In the grand scheme of computer gaming history, where significant people, games, and companies from bygone eras still to this day earns fame and fortune, FTL Games might be one of the ’80s unsung heroes of gaming. With only a handful of released titles and a short lifespan, the company fell, from a mainstream perspective, into obscurity. From a grand perspective, the story of FTL could seem to be a story of Dungeon Master entirely, but prior to the series an earlier game, originally for the Apple II, showed the level that FTL was able to perform on.
FTL Games, Faster Than Light, was started by Wayne Holder in 1982 as a games development division under his software company Software Heaven. Holder had for some time been developing software tools to help assist writers, but a conversation in 1982 with an old friend, Bruce Webster, from college, would be the spark that ignited FTL. Webster was a dedicated player and amateur game designer, he had written columns for both The Space Gamer and Computer Gaming World and owned a large number of sci-fi/role-playing board games.
Webster and Holder co-designed FTL’s first released game, SunDog: Frozen Legacy, a space trading, combat, and exploration/adventure game with CRPG character mechanics, first released for the Apple II in the spring of 1984. The game starts out with you on board the star-freighter the Sundog, a ship left to you by an unknown uncle, along with the ship is also his last contract; to make deliveries to a religious colony on the planet of Jondd.
Your mission is to pick up goods for the colony to help it grow. Every so often you’ll also find members of the colony frozen in cold sleep or “cryogens” (thus the name of the game) on various planets. When you deliver everything and the colony is fully grown, the ship is yours to keep. Of course, the task isn’t easy. For one thing, you have no idea where the colony is, and your first job is to find it. Another problem is that the SunDog is in need of repair, and you’re broke.
Sundog: Frozen Legacy was picked up by Accolade and released for the Apple II in the Spring of 1984
Webster did almost all of the programming for the Apple II version, a daunting task for a game of this complexity. The game would use a layered windowing system called ZoomAction. Inspired by the Apple Lisa user interface, it was a unique and technical achievement of its time. The scalable interface used a series of expanding and contracting views – something we would see years later in games like Sim City.
Webster, with the possibility of another project of this caliber, resigned from FTL after the release of version 2.0. Leaving what was supposed to be a trilogy of games to only a single title. To fill the void left by Webster, Holder brought in Doug Bell and Andy Jaros, who would end up enhancing the game’s graphics for the upcoming release for the new 16-bit Atari ST computer. While the Apple II version wasn’t a big commercial success, the Atari ST version, released in 1985, would become the best-selling title in the computer’s first year on the market
Sundog: Frozen Legacy was picked, at the time, as one of the 15 best computer games of all time by Popular Computing.
The enhanced Atari ST version, released by FTL Games themselves in 1985
Bringing Bell and Jaros in-house would become FTL’s new core. The initial plan was to finish up Crystal Dragon, a CPRG the two developers had been working on from their time before FTL.
Crystal Dragon almost immediately proved a more complex project than Holder had anticipated and probably had hoped for. Bell and Jaros had lots of ideas, but not all of them were practical or even doable on the aging Apple II platform.
Crystal Dragon was inspired by Ultima and Wizardry but instead of the stale evolution both games saw after their first release, Crystal Dragon should be a new revolution in the CRPG genre, but Bell and Jaros quickly found themselves facing a problem known to many other 8-bit CRPG developers: it just wasn’t obvious how to really improve on the Ultima or Wizardry formula on such limited hardware.
When Atari at the beginning of 1985 announced the new Atari ST 16-bit home computer, Holder decided that this new power platform could be the way to overcome earlier 8-bit limitations. Crystal Dragon was for a while put on hold while Sundog was ported to the ST.
With Sundog released and out of the way, FTL would have the time and resources to re-engineer Crystal Dragon from the ground up, switching from coding in Pascal to C (which was the ST native programming language), and giving it a new name, Dungeon Master.
Dungeon Master would sway away from the old school turn-based approach and become a real-time CPRG, and by utilizing the ST’s mouse support you would be able to interact with the world and its items.
With the new user interface and mouse support, the gameplay would end up particularly enjoyable from the real-time 3D pseudo perspective, the logical spell system, to the intuitive way the player used the mouse to directly manipulate items, a truly complex and innovative game under the hood but presented in a simple and elegant way, to this day we still see some great technical achievements in-game concepts but very often those are followed by a somewhat questionable design.
FTL’s original plan was to make the game available in time for the 1986 Christmas but when that slipped, and afraid that the hype would slowly fade, FTL would regularly demonstrate the progress to the different ST user groups. Dungeon Master was the most hotly anticipated piece of vaporware in ST circles for months on end.
After more than 2 years in development and a thoroughly beta testing phase, the game was finally released in America right before the 1987 Christmas – The most anticipated ST game in history was finally out, and even without loud and far-reached advertising campaigns the game was instantly popular, in fact so popular that it sold out almost everywhere, making itching gamers have to wait for weeks for stocks to fill.
The commercial success was not only happening in North America but also in Europe and especially in Japan.
Dungeon Master went on to become the ST’s best-selling product of all time. It was eventually ported to over a dozen platforms in six languages.
Dungeon Master and its expansion set Chaos Strikes Back
Dungeon Master, its expansion set Chaos Strikes Back, and the successor Skulkeep for the Japanese PC-9801 system
The franchise went on to become hugely popular in Japan
In 1989 an expansion set to Dungeon Master was released, it featured a more non-linear approach with choices of paths that twist back and forth. The puzzles were far more complex, often demanding quick mastery of the control system to deal with intense combat, along with brain riddles and room layouts.
The new expansion set didn’t require the original game and with a lot of new things happening design and gameplay-wise, it would be seen as more of a sequel.
Chaos Strikes Back didn’t see an IBM/PC release which might seem a bit strange since the platform was skyrocketing as a viable gaming platform in the late ’80s.
- Dungeon Master II – The Legend of Skullkeep was first only released in Japan, in December 1993. The first English language version was released in 1994 for the Sega CD. After many delays, the US and European versions for Macintosh, PC, and Amiga were released by Interplay Productions in 1995 and 1996.
- Dungeon Master Nexus was a Dungeon Master sequel released only in Japan and only for the Sega Saturn console. The game used a true 3D graphics engine and consisted of 15 levels.
- Theron’s Quest was an adaptation of Dungeon Master for the TurboGrafx / PC Engine console. The Japanese version was released in 1992 and the year after an English version was released in the US.
Released in 1987 for the Atari ST, Oids is probably the least known of FTL’s titles. While it didn’t feature any real groundbreaking mechanics or any deeper gameplay it did receive great reviews. The arcade 2D sci-fi shooter played like many of the arcade titles of the era, with similarities to games like Choplifter and Asteroids.
Dan Hewitt did all the programming, game art, sound effects, and even wrote and illustrated the manual. Hewitt later went on to work for SSI and later Electronic Arts.
The original 1987 release of Oids for the Atari ST
While FTL might be synonymous with Dungeon Master – their most popular and most successful game, a game that would end up spawning numerous copycats, a game that holds the honor of being the first, and many would say still the best, true first-person real-time RPG. FTL had already, with Sundog, showed that they mastered the art of creating and designing games that featured deep and engaging gameplay, and technical achievements that reached beyond its time.
Against the odds with its only a handful of titles, FTL made a solid name for themselves at the time, creating some near-perfect games, and while gaining critical acclaim and winning numerous awards, it seems it never superseded FTL’s short lifetime.
Still to this day their games hold up remarkably well, and are still great fun, and challenging, to play.