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Thread: Interview with Simon Carter discussing DK development, death threats, DK3 & more!

  
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    Imp Tyrant Cenobite's Avatar
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    Gamertag: Tyrant Cenobyte PSN ID: Tyrant-Cenobyte

    Exclamation Interview with Simon Carter discussing DK development, death threats, DK3 & more!

    I had the privilege and pleasure earlier this year to engage in conversation with Simon Carter, who prominently worked on Dungeon Keeper throughout it's development.

    This interview was originally intended for use by Subterranean Games as marketing for their upcoming game War For The Overworld, but halfway through the interview process the idea was scrapped and subsequently my interview has been for my eyes only for the best part of the year.

    Simon was extremely cordial and enthusiastic to talk about Dungeon Keeper, to the best of his memory, but unfortunately due to the interview getting laid to rest by SubT, the second half of the interview never got answered by Simon. I have included the unaddressed questions at the bottom of this post.

    If you question the authenticity of this interview, you can be sure to ask Simon himself (and thank him for his time of course) by hollering at him over on his Twitter account: @bbbscarter

    I hope you enjoy!

    What was your involvement in the industry prior to joining Bullfrog? For those that may not know, what experience did you have prior to Dungeon Keeper outside of education?

    Not a great deal. My journey into Dungeon Keeper was both dull and curious. Since the age of about 9 I had been helping my older brother, Dene, in his career as indie-developer for the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. I say 'helping' - I basically sat next to him and watched him type for about 5 years. Rockman, Druid, Druid 2 and Cloud Kingdoms were all helpfully watched by me. Druid 2 was fairly successful in its day, so Dene decided to get it ported to the Amiga. The company he outsourced the conversion to was a fledgling company by the name of Taurus Software, which was run by a man called Peter Molyneux.

    Fast forward until I'm 19. I'm in my first year at University and need to find a 6 month work placement for my course. I was a big fan of Populous and I'd been tracking Magic Carpet in the press, so I applied to Bullfrog which, coincidentally, had been born out of Taurus. I got the placement and, rather wonderfully, found myself writing the enemy AI for Magic Carpet.

    The next thing I knew, I was the project lead on Dungeon Keeper and I never did return to University. I was a very lucky chap.

    So once Peter Molyneux conceived the idea of Dungeon Keeper and it was given the green-light, how did you get initially get involved on the project?

    Peter is a big lover of board games, and had regular evening gaming sessions back at his house. One night after a particularly long game of Call of Cthulhu and a few rounds of a board game called Wizwar (where you laid out tiles in a dungeon as you went) Peter mentioned that he'd been thinking of a game where you could be a dungeon master and 'build your own dungeon', and asked if I'd like to do it.

    Saying it out loud, it sounds ridiculously naive and spontaneous, but at the time it all seemed natural enough at the time. Mark Healey (now one of the founders of Media Molecule) and I spent the next year or so trying to work out what, exactly, 'building your own dungeon' actually meant.

    What were you working on previously to Dungeon Keeper? Do you feel your previous projects gave you an advantage with the games development aside from experience?

    I was 19, and the only professional experience I'd had was 3 months on writing Magic Carpet code. Within Bullfrog I was uniquely and preposterously unqualified for the job.

    That said, I had grown up with role-playing games, I had been programming computers since I was 11, and I had a strong nerdy streak. I had also been brought up on a diet of Monty Python and other British comedy icons, which fitted in well at Bullfrog - we wanted to make a game that didn't take itself entirely seriously. That's something Dene and I tried to carry over into Fable.

    In 1997, the hardware was quite limited, yet Dungeon Keeper managed to innovate and evolve the industry. Did you have to play around with pre-existing technology before you really knew the direction you were headed in?

    This is a great question, and one I could witter on about for ages.

    Bullfrog had a secret weapon at the time in the form of Glenn Corpes, who had written the rendering engines for, among other things, Populous, Populous 2 and Magic Carpet. Essentially I was handed this amazing rendering engine, formed out of the guts of Magic Carpet, that allowed for a 256x256 height-field for the ground and the ability to have a textured c column at each height-field node.

