Dungeon Overlord Brings Nostagically Evil Strategy to Facebook

Of all the great Bullfrog games – and there were many – Dungeon Keeper is arguably the most beloved. Many a developer has tried to recapture the feeling of “Evil is Good.”  Dungeon Overlord from Sony Online Entertainment and Night Owl Games has the same hopes, but in a multiplayer casual environment – which, as it turns out, may have been too lofty and difficult a goal.

My first encounter with Dungeon Overlord brought memories of late-night gaming sessions spent torturing minions rushing back. Overlord is spot-on accurate in its attention to detail, witty animations, and subtle manipulations of creatures. (Shock an orc, anyone?)

Though the theme is drawn from Dungeon Keeper, the gameplay of Overlord feels similar to Kingdoms of Camelot – or, even more accurately, browser-based titles such as Evony or Ikariam. Players start by building their dungeons inside volcanoes, harvesting the necessary resources to create a lengthy list of items and supplies that grows longer with each level. Over time, the player can move into dungeons in other volcanoes (those that spawn different resources), trade for his needs, or begin a campaign of raiding other players to keep in stock.

But despite the similarities, Dungeon Overlord misses the mark that Kingdom of Camelot seems to hit so well. It’s highly polished, well-written, has incredible art direction — and yet it simply feels like a game intended for another audience. Given the amount of work that obviously went into Overlord, and the storied pedigree itdraws from, we got in touch with Chris Mayer, CEO of Night Owl Games, to talk about the design decisions behind their first (and SOE’s sixth) Facebook title.

“When Night Owl was forming in 2008, the goal was to build the company not based upon a single game but upon an idea, long term,” explained Mayer.  “We wanted to distinguish ourselves. Looking at what had been happening in Europe, particularly in Germany with companies like GameForge and BigPoint, we determined that browser games were not a future but THE future.”

“But we didn’t want to copy what the big players were doing; we didn’t have the experience.  We really wanted to do something different so we focused on making a browser game for gamers. Something they could play at work for a little while.”

This statement readily explained one aspect of Dungeon Overlord that had been nagging me: the UI is obtuse, the nomenclature is straight from a gamer’s lexicon, and the menus are at times four deep.  Still, the hand of SOE is readily apparent. An excellent tutorial carries the player through most of the first half of level one; the writing is exceptional and funny (there IS writing!); and the initial gameplay is explained well.

Mayer went on to explain the connection to Dungeon Keeper.  “After looking at what Flash can do, we looked back to some of our favorite titles from the late 80s and early 90s. Dungeon Keeper really stood out. The true magic of was the single player, not the multiplayer – the multiplayer only lasted about 20 minutes. Our goal was to build a game we could build a company around, a service around. Dungeon Keeper may give us our look and feel, but its games like Travian, Evony and Ikariam that inspire our gameplay.”

Being web-based, these titles self-select for the hard core player hardcore gamer fairly quickly. They also begin with casual gameplay which later rewards the player who logs in most frequently rather than has the best strategy. Part of the design philosophy common to them all (including Overlord) it the unsubtle, macro-managed economic system, which opens the way to focus on petty political squabbles that lead to vicious player battles. (My level four warlocks and orcs were creamed by five level 35+ players just a few days ago.) Dungeon Overlord currently lacks any subtle systems; it’s all about become big and strong as fast as possible.

Further explanations regarding design decisions are found in the fact that it wasn’t built as a Facebook title. It was initially platform agnostic. The decision to place the game on Facebook was made only near the end of production. As a browser-based title following in the footsteps of its inspirations, the design is one of solid asynchronous real-time strategy. But in being on Facebook, the designers are depending heavily on the availability of a non-traditional sector of Facebook gamers, which might be a difficult path. As was mentioned before, this game design caters to the player who logs in most frequently which is decidedly anti-social network game design.

I’m of two minds when it comes to Dungeon Overlord. I want to like this title. It appeals to the gamer in me; I want to ensure I have the perfect balance of minions, best use of room tiles, and every piece of furniture that provides a bonus I can manage. But once I’ve set up the basics I find myself on the defense against raids if I wish to attempt to be a trade force, or I must enter the raids that will become my path should I plan to play past a certain stage. And checking on my resources to start production (lest they be stolen) all day long becomes a chore.

Building for the hard-core gamer is an admirable goal and a demographic that is currently very much ignored.  But building the game in a manner that allows a player to lose, requires manual resource collection, and thereby necessitates active management of dungeons removes any casuality of the Facebook platform. Dungeon Overlord isn’t a bad game; it’s simply a bad Facebook game. Were it a browser-based title along with its cousins Ikariam, Evony, and Travian, it would have the potential to become an excellent game.