SSI entered 1989 a transformed company. What had been a niche maker of war games for grognards had now become one of the computer-game industry’s major players thanks to the first fruits of the coveted TSR Dungons & Dragons license. Pool of Radiance, the first full-fledged Dungeons & Dragons CRPG and the first in a so-called “Gold Box” line of same, was comfortably outselling the likes of Ultima V and The Bard’s Tale III, and was well on its way to becoming SSI’s best-selling game ever by a factor of four. To accommodate their growing employee rolls, SSI moved in 1989 from their old offices in Mountain View, California, which had gotten so crowded that some people were forced to work in the warehouse using piles of boxed games for desks, to much larger, fancier digs in nearby Sunnyvale. Otherwise it seemed that all they had to do was keep on keeping on, keep on riding Dungeons & Dragons for all it was worth — and, yes, maybe release a war game here and there as well, just for old times’ sake.
One thing that did become more clear than ever over the course of the year, however, was that not all Dungeons & Dragons products were created equal. Dungeon Masters Assistant Volume II: Characters & Treasures sold just 13,516 copies, leading to the quiet ending of the line of computerized aids for the tabletop game that had been one of the three major pillars of SSI’s original plans for Dungeons & Dragons. A deviation from that old master plan called War of the Lance, an attempt to apply SSI’s experience with war games to TSR’s Dragonlance campaign setting, did almost as poorly, selling 15,255 copies. Meanwhile the second of the “Silver Box” line of action-oriented games that made up the second of the pillars continued to perform well: Dragons of Flame sold 55,711 copies. Despite that success, though, 1989 would also mark the end of the line for the Silver Box, due to a breakdown in relations with the British developers behind those games. Going into the 1990s, then, Dungeons & Dragons on the computer would be all about the Gold Box line of turn-based traditional CRPGs, the only one of SSI’s three pillars still standing.
Thankfully, what Pool of Radiance had demonstrated in 1988 the events of 1989 would only confirm. What players seemed to hunger for most of all in the context of Dungeons & Dragons on the computer was literally Dungeons & Dragons on the computer: big CRPGs that implemented as many of the gnarly details of the rules as possible. Even Hillsfar, a superfluous and rather pointless sort of training ground for characters created in Pool of Radiance, sold 78,418 copies when SSI released it in March as a stopgap to give the hardcore something to do while they waited for the real Pool sequel.
They didn’t have too long to wait. The big sequel dropped in June in the form of Curse of the Azure Bonds, and it mostly maintained the high design standard set by Pool of Radiance. Contrarians could and did complain that the free-roaming wilderness map of its predecessor had been replaced by a simple menu of locations to visit, but for this player anyway Pool‘s overland map always felt more confusing than necessary. A more notable loss in my view is the lack of any equivalent in Curse to the satisfying experience of slowly reclaiming the village of Phlan block by block from the forces of evil in Pool, but that brilliant design stroke was perhaps always doomed to be a one-off. Ditto Pool‘s unique system of quests to fulfill, some of them having little or nothing to do with the main plot.
What players did get in Curse of the Azure Bonds was the chance to explore a much wider area around Phlan with the same characters they had used last time, fighting a selection of more powerful and interesting monsters appropriate to their party’s burgeoning skills. At the beginning of the game, the party wakes up with a set of tattoos on their bodies — the “azure bonds” of the title — and no memory of how they got there. (I would venture to guess that many of us have experienced something similar at one time or another…) It turns out that the bonds can be used to force the characters to act against their own will. Thus the quest is on to get them removed; each of the bonds has a different source, corresponding to a different area you will need to visit and hack and slash your way through in order to have it removed. By the end of Curse, your old Pool characters — or the new ones you created just for this game, who start at level 5 — will likely be in the neighborhood of levels 10 to 12, just about the point in Dungeons & Dragons where leveling up begins to lose much of its interest.
TSR was once again heavily involved in the making of Curse of the Azure Bonds, if not quite to the same extent as Pool of Radiance. As they had for Pool, they provided for Curse an official tie-in novel and tabletop adventure module. I can’t claim to have understood all of the nuances of the plot, such as they are, when I played the game; a paragraph book is once again used, but much of what I was told to read consisted of people that I couldn’t remember or never knew who they were babbling on about stuff I couldn’t remember or never knew what it was. But then, I know nothing about the Forgotten Realms setting other than what I learned in Pool of Radiance and never read the novel, so I’m obviously not the ideal audience. (Believe me, readers, I’ve done some painful things for this blog, but reading a Dungeons & Dragons novel was just a bridge too far…) Still, my cluelessness never interfered with my pleasure in mapping out each area and bashing things with my steadily improving characters; the standard of design in Curse remains as high as the writing remains breathlessly, entertainingly overwrought. Curse of the Azure Bonds did almost as well as its predecessor for SSI, selling 179,795 copies and mostly garnering the good reviews it deserved.
It was only with the third game of the Pool of Radiance series, 1990’s Secret of the Silver Blades, that some of the luster began to rub off of the Gold Box in terms of design, if not quite yet in that ultimate metric of sales. The reasons that Secret is regarded as such a disappointment by so many players — it remains to this day perhaps the least liked of the entire Gold Box line — are worth dwelling on for a moment.
One of the third game’s problems is bound up inextricably with the Dungeons & Dragons rules themselves. Secret of the Silver Blades allows you to take your old party from Pool of Radiance and/or Curse of the Azure Bonds up to level 15, but by this stage gaining a level is vastly less interesting than it was back in the day. Mostly you just get a couple of hit points, some behind-the-scenes improvements in to-hit scores, and perhaps another spell slot or two somewhere. Suffice to say that there’s no equivalent to, say, that glorious moment when you first gain access to the Fireball spell in Pool of Radiance.
The tabletop rules suggest that characters who reach such high levels should cease to concern themselves with dungeon delving in lieu of building castles and becoming generals or political leaders. Scorpia, Computer Gaming World‘s adventure and CRPG columnist, was already echoing these sentiments in the context of the Pool of Radiance series at the conclusion of her article on Curse of the Azure Bonds: “Characters have reached (by game’s end) fairly high levels, where huge amounts of experience are necessary to advance. If character transfer is to remain a part of the series (which I certainly hope it does), then emphasis needs to be placed on role-playing, rather than a lot of fighting. The true heart of AD&D is not rolling the dice, but the relationship between the characters and their world.” But this sort of thing, of course, the Gold Box engine was utterly unequipped to handle. In light of this, SSI probably should have left well enough alone, making Curse the end of the line for the Pool characters, but players were strongly attached to the parties they’d built up and SSI for obvious reasons wanted to keep them happy. In fact, they would keep them happy to the tune of releasing not just one but two more games which allowed players to use their original Pool of Radiance parties. By the time these characters finally did reach the end of the line, SSI would have to set them against the gods themselves in order to provide any semblance of challenge.
But by no means can all of the problems with Secret of the Silver Blades be blamed on high-level characters. The game’s other issues provide an interesting example of the unanticipated effects which technical affordances can have on game design, as well as a snapshot of changing cultures within both SSI and TSR.
A Gold Box map is built on a grid of exactly 16 by 16 squares, some of which can be “special” squares. When the player’s party enters one of the latter, a script runs to make something unusual happen — from something as simple as some flavor text appearing on the screen to something as complicated as an encounter with a major non-player character. The amount of special content allowed on any given map is restricted, however, by a limitation, stemming from the tiny memories of 8-bit machines like the Commodore 64 and Apple II, on the total size of all of the scripts associated with any given map.
The need for each map to be no larger than 16 by 16 squares couldn’t help but have a major effect on the designs that were implemented with the Gold Box engine. In Pool of Radiance, for example, the division of the city of Phlan into a set of neat sections, to be cleared out and reclaimed one by one, had its origins as much in these technical restrictions as it did in design methodology. In that case it had worked out fantastically well, but by the time development began on Secret of the Silver Blades all those predictably uniform square maps had begun to grate on Dave Shelley, that game’s lead designer. Shelley and his programmers thus came up with a clever way to escape the system of 16 by 16 dungeons.
One of the things a script could do was to silently teleport the player’s party to another square on the map. Shelley and company realized that by making clever use of this capability they could create dungeon levels that gave the illusion of sprawling out wildly and asymmetrically, like real underground caverns would. Players who came into Secret of the Silver Blades expecting the same old 16 by 16 grids would be surprised and challenged. They would have to assume that the Gold Box engine had gotten a major upgrade. From the point of view of SSI, this was the best kind of technology refresh: one that cost them nothing at all. Shelley sketched out a couple of enormous underground complexes for the player to explore, each larger almost by an order of magnitude than anything that had been seen in a Gold Box game before.
But as soon as the team began to implement the scheme, the unintended consequences began to ripple outward. Because the huge maps were now represented internally as a labyrinth of teleports, the hugely useful auto-map had to be disabled for these sections. And never had the auto-map been needed more, for the player who dutifully mapped the dungeons on graph paper could no longer count on them being a certain size; they were constantly spilling off the page, forcing her to either start over or go to work on a fresh page stuck onto the old with a piece of tape. Worst of all, placing all of those teleports everywhere used just about all of the scripting space that would normally be devoted to providing other sorts of special squares. So, what players ended up with was an enormous but mind-numbingly boring set of homogeneous caverns filled with the same handful of dull random-monster encounters, coming up over and over and over. This was not, needless to say, an improvement on what had come before. In fact, it was downright excruciating.