    In spite of this great head-start, rather ridiculously for the time, Dungeon Keeper took nearly 4 years to make. There are lots of reasons why, but a big one is a fascinating demonstration of how technological limitations and design go hand in hand.

    Back in 1994, we hadn't really cracked robust 'navigation'. Most games used very naive pathing algorithms like 'wall hugging' or hand-placed navigation points, which were brittle and easy to break in a dynamic environment like Dungeon Keeper. One of the first pieces of tech we developed was a funky Delaunay triangulation system for generating navigation graphs. It worked incredibly well, apart from one small issue - any update would take about 2 seconds on top sec machines of the day (an Intel 486 DX 50).

    This limited our early prototypes considerably, since you couldn't have the player waiting 2 seconds very frequently, and as a result the early games played rather more like Command and Conquer, with fixed dungeon layouts and big things you could place down relatively infrequently. It was only when the smart chap behind the navigation, Ian Shaw, managed to crowbar in fast partial updates to the navigation that the design of the game could become more fluid.

    I was also a huge Doom fan, which is where the 'first person' mode came from. We had this amazing engine and wonderful art from Mr Healey, it seemed criminal that you couldn't jump in and start shooting things. At least, that's what my testosterone-soaked 19 year old nerd-brain told me.

    So we were a bit over a year into it, and we had all these great bits and pieces, but the game wasn't really gelling and we were meant to be shipping in 2 weeks. Peter reappeared (he'd been away most of the time, selling Bullfrog to EA) and came back with this crude 2D prototype of something a bit more dynamic. We'd just sorted our navigation update issues, so we started reassembling the game around that.

    One of the most popular questions. Could you tell us a little bit more about content which never made it to the final build? The community have uncovered various creature spells which aren't fully in working order, like the ‘Light’ and ‘Timebomb’ spells. How much content was cut and what?

    It's hard to answer this question, mostly because I can't remember which things didn't make the cut. For instance, until about 30 seconds ago I thought Timebomb was in the shipping game. Since it isn't, I'll tell you - you could turn imps into suicide bombers. Great fun!

    Peter was also very into mind-games. We had a feature where, if you were playing late at night and were connected to a printer, the invading hero would randomly spam it with threatening messages along the lines of "I'm coming to get you, you evil despot." Conceptually rather fun, but in practice a little distracting in an office environment. One night during testing, EA's printers started going mental across the world, with some people in the US thinking they were getting death threats.

    In terms of creature design, did any of them drastically change from development to retail? Can you elaborate?

    I don't think they did, really. Mark Healey always gave the impression that everything leaped out of his head fully formed and ready to ship. Either he's incredibly talented or he puts a great deal of effort into maintaining that deception. I think we all know which is true.

    We did however have to change the names. If you ever do get your hands on the code you will find that Bile Demon is probably referred to throughout as the, ahem, 'FatFuck'. Rumour has it that Mark modeled it on a colleague he wasn't getting on with.

    We understand that aside from being the lead programmer than you also had hands in level design, scripting and overall game design. Which particular levels did you design?

    I think the core team on Keeper all had fingers in various bits of the game. We were all young and passionate and worked in a small office, so pretty much everything in Keeper came out of random conversations and brainstorms from all of us.

    Moreover, at the time Bullfrog designed all its games as multiplayer first, single-player second. Most of Keeper was designed and balanced around epic late-night play sessions between members of the team. This gave the game a very unique flavour, but also meant that we didn't prioritize narrative and level design quite as much as we should have.

    The actual level design came very, very late in the day, and Peter jumped in to write the enemy Keeper AI in the last month or two. I believe this was the last time Peter wrote any code in a shipping game, a mercy for which coders everywhere are continually thankful.

    As it stands now, which level is your favourite and least from Dungeon Keeper and why?

    That's a hard question to answer when you've worked on a game for so long, as by the end of it you've lost all perspective. It's even trickier with Keeper because, in my head, it's very much a multiplayer game. I always had a soft-spot for the first snowy level, and I ended up detesting level 1. Level 1 is always the level you test out for tutorial bugs and performance problems, so I've probably played that level more often than anyone else on the planet.

    Could you indulge us by detailing which particular assets and features of the game were created by you alone?

