Saturday, July 30, 2005

Saying Goodbye to ‘My Next Favorite Game’

I remember the excitement from April of 2004 as if it were yesterday. A friend of mine from a Star Wars gaming forum had mentioned an upcoming RPG called ‘Dungeon Lords’. The details were pretty sketchy at the time, but the game looked very promising. It reminded me at once of Gothic II and Baldur’s Gate and Jedi Knight II – a few of my all-time favorite games. I also knew that D. W. Bradley – who I didn’t know, but knew of from the famed Wizardry games (that I’d never played!) – was heading it up … so it really seemed like a sure thing.

An aside on what it means to be 'my next favorite game'. One of my key personal attributes is loyalty. Not blind, dumb loyalty, but the sort that is hard earned and long-kept. The same is true with gaming. The games I fall in love with and remain loyal to are ones that I continue to play and speak about often. Games like the original Castle Wolfenstein, the entire Dark Forces / Jedi Knight series, anything by Bioware or Black Isle, and more recently Gothic I / II. These are games that I have played not two or three times, as I have with 'games I like' such as Half-Life I/II, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, and so on. These are games that I replay again and again - I have fully played Jedi Knight II more than thirty times at this point, and have recently embarked on at least my tenth full trip through Knights of the Old Republic. When I looked at Dungeon Lords, I thought I saw my next gaming love, my next gaming obsession, the next game I'd be saying 'on my fifth time through I did ...' about.

I quickly joined the game forums at Typhoon Games in April, then DreamCatcher as soon as they opened up in July. There was a great bunch of people there – especially at Typhoon, where there was already a small community going. Joining in there was a very positive experience, as there were many other 30-something game fans looking forward to DL. We shared gaming pasts and current experiences, as well as our thoughts on what we had heard about Dungeon Lords. Every time a new preview of screenshot was released, we would pick it apart and share our thoughts. The backstory we heard about seemed pretty standard stuff, but also a solid basis for establishing conflict and possibilities – and it gave us plenty to talk about.

The first sign of trouble came last fall. At that time the release date was supposed to be in November, a demo was to be released on September 30th, and a call for beta testers went out. Very quickly the demo was pushed back and then cancelled. Then the beta date came and went with seemingly no one chosen. And then finally the release date was pushed back to Q1 2005. There was a lot of activity on the forums about all of this – we gained many new members, some positive, some simply looking to cause trouble. But that is the nature of any user forum, isn’t it? What seemed clear was that communications were not being handled very well.

We honestly did not know what state the game was in, but everything in previews still looked promising, so we hung on through the winter. Many of us were distracted with games like Half-Life 2, Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines and later Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II, so we really didn’t mind the delays too much. But as Q1 2005 wore on, and we entered the middle of February, we began to wonder what was happening. Then a whole series of new press build previews came along, touting the combat and challenges. They all talked almost exclusively about the combat, and a few puzzles, but not too much else. The community was again abuzz over the possibilities, and we were imagining what the game might be like.

That is the funny thing about looking forwards to a game. You are only given a certain amount of information, and left to shape the rest in your imagination. The longer you are waiting, and the larger the community, the more the game seems to take on a life of its’ own. Some communities are well guided by developers and publishers – I specifically recall all of the helpful input the Jedi Knight II fanbase got from Raven Software in the year leading to the release of that game. However, neither Heuristic Park nor DreamCatcher were very good communicators – except for this guy named ‘CHUK’ who would show up periodically on the Typhoon forums and throw us a few tidbits. He was a great guy, and the way that he reminded me of ChangKhan from Raven just got me more excited for the game. But there were more signs that the game would require a miracle to be ready for release. In one preview – on LANAddict, if I recall – the reviewer mentioned that there was so much missing and not right in the game that they hoped that it could make the timeline. I took the initiative to jump on this and write to the developers and publishers, and tell them that they should really heed those words. I posed the following question: Would you rather be remembered as the guys who released a really good game some months late, or the ones who pushed the unfinished and buggy mess out the door on time.

I could not have imagined how relevant that question was at the time.

The game got delayed for a couple of months, and then for a few more weeks, during which time the DreamCatcher forums became much more lively, and the main place CHUK would provide information … and therefore the place where I hung out. Also in that time period the demo was released … which I can see now was the beginning of the end.

The Dungeon Lords demo was a disaster – it took forever to install, had loads of glitches, a single screen to tell you what to do, and mammoth respawning right from the start. None of the options worked … it could be fun, but was generally just a mess. The fact that there was a general agreement that it was pretty much a repack of the press build from November seemed to calm us a bit , leaving us only feeling disappointed that we didn’t get a representative look at the game.

