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The Making of Dungeon Keeper

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We talk to Peter Molyneux for a behind the scenes look at the devilishly brilliant Dungeon Keeper

Published on Apr 17, 2009

Remember Ultima Underworld? It’s been a while. 17 years, in fact, but let’s face it, no game since has made scuffling through the sepulchral so compelling. Classy as Underworld was, however, like every other RPG ever made, it missed a very important opportunity.

While virtually all fantasy-themed videogames can trace their lineage back to the late Gary Gygax and his tabletop RPG Dungeons & Dragons – and every designer of every fantasy game aspires to recreate the freedom and dynamism afforded by a human D&D dungeon master – none has ever focused on the experience of actually creating the titular dungeons. None, of course, but Peter Molyneux, who turned a trite old genre on its head and managed to create a game that remains unique to this day.

It started with frustration. More specifically, Molyneux’s incredulity with regard to an unassailable fact about fiction: bad guys don’t win. And because videogames are all about winning, you never get to play the bad guy. “It just dawned on me,” he says, “and people I told suddenly said, ‘Hey, you’re right’. And the bad guy is always really stupid, isn’t he? He always gives away his entire plan right at the end.”

This wasn’t the first time he’d felt a little sympathy for the devil. In 1993 Molyneux and Bullfrog created Syndicate, which venerated the sociopathic exploits of soulless anarchocapitalist androids. But that was different: in Syndicate mythology, you weren’t the leader. You were your company’s marketing manager, and the drones over which you exerted direct control were so low on the food chain that brand new, functionally identical replacements would be made instantly available in the event one of them got incinerated. In Dungeon Keeper, the game born of Molyneux’s aforementioned grievances, you were the dungeon master as envisioned by Gygax – the all-powerful, world-sculpting mastermind whose plots are only ever undermined by the incompetence of his minions, who always fail to see the big picture.

“I really thought being a bad guy would be hard,” Molyneux laughs. “Everyone wants to kill you, you have all these staffing problems – it would be a real challenge. You have your minions, who are often incompetent or insubordinate, and you have to manage your dungeon and protect your treasure. There are all these things to take into account that the hero never has to worry about. And from thinking about that, the idea for this game emerged.”

Where the gameplay model for the venturing hero is the RPG – as Molyneux later explored with the Fable games – he found the bad guy’s duties were much more suited to a strategy/ management game. Not altogether unfamiliar territory, but Dungeon Keeper also acted as a sort of real-time level designer. After all, it was your responsibility to carve out, furnish, and populate the finely tuned deathtrap into which wayward heroes were wont to wander.

“In my opinion,” Molyneux says, “the best thing about Dungeon Keeper was how you dig out, instead of building up. So it’s the exact opposite of what happens in normal strategy games. You carved out your dungeon, filled your rooms, and in a sense you built the level – you could build your dungeon so that, in your mind, no hero could ever get inside. I really wanted players to feel as if they were creating the greatest dungeon ever.”

Part of the skill of creating such a dungeon was tailoring it to the monsters it would soon, hopefully, come to harbour. Warlocks, for instance, needed libraries, but if they had to trudge through graveyards – the home of the vampires, their sworn enemies – to get there, you can guarantee they’ll soon pack up and look for another evil overlord to worship. And gratifyingly, no single creature type’s behaviours, desires, and abilities were ever really alike: a stark contrast to the Rock Paper Scissors mechanics of most strategy games.

So where, say, the torture chamber typically served as a brainwashing device for captured do-gooders, and was seen as a terrible punishment should you drop any of your own minions therein, it was also the most effective means of keeping the sadistic and masochistic Dark Mistresses happy. And as for the Horned Reaper (“Horny”), well, if he felt even the slightest disinclination toward any aspect of your dungeon, he was quite capable of destroying everything in sight, and wreaking far more havoc than anything topside ever could.

Molyneux claims he had little involvement in the creation of Dungeon Keeper’s bizarre cast of minions. “I did have a lot to do with the imps,” he clarifies, referring to your undemanding base-builder units, “but it was definitely the larger team that came up with those ideas. You know Horny? He, for instance, was dreamed up by one of our artists, and he ended up becoming the game’s mascot.”