    It's a cliche, but Keeper really was a group effort. Between 2 and 6 people stuck in a small room, bouncing random ideas off each other, and the ones people liked most got implemented that day. Me, Dene, Jonty, Alex, Mark and, of course, Peter were all involved in nearly all of the features in some way.

    That said, the dynamic lighting/shadowing system in Keeper was one of the first things I wrote. I had a very strong idea of how I wanted it to work, and I was always proud of how it turned out. Combined with Mark's art it gave Keeper a very unique look.

    Considering Dungeon Keeper essentially pioneered the fusion of first and third person, what particular obstacles and challenges did you face during development as the concept on a whole was new at the time?

    A rough rule of thumb is that the more dynamic you make a game, and the more freedom you give the player, the harder it is to implement, and the worse it will look. So a game where the entire environment is dynamic, where the lighting is dynamic, where you can view everything in two fundamentally different ways, and which runs swiftly on low-spec hardware - well, let's just that, in hindsight, it was madness.

    One of the other issues we hit was, perhaps surprisingly to atheists among us, an ethical one. Demoing the game at E3 in Atlanta we often had people accusing us of making a game that encouraged people to be evil and to consort with the devil. It was a tricky argument to have when you were beating seven bells out of imp and had a horned reaper clutched between two clawed fingers.

    Is there anything now that you look back at and wish was different or could be changed?

    Yes and no! Obviously, having worked with Keeper for so long it's impossible to look at it and not have new ideas. At the same time, when we shipped it, Keeper had been in development for a long time and was very close to having too many features and too little polish. It was an important lesson for me in knowing 'when to ship'. At the end of the day, almost by accident, the game had a good balance of humour, originality and features, and when we handed it over it felt 'whole'. As a developer, you can't ask for more than that.

    But yes, there are lots of things I'd love to see in a 'Keeper-like' game…

    Dungeon Keeper, even today is widely regarded as a game that has yet to be succeeded. It’s become a cult classic and still holds an admirable and respectable fan base. How does it feel that a game you had a significant input on is still played fifteen years later?

    Genuinely, it's a surprise. And I don't mean 'I didn't expect this at the time, so I always found it to be a pleasant surprise', I mean 'is it really? I had no idea!'. I've never been the most culturally 'with it' of people, and the first time I had any inkling that people were still even aware of Keeper was at GDC a year ago. I introduced myself to someone, and when I mentioned my involvement with Keeper he pretty much went rigid and fell over. It's happened a couple of times since then, so it was a relief to finally discover why.

    What were the working conditions like on Dungeon Keeper? Were the deadlines strict and the working hours crazy?

    Well, the running joke on Keeper was that, whenever Peter was asked by EA or a team member when we were shipping, he'd say 'oh, two weeks'. I don't think this was spin or a malicious plan to make us work hard, I think Peter genuinely still believes that pretty much anything can be done in 'two weeks'. 3 years of thinking you need to ship in two weeks does strange things to your mind…

    The last two years of Keeper were spent working in Peter's office in his house (he had a big house). As it happened, at the time I was also living in Peter's house, in the same wing as the office. My walk to the office from the front door was about 2, perhaps 3 meters. This meant that, for 2 years, I worked 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, took no holiday, and was never more than about 10 meters from my desk.

    It was both hellish and the most fun I've ever had.

    How was it working on the game with your brother, Dene Carter who also programmed and designed?

    Great! It was our experience with Keeper that gave us the confidence to start our own company, Big Blue Box, and develop Fable. After that Fable was by Lionhead a few years later, and we continued to work with each other on Fable 2. Dene is now doing the 'indie dev' thing, and we often help each other out.

    Could you tell us your fondest memory of Dungeon Keeper?

    Working in close proximity to Mark Healey was constantly amusing. At the time, when he was 24 or 25, he already had the most amusing collection of anecdotes I'd ever heard. 17 years on and I shudder to think what stories he has to tell.

    Then there was the time when Peter started being sent death-threats. We were working in his house, I was living in his house, and we were told that the sender of the threats had 'gone missing'. Every time there was a knock at the door Peter would jump, and we all expected some axe-wielding monster to appear. It wasn't helped that we all had the opening bars to 'Carmina Burana' on quick-play, and fired it off every time the door opened so that our murders would at least be appropriately dramatic.