At the same time that this clever technical trick was pushing the game toward a terminal dullness, other factors were trending in the same direction. Shelley himself has noted that certain voices within SSI were questioning whether all of those little extras found in Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds, like the paragraph books and the many scripted special encounters, were really necessary at all — or, at the least, perhaps it wasn’t necessary to do them with quite so much loving care. SSI was onto a good thing with these Gold Box games, said these voices — found mainly in the marketing department — and they ought to strike while the iron was hot, cranking them out as quickly as possible. While neither side would entirely have their way on the issue, the pressure to just make the games good enough rather than great in order to get them out there faster can be sensed in every Gold Box game after the first two. More and more graphics were recycled; fewer and fewer of those extra, special touches showed up. SSI never fully matched Pool of Radiance, much less improved on it, over the course of the ten Gold Box games that followed it. That SSI’s founder and president Joel Billings, as hardcore a gamer as any gaming executive ever, allowed this stagnation to take root is unfortunate, but isn’t difficult to explain. His passion was for the war games he’d originally founded SSI to make; all this Dungeons & Dragons stuff, while a cash cow to die for, was largely just product to him.
A similar complaint could be levied — and has been levied, loudly and repeatedly, by legions of hardcore Dungeons & Dragons fans over the course of decades — against Lorraine Williams, the wealthy heiress who had instituted a coup against Gary Gygax in 1985 to take over TSR. The idea that TSR’s long, slow decline and eventual downfall is due solely to Williams is more than a little dubious, given that Gygax and his cronies had already done so much to mismanage the company down that path before she ever showed up. Still, her list of wise strategic choices, at least after her very wise early decision to finally put Dungeons & Dragons on computers, is not a long one.
At the time they were signing the contract with SSI, TSR had just embarked on the most daunting project in the history of the company: a project to reorganize the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules, which had sprawled into eight confusing and sometimes contradictory hardcover books by that point, into a trio of books of relatively streamlined and logically organized information, all of it completely rewritten in straightforward modern English (as opposed to the musty diction of Gary Gygax, which read a bit like a cross of Samuel Johnson with H.P. Lovecraft). The fruits of the project appeared in 1989 in the form of a second-edition Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monstrous Compendium.
And then, right after expending so much effort to clean things up, TSR proceeded to muddy the second-edition waters even more indiscriminately than they had those of the first edition. Every single character class got its own book, and players with a hankering to play Dungeons & Dragons as a Viking or one of Charlemagne’s paladins were catered to. Indeed, TSR went crazy with campaign settings. By 1993, boxed sets were available to let you play in the Forgotten Realms, in the World of Greyhawk, or in Dragonlance‘s world of Krynn, or to play the game as a Jules Verne-esque science-fiction/fantasy hybrid called Spelljammer. You could also play Dungeons & Dragons as Gothic horror if you bought the Ravenloft set, as vaguely post-apocalyptic dark fantasy if you bought Dark Sun, as a set of tales from the Arabian Nights if you bought Al-Qadim, or as an exercise in surreal Expressionism worthy of Alfred Kubin if you bought Planescape.
Whatever the artistic merits behind all these disparate approaches — and some of them did, it should be said, have much to recommend them over the generic cookie-cutter fantasy that was vanilla Dungeons & Dragons — the commercial pressures that led Lorraine Williams to approve this glut of product aren’t hard to discern. The base of tabletop Dungeons & Dragons players hadn’t grown appreciably for many years. Just the opposite, in fact: it’s doubtful whether even half as many people were actively playing Dungeons & Dragons in 1990 as at the height of the brief-lived fad for the game circa 1982. After the existing player base had dutifully rushed out to buy the new second-edition core books, in other words, very few new players were discovering the game and thus continuing to drive their sales. Unless and until they could find a way to change that situation, the only way for TSR to survive was to keep generating gobs of new product to sell to their existing players. Luckily for them, hardcore Dungeons & Dragons players were tremendously loyal and tremendously dedicated to their hobby. Many would buy virtually everything TSR put out, even things that were highly unlikely ever to make it to their gaming tables, just out of curiosity and to keep up with the state of the art, as it were. It would take two or three years for players to start to evince some fatigue with the sheer volume of product pouring out of TSR’s Lake Geneva offices, much of it sorely lacking in play-testing and basic quality control, and to start giving large swathes of it a miss — and that, in turn, would spell major danger for TSR’s bottom line.
Lorraine Williams wasn’t unaware of the trap TSR’s static customer base represented; on the contrary, she recognized as plainly as anyone that TSR needed to expand into new markets if it was to have a bright long-term future. She made various efforts in that direction even as her company sustained itself by flooding the hardcore Dungeons & Dragons market. In fact, the SSI computer games might be described as one of these efforts — but even those, successful as they were on their own terms, were still playing at least partially to that same old captive market. In 1989, Williams opened a new TSR office on the West Coast in an attempt to break the company out of its nerdy ghetto. Run by Flint Dille, Williams’s brother, one of TSR West’s primary goals was to get Dungeons & Dragons onto television screens or, better yet, onto movie screens. Williams was ironically pursuing the same chimera that her predecessor Gary Gygax — now her sworn, lifetime arch-enemy — had so zealously chased. She was even less successful at it than he had been. Whereas Gygax had managed to get a Saturday morning cartoon on the air for a few seasons, Flint Dille’s operation managed bupkis in three long years of trying.
Another possible ticket to the mainstream, to be pursued every bit as seriously in Hollywood as a Dungeons & Dragons deal, was Buck Rogers, the source of the shared fortune of Lorraine Williams and Flint Dille. Their grandfather had been John F. Dille, owner of a newspaper syndicator known as the National Newspaper Service. In this capacity, the elder Dille had discovered the character that would become Buck Rogers — at the time, he was known as Anthony Rogers — in Armageddon 2419 A.D., a pulp novella written by Philip Francis Nowlan and published in Amazing Stories in 1928. Dille himself had come up with the nickname of “Buck” for the lead character, and convinced Nowlan to turn his adventures in outer space into a comic strip for his syndicator. It ended up running from 1929 until 1967 — only the first ten of those years under the stewardship of Nowlan — and was also turned into very popular radio and movie serials during the 1930s, the height of the character’s popularity. Having managed to secure all of the rights to Buck from a perhaps rather naive Nowlan, John Dille and his family profited hugely.
In marked contrast to her attitude toward TSR’s other intellectual properties, Lorraine Williams’s determination to return Buck Rogers to the forefront of pop culture was apparently born as much from a genuine passion for her family’s greatest legacy as it was from the dispassionate calculus of business. In addition to asking TSR West to lobby — once again fruitlessly, as it would transpire — for a Buck Rogers revival on television or film, she pushed a new RPG through the pipeline, entitled Buck Rogers XXVc and published in 1990. TSR supported the game fairly lavishly for several years in an attempt to get it to take off, releasing source books, adventure modules, and tie-in novels to little avail. With all due deference to Buck Roger’s role as a formative influence on Star Wars among other beloved contemporary properties, in the minds of the Dungeons & Dragons generation it was pure cheese, associated mainly with the Dille family’s last attempt to revive the character, the hilariously campy 1979 television series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. The game might have had a chance with some players had Williams been willing to recognize the cheese factor and let her designers play it up, but taken with a straight face? No way.
SSI as well was convinced — or coerced — to adapt the Gold Box engine from fantasy to science fiction for a pair of Buck Rogers computer games, 1990’s Countdown to Doomsday and 1992’s Matrix Cubed. SSI’s designers must have breathed a sigh of relief when they saw that the rules for the Buck Rogers tabletop RPG, much more so than any of TSR’s previous non-Dungeons & Dragons RPGs, had been based heavily on those of the company’s flagship game; thus the process of adaptation wasn’t quite so onerous as it might otherwise have been. That said, most agree that the end results are markedly less interesting than the other Gold Box games when it comes to combat, the very thing at which the engine normally excels; a combat system designed to include magic becomes far less compelling in its absence. Benefiting doubtless from its association with the Dungeons & Dragons Gold Box line, for which enthusiasm remained fairly high, the first Buck Rogers game sold a relatively healthy 51,528 copies; the second managed a somewhat less healthy 38,086 copies.
All of these competing interests do much to explain why TSR, after involving themselves so closely in the development of Pools of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds, withdrew from the process almost entirely after those games and just left SSI to it. And that fact in turn is yet one more important reason why the Gold Box games not only failed to evolve but actually devolved in many ways. TSR’s design staff might not have had a great understanding of computer technology, but they did understand their settings and rules, and had pushed SSI to try to inject at least a little bit of what made for a great tabletop-role-playing experience into the computer games. Absent that pressure, SSI was free to fall back on what they did best — which meant, true to their war-game roots, lots and lots of combat. In both Pool and Curse, random encounters cease on most maps after you’ve had a certain number of them — ideally, just before they get boring. Tellingly, in Secret of the Silver Blades and most of the other later Gold Box games that scheme is absent. The monsters just keep on coming, ad infinitum.
