Darklands

Darklands

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Darklands > General Discussions > Topic Details
Yasha Oct 10, 2016 @ 4:01pm
Ask the original designer why...
Over 20 years ago, I almost bankrupted MicroProse by designing Darklands and leading the team that built it. I will do my best to answer design questions in this thread.


There are some caveats:

- I do not have any legal rights to the game or its code, so I can't promise any improvements or follow-ons.

- I am unfamiliar with the code adjustments made to produce this version. I can't help you with bugs.

- I'm a designer and producer, not an artist or programmer, so I can't help you mod the graphics or decompile the code.

- I don't have 10+ million of dollars to invest in making a new version. If somebody were to offer me a decent budget,I could do it. I've built and led teams many times in the game industry. However, I don't think that's going to happen for Darklands in what's left of my natural lifespan.


Nevertheless, for those seeking insights into the mind of a designer/producer, I'm available.
Last edited by Yasha; Oct 19, 2016 @ 8:22am
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Showing 1-15 of 192 comments
Phil85 Oct 12, 2016 @ 3:04pm 
I've been playing computer RPG's since the late 1980's. I played Darklands in 1992, and I'm playing it again right now. It's hard to believe that it's still just as fun today, despite it's age. That says alot about the quality of this game. Thank you for making this classic gem.
Would you give us some insights into why you made Darklands and how it happened? With all the crowdfunding today, is there any chance that you could use it to fund the next Darklands? I see countless Indie games getting a chance due to early access today. Why couldn't Darklands successor get funded?
Thanks for all the hard work on this timeless game.
Yasha Oct 12, 2016 @ 5:37pm 
I've always been a fan of RPGs, going back to the paper and pencil era. It took all my political clout and influence at MicroProse to get the project started. I'm also an academically trained historian, which helped inspire the topic and the approach to it. You can see echoes of Traveller and Runequest in the Darklands design, although the setting was totally original.

The problem with making a modern sequel is money. A decent-looking and playing RPG is NOT cheap. The amount of content for RPGs is staggeringly expensive (lots of art time for world building, character creation, animation, etc.), not to mention all the game data and game logic. If you want it playable online (an MMORPG), that roughly doubles the game programming cost, and adds a whole business-software layer to handle monetization (whether subs or F2P style cash shops). As a producer with solo game and MMO experience, I know the level of effort needed. The classic indie mistake is underestimating the work required, but not realizing it until you've burned through your money and are only half done, at best.

People I know have tried crowdfunding game projects. With a few rare exceptions, most projects can only pull in 0.5 to 1.5 million dollars, assuming they even succeed to that degree. I calculate that I'd need at least 10 million to staff a team for 2 years to build the a Darklands sequel. Therefore, for a modern version, I'd have to find a "white knight" who was willing to invest multiple millions in a core team. That team builds some early demos to attract most of the remaining funding. Crowdfunding helps validate the project (or help us find how to change it) and provide additional money for marketing and reserves. Steam Early Access might play a role in the final phase of testing and financing near release.

It is possible that such a "white knight" investor might be a game publisher. Unfortunately, I don't know of any publishers who would be interested. Even in the heyday of MMORPGs, publishers were very leary of projects that didn't have a big license to generate nice sales estimates from the marketing department.
Phil85 Oct 12, 2016 @ 6:49pm 
Another niche game I loved was Everquest. Perhpas it wasn't niche in 1999, but it is now. Brad McQuaid has been able to crowd fund EQ's successor, Pantheon, some how. If a small market game like EQ can get funded, I still have hope for "Darklands II." Many people scoffed at Brad initially, but they have a working pre alpha now and a solid team making steady progress. I guess I'm just old school, but it seems like some of the best games were made years ago.
Yasha Oct 12, 2016 @ 9:19pm 
I too enjoyed EverQuest, and a ton of MMORPGs since then. However, I liked AO in its first years for the amazing role-playing environment, and DAo'C for its improvements and extensions of the EQ concept. Mark Jacobs really did build DAoC on a shoestring (we had a conversation about that when we met on the plane ride back from GDC one year).

Actually, Brad McQuaid's development seems to be using a model similar to the one I outlined above. He is getting serious investment from "white knights" of various sorts. Check out the company news at his "Visionary Realms" company site, in particular:

http://visionaryrealms.com/visionary-realms-acquires-seed-funding-completes-prototype-for-pantheon-rise-of-the-fallen/


Also note that Brad is not the top man in the company:

http://visionaryrealms.com/company/team/

I believe the crowd funding for "Pantheon" was primarily to determine the size of the potential market, which determines the budget, and (hopefully) the scope of the game.

