On a the Secret of Megadungeons

"But it's just Hack & Slash Gameplay!",
"You can't role-play in a dungeon.",
 "It seems like a lot of boring, empty, rooms.",
"There's nothing exciting about a megadungeon."

Not a lot of people play or have played Megadungeons. Those that have, know people who deride megadungeons haven't played in a megadungeon campaign.

Most gaming experience is with adventure paths or loose sandboxes. A Megadungeon campaign is significantly different from either of those. I will say that again, because it is important. Megadungeon campaigns are significantly different from Adventure Paths and Sandboxes. Attempting to run a Megadungeon like either of those types of games will result in a bad end.

If you run a megadungeon campaign like an adventure path, then it immediately becomes a tedious slog of combat after combat. If you try to run it like a sandbox, the structure of the megadungeon itself works against you. Not only can you not see the other areas of the sandbox, most other actors within the dungeon have plans who's scope likely excludes the characters. Who cares what happens into the depths, when they are trapped in the mythic underworld? Megadungeons are not designed to facilitate player driven goals that are necessary for a sandbox to function.

Megadungeons are about The Mythic Journey

They have the player
(in the guise of his character)
Sit down at a table,
Race his peers and unknown threats
To retrieve the most valuable things,
from the darkest, secluded, places
and the denizens who live there
Who are not human
Who are not kind
Who do not care

There are elements of strong game structure in megadungeons, particularly revolving around encumbrance, time and light, movement and vision. These don't make any sense in Adventure Paths and are frequently less useful in sandbox games.

These are important because they provide weight to the idea of the Megadungeon as an inimical place. If you go 120' forward, You've caused a hazard die roll and resources available have decreased. Every step has a cost, and trying to get something—anything!— of value out this place is hard, because it pulls on you, weighing you down, refusing to leave.

It makes it mean something to the players. Territory explored is not only revealing the map; it's gained knowledge, that allows you to descend deeper in the depths of the mythic unknown. It is compiling this knowledge that empowers the player to engage in every more risky challenges in the depths. 

Megadungeon Meaning and Roll(e)

Megadungeons are mostly empty, because they are a Stage.
And us, the players.

It must serve three functions. It must obstruct and confuse characters in a way that challenges the player, it must be mostly empty so it can hold the emergent drama between players and dungeon actors while exploring, and it must contain treasure at intervals to provoke a reward response in players.

What happens is that while the players explore, they quickly become aware of other groups of monsters or players that are moving through the same dungeon area as they are. Most are not immediately hostile, but everyone in the dungeon is an opportunist. Fights against equally powerful non-player character parties are often fatal, but after they've fought a manticore, it might be a different story. It's likely they think the same about you.  These relationships and rivalries persist from session to session.  It is a sea filled with pirates and sharks. And since the door only opens once each week, you're stuck dealing with who you run into this session, while you're trying to accomplish your goal, meaning things usually go one way. . . or the other. 

Sometimes, there are dragons. 

Have you ever been hunted as a mouse? If your character survives to tell the tale, it will be memorable. If they could slay such a beast? Unforgettable.

So, no. Not like a Sandbox or Adventure Path. Yes, more focused on some unusual rules. More like an emergent adventure that challenges the player themselves. 
A fun game to play with a rotating group of friends. Friendly rivalry.
Sort of like a party game with dares. 
You know—a Megadungeon!
Are you going to cast Fireball or Protection! Which one! Quick!

On Megadungeon #1

I decided if I didn't take steps to get this done, it wouldn't ever happen.

Introducing Megadungeon #1
.pdf is 5.99$, print version coming very soon* at 9.99$.

It's awesome.
What is it? It's a magazine about Megadungeons. It details the famous OSR megadungeon Numenhalla, but material is usable in any campaign. It is dual-stated for B/X and 5e.

