Monday, February 10, 2020

Game 355: The Devil's Dungeon (1978)

Since there's no in-game title, here's the title from the printed instructions.
         
The Devil's Dungeon
United States
Written and published as code by C. William Engel
Versions released for BASIC computers (1978), Atari 800 (1979), Commodore VIC-20 (1983), Apple II (1984), TI-99 (1984), and Commodore 64 (1984)
Date Started: 4 February 2020
Date Ended: 4 February 2020
Total Hours: 1
Difficulty: Very Easy (1/5) in the sense that you can escape and "win" from the opening screen; Hard (4/5) in the sense that it's hard to stay alive if you choose to keep exploring
Final Rating: (To come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (To come later)

This is one of a couple of very brief "clean up" entries that you're going to see this week, spaced not so far apart as my usual longer entries. The purpose here is to sweep up some 1970s titles that linger on my master list even though I should have gotten to them sooner.

The Devil's Dungeon has dogged me for a few years, and I occasionally get e-mails about it. I understand why. If it was a 1977 game, as many web sites (including MobyGames) allege, and if it was an RPG and if it was actually sold as a game, it would be perhaps the first commercial RPG. Indeed, my colleague and occasional commenter Keith Smith wrote an article in 2015 questioning whether it was, in fact, the first commercial CRPG. When Smith wrote to me about the question, I dismissed it as such, but after reading his coverage, I realized I was a bit hasty. For various reasons, I am reluctant to call it the first commercial CRPG, but for various reasons it isn't exactly not, either.
        
The cover for the Atari 800 version of the program.
         
The game was a creation (perhaps--see below) of C. William Engel, professor of Mathematics Education at the University of South Florida in Tampa. In 1977, Engel self-published Stimulating Simulations: Ten Unique Programs in BASIC for the Computer Hobbyist. The 64-page book consists of 10 BASIC programs that the reader could type into a TRS-80 or whatever other computer he had that used conventional BASIC. The programs included Art Auction, Gone Fishing, Space Flight, and Business Management. The goal was to teach the reader to program, with a particular focus on statistical simulation and probability.

The Devil's Dungeon is not one of the original 10 programs, but Engel soon found a commercial publisher for Stimulating Simulations in Hayden Books of New Jersey, and gussied-up versions followed for the Atari 800 in 1979, the Commodore VIC-20 in 1983, and the Apple II, TI-99, and Commodore 64 in 1984. The Devil's Dungeon appears in all of these editions. Whether the game counts as the earliest RPGs thus depends first on whether we count type-it-yourself code as actual software.
           
Gameplay consists of moving from room to room.
         
Then we have the date. Evidence from ads shows that Engel was selling The Devil's Dungeon as a 15-page standalone publication as early as February 1978. I have yet to find a copy of this book, but enough web sites, including Google Books, give the specific date of 10 January 1978 that I suspect that's what appeared on the original publication itself. The 1977 date given by many web sites is a confusion based on the copyright date in several editions of Stimulating Simulations, which list both the original copyright (1977, with no Devil's Dungeon) and the publication dates of those specific editions (1979-1984). So while the game was not published in 1977--which would have put it in stores a full year before any other candidate--it was published so early in 1978 that it's hard to imagine any of the other candidates beats it.
       
A February 1978 ad for the pre-Hayden Books version of Stimulating Simulations. Note that The Devil's Dungeon is "also available" at the bottom.
          
Third, there's the question of whether the game is even an RPG. If you wonder whether something printed on a few pages for a reader to type could possibly be much of a game, your skepticism is well-founded. The game reminds me in a weird way of Andrew Greenberg's Star Saga (1988), where most of the "game" was in the printed book and the computer was simply used for the probabilities and calculations. Here, you need the book for the backstory and instructions. The computer program just keeps track of your strength, speed, experience, and gold. So it does have attributes. And those attributes do increase with experience and they are used to determine success in combat. And you do have a single piece of "equipment" that you can use when you want. It's like someone looked at my requirements and made a game that technically meets them . . . but come on.
       
"Character development" consists of buying speed and strength with experience.
         
The backstory is simply that there's a lot of gold hidden in a "maze of caves" in an active volcano. Monsters and demons also roam the halls. When you start the game, you have 100 speed, 100 strength, and no gold. The game creates randomized dungeon levels of 16 rooms each, and you spend the game navigating from room to room by pressing the number of the room you want to go to. A room may have a random amount of gold, a monster (unnamed) with a random amount of speed and strength. It may also have demons or poison gas, neither of which can be conquered and instead must be quickly fled. Tremors occasionally re-arrange the dungeon levels while you're in mid-exploration.

