Feature: The Making of Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom & Shadow Over Mystara
Posted by Damien McFerran
Hey waiter, you got some RPG in my beat ‘em up!
The fantasy role-playing series Dungeons & Dragons has enjoyed a long a fruitful relationship with the pastime of video gaming. We’ve seen countless digital interpretations of the tabletop war-game, each one utilising the staggering scope of the licence to create new and amazing worlds for the player to explore. Yet the vast majority of these titles have remained firmly rooted in the realms of the video game RPG — which isn’t a terrific surprise when you consider the genre was directly inspired by the pen-and-paper universe that D&D inhabits. However, throughout the past few decades there have been some notable exceptions, with the most striking being Capcom’s duo of 2D arcade titles — Tower of Doom and Shadow Over Mystara - both of which were released in the mid-90s and will soon be making their way to the Wii U eShop in the form of Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara.
Capcom acquired the licence to create D&D titles at the start of the 1990s and as part of the deal the company ported Westwood Studios’ Eye of the Beholder to the SNES. However, this was merely a taster for what was to come; Capcom wanted to use this most prestigious of Western licences in a manner that had never been seen before. Initially though, things didn’t exactly go according to plan and it took the influence of Alex Jimenez to get the ball rolling. Jimenez — himself a self-confessed D&D addict — found that his path into video game development was anything but straightforward.
“I got my entry into the industry by the great forces of the universe: happenstance and dumb luck,” he says with a grin. “Capcom was having difficulty getting product approval from TSR, which was the company that controlled and published D&D. Capcom Japan had turned to its US branch to try and work something out with TSR, with SSI mediating - SSI was the holder of the video game license and had subbed it out to us for an arcade game. The problem was that most of the USA staff consisted of sales and manufacturing folks who didn’t play D&D. Enter one of the lesser-sung heroes of the video game world, a guy named James Goddard. He complained to a female friend of his — who was a friend of mine as well — about the difficulties they were having and how he needed help in general. She referred him to me as she knew I played a lot of D&D and she thought I could be helpful in demonstrating the basic concepts of the game. So they brought me on as ‘special consultant’ and as an assistant to James.”
"I was given the job of writing and designing what would become Dungeons and Dragons: Tower of Doom"
Scooped from his tabletop battleground and planted inside Capcom’s US headquarters, Jimenez quickly settling into his new role. “My duties were to research how D&D could be better explained to the Japanese, coming up with concept ideas, assisting in the testing of new games and gathering data from field-tested arcade games,” he remembers. “From that humble beginning, the duties kind of grew and expanded. Having never worked on a video game, I wrote what was basically a module adventure, something I would have — and in fact did — put my regular players through, and presented it. After a few meetings with TSR and SSI I was given the job of writing and designing what would become Dungeons and Dragons: Tower of Doom.”
Although it wasn’t immediately apparent to him at the time, Jimenez was quite literally breaking new ground. “James Goddard and I were the first Americans to have serious design input on a Capcom Japan game before its release,” he explains. “Whenever you’re the first at anything, there’s always a certain amount of apprehension from the establishment. I was brought in as a consultant — to help explain the D&D paper and pencil game — so naturally they were a little more wary when I started writing the story and design flow for the game.” The fusion of Western fantasy role-playing and Japanese design sensibility unsurprisingly resulted in some friction, at least initially.
"There were some major differences in opinion on what the game would be like"
“There were some major differences in opinion on what the game would be like,” recalls Jimenez. “Capcom felt it should be more Asian in flavour, styled more like the anime series Record of Lodoss War, and many of the early character designs reflected this. On the other hand, TSR wanted it to reflect a more traditional Western D&D game, and I caught right in the middle! But a little diplomacy — and a lot of fast talking — goes a long way; over time we got over the mutual wariness and began to work as a cohesive team. It took a bit of effort, but we got there. The language barrier was formidable, but fortunately we had plenty of excellent help in that department.”
While pretty much every D&D title up to this point had slavishly adhered to the tried-and-tested RPG template, Capcom’s title would dare to be different. Calling upon the developer’s considerable experience in the field of side-scrolling 2D brawlers — games such as Final Fight, Captain Commando and Cadillacs and Dinosaurs — the powers that be decided to give the D&D world a metaphorical kick up the backside. However, as Jimenez reveals, ideas came from outside of the company, too. “My personal inspirations came from Sega’s Golden Axe, which I loved, and an old Laserdisc game called Thayer’s Quest, which to my knowledge was the first coin-op to use an inventory system,” he explains. “Thayer’s Quest also used the multiple path system that I adopted into the D&D games.”
