Wednesday, February 5, 2014

"Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Computer Products", 1989.

Why blow a full-page ad on a single product when you can use it to shill three distinct but related works? This is a step up from previous shovelware advertising we've seen before (all these games have one thing in common: we make them!) where these are all different takes on the same "brand", with genre and thematic similarity that are necessarily entailed there.

Dungeons & Dragons



POOL OF RADIANCE fulfills all your gaming fantasies. The legendary ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS role-playing system springs to life on your computer! Embark on dangerous quests in the magical FORGOTTEN REALMS game world -- made incredibly real by advanced computer animation and combat that adheres strictly to AD&D game standards. Prepare yourself for the ultimate fantasy role-playing experience!


HEROES OF THE LANCE gives you non-stop excitement and fully animated action on the mystical DRAGONLANCE game world. Guide eight Companions, each with different skills, deep into the treacherous ruins of the temple Xak Tsaroth. They will need all of your skills to help them survive the attacks of giant spiders, demons, dragons and countless other terrors. Retrieve the precious Disks of Mishakal if you can!


DUNGEON MASTERS ASSISTANT, VOLUME I: ENCOUNTERS is a utility program designed to help Dungeon Masters generate encounters for AD&D campaigns. It provides more than 1000 encounters, and over 1500 monsters and characters, including all of the monsters found in AD&D Monster Manuals I & II. DMs can modify the existing data and add original monsters and encounters to the database.

We've seen the first two titles before; the interesting bit for me here is the game-related tool SSI briefly considered having as part of its product line before cutting and running after volume 2. Applications and utility software is by and large far less documented than old games because, well, who goes around opening old word processors for kicks? But I've always been intrigued by these grey-area products, non-game (or merely game-related) programs developed, marketed and sold by game companies. A couple of years ago I parted ways from the motherlode of Amiga software packaging, with an unbelievable number of multimedia tools (hello, Deluxe Paint!) made by Electronic Arts to sagely plant the seeds for the next round of hires. I've always thought that products such as those are worth documenting alongside their contemporary games, to help get a better idea of the company's product line-up at a given point in time and the impact of the focus and priorities on the company (hello, Infocom and Cornerstone), to help fill in blanks in game developers' CVs, and to explain the appearance of new and robust systems incorporated into game engines -- eg. whether Jill of the Jungle got a free ride, sound-wise, on the back of Drum Blaster. Many (perhaps all?) games could be considered just gamified ways of interacting with the contents of asset databases.

And here's the kicker for me: as with Old Economy Steve, here's a little sidebar ad I uncovered in my delvings indicating just how low the bar to entry for the early computer game industry was. (Of course, you could easily get in over your neck very quickly: new Infocom implementators, some of whom had never written a program before, were parked at a dumb terminal with emacs to write in. After the first week, they might have been able to figure out how to advance to the next line.)


SSI is actively seeking experienced programmers who would be interested in working on a computerized AD&D Dungeon Master Assist program. This work would be done on a contract basis. Interested parties are asked to write a letter in which they outline their applicable experience and send it to:

    Strategic Simulations, Inc.
    1046 North Rengstorff Avenue
    Mountain View CA 94043-1716
    Attention: Victor Penman
SSI is also interested in hearing from AD&D game players and receiving their comments on what they would like to see in the computerized versions of the game. These comments should be sent to the address given above.
(By this point, SSI is keeping it real, rocking it in Mountain View, California. SSI is gone now, but probably the best-known computer company in the area now is Google!)

Anyhow, enough regret at being born into the wrong generation. What does this ad tell us? Let's run backwards here: the DM's assistant is boldly promoted under the sexy tag-line Utility. Well, let's be fair: a database including all the monsters of the first two volumes on the Monster Manual (what, no Fiend Folio? With "over 1300 monsters and characters", that sounds like the contents of all three books with plenty of room to spare. Just how many NPCs are folded in?) sounds like an awesome resource to have while generating encounters. My only concern is that the main hold-up in playing through encounters isn't generating them -- which can be done as quickly as rolling dice twice -- but actually playing through them. This tremendous utility streamlines the most already-streamlined part of the process. And who DMs with a computer at the table, anyhow? We'll see further spins off from this utility's concept later on with Unlimited Adventures and Dungeon Hack, but only in a limited sense: entering 1300 monsters' worth of names and stats is easy, but commissioning sprite illustrations for 1300 monsters is a whole 'nother can of worms.

So: action. Twitchy arcade gameplay isn't fundamentally at odds from a good CRPG: Westwood pulled it off apeing Dungeon Master's model with Eye of the Beholder (and later, Lands of Lore), and Capcom took it far in the arcades with Shadow over Mystara. But it has to be treated carefully. Later AD&D adaptations like the Baldur's Gate era games offer basically real-time combat with the option to suspend proceedings and micromanage, a good middle ground from the desperately tactical Gold Box melees. This game looked more like a Nintendo platform game, and the flattened 2D perspective, however "fully animated", hammers home that the game is essentially on rails: players can go forwards, or backwards. (Or refuse to move, always an endlessly entertaining exersizing of Hobson's Choice.) At least top-down compass rose navigation doubles the number of possible avenues. Boasting eight Companions results in anxiety to me, as I anticipate two or perhaps three characters good at running, jumping and fighting -- the core gameplay mechanics -- and then five others who are basically dead weight but need to somehow be kept alive in order to cast spells or pick locks at critical junctures. "Retrieve the precious Disks of Mishakal if you can!" That's almost tautological. "If you can do x, then do it, and if you can't, well then... try to enjoy the failed attempt regardless."

And here we are, back at Pool of Radiance, still claiming to be an epitome of Role-Playing -- fulfilling "all [my] gaming fantasies". (That's a bit presumptuous, SSI. Some of us might fantasize a way to play through campaigns that wouldn't have us spending hours trying, failing, and retrying mass combats. Some of us might just fantasize about Tyranthraxus wearing something red and slinky. But I digress.) "Dangerous quests"? The stakes would be pretty low were they not dangerous: Save the princess! ... or... not. It's your call, bro. She's actually not in peril, she just accidentally locked herself in the bathroom. While this game was a sea change from the AD&D video games that came before, I don't know how fair it is to call it "incredibly real"; its "advanced computer animation" typically demonstrates a a kingly two frames for its sprites, and the bureaucrats will be glad to read the ad's testimony of the game's strict adherence to AD&D game standards. Is it fun? Who cares -- the important question is: does it adhere?

Two of these "computer products" (a strangely sterile term that didn't last long in SSI marketing) represented what were essentially dead ends: the third however kept being basically reskinned on an annual basis for the better part of a decade. One outta three ain't terrible...