Thanks to the marvellous work of one of everyone’s favourite publishers, Electronic Arts, the name Dungeon Keeper now brings with it both cherished memories of a great dungeon builder from long long ago, and also hideous nightmares of a more recent nature.
The colossally disappointing train wreck known as Dungeon Keeper Mobile is seen as an archetype of free-to-play done badly. The ‘game’ is riddled with hideously exploitative in-app purchases, and demonstrates a masterclass in how to completely and forever ruin a once beloved IP. Nevertheless, all hope was not lost.
The phrase ‘spiritual successor’ is never quite so welcome as in situations like this. Showered with positive early-access praise and community goodwill, War for the Overworld is seen by many as the real continuation of the dungeon building franchise. Tracing its roots back to a fan-made sequel first discussed in 2007, the title was re-jigged and successfully Kickstarted as a game in its own right in 2012. Since then development has seen many a delay and many a change in features, but thanks to the developer’s honest and upfront attitude, it seems that the community has been more than happy to take the good news with the bad and await patiently a return to the dank depths of dungeon digging.
But enough drawn-out interview introductions and pointless alliteration: here’s our chat with Creative Director Josh Bishop and Community Manager Lee Moon from Subterranean Games. Audio and transcribed versions are yours to choose between.
PC Invasion: Peter Molyneux has had a rough time recently, stemming from the problems with Godus, the missing features, his consistent over-promising, and so on. How have you avoided situations like that with your Kickstarter backers?
Josh Bishop: Every single week for two and a half years now we’ve posted a development log every Wednesday. One time the website was down and it had to be Thursday, but it only happened once. We’ve been consistently transparent with everything. When we have a problem we say so and what might happen because of the problem.
Whenever we think we might need to delay the game, we’ll talk about that. In fact quite recently we had to delay the game for another month because mixed up what we needed for submission to PEGI (the standard European video game age rating authority). We posted up an announcement saying why we needed to delay the game and giving the exact reason.
We just don’t have a reason to hide stuff like this from our backers, so we just tell them and everyone seems happy, even though it’s taken ages. They have been able to play the game the whole time and see what the current state is and that just seems to have worked.
Lee Moon: We’ve always kept them in the loop. That’s really important in this day and age. It’s something that not a lot of companies are doing yet. Especially with the crowd funding and people being involved, it’s important to keep them involved.
PCI: Yeah, it often seems that communities turn when the devs disappear and after a few months without updates people are asking, ‘where have they gone?’
LM: It’s always been the traditional way of working. It’s almost like an entirely new industry forming around this idea of community involvement. That’s the evolution of the internet really. Today, your customers are going to be more involved and you have to realise that.
I think it’s a shame that a lot of developers miss out on this community interaction. Why I love what I do is the ability to talk to our fans directly, find out what they think, and we can adjust ourselves based on that.
PCI: What do you enjoy most about the game at the moment?
JB: Survival mode… We’ve got a prototype of survival mode because it was one of the things we were thinking we might add to the game. We are going to be adding it to the game post-release, but it’s just not ready yet. Even the prototype is really damn fun.
It is actually in the current beta build, but it won’t be staying there because obviously it’s not finished and we don’t really want unfinished stuff in there at launch. But you can still play at the moment.
Because I know everything about the game, right, survival mode brings some unpredictability and some challenge to it. I mean, the single player is fun, but I’ve played every level I don’t know how many times now; I also designed them all. With this mode, you literally can’t win, you just have to keep going.
PCI: What other plans do you have to add longevity and challenge to the game?
JB: There’s something we’ve got with mutators, similar to what Unreal Tournament and some other games had. That’s where you’re able to, in skirmish and multiplayer and eventually campaign, tick a bunch of boxes and change some sliders to just completely make a level harder and harder or make the enemies smarter, or reducing the gold you get, or reducing the amount of mana you have, etc. That already works in the game and we’ve used it in a couple of the campaign levels, but post-release we’re planning to completely open that so you’re able to do absolutely whatever you want.
