Dark and Darker developer is 'looking to make amends' because its free-to-play model is 'not well designed'

Dark and Darker concept art (detail)
(Image credit: Ironmace)

Dark and Darker's return to Steam should have been cause for celebration. After a legal dispute with Nexon saw it removed from the platform in 2023, developer Ironmace was finally able to get it back on the store last week. Unexpectedly, it also shed its price, relaunching instead as a free-to-play deal. And that's where the trouble began. 

See, Dark and Darker isn't really free to play. What free players get is a restrictive mode that offers a stripped down version of the full Dark and Darker experience. It's not uncommon for free-to-play games to restrict free players in various ways, though many simply sell cosmetics and conveniences to earn revenue. But the free-to-play version of Dark and Darker feels more like a demo. 

Unless you buy the full version for $30 of in-game currency, you get one character slot and access to Normal mode. On the surface that doesn't sound too bad, except Normal mode is a bit of a misnomer. What it really means is that you can't bring most of the loot you find in a dungeon on the next run. 

After my first successful dungeon delve, I had a nicely kitted-out Barbarian. A meaty double axe, some fancy boots that increased my speed (Barbarians are slow as heck, so this was much-needed), and a few more odds and ends—I was feeling pretty good about my chances of getting through the next delve with my head still firmly attached. It wasn't to be, however, because none of those items were marked as 'common', the only rank of item you're allowed to bring into Normal mode. 

In a game that's all about fighting through dungeons in search of loot, it seems absurd to not be allowed to actually use said loot. Granted, you can use it during the delve in which you discover it, but afterwards? You're outta luck. It's contrary to the game's entire MO. As described on Steam, Dark and Darker is all about diving into dungeons with mates to "uncover mythical treasures". Unsurprisingly, removing this aspect has garnered it a "Mixed" rating on Steam. 

Ironmace quickly responded to the criticism. The developer says that "the game was always a paid product, and we intend for the full experience to remain this way". Why, then, is it listed as free to play? Ironmace does have an answer, but frankly it's a poor one. "The main reason we released our game as Free to Play (F2P) was because we made a promise to our early loyal adopters on Blacksmith [the standalone client], that we’d do everything possible to not force them to repurchase the game again if it went to major platforms. We do not believe in double-dipping or taking advantage of our fans who are the sole reason we’ve come this far."

Rather than distribute Steam and Epic keys to Blacksmith players, which it says "was not feasible nor fair to our platform partners", it launched it as free to play, and eventually Blacksmith players will be able to link their accounts. So to avoid "technical, logistical and contractual hurdles", Ironmace advertised a game that it still considers a "paid product" as a free-to-play game. Hmmm. 

So free players can only play in Normal mode because this is not actually designed to be a free-to-play game. Ironmace also lists another reason: "A secondary reason for restricting free players to the Normal mode was to act as a barrier, and lower the incentives for hackers to disrupt the game." 

According to Ironmace, hackers largely target High-Roller dungeons, so limiting free accounts to Normal mode was "a preventative measure to try and compartmentalize the damage they could do". Most players aren't hackers, though, so limiting their access to the game to mitigate the potential damage caused by a minority of troublemakers seems questionable. 

It's worth noting that Normal mode was not designed exclusively for the free-to-play version. It was added in November, and Ironmace claims it's a "fan favourite". I can't imagine wanting to play a loot-driven game where I can't use my loot, but apparently "Blacksmith players saw the mode as a solution to a divisive item gap disparity and many viewed the mode as the most fair and balanced mode rather than a limiting system". I guess it takes all sorts. Some people get enjoyment out of playing Dark Souls on bongos. People are weird. 

Ironmace admits it got it wrong, though. "Despite our intentions, we failed in anticipating the expectations that new players would have when approaching our game. We did not intend to deceive our players, and we now realize that the current Normal/High Roller bifurcation is not well designed for F2P players. We built a full loot extraction game and then forced upon a large contingent of the player-base the inability to utilize their hard-earned loot without any workarounds. We now understand the absurdity of that situation and are looking to make amends."

Naturally, this isn't going to happen overnight, but it looks like Ironmace wants to come up with a compromise quickly. It's "currently working on solutions to take into consideration both the needs of existing and new players" and aims to "give new players the ability to experience a complete loop of a full loot extraction experience and risk their loot while still respecting the loyalty of our existing players". Players can expect an announcement about the studio's plans "very soon", the developer says. 

It's unfortunate that the relaunch has been marred like this, and hopefully it will be resolved quickly, because Dark and Darker is extremely neat. It does seem wild, though, that this reaction wasn't predicted. Even if the Normal mode is liked by veteran players, these are people who have already gotten their loot kicks. For new players, it makes a terrible first impression, and it simply doesn't live up to the fantasy that the game promises.  

Fraser Brown
Online Editor

Fraser is the UK online editor and has actually met The Internet in person. With over a decade of experience, he's been around the block a few times, serving as a freelancer, news editor and prolific reviewer. Strategy games have been a 30-year-long obsession, from tiny RTSs to sprawling political sims, and he never turns down the chance to rave about Total War or Crusader Kings. He's also been known to set up shop in the latest MMO and likes to wind down with an endlessly deep, systemic RPG. These days, when he's not editing, he can usually be found writing features that are 1,000 words too long or talking about his dog.