Dark Sun Online: Crimson Sands Retrospective

We've rarely had the pleasure of posting anything newsworthy about SSI's early MMORPG Dark Sun Online: Crimson Sands here on GameBanshee, so I'm more than happy to point you over to Massively for a detailed, fascinating, and developer commentary-laden retrospective that dives into the game's development woes, the challenges of transitioning it from AT&T's Interchange service to the Total Entertainment Network, its surprisingly robust feature set considering the competition at the time, and the player cheating that marred the experience during its final days. An excerpt:
According to designer Andre Vrignaud, the team was hobbled from the start with limited resources. The team had only one part-time artist and had to scrounge sprites and sounds from the two previous Dark Sun titles as well as a game called Al-Qadim to compensate. The team had to outsource much of its art to questionable talent, ending up with the occasional "Nightmare Beast" that looked more like Barney than any true nightmare. Additional sounds were "borrowed" from another game in development called Word of Aden: Thunderscape. While it wasn't ideal, this Frankenstein approach was the only way the project could get done.

In addition to suffering sound and art problems, the team had to modify Wake of the Ravager's codebase to function as a multiplayer client, something the original coders never anticipated. To complicate matter further, some of the coding was once again outsourced, leading to design conflicts with the official team, not to mention one major morale problem. The team originally wanted Dark Sun Online to be a DOS-based title (in keeping with the previous games), but the growing popularity of Windows meant that precious development time had to be spent coming up with a proper Windows 95 port.

Team members left during the transition from AT&T to TEN, which made life horrible for those who remained. Lead Scriptor Rick Donnelly recalls cleaning up the mess: "It was quite horrific for me to find that the game was missing some serious pieces of code. Suddenly, I found myself with little time to correct these problems. I worked heavily for about a month and managed to finish getting everything implemented and working."


Characters had a harsh life in Athas, with PvP an option almost everywhere except for select safe zones and a strong death penalty. Upon dying, players would lose some equipment and a full level. Fortunately, there were only 15 levels in the game, so climbing back up was more feasible than not. Therefore, it was safer to team up with others and head out to quest together.

The game generated "rudimentary" random quests so that you would never truly run out of them. Donnelly admitted later on that it was functional but not quite complete: "My only regret is that I didn't have the time to take this quest engine as far as we would have liked."

The social aspect of Dark Sun Online was quite strong and more reminiscent of MUDs and MUSHes than the MMOs of today. Devs often scheduled roleplaying activites and could generate live events. But the most important piece of the DSO social puzzle was its robust chat system, which became the crown jewel of the game, according to some of the devs. Roleplaying through chat was common and strongly supported by the devs and community, and players could communicate with each other no matter where they were in the world.