Stormfront Studios Interview

Those of you who have been playing RPGs as long as I have will no doubt have fond memories of SSI's "Gold Box" games and, if you could afford to play by the hour, the original Neverwinter Nights on America Online.  Several of these early Dungeons & Dragons titles were developed by Stormfront Studios, whose name you might recognize from recent D&D games like Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor and Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone.

To learn more about the company's history and their involvement with so many D&D titles over the course of almost two decades, we fired off a batch of questions to Stormfront President and CEO Don Daglow. In the interview, Don provides us with some great information about the rise and fall of the original Neverwinter Nights, the development of the D&D kingdom simulator Stronghold, their involvement with two of the original "Gold Box" games, and a whole lot more. Have a look:

GB: To start off, can you give us a little background information about Stormfront Studios? When was the company founded, and what games have you been involved with over the years?

Don: Stormfront was founded in 1988, back when our first games included versions for the Amiga and the Commodore 64!

We've done a variety of titles over the years. The D&D license has been a recurring theme, starting with the SSI Gold Box titles (Gateway to the Savage Frontier) and (Treasures of the Savage Frontier.) We did the first graphical MMORPG, the original (Neverwinter Nights,) which ran on AOL from 1991-97, years before Ultima debuted in 1998 and Everquest in 1999. We also did an early D&D 3D-perspective RTS, (Stronghold,) which I still get compliments about in the halls at GDC.

If you fast-forward to modern times, our most recent title is the D&D action-adventure (Demon Stone,) which we developed for Atari with author R.A. Salvatore. It was great fun working with Salvatore he's both a deep gamer and someone who brings out the creativity in a team and bringing Drizzt to life was a great challenge.

We've always done a wide variety of titles, with D&D just one part of that mix. Our other best-known titles include the Tony La Russa Baseball games, early versions of John Madden Football, and we created the NASCAR racing franchise for EA Sports. Our biggest title in the last couple of years was The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers from EA, based on the film by Peter Jackson.

GB: Has Stormfront specifically focused on obtaining the rights to develop Dungeons & Dragons titles over the years, or have you simply been in the right place at the right time?

Don: Our history with D&D doubtless brought us a lot of licensed projects, and it's been a passion of many of our team members. But our development strategy has always been to do a variety of titles, and to never get typecast in a particular role.

Ironically, my history with D&D even pre-dates Stormfront. In 1976 I wrote the first mainframe RPG, (Dungeon) on a PDP-10 at Claremont Graduate University. The original D&D RPG had just begun, and my friends and I were part of the early fanatical fan base that flocked to RPG gaming. (Don't ask how fanatical we were. but if it had been any worse the President would have named a Czar and a Commission to help cure our addiction.) I'd been designing mainframe games for five years, so it was natural to bring the game to the computer.

When the industry began I joined the Intellivision team at Mattel and later became Director of Intellivision game development. We did the first D&D video games in 1982-83, (Advanced Dungeons and Dragons) and (AD&D Treasures of Tarmin.)

And, although it did not bear the D&D license, I also produced (Adventure Construction Set) in 1985 with adventure game pioneer Stuart Smith at Electronic Arts.

GB: You've worked with multiple publishers on the many Dungeons & Dragons titles you've developed over the years, including SSI, Ubisoft, and Atari. Have you seen a change in goals for what publishers want to see in a D&D game?

Don: Actually, what's been very cool is that each publisher's producers have been dedicated to creating a real D&D experience, not simply slapping the license on a game. Ubisoft inherited a tough situation in Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor, where the game was started by SSI, which was acquired by Mindscape, which was acquired by The Learning Company, which was acquired by Mattel, which spun off the games division to Gores Corp., which then sold it to Ubisoft. Whew! One game going through five acquisitions during its development cycle has to be some kind of record!

GB: Although the official Stormfront Studios website lists Gateway to the Savage Frontier and Treasures of the Savage Frontier as part of your repertoire, Beyond Software is credited for the development of the same games. Were you affiliated with Beyond Software or did you both have a development role of some kind?

Don: Beyond Software was Stormfront's original name. In 1991 we realized there were too many companies with that name and it was causing confusion, so we sold our trademark to Beyond Inc. and changed our name to Stormfront Studios.

GB: Can you tell us a bit about your involvement with the original Neverwinter Nights on America Online? How did the idea originate? What obstacles did you run into making the game online-only, years before we'd ever see the first MMORPG?

Don: [I guess it depends on your definition of (Massive) whether we're the first graphical MMORPG or the first ORPG.]

Neverwinter Nights started from a wonderful coincidence among a circle of professional (allies.)

Key player number one was Steve Case, founder of AOL. Back in the late 1980's the company was called Quantum, and consisted of a Commodore 64 online service. I started partnering with Steve and producer Kathi McHugh on games at the launch of their Apple II service in 1987 while leading Broderbund's Entertainment and Education division, and produced their first online graphical game, a simple variant on Hangman. When I founded Stormfront in 1988, McHugh called on our second day (in business) and suggested we do a product for AOL. Without Case's support we might never have gotten through those first two years.

Key player number two was Chuck Kroegel, head of product development for SSI. Chuck picked Stormfront to continue the D&D Gold Box games in 1989 while SSI started the Dark Sun engine, and also signed our first version of Tony La Russa Baseball. That took a lot of faith, because Stormfront's only prior titles were online games with AOL. When the first Savage Frontier game and La Russa were both hits the relationship was cemented. Again, without Kroegel's faith in us we might never have survived into the 90's.

