August 15, 2013

The History of the RPG: Dungeon Master (1987)

Last Installment: Starflight

In the mid to late 80s, there were three big computer RPG platforms. You had the Apple series, the Commodore 64 and the first IBM PCs coming out. Left in the lurch was Atari. They had brought gaming to the living room with their ground-breaking Atari 2600. But they were getting left behind in the computer gaming arena. So in 1985, they released the Atari ST. It was an adequate computer, but nothing was especially flashy or notable. But then in 1987 FTL Games released Dungeon Master for the ST.

And it was a hit. It achieved an unheard of rate of over 50% market penetration for Atari ST owners. The reason was simple: it was a ground-breaking game.

When you look at the game, you can not only understand why it was so popular, but see how it lives on in today's games. First, Dungeon Master was real-time and not turn-based.* It did new things with sound and lighting, creating a more immersive experience. You could click on things in the first-person 3D window. You gained experience through using your skills, not by hitting arbitrary levels.** And then there was the rag-doll.

Think about inventory management in games like Diablo III, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, or almost any RPG of the past 25+ years. You have slots for equipment, you have other slots in your inventory. You drag things back and forth with your mouse. That is called a "rag doll" management system, and it came to be with Dungeon Master. Very simple in retrospect, but revolutionary when it came out.

There were some odd choices. As I remember it, you only had a finite set of pre-rolled characters to choose from (i.e. - no character creation). The experience you gained through action wasn't required to be in combat. You could just swing your sword or axe around thousands of times and level up. And there was only one dungeon.*** So while the way the game was presented was amazing and ground-breaking, the actual game itself was almost a step back

But that didn't stop Dungeon Master from racking up multiple awards. And deservedly so.


Rag-doll inventory management. Immersive sound and lighting. Real-time combat. First-person 3D view with clickable interface.


Where to start...the inventory management system is used by too many games to count. Clickable environment...sound and lighting...again, the list would be ridiculous. Dungeon Master is a game that few people actually know about, but has an influence over how RPGs developed that is immense. Talk about an inverted ratio...

Next on the list: Pool of Radiance


* It's been interesting to watch the pendulum swing between turn-based and real-time combat in RPGs over the years. I think each has it's advantages and drawbacks. I like how Baldur's Gate II tried to square the circle by allowing a pause at the end of each round that you could turn off if you wanted.****

** Skyrim brought a element of this into it's gameplay. Yes, you level up in experience like a traditional RPG. But you do it through action and skill use, like swinging a sword or crafting armor or picking a lock. It's not just about killing things.

*** The more I think back on that...what a bizarre choice. It was ignoring all the development that had occured since Wizardry and simply eschewing it. Then again, Diablo did essentially the same thing and that worked out okay for them.

****Yes, I will keep talking about the greatest RPG of all time whenever possible.


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