I drew all the maps

*Very soon for values of I've had trouble with RPGnow's POD before. It's processing now. Assuming it's a success, it'll take 7-10 days for the proof to arrive. So if there are no problems, expect POD on the 18th (and knowing how things work, that's really probably after the start of the year.)

Hopefully #2 will be much faster. :-)

If you're a Patreon  you should know you've already received your free .pdf this weekend!

Hack & Slash 

On a Mountain Shore

I did this a while ago, and I'm just now getting it scanned and uploaded. If you'd like a high quality version, one is available on the patreon.

It's nice. It's like looking around at all the adventure you could have!

Are we excited about what is going to happen on Friday? I'm excited.
Hint: It starts with M and ends with egadungeon.

Hack & Slash 

Basic Megadungeon Play and Procedures

A megadungeon campaign differs mechanically in several important ways from a normal campaign. This is often treated as "information everyone knows" and yet never documented (much like the actual procedure for hexcrawling). 

Sessions are objective-focused not plot-focused. Each session revolves around the completion of a specific quest. Sometimes this is a request from someone with a reward granted upon successful completion, sometimes this is the players with a specific goal, such as finding the location indicated on a treasure map. The dungeon is a puzzle (or death trap) designed to be solved, rather than a story to be completed.


Movement and turns are tracked rather strictly and in a game-like fashion. Historically turn is approximately 10 minutes, there are six turns an hour. This is not rigid, a turn means “the time it takes to complete a significant action". During a character’s turn the whole party may move,  or each character can engage in an individual action, such as picking a lock, try to bash open a door, looking for secret doors, etc.

Players may move a number of 10’ squares as indicated by their movement. An unencumbered 5th edition party may move 12 squares or 120’. Encumbrance slows this pace. A 5th edition party with an encumbered character can only move 8 squares. This is assuming careful, quiet, cautious observant movement. Players that move more quickly over unknown ground receive substantial penalties—always surprised, trips all traps, no mapping or distances given, hazard die rolled every turn, etc.


Traditional dungeon exploration uses an encounter die that is rolled, with a 1 indicating an encounter. More modern old-school takes on this turn this die into a “hazard” die with every result indicating some sort of decay of resources. This die is traditionally rolled every other turn, or three times in an hour. Often this die is rolled additionally in response to players arguing, making noise, or wasting time. The Hazard Die for Numenhalla is as follows.

1: Encounter
2: Monster Sign
3: Torches Burn
4: Torches & Lanterns burn, Ongoing effects, conditions, and statuses end.
5: Rest or gain a level of exhaustion.
6: Dungeon Effect


I generally pre-generate 6 encounters or so, and select one randomly when this occurs. It is perfectly acceptable to generate encounters on the fly, which often happens when players exercise their agency to go anywhere in the dungeon they wish.

The encounter begins per the standard rules 20’—120’ (2d6x10 feet) away from the party as long as they are within detection range. If you roll 100’ for the distance, and the farthest visible point of dim light is 80’ away, start the encounter at 80’. If you roll 100’ and the party can see 60, but psionically detect opponents to 100’ then start the encounter at 100’. If either party is surprised, then the encounter distance is 10'—30’ away.

This will frequently require adjustment based on the layout of the immediate area! You are encouraged to use your judgement to create a reasonable scene based on what the dice tell you. If you are in a giant room, and are surprised by trolls, have them drop from the ceiling or climb out of a secret hatch in the floor, or burst through a nearby door moving to the encounter distance indicated by the die.

The combination of the randomness of the encounter and your skill at integrating it into the current action contributes significantly to the emergent gameplay of the megadungeon.

Monster Sign

This is identical to an encounter roll; except the players will usually be aware of the monster somehow and the monster will be in the dungeon out of sight. Perhaps the players hear the monster or see signs of its passage. You choose a location for the monster, and when the players take a turn, the monster moves its movement in a random direction or a direction based on your judgment. They then become another entity moving around the dungeon. If the players continue to follow where it has been, then they will continue to see signs of its activity. Alternately, the players may attempt to track down the monster.

