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Forgotten ruins: The roots of computer role-playing games: FTL Games

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FTL Games: Less Was More
1982 – 1996

FTL Games doesn't have the kind of catalog that any of the other developers on this list do, but their first computer role-playing game would leave an undeniable mark. I didn't actually get to play this one until very recently (thanks only to the work of fans), but it's easy to see how it had predated efforts made by titles, such as Westwood's Eye of the Beholder, to bring a living, real-time dungeon to life. Interplay's Stonekeep – years later — may have had cutting-edge graphics and live video, but the basic gameplay can already be seen in something as early as FTL's Dungeon Master.

Dungeon Master was released in '87 and quickly took the CRPG community by surprise. Not only did it boast strong visuals for the time, it was also a real-time dungeon crawler (although, whether it was truly the first is debatable when compared to the more obscure Dungeons of Daggorath in '82 or Alternate Reality: The City from Datasoft in '85).

Being real-time meant that the game didn't wait for the player such as when they confronted a monster, which taught the lesson of click or be killed. Think Bethesda's Elder Scrolls series or Westwood's Lands of Lore, which came out years after Dungeon Master.

 

With the leading CRPGs of the time being turn-based affairs, Dungeon Master's real-time experience was a bold and refreshing change of pace (literally). It also boasted a surprisingly realistic skill system. Instead of abilities improving on a level-by-level basis, there were no levels. Characters grew more experienced in the use of their abilities by simply using them — something that would be echoed years later by CRPGs such as the aforementioned Elder Scrolls series.

It also boasted strong writing as a part of its storied backdrop (at least within its manual) thanks to novelist Nancy Holder (wife of Wayne Holder, FTL's producer). Even Dragonlance author and co-creator Tracy Hickman, who had also been a tester for the game, would go on to write the hint book.

On the technical side, FTL had also developed a set of tools that would enable them to reduce the turnaround time for future games based on Dungeon Master's engine and open the door to using it with other genres. In the same way that SSI had reused the technology developed for their Gold Box games, FTL had the same hope for Dungeon Master and the stream of potential new titles that could be based on its engine. It would also be a model emulated later by the FPS market with licensed engines fueling their own excitement from Doom to Unreal.

Dungeon Master box back

An expansion pack, Chaos Strikes Back, would improve on the gameplay in '89 with less linear levels within its dungeon. It would also include an editor for players interested in crafting their own character portraits.

And then — just as suddenly as Dugneon Master's design triumphs and critical success — the industry passed FTL by. The worlds that would be crafted atop the engine never materialized.

Although FTL would go on to create a new Dungeon Master for the PC-Engine (aka Turbografx-16) console in '92 and a real sequel (Dungeon Master 2: Skullkeep) in '93, they was never able to recapture the kind of magic that the first game had thrilled audiences with and for which the press had buried beneath numerous awards. Skullkeep had also come out in Japan first with the bizarre decision of Interplay publishing it in the West in '95. By that time, it was clear that its time was well past, though, its early contributions would be mirrored by many of its peers that now dominated the CRPG landscape.

FTL ceased operations as a company in '96, though, its name (and copyright) would live on with a licensed Dungeon Master Nexus for the Sega Saturn in Japan in '98. As for how much FTL or its former members contributed to the design of the final product, that's up for debate if the list of credits are anything to go by. Although they are credited with the design of the game, it's also clear that a few of those involved had also worked on porting the first Dungeon Master to the SNES in Japan under JVC and Victor Interactive Software. Draw what you will from that, but if anyone has any clue as to what is going on with the license, let us know!

With only one game, FTL had managed to inspire dungeon masters years later such as those working on Ultima Underworld. Although the company and the game it had created would not be as well remembered as those that would follow, a quiet nod to what its gameplay had inspired in a generation of developers can be found in nearly every real-time dungeon today.


For further information, check out the Dungeon Master Encyclopaedia, a Dungeons of Daggorath YouTube video, and ST-Log Magazine's 1988 review of Dungeon Master. Check back next week for New World Computing: Explorers Welcome.


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