Dungeon Master – An Iconic RPG

Box Art

Box Art

Aged probably no more than 6, I looked on in excitement and fear at the Amiga monitor. My parents were playing Dungeon Master again, it’s labyrinthine dungeons, fiendish puzzles, stunning graphics (for the time) and always death, waiting around the next corner.

Dungeon Master was a pivotal game of my childhood, it taught me how real and immersive games could actually get, despite computer limitations. Using a 2D perspective trick, it could render a seemingly 3D environment as if seen from the eyes of the player. This of course was an illusion, but it did it so effectively, that it stood out back then with hugely impressive visuals. It wasn’t just nice to look at though; featuring groundbreaking level design and puzzle concepts, being brutally difficult but still rewarding; there was something about it that left a lasting impression on you. It was a little like the Dark Souls of it’s day.

Although there had been other well known ‘dungeon crawler’ games (as they came to be known) like Bard’s Tale and Wizardry, it was DM that really culminated the best attributes of the genre, distilling it into what is in my opinion the best of the lot, even to this day. It’s no coincidence that Almost Human’s ‘Legend of Grimrock’ in 2012, cited Dungeon Master as large inspiration and something that is clearly evident having finished Grimrock and noticing many ‘tips of the hat’ to DM’s puzzles, mechanics and creatures. All those puzzles of putting an item on a pressure plate to close a pit, or placing a torch in a wall sconce to open a secret door hearken back to this era.

DM was in fact the largest selling title of all time for the Atari ST, whose version differed only mildly from that of the Amiga, with the latter featuring improved 3D sound effects where most noticeably, you can hear creatures moving around with unnerving effect.

Using the free Amiga emulator WinUAE the past week, I have finally finished Dungeon Master after all these years. I loved every second of it, scarily so, because I was telling myself continually throughout, “why am I playing a 27 year old game in this day and age?”. Irrespective of the answer, I had more fun playing it then most state of the art games I have played recently! Why? Well, many reasons, the challenge and immersion are two, but ultimately, I guess I’m a pretty hardcore gamer and there’s just something about playing old school classic RPG’s, a charm or ambiance if you like, akin to rolling that dice in a pen and paper D&D game. I’m sure many can empathize with that.

A pack of skeletons.

A pack of skeletons.

Dungeon Master does have a story and plot, though sparse and not a driving force for the progression of the game. It revolves around having to descend into the depth of the mysterious dungeon and find an artifact known as the ‘Firestaff’, as tasked by your master ‘Lord Order’. Ultimately, if your party survive the horrors long enough, you come across writings detailing the evils that will occur should you complete this quest and instead come to realise that you must descend to the deepest depths of the dungeon, combine the staff with the ‘power gem’ and defeat ‘Lord Chaos’ (think Sauron), restoring ‘Balance’ to the world.

You start the journey in the ‘Hall of Champions’, a place at the start of the dungeon where you can look upon windows on the walls and see magically suspended heroes, whom you can either ‘resurrect’ or ‘reincarnate’ to join your party, up to a total of four party members. Resurrection ensures the character maintains it’s identity, combat skills and experiences whereas reincarnation allows you to rename the character, forfeiting their skill set, but gifting them enhanced physical attributes so to enhance learning and allow you to shape the character as you see fit. Ultimately, the tried and tested composition of two fighters at the front, a priest and a wizard at the back worked wonders for my play-through, though having four ‘jack-of-all-trades’ is viable too. As 2012’s Grimrock, the party moves through the dungeon in 1st-person view in a 2 by 2 formation, meaning that only the two members of your party at the front can reach enemies with melee weapons, with the back two having to rely on ranged, throwing weapons and spell casting. Consequently, only the front two will take damage from the front, and if a ‘baddie’ creeps up behind you, your squishy casters won’t be very happy. Part of the the games meta strategy, involves you being able to change your players around in the formation at any time e.g if your front fighters get wounded, you can swap them out with the back.

