Official Codex Discord Server

  1. Welcome to rpgcodex.net, a site dedicated to discussing computer based role-playing games in a free and open fashion. We're less strict than other forums, but please refer to the rules.

    "This message is awaiting moderator approval": All new users must pass through our moderation queue before they will be able to post normally. Until your account has "passed" your posts will only be visible to yourself (and moderators) until they are approved. Give us a week to get around to approving / deleting / ignoring your mundane opinion on crap before hassling us about it. Once you have passed the moderation period (think of it as a test), you will be able to post normally, just like all the other retards.
    Dismiss Notice

Editorial The Digital Antiquarian on Dark Sun and the Fall of SSI

Discussion in 'RPG Codex News & Content Comments' started by Infinitron, Sep 21, 2019.

  1. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
    Joined:
    Jan 28, 2011
    Messages:
    79,717
    Grab the Codex by the pussy Serpent in the Staglands Dead State Divinity: Original Sin Project: Eternity Torment: Tides of Numenera Wasteland 2 Shadorwun: Hong Kong Divinity: Original Sin 2 A Beautifully Desolate Campaign Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire Pathfinder: Kingmaker
    Tags: Dark Sun: Shattered Lands; Joel Billings; Strategic Simulations, Inc.; The Digital Antiquarian; TSR

    This week, the Digital Antiquarian's chronicle of roleplaying game history returns to the story of SSI, who he last wrote about back in 2017. Having milked the Gold Box engine to death, by 1992 SSI was in dire financial straits. Despite a worsening business relationship with TSR (who were facing problems of their own), they managed to gain an 18 month extension of their exclusive D&D license and began work on a new RPG engine. At TSR's suggestion, the first game made with the new engine would use the Dark Sun setting, and the result was 1993's Dark Sun: Shattered Lands. SSI needed Shattered Lands to be a Pool of Radiance-caliber hit in order to survive as a premium RPG developer, but unfortunately it was far from that. I quote:

    When viewed separately from all of these external pressures, as just a game to be played and hopefully enjoyed, it revealed itself to be a nobly earnest attempt to improve on SSI’s most recent efforts in the realm of CRPGs, even if it wasn’t an entirely unblemished one. On the technological side, SSI’s next-generation engine largely delivered where it needed to: it was indeed vastly slicker, prettier, easier, and more modern than the Gold Box engine, feeling like a true product of the 1990s rather than a holdover from the last decade. It was an engine that could even stand next to the likes of an Ultima VII without undue embarrassment. Indeed, SSI seemed to have learned from their rival’s mistakes and done Origin one better in some places. For example, in place of the real-time, well-nigh uncontrollable frenzy that was combat in Ultima VII, SSI’s engine lapsed seamlessly into a turn-based mode as soon as a fight began; this allowed combat in Shattered Lands to retain most of the tactical complexity and interest that had marked its implementation in the Gold Box games, with the additional advantages of increased audiovisual interest and a less cryptic interface.

    At the same time that they endeavored to keep combat interesting, however, SSI’s design team had clearly made a concerted effort to move beyond the exercises in incessant combat and very little else which the Gold Box games had become by the end. Shattered Lands offered much better-developed characters to talk to, along with heaps of real choices to make and alternative pathways to discover. The new approach was enough to impress even so committed an SSI skeptic as Scorpia, Computer Gaming World magazine’s longtime adventure columnist, who had been roundly criticizing the Gold Box games in print for their “incessant, fight-after-fight” nature for half a decade by this point. Now, she could write that “SSI is taking their role-paying line in a new direction, which is good to see”: “the solution to every problem is not kill, kill, kill.” Shay Addams, another prominent adventure pundit, had a similar take: “It’s no secret that I never liked the Gold Box games. Dark Sun, however, kept me coming back to the dungeon for more: more combat, more exploring, more story.”

    Still, the game had its fair share of niggles — more than enough of them, in fact, to prevent its achieving a classic status to rival Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds. While SSI was to be commended for attempting to give the setting and plot more nuance and texture, that just wasn’t the sort of thing they did best, and they were still receiving little to no help from TSR on that front. The writing and plotting were derivative in several different directions at once, hackneyed even by the usual standards of the genre. Mind you, the writing wasn’t actually worse than most of that which had accompanied the Gold Box games — but here, moved as it was from a paragraph book onto the screen and expected as it was to do a lot more heavy lifting, its weaknesses were magnified.

