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Editorial The Digital Antiquarian on the Rise and Fall of Dungeon Master

Discussion in 'RPG News & Content' started by Infinitron, Dec 11, 2015.

  1. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
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    Tags: Dungeon Master; Dungeon Master II: The Legend of Skullkeep; Dungeon Master: Chaos Strikes Back; FTL Games; The Digital Antiquarian

    The Digital Antiquarian has penned a new entry in his irregular series of articles chronicling the history of computer RPGs in the 1980s. This time he discusses the influential Dungeon Master series of real-time first-person dungeon crawlers - its origins, its development, its initial success, and its eventual downfall. Here's an excerpt from the downfall part, because this is the RPG Codex after all:

    Unfortunately, FTL proved to be like their competitors in that their own later efforts also pale in comparison to the first Dungeon Master. Making the game had been an exhilarating experience, but as draining as any other difficult artistic birthing. Comparisons to the world of film abound among the FTL alumni. Nancy Holder learned a new sympathy for movie directors, who, after finishing a movie, “sometimes take years before they direct another,” while Wayne Holder recalls “Robert Rodriguez’s comment that all he wanted to do when he made El Mariachi was to make enough money to make another film. He was not prepared for it to be successful, and I felt exactly like that.” Given FTL’s focus on technology almost for its own sake, and given that they already had a proven, hugely successful design on their hands, it was easy — perhaps a little too easy — to just focus on making all of the ports as good as they could be, on engineering gadgety distractions like that MS-DOS sound adapter. Wayne Holder’s claim in 1988 that the technology they’d developed for Dungeon Master would soon allow FTL to pump out four to six games every year sounded hugely overoptimistic even then, but FTL’s failure to serve up anything new at all for long, long stretches of time is nevertheless a little shocking. He often claimed that FTL had “several” titles in development using the Dungeon Master technology, among them an intriguing-sounding horror game that comes up in a number of interviews; it might just have marked the beginning of the survival-horror genre several years before Alone in the Dark. We also heard regularly of a science-fiction scenario, possibly a sequel to Sundog. Neither ever materialized; it appears there was quite a lot of wheel-spinning going on at FTL. Wayne Holder’s dream of making FTL the Infocom of CRPGs petered out in the face of their failure to actually, you know, make games. FTL became an Infocom that could never quite get past Zork.

    Doug Bell notes the failure to build on Dungeon Master in a timely way as his greatest regret from his days with FTL: “We got so busy doing ports of the game that we didn’t end up creating enough scenarios.” Wayne Holder believes FTL’s single biggest mistake to have been not to have sold their in-house Dungeon Construction Set, quite a polished creation in its own right, and “let people create their own stuff. I was afraid it would dilute the whole cache, and people would come up with tacky stuff, but people like to author stuff.” One can imagine an alternate timeline where FTL did what they so obviously most loved to do — work on technology — and let others make games with it. Ironically, some of the more ambitious Dungeon Master obsessives reverse engineered the data format and essentially did just that; as already mentioned, a number of dungeon editors of various degrees of utility were among the products of the third-party cottage industry spawned by Dungeon Master. None, however, had anything like the polish or clout to create a community for entirely new games running in the Dungeon Master engine. An official FTL Dungeon Construction Set might just have had both.

    When it did arrive on the Atari ST two years after the original, the first semi-sequel felt a little anticlimactic and a little disappointing. Originally planned as a mere expansion pack and turned into a standalone game only at the last minute, Chaos Strikes Back ran under almost exactly the same engine as its predecessor, yet was considerably smaller. Even its box art featured the same picture as the original, cementing a difficult-to-avoid impression that FTL hadn’t exactly gone all-out to make it everything it could be. Perhaps worse, Chaos Strikes Back catered strictly to hardcore Dungeon Master veterans. It implemented nothing like the masterful learning curve of its predecessor, and stands today alongside Wizardry IV as one of the toughest, most nasty-for-the-sake-of-it CRPGs of its era. There are hardcore players that love it; I’ve seen the originalDungeon Master gleefully described as nothing more than an extended training ground for thereal fun of Chaos Strikes Back. But, while making a hard-as-nails game may not be an illegitimate design choice on its own terms, it was a commercially problematic one. In being so off-putting to newcomers who might wish to jump aboard midstream, Dungeon Master was all but ensuring that every successive title in the series would sell worse than its predecessors. This marks the one unfortunate place where FTL blindly followed the lead of Sir-Tech and Wizardry instead of blazing their own trail.

