MMOs from yesteryear – Dark Sun Online: Crimson Sands

Wake of the Ravager in 1994 seemed to be the end of the road at SSI for TSR’s apocalyptic Dark Sun setting, but they had also begun work on an MMO based on the desert wastes of Athas called Crimson Sands. I had at first thought that it never been released, but a reader helpfully pointed out that it actually did providing a link to the entry they worked on over at Mobygames including passing along a link for the game’s great intro cinematic posted below.

Curious to know more, I did some more digging around to see where it would take me and after reading the Mobygames entry, discovered that Crimson Sands adopted a lot of things that later MMOs would take for granted — a robust chat system, a PvP environment with “safe zones”, and guilds among a number of other features.

To MUD veterans, chatting across a server or to each other in private doesn’t seem like such a big thing. Guilds, PvP, and other conventions have been used in text-based MUDs on campuses and elsewhere for years, but Crimson Sands seemed to be among the first graphical MMOs to adopt such conventions and make them as important a part of the gameplay as its visual environment separating it from its spartan text-only predecessors. Not only were players able to see the customized looks of each other, but “speak” to friends and foes alike as well with emotes and role-play to their heart’s content, and it was something that other MMOs would eventually adopt.

Andre Vrignaud, an Associate Producer with SSI who worked on Crimson Sands, also has a postmortem on the game dated 1997 over at Gamasutra. In it, he goes into more detail on how the team he worked with went up against some incredible odds in order to bring this rare MMO to light along with some hints on why it didn’t survive in the way a number of its rivals such as Ultima Online did. As Rich Donnelly, the lead scripter for the game notes in Vrignaud’s article on discussing the chat system, “It is this versatility that people desire, and including it in your product is essential.”

If anything else, Dark Sun made for a remarkably unique experience not only because of the social tools developed around it, but for the setting that bucked the traditional “swords and sorcery” environment promoted by many others from AOL’s Neverwinter Nights (which SSI had also published and whose gameplay was based on the “Gold Box” design approach) and GEnie’s text-based MUD, Gemstone III.

The Dark Sun setting was also used in SSI’s single-player titles, Shattered Lands and Wake of the Ravager. In a weather beaten nutshell, the world of Athas is an ecological wasteland thanks to the rapacious use of magic. On that world, magic draws directly from the spark of life all around the caster — who are most often considered defilers — who can turn soil and gardens into sandy ash simply by using spells. On the opposite end are the “preservers” who also use magic, but they do so in a careful way that balances their needs versus that of the environment. Preservers never take more than they need, unlike defilers who only see what unbridled use can bring them.

As a result of a series of ancient wars and terrifying mistakes from Athas’ distant past, its oceans have all but dried up and most of the world resembles the Sahara. Its sun, whose power has also been abused, has transformed from a young blue star into an angry, aged crimson orb glaring down at what is left. Scattered city-states, most of which are ruled over by capricious and immortal sorceror-kings, are the last twisted bastions of civilization, each molded after the ideals and decadent desires of their masters. And above them all, lurking somewhere in the deepest wastes, is a god-like creature known only as the Dragon.

Even in the AD&D multiverse, Athas is an isolated island among the planes. Unlike an experienced caster jumping from the city of Waterdeep in the Forgotten Realms to the Plane of Arcadia, they can’t do the same thing with Athas which exists as something of a black spot amongst AD&D’s planar firmament. There aren’t even any gods. Clerics pray instead to elemental spirits for their powers. Anything made of metal is more valuable than gold and pieces of ceramic make up the currency.

It’s this kind of world that, on the surface, helped to make the Dark Sun MMO stand apart from peers such as 3DO’s Meridian 59.

Now back in the mid to late 90s, dial-up modems were still the primary means by which players could connect to games like this one. Broadband was still a commercial pipe dream, though it existed within spaces such as at a number of colleges and universities where students using their intranets tasted the future. For everyone else, services like CompuServe and GEnie sold connection time on their networks by the hour. If you wanted to play, you and your credit card were on the clock. Not all services ran this way, however, such as Prodigy which required only a flat subscription fee, but the messaging services and MMO games available to its arguably more expensive competitors seemed to balance things out.

I really hated DIP switches.

It was considered courteous to download huge files at night so people could use the phone during the day. Also, I really hated DIP switches.

AT&T wanted in on the same action and in 1994, did the big company thing in buying what they needed.

In this case, it was Interchange from Ziff-Davis to the tune of $50 million. According to Vrignaud, they approached SSI for an MMO game, similar to Neverwinter Nights on AOL, and Crimson Sands was born. It made sense — SSI had already helped to publish what is arguably the world’s first graphical MMO with Neverwinter Nights which bore a strong resemblance to their famous Gold Box titles. Couldn’t lightning strike twice?

Eventually it would but only after two years of trials and tribulations. When it did come out in 1996, it wouldn’t be on Interchange — AT&T killed it in the same year and moved it into a strictly web-based offering instead of a dial-in service.

Vrignaud goes on to say that the project was put on the back burner, slowing development, as SSI’s management didn’t seem to feel confident in being able to find a suitor for the property. Eventually, however, they settled on the upcoming Total Entertainment Network in 1996 where Crimson Sands would finally be released.

Looking over Vrignaud’s recollections on the project, it’s amazing to see the nuts and bolts of how it actually came together. Unlike the majority of MMO experiences today using the client-server model, Crimson Sands was developed from the single-player code that ran Shattered Lands and Wake of the Ravager creating a number of tough challenges for his team.