It is this cat and mouse that make the feature of empty rooms significant.

Torches Burn

Torches are either brightly lit, dim, or burnt. Each time this result occurs, lit torches decay. Brightly lit torches provide 40’ of illumination, 20 feet of bright and 20 feet of dim.
Dim torches provide 20’ of illumination, 10 feet of bright and 10 feet of dim.
Burnt torches do not provide light.
5 torches are a significant item.

Torches and Lanterns burn

Lanterns are always brightly lit. A single flask of oil will survive 3 depletions. On the 4th depletion, the lantern goes out. A lantern is a significant item. A flask of oil is a significant item.

Some things to keep in mind regarding lanterns and torches. They take a hand to use. If holding a torch or lantern in your shield arm you cannot use your shield. If dropped, lanterns have a 2 in 6 chance of breaking and starting a small fire. If torches are dropped they become dim, dim torches that are dropped become burnt. It takes a move action to set a lantern down gently.

Also, variable effects such as nausea, paralysis, temporary blessings, or other limited conditions end when this result is rolled.


Characters must spend this turn at rest, checking their equipment, eating, catching their breath. If they do not, they gain a level of exhaustion. Adding this to the hazard die, rather than attempting to recall when 6 turns have passed makes this easier to keep track of. Unencumbered characters may ignore this result one time.

Dungeon Effect

Each area in the dungeon has certain features that help distinguish it from other areas. When this is rolled, one of the listed effects occurs. This can be anything from sounds in the distance, to monsters being released, to blessings, curses, flooding, tunnel collapse, wormsign, etc.


Doors are inimical to dungeon explorers. Unless otherwise noted, doors are stuck. Most doors have a listed difficulty. If not, they have a Strength check DC of 13 + 2 * the Dungeon level to open.

On a failure, they door does not open. The players may try again, but no matter what they roll, the door won’t open.

Once open, unless a player specifies that they are holding the door open, the door rapidly shuts. Players may choose to spike a door open, but this triggers a roll of the hazard die. Unless they are one way doors, players need not check to open an already unstuck door.

Finally, if you are unable to kick down a door, you may if the door is wooden (or rarely stone) hack the door apart. A wooden door takes 1 turn to hack apart, if reinforced by bars 2 turns. A stone door can be destroyed in 4 turns. If players are hacking down or through a door, roll for encounters 3 times each turn as nearby wanderers investigate the noise and assume all monsters in rooms within 200' are aware of the attempt. If an inappropriate non-magical weapon is used it may break. Some doors may not be destroyed.

Hack & Slash 

On the Megadungeon and 5th Edition Play

Numenhalla was designed and playtested using the Moldvay/Cook Basic/Expert set of rules (colloquially B/X), which were optimized for dungeon style play and campaigns. The 5th edition of the worlds greatest role-playing game is designed around the three pillars of adventure, Exploration, Role-Playing, and Combat.

This differs significantly from the pillars of Megadungeon play. Whereas exploration in 5e is about discovery, exploration in a megadungeon is about resources. Combat occurs in a megadungeon often as a failure state. Role-playing in a megadungeon has more to do with “taking the role” of an individual hero, rather then representing a specific character. The challenge is for you, the player, to outwit the megadungeon, not develop a dynamic personality that comes out through interactions with non-player characters.

No one will take your books away if you decide to play differently, but embracing pure mega-dungeon play has a number of tremendous advantages. It allows free drop in and out play, supporting up to dozens of different players. No “catching up on the plot” is needed. Characters are in charge of determining their own risk/reward. Characters have complete agency within the dungeon. The design of such creates constant choices between risk and reward, making player choice significant.

