30 Years of God Game History Part 8

Selling over two million copies, Spore wasn’t a failure, but it’s clear Maxis and the community wanted it to be so much more than “just another quarter 3 hit”. It fell short of its astronomical potential. The disappointment of seven years working on Spore only to have it descend into obscurity seemed to lead to Will Wright quitting Maxis, the company he founded, and game design entirely for nearly a decade to pursue other industries. And so, with two mighty god game creators both failing to meet their visions with success, we witnessed the end of the triple-A god game era. Homages and successors of various god games emerged after Bullfrog’s closing in 2001, mimicking many of the features of this niche of games: excavation, terrain manipulation, and the influence of autonomous inhabitants. Nine years after the sleeper hit, Majesty: The Fantasy Kingdom Sim, a sequel released, though no longer developed by Massachusetts-based Cyberlore, now taken on by Russian software developer, 1C Company.

The clear boost in graphics and tech is palpable, and it’s quite a looker even today. Majesty 2 attempts to capture the spirit of the original game, influencing heroes with bounties, rather than directing them with orders. Disappointingly, the popular sandbox mode of the original was strangely omitted. The ability to start a customizable standalone map right out of the gate was a fun and replayable way to play, and was my personal favorite mode in any strategy game. They implemented skirmishes into an expansion pack a year later, and with two more expansions after that, the game was fun and modestly successful.

But something fundamental seemed to be missing from the original, and the game’s delicate balance and AI felt “off”. Many of the quests were carbon copies from the original game. The AI was weaker than its predecessor. Random difficulty spikes and imbalances were common, and enemy dens would spawn out of nowhere and destroy your town without warning. The game introduced a party system where you could group up multiple heroes, but its usefulness was debatable. With enough patches and expansion fixes, however, Majesty 2 is a technically superior, though contentious sequel to the amazing concept that was the original, despite the series experiencing many years of dormancy, before and since.

This game most importantly proves that there are still promising and original ideas in the genre that could be revived and experimented with, outside of the well-tread ground of common strategy games. And that not every game has to be simply “Starcraft, but X”, in an ever-descending spiral of derivative game design. The sporadic but revered French game designer, Eric Chahi, noted for his highly influential Another World and Heart of Darkness games, emerged after years away from the industry. He was inspired by his studies into actual volcanology, the raw fury of nature he saw in Mount Yasur, in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Australia. He pitched a concept to Ubisoft as early as 2006, eventually getting a small team together and developing an unexpected god game, finally releasing in 2011. From Dust takes the core mechanic of Populous (land formation), and brings it to a new generation.

With state-of-the-art 3D graphics and a modern physics engine, you no longer magically create or eliminate land like its forebears, instead you control a cursor that can suck up a sphere of any one of three materials: sand, water or lava. Then you can float it around and drop that material somewhere else. It’s an incredibly simple concept, but the delicate and smooth way the physics and game world work is intuitive and addictive. For me, the game peaks at level 4, where you must use your abilities to shape water, sand and lava to not only expand your people, but to mold a rock wall to protect them from tsunamis.

There are many other notable scenarios, and although the game’s mechanics remain simplistic, the new dangers the game throws at you keeps you challenged. Though later on, some of these hazards become annoying, such as the fire plants which ignite terrain regularly. From Dust was a brilliant experiment in terrain interactivity and puzzle game-like problem solving with a sandbox toolset. It was well received by players and critics. Over a half a million people bought the game on PC and consoles, outperforming any other digital title released by Ubisoft by nearly 50%.

But despite this success, Eric and Ubisoft didn’t opt for the possible expansion which was going to add a level editor and multiplayer, nor a proper sequel — perhaps due burn out after the five-year development cycle. A web-based fan-made game designed as a spiritual successor to Populous surfaced in 2012. Its cult popularity prompted indie dev Electrolyte to redevelop it as a standalone desktop game called Reprisal Universe, two years later. It enjoyed quiet success, and was praised for staying true to the Populous formula, though it made some of the interface and controls less straining. The game adopted a stylized, geometric graphic style and some sleek post-processing effects to make it attractive to a newer audience. It retains the focus on world sculpting, but also brings back many of the fun and devastating powers from Populous 1 & 2.

Reprisal is an approachable remake of those classic games, and though a few purists criticize the so-called “dated” mechanics or some of the minor changes the game made, it’s a great reminder that these classic ideas are still popular and fun, two decades on. After a 15-year dirt nap, Electronic Arts unceremoniously revived the Dungeon Keeper series… as a mobile game. Despite putting the competent Mythic Entertainment behind the wheel (who had developed multiple successful MMOs), all was not well. Playing more like a disguised clone of Clash of Clans than its namesake, there were frustrating stops at every corner, whether it was blocks of earth that could take up to 24 real-life hours to excavate, or upgrades requiring gem packs which costed up to a hundred dollars each! Dungeon Keeper mobile may have worn the skin of a much better game, but was immediately despised by the core gaming community for it.

Even Peter Molyneux, the original game’s project lead, fiercely criticized how crazy it was that these mobile games indoctrinate you into spending gems and speeding up the deliberately designed drudgery present in these games. Poignantly pointing out that “Asking people for money is not a right. You have to justify it,” a quote that I enthusiastically agree with, but would later become hypocritical with his own foray into mobile gaming.

Dungeon Keeper mobile features dully-lit, limited corridors, without the freedom to explore into the dark unknown, with generic, cartoony graphics that could be mistaken for any other mobile game. It was missing the thick and immersive atmosphere, the addictive gameplay you couldn’t put down, and the heart of a classic god game that we knew and loved. You can even pluck an excavated room from one spot and place it down somewhere else without digging or rebuilding it. One of many examples of how little reverence this poor imitation had for the originals. Gamers and journalists alike tore this misguided product apart.