Art assets were re-used from the single-player Dark Sun titles including one based on TSR’s Al-Qadim “Arabian Nights” setting. But many had to be redone in order to fit into the new perspective used in the MMO and scripting events and quests proved to be difficult with a code base that often changed. Even a few sound effects were borrowed from another internal SSI project, Thunderscape, which stepped in as a first chapter to fill in the fantasy niche vacated by TSR’s non-exclusivity changes in 1995. This was a project that fought against shortages in manpower by doing what they could with what they had, and to their credit, they managed to do well enough to actually release a working MMO.

Players started in the city-state of Tyr, right after its sorceror-king, Kalak, bit the big one thanks to heroes from the Prism Pentad novels. So the setting is sometime during those events since the Dragon is apparently still around. Without a leader, of course, the backstabbing has begun in earnest to control the city and the surrounding region.

According to this archived FAQ on version 1.2 of the game by Vrignaud, characters started in Tyr which was a “safe zone” from PvP with a few exceptions (like a local tavern where a fight may break out). However, it was relatively hardcore. Because open displays of magic and psionics are frowned upon, even equipping magic armor was a no-no. Attacking someone in the city could result in a massive fine and even jail time. Death penalties were severe — the loss of a few items, ceramic chits, and an entire level (an average amount of experience was taken out of multiclassed characters). Max level was capped at 15 to maintain balance. Players could role play as good or evil aligned characters. Outside of Tyr, there were no limits to what players could do making it as harsh a world as its PnP materials suggested. As Vrignaud notes in his FAQ, there’s a reason the game is called “Crimson Sands”.

Unfortunately, they also discovered that hackers made a field day out of the experience. This was due largely due to the single-player base they had constructed the game from where all of the logic and data were normally done on the player’s PC — and that carried over to its peer-to-peer iteration online. Unscrupulous players could modify data on their end and introduce it into whatever session they were in, for example, doing things such as escaping death penalties and wrecking the experience for everyone else especially in a game where PvP was a feature.

A number of planned cinematics were also cut from the game with the exception of the intro. Only version 1.0’s CD-ROM version made it to retail — the following updates, which eventually cut out the introductory cinematic and Redbook music tracks, were available only through TEN’s site as a stripped down version (from 50 MB). From this archived snapshot, you can see the system requirements (486 66Mhz with 12MB VESA or PCI SVGA video card) and the reduced size of the game (18 MB). Back in the days of 14.4 modems, that could easily take about two or three hours or more to sip the data down across phone lines. Unfortunately, none of the links work today.

To their credit, the team continued to push updates to improve the game. Vrignaud even notes that it is their hope to eventually move player data to the server in an effort to alleviate the game’s vulnerability to hacks. That was in 1997.

In 1998, however, Crimson Sands’ servers were shuttered. TEN’s competitors, such as Mplayer who offered free to play models, and the rise of free multiplayer services and components ranging from Blizzard’s to the advent of id Software’s Quake in 1996, eventually killed the appeal of pay-to-play matchmaking services and forums like TEN. It didn’t hit the kind of critical mass it needed to keep going eventually transforming itself into offering free-to-play games instead.

Back then, people needed to pay by the hour to play multiplayer games on top of the dial-up fees for using a modem using services like GEnie. Instead of offering a free month’s membership for special promotions, they’d offer things like a bunch of hours instead.

One of the unfortunate side-effects of Crimson Sands’ journey is its relative obscurity — I knew what TEN was but had barely heard of Dark Sun Online. While a large chunk of the SSI/TSR catalog is relatively well-known such as the Gold Box series, Crimson Sands seemed to quickly disappear after it was closed. Even today, finding a copy online is a quest in and of itself. And even if you do have it, without TEN, there’s nothing for it to connect to.

It had several thousand users (a huge triumph for any MMO at the time) and seemed to be one of the top offerings on TEN, but the only memory I have of it was a brief mention in a magazine or in researching SSI’s other Dark Sun titles. SSI didn’t seem to market Crimson Sands with the same kind of enthusiasm that it had during the heyday of their partnership with TSR outside of what TEN did on its own. Instead, the strategy house seemed to prefer in focusing on a revival of its strategy plate in the form of the hugely popular Panzer General in ’94.

Crimson Sands had also come out at a tumultuous time for many genres as the 3D race continued to disrupt the market after Doom. Quake dominated the gaming space on its arrival in the same year, overshadowing pretty much everything else as it steamrolled on through the public consciousness the way that Doom and its many .wad mods had before. Duke Nukem 3D was also another game supported by TEN competing for players with its larger-than-life protagonist and antics backed by Ken Silverman’s 3D Build engine. The list went on.

Then there was also Ultima Online.

Still, today it’s hard to imagine — or play — an MMO without any kind of social toolbox whether it is as simple as chat or a guild setup. Although Athas’ last gasp in gaming flickered briefly in a space that would eventually see the rise of giants such as Everquest and World of Warcraft, it still stands as a bold effort made to carry the flame of Neverwinter’s groundbreaking work to the next level by SSI.

One response to “MMOs from yesteryear – Dark Sun Online: Crimson Sands

  1. Considering you didn’t even know that this game was ever released a few days ago you’ve made a remarkable comeback getting up to speed for this blog post! 8) I only wish I had the Geocities-hosted screenshots of guild activities, online weddings etc. to show you.

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