However, 5th edition nearly obviates megadungeon design. Encumbrance is often handwaved, if used at all; this eliminates an entire pillar of play of figuring out how to safely extract treasure from the dungeon. When used, it’s complicated and non-intuitive (E.g. Strength to pounds, coins to pounds as opposed to Strength to coins.) The treasure itself becomes irrelevant because it no longer provides experience. Getting experience from combat means players are disincentivized to build positive relationships with factions. Gaining levels happens very quickly, granting the players powers and abilities that trivialize many encounters. Cantrips quickly remove any sort of resource management associated with exploration. Many of the skills are irrelevant to dungeon exploration.

Thankfully, only a few minor changes are needed. The below are the suggested changes to use 5th edition in a megadungeon campaign.


Experience is only given for combat when the players are attacked. If the players attack neutral creatures or non-hostile or non-attacking beings, or if they intentionally incite creatures to attack they gain no experience from the fight. Players gain no experience for random or wandering encounters.

Experience is given on a 1:1 basis for gold.

Experience is reduced by the difficulty level of the area. Areas are given a challenge rating. Adventuring in an area with a challenge rating lower then your level gives you experience equal to the the challenge rating divided by your level. (E.g. a level 4 character in a CR 3 area would get 3/4 experience. A level 2 character in a level 1 area would get 1/2 experience. A level 6 character in a level 2 area would get 1/3 experience.) This goes for all experience earned in easier areas, no matter what it comes from.

You can carry a number of significant items equal to your Strength. A significant item would be a suit of light or medium armor, a weapon, a bundle 5 of torches, a potion, a vial of oil, a lantern, 200 coins, etc. A suit of heavy armor or a bulky item takes 2 slots. If you have more than 1/2 your slots filled, you are encumbered per the variant rules in the 5th edition Player’s Handbook on page 176. If you are wearing a suit of armor that grants disadvantage on Stealth (Dex) checks, you are encumbered. If you have more than 3/4 of your slots filled, you are heavily encumbered. Let common sense carry the day.

Eliminate the “History (Int)” skill and replace it with “Appraisal (Int)”. Eliminate the “Survival (Wis)” skill and replace it with “Devices (Wis)”. The history of a megadungeon should be discovered, not already known. Survival is useless for the scale of exploration measured in hours and not days. A successful appraisal roll will give you the approximate value of a piece of treasure if it is examined for 1 minute. A successful devices roll will allow you to repair or disarm traps, repair machinery or equipment, or activate or use machinery. In Numenhalla, it will also allow you to install and repair Augatic parts.

Remove Darkvision from Elves, Half-Elves, Half-Orcs, and Tileflings. This leaves Dwarves and Gnomes as the only races that can see in the dark. For an adventure game, it would be tedious to track light sources. Megadungeons are more survival horror then adventure. Trying to survive in a pitch black underground environment filled with nightmares and terrors, light is a resource that must be carefully managed. Removing the ability of the dark to encroach upon the party significantly reduces the tension in megadungeon play.

The following changes are made to the spell lists:

  • Light is a 1st level spell for all classes.
  • Continual Flame is a 3rd level spell for all classes.
  • If Produce Flame is used 6 times, it consumes a first level spell slot.
  • Spells that do thunder damage or cause noise, immediately draw a hazard die roll.
  • Spells require material components. Identify is powerful in a megadungeon, less so if it requires 100 gp in pearl every time it is cast.

Revisions in Play

The above were the initial changes I made when playtesting Numenhalla. I also discovered rather quickly that resources available to 5th edition players rapidly outstrip even high-level basic characters, in spite of the math curve on the proficiency modifier almost exactly matching that of Basic. Characters gain levels faster, have much larger pools of hit points and output greatly increased damage compared to basic characters. Encounters that would be challenging for a 5th or 6th level basic party due to numbers, would fail to challenge an equivalent 5th edition party.

Addressing this has to be carefully balanced against the feeling of character progression. Obviously if you just increase the danger everywhere as the players level, then they really aren't accomplishing much.

