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Editorial The Digital Antiquarian on the Real-Time Dungeon Crawler Genre after Dungeon Master

Discussion in 'RPG News & Content' started by Infinitron, Jan 5, 2019.

  1. Infinitron I post news Patron

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    Tags: Black Crypt; Bloodwych; Captive; Dungeon Master; Dungeon Master II: The Legend of Skullkeep; Eye of the Beholder; Eye of the Beholder 2: The Legend of Darkmoon; Eye of the Beholder 3: Assault on Myth Drannor; FTL Games; Interplay; Knightmare; Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos; Stonekeep; Strategic Simulations, Inc.; The Digital Antiquarian; Westwood Studios

    Three years ago, the Digital Antiquarian wrote about Dungeon Master, the game that launched the real-time first-person dungeon crawler genre. Between its release in 1987 and the eventual downfall of the genre in the mid-1990s, Dungeon Master inspired a legion of imitators. The most famous of these were Westwood Studios' AD&D-based Eye of the Beholder games, which they followed up with the appealingly casualized Lands of Lore. But there were others, including 1989's multiplayer-supporting Bloodwych, 1990's procedurally generated sci-fi-themed Captive, 1991's brutally difficult Knightmare (based on the famous British children's TV show), 1992's Black Crypt from Raven Software (yes, that Raven Software), and finally 1995's infamously underwhelming Stonekeep from Interplay. These games are the topic of the Digital Antiquarian's latest article, which he concludes with a reflection on why none of them ever really managed to surpass their progenitor. Here's an excerpt:

    Following the success of Eye of the Beholder, the dam well and truly burst in the United States. Before the end of 1991, Westwood had cranked out an Eye of the Beholder II, which is larger and somewhat more difficult than its predecessor, but otherwise shares the same strengths and weaknesses. In 1993, their publisher SSI took over to make an Eye of the Beholder III in-house; it’s generally less well-thought-of than the first two games. Meanwhile Bloodwych and Captive got MS-DOS ports and arrived Stateside. Even FTL, whose attitude toward making new products can most generously be described as “relaxed,” finally managed to complete and release their long-rumored MS-DOS port of Dungeon Master — whereupon its dated graphics were, predictably if a little unfairly, compared unfavorably with the more spectacular audiovisuals of Eye of the Beholder in the American gaming press.

    Another, somewhat more obscure title from this peak of the real-time blobber’s popularity was early 1992’s Black Crypt, the very first game from the American studio Raven Software, who would go on to a long and productive life. (As of this writing, they’re still active, having spent the last eight years or so making new entries in the Call of Duty franchise.) Although created by an American developer and published by the American Electronic Arts, one has to assume that Black Crypt was aimed primarily at European players, as it was made available only for the Amiga. Even in Europe, however, it failed to garner much attention in an increasingly saturated market; it looked a little better than Dungeon Master but not as good as Eye of the Beholder, and otherwise failed to stand out from the pack in terms of level design, interface, or mechanics.

    With, that is, one exception. For the first time, Black Crypt added an auto-map to the formula. Unfortunately, it was needlessly painful to access, being available only through a mana-draining wizard’s spell. Soon, though, Westwood would take up and perfect Raven’s innovation, as the real-time blobber entered the final phase of its existence as a gaming staple.

    Released in late 1993, Westwood’s Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos was an attempt to drag the now long-established real-time-blobber format into the multimedia age, while also transforming it into a more streamlined and accessible experience. It comes very, very close to realizing its ambitions, but is let down a bit by some poor design choices as it wears on.

    Having gone their separate ways from SSI and from the strictures of the Dungeons & Dragons license, Westwood got to enjoy at last the same freedom which had spawned the easy elegance of Dungeon Master; they were free to, as Westwood’s Louis Castle would later put it, create cleaner rules that “worked within the context of a digital environment,” making extensive use of higher-math functions that could never have been implemented in a tabletop game. These designers, however, took their newfound freedom in a very different direction from the hardcore logistical and tactical challenge that was FTL’s game. “We’re trying to make our games more accessible to everybody,” said Westwood’s Brett Sperry at the time, “and we feel that the game consoles offer a clue as to where we should go in terms of interface. You don’t really have to read a manual for a lot of games, the entertainment and enjoyment is immediate.”