    Are you still in touch with the rest of the original team?

    Pretty much. Dene and I see each other all the time, obviously, and Peter and I keep in touch. Alex, Jonty and Mark I don't see as often as I'd like, but Shin (lead level designer) introduced me to my wife. Well, that's what he says. In my book 'inviting two people to the same party and singularly failing to actually introduce them to each other' doesn't count as an introduction. But you know, whatever Shin.

    Dungeon Keeper 3. There, I said it. What was the concept for the game and how far in development did it get? Were you involved in any capacity?

    I actually, genuinely, have no idea what was proposed for Keeper 3. By the time Keeper 2 had come out I was so deeply into Fable that the rest of the world had blurred for me, and I had lost touch with the EA leadership team. For all I know, there never was a Keeper 3!

    Could you detail us some of the new concepts that game had? Creatures, features, mechanics, etc?

    I wish I could!

    Was Dungeon Keeper 3 really cancelled for a Harry Potter game? Despite the franchise being a great seller and critically acclaimed prior?

    I have no idea, but it wouldn't surprise me. And let's be honest, Harry Potter has probably made alot more money over the years than Keeper!

    How did you feel that the game was cancelled? Did you ever expect it to return in the future?

    For me, at least, it doesn't quite work like that. I'm immensely proud of Keeper, the passion that went into it and, obviously, that it reviewed and sold well. I'm similarly proud of Fable. But the games stand by themselves, rather than as part of a franchise, so in many ways it doesn't really matter to me what happens to them afterwards.

    However, many games from the 'early days' were innovative by necessity. Many of the ideas hadn't been explored before, and the only way to have a game that stood out from the crowd was to hone that originality. As games became more of a commodity, originality became less of a selling point. Now that mobile devices and Steam are plunging us back in to the Wild West, I think there's lots of things from the 80's and 90's that we can be inspired by.

    ---------------------------------

    Here are the questions that never got addressed as at the time I didn't have opportunity to follow up due to a hectic start of the year.

    • How many times have you beaten Dungeon Keeper in its entirety? What about Deeper Dungeons?
    • Can you tell us who your favourite and least favourite heroes and creatures are and why?
    • Have you ever booted up the game on your birthday and felt all warm inside when you see the secret message?
    • In retrospect, what is your least fond memory?
    • Would you say Dungeon Keeper has ever influenced you or inspired you in your career since its release?
    • Is it surreal that Dungeon Keeper continues to inspire and influence various games, even in this day and age? Did you ever expect Dungeon Keeper the successful and acclaimed entity that it is now?
    • Do you ever lurk or check up on any Dungeon Keeper forums like Keeper Klan, just to see that that candle is still burning?
    • If Dungeon Keeper never became the success that it is, where do you think Bullfrog would have gone from there? Do you think the path would've continued or that it would've caused the studio to rethink it’s strategies?
    • Was there ever a definitive reason why you didn't work on Dungeon Keeper 2? What are your honest impressions of the sequel? Did it remain true to the originals essence in your opinion seeing as it received the ‘Hollywood Treatment?
    • The community have continued to patch and expand Dungeon Keeper through programs such as KeeperFX which allows for entirely new campaigns and fixes, are you familiar with this?
    • The source code for the game has yet to be fully opened, even with talented individuals and newer technology, thus additional creatures, rooms and other assets have unfortunately never become a reality. If you were ever to encounter the games source code again, would working it be like riding a bicycle for you?
    • Well, it did return. In the form of a Chinese MMO. Electronic Arts never bothered with the licences for the best of a decade and when they did, it became a Chinese-territory only MMO. How did you feel about the bastardization of the franchise? Devoid of most of the things that made the original such a powerhouse!
    • If you were ever given the opportunity to work on a certificated remake of the original, would you? Off the top of your head, is there anything you would like to do with a remake or perhaps a sequel? How would you evolve the franchise?
    • In your honest opinion, do you feel Electronic Arts will ever do Dungeon Keeper justice?
    • Are there any particular game developers who you think would be capable of restoring Dungeon Keeper to its former glory?