    Shattered Lands was also damaged as a computer game by its need to conform to TSR’s tabletop rules. The boxed set which presented the Dark Sun setting for the tabletop included a whole range of new rules complications and variations to distinguish it from the already convoluted Dungeon & Dragons base game, and most of these SSI was expected to implement faithfully as part of their licensing agreement. And so Shattered Lands came complete with a bunch of races and classes unfamiliar even to most Gold Box and tabletop Dungeons & Dragons veterans, along with a veritable baseline expectation that every character would be double- or triple-classed. Clerics suddenly had to choose an “element” to worship, which limited their selection of spells — and now everyone had access to a whole parallel sphere of magic known as psionics, and had to choose a specialty there as well. No game designer starting a CRPG from scratch would ever have inserted so much cruft of such marginal utility to the ultimate goal of fun; it was the sort of thing that could only arise from a company like TSR throwing rule after rule at the wall over the course of years in order to sell more supplements. Certainly none of it made much sense in a game explicitly envisioned as a new beginning for Dungeons & Dragons on computers, a place for fresh players to jump aboard. Nor, for that matter, did the choice of the oddball world of Dark Sun as a setting; for all that critics like me have long railed against the tendency, gamers for time immemorial have been demonstrating their preference for CRPGs set in generic high-fantasy worlds — such as that of TSR’s own Forgotten Realms, home of the most commercially successful of the Gold Box games — over more unique settings like this one.

    But whatever its intrinsic strengths and weaknesses, Shattered Lands suffered most of all from one undeniable external failing: it was deeply, thoroughly unfashionable in the context of 1993. At a time when the whole industry was moving toward multimedia “talkies,” its many conversations and descriptions were still implemented via screenful after screenful of boring old text. And in addition to the old-fashioned implementation, there also remained the fact that the Dungeons & Dragons name just wasn’t the force it once had been. A measure of the industry’s attitude toward the game and its commercial prospects can be gleaned from its placement in the magazines. Even as they were giving it reasonably positive reviews, Computer Gaming World buried it on page 124 of 276, Shay Addams’s Questbusters newsletter on page 8 of 16. (The lead review of that issue, evidently judged to be more immediately interesting to the newsletter’s readers than a review of Shattered Lands, was of Legend Entertainment’s Gateway 2, a fine game in its own right but one which still had a parser, for God’s sake.)

    So, you’ve probably guessed where this is going: Dark Sun: Shattered Lands proved a devastating disappointment to TSR and especially to SSI. After costing more than $1 million and eighteen months to make, with the additional opportunity cost of preventing SSI’s internal developers from doing much of anything else over the course of that period, it sold just 45,917 copies. To put this figure into perspective, consider that it’s barely 5000 more copies than the last tired release of the old Gold Box line, or that it’s about one-sixth of the sales of Pool of Radiance — this in spite of an expanded marketplace in which the number of copies which a hit game could hope to sell was actually far greater than it had been five years before.

    When SSI and TSR met again early in 1994, after it had become all too clear that Shattered Lands wasn’t to be the next Pool of Radiance, TSR stated matter-of-factly that they no longer wished to remain in the marriage. Some tense negotiation followed, during which TSR did make some concessions to a frantic SSI, who were facing down the apocalyptic prospect of a license due to expire in less than six months while they still had a lot more Dungeons & Dragons product from third-party developers in the pipeline. TSR agreed to extend the exclusive license for six more months, to January 1, 1995, and to allow SSI to continue to release new games under a non-exclusive license until July 1, 1995. After that, though, the marriage was through. TSR emphasized that there would be no further settlement agreements.
    SSI developed numerous other games during this period and also published D&D games by other studios, all of which sold just as poorly. Meanwhile, CEO Joel Billings continually sought out buyers for the ailing company without success. He did eventually find one, but that's a story for a future article.
     
    • Rage x 4
    • Brofist x 3
    • Informative x 2
    • Disagree x 1
    • Interesting x 1
    • M'lady x 1
    ^ Top  
  2. Country_Gravy Arcane Patron

    Country_Gravy
    Joined:
    Mar 24, 2004
    Messages:
    2,998
    Location:
    Up Yours
    Wasteland 2
    I really like these articles.
     
