Discovering the Gold Box

As Good Old Games revives thirteen classic Dungeons & Dragons titles for a modern audience, we asked the team who worked on them and today’s game designers and producers to give us their favorite memories.

In the 1980s and ’90s, spin-off videogames based on the Dungeons & Dragons roleplay system were all the rage, as the Forgotten Realms provided a rich backdrop for these RPG adventures. Yet you didn’t have to be born to the sounds of Duran Duran and Queen or Billy Joel and EMF to reminisce about their low-fi pleasures and old-school storytelling. Good Old Games has dusted off thirteen classic titles, removed the bugs they shipped with and launched the Gold Box collections for modern gamers to enjoy.

The three releases bundle multiple games together, including:

Forgotten Realms: The Archives Collection 1 (Eye of the Beholder I, II & III)

Forgotten Realms: The Archives Collection 2 (Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, Hillsfar, Secret of the Silver Blades, Pools of Darkness, Gateway to the Savage Frontier, Treasures of the Savage Frontier, Forgotten Realms Unlimited Adventures)

Forgotten Realms: The Archives Collection 3 (Dungeon Hack, Menzoberranzan)

In honor of their return, we asked key game designers and producers and those who actually worked on the games to relive their favorite experiences, and they didn’t disappoint…

Vegas, Baby!

“I have great memories of working on the first Eye of the Beholder game. In order to get the game out on time, I moved to Las Vegas for three weeks and worked on-site with the developers, Westwood Studios. The first Eye of the Beholder was the most beautiful AD&D Computer Game I had seen at that time. The monsters and environments, and the slick interface looked great. The game could be played equally well with mouse, keyboard or a combination. And reaction time mattered. When a player saw a monster coming at their party, it was imperative to skillfully combine moving and fighting to keep the party alive.

“I still have memories of the fear that greeted players on level three. Giant poisonous spiders roamed the halls. And when the spiders were nearby, the player could hear them, even through doors and walls. If the player came to a door and heard a scuttling sound, they had to wonder if there were spiders that would pounce on them the moment it was opened. The tension was delicious.

“The finale, against the game’s namesake, was also a memorable puzzle that required exact timing and clever reasoning. I hope players today enjoy Eye of the Beholder as much as I enjoyed helping bring it to market.”

George MacDonald, producer on Eye of the Beholder


Strong Bonds

“When I was in middle and high school, I had an Atari ST. Like a lot of people who own things that are impressive yet inexplicably unpopular, I fancied myself a visionary technology connoisseur who was maybe also pretty impressive (yet inexplicably unpopular). I loved that machine like only a teenage nerd could, but even I would admit at least one drawback: it had way, way too few D&D games. And for a kid who ran to the mailbox at full tilt every single day to see if my copy of Dragon had shown up yet, an AD&D game that you could play any time without having to leave your room was basically a Sphere of Spare Time Annihilation.

“Because my poor ST never saw a release of Pool of Radiance, my campaign to acquire the sequel, Curse of the Azure Bonds, knew absolutely no bounds once it showed up at my local computer shop. In the end, I took an advance on my next Christmas and birthday presents and I was tearing away the shrink wrap before the receipt hit my mom’s hand. When I got it home and fired it up, it did not disappoint.

“Sure, maybe the graphics were a little weak and the sound was best replaced by a Led Zeppelin tape as soon as possible, but this was real D&D, and the kind I liked to play, too. Not just a dungeon to raid, but a huge swath of countryside with taverns and armories and NPCs with their own backstories that you could hire into your party. It actually made a difference whether your characters were fighters or paladins, and when you encountered a monster you could choose to be “haughty” to it. Haughty!

“Although I didn’t know it at the time, Curse of the Azure Bonds was probably the first experience I had with emergent gameplay in a videogame. It wasn’t just that there was more than one solution to a problem, it was that some problems didn’t even seem to arise unless a few different factors were present that might cause them. I didn’t have a name for it, but that type of experience really felt like roleplaying to me. And once I knew that a computer could create that feeling, I wanted it badly enough that I would buy (and, eventually, try to make) one game after another just to see how good it could get.

“So thanks, Curse of the Azure Bonds! Because of my weird computer-buying choices, I may not have been able to play a lot of the Gold Box games, but I certainly got a lot out of the one that I did!”

Demetri Detsaridis, external producer for Snow Cannon Games


Squaring Up To The Circle

“I played most of the Gold Box games and I remember the first time my fighter executed the ‘cleave’ ability to full effect. I had stepped into a vast room and was beset by a massive crowd of orcs, with enemy spell casters in the distance. I was immediately panicked as there seemed no way for me to quickly make it through the mass of orcs to reach these casters. The monsters had their turn and my fighter character was surrounded by orcs. When his turn came, I attacked the orc in front of him and was floored with amazement as he struck down six of the orcs surrounding him. Within three attack rounds the orcs melted away and I was toe to toe with an enemy caster. I still remember the elation of seeing the fighter hit, kill the orc, turn to the next orc, kill it and continue in the circle, wiping out an army in a few rounds. That really sold the concept of a high-level fighter confronted with large numbers of underpowered enemy minions. Great times.”

