Dungeon Keeper II

by Jeremy Springfield

Instead of discussing new and upcoming titles which have successful kick-starters, this week I want to use my long post to discuss on older title. Dungeon Keeper II is an oft overlooked classic of the RTS Genre and one of my all time favorite games.  One could imagine a parallel track of RTS designs based on the ideas expressed in DKII.  Alas, the world never saw such ideas.  Glimpse this alternate reality below the jump!

Although released in 1996 the game works fairly well.  Most hardware in 2012 can run this game with ease.  Ahead of it’s time graphically, it’s definitely behind the times at the moment.  You will see graphic glitches during play.  Pay them no head, as even a weak laptop should play this game fairly 
easily.  Fear not, for your game will not crash…  It just might look a little funky every now and then.

The plot is fairly straightforward. Evil is trying to take over the land. The hereos fight the evil. However, the player assumes the role of the Dungeon Keeper, and expands an ever growing dungeon to house an ever growing horde of minions.  Use them to crush the hero’s of the land and capture portal gems.  What do these gems do?  They open portals.  Who cares why, the game is fun!

Radically different than modern RTS games, the controls will be completely unfamiliar to fans of modern RTS games, but it won’t be a challenge to pick them up (it’s mostly mouse and a couple number keys later on).  Many common tropes and conventions of the RTS genre have been turned on their head.  There is no human opponent and this is NOT an eSport.  A bit more like The Sims, but evil, you really play in a sandbox.  Do not expect intense head to head competition.  Instead expect to set up your dungeon to your hearts content.  The game is rarely that hard, rather, its more of a puzzle to use the resources you have to accomplish the task.

In addition to the main quest/storyline the game offers free play modes and some side games.  The side games must be unlocked by finding magic items during gameplay. Although I play through the main missions on a yearly basis, the free play modes are pretty interesting as well.  You can build your dream dungeon fiddling endlessly with the perfect combos and layouts. Dungeons can be built with peril or without.

Using the standard ‘build a building’/’Create a unit’ RTS mechanic, at first gameplay seem’s straightforward.  In most RTS games this occurs in a graphic space create to look like the out of doors.  This game. however, makes you take chunks of terrain out of the game world, digging underground, to build your space.  You then zone certain areas to do certain dungeon tasks.

The levels flow very well, and build nicely.  New units and rooms are introduced at a good pace, and you will never feel overwhelmed while learning the game, so dive right in.  There is a great balance of tanky combat units, ranged units, spell casters, and builder units.  You can perfect spells, build traps, or station guard posts as methods to defeat your enemies.  Do not expect exact and complete control over your units as you do this.

Considering that I have a copy currently installed on my computer, and have been playing this game since 1998, there are few things I can really complain about this game.  Perhaps it’s too short.  Perhaps it would have been great if the company kept putting out similar titles.  Who’s to say?  Other people may not like this game at all if they love modern RTS gameplay action.  In fact many of the things that I really like about this game may be things other players hate about the game.  I would say that the save and load options, as well as main menu (the UI to devs) could use some polish, but they were pretty standard for the time.

Watch out for cutscenes!  The volume can be drastically different then the gameplay volume.  Other than that the audio is actually quite good during gameplay.  Units say interesting things, the dungeon heart whispers insanely, and just wait till your first minion wins a jackpot in the casino!

Game developers should download and play this game.  Which you can acquire from GOG.com. Or hop over to Amazon for a physical copy. It should be ‘required reading’.  There are so many tropes and mechanics in this game which are executed brilliantly, but completely different then ‘normal’ RTS games everyone who wants to design games should play this one for inspiration.

RTS eSports Opinion

Most RTS titles from the big game companies are attempting to move in a direction of eSports.  This is somewhat similar to the arch of Magic: the Gathering.  If you are not familiar with M:tG it’s the classic CCG that came out in the early 1990’s.  When first released most players were hardcore table top RPG nerds playing classic Dungeons and Dragons.  The draw of the game was being able to cast spells and magic away from the D&D table.  Eventually it became about competitive winning at the pro tour.  Creating the DCI (Bonus points if you know what DCI stands for) was an amazingly smart and forward thinking move on the part of Wizards of the Coast.  However the tournament scene caused the innovation and the refinement of winning deck design to take over the community.  There were really two different games running simultaneously.  The people playing ‘just for fun’ and the people playing in the Pro Tour.

The RTS genre is going through a similar change.  Warcraft was originally about fun and storytelling.  Dark Reign was also a very entertaining, although buggy, RTS game.  Blizzard has, however, moved the genre towards entertainment by way of competition.  Whether you claim they are learning from real sports, or M:TG or getting their ideas from somewhere else, proponents of esports are definitely aiming to keep players attention by making them compete with each other.  It’s an interesting solution to the problem of longevity in AAA title design.

On the other end of the gaming spectrum we have the absolutely amazing success of Minecraft.  Some people may say they have gotten a ‘lucky’ hand dealt to them at just about every turn. I think they have tapped something altogether lacking in most game titles.  There is no real sport to MC.  Not at the moment at least.  I personally doubt that Spleef or any other Minecraft activity will ever dwarf the amount of time people spend simply expressing their creativity.  At least I hope that is the case.  The game is about expressing one’s creativity and has tapped a deep seated desire to create and control a world.  The replay value of the game comes not from competition with others, but rather through expression.

Competition is not inherently worse than creative play.  It’s just not what everyone is into.   The major game labels are missing out on an audience that is looking for creative sandbox play.  There are plenty of eSport RTS games out there (Starcraft II, Firefall), but it would be nice to have some more titles out there like Dwarven Fortress, Minecraft, Dungeon Keeper, where yes it is real time, and yes it is strategy, but it also provides the opportunity for creative play.