Only dedicated mobile game critics gave the game a pass. A sad commentary on the rock-bottom expectations many mobile gamers have. And like clockwork, Electronic Arts shut down the Mythic offices just months after Dungeon Keeper launched and, unsurprisingly, failed to garner a viable audience. A particularly sour end, as Dungeon Keeper 2 was one of the last games Bullfrog released before, too, getting the axe. There were several more genuine attempts over the years to revive the magic of Dungeon Keeper.

Though instead of looking at what worked in these games and improving upon them, they often imitated the theme and style, but drastically changed the core gameplay. Vying for simplified real-time strategy game mechanics, and lack of gameplay polish and nuance led to them being poor imitations of RTS games and god games alike. The dungeon sim, Impire, showed a lot of promise as a spiritual successor to Dungeon Keeper, but its clunky interface and confounding design choices led this imaginative spark to fizzle.

These kinds of games looked great in trailers and screenshots but in actuality were deeply flawed, with little of the charm, intuitiveness or fun factor of the games that inspired them. Despite their original attempt receiving poor reviews, to everyone’s surprise, Kalypso’s Dungeons II actually came out of the gate swinging with vastly improved gameplay, interactivity and polish. And most notably, featured an underworld map AND an overworld map running simultaneously, meaning your demonic denizens could reach the surface, wander and fight enemies outside, then enter other dungeons and locations. This seemed to be a nod to the ideas espoused by the cancelled successor to Dungeon Keeper 2 by Bullfrog. So it’s worthy of praise that Realmforge Studios managed to turn a poor imitation into a competent successor with even some neat features of its own. With the unique take on the “Dungeon Keeper” formula though, you could see their own voice emerge: evolving the “dungeon life sim” approach into a more traditional real-time strategy game — with the ability to order units around through direct control in the overworld.

It was a jarring shift from god game to real-time strategy game when traveling to and from your dungeon. Though a welcome addition to spice things up, rather than mundanely imitating a classic, it felt like two loosely-connected games at times. As the Dungeons series found their footing, they even strayed further from the formula, eschewing the influence-over-direct-control design pillars. In Dungeons 3, you hire creatures directly with money. Many other mechanics and design choices were changed or removed, and overall, the experience is enjoyable, but feels less interesting.

Your dungeon is no longer a mysterious abyss to explore and traverse through, as the area you can work with is small and limited. It’s now more like a base to build up as quickly as you can. Mana is now a mineable resource, the creature limit is always cripplingly low, and tech tree paths become dominant to your strategy, as the game forces you to go into the overworld to gain “Evilness”, the currency needed to unlock research.

Perhaps this was an effort for the developers to come into their own, outside of the long shadow Dungeon Keeper casted, and which all similar games inevitably get compared to. But is nevertheless a welcome if stylistically different take on the formula. Probably the most true-to-form recreation of the Dungeon Keeper concept since Bullfrog shut down was an indie project started in 2009 by Brightrock Games, which included some of Dungeon Keeper’s most talented modders. The new game was named War for the Overworld — after the cancelled Dungeon Keeper 3 project. It quickly grew from a labor of love to a successful crowdfunded Kickstarter project, raising over 300 thousand dollars. Longtime advocates of the franchise promoted the project, and they hired the always-enjoyable Richard Ridings as the game’s narrator, whose voicework for the Dungeon Keeper games was a fan favorite.

This was proof that there was a dedicated fanbase for these ideas, that were itching to get more games of this style. The game was released on the Steam Early Access program in 2013, and though production went through several hiccups, including a botched launch in 2015, which temporarily broke several maps and the multiplayer mode, strong post-launch support and free add-ons brought it to a much better state as time went on. It’s one thing to nail the feel of a classic, but to come up with new, original ideas that mesh with the original formula so well is inspiring.

Featuring more creature types, spells and rooms than either of the Dungeon Keeper games, the game isn’t content on just imitating its inspiration, it tries to innovate on every level. Introducing an expansive skill tree, that allows for more diverse playstyles, with the branches of Sloth, Greed and Wrath. Sloth skills focus on defense and traps, a more hands-off and defensive playstyle. Greed is all about mining and amassing wealth and resources. And Wrath is the hardline offensive strategy, with rooms, spells and powers focused on making your creatures strong and your enemies weaker. With new mechanics like rituals, which act like more powerful spells you must invest time and resources into, and new obstacles such as brimstone, which can only be broken through with explosive underminers, fragile ice, hardened permafrost, and sacred ground, tiles that cannot be claimed by Keepers.

War for the Overworld manages to capture that magic sensation of governing your evil empire from above perhaps better than any other game, save for the original Bullfrog titles. My only disappointment is its limited campaign, which plays more like an extended tutorial, rather than a story-driven set of challenging missions. But after years of content patches, free additions such as new maps, a survival mode, and expansion packs like My Pet Dungeon, in some ways, the game even eclipses its predecessors in terms of depth and variety. Especially with plug-and-play Steam mod support.

War for the Overworld skillfully dovetails classic gameplay and brand new ideas, and in doing so, stands strong as arguably the most adept successor to the Dungeon Keeper franchise to date. After the decline of big-budget god games, the genre fell into the hands of smaller, often independent studios to carry the torch. Many of these were more casual, social affairs, gravitating toward the Facebook and mobile phone platforms. The obvious drawback is the all-too-common adoption of the budding “free-to-play” model attached to such games, where your progress is deliberately slowed or outright halted, to incentivize the purchase of premium currency. But there were some bright spots here and there. In 2012, Lionhead Studios co-founder, Peter Molyneux left his own company, at the completion of Fable: The Journey, a mostly panned spinoff of their most popular franchise.