The issue is that the megadungeon is an open campaign, and should contain a variety of monsters that provide a threat to players of various skill levels as they advance. Often players will be retreading the same ground, but with new challenges. But the power-curve crawls so high, so quickly, in 5th edition that deadly encounters become trivial to even mid level parties. Whereas because of the lower power curve, a deadly encounter at first level is still a difficult and challenging one for a 7th or 8th level party in Basic.

Philosophically, this comes down to expectations in play. Modern games like 5th edition contain a large component of 'character advancement' as reward. But if the activities in the game don't change due to this advancement, then it's functionally illusory. You are simply rolling larger and larger dice. The activities and opportunities in a megadungeon do change as basic characters advance, they gain more endurance and the ability to address new a difficult problems. This is also true of 5th edition characters, but the scale is simply much, much more extreme.

A basic fighter will have about 6 hit points at first level, 19 at 3rd, and 39 at 6th level. A 5th edition fighter will have about about 12 hit points at first level, 28 at 3rd level and 52 at 6th level. 5th edition monsters have a more gradated curve of damage output in order to handle the higher abilities of the characters. The encounters and areas must also follow this design in order to provide challenge for the players.

Here are my thoughts on how to address the issue.

  • I've separated 5th edition advancement into separate tiers of play. When entering a new area, it becomes 'locked' at the tier in which the party entered. Later, when restocking, the tier can be adjusted. Note that there is no reason for this to be exploitable. You're a human being. If they haven't been to an area other than to stick their head in, then it isn't locked as anything. This is simply a way to address difficulty without yanking the rug out from underneath the players in terms of expectations of growing in power. 
  • Each of these tiers has their own encounter table and monster encounters for each faction and encounter in the area. 
  • Certain monsters and traps will be considered legendary, having access to a higher threat level based on the average threat of the area. This will still allow dangerous things in areas as well as allowing players to return to an area to defeat a tough opponent. 
Adventurer covers level 1-4, Heroic covers levels 5-8, and Super-heroic covers levels 9-12. Higher then 12th level in 5th edition, and you're coming up against the bounds of what a static environment like a mega-dungeon can provide. Basic characters don't even gain hit points past level 8. Note that 12th level is only 100,000 experience, which in Basic games would only allow you to rise to level 6. 

It's suggested for this reason (more rapid advancement, greater power, etc.) that the general experience available for megadungeon play be (severely) constrained. Players shouldn't gain a level every session or two, aiming for a more traditional rate of 1 level every 4-6 weeks to level 7, and then every 8-12 sessions after that. 

For those of you reading the above with jaws struck slack at taking 2 years to get a character to level 8 or 9, that is the way things used to be. It would often take even longer being that tables had 6-12 people in a session and megadungeons often had around 50-60 players. The list of people who've been to Numenhalla is easily that long. 

Megadungeons are about challenging the player through rewarding play experience, rather than rewarding the player with advancement for experiencing play. I love leveling up and getting new powers as much as the next person, but that excludes wonderful styles of play. The above is how I hope to address it.

Hack & Slash 

On a Grim Dawn After a Titan’s Death, Part II

The Dawn of. . .grimness?

After Iron Lore and Titan Quest had been put to sleep, lead developer Authur Bruno wasn’t done. He still wanted to keep working on the Action Role-Playing genera.

Because Iron Lore had approached THQ with a working engine, THQ owned all the titan quest intellectual property, along with all the graphics and assets. It turns out however, that Iron Lore still owned the rights to the underling engine.

Obviously there are fans of this type of game. But at the time, late 2007, Torchlight, Path of Exile, and the rumored Diablo 3, all stood on the horizon. What’s a small time developer to do?

Over 12,000 people and half a million dollars later, there was a budget to finish the game. And the work stands as an ode to what Titan Quest wasn’t. Now, when you swung your weapon at enemies, they visibly reacted, flying into the air or gibing when killed, sprays of blood arcing across the screen. They might have gone a bit overboard after all the restrictions from THQ.