    Lands of Lore places you in control of just two or three characters at a time, who come in and out of your party as the fairly linear story line dictates. The magic system is similarly condensed down to just seven spells. In place of the tactical maneuvering and environmental exploitation that marks combat within the more interactive dungeons of Dungeon Master is a simple but satisfying rock-paper-scissors approach: monsters are more or less vulnerable to different sorts of attacks, requiring you adjust your spells and equipment accordingly. And, most tellingly of all, an auto-map is always at your fingertips, even automatically annotating hidden switches and secret doors you might have overlooked in the first-person view.

    Whether all of this results in a game that’s better than Dungeon Master is very much — if you’ll excuse the pun! — in the eye of the beholder. The auto-map alone changes the personality of the game almost enough to make it feel like the beginning of a different sub-genre entirely. Yet Lands of Lore has an undeniable charm all its own as a less taxing, more light-hearted sort of fantasy romp.

    One thing thing at least is certain: at the time of its release, Lands of Lore was by far the most attractive blobber the world had yet seen. Abandoning the stilted medieval conceits of most CRPGs, its atmosphere is more fairy tale than Tolkien, full of bright cartoon-like tableaux rendered by veteran Hanna-Barbara and Disney animators. The music and voice acting in the CD-ROM version are superb, with none other than Patrick Stewart of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame acting as narrator.

    Sadly, though, the charm does begin to evaporate somewhat as the game wears on. There’s an infamous one-level difficulty spike in the mid-game that’s all but guaranteed to run off the very newbies and casual players Westwood was trying to attract. Worse, the last 25 percent or so is clearly unfinished, a tedious slog through empty corridors with nothing of interest beyond hordes of overpowered monsters. When you get near the end and the game suddenly takes away the auto-map you’ve been relying on, you’re left wondering how the designers could have so completely lost all sense of the game they started out making. More so than any of the other games I’ve written about today, Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos, despite enjoying considerable commercial success which would lead to two sequels, feels like a missed opportunity to make something truly great.

    Real-time blobbers would continue to appear for a couple more years after Lands of Lore. The last remotely notable examples are two 1995 releases: FTL’s ridiculously belated and rather unimaginative Dungeon Master II, which was widely and justifiably panned by reviewers; and Interplay’s years-in-the-making Stonekeep, which briefly dazzled some reviewers with such extraneous bells and whistles as an introductory cinematic that by at least one employee’s account cost ten times as much as the underwhelming game behind it. (If any other anecdote more cogently illustrates the sheer madness of the industry’s drunk-on-CD-ROM “interactive movie” period, I don’t know what it is.) Needless to say, neither game outdoes the original Dungeon Master where it counts.

    At this point, then, we have to confront the place where the example I used in opening this article — that of interactive fiction and its urtext of Adventure — begins to break down when applied to the real-time blobber. Adventure, whatever its own merits, really was the launching pad for a whole universe of possibilities involving parsers and text. But the real-time blobber never did manage to transcend its own urtext, as is illustrated by the long shadow the latter has cast over this very article. None of the real-time blobbers that came after Dungeon Master was clearly better than it; arguably, none was ever quite as good. Why should this be?

    Any answer to that question must, first of all, pay due homage to just how fully-realized Dungeon Master was as a game system, as well as to how tight its level designs were. It presented everyone who tried to follow it with one heck of a high bar to clear. Beyond that obvious fact, though, we must also consider the nature of the comparison with the text adventure, which at the end of the day is something of an apples-and-oranges proposition. The real-time blobber is a more strictly demarcated category than the text adventure; this is why we tend to talk about real-time blobbers as a sub-genre and text adventures as a genre. Perhaps there’s only so much you can do with wandering through grid-based dungeons, making maps, solving mechanical puzzles, and killing monsters. And perhaps Dungeon Master had already done it all about as well as it could be done, making everything that came after superfluous to all but the fanatics and the completists.
    However, according to the Antiquarian, the primary reason why Dungeon Master was never surpassed is that the genre became obsolete when developers finally had the means to take dungeon crawling off the grid, starting from a little game called Ultima Underworld. That's the topic of next week's article.
     
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  2. luj1 Magister

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    I prefer turn-based but I can play either. Never understood the hate against real-time crawlers.

    I doubt real-time Might & Magic games were crippled in the "interactive fiction" department.
     