Common sense might dictate that your typical D&D player isn’t likely to be an arcade-going beat ‘em up enthusiast, but as Jimenez explains, getting existing fans on board wasn’t necessarily the objective. “During the entire development of D&D we had one goal: to reproduce as closely as possible the experience of playing D&D,” he says. “I wanted people who played D&D and people who never had. I wanted both groups to walk away from the game thinking that they had played not just an arcade game, but an actual game of D&D.”
"The biggest problems were how to explain the different strengths of the character classes and the concept of an inventory system"
Even though Tower of Doom was clearly a step down in terms of complexity when compared to a legitimate tabletop game of D&D — with its pen, paper, multi-sided dice and weighty rule book — it nevertheless contained far more depth than contemporary fighters, despite the lack of any grapple or throwing moves. Such intricacy caused several headaches for the design team.
“The biggest problems were how to explain the different strengths of the character classes and the concept of an inventory system,” says Jimenez. “I remember the latter being a big problem. Using it would make the game much more complicated than was originally intended; Tower of Doom was supposed to be 2-button joystick game. With an inventory system you had to add two more buttons for ‘select’ and ‘use’. In the arcade world, more buttons means higher per unit cost and it also makes the game harder to sell as a conversion, since owners would have to drill in extra holes in their machines to accommodate the game. We spent a lot of time arguing about this, but in the end we finally convinced them it would make the game much better.”
It also meant that Tower of Doom would require far more dedication on behalf of the player than your average side-scrolling fighter, but this didn’t faze Jimenez in slightest. “I remember being told that Street Fighter II was originally rejected because they thought having six buttons would be too much for a player to learn,” he states. “When you add in all the combos and special moves, the average player would never go for it, they said. Yet Street Fighter II was a huge success. An important rule I soon learned was to never underestimate your player; give them a good game and they’ll figure it out.”
"I remember being told that Street Fighter II was originally rejected because they thought having six buttons would be too much for a player to learn"
Working with a license such as D&D is both exciting and at the same time incredibly restrictive; while you have an entire pre-fabricated world to play around with — including multiple races, spells, monsters and locations — you have to ensure that you don’t abuse the subject matter or create any situations that might be paradoxical or out-of-place. This was a tough balance to maintain, even for a hardcore D&D fan such as Jimenez. “I had free reign to do whatever I wanted provided I stayed in the defined areas of the D&D world,” he states. “Even then, there were certain areas they wanted me to avoid, such as the Elven kingdom — they had plans for that at the time. Beyond that the sky was the limit. TSR and SSI were great; they sent me so much material. The D&D world was so rich back then, so writing the storyline was the easy part. Getting that story approved by both Capcom and TSR was another matter entirely.”
Indeed, getting his Japanese colleges to grasp certain elements of the D&D world wasn’t easy. “They had more difficulty with the setting then in any of the game concepts,” Jimenez comments. “There was a Japanese printing of Advanced D&D but not basic D&D, which is what we were working with. None of the really superb Mystara game materials — which was the campaign in which the Capcom titles would take place — were printed in Japanese. Mystara was such large world with so many settings; it was hard for me to keep the adventure contained in so few lands and it was hard for Capcom’s designers to not want to introduce their own flavour into these already established domains. For example, one level takes place on a ship at sea with the players battling creatures on the decks. Capcom Japan thought it would be cool if the ship was a side-paddle boat steamer, something that does not exist in the main D&D world. They thought it looked cool and they wanted me to persuade TSR to go along with it. Well when TSR said ‘No’ boy did they mean no, and I’d worked with them enough to know when they said it, they meant it. But Capcom wouldn’t take no for an answer — they kept pushing to get it in and just could not understand why they couldn’t have it. I kept trying to explain that TSR was not trying to be difficult, it was just that a side-paddle steamer didn’t fit into a Medieval European fantasy setting, yet they kept telling me how cool it would look. The concept of anachronism was something they could not — or would not — grasp. I finally told them that they had to yield to the wishes of the licensor or the game would not be approved. There were a few smouldering feelings and quite a few bruised egos, but they finally gave in.”