It also positioned itself in the market, catering to what the other Action RPG’s didn’t. There was no competitive multiplayer. No streamlined simple builds for causal players. No endlessly running maps. There was just this impossibly large, single player, traditional three-difficulty, action RPG, with 15 different class combinations (28 after the expansion), and hundreds of different builds and options.

Then, the game went into early access on Steam, late in 2013. And although Grim Dawn has been out of early access since February of 2016, early access defines the way this game was made.

Grim Dawn

What is it about Grim Dawn? How is it so different from everything that came before?

The essential truth about it is that Grim Dawn isn’t about money. It’s a small team with expertise, doing a small do it yourself project, that is a thing they want to see in the world. If they wanted money, they wouldn’t be pouring their skills into this project. They would be selling their substantial technical skills to the highest bidder. 

Since early access and after release, every few weeks, there is an update. The updates constantly pour new free content in the game. They contain quality of life increases. They adjust things for better balance. In large part, they do this, because the employees at Crate love their game and are playing it. These are additions they make because they want to see them. This constant nearly decade long stream of constant development isn’t a thing that will last forever, but it is an amazing thing to be part of this process for as long as it lasts.


Grim Dawn is a game for old people. Not a catchy sales pitch, I know, but it is a game designed in the old style, by people who miss the way games used to be. This doesn’t just mean that the game systems are complex, or that the game doesn’t hold your hand, or that the game has 80’s references. It’s more than that. Grim Dawn is an old game, built on a solid foundation and worked and worked into a masterpiece of what was. No global multiplayer. Local multiplayer. Personal servers. And secrets.

Lots and lots of secrets.

Speed runs of the Veteran Difficulty take somewhere around 40 minutes. A non-glitched run can be done in under a few hours. A significant and substantial part of the game involves hidden content. There’s a whole zone with a shrine and a golden chest behind a secret wall in an underground hive. There are dozens of zones with no integration to the main quest, but that provide useful and unique rewards. There are at least three completely hidden secret quest lines, two of which can only be completed on the ultimate difficulty. Finally, depending on which factions you choose, certain areas only become available after you’ve reached maximum reputation with the faction.

One update included the “Path of the Witch Gods”, 4 bosses, a secret mega-boss hidden within a secret area, a new dungeon, and a bonus skill point, and four areas completely hidden within the main game, with hardly any information on how to even begin the quest.


Arthur has an extended post on the Grim Dawn forums where he talks about his design philosophy.

In his own words: “I think we’re probably unique . . . While most studios are redesigning their games to be more casual-player friendly, we’re busy making Grim Dawn more complex and probably casual-player hostile.

An example of this are the number of overlaying systems within Grim Dawn. On top of picking some combination of two classes and gear, there’s a separate overlaying devotion system. As you restore shrines around the world, you get a pool of up to 55 points that allow you to select benefits from constellations. Running a critical build? Work up to Unknown Solider and have a shadow double run around and attack things critically. Do you like being defensive? If you use a shield, get the obelisk and turn into living stone when you get hit. Any of these are available no matter what your base classes are, giving you entirely new options for character development.

He continues, “I think older, traditional PC games had a certain magic that has been lost in most modern games. . . Publishers and developers are increasingly looking to boost their sales by attracting more of the casual market and increase their revenue by getting this larger audience to make a lot of small purchases. . . We’ve come a long way from my childhood, where failure in most games caused you to start completely over from the beginning, to a point where it is impossible to fail in many games and in some you can just pull out your credit card when you decide it is time to win.

The sad reality though, is that this isn’t some evil corporate executives have perpetrated upon humanity, it’s what people want. At least, some people. Well, as it stands, it appears to be quite a lot of people and that is why the industry and gaming is largely trending in this direction. This is all anathema to what I love about games and is much of the reason that I’ve forgone earning an income the past couple years and instead slave away, with a few other dedicated souls, to create a game that we hope will embody some of what we loved about the games of yesteryear.

