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Postmortem: SSI's Dark Sun Online: Crimson Sands
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Postmortem: SSI's Dark Sun Online: Crimson Sands

October 24, 1997 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next
First, our resources were quite limited, especially when it came to art and audio. We had one part-time artist available to create the few odd objects that we absolutely had to have; otherwise, we had to make do with art we could reuse and steal from other internal projects. We had the same limitations with sound and music resources and often had to go to extraordinary lengths to find quality material.

Second, we knew we had to use the existing code base and couldn't rewrite the game from scratch. This obviously tied us down with a great deal of baggage, not the least of which was that we were using a dated game engine, both graphically and in terms of the game's code. Because of this we chose not to focus on the graphical aspects of the game, which would have been futile, but dedicated all of our resources toward creating a multiplayer game with strong game play elements.

Finally, we had to coordinate all of our efforts with an external programming group and contract art group. As you'll see, there were definite challenges with meshing the internal game design and the external programmers. In addition, we had to go through many iterations of art creation for some of the new characters and monsters. This proved to be an entertaining experience in its own right.

The origins of DARK SUN ONLINE can be traced back to the summer of 1994 when representatives of AT&T's Interchange network approached SSI to do a new ADVANCED DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS online game. At that time, AT&T was in the process of planning its own proprietary online service, and believed that having a strong game presence would be of great help in launching the network. Having seen the success of NEVERWINTER NIGHTS on America OnLine, the company wished to fund the development of a sequel based on the DARK SUN engine for its exclusive online use.

The Heroes of Dark Sun Our first challenges became apparent in October of that year as the contract was signed and work began. Due to some overly aggressive estimates as to the ease of porting DARK SUN II to an online environment, the project was basically underbid from the very beginning. This had many ramifications, beginning with a lack of art and sound resources to draw upon, and continuing with difficulties keeping external team members' morale up.

Thanks to these resource constraints, we had to go to great lengths to get the material needed to create the game. To begin with, we raided the source code archives and reused art from both DARK SUN I and DARK SUN II. This turned out to be more difficult than it sounds, since there was a slight perspective shift from the first game to the second, and much of the early art simply didn't look right in the new DARK SUN II perspective. We also borrowed a great deal of art from an SSI title called AL-QADIM, which had an Arabian Nights theme. Although much of the art was unusable for the same perspective reasons, some fit perfectly. Sand is sand, after all, no matter what angle you view it from!

For the entire duration of the project, we only had a half-time artist to do some miscellaneous objects, interim cut-scenes, and cinematics. Since there was always a huge crunch going on with other internal projects, we also had to deal with losing that artist at the oddest (and most frustrating) times - especially since there was enough work to keep several artists occupied for months. One of the biggest effects that this situation had upon the original game's design was the loss of all of the game's cinematics, apart from the introduction. (Ironically, even this introductory cinematic was only available for a short time in the DARK SUN ONLINE 1.0 retail version. Later versions of the game were never re-released at the retail level, and the introductory cinematic scene was too large to be included in the downloadable versions.)

Additional art work that needed to be accomplished for this project included the customization of hundreds of player icons, some perspective tweaks on DARK SUN I monsters, and the creation of several new monsters. Since we effectively had no internal resources to create this art, we turned to an external art house.


The "gecko-like" Dragon

The character portraits went relatively well, with only a few redos on dental-floss bikini bottoms and overly-endowed female characters. The Dark Sun I monsters were also tweaked with little problem. Unfortunately, the new monsters turned out to be far more challenging for the external artists. Two monsters in particular - the Dragon and the Nightmare Beast - were somewhat less than fearsome. As you can see from the sample art, the Dragon (even after some rework) looked like a gecko, and the Nightmare Beast… well, the Nightmare Beast just looked like Barney. Perhaps luckily, the Dragon encounter ended up being cut from the game, and since we never could get Barney looking right, his appearance was cut, too. (There were those who thought keeping Barney in could be quite a cathartic experience to certain twisted people, but fortunately saner minds prevailed.)

We did much better as far as sound effects went. Digging in the archives, we were able to draw upon the sound effects from Dark Sun I and II, which pretty much covered most of what we needed.


Much of the art from DSO was reused from earlier games


However, we were still a little short in some areas and cast about trying to find a few more additional effects. Lo-and-behold, the sound department coincidentally sent out a large archive of .WAV files from the soon-to-be released THUNDERSCAPE title for use as Windows event sounds. Much to the chagrin of some on the THUNDERSCAPE team, those effects quickly found their way into DSO.

Using Contracted Developers

Beyond all of the internal resource issues, DARK SUN ONLINE was also an interesting project due to its use of external programming talent for the online coding and porting of the game. At the time, SSI had no internal online programming talent available to code a multiplayer version of DSO. So the online coding was subcontracted out to an external programming group. Now, working with external groups is pretty common in the industry, and normally isn't that big of a problem. Unfortunately, due to some political and financial issues, the contract was finally signed (over a few objections) with the external group getting paid on a strict milestone basis, with no royalty points or interest in the finished title. As you can imagine, this became a bad morale issue for the group.

"Barney," the Nightmare Beast

This morale problem reared its ugly head quite quickly as the external programmers and internal scriptors began to interact. Earlier DARK SUN games (other than the art work) were created as a joint effort between the programmers and the scriptors (also known as the designers). The programmers would work on the game engine, adding features such as spells, new monster effects, and new GPL (Game Programming Language) commands for the scriptors' use. Meanwhile, the scriptors would use GPL to code the actual adventure parts of the game - the events, quests, and NPCs (nonplayer characters). The key to this arrangement working harmoniously was that most of the GPL-interpreting code (in the engine itself) was already done, allowing the scriptors to work relatively autonomously. Unfortunately, this wasn't the case with DSO.