Despite lukewarm reviews that were now starting to voice some real irritation with the Gold Box line’s failure to advance, Secret of the Silver Blades was another huge hit, selling 167,214 copies. But, in an indication that some of those who purchased it were perhaps disappointed enough by the experience not to continue buying Gold Box games, it would be the last of the line to break the 100,000-copy barrier. The final game in the Pool of Radiance series, Pools of Darkness, sold just 52,793 copies upon its release in 1991.
In addition to the four-game Pool series, SSI also released an alternate trilogy of Dungeons & Dragons Gold Box games set in Krynn, the world of the Dragonlance setting. Champions of Krynn was actually released before Secret of the Silver Blades, in January of 1990, and sold 116,693 copies; Death Knights of Krynn was released in 1991 and sold 61,958 copies; and The Dark Queen of Krynn, the very last Gold Box game, was released in 1992 and sold 40,640 copies. Another modest series of two games was developed out-of-house by Beyond Software (later to be renamed Stormfront Studios): Gateway to the Savage Frontier (1991, 62,581 copies sold) and Treasures of the Savage Frontier (1992, 31,995 copies sold). In all, then, counting the two Buck Rogers games but not counting the oddball Hillsfar, SSI released eleven Gold Box games over a period of four years.
While Secret of the Silver Blades still stands as arguably the line’s absolute nadir in design terms, the sheer pace at which SSI pumped out Gold Box games during the latter two years of this period in particular couldn’t help but give all of them a certain generic, interchangeable quality. It all began to feel a bit rote — a bit cheap, in stark contrast to the rarefied atmosphere of a Big Event that had surrounded Pool of Radiance, a game which had been designed and marketed to be a landmark premium product and had in turn been widely perceived as exactly that. Not helping the line’s image was the ludicrous knockoff-Boris Vallejo cover art sported by so many of the boxes, complete with lots of tawny female skin and heaving bosoms. Susan Manley has described the odd and somewhat uncomfortable experience of being a female artist asked to draw this sort of stuff.
They pretty much wanted everybody [female] to be the chainmail-bikini babes, as we called them. I said, “Look, not everybody wants to be a chainmail-bikini babe.” They said, “All the guys want that, and we don’t have very many female players.” I said, “You’re never going to have female players if you continue like this. Functional armor that would actually protect people would play a little bit better.”
Tom [Wahl, SSI’s lead artist] and I actually argued over whether my chest size was average or not, which was an embarrassing conversation to have. He absolutely thought that everybody needed to look like they were stepping out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog if they were female. I said, “Gee, how come all the guys don’t have to be super-attractive?” They don’t look like they’re off of romance-novel covers, let’s put it that way. They get to be rugged, they get to be individual, they get to all have different costumes. They get to all have different hairstyles, but the women all had to have long, flowing locks and lots of cleavage.
By 1991, the Gold Box engine was beginning to seem rather like a relic from technology’s distant past. In a sense, the impression was literally correct. When SSI had begun to build the Gold Box engine back in 1987, the Commodore 64 had still ruled the roost of computer gaming, prompting SSI to make the fateful decision not only to make sure the Gold Box games could run on that sharply limited platform, but also to build most of their development tools on it. Pool of Radiance then appeared about five minutes before the Commodore 64’s popularity imploded in the face of Nintendo. The Gold Box engine did of course run on other platforms, but it remained throughout its life subject to limitations born of its 8-bit origins — things like the aforementioned maps of exactly 16 by 16 squares and the strict bounds on the amount of custom scripting that could be included on a single one of those maps. Even as the rest of the industry left the 8-bit machines behind in 1989 and 1990, SSI was reluctant to do so in that the Commodore 64 still made up a major chunk of Gold Box sales: Curse of the Azure Bonds sold 68,622 copies on the Commodore 64, representing more than a third of its total sales, while Secret of the Silver Blades still managed a relatively healthy 40,425 Commodore 64 versions sold. Such numbers likely came courtesy of diehard Commodore 64 owners who had very few other games to buy in an industry that was moving more and more to MS-DOS as its standard platform. SSI was thus trapped for some time in something of a Catch-22, wanting to continue to reap the rewards of being just about the last major American publisher to support the Commodore 64 but having to compromise the experience of users with more powerful machines in order to do so.
When SSI finally decided to abandon the Commodore 64 in 1991, they did what they could to enhance the Gold Box engine to take advantage of the capabilities of the newer machines, introducing more decorative displays and pictures drawn in 256-color VGA along with some mouse support. Yet the most fundamental limitations changed not all; the engine was now aged enough that SSI wasn’t enthused about investing in a more comprehensive overhaul. And thus the Gold Box games seemed more anachronistic than ever. As SSI’s competitors worked on a new generation of CRPGs that took advantage of 32-bit processors and multi-megabyte memories, the Gold Box games remained the last surviving relics of the old days of 8 bits and 64 K. Looking at The Dark Queen of Krynn and the technical tour de force that was Origin’s Ultima VII side by side, it’s difficult to believe that the two games were released in the same year, much less that they were, theoretically at least, direct competitors.
It’s of course easy for us to look back today and say what SSI should have done. Instead of flooding the market with so many generic Gold Box games, they should have released just one game every year or eighteen months, each release reflecting a much more serious investment in writing and design as well as real, immediately noticeable technical improvements. They should, in other words, have strained to make every new Gold Box game an event like Pool of Radiance had been in its day. But this had never been SSI’s business model; they had always released lots of games, very few of which sold terribly well by the standard of the industry at large, but whose sales in the aggregate were enough to sustain them. When, beginning with Pool of Radiance, they suddenly were making hits by anybody’s standards, they had trouble adjusting their thinking to their post-Pool situation, had trouble recognizing that they could sell more units and make more money by making fewer but better games. Such is human nature; making such a paradigm shift would doubtless challenge any of us.
Luckily, just as the Gold Box sales began to tail off SSI found an alternative approach to Dungeons & Dragons on the computer from an unlikely source. Westwood Associates was a small Las Vegas-based development company, active since 1985, who had initially made their name doing ports of 8-bit titles to more advanced machines like the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST (among these projects had been ports of Epyx’s Winter Games, World Games, and California Games). What made Westwood unique and highly sought after among porters was their talent for improving their 8-bit source material enough, in terms of both audiovisuals and game play, that the end results would be accepted almost as native sons by the notoriously snobbish owners of machines like the Amiga. Their ambition was such that many publishers came to see the biggest liability of employing them as a tendency to go too far, to such an extent that their ports could verge on becoming new games entirely; for example, their conversion of Epyx’s Temple of Apshai on the Macintosh from turn-based to real-time play was rejected as being far too much of a departure.
Westwood first came to the attention of Gold Box fans when they were given the job of implementing Hillsfar, the stopgap “character training grounds” which SSI released between Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds. Far more auspicious were Westwood’s stellar ports of the mainline Gold Box games to the Amiga, which added mouse support and improved the graphics well before SSI’s own MS-DOS versions made the leap to VGA. But Brett Sperry and Louis Castle, Westwood’s founders, had always seen ports merely as a way of getting their foot in the door of the industry. Already by the time they began working with SSI, they were starting to do completely original games of their own for Electronic Arts and Mediagenic/Activision. (Their two games for the latter, both based on a board-game line called BattleTech, were released under the Infocom imprint, although the “real” Cambridge-based Infocom had nothing to do with them.) Westwood soon convinced SSI as well to let them make an original title alongside the implementation assignments: what must be the strangest of all the SSI Dungeons & Dragons computer games, a dragon flight simulator (!) called Dragon Strike. Released in 1990, it wasn’t quite an abject flop but neither was it a hit, selling 34,296 copies. With their next original game for SSI, however, Westwood would hit pay dirt.
Eye of the Beholder was conceived as Dungeons & Dragons meets Dungeon Master, bringing the real-time first-person game play of FTL’s seminal 1987 dungeon crawl to SSI’s product line. In a measure of just how ahead-of-its-time Dungeon Master had been in terms not only of technology but also of fundamental design, nothing had yet really managed to equal it over the three years since its release. Eye of the Beholder arguably didn’t fully manage that feat either, but it did at the very least come closer than most other efforts — and of course it had the huge advantage of the Dungeons & Dragons license. When a somewhat skeptical SSI sent an initial shipment of 20,000 copies into the distribution pipeline in February of 1991, “they all disappeared” in the words of Joel Billings: “We put them out and boom!, they were gone.” Eye of the Beholder went on to sell 129,234 copies, nicely removing some of the sting from the slow commercial decline of the Gold Box line and, indeed, finally giving SSI a major Dungeons & Dragons hit that wasn’t a Gold Box game. The inevitable sequel, released already in December of 1991, sold a more modest but still substantial 73,109 copies, and a third Eye of the Beholder, developed in-house this time at SSI, sold 50,664 copies in 1993. The end of the line for this branch of the computerized Dungeons & Dragons family came with the pointless Dungeon Hack, a game that, as its name implies, presented its player with an infinite number of generic randomly generated dungeons to hack her way through; it sold 27,110 copies following its release at the end of 1993.