    • Friendly Friendly x 4
    • Agree Agree x 2
    ^ Top  
  3. Fowyr Prestigious Gentleman Arcane

    Fowyr
    Joined:
    Mar 29, 2009
    Messages:
    6,162
    :x :x :x

    :x :x :x

    Fucking retards. Shattered Lands was one of the my first RPGs. And guess what? I don't had much problems with its character mechanics. I especially like this jab against Legend Entertainment. Parser! FFS, it was a game for already niche, but still big audience.
    It was similar in this regards to Darksun, talkies my ass. The only type of RPGs that were very profitable were DM clones and, later, Diablo ones. According to Digital Antiquarian, it means that SSI should have produced three parts of, dunno, Entomorph.
     
    • Brofist Brofist x 9
    ^ Top  
  4. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
    Joined:
    Jan 28, 2011
    Messages:
    79,717
    Grab the Codex by the pussy Serpent in the Staglands Dead State Divinity: Original Sin Project: Eternity Torment: Tides of Numenera Wasteland 2 Shadorwun: Hong Kong Divinity: Original Sin 2 A Beautifully Desolate Campaign Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire Pathfinder: Kingmaker
    Hardly a jab, the DA is an interactive fiction fanatic above all. It's just an admission of market realities.
     
    • Informative Informative x 3
    • Agree Agree x 2
    • Yes Yes x 1
    • Shit Shit x 1
    ^ Top  
  5. Dorateen Arcane

    Dorateen
    Joined:
    Aug 30, 2012
    Messages:
    3,192
    Location:
    The Crystal Mist Mountains
    I'm going to play some Gold Box games today, and there's nothing he can do about it!
     
    • Salute Salute x 6
    • Brofist Brofist x 5
    • Prestigious Prestigious x 2
    ^ Top  
  6. MrBuzzKill Arbiter

    MrBuzzKill
    Joined:
    Aug 31, 2013
    Messages:
    447
    Hmm, your opinion should clearly be unbiased, then.
     
    • Funny Funny x 2
    ^ Top  
  7. Fowyr Prestigious Gentleman Arcane

    Fowyr
    Joined:
    Mar 29, 2009
    Messages:
    6,162
    Imprinting? Then I should play Dungeon Hack and its ilk all my life. Got it.
    EDIT:
    I like as well that I am, apparently, more biased than man who considers all Goldboxes except PoR and CoAB "boring", calls fantastically fun Buck Rogers "reskin", adds it to Goldboxes as afterthought and writes:
    Goldboxes constantly improved interface (that Fix button), graphics and even gameplay! From the underwater combat of DQoK, fun ship combat, boardings and skill system of Buck Roger to the glorious final multi-map battle and NPCs of Savage Frontier.
     
    Last edited: Sep 22, 2019
    • Brofist Brofist x 8
    • Participation Award Participation Award x 1
    • Agree Agree x 1
    ^ Top  
  8. Excommunicator Arcane

    Excommunicator
    Joined:
    Oct 19, 2010
    Messages:
    3,339
    I'm actually kind of annoyed that this guy keeps covering games that he doesn't really understand or appreciate on a design level. It seems to be a common theme of his articles that he finds a game that has a tumultuous past and poor commercial success and then weaves that into a narrative to explain why the game is not very good. For someone putting so much work into the history, it comes across as kind of clueless.
     
    • Brofist Brofist x 17
    • Yes Yes x 2
    • [citation needed] [citation needed] x 1
    • it is a mystery it is a mystery x 1
    ^ Top  
  9. KeighnMcDeath Learned

    KeighnMcDeath
    Joined:
    Nov 23, 2016
    Messages:
    824
    I really wish Pirates of Realmspace had polished melee combat but it was god awful with crashes and freezes. And it was kinda ugly. That game could have been a good fantasy privateer game (like space rogue or even in the Origin sense of Wing Commander); but it was a damn flop. A really bad one. Intro music wasn't all that inspiring either.

    Now, I liked dungeon hack but felt a tad ripped that dungeons each level weren't bigger, ALL the basse monsters from EOB weren't included esp low end undead, kobolds, kuo-toa, etc. Slayer and Death keep could get repetitive as well.

    Order of the griffin was different and Warriors of the Eternal Sun I guess had no affiliations with SSI but was Developed by Westwood Associates (which i believed developed OOTG, and EOB/DH.

    Generally, those games were my D&D for solo time and i enjoyed them.
     
    • Brofist Brofist x 1
    ^ Top  
  10. Fowyr Prestigious Gentleman Arcane

    Fowyr
    Joined:
    Mar 29, 2009
    Messages:
    6,162
    This. Freezes in the ship combat were especially infuriating. It was slow and random freezes when you tried to fire weapons or just move around not helped.