Character Inventory.

Character Inventory.

The predominate theme of the game is undoubtedly ‘survival’. Staying alive is really, really not an easy thing unless you have learned the tricks and techniques generally gained after many horrible deaths, whether that be to the jaws of giant worms, starvation or plummeting down a pit arriving several levels lower than you could possibly hope to deal with. The only items you have at your disposal are those you find along the way, and that way is strewn with illusory walls, guarded chests, locked doors and secret passages that without consulting a guide or a printed map, you have little chance of ever finding yourself (hand holding pfff who needs it?). Even basic concepts we all take for granted in games today such as being able to SEE, is a premeditated game mechanic in dungeon master, where the dungeons are pitch black without a light source and torches are scarce, making the use of a wizard or others with the skills to cast ‘light’ spells essential.

One of the  most memorable mechanics which is still pretty innovative today is the magic system. To the right side of the screen are a bunch of runic symbols. The boxed game’s manual documented an alphabet of these symbols describing there purpose. As you cast a spell you first choose a rune representing the ‘power’ of the spell, would you cast a short duration spell or a potent offensive spell for instance? Then sequentially you chose the spells ‘elemental influence’, ‘form’ and ‘alignment’. It all sounds rather complicated but when you know off by heart that a weak fireball is LO FUL IR and a potent healing potion is PAL VI, it starts to become second nature, especially when you realise you can drop the power level if your priest is low on mana and make a weaker healing potion like LO VI for instance. In combat, you would be expected to click these runes in the correct order at the heat of the moment, you soon realised that if you didn’t ‘get gud’ and memorise them, then you simply got ‘dead’. In a funny kind of way, it really did feel like you were learning magic and having to go through the motions to learn and cast the spells your party depended on and I love that.

These runes are used to cast all the games many Wizard and Priest spells.

These runes are used to cast all the games Wizard and Priest spells.

Other mechanics such as food and drink meters for each character really puts that hanging dread over your party for the entirety of the game, since you never know when your next meal is coming up and when you’ll see a fountain again to refill your water skins. Realising your lost deep somewhere with no water left and down to your last couple of hunks of meat is pretty terrifying. Luckily though, some of the critters are edible if you can kill them, ‘Screamer Slice’, ‘Worm Round’ or ‘Dragon Steak’ anyone? Yum!

A water fountain, always a welcome sight!

A water fountain, always a welcome sight!

Having finally finished the game after all these years, I felt an immense sense of accomplishment because it’s a game that I grew up thinking was simply too tough for me to contend with, and to be fair, me being less than 10, it probably was! The end showdown with Lord Chaos is no simple matter. Once you have collected all the ‘Ra keys’, broken into the vault of the Firestaff, defeated it’s Stone Golem guardians and retrieved it, you then have to descend to the last level, defeat a wingless dragon and free the power gem with a spell you better have learned along the way or your buggered! (*cough* Google). You then must combine the staff with the gem, creating an ultimate weapon and then go back up a level and find Lord Chaos. Using the staff’s power you must surround him with ‘Fluxcages’ and finally ‘Fuse’ him to restore ‘Lord Balance’ and beat the game. If that sounds straightforward, it really isn’t, especially considering even if you do figure this all out on your own from a subtle hint in an very well hidden scroll, you have to do all this while being attacked by demons, black flame elementals and Chaos himself flinging fireballs at your face!

Defeating Lord Chaos and restoring Balance.

Defeating Lord Chaos and restoring Balance.

I’m currently now playing through it’s sequel ‘Chaos Strikes Back’ (Yes…it really IS called that) and it is unbelievably hard, as in Dark Souls has nothing, not a bean compared to this in terms of difficulty. CSM will eat you alive and then spit out your regurgitated remains for a second helping. Firstly, the sequel starts at the same difficultly level that DM ends at. You can import your characters which you may think will help and sure enough it does a little, but little prepares you for the first 10 seconds of the game which pretty much goes like this:

“Ok, let’s go, hmm it’s pitch black…where am I? My party is naked with no weapons…I can hear things moving around me…let me cast a light spell. That’s better! SHIT there’s four armoured worms in here with me and no exits…no wait, SIX worms…EIGHT….I’m surrounded…can’t move….DEAD.”