The big problem with this project was that the external programmers had to take a code base for a game that was designed as a single-player game and make it a multiplayer game. Unfortunately, the original programmers (on DARK SUN I AND II) made assumptions about the way certain GPL commands would work, in order to save time on coding error-checking routines. For example, the original programmers never had to deal with the possibility of two different people trying to talk to the same NPC at the same time; it simply wasn't possible in a single-player game. However, this situation is extremely common in the online version. The result of this was that the external programming group had to recode the way GPL worked - many, many times as the game's development progressed and we learned more about how the engine would really work.


Sysop tools were added that allowed the DSO world to expand beyond its original size and let players discover new challenges.


Rich Donnelly, the lead scriptor for DARK SUN ONLINE says, "Oftentimes, I would write script for the engine, and the engine would change halfway through, in such a manner that the script would no longer function. Even worse, there were times when crucial information was lost in the associating chain, such as new GPL functions or commands. This caused a lot of strife and recoding on everyone's part."

To sum up, since the external programming group had no buy-in or incentive to make the project the best it could be, they generally took the easier path whenever possible. The most grievous example of this was the networking change from the planned client/server architecture to a peer-to-peer system. Due to low morale and compensation, the external group insisted on coding the networking architecture as a peer-to-peer network, using the local clients to run most of the game logic. Although we raised the red flag multiple times about problems inherent with this scheme, our team was overruled in the interests of keeping costs low. To be fair, the peer-to-peer coding was done competently for what it was. Unfortunately, though, this type of networking code wasn't the best for the game at large, and we had to deal with the hacking issues that it raised for the life of the project.

The Debugging Process

A few months passed, and eventually the programming group got the engine to the point where the scriptors could do some GPL coding without having to restart every month. At this point, the scriptors dug in and started coding the underlying global routines for the game, and the external programmers started modifying the game engine to work over an IPX network, which would to allow us to test and develop internally. Within a few weeks, we had that IPX-capable version of the engine to work with - which raised new issues.

Chronologically, this was soon after DOOM was released, and if you'll recall, the early versions of DOOM had problems with packet flooding, which brought down quite a few corporate networks. This was quickly fixed in subsequent releases, but the internal management at SSI was still a little gun-shy, and asked us to set up a completely separate network for our development work. This in turn meant we needed a UNIX box to run the game's server code, which meant we needed to set up and configure a Linux box (Linux is a free variant of UNIX) to act as the host. To make a long story short, configuring a UNIX machine isn't an easy task, and by the time we got the hardware, built the network, and configured the host, we had lost a few weeks of development time.

The greatest hit that our original timeline took resulted from the initial plan to run DARK SUN ONLINE as a DOS application in a DOS box, but communicate with a Windows-based TCP/IP stack. AT&T's Interchange online service was a Windows 3.1 application and ran over a proprietary TCP/IP stack that AT&T had licensed. Since the original DARK SUN games were DOS applications, and since Windows 95 hadn't yet penetrated the market sufficiently, it was thought best to keep DARK SUN ONLINE as a DOS application. We would depend on a "shim" of sorts to allow the game to communicate with the Windows protocol stack. We spent a couple of painful months trying to get this going, and eventually had something that worked, but not well. The shim would occasionally lock up for seemingly no reason, and we were unable to get the source code for the protocol stack to try to fix the bug. Eventually, we scrapped that effort and ported DSO to a true Windows application. In retrospect, we probably should have bit the bullet early on and moved the game to a Win32 application from the start.

After this initial setback, work progressed for a few months without any particular disasters to note. Art from the external group was slowly coming together, and we resolved most of our sound and music issues. The external programming group was hitting its milestones, and all in all, everything was quiet. Yes, as many of you just guessed, too quiet.

Character Multi-Views In early November of 1995, I received a call from the head of Interchange's game group. It turned out that AT&T had pulled one of their classic turn-arounds and decided that it didn't actually want to be in the online network business after all. In short, AT&T's Interchange network was canceled, along with all of the projects being funded for it - including DARK SUN ONLINE.

At first, it didn't look too bad. Although we didn't have a network to launch the game on, we had gotten a great deal of the project funded, and through a nice quirk in the contract, all rights to the game reverted back to SSI. This allowed us to shop the title around to different networks and possibly negotiate a better royalty deal. Unfortunately, this process took several months, and since SSI's internal management wasn't confident that they'd be able to find somewhere to place the title, the project was placed on a back burner. A couple of the scriptors and I continued development, along with the external programmers, but little other work was done. However, a few months later, it was decided that TEN was the appropriate network for the title, and work began again in earnest in January of 1996 - with one other little bump.

In mid-January, one of the three internal scriptors decided to move on to new opportunities. This normally wouldn't have been that big a deal - things were moving along well, and the two remaining scriptors would simply have had to pick up the remaining work and take care of it in the extra months we'd allocate for them. However, the scriptor that left was responsible for a great deal of the global game code upon which the game, along with much of the other scriptors' work, depended. Sadly enough, it turned out that much of that work had either not been done, or had been done so poorly that the code couldn't be depended upon. It fell to Rich Donnelly to pick up the pieces.

"It was quite horrific for me to find that the game was missing some serious pieces of code. These were pieces that were vital to an online environment, such as global region transfer code that handled moving entire parties instead of individuals, or monster generation routines for general combat encounters that could incorporate several different players in the same combat. 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."

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