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The Digital Antiquarian on the Rise and Fall of Dungeon Master

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The Digital Antiquarian on the Rise and Fall of Dungeon Master

Editorial - posted by Infinitron on Fri 11 December 2015, 17:37:06

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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