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  3. Infinitron I post news Patron

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    BTW I love that we've made the term "blobber" so pervasive that DA was sure it was a contemporary term: https://www.filfre.net/2019/01/life-on-the-grid/#comment-400101

    I think you've misunderstood. He's comparing the two different genres. The original text adventure/interactive fiction game Adventure has clearly been surpassed by its many successors, but you can't say the same about Dungeon Master and subsequent real-time grid-based blobbers.
     
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  4. luj1 Magister

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    There is nothing to misunderstand as you and me are addressing two different points the author made. That which you are referring to (that DM hasn't a worthy successor) is a very minor point. The major argument of the article on the other hand, is the author's proposal that the "interactive" advantages of text adventures such as Adventure were lost on real-time blobbers while turn-based blobbers retained some of them. Not sure how you missed that.
     
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  5. Infinitron I post news Patron

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    I don't think he particularly meant to say anything about turn-based blobbers compared to real-time ones.

    He could have written "begins to break down when applied to the grid-based blobber" and it would probably be equally true from his perspective.
     
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  6. Chaotic_Heretic Dumbfuck! Dumbfuck Shitposter

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    Real time dance simulators are cancer.

    TB blobbing is the true way of Dungeon Crawling.
     
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  7. luj1 Magister

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    Adventure is effectively turn-based. "Adventure, whatever its own merits, really was the launching pad for a whole universe of possibilities involving parsers and text... "

    It's the proto- turn-based crawler.
     
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  8. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
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    The key distinguishing factor in this article is grid vs non-grid, not turn-based vs real-time. Its title is "Life on the Grid" and the entire thing is really just a prelude to next week's article about Ultima Underworld, which broke out of the grid.

    The DA isn't some grognard turn-based supremacist, he's actually kind of a lightweight. I'm sure he prefers Dungeon Master to say, Wizardry VII or Might & Magic III (which it seems he's not even interested in enough to write about).
     
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  9. luj1 Magister

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    Other than the headline, he never even mentions the word "grid" in the article itself. I don't expect someone whose ceiling is PoE to understand this, by the way. There are levels to this stuff.
     
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  10. tindrli Arcane

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    holly shit. i thought that grimoire 2 would be first article for next 6 months
     
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  11. Ladonna Prophet

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    I have to say I agree with him. None of the real time grid blobbers grabbed me like Dungeon Master did. It really had everything that these games could give supplied in one package.
     
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  12. Tweed Educated

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    So is it just me or was the floppy version of Lands of Lore much, much harder than the CD-ROM version? I remember being decimated in the mines and the white tower on easy difficulty and not being able to see even with a full lantern, but I played the CD version from start to finish on ferocious with no real problems.
     
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  13. Van-d-all Learned

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    I think the observation about genre getting kinda obsolete is spot on. Aside from Ishars and Perihelion grid crawlers never grabbed me, Ultima Underworld on the other hand, remains my favorite dungeon crawler up to this day.
     
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  14. felipepepe Prestigious Gentleman Codex's Heretic Patron

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    More than being obsolete, I think RT blobbers never really found their audience - or their true form.

    I agree that Lands of Lore is indeed the closest it got to finding new life... if it were easier it might have become a casual RPG-lite game, with some fun puzzles, short dungeons and cool story. The Mass Effect of its time, let's say.

    But yeah, good luck getting a casual player to finish this:

    [​IMG]
     
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  15. CryptRat Prestigious Gentleman Arcane Developer

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    I disagree with both statements.

    Their true form is here from Dungeon Master, it's a coherent mix and they did find their audience, those who like Legend of Grimrock are those who like Dungeon Master because they focus on hard puzzles, many of the puzzles acknowledging the grid and real-time nature of the game. These puzzles require an interactive world (no separated battle screen, visible items ...) that old Wizardry clones (let's say Elminage Gothic) don't require. I prefer turn-based blobbers like the next guy but I think it's coherent as long as the developper's goal is to make a game which is at least as much focused on this kind of puzzles as on combat, and I think Legend of Grimrock 2 is a better game than many turn-based blobbers.