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    Please spread the word on this exciting insight into our beloved game to fellow fans and communities! Once again a huge thank you to Simon Carter for providing his answers and time. Utmost respect to you sir, you never know, he may see this thread and answer those unanswered questions too!

    - Tony
    Last edited by Tyrant Cenobite; October 26th, 2013 at 21:38. Reason: spelling errors

  2. #2
    Elite Dragon Mothrayas's Avatar
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    Default Re: Interview with Simon Carter discussing DK development, death threats, DK3 & more!

    Nice interview. Very interesting read.

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    Dark God DragonsLover's Avatar
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    Default Re: Interview with Simon Carter discussing DK development, death threats, DK3 & more!

    Quote Originally Posted by Simon Carter
    For instance, until about 30 seconds ago I thought Timebomb was in the shipping game. Since it isn't, I'll tell you - you could turn imps into suicide bombers. Great fun!
    LOL!!!

    Quote Originally Posted by Simon Carter
    I always had a soft-spot for the first snowy level, and I ended up detesting level 1. Level 1 is always the level you test out for tutorial bugs and performance problems, so I've probably played that level more often than anyone else on the planet.
    First snowy level, and the only one in the campaign, is Moonbrush Wood.
    As for level 1, it's still used for tests today. Well, at least, I do.

    Very cool interview, thanks for sharing!
    I like dragons! They're the center of my life! I'll never forget them...



  4. #4
    Elite Dragon Mothrayas's Avatar
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    Default Re: Interview with Simon Carter discussing DK development, death threats, DK3 & more!

    Quote Originally Posted by DragonsLover View Post
    First snowy level, and the only one in the campaign, is Moonbrush Wood.
    There are two. Nevergrim, the level following Moonbrush Wood, is also a snow level.

  5. #5
    Dark God DragonsLover's Avatar
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    Default Re: Interview with Simon Carter discussing DK development, death threats, DK3 & more!

    *Facepalm* True.
    I like dragons! They're the center of my life! I'll never forget them...



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    Imp Tyrant Cenobite's Avatar
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    Default Re: Interview with Simon Carter discussing DK development, death threats, DK3 & more!

    Glad you enjoyed this interview, everyone!

    Simon has confirmed to me that he will answer the remainder of the questions as soon as he gets time, so perhaps I can slip in a few more questions if any of you have any in mind?

    List me your questions in a subsequent post and I'll do my best to present them to him, we might even be lucky enough to get them answered after all!

    Thanks.

  7. #7
    Beetle
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    Default Re: Interview with Simon Carter discussing DK development, death threats, DK3 & more!

    ".. when we shipped it, Keeper had been in development for a long time and was very close to having too many features and too little polish"

    This is so true. Myriad features, yet the launch AI was poor, and the levels unfinished in some ways (even an inaccessible special level!). So much functionality, yet only DK1 & DD released officially. Hence great to have KeeperFX, allowing multiple campaigns to explore and exploit the game to it's maximum potential (which itself is ever growing!)

    Suicide imps!! Sounds amazing! Mefisto- have you come across any remnants of this in the code?

    Great interview - an interesting read,

    Dayo

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    Imp
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    Default Re: Interview with Simon Carter discussing DK development, death threats, DK3 & more!

    Death threats hahaha. I laughed so hard there. I have loved this game forever

  9. #9

    Default Re: Interview with Simon Carter discussing DK development, death threats, DK3 & more!

    Interesting interview. "FatFuck" - oh no, one of my childhood dreams destroyed as the bile demon is my favourite creature - no, just kidding . I still like the "FatFuck" .

  10. #10
    KeeperFX Author mefistotelis's Avatar
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    Default Re: Interview with Simon Carter discussing DK development, death threats, DK3 & more!

    Quote Originally Posted by dayokay View Post
    Suicide imps!! Sounds amazing! Mefisto- have you come across any remnants of this in the code?
    This is actually quite strange - but no, I never seen such code. The function which controls creature state to do this must have been removed.
    Last edited by mefistotelis; December 28th, 2013 at 08:25.

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