One can hope that he learned from the unmitigated production disaster that was "Vanguard." If he did, maybe the game will have an alpha by the end of this year, and be released in 2017, as promised last year. Staff changes and/or missing a 2017 release will suggest that they are in trouble.
Last edited by Yasha; Oct 12, 2016 @ 9:19pm
Phil85 Oct 13, 2016 @ 4:02pm 
I hope EQ makes it to market and is profitable. I will buy and paly it, but frankly, I don't have the time needed to play a game like EQ1. Hell, I didn't really have the time to play EQ in 1999, but I was so addicted, I played anyway. After 2-3 years of that, my wife put her foot down and I was ready to retire anyway. I hope there is a way to play Pantheon that doesn't require getting fired or divorced. Perhaps it's a Catch 22, in that the elements that made EQ so compelling, are the same ones that cause people to burn out and quit. Being forced to rely on other people for groups and success is a wonderful, yet dangerous concept. I loved it until I couldn't stand it anymore.
Crossbow Oct 15, 2016 @ 10:25pm 
What part of the game did you design, and what other games have you worked on?

Also, I'm about to play Darklands for the first time, I never played it at release, anyone have any advice?
Last edited by Crossbow; Oct 15, 2016 @ 10:27pm
Yasha Oct 16, 2016 @ 2:17pm 
@Crossbow -

I was the chief designer. I designed everything in the game exception for a few sections of the main storyline. Sandy Petersen (of Call of Cthuhlu fame) did the final, apocalyptic encounter that starts with meeting witches, and contributed to other sections. Doug Kaufman also designed certain story events. I came up with the central concept for the game. The character generation, world map layout and data, combat system, alchemy system, religion system, and the historical research behind it all was done by me. Most of the RP choice trees, including the success probability system and calculations, were also done by me. In short, I spent a ton of time on game design stuff.

My primary advice is to read the manual, included as part of the installation. By default, it will be at C:\Program Files (x86)\Steam\SteamApps\common\Darklands\Manual.pdf . This is because Darklands is an old-fashioned DOS game of 1992. It's got a complicated UI, since it was invented before any of the Windows UI conventions existed. It was also designed for low-resolution, low-color PCs. Things that seem murky on the screen are cleared up in the manual (as was typical for games of that era).

In addition, take a look in the Bonus Content folder underneath the directory mentioned above. The Cluebook, Map and Reference Card may prove helpful.

If you're interested in the historical period, the back of the manual has extensive notes about that, and a bibliographical essay that is only a bit outdated.
Phil85 Oct 16, 2016 @ 6:29pm 
@Yasha, How did you almost bankrupt Microprose? Was it the combat engine, that seemed very advanced for the period? Was it the open ended, sandbox approach with a relatively large and detailed map? Most people don't realize how unique these things were for 1992, because it's so common today. Did you guys make a profit on Darklands? You said that you don't code, but created the combat system. Does that mean the concept of the combat engine? What other games did you help create?
@Crossbow, the manual is very well done, so I'd try to read it. Also, many good tips are found online. There are certain things that really help you starting out, like having good initial stats and a well balanced groups. Leveling up your alchemey skill quickly helps to make many potions that you can use in battles or sell.
Yasha Oct 16, 2016 @ 11:22pm 
@Phill85 -

The game was over a year late, and over half the company's resources were drawn into it to achieve completion. The company president ("Wild Bill" Stealey) had been counting on income for the game, and wasn't getting any. Since Bill kept small reserves and reinvested earnings into a bigger company and more games, he had great difficulty holding things together until the game shipped. When it did ship, it earned a decent amount of money, but due to its bugs, thereafter returns at least matched subsequent sales. The bugs were finally conquered nearly a year later, but there was no opportunity for a "relaunch", and no appetite for it. Bill was busy pursuing what he thought were more profitable endeavors.

By creating the combat system, I mean I looked back through my library, read up a little more on late medieval armor and combat, pondered various combat systems I'd seen in computer games and paper games, and decided that endurance and armor penetration would be the central distinguishing factors. After all, in this period plate armor reached its pinnacle.

Next I wrote down the core data, logic and algorithms (simplified puesdo-code) for how battle would work. This was built around a series of tables, much like those in the hint book, for character, weapon and armor stats. I gave this to the programmer, and we sat down to talk about it for a while. This included real-time fighting and with pauses for orders, which was novel at the time, but seemed a lot easier than a "spend action points to do things" used in other games of that era (such as the original XCOM), much less any kind of turn system.

He then went off and wrote a lot of code. Weeks later, we could play out a few fights, to see how things worked. Characters didn't animate much, but we could watch the numbers change. I worked with him to adjust a few things, and changed some data as well. It played better and we called it done. At that point QA moved in and playtested it to death. Periodically they might come to me and say, "Hey Arnold, is it REALLY supposed to work like this...?" Sometimes I'd say yes, and explain why. Other times I'd say, "Wow, definitely not." In the latter case, I'd either change my data, or talk to the programmer about changing some of his code. We tried to keep code rewrites to the least amount possible for obvious reasons.