Then in the campaign we’re also going to have preset challenges put together. Instead of just doing easy, medium or hard; which is just a linear scale which isn’t particularly interesting, we’ll have the normal version of a level and later on we’ll add the one or two challenge versions of each level which will have differences like, for instance, if there’s a level where you have to defend then maybe you’ll have to do it without building any defences. Which… I don’t even know if you can do that without losing right now, we’ll see…
LM: Or the only way to defend is to attack…
JB: Yeah, that’ll be fun… in fact one of the levels that’ll be a very viable option.
PCI: What new stuff does War for the Underworld have that weren’t in the original Dungeon Keeper games?
JB: The veins of evil is probably the biggest one there, that’s our tech tree. The way that works is every room, and spell, and trap, and rituals potions – which are some other new things in the game – they’re all in this big tech tree. Your researchers will gain these points called sins and then you can spend them in the veins of evil to unlock stuff.
The reason we’ve added this is because one of the biggest theoretically design problems with DK was the lack of pacing, especially in multiplayer and skirmish, because you started the level and you had every single room. The rooms were the backbone of the game. You could just build anything, there was no hierarchy to it. Yes, some were more expensive than others, but if you had a lot of gold near you, you could just go straight for the strongest room. There was very little sense of progression or choice involved. Even the research there was, which was the spells, it was done in a linear order, you didn’t get to choose. So we’ve tried to bring in choice and pacing with the veins of order. It seems to work quite well….
PCI: Originally the game was going to support modding, but you’ve said that this won’t be possible now. What happened there?
JB: During Kickstarter we spoke about that. Several of our team members came from mods, so we really wanted to have modding support in the game; good robust modding support. When we knuckled down to actually start building in Unity, the actual final project. We just came to the conclusion that it wasn’t going to work. Unity just isn’t built that way, unfortunately.
There would have been some workarounds where maybe if we could provide toolset that users could use if they had a pro-version of Unity, but that wasn’t very realistic and would have been beneficial for less than 1% of the audience, so it just wasn’t worth doing.
So I think it was last year we posted an article on our website on the first year of development, going through the issues that we encountered with it and basically saying, ‘this is why we can’t do modding, we’re sorry but it was that or probably not finishing the game.’
We were just a little naive with saying that we were able to do that. It was something we really wanted to do, but in the end most of our backers just wanted the game and we weren’t willing to risk the game to do that.
PCI: How’s multiplayer balancing coming along?
JB: To be perfectly honest, the game isn’t going to be very well balanced at launch. That’s going to be a post-launch project. Until we get tons and tons of users in and playing and posting feedback on balance… because at the moment most of our users are posting feedback on bugs and mechanics, because at this point in time is when we can make those kinds of changes to the game. We’ve got a lot of tools that we can use which will be very helpful for balancing the game.
Either you have a massive open beta, like people with giant marketing budgets can afford, which isn’t us, or it’s something that happens post-release.
PCI: What plans do you have post-release?
JB: Initially in the first few months we have a couple of updates in mind, some of which we’ve already spoken about; the challenge mode and the survival mode. The survival mode was actually something our backers voted for, they were actually able to vote for the kind of content they wanted after release and that was what they voted for.
We’ve also got our early adopter bonus. Instead of a pre-order bonus we have this. This is that everyone who purchases within the first month will get our first full price DLC for free. The reason we’re doing this is that we don’t think the traditional pre-order bonus is very consumer friendly for a couple of reasons; the most obvious of which being that they don’t get to see full impressions of the game until it’s out and if they don’t pre-order it then they miss out on whatever this little bonus is.
So we’re not forcing users to commit to the game before it’s out, we’re allowing them to wait and see reviews; they’ve got a whole month. We’re also not cutting out part of the game that is only given to these people, it’s something that we’re developing at a later date. We’re just giving it to those people for free, but anyone else still can buy it if they want.
The original plan was for it just to be a DLC, but we decided to do this because… to be upfront, we want to encourage users to purchase the game early at full price, but we also want them to do it fully informed. This is our experiment to see if it works.
LM: It’s showing that we’re not afraid of reviews, and we’re not afraid of reaching out to the community. It’s always been very fearful when companies use a pre-order bonus because that’s what it’s there for, to protect profits.
War for the Overworld will be released on 2 April.