How To Remake Dungeon Keeper

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.

31 Comments

  1. v21v21v21 says:

    “an implicit agreement that rightsholder EA would look the other way”

    this is what gave it away as an April Fool’s joke for me.

    ;)

    • Mr Coot says:

      Heh! EA has been unusually kind about it from the beginning. I’m going to go with it as evidence they are capable of being decent corporate citizens cf. ‘It gets better’ project.

      • Emohawk says:

        Don’t let your guard down. If there’s nothing in writing I could easily see EA swooping in at the last minute saying “nope – this is now ours! Too much like our IP”..

  2. malu24 says:

    Got my bloodshot eye on this one. My other beady eye spotted a minor error just above the Handy Video, ‘becoming a magical good’. God maybe?

  3. Siimon says:

    Multi-page articles? :(

    • A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

      Yeah, seriously, where did that come from? If anyone from RPS is reading I hate, HATE multi-page articles. Most of my RPS catching up happens on my train home where I have a 5 min window to open all the interesting looking articles before spending the remaining half hour out of reception. To scroll down and find I’ve only got half an article is infuriating. It’s a real turn off, please say you’ll stop?

      • El_Emmental says:

        Could have to do with the ratio between content and displayed ads: by having two pages, the time spent doing that interview (preparing questions, scheduling, moving there, recording, transcribing) gets 2 views (or “hits”) rather than just one.

        To be honest it’s kinda understandable: such interview are far from profitable (given how much time, money and expertise is required to produce such content), an intern doing a “top 20 something” list from home would have a much better cost/return ratio.

        Maybe RPS could add an opt-in setting to get all articles in one page.

      • horsemedic says:

        I don’t even know what to say about someone who gets outraged because a website glitches out when he tries to read it without an Internet connection.

        Suggestion: instead of RPS redesigning their layout to accommodate your exceptional reading circumstances, why don’t you scroll down to check for the multi-page button? I just tried it, and it takes 3 seconds per page.

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          BlueTemplar says:

          He’s perfectly right to be annoyed. You must have never been in this kind of situation…

          Now, the real question, if you’re a RPS supporter (as in, gave them money), do you still have to deal with ads and 2-page articles?

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          Phasma Felis says:

          Multi-page articles are really annoying, though, even in normal circumstances. Granted RPS is on the gentlest end of the spectrum that, on the other end, leads to slideshows with 20 images on individual pages alternating with 20 pages of ads (yes, I have seen this), but it’s still unpleasant.

          At some point we seem to have forgotten that the web is an infinite canvas. Breaking up a single item–an article, a short story, an image set–across multiple pages doesn’t serve any useful purpose for the reader. I like RPS enough that I’m willing to put up with it if the genuinely need the extra ad revenue to keep producing quality articles, but I don’t have to like it.

  4. Jimbo says:

    It would a bit rich for EA to make a fuss about this considering their entire business model seems to be pretty much this but on an industrial scale.

  5. Moraven says:

    Not sure if its the video or what, but it just does not seem to look graphically very good.

    “We could have done with more time, but I think the industry as a whole has evolved to appreciate quick fixes after launch, I guess. Especially if they realise how inexperienced we are.”

    No, the industry, players, reviewers has not evolved to accept buggy games at launch. Unless the game is solid enough on its own (Space Hulk I liked and became great at v1.2, but the v1 reviews hurt it).

    “A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad.”
    -Miyamoto

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      I very nearly sent a really over-emotional reply here because dear lord it bugs me when someone like you comes along, and thinks it’s reasonable to critique a game people have put years of effort into with “it doesn’t look very good”. But whatever.

      “No, the industry, players, reviewers has not evolved to accept buggy games at launch. Unless the game is solid enough on its own (Space Hulk I liked and became great at v1.2, but the v1 reviews hurt it).”

      That, though? That just smacks of “No, we shouldn’t accept games that are buggy at launch. Except that one game I quite liked.”

      • Jimbo says:

        What exactly is unreasonable about commenting on the graphics of a video game on the comment section of a video game website? They’re grown ups trying to sell something, not toddlers showing us a painting they tried really hard at. If anybody can’t handle a comment as tame as that (which they can, I’m sure) they have no business working in a creative industry.

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          JiminyJickers says:

          Exactly, constructive critique will only make them better game designers and just because they are a small studio, doesn’t mean they should be exempt.

      • ssh83 says:

        It’s not like he berated the game “it sucks 1star” before even playing it. He makes fair points about the graphics and video, and the foolish bs about people accepting buggy release just sounds like Stardock + Elemental all over again.

  6. Crafter says:

    I hope that they will get the humor/ambiance right. There is a difficult balance between funny/caricatural evil and full blown creepiness. For example, I had a hard time laughing at Overlord 2 jokes for example since enslaving villagers and have them implore you to kill them to end their suffering was just not that funny..
    Dungeon Keeper’s humor just worked.

    Outside of that, I hope that they will add new ideas to the Dungeon Keeper concept. The original title still plays very well, modulo some awkward UI limitations.