So you wee, while I don't write code, I do know how programming languages and logic works. I can sit with a programmer to figure out how to adjust things so the game plays better.

I have over two dozen computer games (including some military training sims) to my credit as designer, producer, or both. Everything from early Colecovision console games to PC solo games to a kids' MMORPG (I was producer for the server system - not glamorous, but online games do not work without servers).

Phil85 Oct 18, 2016 @ 7:35pm 
Is it fair to say that Darklands was the first game to use real time combat with the pause option? It's really a shame that such a great game didn't make a profit. I bought the game and didn't get a refund in 1992. Thanks for sharing the inside story behind Darklands. I personally find it very interesting and bet it's quite telling about the industry even today.
Last edited by Phil85; Oct 18, 2016 @ 7:35pm
Yasha Oct 19, 2016 @ 8:20am 
Realtime combat was a staple of many combat simulations, including fligh sims, naval sims and tank sims. Most RPGs up to that time used a turn-based system, but I remember on first person dungeon adventure/fighting sim with real-time action came out before we released the game.

I do not remember any multi-character-party RPGs with realtime combat prior to Darklands. I don't think it was an original idea so much as putting together a playable system. Making an idea "work" in a playable manner is always the hard part.
Phil85 Oct 19, 2016 @ 6:30pm 
Thanks for clarifying. I meant to ask if Darklands was the first multi-character-party RPG with realtime combat. It seems that it was, which should be some kind of accomplishment. I remember feeling how "cool" it was to not have to use the old way of turn based combat. Now, I look for RPG"s with turn-based combat, since they tend to be so rare.
Phil85 Oct 27, 2016 @ 6:12pm 
So do these "white knights" expect to get any return on their investments? Do they just have that much money that they can blow 100K or more on a video game? I wish I had that much to donate, but I'd be in for about 100 bucks.
Yasha Oct 27, 2016 @ 10:06pm 
To develop a new game, you need money. Mostly it's the salaries of the people who will do the developing (programmers, artists, designers, producers, QA, etc., etc.). Sometimes shorter term contract workers will do, but all need money. Depending on your business strategy, you might need to find office space, computer hardware and software, and purchase various middleware packages.

A "White Knight" is a very wealthy individual (net worth of $50 million or greater) who believes your proposed game both "needs" to the made (Iit'll be a great game) and likes your business plan. Part of liking the plan involves the strategy for repaying his (or her) initial investment with a good profit (return on investment). White knights do not just give away money, they want it back, with big interest (on the order of at least a quarter more, and preferably double or more).

White Knights often become the behind-the-scenes business owner of the game company they financed, and the person to whom the dev team management must report. After all, our good knight wants to know his money is being spent wisely, and the product can reach completion at the cost and time point originally promised.

In the case of DARKLANDS II (or whatever the title becomes), our white knight would need to seed the company on the order of three or four MILLION dollars to get started, and ultimately be prepared to put in as much as TEN MILLION dollars to get the product to market. All this for just one AA game. If you're going for AAA, multiply by five to ten, depending on your ambitions.

Often the White Knight acts as leader for an investment group. In our case, the Knight might only plan on putting in two or three million, but will get a half dozen friends who will each kick in another million or so.

White knights are really hard to find. Furthermore, even if you find them, you may discover you've made a faustian deal, because they want a detailed say in what the game will look like. Since White Knights rarely known much about cost and time tradeoffs in game development, they invariably make unreasonable demands that bust the schedule and therefore budget. One of the most common problems that investors build mental fantasies about the final product. When the actual product doesn't match those fantasies, they demand changes.The situation is often compounded if the Executive Producer (or whomever is spokesperson for the development team) trying to mediate, and often producing compromises that still result in time-consuming code rewrites, art redos, and design changes. The changes sound "simple" but in reality become more complicated by the day. The dev team pays the price with months of 80-hour weeks, or sometimes strives for a product that is hopelessly beyond the available budget. The sad history of 38 Studios is an example of this. Curt Schilling and his friends played the role of a "White Knight," and various characters in the 38 Studios management team acted as enablers.
Phil85 Oct 31, 2016 @ 4:54pm 
It's a shame that it costs so much to produce a good game. Playing it safe by making another shooter clone or WoW clone has not produced many good games. Perhaps investors will have to find better balance between getting in the way and supporting the dev team. As a gamer, it's great to see so many Indie games on the market, but frustrating that many of them are B grade or worse.
As a side note, I wonder how many of the white knights for Pantheon were kids who played EQ in 1999.
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Darklands > General Discussions > Topic Details