    What FTL themselves came to consider the first proper sequel, Dungeon Master II: The Legend of Skullkeep, arrived only in 1994, almost seven years after the original. By now the Dungeon Master mania had long since died away, and FTL, for all those years a one-product company, was in increasingly dire straits as a result. The situation gave this belated release something of the feel of a final Hail Mary. And like most such, it didn’t work out. Rather astonishingly for a company that had built its reputation around technical innovation, Dungeon Master II was painfully outdated, still wedded to the old step-wise movement long after everyone else had gone to smooth-scrolling 3D environments in the wake of Ultima Underworld and Doom, the very titles the original Dungeon Master had done so much to inspire. It garnered lukewarm reviews and worse sales, and FTL went out of business in 1996.
    Slam dunking - it's harder than it looks.
     
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  2. Crooked Bee wide-wandering bee Patron

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  3. Desktop Commander Savant

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    "Dungeon Master? Whuzzat?" looks at screenshots "Oh, a Grimrock clone, got it!"


    Seems like a nicely done and well-researched article - waiting for a slow work day to get to read it.
    One thing I have to wonder, though:
    I know at least Anvil of Dawn came out even after DM2 (1995) and was still grid based+RT, albeit with smoother transitions. I think it was really mostly the time gap inbetween DM+CSB and DM2 that did them in.
     
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  4. Wizfall Arbiter

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    I think it's important to underline that 7 years was an absolutely huge time gap back then.
    Before the mid 90, sequels use to come 1/2 years apart, 3 years at most.
    So 7 years between 1987/1994 is something like 15 years now, the only sequel to a big commercial hit that could be comparable in modern time would be Duke 3D to Duke Forever.
     
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  5. Zed Duke of Banville Arcane Patron

    Zed Duke of Banville
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    Clicks on editor's name, sees editor's blog: "Gamer Hater. Gamasutra/GDC roustabout. Let's write like gentlefolk."
    :backawayslowly:

    At least the Digital Antiquarian was solid, as usual. Can't wait for Part II of his review.
     
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  6. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
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    Part 2: http://www.filfre.net/2015/12/dungeon-master-part-2-the-playing-of/

    Excerpt:

     
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  7. Bumvelcrow Bellator Sempervirens Patron

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    Oooh, excellent. I enjoyed the first part. Never finished the game, though, as I was one of the unfortunate Amiga owners that didn't have enough memory to run it. By the time I finally got to buy it newer and shinier things like EotB were demanding my attention.
     
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  8. kofeur Scholar

    kofeur
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    That was really enjoyable to read.
    DM is the reference that was never really surpassed. The game's punishing features such as getting hurt when walking in a wall or dying of hunger if sleeping too often helped create a really good discipline in the player which made most of the copycats that came later too easy.
    CSB was a great follow up to it, but it is true as the article states that you're better off starting with DM before taking it on.
    DM2 was a very competent game, but we waited too long to get it... still a lot of fun when it came out though.
     
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  9. Jarpie Arcane Patron

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    CSB makes DM to feel like a tutorial dungeon and it would eat beginners for breakfast and make them cry for mommy.
     
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  10. kofeur Scholar

    kofeur
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    That happened directly at the beginning.
    CSB had the best start I've ever seen in a game :D
     
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  11. Jarpie Arcane Patron

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    Yeah, I'd love to see reactions from modern players to "Let's throw players into dark dungeon without any equipment against giant worms with tile on the ground which spawns more of them" :D
     
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  12. octavius Prestigious Gentleman Arcane

    octavius
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    That Digitial Antiquarian just rubs me the wrong way:

    What an utter retard.
    There has never in the history of CRPGs been a sequel that so perfectly gave the fans of the original what they wanted. It was every real time blobber after CSB that was "anticlimactic and a little disappointing."

    No, it wasn't.
    DM had 14 levels, CSB 11, but CSB crammed much more into the levels so it has more content than DM.


    What a wanker. The mapping challenge is an integral part of the game.


    What a cuck.
     
    Last edited: Jun 27, 2016
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  13. Leechmonger Savant

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    Yeah I cringe any time someone does that. They're straight up signalling "I have no balls, please take advantage of me."
     
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