Trent Oster, creative director on Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition and former director on Neverwinter Nights


Talent Pool

Pool of Radiance was my first opportunity to shine as a designer, and watch SSI transform from a small strategy games house, into a powerful RPG company. The Forgotten Realms Gold Box games caused SSI to grow rapidly. George MacDonald and I, as the designers, got pushed out into the unheated warehouse. We had to make our desks out of piles of shrink-wrapped game boxes. Thankfully, although it was winter, the temperature never actually dropped to freezing. Still, our breath misted as we worked.

“I had been playing D&D from its early days in the ’70s, along with several other team members, so it was more than just a bunch of numbers and rules. We understood what aspects to emphasize, what we could better adapt for the computer environment, and what we could ignore. Several of us played in a weekly game since high school – the group still plays weekly to this day – so we could easily fall into a discussion about the pros and cons of quests and rules, and even test things out when we got together.

“All the development was on C64 systems, and we used a scripting language based off assembly. It was very intense. With Secret of the Silver Blades, I became producer, lead designer and head of the scripting department, so I got to juggle a lot more plates. The technology was shifting, so we had internal discussions over tech specs, and whether to just make a dungeon crawler and dump any pretense at story. The design team won that argument, and we continued to put an emphasis on storyline. I still strive to recreate the great balance of exploration and story we achieved back then.”

David Shelley, former designer at SSI and lead designer on Seven Dragon Saga at TSI.


Advanced Graphics

“As a Dungeon Master and budding game designer, Gold Box games were very influential in showing what could be done, and proving that the computer could provide an enjoyable RPG experience. And if you were an RPG player, Pool of Radiance was the game to play when it came out. I remember being excited about it because it was the first ‘official’ AD&D computer game, and I played a lot of AD&D with my friends growing up.

“To me, one of the most thrilling parts was that the graphics depicting the monsters were very close to those seen in the monster manual, making it feel like a real Dungeons & Dragons game. Another was that you had character creation with actual choice, such as race, class, gender, alignment and other character customization. The box even contained ‘extras’ and I remember spinning the Translation Wheel to decipher otherwise illegible symbols, and looking up entries in the Adventurer’s Journal.”

Geoffrey Zatkin, external producer for Snow Cannon Games and designer on the original EverQuest team.


Pixel Perfect

“I did a lot of work on the Amiga ports of the Gold Box games as well as making original artwork. The art department was expanding when I arrived and I was only the second woman after Sue Manley. At the time it was unusual that I had a degree in fine art, since SSI was just then getting past the era of ‘programmer art’. It took a little while to get my art-student head around the limited palettes and low-resolution graphics, but there’s a real technique to that kind of minimal pixel-based drawing. Our department did some pretty attractive work within the limitations. Mark Johnson in particular was a wizard with anti-aliasing in a 16-color fixed EGA palette. The Amiga 2000 was state of the art graphics in 1989: a variable 32-color palette. I was able to upgrade a lot of the ported artwork. When VGA came along, the whole art department was in heaven. Wow, 256 colors! We were sure no one was ever going to need more than that for game art.

“We had a lot of in-house TSR artwork for reference: gorgeous paintings from people like Larry Elmore and Keith Parkinson. But there wasn’t any such thing as a desktop scanner in the department, so we had to redraw everything with a mouse. At the resolutions we worked at, scanned pictures turned to noise and needed heavy editing anyway. At some point my manager got a handheld scanner that you had to move slowly and steadily over the picture to avoid blurring it, and I think it only captured a monochrome image like a fax machine. Graphics tablets were not a thing yet. It was pixel by pixel work, though when a portrait is only 88 pixels by 88 pixels, that’s not as bad as it might sound.

“I’d deliver my work on a floppy and walk down the hall to hand it to a programmer. We had no in-house email system at first, and it was a big deal when we installed a company server. This was long before Google Image Search or CDs with stock photos. I remember cutting lots of pictures out of magazines for my portrait files, and bringing in various books for reference.

“I’m lucky I didn’t have to work on the Apple ports, though. They had a very strange color system, which involved adjacent pixels adding up to a third color. At the time, Apple was all about being serious and world-changing, and games and color were apparently too frivolous to matter. The artist responsible for that machine had a tough job.

“SSI was a good place to work in general, though workplace practices around 1990 were pretty different than they are now. Having other artists all around and the programmers right down the hall was probably better on a personal focus and feedback level than the current style of everyone working remotely on temporary contracts and delivering to the cloud.

“On the other hand, there was a famous incident where a manager had to distribute a memo reminding some of the programmers and testers to shower, change their clothes once in a while and use deodorant. On the internet, no one knows what you smell like.”

Laura Bowen Shelley (credited as Laura R. Bowen on the SSI games) was a graphic artist at SSI from 1989 to 1993.


You Had Me At Mystery

“It’s easy for me to reminisce about Eye of the BeholderII! My brother got it from a friend of his and we played it frequently. I was 12, and everything about the game called to me. It was the prettiest PC game I’d seen since the updated version of King’s Quest sketched its screens wildly across my monitor. I had no experience whatsoever with the Forgotten Realms, as I was a Dragonlance reader, so I didn’t know who this Khelben Blackstaff guy was, asking for my help at the beginning. But I was pretty stoked to do whatever this cool-looking guy said: mystery, missing scout, temple; chill, wizardy man. This sounds awesome. I’m in.