    And that you create your party, that the story of Legend Of Grimrock is told through architecture, some talking statues and hints written on wall is appropriate, it's not inherent to the gameplay structure but it is logical, not fortuitous. Nothing to do with the real-time structure, or very indirectly then, it's just that hard RPGs (in this case hard because hard puzzles), are very typically liked by the old guard who likes dungeon crawling, building their own party, don't like heavy story, these things are sort of related to a certain audience. Now does this audience is the one who also likes tactical combat and then prefer turn-based combat? Well, yes, it is, without any doubt, but that does not mean that there's an audience for real-time blobbers focused on heavy story and whose only gameplay is some easy combat. It's at least debatable, and I don't think so. This audience which plays games for the story wants to play as one hero, with visible companions (visible during cut-scenes, dialog choice scenes, combats...) who are independently doing their own stuff (the presentation of Final Fantasy 7 is very different from the presentation of an average Might & Magic game) or without any companion at all, not a party exclusively presented as a list of character and that's why I disagree.
     
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  16. felipepepe Prestigious Gentleman Codex's Heretic Patron

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    Grimrock does not have hard puzzles, and saying that old-school RPG fans like Grimrock because the puzzles make it hard a HUGE stretch. I think Grimrock 2 is a great game, but it cleary hasn't been a huge hit, despite being much better than the first, and the combat still sucks.

    Besides, you're talking about something entirely different. Lands of Lore does not have party creation and has some very charismatic companions that join the player just like modern RPGs like Mass Effect. That was the reference I was using, no idea why you are bringing Might & Magic up when there has never been a real-time grid-based M&M game.
     
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  17. Daemongar Arcane

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    Eh, I don't quite think this is correct, but the author acknowledges the reason DM was never surpassed in the last paragraph. The reason that DM was never surpassed was that DM was very, very far ahead of the curve when it came out. Nothing came close, so much so that contemporaries were weak imitations. Games in the same line that came out much later focused less on the Dungeon Crawler aesthetic and more on new technical improvements available. Eye of the Beholder came out 4 years later, same year as Captive. Black Crypt came out 5 years after DM. Not that it didn't make sense to branch out. These games came out >=4 years later, and by that time, speaking for myself, I had already played the living shit out of DM.

    I think the author, by neglecting the impact of other (non-real-time) blobbers on games at the time, his points hit wide. Black Crypt added the automap? Yeah, it may have been the first of the subset of "real time" blobbers, but auto-map in blobbers was already there in 1988 with Bard's Tale 3. Even DM didn't just appear out of nowhere - it was an extension of other step based dungeon games. The author presenting these games on their own sets a false vision of the innovations in the blobber genre. Also, the author does not acknowledge the father of real time Blobbers: Bard's Tale 2, which came out one year before Dungeon Master.
     
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  18. ShaggyMoose Learned

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    I actually bought Black Crypt and played it through to the end. I am struggling to remember anything significant about it, which fits nicely with the statement above that it brought nothing new to the table. I never spoke to anyone else who even heard of it.

    EDIT: As called out, I meant Black Crypt, not Dark Crypt.
     
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  19. Dehumanizer Educated

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    Coincidentally, the CRPG addict is currently playing it: https://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2018/12/game-313-black-crypt-1992.html

    (EDIT: assuming you meant Black Crypt, not Dark :) )
     
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  20. Daemongar Arcane

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    I actually pre-ordered Dark Crypt from Raven at the 1990 GenCon (a gaming convention). They sold it as having ... oy, 1024 colors, full stereo, a party, huge dungeons and a lot of technical fanfare. Think Raven was a small group in Madison, WI at the time (which they still are.) There was a party and you had archetypes - cleric, thief, warrior, paladin, wizard - think you had 6 to choose from, but had to pick 4 different classes for your party. Each class got specific weapons and armor, and in the end, you had to have a specific weapon for each class to dent the final boss.

    Not a bad game, but it wasn't as tight as DM. Think the last level was more or less kiting the final boss. I also don't remember much.
     
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  21. ShaggyMoose Learned

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    Yeah, I remember the end-game weapons now. Not much of a differentiator to be honest.
     
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  22. KeighnMcDeath Learned

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    I’m still looking at this: for c64
     
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  23. Fowyr Prestigious Gentleman Arcane

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    I've played some shareware DOS version of Black Crypt with a first levels only and it was a fine game. I never heard about full DOS version, only Amiga, so it really made a game somewhat obscure here like most other Amiga RPGs.
     
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  24. KeighnMcDeath Learned

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    What’s Paingiver in the CRPG addict blog? I’m suspecting a weapon rather than a game. Or a boss. I don’t think that’s what the 2-headed ogre was called, was it?
     
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  25. Infinitron I post news Patron

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