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Dungeon Keeper 3! The... MMO. Eh?

It's interesting that everyone who mailed us about this (many thanks, by the way) immediately went for the Oh God No What Are They Thinking angle. Bullfrog fans are purists, perhaps understandably. Me, I'm not going to presume the worst yet, despite being a huge old geeky Dungeon Keeper fan myself.

Absolutely nothing is known about this shock DK sequel/rethink, bar its being an MMO and being handled by a Chinese developer you've never heard of. Yeah, 'Asian MMO' does set off a few alarm traps, as the Lineage model tends to impress us Westerners about as much as shadow puppetry impresses bears. Clearly, this won't be Dungeon Keeper 3 - there's not even a whiff of a single ex-Bullfrog guy around it for starters, and no talk of it being a direct follow-up, but rather of it just using names, themes and characters. Put that Pointy Stick Of Angry Pre-Judgement +3 vs EA down, though. There are hints that this will be much more like the DK of old than folk are presuming...

First up, it's entirely possible we'll never see this reach the West. It sounds as though China is the main audience, an EA mouthpiece stating the deal's part of a Borg-like desire to "extend our product reach throughout the Greater China region." A number of established Western games are going MMOlike over there, subscriptions being an effective counter-measure for the piracy that runs rife in China - for instance Company of Heroes. This may be a matter of developer NetDragon seeking Western backing for their latest (and first 3D) endeavour, and EA dropping a spare fantasy license on 'em to ensure their own stake. Or it may be that Dungeon Keeper is absolutely huge in China, but I find it hard to believe a 1997 strategy-management game about building treasure rooms and feeding farting demons really hit that big.

What is contextually interestingly is that Netdragon already has on its CV Heroes of Might & Magic Online, a China-only MMO rethink of the unending, unsmiling strategy-rpg series, which launched this Spring. So that's, er, HOMMO, then? Er.... It's made with Ubisoft's blessing, and presumably shovels some pennies back their way. I can find very little information about it, and especially not about its quality, but what I have gleaned is that it really is HOMM online - as opposed to an MMORPG with HOMM names and skins. This from the press release:

This online game is the first of its kind by combing the classic turn-based game mode of Heroes of Might and Magic with versatile online game features to meet the needs of different players. Inspired by the global perspective of Heroes of Might and Magic chronicles, Heroes of Might and Magic Online allows gamer to play as a hero working for one of the eight races. Players can then build their own castle and recruit a strong army to fight in hundreds of conquests. In addition, the game offers players to play against one another to quench their thirst for victory.

More English details about it here.

Again, I don't know if it's any cop or not - but as well as supporting the idea that Netdragon may simply be licensing affordable Western brands to MMOise for China, it actually bodes well for Dungeon Keeper Online being a proper Dungeon Keeper game. It sounds faithful, y'know?

And that's where I shift from outraged suspicion to very cautious optimism. Yeah, there's no Bullfrog at the till, but it's been a long while since we had a really great game in the DK mould. The ingredients - management, combat, comedy monsters, even a drop of roleplaying - are right. If Netdragon really have made HOMMO (giggle) like HOMM, then there's every chance DKO can be faithful to DK - and not the Lineage or WoW clone with DK skins that many folk seem to presume it'll be. It might actually be Dungeon Keeper, online - and done right that would be superb.

Sprawling rival dungeons contesting for space, creature populations and gold; fending off dynamic, icky Hero forces that grow in potency as you do; a generous spread of room types and spells... There's a lot of potential, even if the signs are superficially troubling. God knows I'm as concerned as anyone, but it's sad that so many folk seem to be entirely writing this off before they even consider what it could be.

That they're using the DK name specifically is what's liable to cause the most problems. I mean, why? Doesn't it just mean angry fans, IP hassle and tiresome business deals? It's frankly absurd that anyone would hem themselves in by dredging up a license that will mean almost nothing to most of today's gamers, rather than embarking on something entirely of their own creation. That said, the old foundations of DK are impressive enough and unused enough that there really is scope for someone to build something great on top of them. If it happens to feature Horny and Bile Demons and whatnot too... well, they were hardly one-of-kind creations in the first place. Even if this does turn out to be a horror, it's not taking anything away from DK1 & 2.

I have no idea if these are the right guys to make good on a job that will inevitably stir up resentment amongst a fanbase EA's much-abused in the past, and certainly it's hard to block out the poisonous funk of financial cynicism that seems to surround the project. I am not, however, going to write this game off as a terrible idea until I know something about it. I'm genuinely curious - not least because it sounds like such a ridiculous idea and so should be fun to follow. Hopefully DK fans aren't as precious as Fallout fans, and we'll get to hear some proper details about this before they storm EA's gates.

Finally, here's the official press bumpf about DK Online:

NetDragon Websoft Inc., a leading game developer and operator in the People's Republic of China - ("NetDragon" or the "Company", with its subsidiary collectively know as the "Group"; stock code: 777) announced a new licensing agreement with Electronic Arts Inc. (NASDAQ: ERTS, "EA") on the development of the Group's first 3D massively multi-player online role playing game (MMORPG) based on Electronic Arts' "Dungeon KeeperTM" line of games - including themes, characters and other game content. As part of this agreement, NetDragon will develop the game and obtains the exclusive license to operate and distribute Dungeon Keeper Online throughout the Greater China region, including Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau.

"We are delighted to enter into an agreement with EA in the development of our first 3D MMORPG. Our partnership with this internationally renowned game developer is proof of our capabilities in game operations and development as well as a reflection of our market reputation," said Mr. Liu Dejian, Chairman and Executive Director of NetDragon. "Capitalizing our strength to create a strong gaming experience, powerful operating platform and unmatched expertise within China's online game market, we are confident that Dungeon Keeper Online will not only become successful in the Greater China region but also achieve remarkable results overseas."

Jon Niermann, President of EA Asia Pacific said, "The partnership marks a significant milestone for EA as it will enhance our intellectual property and extend our product reach throughout the Greater China region. It will also further enhance our intellectual property with differentiated, high-quality games, particularly in the field of MMORPGs."

Dungeon KeeperTM is a PC strategy game released by EA in July 1997.

About NetDragon:
NetDragon Websoft Inc. is one of the leading online game developers and operators in the PRC. The Group's game portfolio comprises of a range of MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) that cater to various types of players and gaming preferences. The Group has successfully developed and marketed many popular online titles of various styles. Its current offerings include the games Eudemons Online, Conquer Online, Zero Online, Tou Ming Zhuang Online, Heroes of Might and Magic Online, Era of Faith, and Monster & Me. Some of the games are also available in foreign languages, including English, French and Spanish. The Group also has three games currently in development, including Way of the Five, Tian Yuan and Disney Game, which are expected to be launched by end of 2008 and 2009.

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