That’s your first taste of Chaos Strikes Back, shoved into an infested pit of worms with no weapons and no obvious way out, but like Dark Souls, I still love it.

As reported in 2012 in a Rock, Paper, Shotgun article here, one chap amazingly spent 6 months, eight hours a day of his own time, programming 120,000 lines of code to port the Atari ST version, creating a C++ executable version that runs today on any modern PC. It can be found here free: Chaos Strikes Back for Windows (and Linux, MacOS X, Pocket PC)

For those used to emulators, by getting hold of the Amiga .adf ROM file (basically an image of the game disk), you can run it in WinUAE (my personal preference for the better sounds) but ultimately, only ex-Amiga junkies would likely do this over the ported PC version :D.

Dungeon Master is a truly iconic game that has undoubtedly influenced many great games, not just across the dungeon-crawler and RPG genres like the classic ‘Eye of the Beholder’ series or recently the ‘Legend of Grimrock’, but also modern popular AAA titles such as the Elder Scrolls. It’s a testament to it’s influence that the game still has it’s own updated Encyclopedia site: http://dmweb.free.fr/  and even an online message forum with an active and thriving community: http://www.dungeon-master.com/forum/.

I would encourage anyone who is curious about classic RPG’s games, interested in why modern games are like they are and all that jazz to check out old titles like Dungeon Master, because although the graphics leave much to be desired by today’s standards, the game play is still truly as good as it ever was. It’s clear there is still much to wonder and marvel at, in both game design and execution in this old gem.

My party in the hall of fame after beating the game!

My party in the hall of fame after beating the game!

 

The “dumbing down”of the games industry

Technology has moved on in the games industry, that’s for certain. Hardware, programming languages and business processes have all improved i’m sure many would agree, but does the Nth fold increase in technology also translate 1-to-1 to game play and design?

I’ve been thinking a lot about that question and I’d first like to set some context by going back to a time before PC gaming was conceived or even the first 90’s era consoles were around to change the demographic of the average games consumer forever. The days of the Commodore Amiga in fact is what I want to go back to, an era that few under the age of 25 will have ever experienced during it’s peak. The Amiga i’m confident in saying was massively ahead of it’s time in terms of hardware and gaming innovation, and not just a little bit. Built on top of the great success of it’s precursor the Commodore 64, it’s perhaps unsurprising why the system has such a mythical “stuff of dreams” status now, like did it really happen or was it just my imagination?

A Past Era:

Launched in 1985 (Amiga 1000), specs wise it featured an 8-bit 4 channel stereo sound chip, CPU co-processors (unheard of at the time) and graphics capable of up to 4096 colours at a max resolution of 640×512. These specs were incredible and it took other systems such as the NES or PC DOS gaming over 7 years to get on par with the Amiga. Now it’s all good listing specs but lets put that into perspective by comparing with another system of the day:

Shadow of the Beast – Amiga – 1989

Ninja Gaiden 2 – 1990 – NES

For reasons like the comparison above, it’s startling to me that so few gamers today have perhaps even heard of the Amiga, and strange how the NES and Sega Master System shook the world of gaming forever when they arrived despite being hugely inferior. To me as a kid in the early 90’s, I looked at the NES and thought…whats the big deal, I’ve been playing better looking and sounding games then that for years!  Shrugged my shoulders and went back to playing my dads Amiga 500. I guess looking back I was lucky to have access to an Amiga and be part of the game hobbyist scene back in the day when your average person just didn’t play computer games.

