where you catch up. We always leave with a head full of possibilities and ideas. That’s the other huge benefit. We are not at our computers right now, we are sitting around like this and when we walk to our next meeting, we can go, “I was thinking, what if we did this with Darkest Dungeon 2.” It’s so conducive to kick-starting your brain.

Chris: Especially for Tyler and I because he’s in Seattle and I’m in Vancouver. We actually get to spend time together, hang out, and strategize together organically while still chatting about whatever. It’s good to get a little face time.

Destructoid: So, speaking of Darkest Dungeon 2 and GDC, any chance there’s something coming down the pipe?

Tyler: Last month we hit a pretty big marketing bullet and it was very intentional not to reveal much and just to let the fans know we are on this. We are not sharing any more unfortunately at GDC. We are trying to take the best parts of Darkest Dungeon, not recreate the same exact experience, but certainly ones that Darkest Dungeon fans will love.

Destructoid: With the trailer, it looked like you were following your own GDC talk on design pretty closely.

Chris: Yeah, following my own sage advice! I just don’t like doing what everyone else says you are supposed to do. I don’t even want to wear this GDC badge because everyone is wearing GDC badges! I think we should be able to have fun with it, especially earlier in the project when we are not trying to really set expectations, we are just reassuring people that we are doing it. We can just enjoy ourselves and bring a little more creativity to it and hopefully generate discussion.

Tyler: On the community side, that’s really fun. The community, as a whole, is very very smart, and very energetic and creative and so it’s just really fun to see what they do.

Chris: Like that one guy who did…

Tyler: A twenty-minute video deconstructing the thirty second teaser!

Chris: It was amazing!

Tyler: It was well produced, and he got some stuff right…and he got some stuff totally wrong.

Chris: But the fact that he did it! He had to look at the teaser and say, “Well, let’s take this apart.” Then he had to record it. The effort!

Destructoid: So, Red Hook’s future has GDC in it?

Chris: I would love to be able to give a talk about our next game because it was very well received. I would not like to be giving a talk about…

Tyler: …about what went wrong!

Chris: Yeah, I would not like to give a talk about how we shit the bed on our next game, but we are going to be at GDC regardless.

Tyler: When we have something interesting to say. I think the best way to create more interesting stuff to say right now is through doing.

Chris: Also, a great talk has a three-act structure, and if we’re giving talks halfway through development, we don’t have a third act. We can talk about the decision-making process, but it’s premature because we can’t complete the story of how it went, or the results of these decisions. That makes for a better experience as a listener. Generally speaking, I think our priority is working on the game.

Jill Grodt
I began writing for Destructoid in 2019 shortly after finishing my internship with Game Informer. The previous year, I was just someone in an office job that loved video games a little too much.