War for the Overworld [official site] creative director Josh Bishop uses the word ‘ridiculous’ quite a bit. It’s understandable. The 22-year-old is on the verge of releasing what is intended to be the first faithful follow-up to beloved strategy/management/Imp-slapping title Dungeon Keeper in 16 years. He leads a studio which has reached as many as 20 members, he’s received £200,000 in Kickstarter pledges, he’s had Peter Molyneux’s blessing and an implicit agreement that rightsholder EA would look the other way, he’s got original narrator Richard Ridings onboard and tomorrow, all being well, it all comes to fruition. “It’s ridiculous.”
Young, thin, bespectacled, dressed in a Reddit t-shirt with a now-month-old Rezzed wristband and a first edition Pebble watch on one wrist, his manner quietly confident but without evident arrogance, the Brighton, UK resident is about as far a cry from my mental image of the executives who decide the fate of the official Dungeon Keeper as it’s possible to get. While he and Subterranean Games’ impending unofficial remake/sequel War for the Overworld is very much a job, it’s also the culmination of a passion project almost a decade in the making.
“The entire existence of the team and the project formulated on a Dungeon Keeper fansite,” he tells me in the cavernous kitchen of the enormous Brighton house which seven Subterranean staff (and a few partners) now both live and work in. Booze, pizza and boardgames abound, there are a host of powerful-looking PCs on the downstairs floor, and it’s a place I’d give my right arm to live in, but at the same time I can see how its being a workplace is preventing it from being a home too. I have little doubt that, even this many years on, the game that Bishop once referred to as ‘Dungeon Keeper 3’ remains this team’s life.
“People were initially talking about it six, seven years ago on this site, and it’s just slowly, slowly grown since then,” Bishop explains. Their impetus was simple but clear: “We just wanted a new Dungeon Keeper game.” It took a while to truly get going, as most people were young and inexperienced, and the tools which power so many of today’s smaller games just weren’t ready yet – let alone the new funding models which could make ideas a reality without needing publisher backing. “To say we had much idea of what we were doing back when we started would be a bit of a lie,” admits Bishop. “We were incredibly inexperienced, now we’re a little bit inexperienced.”
Josh Bishop, CEO and Creative Director at Subterranean Games, playtests the penultimate level of War For The Overworld’s campaign.
Although the various participants created “this massive mountain of ideas” over three or four years of online collaboration, it wasn’t really going anywhere. “It was sort of a disorganised collective of people wanting to do things for a while. There was random people making character models or concept art, bits of prototypes. There was no structure to anything.”
The years passed by with plenty of ideas put to paper and the team “knowing what we were going to copy and what we were going to do new”, but it wasn’t until 2012 that what would be War for the Overworld truly became a going concern. “We thought let’s try and get realistic and put something together properly. So we put a more structured team together and we worked a bit on the Unreal prototype, but UDK at the time did not suit this kind of thing. Then we picked up Unity and started working on it again, and we were pretty happy with what we were ending up with, and more and more people who seemed like a good fit were joining the project. Then towards the end of 2012 I went and set up the company officially, and we did the Kickstarter. And that went well.” It did, to the tune of £211,371. Not bad for a game which didn’t have a famous name and didn’t have any of the original staff onboard.
For the next two and half a years – long past the originally promised Summer 2013 release date – Subterranean worked from bedrooms across the globe. With cash in hand the team fluctuated between 15 and 20, including staff in Australia, Hong Kong and Russia, but that still wasn’t enough to take them anywhere close to their intended deadline. “We had some people on the team at that point who were not the best people to have on the team. Specifically those were the people who had put stuff on the Kickstarter like ‘we’re going to be done with game in August 2013’ and at that point in time there were some of us questioning that, but we thought these people were more experienced than us so we’ll let them say that. So that was obviously completely ridiculous.”
Around a month ago, seven staff – including contributors from Germany, France and Australia – moved into this Sussex mini-palace, and now they’re spending every moment they can tweaking right up until release. “The remote working wasn’t working out for little bits of polish and rapid bug-fixing, it just wasn’t working.”
Subterranean Games near-subterranean studio, on the lowest floor of an impressive Sussex house in which seven of the staff also live.
What’s remarkable is how much has worked, given what a long shot such an unofficial endeavour was. Kickstarter ennui had barely settled in back in late 2012, their plans for an open beta on Steam coincided with Valve’s launch of Early Access in 2013, and Unity was steadily blossoming into the go-to tool it is today. What if Subterranean had only gotten into gear a year later? “It would have been a completely different story.”
Added to that is a miraculous-seeming near-total lack of obstacles from Dungeon Keeper’s creators and gatekeepers. Original Dungeon Keeper creative lead Peter Molyneux endorsed the project’s Kickstarter after Bishop contrived a chance encounter at the first Rezzed expo. “He gave a talk about Curiosity. I went deliberately and sat in the front row, near the exit, so that I the end I could go and pounce on him and say ‘hey Peter, we’re doing this, can you give us a hand?’” The video which eventually resulted from this – just weeks after Molyneux and 22 Cans’ own Kickstarter for the controversial Godus – was a big help to Subterranean’s campaign. “To this day, people still link that video in response to anyone saying ‘why are you guys copying Dungeon Keeper?’ That’s a really useful card to have.”
As gracious as this was, neither Molyneux or anyone else at original Dungeon Keeper developer Bullfrog Productions could have any say in its future. The rights belonged to publisher EA, who’d all but ignored the once best-selling series for almost 15 years. Until 2012. EA Mythic’s Paul Barnett (a name which will ring a bell or six for older readers) got in touch with Bishop around the time of the Kickstarter, and arranged a video call. “Then he just held up this iPad and said ‘we’re making this.’”
‘This’ was Dungeon Keeper, a mobile game released for iPhone and Android in 2013. It took the original Dungeon Keepers’ theme and characters then applied them to a free to play game which deviated significantly from the original mechanics, and in which progress was gated by either long wait times or in-app purchases. Dungeon Keeper fans loathed it, creating a large internet outcry, and to make matters worse for EA the UK Advertising Standards Agency deemed that adverts which described the game as ‘free’ misrepresented it.
Josh Bishop, perhaps sensibly, won’t be drawn either into savaging the mobile game or celebrating its failure, but he acknowledges that it may have been helpful. “A lot of articles which spoke about Dungeon Keeper, a lot of videos which spoke about Dungeon Keeper said ‘hey, you should go and check out War for the Overworld’. It was beneficial to us in that regard.”
While not actually defending it, he points out that Dungeon Keeper mobile’s model was very similar to a great many other mobile games of the time, which followed the Clash of Clans model, and feels this one caught more flak purely due to expectations. “Most of the people who like Dungeon Keeper have not been exposed to that sort of game. Because it was called Dungeon Keeper they went and looked, and their first experience of this monetisation model is what they see as a bastardisation of their childhood. Which I guess is an understandable reaction, and because of that a lot of attention was pointed towards us.”
Back before all this, however, there was Paul Barnett and that video call. How was EA going to take to an unofficial sequel when they were on the verge of an official one? “His only concern at that point was just making sure that we weren’t backed by Ubisoft or some other big publisher. He just wanted to make sure that we were fans of the genre making it. As soon as he realised that was the case he said that was fine, and that he was going to ensure EA corporate left us alone.”
On page two: what features they had to cut, where it differs from its source material, plus multiplayer and post-release plans.