The only "equipment" is a "magic wand" that the player carries and can activate by hitting 99 in any room. The wand destroys monsters and creates a dropoff to lower levels 60% of the time; it backfires and halves your strength and speed 40% of the time.

Room #1 on each level is a "special room," where you can trade your accumulated experience for an equivalent boost to your speed or strength. You can also leave the dungeon from the room, at which point the game gives you your gold total and dumps you out of the program.
           
"Winning" The Devil's Dungeon.
        
Commands are simply 0 to fight (if the room has a monster), 1-9 to move between rooms, negative numbers to go down an equivalent number of levels (if the room has a dropoff), 88 to see what rooms you've already visited, and 99 to activate the wand or leave the dungeon, depending on what room you're in. This is one of those few cases where a couple of screenshots tells you all you need to know about the game.

Engel wasn't trying to entertain with this game; he was trying to teach. His books weren't just a bunch of code: they contained tables of variables, flow charts, diagrams, and other tools meant to explain how the program works. At the end of each program, he also listed some ideas for both minor and major modifications and upgrades to the base program--challenges for the more advanced coder. For The Devil's Dungeon, he suggested that a more complicated game would include the purchase of weapons and equipment before starting, named monsters, a variable number of rooms per level, light and dark rooms, and pit traps that dump the player to lower levels.

These suggestions are not coincidentally among the many featured in Caverns of Mordia, a 1980 Australian game for the Apple II that is a "grown up" version of The Devil's Dungeon. I covered it about a year ago. That Mordia uses Dungeon as a base is 100% clear from the nature of exploration: infinite dungeon levels of up to 16 rooms, Room #1 is a "special room," you have two attributes (strength and agility in Mordia) and can trade experience for them, there are gas and demons, the wand works the same way, and so forth. But Mordia adds about 200% to the content of the game, including some crude graphics (animated in a couple scenes!), equipment, named monsters, more special encounters, and a main quest.
           
Caverns of Mordia started with a Devil's Dungeon base but offered a more complete RPG experience.
       
Mordia is so clearly an expanded version of The Devil's Dungeon that I find it hard to give credence to author Hans Coster's insistence (in an e-mail to me) that he wrote it from scratch. He says he gave early versions of the game away for free before ultimately selling Mordia, but it's hard to imagine one of those disks making it from Australia to Florida two years ahead of Mordia's release, and Dr. Engel then not only plagiarizing the code but dumbing it down at the same time. (Dr. Engel died in 2011, so we can't ask him.) Mordia makes so much more sense as an additive experience to Dungeon than Dungeon does as a reductive experience of Mordia. It's easier to believe that Dr. Coster simply doesn't remember, 40 years later, that he started with The Devil's Dungeon as a nucleus, particularly when he would have had to add so much to the code. It is a full game where Dungeon isn't, and if it had been published in 1978, I wouldn't hesitate to call it the first commercial RPG.

If I had to GIMLET The Devil's Dungeon, it would earn a 6, tied for the lowest score ever, probably the lowest score possible. I can't bring myself to give it any points for the game world, encounters, or equipment; even though it technically has them, they're not fleshed out enough to even make it to "1." I did give a 1 for character creation and development, combat, economy, quest, graphics and sound, and gameplay.

In the end, while I'm reluctantly forced to admit that it was "sold" before any other RPG we can identify and it does meet my three RPG criteria, it's still tough to give it the award of "first commercial CRPG," particularly when this is one of the few cases where even I would have had the skill to create a BASIC game this primitive. While I try to think of a good way out of it, check out my colleague Nathan's take on the game at "CRPG Adventures," where he found an amusing way to cheat. Maybe ignore his last sentence before the rating.

45 comments:

  1. "He also listed some ideas for both minor and major modifications and upgrades to the base program--challenges for the more advanced coder. For The Devil's Dungeon, he suggested that a more complicated game would include the purchase of weapons and equipment before starting, named monsters, a variable number of rooms per level, light and dark rooms, and pit traps that dump the player to lower levels."

    Thus, every subsequent CRPG is simply a Devil's Dungeon mod!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If he was still alive he should sue!

      Like the guys that invented the Magnavox Odyssey...

      Delete
  2. "Stimulating Simulations: Ten Unique Programs in BASIC for the Computer Hobbyist. The 64-page book consists of 8 BASIC programs"

    What are the other two then?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Maybe other two were using machine code via peek/poke or similar technique?

      Delete
  3. Are people buying a 'game' though, or are they buying a lesson, or project, which if they follow, happens to result in the creation of a non-proprietary piece of software?

    I feel like if I were to buy a set of instructions with which to make a wind-up car, I wouldn't say I was buying a wind-up car.

