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Editorial The Digital Antiquarian on the Decline of the Gold Box Games

Discussion in 'RPG News & Content' started by Infinitron, Mar 31, 2017.

  1. Make America Great Again Infinitrongender: ⚧ Trade Master Patron

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    Tags: Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday; Buck Rogers: Matrix Cubed; Curse of the Azure Bonds; Eye of the Beholder; Eye of the Beholder 2: The Legend of Darkmoon; Eye of the Beholder 3: Assault on Myth Drannor; Gold Box; Pools of Darkness; Secret of the Silver Blades; Strategic Simulations, Inc.; The Digital Antiquarian; TSR; Westwood Studios

    The Digital Antiquarian's slow-running chronicle of the gaming industry finally entered the 1990s last November. For today's article, he's decided to continue his four post series from last year about the history of SSI's Gold Box series, which extends into that decade. If those articles were all about SSI's unlikely rise to the top with the 1988 classic Pool of Radiance, then this one is all about their stagnation and decline as they milked the Gold Box engine with an additional ten games over the following four years. The Antiquarian does consider Pool of Radiance's immediate sequel, Curse of the Azure Bonds, to have been a great game. He attributes the beginning of the decline to the third game in the series, Secret of the Silver Blades. I quote:

    But by no means can all of the problems with Secret of the Silver Blades be blamed on high-level characters. The game’s other issues provide an interesting example of the unanticipated effects which technical affordances can have on game design, as well as a snapshot of changing cultures within both SSI and TSR.

    A Gold Box map is built on a grid of exactly 16 by 16 squares, some of which can be “special” squares. When the player’s party enters one of the latter, a script runs to make something unusual happen — from something as simple as some flavor text appearing on the screen to something as complicated as an encounter with a major non-player character. The amount of special content allowed on any given map is restricted, however, by a limitation, stemming from the tiny memories of 8-bit machines like the Commodore 64 and Apple II, on the total size of all of the scripts associated with any given map.

    The need for each map to be no larger than 16 by 16 squares couldn’t help but have a major effect on the designs that were implemented with the Gold Box engine. In Pool of Radiance, for example, the division of the city of Phlan into a set of neat sections, to be cleared out and reclaimed one by one, had its origins as much in these technical restrictions as it did in design methodology. In that case it had worked out fantastically well, but by the time development began on Secret of the Silver Blades all those predictably uniform square maps had begun to grate on Dave Shelley, that game’s lead designer. Shelley and his programmers thus came up with a clever way to escape the system of 16 by 16 dungeons.

    One of the things a script could do was to silently teleport the player’s party to another square on the map. Shelley and company realized that by making clever use of this capability they could create dungeon levels that gave the illusion of sprawling out wildly and asymmetrically, like real underground caverns would. Players who came into Secret of the Silver Blades expecting the same old 16 by 16 grids would be surprised and challenged. They would have to assume that the Gold Box engine had gotten a major upgrade. From the point of view of SSI, this was the best kind of technology refresh: one that cost them nothing at all. Shelley sketched out a couple of enormous underground complexes for the player to explore, each larger almost by an order of magnitude than anything that had been seen in a Gold Box game before.

    But as soon as the team began to implement the scheme, the unintended consequences began to ripple outward. Because the huge maps were now represented internally as a labyrinth of teleports, the hugely useful auto-map had to be disabled for these sections. And never had the auto-map been needed more, for the player who dutifully mapped the dungeons on graph paper could no longer count on them being a certain size; they were constantly spilling off the page, forcing her to either start over or go to work on a fresh page stuck onto the old with a piece of tape. Worst of all, placing all of those teleports everywhere used just about all of the scripting space that would normally be devoted to providing other sorts of special squares. So, what players ended up with was an enormous but mind-numbingly boring set of homogeneous caverns filled with the same handful of dull random-monster encounters, coming up over and over and over. This was not, needless to say, an improvement on what had come before. In fact, it was downright excruciating.

    At the same time that this clever technical trick was pushing the game toward a terminal dullness, other factors were trending in the same direction. Shelley himself has noted that certain voices within SSI were questioning whether all of those little extras found in Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds, like the paragraph books and the many scripted special encounters, were really necessary at all — or, at the least, perhaps it wasn’t necessary to do them with quite so much loving care. SSI was onto a good thing with these Gold Box games, said these voices — found mainly in the marketing department — and they ought to strike while the iron was hot, cranking them out as quickly as possible. While neither side would entirely have their way on the issue, the pressure to just make the games good enough rather than great in order to get them out there faster can be sensed in every Gold Box game after the first two. More and more graphics were recycled; fewer and fewer of those extra, special touches showed up. SSI never fully matched Pool of Radiance, much less improved on it, over the course of the ten Gold Box games that followed it. That SSI’s founder and president Joel Billings, as hardcore a gamer as any gaming executive ever, allowed this stagnation to take root is unfortunate, but isn’t difficult to explain. His passion was for the war games he’d originally founded SSI to make; all this Dungeons & Dragons stuff, while a cash cow to die for, was largely just product to him.

