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Seattle, WA, USA

Posted Sat Sep 22, 2018 11:36 am

As I've been playing Dungeon Master II: Skullkeep for the past several weeks, at one point I started hunting around for some help. Let's be honest - these games were not only just hard, they were sometimes cruel. Some might say they were made to sell hint books to folks like me. But I wasn't looking for an online walkthrough - just some old-school help like it was the 1990s again if such a thing existed.
Lo and behold I found a NOS (in a plastic protective bag) "Official Strategy Guide" written by Zach Meston and J. Douglas Arnold. It was published in 1994, which is interesting as the game was released in Japan in 1993 and wasn't on the Amiga until 1995 (after Commodore had already collapsed!). It's a rather small book but has lots of great info the game annoyingly lacks - things like the specific attack strength of weapons, armor strengths, descriptions of all of the various spells, items and so on. Why these types of details were left out of the DM games is one of the things that really made the bees angry in my brain. The game is hard enough already - must all of the items in the game be complete mysteries, too?

To my knowledge this book has never been put online in any form or fashion over the years. And in the back of the book is a very interesting 3-paged interview by Zach Meston with Wayne Holder, the founder of FTL Games.

Since I believe it is nowhere online, I've transcribed it by hand for video game and dungeon crawler history buffs. There are some interesting tidbits to be gleaned. Enjoy.

Posted on with full permission from J. Doug Arnold from Sandwich Islands Publishing Co Ltd.

Dungeon Master II Skullkeep: The Official Strategy Guide
By Zach Meston and J. Douglas Arnold
Published by Sandwich Islands Publishing Co. LTD (Hawaii), 1994

Wayne Holder is the president of FTL Games/Software Heaven, Inc. and the man behind Dungeon Master and its long-awaited sequel, Skullkeep. Holder was kind enough to grant us a phone interview from FTL’s offices in San Diego, California, to discuss the history of Dungeon Master and the future of FTL Games.

ZM: What was FTL’s first game?
WH: Our first product was Sundog for the Apple IIe. Sundog was an adventure game inspired by Han Solo from Star Wars. You controlled a small ship traveling around the galaxy, trying to make a quick buck. It used a top-down perspective and a first-person view out the window of the ship when you were fighting pirates. You could also land in cities and travel around. It had relatively poor graphics, but it was a pretty popular game. I did some of the sound effects and the dialogue systems for communicating with the characters.

ZM: What other games has FTL produced?
WH: When the Atari ST came out, we took Sundog and moved it over. That was a huge success — it was a popular machine and Sundog was the only game in town. With Dungeon Master and Chaos Strikes Back, we started focusing on a lot of different machines. Along the way, we did an arcade game for the Macintosh called Odis. it didn’t really fit our style, though.

ZM: When was Dungeon Master released?
WH: It was released a couple of days before the end of 1986, on the Atari first. It was developed simultaneously for the Apple IIgs, Commodore Amiga, and Atari ST. We spent quite a while trying to get the Amiga version to fit into 512K of RAM (the standard amount of RAM in the Amiga at that time), but we finally just shipped it with a one megabyte requirement. We also spent quite a while on the IIgs version trying to make it run faster.

ZM: How did Doug Bell (the director of both Dungeon Master and Skullkeep) join FTL?
WH: Doug (and Andy Jaros, FTL graphic artist) showed up on my doorstep. One of the main programmers from Sundog quit, and Doug came to me with a game called Crystal Dragon that he and this programmer had been working on. Well, I couldn’t do anything at that point, so I gave Sundog to do the ST conversion, figuring maybe we could make enough money to do something new, and we did.

We figured Crystal Dragon was going to be a quick knock-em-off dungeon game, but it turned into a two-year project. A lot of ideas from Crystal Dragon were reinvented, such as the top-down perspective. The concept that was Crystal Dragon became Dungeon Master. Doug has worked out ideas for keeping the entire simulation running in real time. At that point, most RPGs were adaptations of board games. We wanted the entire game to be a true simulation, and that’s what consumed so much of our time.

ZM: How many systems have Dungeon Master appeared on?
WH: Atari ST, Amiga, Apple IIgs, the PC 9801 (a Japanese computer), X68000 (another Japanese computer), Fujitsu FM-TOWNS (yet another Japanese computer), IBM PC, and Super NES. A variation appeared on the TurboGrafx-16 as Theron’s Quest, we didn’t program it, but we did the scenario for it. We had a version of Dungeon Master for the Macintosh, but we never shipped it. We might update the Mac version and release it as Dungeon Master Deluxe. It would be lie the director’s cut of Dungeon Master.