    I find it amusing that someone sold 'Write an RPG' prior to anyone selling an RPG!

    (I'd actually be tempted to take away it's game number - it's almost addenda to the Caverns of Mordia entry, though addenda that deserved it's own post)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think there's a difference between a set of instructions and "copy this exactly and you'll always end up with the result". Would we say IKEA is not selling furniture?

      Delete
    2. I don't think there should be any doubt that this was an actual commercial game. The distribution method isn't really relevant.

      Delete
    3. Yeah, I would also count it as a proper game. The main difference between this and other early RPGs is the method of getting it onto your disk. With other games, you put the floppy in your drive and install the game. Here, you type out the code included in the book. The end result is the same in both cases.

      Only here the "installation process" is a little more involved and complicated.

      Delete
    4. Was it Engel's intent that he was selling a game or was he selling a learning exercise?

      Was it intended that people spend much time playing the game as-written, or once they understood the program, were they expected to keep building on it?

      Delete
    5. I don't see how any of that matters. Whatever his intent was, he sold a computer role-playing game.

      Buuut if you look at the front cover of the second edition of Stimulating Simulations, it does not present itself as a lesson, but as a collection of 12 "unique programs". Distributing games as type-in listings was pretty common back in the day, there were loads of these books.

      Delete
    6. Sure, he encouraged people to expand the program once they've written it out. But some modern RPGs, like Morrowind or Neverwinter Nights, came with an official construction set for modders. So the devs in that case also intended for the community to create more content and expand the game.

      You might say this was the first commercially released CRPG with intended modding.

      Delete
    7. I feel like the way things are explained and analyzed in the book suggests more of an educational focus than an entertainment one.

      Delete
  4. A recipe for curry is not a curry, and a set of plans for a wind-up car is not a wind-up car, but in several important senses, a listing of a computer program is the computer program described by the listing.

    So if the book includes a complete listing of the program, then the book includes the program.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Moat advanced version of copy protection codes.

      Delete
    2. >A recipe for curry is not a curry, and a set of plans for a wind-up car is not a wind-up car, but in several important senses, a listing of a computer program is the computer program described by the listing.

      To quote Goethe:
      Du sprichst ein gro├čes Wort gelassen aus.

      In a simple three-line sentence, you just summarized the nucleus of decades of judicial disputes about software patents. :)

      Delete
    3. Here's what I wonder: Was Engel's copyrighted work, the 'exported' code and its instructions? If I had typed up Devil's Dungeon, then added all the things Engel suggested, and sold it without providing the code, would I be breaching the copyright?

      Delete
  5. There was an even simpler version for the ZX81 (which only had 1k RAM) in the book "Not Only 30 Programs for the Sinclair ZX81 1K".

    It was called Caves and Pitfalls and didn't have any experience points just some random monsters, traps and treasures. We still played it a lot back in the 1980s.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I have to admit, I'm confused about any argument about why writing a computer program out in text and selling that doesn't count as a RPG, but taking that same text and distributing it on a floppy suddenly does. It feels a bit to me like arguing that a book on tape is no longer a book, or watching a TV show off of a DVD is different than waiting for that show to air over-the-air at a specific time. Maybe the experience of consuming it is different, but surely the important content is the same?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It has to do with the intention, as Adamantyr says. I suppose my real objection is that anything I can just type myself in a reasonable amount of time isn't complex enough to be a "real" game.

      Delete
    2. OTOH, I think you'd find that if you got access to the printed listing of Beneath Apple Manor, it would not take an unreasonable amount of time to type that in. The original Apple II BASIC code was about 20-30 handwritten pages, according to the author.

      Delete
    3. For the record, I don't count audio books as books. They don't fit my 3 requirements to be considered a book:

      1. The content must be represented visually.
      2. The content must be represented physically, and be foldable.
      3. "Readers" must be able to meaningfully consume the content using an a priori understanding of a system of communication.

      Any 2 of the 3 means it's a book.

      Discuss.

      Delete
    4. I have to point out, though, that it's technically possible to accomplish some incredibly complex commands with very few characters - for instance, see Code golf (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Code_golf).

      Ok, now I'm being way too nitpicky. I'll see myself out :)

      Delete
    5. Iffy, I'm curious how much of an issue this is. Are there many audio books that don't exist in print form?

      Delete
    6. I know in the original post the program was only distributed as a listing, but I was more talking about how people say they "read" a book, when really they listened to the audio version of the book. It's not the same interaction with the material, in the same way that reading the Hitchhikers radio scripts isn't the same as hearing the radio play.