    I almost finished it two times but always could not find Neogi mothership. Otherwise it was a fun game with a lot of potential. I still remember how I found some hulk drifting in space and claimed it as mine. Its air was almost gone, so after mixing some air from my old ship, I miraculously made my way to closest planet with my almost suffocated crew.
     
    ^ Top  
  11. KeighnMcDeath Learned

    KeighnMcDeath
    Joined:
    Nov 23, 2016
    Messages:
    824
    I got to where I never boarded and just bombarded enemy ships until destroyed and looted the debris if possible (been a while so I can't recall). There was just something about the menus, music, and clumsiness felt playing this. I'm glad there are some playthroughs or at least the endings on youtube.



    That fucking music... blarg!!! There's a vid titled boredom in space or some shit. I agree. Lost opportunity here.
     
    • Goldfist Goldfist x 1
    ^ Top  
  12. Fowyr Prestigious Gentleman Arcane

    Fowyr
    Joined:
    Mar 29, 2009
    Messages:
    6,162
    Thank you from the bottom of my heart. These videos are pretty recent, so I missed them, now I have a hope to finally finish it after 16 years. I'm going to find these old saves...

     
    ^ Top  
  13. mondblut Arcane

    mondblut
    Joined:
    Aug 10, 2005
    Messages:
    15,574
    Location:
    Ingrija
    Can't pointandclickadventurefags just leave CRPGs the fuck alone? Muh numbars are too complex? Too much teh hard combat in muh story? The door is that way!
     
    • Brofist Brofist x 7
    • Funny Funny x 2
    • Participation Award Participation Award x 1
    • Prestigious Prestigious x 1
    ^ Top  
  14. Zeriel Arcane

    Zeriel
    Joined:
    Jun 17, 2012
    Messages:
    6,545
    Its a common mistake amateurs make when analyzing events that have already happened: history happened that way, so it could only happen that way. If a game didn't succeed, its because it was never going to succeed. To be fair to him, even professional historians have fallen prey to this.
     
    • rolleyes rolleyes x 1
    • :M :M x 1
    ^ Top  
  15. RK47 collides like two planets pulled by gravity Patron

    RK47
    Joined:
    Feb 23, 2006
    Messages:
    27,330
    Location:
    Not Here
    Dead State Divinity: Original Sin
    :lol:
     
    ^ Top  
  16. Grauken All you need is a Volumetric Shit Compressor Patron

    Grauken
    Joined:
    Mar 22, 2013
    Messages:
    3,428
    At this point Infinitron is just trolling the codex with reposting DiAnti's articles
     
    • Agree Agree x 2
    • Disagree Disagree x 1
    ^ Top  
  17. Fowyr Prestigious Gentleman Arcane

    Fowyr
    Joined:
    Mar 29, 2009
    Messages:
    6,162
    I finished Spelljammer. I fucking finished Spelljammer! The secret was that you need to evade or destroy five or six regular Deathspiders before you will see Neogi Mothership. Last save was from May 2003. :negative: Of course, after destroying Mothership the game bugs and I can't see final video! At least Spelljammer has enough decency to save game as toril_fn.gsf beforehand.

    The game has worst possible combar AI ever. Your own crew (dunno if you can control it with paladin officer) blocks every passage and just stays there, because AI rarely thinks about attacking enemy that stands in door tile. At least you can cast Lightning Bolt to clear this block if enemy stands in long line.
     
    Last edited: Sep 23, 2019
    • Salute Salute x 4
    • Informative Informative x 1
    ^ Top  
  18. Grauken All you need is a Volumetric Shit Compressor Patron

    Grauken
    Joined:
    Mar 22, 2013
    Messages:
    3,428
    I tried Spelljammer ages ago, but that interface and the rest of the game looked like a mess, so I decided not push on (I liked the cover art of the box though)
     
    ^ Top  
  19. Fowyr Prestigious Gentleman Arcane

    Fowyr
    Joined:
    Mar 29, 2009
    Messages:
    6,162
    Game has a strange charm. Just a little polish and it could be a nice little game still beloved by few, instead of rarely remembered mess.
     
    ^ Top  
  20. Grauken All you need is a Volumetric Shit Compressor Patron

    Grauken
    Joined:
    Mar 22, 2013
    Messages:
    3,428
    I still wish they had made a goldbox spelljammer game, that would have been cool

    (and ravenloft, darksun and so on goldbox games)
     
    • Brofist Brofist x 1
    • Despair Despair x 1
    ^ Top  

(buying stuff via the above buttons helps us pay the hosting bills, thanks!)