Ultimately hardware isn’t everything and the reason why the consoles made such an impact boils down to price and the fact that children could have one in their bedroom (myself included). Gaming wasn’t just for powerful multimedia systems anymore, consoles brought relatively cheap systems that every family could afford to have and thus marked the final death knell of the Amiga platform by the mid 90’s. Commodore had squandered a huge technological advantage for years and it’s failure to react to rising competition brought it to it’s knees. It’s also worth noting that as a games platform the Amiga was massively successful in the UK and across Europe, but did less successfully in the US primarily due to a larger interest in the Japanese arcade gaming culture rather then home computing. Thus the majority of Amiga games (of which there are literally thousands) were made in Europe and in fact the UK pioneered much of the games programming advances of the age that led to some greatly successful games. British studios like Sensible Software and the Bitmap Brothers, and publishers like Psygnosis are legendary and we owe them a lot for what they achieved back in the day, much of which is taken for granted now and forgotten as the fast moving games industry moves ever on like a enraged bull, never stopping to look back at lessons already learned decades ago.

Chaos Engine – Amiga – Bitmap Brothers – Subtle complexities to a simple game

The Stifling of Innovation and Creativity:

To the topic at hand and the question I started the article with. Has game play and design regressed since those days and if so why? Bluntly and unequivocally yes in my opinion,  but the why of it will take some explanation. To understand why you have to look into the past of gaming hence my above context on the Amiga, it’s unavoidable and not simply nostalgic musings. It’s the logical thing to do when analyzing something that has been great in the past, and has become less great over time. As admitted, graphically things have improved, but the root of problem is something that has caused a stifling of innovation leading to regurgitation of the same copy-cat game over and over with different artwork for years on end. The end of the 90’s was perhaps the last true great period of games innovation and creative freedom that professional games developers had. You only have to look at the quality titles released on the PC between 95 and 99 to realise this.

I’ve researched various articles and read interviews featuring leading people who worked in the earlier days and you see similarities in how they view the industry and how it has changed for developers. The core of it seems to be due to the refusal of the increasingly powerful publishers to fund games that at not a 100% safe bet (Call of Duty, Halo etc) and this has led to a massive drop in innovation that is only now perhaps being turned around by the injection of new creative blood by the Indie developer scene. Fueling the increasingly tight and controlling grip of publishers is the increasing vast sums of money that the industry now generates. Many people ARE aware of the lack of innovation but perhaps feel that there’s just no ideas left? Well there’s plenty of ideas around, the problem is that no large publisher would touch it unless it’s proven and that’s the crux of it.

Populous 2 - Amiga - Bullfrog

Populous 2 – Amiga – Bullfrog

John Hare, a founder of Sensible Software (one of the biggest and most successful games company’s of the 80’s and early 90’s) gave a frank and interesting interview on You Tube where he discusses that during those days, publishers were happy to have talented people on board and they pretty much left you to make what you were passionate about and encourage you to push your creativity. It’s not surprising then that if you were ever motivated to go back and play Amiga games now and get over the aging visuals, you’d find a myriad of game genres, some still today undefinable such was the creative freedom back then. This issue of publishers forcing developers to copy existing games, adding just a new paint job is paramount to what is holding back the games industry in my opinion. Yes there’s Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight and they are all well and good, but I feel that the large publishers need to have a dramatic culture change if were are ever truly going to return to a golden age of innovation in game play concepts, design and execution. Perhaps the Indie scene will be the catalyst that fuels the publishers to change and allow more freedom to professional studios?

While the Amiga had it’s day, its fair to say that it was a very 2D orientated  platform and with the coming of 3D and it’s dominance in professional studios it’s not surprising that small man teams of maybe 3 or 4 can no longer produce the par standard graphical expectations in games expected for modern AAA title publishers, whom require dozens of developers and artists and millions invested to produce some of the photo realistic wizardry modern shelf titles feature. But are the incredible graphics and animation a fair trade for the disadvantages it brings?