Key player number three was Jim Ward, who then headed D&D licensing for TSR. Ward was Kroegel's (partner in crime) on the Gold Box series. In a time when many licensors were overzealous (prevent defense) specialists, Ward had the vision to see the potential in the Gold Box series and support SSI's and our efforts to enhance D&D computer games, as opposed to merely copying the forms that had come before.

Stormfront was already creating D&D games for SSI and online games for AOL before Neverwinter Nights was born. We held a meeting -- ironically, at the castle-themed Excalibur Hotel in Las Vegas at the January, 1990 Consumer Electronics Show, where McHugh, Kroegel, Ward and I went over the risks and opportunities and agreed we'd try to make a deal happen. AOL producers Scott Gries and Jessica Mulligan (a prominent online gaming pioneer) also got involved as the project progressed.

The really big meeting, it turned out, had already happened at a San Francisco hotel suite in late 1989. Steve Case and his top engineers at AOL were in town, and our top programmers joined them for a feasibility meeting. We spent an hour going over the risks involved in trying to get that many simultaneous players into a graphics-based RPG. We started out supporting 50 players per world, and later enhanced the system to support 500. Sounds like nothing. until you consider that this came at a time when games were played over phone lines at bit rates a hundred times slower than current DSL.

Both the AOL and the Stormfront teams were split on whether we had a good chance of pulling off the project. Case cut off the discussion and turned to his top engineers, Jack Daggett and Craig Dykstra, and asked if it could be done. They said yes. He looked at me and asked if I thought we could do a graphical online RPG. I said yes, I thought we knew how to beat the toughest problems. He stuck out his hand, we shook and he said, (We've got a deal.)

You probably aren't surprised to hear that major game deals in our industry are no longer closed with a handshake!

GB: Any idea why AOL took Neverwinter Nights offline in 1997, even though it was still very popular? Was there ever any talk of revitalizing the game, and would Stormfront have been interested in pursuing a sequel of some sort if the opportunity would have presented itself?

Don: When AOL's business started to explode with the public acceptance of the email system in the early 1990's, we were anxious to expand and enhance Neverwinter Nights, since it was by far their biggest hit game. They kept saying, (Sorry, we have our hands full with all the fires burning here.) Every day there were newscasters on TV asking, (Can AOL install enough modems to keep up with the growth or will they crash and burn in a sea of busy signals?) The 50-person AOL operation I had started working with in 1987 had grown to thousands of people and millions of subscribers.

I talked with Steve Case about it and he said, (I know we're throwing away millions by not building on Neverwinter Nights. My problem is that I've got everyone focused on not losing billions of dollars, so good projects with multi-million dollar profiles are just not getting done.) It was hard to argue with his logic.

Even without enhancements, the game lasted six years, and it still earned millions for AOL its final year. But their systems were changing, the software was old, and the end came. Stormfront had become a console game development studio by that time, and we were no longer focused heavily on the online business.

GB: What sort of relationship did you have with SSI in the early 90's, and were you ever given the opportunity to work on any of the other "Gold Box" titles?

Don: As I mentioned, working with Chuck Kroegel, Dan Cermak and the SSI crew was a great experience. Being handed the car keys to the Gold Box series (after Secret of the Silver Blades came out) while they worked on Dark Sun was a great honor, and when Gateway to the Savage Frontier went to #1 on the sales charts we felt good about having earned the role we were given.

GB: Stronghold was much different than the other D&D titles you've worked on, but it was very well received by the public and has been hailed as the first real-time strategy game ever released. How did the premise behind Stronghold come about, and why do you think we haven't seen more kingdom simulators within the Dungeons & Dragons universe?

Don: We came out a year after Westwood's Dune II first blazed the trail on RTS, and with Stronghold we were the first to do a 3D display. although in our case the 3D was an optical illusion created in 2D with display planes and careful use of camera angles!

Stormfront was much smaller then, so I was still involved as co-designer on the project. I had always been interested in the category, and had programmed the kingdom sim (Utopia) for the Intellivision in 1981-82 during the original video game wars between Mattel and Atari. The success of Sim City gave us a recent hit to point to when we pitched the game to SSI, and they went for it.

Why haven't there been more such sims in the D&D world? I really don't know, since richly developed worlds like the Forgotten Realms are so well suited to the genre.

GB: After having developed many D&D titles that were very much focused on the role-playing elements, why did you choose to move to a more action-oriented route for Demon Stone? Is this something Atari wanted you to pursue, or were you given the freedom to develop the game however you'd like?

Don: Stormfront is focused on developing immersive, high-energy console games that bring you into an exciting world where you play a pivotal role in a compelling story.

That was exactly what Atari wanted from the game. We've been playing the original Dungeons and Dragons since 1975, and D&D was always about a combination of strategy, high energy and story. it's just that the big battle scenes were running in your imagination, not on the living room TV!

We believe that as technology changes over the next few years games will be able to drive more of the same strong emotions that we're accustomed to feeling when we watch thrilling movies. Many of the best ideas for how to do this can be implemented on current hardware, and in both The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Demon Stone we've worked to (raise the bar) on creating this kind of experience.

John Hight and the team at Atari were very supportive of this vision, so we always felt like we were on the same page.

GB: What is next for Stormfront Studios? Do you have any plans to work on future Dungeons & Dragons games or even a non-D&D role-playing game?

Don: I wouldn't be surprised if we did D&D again in the future, but we have no concrete plans for it right now. Our next game announcement is an exciting one, but the publisher has it tightly under wraps so the news is still a few months away.

Thanks very much for inviting me to talk with you about D&D!

Thank you, Don! We appreciate the time you took answering our questions.