Despite their popularity in their heyday, the Eye of the Beholder games in my view have aged less gracefully than their great progenitor Dungeon Master, or for that matter even the early Gold Box games. If what you wished for more than anything when playing Dungeon Master was lots more — okay, any — story and lore to go along with the mapping, the combat, and the puzzles, these may be just the games for you. For the rest of us, though, the Dungeons & Dragons rules make for an awkward fit to real-time play, especially in contrast to Dungeon Master‘s designed-from-scratch-for-real-time systems of combat, magic, and character development. The dungeon designs and even the graphics similarly underwhelm; Eye of the Beholder looks a bit garish today in contrast to the clean minimalism of Dungeon Master. The world would have to wait more than another year, until the release of Ultima Underworld, to see a game that truly and comprehensively improved on the model of Dungeon Master. In the meantime, though, the Eye of the Beholder games would do as runners-up for folks who had played Dungeon Master and its sequel and still wanted more, or for those heavily invested in the Dungeons & Dragons rules and/or the Forgotten Realms setting.
For SSI, the sales of the Eye of the Beholder games in comparison to those of the latest Gold Box titles provided all too clear a picture of where the industry was trending. Players were growing tired of the Gold Box games; they hungered after faster-paced CRPGs that were prettier to look at and easier to control. While Eye of the Beholder was still high on the charts, TSR and SSI agreed to extend their original five-year contract, which was due to expire on January 1, 1993, by eighteen months to mid-1994. The short length of the extension may be indicative of growing doubts on the part of TSR about SSI’s ability to keep up with the competition in the CRPG market; one might see it as a way of putting them on notice that the TSR/SSI partnership was by no means set in stone for all time. At any rate, a key provision of the extension was that SSI must move beyond the fading Gold Box engine, must develop new technology to suit the changing times and to try to recapture those halcyon early days when Pool of Radiance ruled the charts and the world of gaming was abuzz with talk of Dungeons & Dragons on the computer. Accordingly, SSI put a bow on the Gold Box era in March of 1993 with the release of Unlimited Adventures, a re-packaging of their in-house development tools that would let diehard Gold Box fans make their own games to replace the ones SSI would no longer be releasing. It sold just 32,362 copies, but would go on to spawn a loyal community of adventure-makers that to some extent still persists to this day. As for what would come next for computerized Dungeons & Dragons… well, that’s a story for another day.
By way of wrapping up today’s story, I should note that my take on the Gold Box games, while I believe it dovetails relatively well with the consensus of the marketplace at the time, is by no means the only one in existence. A small but committed group of fans still loves these games — yes, all of them — for their approach to tactical combat, which must surely mark the most faithful implementation of the tabletop game’s rules for same ever to make it to the computer. “It’s hard to imagine a truly bad game being made with it,” says blogger Chester Bolingbroke — better known as the CRPG Addict — of the Gold Box engine. (Personally, I’d happily nominate Secret of the Silver Blades for that designation.)
Still, even the Gold Box line’s biggest fans will generally acknowledge that the catalog is very front-loaded in terms of innovation and design ambition. For those of you like me who aren’t CRPG addicts, I highly recommend Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds, which together let you advance the same party of characters just about as far as remains fun under the Dungeons & Dragons rules, showing off the engine at its best in the process. If the Gold Box games that came afterward wind up a bit of an anticlimactic muddle, we can at least still treasure those two genuine classics. And if you really do want more Gold Box after playing those two, Lord knows there’s plenty of it out there, enough to last most sane people a lifetime. Just don’t expect any of it to quite rise to the heights of the first games and you’ll be fine.
(Sources: This article is largely drawn from the collection of documents that Joel Billings donated to the Strong Museum of Play, which includes lots of internal SSI documents and some press clippings. Also, the book Designers & Dragons Volume 1 by Shannon Appelcline; Computer Gaming World of September 1989; Retro Gamer 52 and 89; Matt Barton’s video interviews with Joel Billings, Susan Manley, and Dave Shelley and Laura Bowen.
Many of the Gold Box games and the Eye of the Beholder trilogy are available for purchase from GOG.com.)
S. John Ross
March 31, 2017 at 4:00 pm
“As they had for Pool, they provided for Curse an official tie-in novel …”
As I understand it, the Azure Bonds novel (and its two sequels) was a thing developed independently by wife-and-husband team Novak & Grubb, which was then adapted to the module and (kind of) sequelized/tangentized by the computer game (which takes place after the novel but which isn’t an adaptation of the novel’s actual sequel, either).
Given their close release dates, it seems likely the SSI project was off the ground very early in the sequence, but I don’t think Azure Bonds was literally written as a tie-in to Curse of the Azure Bonds. I would also note that it’s MAYBE a less-painful read than you’d expect; Grubb, beyond just being one of the groovier game designers in pen-and-paper history, actually slings some decent prose (he’s also easy to find if you want to tag him in for comment: http://grubbstreet.blogspot.com/)
April 1, 2017 at 7:18 am
I appreciate the additional detail, but I’m still fairly comfortable calling it a “tie-in novel.” The projects were obviously coordinated to a considerable degree, given, as you say, their release dates if nothing else.
April 1, 2017 at 11:19 pm
Yeah, Azure Bonds was actually one of the better D&D novels from TSR. Granted, that’s not a high bar — it suffered, as most of them did, from the occasional passages that could really have used a better copy-editor, and the requirement to shoehorn the characters and plot into the framework of the Dungeons and Dragons system made things awkward. That said, it was heavy on good character development and didn’t rely on the lazy archetypes that so many of its fellow TSR novels did. Surprisingly feminist for its time, too — the protagonist was a tough, independent female character who kicked a wide variety of ass, and nobody in the world finds that fact unusual or even mentions gender as an issue.
All of this is tangential to the game, of course. Three of the characters from the novel (Alias, Dragonbait, Akabar) show up in the game, but they’re mostly just cardboard cut-outs who spout overdone dialogue and flail around at the direction of the Gold Box’s indescribably bad AI programming. It’s difficult to describe just how bad the friendly AI in these games was. They’d waste turns for no perceptible reason, run suicidally into huge groups of enemies, or drop fireballs at their feet and kill themselves and you in the process. It wasn’t a big deal in Pool of Radiance, where the companions were just random schmucks you could hire off the street, but in Curse you’d have to drag these useless gits around for hours, protecting them from themselves as best you could.
April 2, 2017 at 2:38 pm
Ok, so totally off topic, but I remember being at my local RPG store (Mind Games in Sydney, Australia, if anyone remembers that) back in the day at the tender age of 10 or 11, and hearing someone say “A novel by Gary Gygax! He must be a good author if he can write such good games!”. Even at that age the…fallacies of that particular statement were obvious.
S. John Ross
April 7, 2017 at 8:05 pm
I confess I’ve never read it, myself, but I have trouble with fantasy unless it’s done for chuckles (I can read Discworld novels, but I can’t choke Tolkien down) … but I’ve read a fair bit of Grubb otherwise, and I’ve always found him a sound writer.
June 1, 2020 at 1:59 am
I always had Akabar forget all his combat spells, just equipping him with darts. Hey, maybe he’d do a couple points of damage every once an a while! But, usually not.
We used to call him Akabar Bel Dumbass instead of Akabar Bel Akash. We were in 7th grade, so we thought that was pretty clever.
It’s not clear why the monster AI wasn’t as bad. Was it different? Maybe it wasn’t, but they always made monsters immune to their own spells?
June 13, 2022 at 5:25 pm
I didn’t care for the first and third novels in the trilogy, but I absolutely love the second one (“The Wyvern’s Spur”). It is tongue-in-cheek and hilarious, but the pacing and story are wonderful too. I think it is probably my favorite of all the TSR novels. :D
March 31, 2017 at 4:52 pm
Another you didn’t mention was Heroes of the Lance. This was a side-scrolling action game and I actually quite enjoyed it (played both the DOS version at home and the Amiga version at a friend’s place).
April 1, 2017 at 7:19 am
Actually mentioned that one in an earlier article: https://www.filfre.net/2016/03/opening-the-gold-box-part-3-from-tabletop-to-desktop/.
March 31, 2017 at 5:15 pm
Secret of the Silver Blades was definitely a low point in the Gold Box experience for me. I mostly watched a friend play it, because even the starting region was too much of a slog. He gave up on traditional mapping by the time he reached the glacier tunnels, instead drawing abstract branching lines because they were mostly straight passages with a few branches here and there. Watching him play Pools of Darkness was simply absurd: it wasn’t uncommon to have a character or two killed outright or even disintegrated in the course of a fight, but the characters were of such a high level that bringing them back was simply a matter of finding a safe-flagged square and hitting the ‘Fix’ button.
I did like the Savage Frontier games, and the Buck Rogers ones, because it felt like SSI was still trying to do something new with them. One of the Savage Frontier games had an internal three-colour encryption scheme for the bad guys’ plans that you could interact with (and had to make some small degree of tactical planning to capture the ciphers for– three different groups had the glass deciphering devices, and you needed to focus fire on one member of one group to capture one before they could smash it). The second had a romance script that would fire for your party leader, which was interesting and had some randomized branching, but was unfortunately mostly non-interactive.
Buck Rogers mostly ditched the magic systems, reskinning fireballs as a few flavours of rocket launcher and things like that. It experimented with tactical nuance some as well, by including a handful of grenades that left lingering effects on the tactical map that would interfere with one variety of ranged weapon or another. Nothing shut down a rocket launcher though.
April 1, 2017 at 7:25 am
I wanted to write something in the article about the problems of Pools of Darkness as well, but it was just getting too unwieldy to shoehorn in.