Which is why I say, Grim Dawn is a game for old people. No seasons to keep up with. Pause and quit anytime. You are able to play and make progress in short bursts. You can play with people you know or your family, without worrying about lag or online competition. It’s huge and complicated and there’s always something new or interesting to find or do. You buy the game once and never pay again. If you want more, there are expansion packs to buy with more content. All things done in the old style.


When other games in the genera are long dead, Grim Dawn will remain. It is a monument. Not because of the updates. But because of the systems, gameplay design and refinement.

All the systems in the game are designed with the end-user experience in mind. For example, the reputation system. Each faction, both friendly and hostile, tracks your relationship. Rather then this being a grindy annoyance, it’s well designed. Friendly factions, once you reach your maximum reputation, offer a scroll that gives a 100% to faction relationships to any character that reads it. So while your first time you have to put in the work to reach revered with a faction, subsequent characters can do the same though just regularly playing the game.

This also provided them with the opportunity to create rewards for your actions in game. the more you slaughter a faction, the more the faction hates you. The more they hate you, the more heroes they spawn. The more heroes that spawn, the better loot you get.

The level system is another example. The recently released Ashes of Malmouth expansion raised the level cap to 100. Doesn’t that sound grindy? Only, once you get a good relationship with the Malmouth factions, you get access to a potion that grants 100% bonus experience. Now you can level up even faster, if you want to.

That’s another thing that’s nice about Grim Dawn. There is no endgame. There’s no rushing through the leveling process, because although you can farm, after you finish the game on ultimate, the game is basically done for that character. It’s time to try a new build and take on the challenges again. The endgame is the game.

That’s really the core of the game play design. The way the game is structured, is it’s always most rewarding to actually play the fun part of the game, rather then farm or grind. Moving forward means new shrines, new one-time chests, new quest rewards. You’re never encouraged to just farm and farm and farm. All systems are most efficiently maximized by simply exploring and playing the game. 

On a Grim Dawn After a Titan’s Death, Part I

Death is only the beginning” - Reanimator

One million copies sold as a studio dies. It gives rise to a slow burn, do-it-yourself, action role-playing game that stands poised to be one of the best ever created. Was there ever any failure? How did the Crate team get to use the Engine from Titan Quest in Grim Dawn? What is the key to Grim Dawn’s ultimate success?

Iron Lore and Titan Quest

Iron lore died quickly, even among gaming studios. It closed its doors after 8 years in February of 2008, citing “unrelated issues” that resulted in a failure to secure funding. Its sole work at the time was Titan Quest, and Soulstorm an expansion for the Games Workshop branded real-time strategy game Dawn of War III.

8 years isn’t long. The first two years were spent on the pitch for Titan Quest, which was their only project till its release in 2006. The Titan Quest expansion “Immortal Throne” came soon after in 2007, though it was less an expansion, closer to the final act of the game. Substantial work on the expansion had already been completed by the time of the games release. The Dawn of War expansion was finished from 2006-2007, and then the company ended early the following year.

So why?

Well, Michael Fitch of THQ has some ideas.

if. . . people who pirated the game had actually spent some god-damn money for their 40+ hours of entertainment, things could have been very different today.” -Michael Fitch

Now Titan Quest sold a million plus copies. Is that the end of the story?

What Michael goes on to explain is that the copy protection scheme they paid for to prevent piracy caused the game to randomly crash if it was cracked. This led to a lot of chatter online about how the game was unstable. The onerous copy protection scheme drove many legitimate owners to use the crack so they could play the game.  