"Suddenly the players got into an argument over who should get what treasure"
Given the tantrums, tears and toil expended over the production of Tower of Doom, there was understandably a degree of trepidation prior to its release. This was a brave new way of representing the beloved D&D universe and was the first title based on the license to be produced by a Japanese company; there was a very real danger that fans would hate it and traditional arcade-goers would perceive it as being too geeky. However, such feelings of unease were largely unwarranted, as the first public exhibition of the game proved. “We did the sneak preview at Gen Con, an annual gaming convention that was started by D&D founder Gary E. Gygax,” recalls Jimenez. “TSR used to have to have a huge castle that dominated the floor, and that year Capcom was given prime space in the castle. Very soon we had a huge crowd at the game and they were very excited. I was discreetly monitoring and listening to the crowd for their reactions, when suddenly the players got into an argument over who should get what treasure. Just then one of the guys in the crowd — who didn’t know who I was — leaned over to me and said: ‘Man, whoever made this knew how to capture the essence of a D&D session!’ I take that as the highest compliment I’ve ever received!”
Tower of Doom was eventually released in 1993 and went on to become a modest success for Capcom. Granted, it wasn’t in the same league as the insanely lucrative Street Fighter II or Final Fight, but arcade owners found that the machine produced steady profits thanks to its deep play mechanics and branching pathways. It was a truly unique coin-op — one which rewarded repeat play and kept players interested. Taking this into account — as well as the fact that Capcom wished to make as much of the D&D license as possible — it’s unsurprising to discover that a sequel was in development before a single coin had even been inserted into a Tower of Doom machine.
“Work began on Shadow Over Mystara almost immediately and took about sixteen months, compared to Tower of Doom’s twenty,” reveals Jimenez. “We had a pretty clear idea about the mechanics so it was just a matter of getting new art and story. Things went remarkably smoothly; we got the story approved on the first pass from TSR. To this day I have that approval framed, just to prove it really happened.” The 1996 sequel allowed Capcom to fix some of the problems that existed in the first title — the most pressing being a lack of characters. The svelte Thief and punk rocker-style Magic User were drafted in, further expanding the variety offered to players. However, a lot of work went into aspects of the game that weren’t quite as immediately apparent.
As well as retaining the branching paths, the game contained a staggering number of possible endings. “Each Character had four separate endings — except the dwarf, who had three,” says Jimenez. “Each ending was based on how much experience points a player had earned over the course of the game. The amount would also vary based on the level of difficulty the operator set the game for. Basically it translated as the more cash you earned the happier your ending — a little shallow perhaps, but this was D&D after all.” Other elements were added that lent the game an even stronger RPG feel, such as the presence of ultra-rare items, including ‘Skin of the Displacer Beast’, ‘Eye of the Beholder’ and the legendary ‘Staff of Wizardry’. “The staff gave a damage bonus to your spells but would only work for Magic Users,” explains Jimenez. “It also allowed for the famous ‘Retribution Strike’, where a wizard breaks his staff, releasing all its energy in one massive blow. However the conditions needed to pull this off were difficult to say the least. There were other magic items that were going to be included in the game but were cut because of development time and space limitations.”
"To know that I helped create something that so many people have enjoyed has filled me with a great deal of personal pride"
Capcom’s two D&D games have gone on to become cult classics, revered by countless gamers the world over. Jimenez enjoyed a fruitful career at Capcom, assisting in the production of some of the firm’s greatest 2D titles, and although he’s since moved on to other employment within the industry, these two early projects hold a special place in his heart. “To know that I helped create something that so many people have enjoyed has filled me with a great deal of personal pride,” he says with a smile. “With the possible exception of Marvel Super Heroes, I consider the D&D titles to be the greatest games I’ve ever worked on, even after two decades in the industry. The fact that people still play and enjoy them never ceases to amaze and delight me. When people come up and thank me for making a game they liked I always turn it around and thank them. As a game developer my job is to entertain; to please the players. When they tell me that I’ve done that, those are the days I go home with a smile on my face.”
This feature originally appeared in its entirety in Imagine Publishing’s Retro Gamer magazine, and is reproduced here with kind permission. Special thanks go to Fantasy Anime for providing many of the screens and scans used to illustrate this feature.