Back when Dungeon Master came out, memory and disk space were crucial. Floppy disks were pricey, and we were shooting for a low selling price, so it was critical to get the game onto one floppy disk. It’s amazing that it fit! Doug would run out of space — the program would be 25 or 50 bytes too big — and he’d have to go through the entire program, optimizing and getting back two bytes here and two bytes there.

ZM: Did you expect Dungeon Master to be so successful?
WH: By the time we got it finished, we knew it was going to do well. We went to Atari ST user group meetings and demoed it — that was my method of knowing we were on the right track. When we started showing the game, it was always invariably quiet, then the users would ask a ton of questions.

ZM: What do you think of the wave of imitation games that hit the market after Dungeon Master?
WH: I really haven’t seen anything where they have done much more than follow in our footsteps. We expected to be imitated, and we figured that people would advance the state of the art, but it was amazing how many things we did that got completely borrowed. The movement arrows on the screen, for example. We must have experimented with dozens of different combinations before arranging them the way we did. That’s really where your investment in time is, working out the design of what works and what doesn’t. It’s amazing how many games I look at and see those same movement arrows.

ZM: Do you consider Chaos Strikes Back a true sequel to Dungeon Master, or just an expansion disk?
WH: Chaos Strikes Back was a problem. We never intended it to be a sequel. We shipped Dungeon Master and the next week, people were calling, saying, “Dungeon Master was great, when can we expect the next one?” We didn’t substantially change the look and style of the game in Chaos Strikes Back. In retrospect, I wish we’d done the whole thing differently. It was successful, but it cause some confusion, because some people were expecting more. It certainly wasn’t in the same class as Dungeon Master.

ZM: Was there a sound board included with the IBM version of Dungeon Master?
WH: When we started working on Dungeon Master for the IBM, there really wasn’t a sound standard. That really delayed us. We just didn’t want to spend the time [programming support for] Ad Lib cards. It certainly wasn’t a smart decision in retrospect.

We did a sound adapter that plugged into the parallel port and then plugged into an amplifier. It took up a little CPU time, but we weren’t using a lot of sound. It was popular with people using laptops, since they had no room for sound cards.

The adapter had a hidden feature we never documented. It was capable of accepting a digital joystick [such as the ones used by the Amiga and the Atari 2600]. Dungeon Master was released when there weren’t any mice for the IBM, and we thought this would be the cheapest way for players to use a digital joystick. We had a lot of compatibility problems with third-party parallel ports, so we didn’t describe the feature in the documentation. IBM compatibles back then didn’t implement all the circuitry on the parallel port.

ZM: Why has it taken so long for Skullkeep to appear?
WH: Well, we’re a small company. We spent quite a long time moving Dungeon Master to all the different platforms. We spent time getting the game released in Japan. We also spent a lot of time working with JVC to complete the Super NES version. [This version of Dungeon Master was plagued by delays and was released nearly a year after reviews of the game appeared in U.S. gaming magazines.] Sometimes it seems as if the years roll by and you don’t even notice. It’s frustrating sometimes that we can’t do as many products as users want us to do.

ZM: Why does Skullkeep use a similar graphic engine to the original Dungeon Master, instead of a free-movement design as in Doom or Ultima Underworld?
WH: We considered it for Skullkeep — it’s not that hard to do — but we prefer puzzle-oriented game design. When you introduce free movement, puzzles become much more complicated to design. For example, with free movement, you can step around pits. We don’t see our games being in that action niche anyway. We want something with depth. A lot of the free movement games are tedious to play because you spend so much time bouncing off the walls. Personally, it gets very tiring.

ZM: What are you and FTL Games working on now?
WH: We’re working to put Skullkeep on almost every system that Dungeon Master was on. We dropped the Atari ST because most ST users don’t have hard drives, and the x68000 was also dropped. We’ve added the Sega CD and the Macintosh.

-- End --

Note: I contacted both Zach Meston and Sandwich Island Publishing but have not heard back at this time.

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Posted Sun Sep 23, 2018 12:06 pm

Now can you manually transcribe the entire strategy guide for us? Annotated with hand drawn pictures? Can we have it by tomorrow? :D :D

Very interesting little article. I always wished that FTL had stayed in the game, as their stuff was always clever. I still can hear the sound of your characters running into a wall play back in my head.

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Seattle, WA, USA

Posted Sun Sep 23, 2018 3:09 pm

Ha! Yeah, or when they drink water ("Gulp!).

In the original if your party fell down an pit they'd go, "Ahhh."

In Skullkeep, it's about 4x as long, which can get a touch annoying when it happens. It's kinda like, "Come on now, fall already." ;)

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Posted Sun Sep 23, 2018 8:42 pm

There was one snake like enemy that made this crazy "hissing" sound. I remember I was about 17 years old playing the game and my party was low on health and supplies. Then I started hearing that sound and I actually started to get freaked out myself! Such a great series of games...

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