This is on a game that made money and sold a million copies. He goes on to say:
Some really good people made a seriously good game, and they might still be in business if piracy weren't so rampant on the PC. That's a fact.” -Michael Fitch

Your eyes might dart over to Crate Entertainment and their Digital Rights Managment-free highly successful game Grim Dawn at this point. He further complains about the modular personal computer hardware market and goes on to say:

Which brings me to the audience. There's a lot of stupid people out there. . .PC folks want to have the freedom to do whatever the hell they want with their machines, and god help them they will do it; more power to them, really. But god forbid something that they've done—or failed to do—creates a problem with your game. There are few better examples of the "it can't possibly be my fault" culture in the west than gaming forums.” -Michael Fitch

What’s going on here? Where’s his disconnect? Even at 40$, one million times should be enough to keep any studio in business.  This was over a decade ago, before the dominance of Steam. Another popular game of the time, Sins of a Solar Empire also had no copy protection and made a bundle of money for it’s publisher. What actually happened with Titan Quest and Iron Lore?


It has a great deal to do with how publishers (like THQ) and development studios (like Iron Lore) function. First, the studio makes a pitch to the publishers. If accepted, the studio gets an “advance”. Then once the game is complete, the sales should pay off the advance, until a profit stage is reached. However, much like movie studio accounting, very few games ever are shown to make a profit, and unless you have a breakout hit, developments studios will never see a dime past the advance. 

Arthur Bruno, head of Crate Entertainment, lays out exactly how they didn’t get any money from the sales. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that many, if not most independent studios, make little or no money off the actual sales of games they develop. If you take the case of Titan Quest and Immortal Throne, information I’ve been given put the combined sales over a million copies in late 2008. At that time I heard that it had reached profitability for THQ. Since then it has continued to do surprisingly well in digital sales given its age. Yet, the owners of Iron Lore never and probably will never receive a royalty payment due to the structure of the funding deal.

What this means is, they need to have another project ready to go after a project is completed in order to secure another advance. This did not happen for Iron Lore. Arthur explains, “Ultimately though, all the decisions the company made and all the events that transpired, lead to a situation where Iron Lore couldn’t survive a gap between projects.

So not only did it sell a million copies, the publisher didn’t have to share that profit with Iron Lore. How did the game get viewed as a failure? 

Early bad press and obnoxious copy protection

During the release, leaked and hacked pirated copies surfaced, and due to the copy protection crashed to the desktop. This combined with the obnoxious procedure of inserting a random disk on launch in order to play the game, means that many legitimate users used a crack in order to play more conveniently. 

This led to a great deal of early press talking about the games instability, even though for a new release it was reasonably bug free. This word of mouth caused release sales to be very slow.

Unrealistic Expectations

Both Brian Sullivan the director of Iron Lore and THQ believed that this action role-playing game would sell more copies than the sims. John Walker recalls "[Brian Sullivan] said, as I interviewed him for PC Gamer, how he expected Titan Quest to be a break-out success, to be a game that reached a non-gaming mainstream audience—that it would do for the RPG what The Sims had done for management games. And I didn’t really know what to say, because, well, no it wouldn’t. It was a game about hitting mythical creatures with an axe. It was slightly awkward.

Studio Interference

In pursuit of that ideal, THQ played a heavy hand. Arthur (née Merrida) talks about it on the Grim Dawn forums, “There seemed to be a constant fear during the development of Titan Quest about upsetting this or that segment of the audience or someone's grandmother. I was literally told by one of the higher-ups that the game should be designed so that his grandmother would want to play it (even though his grandmother had never played a game before in her life).

Some examples of the changes they were forced to make:

  • They were required to remove snow, because people might not realize it snowed in Greece. 
  • Enemies were not allowed to be shown using language or building any structures. 
  • Humans were never allowed to die. 
  • Human corpses were not allowed to be shown.
  • No Greek ruins were allowed to be shown. 
  • Greek mythology had to be relegated to dialog boxes because addressing the gods, either though gameplay or in the story was too religious.

Quests were removed, ideas were formed, and the team moved on from Titan Quest. But that still doesn’t tell us how Grim Dawn managed to get made. Read part II here.

Hack & Slash 
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