Level design is something that has most certainly suffered from the introduction of vastly detailed environments now expected in any FPS game. It’s a simple matter of complexity, the more you introduce into a scene, the longer it takes to produce. The longer it takes the less time you have to make complicated and intelligent level design. Thus many “on rails” shooters are just that, a monorail ride with the occasional dead end to “confuse” said player and following satellite navigation way points that show up on your automap, even if the game is set in a medieval fantasy universe *cough* Skyrim.

Personally speaking photo real graphics are not a fair trade and ultimately it’s the game play that keeps you playing a game long after you’ve become desensitized to the pretty visuals. Many hugely successful Indie titles have shown this, surely it’s time for the big AAA studios and publishers to say “let’s strip down the cluttered visual complexity, take a risk and focus on game play “. Wouldn’t that be something? That and actually playing games rather then spending 30% of your time watching dialogue cut scenes. At times I think games have forgotten their roots in the arcade, and have borrowed far to heavily from Hollywood.

A change in audience & social gaming:

Another key factor in the the evolution of the games industry is tied with in turn the evolution of it’s audience. Back in the Hobbyist days of gaming, a period i’d widely class from 1980-1999, most people who sat indoors playing video games were looked at a bit strangely. They were geeks, nerds, predominantly male and it most certainly wasn’t a cool thing to do. They were probably above average at school and i’d be as bold to say statistically more intelligent or at least have an intrigue in things they didn’t understand. This would manifest itself in a way that if you presented a challenging game to a geek, they would be much more likely to try and figure it out and spend time trying to overcome the complexities, like a piece of homework or a maths question. A less motivated individual with less intrigue would put the game down, upset about it being too hard and never play it again. Therefore the audience in a nutshell back then was more mature and forgiving about games and it allowed a degree of freedom to developers to really go to town on sophisticated game play elements that would take time to master and learn, but ultimately paid off long term over simple repetitive games.

Now as pretty much most are aware, nowadays games on the whole are streamlined and simplified for the new average audience demographic, whom is not a geek, nerd or in fact *shock* actually male. Social gaming has brought women into the gaming consumer audience and rightly so, women should be part of it. Men too have lapped up the new social gaming phenomenon but irrespective of gender which is irrelevant, the key point is that the “nerd gamer” is no longer the average demographic and thus games are now being effectively aimed at less patient, casual orientated “non-gamers”. Social games are not games in their truest purest sense, they are not escapism, or adrenaline pumping or a visual feast or inspiring, they are simply a feedback-response stimulus loop that passes time for the bored individual. Engineered game play featuring staggeringly simple repetitive tasks with a carrot style reward at the end. Real games ARE more then that aren’t they? I think so.

Conclusion:

The whole evolution of the industry is a double-edged sword. It’s not all bad certainly, there’s never been an easier time to get into the games industry and there’s certainly a lot more jobs around with better pay then there used to be, however along with vast sums of money has come the bureaucracy that is rife within what is essentially a creative industry and there are startling parallels with the movie industry. Like with games, the increasingly powerful few have begun to control too much of what directors make and the many unneeded remake movies are effectively synonymous with the copy-cat games made today in the games industry. But, I wont lay the blame just on publishers. John Hare mentioned something regarding the fact that the industry is saturated with content and most of it not good or to a high enough quality. This waters down the expectation of what a good game actually is, and with more and more game developers coming into the mix this could spiral further. His solution? Less developers/designers and who are to a higher standard. Is that the answer? I’m not sure but poor games will in-turn inspire more poor games, it’s a vicious circle that we must break and ultimately in my opinion it should start from the top AAA studios and work it’s way down, not the bottom up.

It’s a topic I feel passionate about and there’s no easy answers but that’s my take on it and an opinion from someone who has played far too many games over the past 29 years and hope to influence the games industry in some way (even if just a nano) by making games myself. I hope that in time, developer creativity will flow however it wants wherever it wants and only our imagination will limit where games can take us.

Lemmings – Amiga – DMA Design