Everyone on both sides is so powerful in that game that most of the fights turn into a quick-draw contest; whoever wins initiative and fires off spells/special attacks first is going to devastate the other side and win. This means that if you played honest all the way from Pool of Radiance — i.e., didn’t edit your players’ statistics — you’re almost guaranteed to find yourself with an unworkable party when you get to Pools of Darkness. The only way to have a realistic chance in that game is if everyone in your party has a dexterity of 18 (or better) — or if you’re willing to reload every single fight endlessly waiting for the initiative dice to roll your way. It’s a horrible thing to do to SSI’s most loyal players.
March 31, 2017 at 7:00 pm
I believe that Westwood did most of the heavy lifting on most platforms’ versions of Hillsfar, so the relationship between the two companies goes a little earlier than the WW original D&D titles.
FRUA is one way to cap off the story of the Gold Box games, but the story isn’t truly complete until you acknowledge the original Neverwinter Nights on AOL. (And if you are done with the Eye of the Beholders also — I can’t imagine you have much more to say about them — that particular thread is best concluded with a tip of the hat to Dungeon Hack, for unlimited randomly-generated EOB-style dungeons.)
April 1, 2017 at 7:44 am
Good catch on Hillsfar and Dungeon Hack. Made some edits. Thanks!
I do plan to talk about Neverwinter Nights a little later, in the context of the commercial online services that were very popular in the immediate pre-Internet era of the very early 1990s and the online games that were available on them.
March 31, 2017 at 7:43 pm
I actually never played any of the D&D Gold Box games, but I somehow came across the Buck Rogers games back when I was a kid. (Might have actually been on some kind of game trading bulletin board, if I remember correctly).
I’ve played both “Countdown to Doomsday” and “Matrix Cubed” numerous times over the years. Definitely classics to me :)
March 31, 2017 at 7:44 pm
s/afterword/afterward/ in the penultimate paragraph.
April 1, 2017 at 7:45 am
March 31, 2017 at 8:23 pm
Small typo: remove the OF from “and The Dark OF Queen of Krynn,”.
April 1, 2017 at 7:46 am
March 31, 2017 at 10:42 pm
While it is a little off topic, I’ve always felt that Lorraine Williams’s pushing of the Buck Rogers license was motivated much more by the fact that a large chunk of any royalties paid went into her pocket than any other ambition.
April 1, 2017 at 7:50 am
It’s possible — I certainly can’t get inside her head — but, especially given that Lorraine Williams is normally extended the benefit of no doubt whatsoever, I’m willing to bend a little in the other direction and assume there may have been some real affection for the property there as well.
April 1, 2017 at 12:31 am
I guess I’m one of the few who dug what Secret of the Silver Blades was doing with the map to discourage exhaustive exploration. In the previous two games, the paragraph book occasionally contained map fragments showing where important things were located, but they were never particularly useful, because you were going to search every square regardless. SotSB breaks that habit. You don’t want to map out every single square of labyrinth yourself. Consequently, maps that you find are genuinely useful, showing the way to things you wouldn’t be able to find without them.
April 1, 2017 at 7:57 am
I do think it was trying to do something interesting along those lines, but it did so a little half-heartedly and ineptly. The process of methodical square-by-square mapping had become so ingrained in players that the game needed to clearly signal to them that they *weren’t* expected to touch every square in case something vital was there. Maybe something as blunt as a boldface disclaimer in the manual saying “this game uses a different approach” would have worked if the designers couldn’t find a more elegant way of conveying the message. As it is, there’s a disconnect between the game Silver Blades thinks it is and the game players, conditioned by years and years of experience, try to play.
This was another of those things that just wouldn’t fit elegantly into an already lengthy article. ;)
April 1, 2017 at 10:47 am
A couple of things stuck out for me in the text.
“the engine was now aged enough that SSI wasn’t enthused about investing in a more comprehensive overhaul”
I suppose a completely new engine can’t be considered a ‘comprehensive overhaul’ of an existing one but it’s definitely a bit of an investment to say the least. The new engine meant to replace the gold box one was already in development well before the last gold box games came out and a lot of resources were being poured into it too. At least I get the impression from the article that SSI was blissfully unaware of the problems with their aging technology which I just don’t think was the case. It didn’t quite work out of course but that’s different. :)
“a third Eye of the Beholder, developed in-house this time at SSI using Westwood’s engine”
The engine used for EOB3 was AESOP/16 which has nothing to do with Westwood. Westwood went on to use their engine in the first Lands of Lore around the same time to compete directly with SSI’s new offering.
April 1, 2017 at 12:16 pm
On your first point: I’m going to leave this alone right now, as I’d rather reserve what came next for another article and not muck this one up further with those details.
Your second point, however, is very well taken. Edits made.
April 1, 2017 at 12:30 pm
I thought that might be the case for the first point, but still… well, I suppose I belong in the group who just loves these games. That said, I enjoyed the article and I do agree with the main points. Looking forward to reading more on the subject.
April 1, 2017 at 2:48 pm
I appreciate the Buck Rogers SSI entries for trying to take the engine to a distinct new place: the addition of skillsets and the space-battle aspects were certainly reasonable attempts to break out of the mold to an extent none of the other games did (the Dragonlance stories added a number of character-build and strategy aspects which were ultimately pointless and/or troublesome: the new Knight class was basically a slight tweak on paladins, the robe-color system for magic simply made every mage weaker, and the bonus spells associated with moon phase simply encouraged waiting around for the right phase to study. Pretty much the only change which was remotely interesting from a strategic standpoint was the choice of clerical patron).
I’m not sure I’d describe the Buck Rogers games as necessarily a success but they were definitely at least an attempt to do something interesting.
April 1, 2017 at 3:27 pm
Minor typo “it sold 27,1110 copies”.
April 1, 2017 at 3:41 pm
April 3, 2017 at 2:06 pm
As both a CRPG and tabletop RPG player at the time, I definitely agree with your overall take on this series. Pool and Curse were good games, and the Forgotten Realms setting was still fairly fresh. They also were seen (at least in my gaming circle) as some of the last truly “must-buy” titles for the C64, which was largly being replaced by the Amiga for us by that time. But after Curse, I pretty much lost interest, as the whole Second Edition thing seemed kind of lame, and AD&D itself was getting passe. We had moved on to games like Warhammer and Call of Cthulhu by then (as teenage metalheads, that stuff was irresistible!). So yeah, I pretty much just ignored the latter Gold Box releases, and skipped to Beholder, which I also found a bit unsatisfactory. I never realized the diehard following this series had until decades later (CRPG Addict, etc.). When we would reminisce about the legendary CRPG series of our youth, it was always Ultima, Wizardry, Might & Magic, Bard’s Tale, even Phantasie. The Gold Box stuff would rarely come up. They were popular, but never seemed as “epochal” to me…
June 1, 2020 at 2:14 am
Yeah, I was going to remark along these lines. The AD&D rules themselves were archaic at this point, with generations of pencil and paper RPG rulesets having learned from the mistakes of their forebear (but made new mistakes, too [and some of the same mistakes]).
In particular, the progression curve was tortuous, especially, as you say, post-Fireball. Very nice to say you should build a castle and gain followers, but that’s a pretty different game than the one I was just playing. Also, not a very good one.
April 3, 2017 at 4:57 pm
Wow. Looking at those sales numbers made me feel sad that so few people got to experience those fun games at the time they were released. I would be very curious to see how they have sold on GOG.com. I would bet some have sold more than the original release.
April 4, 2017 at 3:57 am
Well, keep in mind that the number of sales isn’t directly representative of the number of people of ended up _playing_ it (cough cough).
April 9, 2017 at 10:03 am
And another thing: When I first started playing it was the first CRPG me or my friends had seen, but we all had played plenty of tabletop RPGs at that point. So it was natural to us to sit down together in front of a single computer and create one character each and play together. I think we did that for several months. I remember playing alone or with one friend and just having a party of one or two characters. Eventually we realised that it worked better to have a party made up of more characters than players. But perhaps most people were clever enough to not be that many, but being two playing together must have been common, for the mapping.
April 4, 2017 at 12:08 am
This is why people who are not fans of a genre/subgenre simply should NOT EVER be reviewing them. This is simply the most abysmal article I have ever read, On top of that there is just an unreality to this article that is hard to conceive of where almost everything in it is the opposite of reality. Ultimately it reads like it came from someone who never played those games but simply looked at some old reviews and strung some BS together using other people’s minor bitching and then presenting it as if it were serious, carefully considered review of the actual games.
First off, by ANY measure the gold box series was highly successful and produced more quality games than virtually any other series ever produced. Not even Ultima and wizardry series put out as many QUALITY games as SSI did. This is the appropriate benchmark to for their success, the series of RPGs that actually overlap them – in fact they both lasted longer than the gold box series in at least some form, though much degraded by then.
Putting out actual GAMES and not shoveling the pathetic content of some hack writers backed up by a hugely expensive art and VO staff into our faces is also something that is missing today. What’s the real RPG? The garbage today that you forget ten minutes later or the RPGs from the golden age like this? As I said, this is what happens when you have someone evaluating a subgenre that obviously simply does not like it or understand it.
That said I will go point for point.