      As for how much of an actual issue it is, well... Some people are out there looking for their next meal. I'm fortunate enough to be working at a higher level of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Obviously, I haven't reached "self-actualization" yet. Where exactly is "pedantry" on the pyramid?

      (Mostly, it was an attempt at parody.)

      Delete
  7. I'd say it doesn't qualify myself. It wasn't designed and intended for a commercial release, and I think intent here is a key factor.

    I'm happy to see there was a TI-99/4a version of the book. Physical copies go for insane prices ($200+) but I found a scan of it in archive.org. Like a lot of conversions, though, it's written in TI-BASIC, which means it's not leveraging the platform well. TI Extended BASIC is closer in implementation to BASIC's on other systems, but given it cost $100 in the early 80's it was somewhat uncommon a platform at the time.

    Link if anyone wants it: https://archive.org/details/tibook_stimulating-simulations-for-the-ti994a/mode/2up

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not to be too nitpicky in this comments section, but how do we define "commercial release"? There's quite a few games out there that are open-source or freeware that would definitely qualify as CRPGs, but weren't ever put up for sale as such. I don't really see how the intent here is any different from, say, a RPG being included on a disk of shareware games. Someone wrote an RPG and charged people money for access to it - it's just a bit more time-consuming to install than other ones. And if the intent was to be a fun way to teach people programming - well, certainly we can think of other RPGs that were intended to teach people lessons and have fun doing it, no?

      Delete
    2. Commercial release would be "This game is special. I'm going to make a point to call it out as a specific game." Having it be in a book with a bunch of other programs, a one of many, suggests it isn't a product in itself.

      I don't have an issue with it needing to be typed in. The Valley was a type-in program made available for multiple systems but I would argue that it is more of a commercial game than Devil's Dungeon because 1) It's a much better product and 2) It was explicitly released on it's own.

      Delete
    3. Except it was originally published as a stand-alone booklet. Adding it to the compilation came later.

      Delete
    4. Even releasing it as part of a compilation doesn't strike me as a reason to say it's not a released RPG, either. To use a non-RPG example, I think someone would be fair to include Wii Tennis as an entry in a list of tennis games, even though it was never released on its own but bundled with Wii Sports.

      Delete
  8. Whether you consider it a commercial release or not is really only relevant if someone is vying for a title.

    For me it seems most important that Chet has documented it as surely it had some impact in the development of future CRPGs...

    ReplyDelete
  9. Whilst I agree with all the points about content, I do feel that a "type it yourself" game is as valid as a pre-made one. If I'd got my brother to type and save it, then loaded it, how different is that to buying it because a programmer typed it in? In those tiny K days most games would fit in a magazine. Okay it's semantics...

    ReplyDelete
  10. I would be reluctant to completely ignore the type-ins, although they obviously limit the complexity of any game and perhaps RPGs especially. In the adventure game world, some prominent developers got their start with type-ins. Brian Moriarty, who you know from "Beyond Zork", wrote his first two games as type-ins for an Atari magazine. Neither were high art (and the first is actually one of the lowest reviewed on TAG), but important for his development as an artist and for our understanding that development.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Type-ins are definitely important for adventure history, and there are plenty of cases where a commercial release was followed by a type-in version or vice versa.

      Also, with 16k to work with (essentially the max you'd expect anyone to have at the time), it wasn't too hard to hit the limit with just printed source code -- 4 pages in a magazine is enough. Nearly anything from the 1978-1980 era could be made a type-in if it wasn't already. (Including machine code, which tended not to have game type-ins, but some applications and utility programs used machine code type-ins.)

      Anyway, I'd certainly count this game even if it only barely makes it over the fence -- there's a reason the scale has a bottom, right? And while its influence was minor, in terms of history of design it's still interesting to see an intentionally minimal CRPG attempt genuinely does hit all the criteria.

      Delete
  11. I kind of wonder how many lines of BASIC code this game has in comparison to, say, Dragon & Princess. I've actually had to unpack and read that one, and it's actually a startlingly short program that could probably have been typed in from a disk magazine in a reasonable period of time, had it been released in that format. It looks like D&P was 507 lines of BASIC code, as far as I can tell with a quick count.

    It's not entirely a fair comparison, granted, because the authors of D&P wrote a bunch of really awkward lines with multiple expressions on each; it is probably not the quality of code you would actually be able to follow and learn anything from just by typing it in. I'm also not entirely sure if the BASIC program for D&P contained all the battle logic, or if that was in a separate binary file alongside the battle graphics.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Just saw Adamantyr's link to the book above. Looks like around 200 lines of code for this game, and it's very loose-packed code.