    [...] All of these competing interests do much to explain why TSR, after involving themselves so closely in the development of Pools of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds, withdrew from the process almost entirely after those games and just left SSI to it. And that fact in turn is yet one more important reason why the Gold Box games not only failed to evolve but actually devolved in many ways. TSR’s design staff might not have had a great understanding of computer technology, but they did understand their settings and rules, and had pushed SSI to try to inject at least a little bit of what made for a great tabletop-role-playing experience into the computer games. Absent that pressure, SSI was free to fall back on what they did best — which meant, true to their war-game roots, lots and lots of combat. In both Pool and Curse, random encounters cease on most maps after you’ve had a certain number of them — ideally, just before they get boring. Tellingly, in Secret of the Silver Blades and most of the other later Gold Box games that scheme is absent. The monsters just keep on coming, ad infinitum.

    Despite lukewarm reviews that were now starting to voice some real irritation with the Gold Box line’s failure to advance, Secret of the Silver Blades was another huge hit, selling 167,214 copies. But, in an indication that some of those who purchased it were perhaps disappointed enough by the experience not to continue buying Gold Box games, it would be the last of the line to break the 100,000-copy barrier. The final game in the Pool of Radiance series, Pools of Darkness, sold just 52,793 copies upon its release in 1991.
    In addition to telling the story of the Gold Box games, the article also contains two interesting asides. One about notorious TSR manager Lorraine Williams, whose ownership of the Buck Rogers intellectual property led to the two unusual non-D&D Gold Box titles featuring it, and another about Westwood's Eye of the Beholder games, whose success helped keep SSI afloat as the Gold Box slowly died. SSI would finally be forced to break out of their rut with the Dark Sun games, but that's a story for another day.
     
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  2. oldmanpacogender: ⚧ Master of Siestas

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    The only thing I remember about that game was the linear trek from the town to the main castle/dungeon. Every few steps you had to fight hordes of Cloud/Storm Giants or something. Maybe there was a way to skip directly from one to the other but if there was either I didn't find it or it came later in the game.

    Every once in a while I think about playing those games again but I don't know if I could take fighting my way through the giants again. Also PoD's clever idea of stringing back to back difficult combats is lame.
     
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  3. GarfunkeLgender: ⚧ Racism Expert

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    He's right and it's quite a shame. Some of the FRUA modules show the potential for great adventures that Gold Box enabled.
     
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  4. Freddiegender: ⚧ Learned

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    Very interesting article if I think of it in wider context. I mean could teleport hack be one reason why different 'schools' of what is an RPG can't find common ground?
    And role of marketing in making decision to cut corners one reason why we still have trash mobs to kill in games... Some think it's absurd and tedious, some think it's part of experience. Of course each side try to rationalise their point of view, but could this really be one big influence that we still have trash mobs?

    Edit: Somebody brofist Inflitron, this was awesome.
     
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  5. Dorateengender: ⚧ Arcane

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    Pools of Darkness was a masterpiece, a triumph, after the admittedly less than spectacular Secret of the Silver Blade. The Dragonlance trilogy and Savage Frontier titles specifically continued to advance the Gold Box engine with innovations that would have influence on other studios. Despite the author's fake claim that SSI's games after Curse of the Azure Bonds were designed to be just "good enough", the other titles were hailed with player and critical acclaim.

    The Gold Box games didn't decline. The rest of the computer role-playing industry did.
     
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  6. Make America Great Again Infinitrongender: ⚧ Trade Master Patron

    Infinitron
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    The DA put in a disclaimer for you:

     
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  7. Dorateengender: ⚧ Arcane

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    The Digital Aquarium guy can go jump in a lake.
     
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  8. Volourngender: ⚧ Pretty Princess Pretty Princess

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    "which must surely mark the most faithful implementation of the tabletop game’s rules for same ever to make it to the computer."

    No. Fuck no. Hell to the no. people who claim this bullshit should atcually play D&D pnp. Ignorant tools.
     
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  9. M0RBUSgender: ⚧ Augur

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    I thought Tales of The Sword Coast Sword Coast Legends was the most faithful implementation of the tabletop game’s rules for same ever to make it to the computer.

    :EDIT:
    Fuck, don't even know the game's name :P
     
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  10. naossanogender: ⚧ Cipher

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    Great effort to dwelve into this. I fear that this history will be lost in time, like tears in the rain...
     
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  11. MrBuzzKillgender: ⚧ Savant

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    Interesting, considering I've heard pretty much opposite opinions of people complaining that it was a drag. Can you explain a bit why you think PoD is great? Why do you like it?
     