  7. Joshua Northey says:

    Sounds like I likely will pick it up after the first big patch or two. Good to hear.

  8. socrate says:

    while good and if bug are fixed promising i wouldn’t quite call this a follow-up but instead a clone of DK2 really…it doesn’t really offer anything really new and instead just remake the DK2 game with new model..while some are interesting in the way they work,i wouldn’t go as far as call it a follow up since a follow up would actually mean you would go to the surface and invade said surface which was teased and sadly never realised in DK2.

    I actually didn’t think this would release this early since there is still a bunch of bug to be hammered out and stuff that need polishing.

    While the dark humor or quality imo isn’t there the fresh coat of paint is nice and since no one else want to go seriously about this,i guess its the closest we will come to a DK game and the problem is its still an indie that created a clone of an existing game…and didn’t improve on it or evolve it or take it were it was being taken with DK3…im torn really…its DK2 with new graphic and model…but ive played DK2..but i like it…but at the same time ive already played that and get bored…i don’t know

    the biggest thing that bothers me in this is their mentality of wanting to put tons of DLC in it…this is a new kind of mindset and one that hasn’t affected indie much these days and sadly its getting more and more common to a point where im now no longer happy to see indie rise up since they just create old stuff that as been done and instead of the old expansion mentality they just offer DLC which quite frankly never change the game that much compared to old expansion which almost always did…oh well i guess il see where it goes.

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      BlueTemplar says:

      I found too that calling it “War for the Overworld” is problematic if you don’t get to see the said overworld…

      The reason why downloadable content nowadays feel smaller is because expansion packs had to be shipped on disks, which meant that to be profitable they needed to be big enough. With downloads developers have the freedom of making them as big as they want (and as expensive as they want) or just release them for free as updates with bug fixes.

  9. socrate says:

    errr i hate that you can’t edit anymore just re-read myself and today i am apparently a mess(didn’t get much sleep)..wish that feature would come back in some way

  10. Hedgeclipper says:

    Interest was rising until I reached that paragraph on multiplayer. Oh well.

    • NetharSpinos says:

      My thoughts exactly.

      • bfandreas says:

        Jim “loving” Sterling, son
        had a nice squirty play of this one. He started off on a small map and found the enemy AI keeper quite quickly. Hilarity ensued. You should take a look at that, which should very much be the present state of the game at launch. I can’t tell if the enemy AI was any good but remember that keeper AI in DK2 was quite bad so it can’t be any worse than that.
        This is very much exactly the way I had played the original DK2(which I also preferred to DK1). So I guess single player is very, very much functional. They may see the multi-player as a key component but they still did a good job on single-player. I don’t recall there was a huge multi-player scene for the original DK2.

        Also the Horned Reaper in DK2 wasn’t as much fun as in DK1. I’m not surprised that they cut him out of their own accord.

    • MellowKrogoth says:

      Yeah, that’s such a wrong angle to approach this remake. The immense majority of people enjoyed DK as a single-player experience, and there it’s gonna be remade by balanced-obsessed and speed-obsessed multiplayer fans. This cancer of “balance” has already corrupted enough games which I just wanted to play in solo or coop, can we stop?

      With that and the general visual blandness/lack of art direction of the game plus the other flaws I noticed when watching videos, I’m not holding my breath.

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        BlueTemplar says:

        Yeah, there’s something “just right” about DK1 (and DK2 videos) art style (?) that I just didn’t seem to find when I tried WftO…
        Thankfully, we can still enjoy DK1 (and DK2, though it’s has a LOT of bugs) thanks to GoG and these fans (which probably intersect a lot with people that made WftO) :
        link to keeper.lubiki.pl
        link to keeperklan.com?

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    Minsc_N_Boo says:

    Check the date on the article before preordeing / venting bile…

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    DuncUK says:

    If they’re looking for another game to remake then I have a suggestion… please please please do a remake of Evil Genius. Please.

    I loved that game for all its faults, the closest thing to a spy-themed Dungeon Keeper with a humour more akin to Team Fortress 2 (before TF2 existed). It was so sad to see that franchise get the same “free play” treatment that Dungeon Keeper got with a terrible micro-payment mobile release, it so richly deserves something better.

  13. Henas says:

    Last image. Does the game contain the elusive and deadly Drop Bear? The Australian equivalent of the honey badger.

    Multiplayer focus. Bleh. I too have find memories of playing single player and crafting dungeons.

  14. Maxheadroom says:

    I’m torn. While I do get a certain pleasure from seeing EA fail hard with their soulless, corporate ‘Official’ versions of popular franchises they’ve swallowed up (like Sim City and this), while smaller studios sweep the entire player base out from under them, you have to give them credit for not crushing this with lawyers the first time they heard of it.

    that deserves a hat tip if nothing else.

  15. PancakeWizard says:

    I’m cautiously optimistic. I do wish they’d aped original DK’s ‘wobbly’ carved out walls though. Everything adhering to the grid so rigidly just doesn’t look as good, IMO.