The problem was, of course, that we really did get a good look. When the game was released the first week in May, many of us ran right out and grabbed it. I know I did, even though I had a review copy coming the following week – I had basically invested myself in the game, and made my decision to support it with a purchase. I started playing right away, and over the next couple of weeks put more than 100 hours into the game, playing through twice, once as a Mage and once as a Paladin.

I had fun, but I have barely touched the game since, and don’t think I really ever will. Why? Because it is very substantially unfinished. Enough so where I didn’t feel that the two runs I had were much different – only the combat changed things, and there is only so far that can take you. As a role-playing game, it was lacking too much. But what of the patches – can’t they help? Possibly, but let’s look at the track record. The demo was released in March, and was much like the build from January, which it turns out was much like the November build. The release build in early May had some changes, but much of it was the same. Therefore we can assume that making changes is very slow. That is confirmed by looking at the patches – each one has fixed a few things, but pretty small stuff given we are now about three months since release.

Heuristic Park would need to revamp the journal, add character customization, add many, many NPC’s and environmental items, deal with the spawning issues, give us quests and rewards … which is entirely too much to ask or expect. Dungeon Lords is what it is, which is a mediocre, unfinished RPG that reeks of ‘what could have been’. I warn people off of it all the time and now look back on it with bittersweet feelings of the fun I had despite the way the game ended up. I made some new friends, and watched one of them – Chuk, who was the only one to stick his neck out and talk to the fans – get his heart broken watching so much of his work getting trashed because of the final quality of the game. It was a sad thing hearing how he had been missing out on time with his wife and their new baby in order to build assets that will likely never be used in the game.

Dungeon Lords will not be remembered as a game – if it is remembered at all, it will be as a beacon of what an unfinished game or a messy release looks like. I doubt D. W. Bradley will ever get another release funded. I imagine that Heuristic Park will fold sooner than later, and I hope Chuk lands on his feet as he is surely a very talented person. As for myself, I hope I maintain contact with a few of the friends I made, but I have moved on to other games.

That is the way of the gamer.


ssvegeta555 said...

Thats suck for Chuck. I never knew what happened to him. Hopefully all turns out well for the dude. I really enjoyed the support he gave to the increasing number of people waiting for the game.
Are you going to wait for the next patch of DL then (seems like your're not)?

txa1265 (Mike) said...

I won't stop checking by DreamCatcher or Typhoon on occasion, and will keep my eyes open for a patch - I just don't see how they can do what they need in any reasonable time.

Dhruin said...

I had some limited interaction with Chuk and he seemed quite pleasant. However, my overall impression is unfortunately tainted by a few lies about the state of the game. He specifically stated the maps were in, as one example, when it is now clear the art was never originally done. So while their may have been exclusions the programming team forced, that was one item he knew full well simply wasn't true. I regularly deal with developers and publishers and understand the "spin" that is often applied but I have rarely been clearly lied to.

So, a nice read Mike, but I can't be so charitable to Chuk.

Anonymous said...

I agree with everything you said. My own similar experience happened with Lionheart. I had such high expectations for that game, especially given the potential that the setting and storyline had. Unfortunately, beyond the initial city, everything was a wash. The only other disappointment that ranks, was waiting patiently for a couple of mmorpgs that went belly up before they were finished and released-namely Mythica by MS and Wish...

txa1265 (Mike) said...

I was fortunate that I bought Lionheart last year along with Arcanum and Pool of Radiance 2 for $11 total ... so with how much I loved Arcanum the others didn't matter. Although the early parts of Lionheart *were* pretty well done.

As for Chuk, I know what you mean Dhruin, but I also had some 'off-forum' dealings, and I think that there was much else that we didn't know going on, as well as some contextual misunderstandings specifically around the maps. No apologizing for him putting it out there and not dealing with it, but he was made the sole figurehead by DWB and DC, and hung out to dry.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I think the buck stops with DW Bradley in regard to how the game turned out. It's also apparrant that the game is a victim of shoddy experimental programming. Chuk would have had to try to defend the game with lies in order to salvage any profits from the game and I suppose that is why he no longer posts. Maybe he got tired of having to tell lies. I wish I could feel as sorry for him as you do, but the bottom line is that loyal customers were ripped off by a shoddy product and they need to own up to the responsibility of that.

txa1265 (Mike) said...

I have reworked this article into a feature that will be published on GamerDad (once he gets the hosting issues resolved) and you will see that , among other things, I did some looking at my feelings around the people involved.