1. Silver blades as a nadir. What nonsense. There is absolutely nothing ‘excruciating’ about the game. Sounds like this is taken directly out of a Scorpia review, a reviewer who loved to complain about combat in games and also did not really belong as a reviewer for a game like this. She also complained massively about Darklands as well, Might & Magic and basically every RPG of the time. Basically it was like my mom writing reviews of the game, and honestly this article seems like it is just a cut and paste of the silly complaints she had – except accentuated much more than they originally were.
Silver Blades was not lacking in content WHATSOEVER. Contentwise it is actually one of my favorites of the series, surpassed only by the krynn modules and the amazing Pools of Darkness. The real dog of the series is the boring boring slog of the savage frontier series. It’s just boring and there really is just not enough content. It also railroads you a great deal.
2. Boring sexism trope. Another Scorpia annoyance/hilarity. I am sure these great covers sold a LOT of copies. When christians complain about nudity etc. it’s evil puritanism, but if we call it sexism then it is virtual eye rape. People want to be better than their reality, in awesome situations. So you see great covers like the M&M 7 cover with buff guys and beautiful women fighting a dragon. This is not eye candy for the men so much as it is supposed to present an alter ego for both men and women, and to show exotic locations and monsters to face. Amazing cover. Again, if you don’t appreciate this BASIC IDEA behind the appeal of RPGs, then really RPGs are simply not for you.
3. Complaints about less detailed encounters and special squares and games falling flat in comparison to the original. First off, the main nice thing of an outside map allowing you to actually EXPLORE is something that this article complains about. Again, obviously the wrong guy to be doing a review of an RPG like this.
Secondly, there is not really any meat in the plot to POR in spite of lots of little details. Did you really play these games even? The strength is the exploration and not some overarching story that forces you on and on from point to point. This is nice, because it allows you to concentrate on exploring and looting areas instead of feeling like someone watching a tv show like in today’s games, but it’s simply untrue to claim the game is more epic than anything that followed or that is has more story related content. Sure there are more handcrafted encounters…with endless orcs on and on and on. Really the best part is the beginning bit clearing the city and then they really should have streamlined things a bit from there, if anything.
At the same time though there is just not all that much main story content, so I can’t imagine what game the author was playing to come up with this. In most of the other games there is a very clear start to a plot, ie something happens, and it actually involves the characters.
4. TSR criticism. What’s the point of this? It is made out like some huge mistakes were made, but fails to deliver. I don’t think that is in any way supportable. Lots of great products were made, and products like Dark Sun and Spelljammer were AMAZING. You can’t force hollywood to make lots of movies on your IP, you will probably have to raise the millions yourself to do that. If it were so easy then we would see thousands of movies from people who kept their own IP instead of giving it away to some studio.
5. Gygax writing criticism. Yes, writing styles like HP Lovecraft and Robert E Howard is terrible compared to second edition writing or generic awful fantasy writer of today. Again, wrong guy basically. If you can’t appreciate Gygax’s writing then obviously you don’t understand the basic flavor and experience that DnD was trying to impart. THIS is what made it initially so popular. TSR struggled to maintain this once Gygax was gone, but they still came up with lots of good new material. Unlike today where it is all pure garbage both in content and in mechanics.
6. Praising westwood. First off they made the terrible hillsfar already complained about earlier in the article. Perhaps if someone else made it it would have been decent. More importantly EOB series was a gimmick, and it never spawned much followup, and the sequels suffer much more from the complaints about sameyness and lack of content than the followups to POR. EOB 1 was good. The followups were bland and pointless and easily forgotten, and ultimately there’s just not enough meat to the gameplay to warrant playing a dozen games in the same vein no matter how good the writing and puzzles are.
7. High level DnD play meme. This annoying meme is very out of place here, especially using it to talk about 10+ level characters. This is really a 3rd edition issue, and in 1st and 2nd edition issues it does not really have the same impact. In 3rd ed your spellcasters become so ridiculously OP that it is just an exercise in sillyness. It is not a comment on getting less relative power advancement per level which obviously is the case when you reach 40th level as compared to 2nd level. Only in POD do you max out at super high levels, but there is more than enough challenge the whole game through in 2nd edition, because mages are always vulnerable to things like silence, breaking concentration and so on while these mechanics don’t really matter in 3rd edition.
8. Buck rogers criticism. So ‘most people agree’ combat is much less interesting? As I said, this sounds like it’s compiled from other sources or something. Buck Rogers games were GREAT. Combat is actually quite interesting, especially after you have played half a dozen Gold Box games already and are getting tired of the same combat system. There’s lots of interesting skills and attributes in Buck Rogers series, and quite a bit of tactics needed to make it through the harder battles. Chaff, zero G manuevering skill, jetpacks, rocket launchers and heat guns – who could ask for anything more out of a sci-fi rpg? Indeed no other one has managed to EVER deliver such tactical combat. TSR ‘coercing’ SSI to make these games was one of the best things to ever happen in computer gaming!
April 4, 2017 at 6:19 am
As noted, “a small but committed group of fans still loves these games.” ;)
But seriously, thanks for providing some perspective on what hardcore fans see in these games, even if your points would have come off better with a less overheated tone and without the obsession with inclusion and exclusion. “People want to be better than their reality, in awesome situations” — a very insightful read on the appeal of these games.
April 4, 2017 at 2:52 pm
On the subject of covers portraying people being better than themselves, in awesome situations, and on representation of women toward that end, I found this piece by an art director for a SF/F publisher very illuminating. As you can see she’s not categorically opposed to cleavage and even nudity (oh yeah–some NSFW stuff well down the page), but there’s a difference between the sexy person people of that gender want to be and the sexy person people who like that gender want to, well, do. As she says, “My problem wasn’t with a character being sexy. I had a problem when the things that made them sexy were in direct contradiction to how strong or smart they were. It made them feel less real, and harder for me to fit myself into.”
I’m not a woman or an art director, but my guess is that the Azure Bonds cover would have that problem–the woman is supposed to be a strong warrior but she’s wearing armor that exposes her heart. And of course there’s the quote from Susan Manley–on the question of whether these pictures present an alter ego for women, are you really going to set yourself up as more of an expert than the woman who was drawing the pictures?
April 4, 2017 at 4:26 pm
It’s a made up controversy that goes back to the dawn of time. Hot women in general love to show off their bodies, and ugly women love to complain about it and either blame it on men or call them sluts. The fact is there is absolutely no consistency to feminism when viewed as a philosophy and as such it can be ignored as contradictory and hypocritical – everything normal is bad, and every aspect of culture would have to be horribly marred to please them. All for a group that’s simply not going to play your niche genre game anyway.
April 4, 2017 at 4:32 pm
Also I have to laugh that this is your example of sexism. A fully clothed woman with very businesslike look on her face.
Now if you want to talk about 100% realism – fine. Remove the woman completely or change her to a mage. But like I said the whole idea is being in an escapist fantasy. If you can’t understand the appeal of BEING Conan or Red Sonja, you simply will not understand the basic appeal of playing RPGs in the first place and are better off playing dragon age or something like that.
April 4, 2017 at 5:21 pm
Look, I didn’t expect you to listen to my point or to click through the link I supplied–if you start by dismissing the views of an actual woman who actually drew the pictures we’re talking about and actually said that these pictures would be off-putting to women and specifically said that not all women wanted to project themselves into that kind of picture, then you’re probably not going to listen to anyone else. My comment was more for the benefit of anyone else who might have been willing to explore the issue.
April 4, 2017 at 8:47 pm
Enraged, pedantic escapist-fantasy buff also turns out to be anti-feminist. What a twist.
April 4, 2017 at 10:08 pm
Yeah, I didn’t pay much attention to his crazy rant, but I think he said Scorpia was his mom. If it turns out that Shay Adams is his dad, it probably means he’s the CRPG Antichrist and the End Times are here…
“…and he shall burst forth from his parent’s basement in a fiery rage, pure virgin’s blood coming out of his wherever…”
April 5, 2017 at 6:18 am
Not all games have to be for women. Even porn is a valid and legal form of expression, like it or not. But one woman does not speak for all women. Every fashion mag in existence is full of more scantily clad women, and it’s women who pay for them.
And more importantly, you prove my point by the fact you respond only to this one point out of a large list. That RPG stuff does not matter to you, just promoting a political agenda.
April 5, 2017 at 8:02 am
It’s cute the way you imagine that you aren’t promoting a political agenda of your own.
April 10, 2017 at 10:25 pm
I have 8 points and a larger thesis of why this article is ridiculous. One of them points out a stupid political agenda. That is the ONLY point anyone here wants to discuss. Most of you obviously never even played these games and have no idea what you are talking about.
April 8, 2017 at 9:21 pm
Wow Jimmy ! Looks like , after many years , we at long last have our very own, bona-fide TROLL in this blog.
I guess a very ironic congratulation is in order : Jimmy , this means that you’re a finally reaching a “wider audience” with your blog.
Gosh, I’m going to miss the old days when only we “not-genre-fans” dared read your articles and post comments.
April 9, 2017 at 3:50 am
Troll implies insincerity which is not the case just because someone has a different opinion.
RPGs are a vast genre. Most people who think Skyrim is a great game have no business talking about Gold Box series, it’s just not something they are likely to understand.
April 5, 2017 at 5:43 am
This is truly amazing to me, and not in a good way. Posts here don’t generally attract this sort of toxic, gamergate-y rage. How the hell did this guy even find his way here?
April 5, 2017 at 6:15 am
Oh no, an actual gamer who played the games mentioned stumbled here.
