Computer RPG players in the late ’80s and early ’90s were surely familiar with Strategic Simulations, Inc. (SSI) and its now-famous Gold Box series. The series, so named because of their distinctive gold packaging, ran on a solid engine that helped the company churn out over a dozen titles within a five-year span. From Pool of Radiance to Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday, these titles quickly became revered among the gaming community. I personally have very fond memories of playing both Buck Rogers titles, which is probably why I dated very little in high school.
While the Gold Box series has not become as timeless or replayable as late ’90s classics like Baldur’s Gate and Fallout, they definitely had a huge impact on the PC scene and helped elevate the CRPG genre. Following the Gold Box engine, SSI went on to produce another engine that it used for a completely new series set in the D&D campaign setting of Dark Sun. Dark Sun: Shattered Lands (1993) and Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager (1994) were both modest hits, and when it came time for a third game in the series, SSI decided to make the leap to the then-untested realm of online gaming.
What followed was a wild two-year experiment in MMOs that happened prior to the Ultima Online and EverQuest generation. While ultimately unsuccessful in achieving its potential or gaining a large audience, Dark Sun Online: Crimson Sands made a valiant attempt at achieving the inevitable future of gaming.
Dark Sun, dark start
During the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s were the service provider wars, when companies like GEnie, AOL, CompuServe, and GameStorm all duked it out in an effort to gain the most customers on their proto-internet networks. It seemed as though every company was scrambling to grab its share of the market, and AT&T was no different. Its fledgling Interchange service provided the staples of email, news, and games, and AT&T needed a few killer apps to draw in the population. Hence, it contacted SSI and floated the idea of taking its Dark Sun series online in the manner of Neverwinter Nights and The Shadow of Yserbius.
SSI leaped at the opportunity and started work on Dark Sun Online, not knowing that Interchange’s days were already numbered. AT&T pulled the plug on the service at the beginning of 1996 due to job cuts, but SSI wasn’t so eager to abandon its work. Development continued while Dark Sun Online was shopped around, and Total Entertainment Network (TEN) ultimately picked it up and released the game on its service in 1996.
A Frankenstein MMO
According to designer Andre Vrignaud, the team was hobbled from the start with limited resources. The team had only one part-time artist, forcing it to scrounge sprites and sounds from the two previous Dark Sun titles as well as a game called Al-Qadim to compensate. Additionally, the team had to outsource much of its art to questionable talent, ending up with the occasional mob like the “Nightmare Beast” that looked more like Barney than any true nightmare. Additional sounds were borrowed from another game in development called Word of Aden: Thunderscape. While it wasn’t ideal, this Frankenstein approach was the only way the project could get done.
In addition to suffering sound and art problems, the team had to modify Wake of the Ravager’s codebase to function as a multiplayer client, something the original coders never anticipated. To complicate matter even further, some of the coding was once again outsourced, leading to design conflicts with the official team, not to mention one major morale problem.
The team originally wanted Dark Sun Online to be a DOS-based title (in keeping with the previous games), but the growing popularity of Windows meant that precious development time had to be spent coming up with a proper Windows 95 port.
Team members left during the transition from AT&T to TEN, which made life horrible for those who remained. Lead Scriptor Rick Donnelly recalls cleaning up the mess: “It was quite horrific for me to find that the game was missing some serious pieces of code. Suddenly, I found myself with little time to correct these problems. I worked heavily for about a month and managed to finish getting everything implemented and working.”
In retrospect, it was a miracle that Dark Sun Online ever reached release at all. Yet after a rushed beta test, during which the popularity of the game outnumbered the beta discs available, Dark Sun Online launched in a buggy state in late 1996.
MUD made graphical
“Welcome to a world sucked dry by vampiric defilers, torn and scarred by power-hungry mages, burnt and seared by a sun gone slightly nova: a world known simply as Athas. Athas is bad — real bad. You’ve heard of Death Valley? You’ve heard of the Sahara? They’ve got nothing on Athas,” the now-defunct official website said.
Set in the eternal desert world of Athas, Dark Sun Online offered surprisingly standard MMO features compared to what we know and use today. Classes, guilds, chat windows, grouping, levels, death penalties — DSO had them all.
Players would sculpt their characters from one of eight races (from the standard Humans to the exotic Thri-kreen) and one of eight classes (including the Psionicist and Druid). Because this was a Dungeons & Dragons title, players also got the choice of an alignment (limited by their class) and the option to multi-class and dual-class if certain conditions were met.
Characters had a harsh life in Athas, with PvP an option almost everywhere except for select safe zones and a strong death penalty. Upon dying, players would lose some equipment and a full level. Fortunately, there were only 15 levels in the game, so climbing back up was more feasible than not. Therefore, it was safer to team up with others and head out to quest together.
The game generated “rudimentary” random quests so that you would never truly run out of them. Donnelly admitted later on that it was functional but not quite complete: “My only regret is that I didn’t have the time to take this quest engine as far as we would have liked.”
The social aspect of Dark Sun Online was quite strong and more reminiscent of MUDs and MUSHes than the MMOs of today. Devs often scheduled roleplaying activites and could generate live events. But the most important piece of the DSO social puzzle was its robust chat system, which became the crown jewel of the game, according to some of the devs. Roleplaying through chat was common and strongly supported by the devs and community, and players could communicate with each other no matter where they were in the world.
While Dark Sun Online was rushed to launch, had plenty of bugs and borrowed assets, and was a bit premature for the upcoming MMORPG wave, ultimately its greatest downfall was being too vulnerable to hacking and cheating.
Even though the devs didn’t allow players to import characters from previous Dark Sun titles, hackers quickly deduced that DSO’s code was ripe for manipulation. What made it so bad was that the game ran on the player’s machine instead of on the server, which may have helped with the slow online speeds back then but also opened the door to mischief.
Within weeks, players could easily use an editor to change important data on their computers to give themselves items, levels, and advantages, not to mention to escape the death penalties. It quickly became a nightmare for all involved, as you might imagine. The good, non-hacking players found themselves at a disadvantage to those who manipulated the system, and SSI never got on top of the situation during the game’s short run.
Dark Sun Online didn’t survive TEN’s dismantling in 1998, and without a massive playerbase or a more modern engine, its chances of being picked up by another publisher sank to zilch. Still, DSO was a strange triumph of ingenuity over limited resources and a lack of MMO development experience. It’s a curiosity today, sure, but it’s still one of the brave pioneers of MMOs two decades ago.