Beyond the creatures’ various wants and needs, they also had distinctive traits and characteristics. The Bile Demon, for example, was strong and carried a powerful farting area-attack, but moved slowly. The Dragonflies could fly around outside your dungeon into unknown caverns, acting as scouts, but had little in the way of defensive abilities. And as the omniscient Keeper, you were able to use those powers directly, via your ‘Possession’ spell. This allowed you to descend into the mind of a single creature, and play Dungeon Keeper from a firstperson perspective.

“It wasn’t really developed enough,” Molyneux concedes, “but there was a great idea in there. Quite ambitious. I don’t think we went far enough, but my goal was to have it so that someone who likes FPS games – and hates strategy games – could play Dungeon Keeper and enjoy it. I wanted it so that if I were playing it as an RTS, and you were playing it as an FPS, we both had an equal chance of winning. I don’t think we quite got there, but possessing creatures did carry certain benefits – you became stronger and more resistant. And if you possessed Horny at his maximum level, then you could do some serious damage.”

Indeed, the Possession mechanic was underdeveloped, but there were some enjoyable moments with tangible gameplay benefits. As mentioned above, Dragonflies liked to scout out surrounding areas. Possessing one allowed you to briskly explore uncharted passages, with a view to sending your imps there to build, if no hostiles were found. It also afforded the opportunity to speed up your minions’ development. If you came across a group of indolent trolls, you could easily possess all of them, one by one, and manually get them to build up their strength in the training room. And finally there was – and still is – a perverse thrill in entering the mind of one of your hatchery chickens, and scampering about your level, seeing how long it takes before you’re gobbled up by a hungry minion.

Ultimately the real joy of Dungeon Keeper is the delicate balancing act you must employ in order to complete each mission. Missions, of course, being delightfully re-imagined as quaint little towns you must corrupt in order to progress. For while creating a virtually impenetrable dungeon with completely reinforced walls and an extensive defence system is a worthwhile ambition, you must remember that your underground fortress also functions as a living area for your minions. Making one room too small, too big, or in an unappealing position, or simply landing yourself with the wrong bunch of creatures at the wrong time, could have catastrophic results on your ability to organise and defeat your enemies.

Powering this challenge, of course, was Bullfrog’s much-vaunted AI technology. Minions thought for themselves, and while you had ultimate power over them, you still needed to meet their needs were they to serve you.

“We wanted AI in there because I think that’s what strategy games were really lacking at the time,” Molyneux explains. “I mean, they’re all the same, aren’t they? It’s a genre that hasn’t changed since it began. They just play exactly the same way, no matter which one, and so we wanted AI in there because it changes how you play.”

Dungeon Keeper’s AI was in a class of its own, even among Molyneux’s God games. In many ways, it’s the missing link between Warcraft and The Sims: a game where social mechanics and community management are as important as conquest and expansion. Molyneux saw this and became so dedicated to finishing the project that, when EA management asked him to leave the offices, he was in the process of resigning, soon to form Lionhead and continue development of the game at his house.

“That was quite a challenge,” he laughs. “EA felt – and I don’t judge them for it – that I would be a distraction to people because I was leaving. So we actually did about a year of development at my house. I just wanted to get it done.”

Dungeon Keeper was Molyneux’s swansong at Bullfrog. Indeed, the sequel released in 1999 was the entire company’s swansong, if you don’t count the two games later published with the brand after most of the team had left. And as such, it couldn’t have been better: Dungeon Keeper merged the crowd-pleasing of Theme Park, the world-building of Populous, and the bloody carnage of Syndicate. It was, in many ways, the perfect tribute to one of Britain’s greatest studios. And despite the nefarious mien, Dungeon Keeper makes you a better person. When next you find yourself thoughtlessly but virtuously storming through the evil fantasy subterranea, you’ll remember to spare a thought for its overworked and underloved creator.

 

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