April 5, 2017 at 8:00 am
A lot of us have played the games. Only one of us is behaving like a scary rage-monster about them.
April 5, 2017 at 6:24 am
“At this point, the guy kind of lost me, I mean at this point it becomes clear he’s an enormous fanboy of TSR that even tries to defend it against a fair observation about Gygax’s quixotically ambitious, ill-advised forays that ended in obvious failure. By the way, the author was absolutely right about the reason D&D at that point wasn’t suitable for movies – there aren’t even any established characters, what the hell is there to make a movie about? It would only be remotely possible later with the advent of settings like Dragonlance, Ravenloft, Faerun etc.”
I was talking about TSR AFTER gygax, which is when 2nd edition came, and buck rogers and so on.
Just like the gold box fizzled out in time, you can’t expect DnD to have become constantly huger each year ad nauseum. In both cases tons of good material came out, so complaining about it is like complaining that Star Trek: TNG “only” ran for 8 seasons.
And Gygax was snorting coke from a playboy model shortly before his death so can’t fault him too much for being a loser.
April 5, 2017 at 8:19 am
Are you replying to an RPG Codex comment… here?
April 22, 2022 at 12:37 pm
it isn’t a review, you strange man.
April 4, 2017 at 4:19 am
Man, I was in love with the Gold Box series as a kid but for various reasons never played much beyond Curse of the Azure Bonds and Champions of Krynn (Pool of Radiance was the first game I ever beat). Between this and the CRPGAddict’s reviews it looks like I got out at the right time.
Hell, the final dungeon in Curse having those bloody spiders that could poison and kill you in one hit was probably the best time to walk away, the final boss fight wasn’t that thrilling anyway!
September 23, 2019 at 6:38 pm
The only real tough fights that were worth fighting were both optional fights: beholder corps at Oxam’s Tower and the black dragon army on the red wizard’s tower.
April 5, 2017 at 12:39 am
You have a valid point on the dungeon design aspect of Eye of the Beholder, but man did my cousins and I love those games (1 & 2, not 3). As a 12 year old fan of D&D who had counted the Bard’s Tale among his favorite games, EOB (particularly EOB2, which was the first one I saw) seemed really really cool.
Of course, when it comes to D&D games, nothing matches the Infinity Engine games, but I imagine it’ll be quite a while before you write about those.
April 8, 2017 at 10:33 pm
Great read! I got the Goldbox AD&D CD in the mid 90’s, but have only completed the first three games. Pools of Darkness was so confusing I have tried to start playing it two or three times but just got lost and seemed to run into weird encounters in the wrong order like the designers did have some very specific route in mind for completing the game that I did not get. Tried to start over playing Pool of Radiance when I got the GoG version (instead of my old Goldbox AD&D cd collection), but I got fed up trying to win that troll fight and stopped playing. I did not remember it was that difficult. :)
Actually it sounds very good to me if Secret is the worst game, because I kind of enjoyed most of it that I remember. I only got through the ice mazes after reading a recommendation in some FAQ that you record the coordinates of all intersections and just draw lines between them, so the actual distance does not matter. After I started doing that, as I remember it from 20 years ago, it was not so difficult to navigate through the maze and finally get to the end of the game.
After reading this I’m actually thinking of starting with one of the other series, Gateway or Krynn. Can always get back to complete Pools of Darkness once I have completed all the other games, and at least it will feel a lot better to only have one of nine games remaining.
A friend had one of the Buck Rodger games on his Amiga. I actually thought it was pretty amazing as far as we got, with the environments and building up of atmosphere. But he disliked it for some reason so we stopped playing. Definitely on my list of RPGs to try sometime again.
April 9, 2017 at 9:13 am
The only thing to be done with the trolls, for what it’s worth, is to bypass them and come back later when your characters have hit level 4 or so. That bit is very much an aberration in an otherwise excellent design, so don’t let it put you off too much.
April 9, 2017 at 9:59 am
I just did not remember that they were that difficult, but I thin the first two attempts I made at that game (ca 1990) I was not very focused and ran around everywhere trying to clear places, so it might be that the trolls were encountered later. Now that I play I somehow still remember most of what happens in the Slums so I could fun around and pick off the important encounters at a good pace and ran into the trolls with a very fresh party.
One trick that I remember was that we eventually figured out that there are never (or almost never?) any random encounters in locations were something specific is programmed to happen. So if there is any text displayed or pre-programmed encounter with some enemies then that location is forever safe to rest for as long as you want to. I do not remember if that was the case in any of the other games after Pool of Radiance, or even in all areas of that game, but it definitely helps when it works. A bit cheesy perhaps.
Another thing I remembered was how annoying the password check when starting the game was. I ended up looking at the binary in a hex-editor and finding the answers in plain text and changing them all to DRAGON. My first and only crack. But the GoG version is of course already cracked for us, so that bit of information is rather useless now. I think the sequels had the answers encoded somehow, so that simple trick did not help in the other games.
Installed Gateway to the Savage Frontier last night anyway and look forward to play that instead. Reading the introduction in the Journal and it is good for understanding what the world is like, as the background embedded in the game tends to be limited. Perhaps something easy to overlook for many players today that are not used to there being anything of value in documentation outside of the game itself. I never played any (A)D&D either so I have no idea what Savage Frontier is or anything.
April 9, 2017 at 5:13 pm
“The only thing to be done with the trolls…” Reading the chronological RSS comments feed, I really thought this was a hilarious reply to a different comment!
April 10, 2017 at 7:22 am
Come to think of it, I find it is pretty good advice for life generally as well. ;)
April 12, 2017 at 1:54 am
“For the rest of us, though, the Dungeons & Dragons rules make for an awkward fit to real-time play, especially in contrast to Dungeon Master‘s designed-from-scratch-for-real-time systems of combat, magic, and character development.”
My thoughts exactly. I remember thinking it was so strange that there were RPGs saddled with rules that were designed with a table-top game in mind and that this was what gamers wanted. It fails to play to the strengths of the computer.
“And then, right after expending so much effort to clean things up, TSR proceeded to muddy the second-edition waters even more indiscriminately than they had those of the first edition. Every single character class got its own book, and players with a hankering to play Dungeons & Dragons as a Viking or one of Charlemagne’s paladins were catered to.”
To be fair, some of those books, such as the one for the Ninja class, did a VERY good job of fleshing it out. Come to think of it, playing as a viking in DND sounds pretty awesome too.
“Believe me, readers, I’ve done some painful things for this blog, but reading a Dungeons & Dragons novel was just a bridge too far…”
I’ve always thought it strange that there are DND novels when DND itself is supposed to be a way to live the adventures of characters like Conan the Barbarian, the Grey Mouser, and Bilbo Baggins. Reading those instead would seem a better way to experience DND in book form.
April 14, 2017 at 7:53 am
Quite the contrary, the benefit of computers is that they are able to handle complex tactical rules. Before multimedia gameplay was the only credible draw for a game.
The name of the company was Strategic Simulations, inc. not Digital Tales or something of that nature. In the article itself it states they were serving “a niche within a niche”. Which is what D&D of the time was, and what boardgames and wargames still are.
The entire article and most of the comments are just projecting today’s gaming and cultural fads backwards onto something that was designed for a much different experience and much different audience than the average mainstream console gamer of today.
January 11, 2019 at 1:22 am
Great write up, and also quite right when you commented on “C64 owners buying the goldbox line”.
I was just entering high school in 1990, and with my trusty breadbox C64 still doing all of the workload with no hope of getting a 16 bit machine (or higher) due to prices in Australia at the time, I looked on with dismay as more and more games stopped being ported to the C64. Many others around me were in similar predicaments, all badgering parents for a second hand Amiga 500 to no avail (at least yet). I snapped up every goldbox game I could get my hands on.
I daresay the huge drop in sales numbers reflects this when you look at the final GB games that were released with no C64 support (and even Treasures had no Amiga support!). So all of those were non starters to me and quite a few others that had their C64s. When I eventually got an Amiga 500 with memory expansion in 93, I found that its support, too, was going down the drain, but thankfully I had a huge backlog of cheap games to play through.
Other people I knew at the time had PCs, but they faced a different conundrum; Is the processor fast enough for ‘insert new awesome game name’? Do you have enough RAM? Is your video card up to the challenge? Have you bought the new Sound Blaster card? Does your monitor support XYZ?
I daresay if the goldbox games had kept coming for another year or two with C64 versions of decent quality, they would have garnered 50k plus sales for those as well. As you say, they had a great 8 bit engine that wasn’t doing it for any of the bling crowd with their souped up machines. Couple that with the admittedly lazy entries that snuck in to the franchise, and you have a recipe for decline.
June 1, 2020 at 7:41 am
I fully agree with what you say here. Having come by a C64 towards the end of its viability for studios but with a huge catalogue of old games for it, I yearned for an Amiga (which ironically I could have gotten for pretty much the same money but a cousin convinced my mom I would “only game with it,” a bold game given how little utility software existed for the C64 you could do anything with…).
And I would have played those Gold Box games would I have been able to get them. I played them years later, and I wonder how many played them with copies bought cheap in a bargain bin or traded with friends. Probably many people felt like I, wanting to finish what they started with “Pool”. And so I did when a friend loaned me them on PC.