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  12. Invictusgender: ⚧ Arcane The Real Fanboy

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    I actually played Silver Blades before all the rest; a friend of mine got all 4 games on a sale and lent me Silver Blades while he played the others.
    I actually found the game quite good and since it was my first experience with the combat (which I loved) I didnt mind the long repetitive grind at all (me coming from JRPGs it all felt very natural really)
    After that I played Gateway to the Savage Frontier and all the refinements to the formula (automatic healing, spell memorization etc) made me love the series and things finally clicked for me and the Goldbox games
    Did play all the way through Dragonlance games before I played the rest of the Pools series and frankly never felt burnt out of them at all.
    The combat never felt unfair, tile based spells effects made it all feel so tactical and 3D like casting Stinking Cloud (maybe my favorite spell along with Magic Missle) positoning my chars around the fog and waiting for the enemy to move inside never got old
    The Dreadlord story in particular felt just so oldschool D&D that he became one of my favorite characters and has been my avatar since joining the Codex
     
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  13. Dorateengender: ⚧ Arcane

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    Pools of Darkness had multiple thematic overland maps, including travel to other dimensions. It had some of the most challenging combat of the entire Gold Box collection. High level AD&D is not always handled well, in gameplay or presentation, but the introduction of spells, items, and monsters never encountered before make it a worthwhile experience. It is best appreciated having played the saga from the beginning. Starting with Pool of Radiance, Pools of Darkness reaches a crescendo in the struggle against Bane's power grab. The story is nonlinear, and has memorable episodes that resonate with the player with the way it connects content from the previous games.

    The Moonsea series of Gold Box adventures is the most significant tetralogy in Western civilization since Wagner's Der Ring des Niebelungen and Pools of Darkness is its grand conclusion.
     
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  14. Leechmongergender: ⚧ Learned

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    I wonder how much of a faggot you have to be to default to female pronouns.
     
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  15. crakkiegender: ⚧ Cipher

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    Sad story-- Secret of the Silver Blades was my first gold box game. I remember my party getting disentegrated and petrified a lot, got tired of fighting multiple venerable blue dragons per encounter, ad nauseam, and gave it up. Buck Rogers was a glorious incline after that.
     
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  16. Graukengender: ⚧ Prophet Patron

    Grauken
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    PoD was actually my first Gold Box game. Loved it then and it still do.That's how you finish a series, pull out all the stops and make it a true tour de force. And Moander map ruled hard
     
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  17. MrBuzzKillgender: ⚧ Savant

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    Isn't it the long-standing norm in the English language, at least when it comes to writing historical articles?
     
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    If so then that's news to me, and I'm a native speaker. :obviously:

    DA is a great article writer, but don't you dare argue with him in his comments, or suggest other people might have a conflicting point of view. :D
     
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  19. Make America Great Again Infinitrongender: ⚧ Trade Master Patron

    Infinitron
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    lol, somebody named "bryce777" has posted in there:

     
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    :D Is Bryce still 'one of us', or does he belong to the Internet now?

    Well, hush my mouth!
     
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  21. Deuce Travelergender: ⚧ Prestigious Gentleman 2012 Newfag Patron

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    You can take the girl out of the trailer park, but you'll never get the trailer park out of the girl. Bryce is proving something similar about the Codex...
     
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  22. MrBuzzKillgender: ⚧ Savant

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    At this point, the guy kind of lost me, I mean at this point it becomes clear he's an enormous fanboy of TSR that even tries to defend it against a fair observation about Gygax's quixotically ambitious, ill-advised forays that ended in obvious failure. By the way, the author was absolutely right about the reason D&D at that point wasn't suitable for movies - there aren't even any established characters, what the hell is there to make a movie about? It would only be remotely possible later with the advent of settings like Dragonlance, Ravenloft, Faerun etc.

    I love rants like this because it puts me in a perspective. These guys* always bitch about how "old thing was so great and contemporary thing is shit", are they oblivious to the fact that literally every generation says that? "These damn kids" (*By "these guys", I mean myself as well, I also sometimes post rants defending old games and other stuff from the past I like, that I feel gets unduly criticized/unappreciated, but even I recognize that stuff wasn't nearly perfect). That's not to say some of his counter-criticisms weren't valid, they were, but he clearly goes overboard in the other direction. "Only fans of the genre should review the games"? Wat. Impartiality is overrated huh?

    I'm reading the articles leading up to it and if anything, I have to thank the author for clarifying my vision of Gary Gygax. I'd thought he was this grandfatherly figure obsessed with RPGs and not caring about money/not knowing how to run a business (well, that part was right), but it turns out he was just as susceptible to nouveau riche and general human vices as anyone - collecting cars, being authoritarian and selfish, vain attempts at Hollywood, leaving his wife of 23 years, and being too stubborn and blind about the obvious synergy with the computer gaming industry.
     
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  23. Aenragender: ⚧ Guest

    Aenra
    Ain't nothing wrong with trailers!

    Show Spoiler

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    goddamm yankees, not knowing what's good for ya
     
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  24. DemonKinggender: ⚧ Magister

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    I liked them all up until Pools of Darkness - it was ridiculous Monty Haul gaming at its worst - I was regularly leaving piles of +3 weapons and armour in the dirt because it wasn't worth the effort to keep and sell it and it was far worse than the kit my characters had by then. The final battle sucked too - you have to fight through a ridiculous horde of dragons and beholders and then they reward you with another wave of the same!

    I actually enjoyed Secret of the Savage Frontier but I think Azure Bonds was probably my favourite (maybe because the class selection in Pools of Radiance was a bit limited). The Dragonlance games were also good. I can't remember ever finishing the Savage Frontier titles.
     
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  25. Morality Gamesgender: ⚧ Arcane Patron

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    Technically both have been used, but male ones are far more common.
     
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