      Delete
  12. Thanks for the plug Chester. I guess I'm just a little more generous in my definitions of "crpg" and "commercial" than you are. I think this is the lowest-rated RPG on my blog, but regardless of quality I still think it qualifies as both, for whatever that's worth. Being first is kind of meaningless when you made no historical impact at all.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Three questions come to my mind: first one, is this considered a videogame? The intent may have been really just to teach programming, therefore it can miss some of the criterea to qualify as an "videogame" the same way some "professional flying simulator" or even "driving simulator" can.

    If, by any method, this is considered a videogame, then we ask the second question: what defines a "commercial" release? If you say "an compiled code that executes a videogame", then perhaps some BASIC games can't be on the list, since many of them aren't compiled. I think this can't be considered, and since the .BAS on a DISK is virtually the same as the list of the code on paper (both can be seen, studied and modfied by the user), if you consider one a "commercial game", then you should consider the other too.

    The problem would be on games like Eamon, that already was (afaik) "Freeware" back then, even if the code was originally on a "paid magazine". This would leads to what I really think is the answer and also the third question (even if it is “inside” the second one): does the license on the product you bought allows free distribution of the game code/exectutable? If yes, then it’s Freeware.

    I could expand better all of that, but, as always, I'm reading and commenting at work, something I shouldn't e.e

    ReplyDelete
  14. It seems clear that Caverns of Mordia was based on the Devil's Dungeon, but without looking at the code of both it is impossible to say if it was out-right plagiarism.
    Coding is all about patterns. If (I forgot his name) the Mordia-dude wrote out Devil's Dungeon as a lesson, thought to himself, 'Oh! That is how I program a CRPG!" And then started a new project using the patterns he had just learned, then is that plagiarism?
    If it is, then I am guilty of plagiarizing an awful lot of YouTube tutorials!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's a main loop with a lot of if statements to produce a reaction based on game state and input. Almost every game ever has that basic structure - more complex games just add additional structure to handle the complexity.

      Delete
    2. I think of it in an academic context: even if you're not quoting directly, you should always cite your sources. Engel deserved at least a nod.

      Delete
  15. Let's look at it this way: there must have been thousands of these programs written in code books to help teach programming. Do we really want to see them all listed on MobyGames as "games," or are we just putting up with it in this case because there's more historical value?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The type-in games are generally derivative of each other anyway. The Ur-God Game, Hammurabi, wound up spawning two dozen "sequels", some with additional features, but most the same game in a different setting (ex. peasants become robots).

      Not really worth listing as individual games, in my opinion.

      Delete
    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
    3. I mean, preferably? Yes. Absolutely.

      Not only _were_ they games, but back in those days some of them were quite influential. As mentioned elsewhere, there weren't really that much of a difference between what could be achieved through a type-in listing and what would be expected of a commercial computer game. These things were absolutely a major part of the gaming ecosystems on computers, regardless of how hard that is to believe today.

      Delete
  16. Also, is it really important who was first? Can you name the first comedy film ever made? Does it matter?

    Even given this one was published for multiple platforms doesn't make it stand out. Nobody was talking about it, the only reason it came up was someone wondering if it was the "first".

    ReplyDelete

I welcome all comments about the material in this blog, and I generally do not censor them. However, please follow these rules:

1. Do not link to any commercial entities, including Kickstarter campaigns, unless they're directly relevant to the material in the associated blog posting. (For instance, that GOG is selling the particular game I'm playing is relevant; that Steam is having a sale this week on other games is not.) This also includes user names that link to advertising.

2. Please avoid profanity and vulgar language. I don't want my blog flagged by too many filters.

3. Please don't comment anonymously. It makes it impossible to tell who's who in a thread. Choose the "Name/URL" option, pick a name for yourself, and just leave the URL blank.

4. I appreciate if you use ROT13 for explicit spoilers for the current game and upcoming games. Please at least mention "ROT13" in the comment so we don't get a lot of replies saying "what is that gibberish?"

Also, Blogger has a way of "eating" comments, so I highly recommend that you copy your words to the clipboard before submitting, just in case.

I read all comments, no matter how old the entry. So do many of my subscribers. Reader comments on "old" games continue to supplement our understanding of them. As such, all comment threads on this blog are live and active unless I specifically turn them off. There is no such thing as "necro-posting" on this blog, and thus no need to use that term.

As of January 2019, I will be deleting any comments that simply point out typos. If you want to use the commenting system to alert me to them, great, I appreciate it, but there's no reason to leave such comments preserved for posterity.

I'm sorry for any difficulty commenting. I turn moderation on and off and "word verification" on and off frequently depending on the volume of spam I'm receiving. I only use either when spam gets out of control, so I appreciate your patience with both moderation tools.