As for the technical aspects of PC gaming – boy, that was abysmal. Fighting with having the wrong processor, too little memory, the wrong memory manager, building knowledge of several different memory managers for DOS just to play games – what an abysmal mess it was. And still is, else GOG.com would not have made such a sound business of lifting titles out of it. Trying to figure out why a “DOS Protected Mode” game was crapping out on me was surely frustrating!
And it never stopped. Trying to get DOS games to run on Win95. Trying to get Win95 games on later Windows. Trying to get a newer game to run but dealing with your graphics adapter lacking the right shader to make its effects happen…
It makes one miss the C64 and Amiga days. Stuff was more likely to work with more consolidated platforms. Being a PC gamer has always been about being a bit of a DIY expert in fixing stuff…
August 8, 2019 at 5:07 am
1. Dungeon Hack has little to do with EoB. It was written by DreamForge, the company that would later write Menzoberranzan and 2 Ravenlofts for SSI.
2. I talked with a lot of people, who favour EoB over DM. Many points of comparison mirror yours: tried-and-true game mechanics vs. “reinventing the wheel”, taking full advantage of 256-colour palette vs. dull and bleak sprites and so on. It all boils down to one thing: which game the reviewer played first.
October 1, 2019 at 9:33 pm
I haven’t read many of the D&D books, beyond those with Dragonlance or Drizzt Do’Urden on the cover. But, those two series alone make any bad, just done for money, D&D novels worth it. I highly recommend those two series. That is, as long as the Dragonlance books have Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman on the cover, some of the other books aren’t quite as good as theirs. RA Salvatore is the only author of the Forgotten Realms Drizzt books, as far as I know.
As for the computer games, EotB sounds like it’s in my “wheelhouse”, if it’s a Dungeon Crawler in the vein of Dungeon Master. I’ll have to check it out.
My experience with the D&D computer games doesn’t start until Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and the like. I hope you feature(d) them at some future date.
February 5, 2020 at 7:37 pm
“…but even those, successful as they on their own terms, were still playing at least partially to that same old captive market”.
Missing a “were” between “as” and “they”?
February 6, 2020 at 5:22 am
June 1, 2020 at 7:29 am
As a C64 owner that got his machine rather late – 1988, shortly before the market imploded – I was lucky enough to hit paydirt with some of the best games released for it. “Ultima V”, “Sid Meier’s Pirates!” and the Gold Box games, especially “Pool of Radiance” left a deep impression on me.
“Secret of the Silver Blades” indeed was a strong disappointment, I remember the game magazine I bought regularly calling it so, too. The fault with it wasn’t so much the failing to evolve the engine, it was more that it just consisted of “get the gems, spend the gems on ‘getting more dungeon,’ go back to the dungeon”.
“Pool of Radiance” had felt like exploring a corner of the world and participating in its history, at some point I would know every nook and cranny of Phlan. “Curse of the Azure Bonds” was exciting mainly for adding the Paladin and Ranger, somehow, even though its omission of an overland map felt like it shoe-horned the story much more. In spite of presenting some unique monsters like the Beholder it actually felt less compelling than “Pool” because “Pool” had so cleverly made new challenges of the same assets.
I played the rest of the Gold Box on PC when getting the games lent by a friend. “Pools of Darkness” felt really strong. They hit a note with the epic dimension befitting the finale, and it seemed to reintroduce the openness that “Secrets” had abandoned. In spite of letting us revisit Phlan, it however felt like a grand “Curse” remake in hindsight. I remember the frustrating hours of being lost in the body of a dead god, trying to find the way to the final encounter while being harrassed by monsters largely immune to my best spells…
Stopping random encounters after a point had felt right to “Pool” because it played with the narrative of the game (clearing a city) and its design (after all, you had to travel these conquered areas to new locations). With “Pools of Darkness” they did what D&D intended them to do. They pressured you into getting to your goals faster without expending too many resources. Is that fun? Not much. Is that good game design? That is still disputed to this day. Given the vast amounts of combat already in the game probably not. But it gave these games urgency, no doubt. Not finding that turn I needed to fight the boss would get frustrating and precarious for my party, no doubt. More “modern” games like “Alien vs Predator 2” would employ similar tricks by inifinitely spawning enemies in situations where they wanted to pressure the player into a calculated retreat.
All in all, “Pool” is always fondly remembered, and I have played it several times since. It may not seem like a replayable game but somehow it can be fun to rediscovering after resting it for a decade. You can even play it in a browser now.
The combat slog of “Pool” may seem tiresome, but given its competition at the time it was actually pure gold. I tried liking the “Bard’s Tale” games, even though I came in late. But I gave up once I had hit too many “spin-around, anti-magic, and teleport” fields even with the higher frustration tolerance of a bored child. Every “Ultima” game until VI actually required you to grind to 8th level to have a stab at the finale, and while I love “Ultima V” it was hard, grindy, and unashamed of introducing overpowered random encounters even in the overworld. You had to be on your toes, steal a flying carpet, or else you would be dragon food (or even killed/sunk from afar without entering combat). In comparison, Gold Box games played fair but became ever more linear as a result.
As someone who loves D&D, Gold Box delivered. And I agree – it was a shame they didn’t go for polish. I didn’t need better graphics or a different engine, after all I had a C64. But the story began to lack, the enemies became repetitive, and that was a much bigger flaw. After all, you could build a lot of adventure with those basic D&D rules.
By the way, the “Buck Rogers” boxed set was my first English tabletop RPG. I love also the first CRPG. It temporarily halted SSI’s tailspin into mediocrity with an interesting exploration of the “Buck Rogers XXVc” universe. I own all of it today, and its core was one of TSR’s most interesting products, with rich factions everywhere, but if you look at the expansions, you find that most authors didn’t know what to do with it and line editing was non-existing. It doesn’t deserve the hate it received from part of the player base, though its design in terms of game mechanics is lacking.
June 1, 2020 at 7:50 am
Little known fact: There is an abysmal port of “Ultima VI” that was horribly broken for C64. In order to play it you had to make copies of your game disks because the game officially said you should – as it deleted and changed assets of the game disks.
Best part? I think the publisher put their latest copy protection on it. Not even “bit copy” software I had could render a disk that would actually start. I played it twice, having returned it once as broken, and then gave up. The port was so bad, it increased coin weight by ten times to reduce memory use, making it nigh-impossible to carry your loot. It removed a lot of the spells, so in order to make the explosions needed to progress in some areas of the game you had to carry super-heavy powder kegs. Etc.
So, as you mention, SSI made outdated games by anybody’s standard. But “Ultima VII” looked good but nobody could run it. And I found it, once getting access to it, not very good, the series felt like it had climaxed with Ultima VI. It left the world it built behind and became a graphics fest, and for many gamers that was a double waste – you couldn’t play it without upgrading, and for the first time you lost out on your beloved Britannia they had spent six games to build. “Ultima VIII” the action platformer then drove the nail.
So, it’s ironic that late SSI titles looked so poor, but reality is, you could play them. Had they still been available on C64, I might have bought and enjoyed them. But “Ultima VI” I really got to enjoy several years later and by the time I got to “Ultima VII” I found it uninteresting. I wonder who the PC gaming industry was catering, too, but it surely wasn’t kids on an allowance…
February 2, 2021 at 11:11 pm
I’m not sure why it took so many years to notice that I was quoted here.
I don’t think we really disagree, Jimmy. I rated Silver Blades relatively low. I still don’t think it’s a “bad” game, but that’s because my standards for truly “bad” are much lower then yours given the amount of dreck I had to cover in my trip through the 1980s. There are about 25 Ultima clones alone–not clones of the good games in the Ultima series, you understand, but clones that show no more advancement than the original 1981 Ultima. By those standards, I would reassert my position that the Gold Box engine was incapable of producing a “truly bad” game. However, I fully agree that the series never really surpassed Pool of Radiance, except perhaps in graphic quality, and I 100% agree that they should have slowed down, released fewer games, and spent more effort adapting the Gold Box to the times.
February 3, 2021 at 8:28 am
Fair enough. I play and write in detail only about games that are either really good or have some other claim to major historical significance. It’s easy for me to forget the other 90 percent of Sturgeon’s Law — to which, no, the Gold Box games certainly don’t belong.
October 16, 2022 at 9:23 am
I loved all the Gold Box games for different reasons.
Curse of the Azure Bonds I have the most nostagia for as it was one of the first cRPGs I played and actually finished on the c64. Pool of Radiance was probably the best but sadly my c64 copy had a disk error so I never got to enjoy it until many years later on the PC. Secret of the Silver Blades was my favourite dungeon crawl – I loved the design of the dungeons and mapped most of them myself except for the last two. I really liked the teleporter/base mechanism as well.
Loved Champions of Kyrnn and Death Knights of Kyrnn, even more so after reading the MW/TH Kyrnn books.
The Savage Frontier games were my least favourite but I still enjoyed playing them.
Countdown to Doomsday had some of the best level/encounter design. Clearing the Maestrom Rider of ECG’s in your second mission was a masterpiece of design – the sense of danger from multiple countdowns and your party getting infected over time was unrivaled at the time.
The Gold Box games are some of my favourite games of all time and they were significantly better than competing series at the time. Yes, I loved Ultima 7, Wizardry 6 and M&M4/5/Worlds of Xeen but their earlier entries were vastly inferior to the Gold Box games.