Another lucky break, though it wasn’t a greenlight to take whatever they wanted. “He asked that we didn’t deliberately copy characters from their game. Like ‘don’t have a big, red, horned demon.’ We weren’t going to do that anyway, we’re not dumb. We did say that if there’s anything specific that’s a problem just let us know, and they haven’t said anything.” Fingers crossed that’s still the case tomorrow, eh?
With these hurdles jumped, all that remained was the little matter of actually making the game. The August 2013 date came and went. “We weren’t as organised as we should have been back then. That’s happened. We got a lot better at that in early 2014. We really hit our stride.” Bishop attributes some of the lost time to an attempt at including modding support. “It turned out to be impossible for our skill and production Working on that probably cost us six to eight months of development time, which was a big pain.” In the end, they dropped it, but it wasn’t the only area in which Subterranean had eyes bigger than their stomachs.
“We woefully underestimated certain things. A couple of things were easier than they thought they would be, but for the most part it’s been harder than we thought it would be.” Almost everything was made from scratch, bar a few Unity plugins such as one which renders the UI with HTML and another which helps with networking. Art and sound are all their own. “It’s a ridiculous number of assets.”
One of the biggest stumbling blocks turned out to be a save/load system. Bread and butter for most any PC game, but a serious headache for War for the Overworld. “We got it working, then every single change we made to the game broke it, and it was like urgh. Eventually we decided that we’re not officially supporting it until launch date. Even in the current live build on Steam there is no saving and loading. We’ve now got it so whenever we change something we’re going and testing saving and loading and it’s ok, but to do that for eight months would have been a complete, ridiculous waste of time.” That word again.
Studio in-jokes about Overworld’s oft-torturous progress
So why put all this sweat, all this ridiculousness, into remaking an existing game rather than making their own one entirely? “I wanted to get into the games industry and this is something I very much wanted to happen. A lot of people wanted it to happen but no-one was lighting a fire to actually bring it all together.” Bishop cites Dungeon Keeper’s enduring appeal as a combination of playing as the bad guy, units with semi-free will and the grid-based, sandboxy room building. “Other games have stuff like it, something like Theme Hospital, you do build your rooms like that but then you go and place everything inside the room. Very few games have it like this, where you literally just section it off and the props are built and that’s that, and then your units come in and do stuff. It’s just nice. The room-building and the territory-management in general, it’s something that’s very unique. It’s the very core of the game really.”
However, Bishop and his team weren’t mega-fans to the point of believing either existent Dungeon Keeper was perfect as-was. They’ve made changes – some of which they devised many years ago – and not everyone’s happy about it. “There are people who say ‘why isn’t the Mistress a scantily-clad woman?’ Why is there no Horned Reaper in your game? Why is mana different, why do doors work like they do? There are people who don’t want any changes to be made to the game. If you don’t want any changes then just go play Dungeon Keeper 2.”
The lesser-loved sequel is, however, the main inspiration for War for the Overworld. “A lot of people disagree but in my opinion 2 was a much more complete game than the first one was, but it obviously had big flaws. The biggest flaws, from a game design perspective, was the general lack of pacing and choice in the game, especially when it came to multiplayer.”
Personally, I’m the sort of Dungeon Keeper fan who loved it as a private sandbox, the quiet joy of construction within the architectural limitations of an underground space, but Bishop’s primary interest is multiplayer, which DK2 is better set up for. If I’d ever wondered if this was a cynical cash-in of a project, that fear is put to rest as I watch him play War for the Overworld. His hands, and the contents of the screen, move with what seems to me like the dizzying speed of a StarCraft II pro. There’s a mastery of the game and its interface that I’d never even realised was possible in my unhurried solo play, something clearly borne of years spent continuing to play a game long ago abandoned by its owners.
I do have some concerns, based on playing a few levels of the campaign, that this multiplayer-focused thinking has been a little detrimental to the solo side of the new game. The mouse interface feels fiddly, the camera doesn’t pull far enough out to take it all in, the minimap isn’t particularly helpful and in general it feels like it’s been made for people who know exactly what they’re doing every second of the time and can bring about any effect or construction with barely a glance at the UI. Whenever Bishop mentions a change or new feature, it’s in terms of its effect on multiplayer. But I wonder if I’m being a purist: whatever I might say outwardly about novelty and creativity, if I sit down to play a game like Dungeon Keeper there’s a big part of me which yearns for it to be my Dungeon Keeper, exactly that which I loved in the 1990s.
Perhaps I’ll become more a convert once I’m further in and I’ve adapted to an ethos that’s perceptibly more about fluidity than linearity in both single and multiplayer. Certainly, it’s got the key beats of DK in place; there’s an essential and comforting familiarity, an atmosphere defined by the sound of lonely slave-creatures painstakingly chipping away at sheer stone walls, but at the same time there are things in the menus I don’t recognise, which are the result at attempts to address Bishop’s key criticism of DK2. “You went in and you had everything except all your spells, which you got given in a linear order. Basically there was one winning strategy, which was get a combat pit, get Dark Knights and level your Dark Knights up and then go and kill the enemy. And that was all you could do.”
With this in mind there’s an overhauled mana system which prevents any one player from becoming a magical god once the enemy’s on their territory, doors which prevent both foe and friend from passing through if locked, and a non-linear research system which effectively sees you making a tech tree of your own rather than climbing a fixed ladder. “One of the big driving desires with this was to bring some level of strategy and choice and pacing into all modes. That was one of the biggest things which was lacking.”
Tomorrow, Subterranean will finally discover whether they’ve made the game that Dungeon Keeper fans have been waiting for, but the work won’t end there. They’re very conscious that it’s launching with bugs, and sorely wish to have had a few more weeks before the release date they’d agreed with Steam, but hope that in today’s development climate they won’t be torn to pieces for it. “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.”
That inexperience is why this game exists at all, of course. An established studio would never have attempted a fan remake of a game owned by another firm. I wonder whether the long, ridiculous road to War For The Underworld has turned Subterranean off Dungeon Keeper, and off the concept of remaking games themselves. “The bit I’m a bit sick of is the campaign, because of how much we have now all played it. Ridiculously. That got a bit stale, but there are some levels which are still really fun to play, because they’re organic in nature, it’s not a set do this, do that, do this.”
In the absence of demonic hand with which to slap him, Bishop shows programmer Stefan Furcht how he feels about OTT difficulty in a later level of the game
He’s far more keen on Skirmish mode, which includes an AI difficulty setting named Stephen Fright, which he feels is ‘impossible’, and a Survival mode planned for post-release. “We’re going to have mutators and regular sets of challenges so you can set up different waves, there’ll be a leaderboard and whatever. That, in my opinion, is probably going to end up being the most fun part of the game, but we haven’t had time to get to it properly yet, unfortunately.”
But first, patches. And after Survival, story DLC, which will be free to ‘early adopters’ who bought the game at or not long after release, and which will star a character encountered during the main campaign rather than its primary protagonist. After that? A new game, and they’re not ruling out another remake. “We wouldn’t mind being known for doing that well, but that’s not all we want to do. That might be what we do next though. Maybe once more. But we’ll see.”
The end is in sight
We’ll know very soon whether War For The Overworld has gotten everything right, but what we’re looking at is a fan remake that’s morphed into commercial remake, and made it all the way to the finish line. That in itself is a hell of an achievement. It’s been a long road, but Subterranean treading it again sometime doesn’t seem ridiculous at all.