“I remember being surprised at the motives of the two clerics at the beginning, because they looked so perfectly friendly! But my biggest surprise was Insal, the halfling thief you find near the start of the game. You rescue him from a cell, and he offers to join you. You can refuse and send him on his way, but I didn’t even entertain the thought, as I was hugely excited to see my rag-tag party of four expanded to five. OK, the back rows couldn’t do much more than throw rocks if they had no ranged weapons or spells to sling, but I had an extra party member, another arm to chuck debris at foes, and I felt like my powers were growing. I squished some spiders and killed some soldiers, and as I approached the stairs to the next level, I decided it was wise to find a safe room, shut the door, and rest to recover my spells and HP.

“When I awoke, Insal was gone. I was richer one ‘sorry, guys’ note, and poorer… whatever Insal had on him. And I’d unwisely been using him as a mule for several of my potions, which were now gone forever. That made me kind of furious, as any player gets when something is taken from them, but I was also stunned and a little excited that it had happened. I’d picked up a random thief and – surprise! – they actually turned out to be someone I couldn’t really trust. It was the first time I’d ever run into something like that in a game, where who you added to your party had actual consequences, instead of being essentially just a collectable. It may even have been the first time someone did something in-character after they joined my party, not just before.

“I’m told Insal comes back to help you later, and I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t beaten the game, yet, but this escape and theft is something that’s really stuck with me. To make him the very first character you come across, and that you’re so excited to have more help in these dank catacombs, is a wonderfully clever dirty trick that makes you wary of whomever else joins you later on. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to reinstall the game, save Insal, and not take him along this time. I’ve learned my lesson, you halfling punk.

Annie VanderMeer Mitsoda, writer and designer at DoubleBear Productions


Caught In Possession

“I loved those classic D&D games. At the time they were strategic turn-based gems. I remember Pool of Radiance being really tough. I think it was fairly early on when a possessed brass dragon came out of one of the pools and obliterated my low-level party. I also really enjoyed Curse of the Azure Bonds and I remember going back and reading the book whilst I was playing it. I guess that was a triumph for early cross-category branding.”

Steve Buckmaster, managing director at Esdevium Games


Collateral Damage

“Young players will quote The Witcher, The Elder Scrolls or Dragon Age as RPG references today but older gamers remember the SSI games with emotion. They had good stories and, above all, very tactical battlegrounds and were a really important part of videogames history. I’m very happy to see these new compilations contain Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds and Menzoberranzan (involving Drizzt Do’Urden, one of my favorite ever fantasy universe characters, alongside Raistlin Majere from Dragonlance).

“Sorry modern-day JRPG fans, but in those games if you send a cloud of poison somewhere in the room and members of your party are inside, they will take damage. It always makes me laugh in certain JRPG games when a Bahamut goes into space, throws a huge ray that destroys the earth in an epic cut-scene, with the only consequence being to hurt some of the enemies a little bit.”

Cyril Berrebi, a former editor-in-chief of Official Xbox Magazine in France, now works for game developer Microïds, which is currently producing adventure games ( Agatha Christie – The A.B.C. Murders, Yesterday Origins, Syberia 3), Moto Racer 4 and a tactical RPG based on TV series The Dungeon of Naheulbeuk.


License To Thrill

“I started playing D&D back in 1977 or 1978. It was my experience and passion for roleplaying games that helped SSI get the D&D license for computer games, as I traveled to TSR in Lake Geneva as part of team that acquired it. My friends and I played all sorts of role-playing games before and during the development of Pool of Radiance. For me it was more about getting the rules accurate in the computer game and with years of RPG experience, much of it D&D, it made the task easier. Jim Ward and the others from TSR supplied most of the story.

“It was exciting to bring the feeling of a D&D party adventuring and setting things right to personal computer owners. The 2D graphics were displayed using the engine I had written for Wizard’s Crown and other SSI wargames. But these games were extremely advanced for the time. The C64 and Apple II versions were written completely in 6502 assembly and those computers only had around 48,000 bytes of Ram. The personal computer I’m using now has 166,000 times as much memory.

“The part I didn’t like was the grueling ten and twelve-hour work days, plus some weekends, during the development of Pool of Radiance. But it’s fun to talk to people I work with now about those early days of D&D computer games. Especially since I am the lead programmer for the D&D MMO Neverwinter Online.”

Keith Brors, former senior programmer at SSI, is now senior game programmer for Neverwinter Online at Cryptic Studios.


Toilet Humor

“I first played AD&D when I was 17, which was about 10 years before I worked on the games. I was familiar with the Player’s Handbook, the Monster Manual and the Dungeon Master’s Guide but I hadn’t read the Forgotten Realms books at that time, as I mostly read science fiction. So I read the books as we made the games and they helped me design the various art pieces and understand the places described better. It was engrossing.

“These were the first computer games I had worked on; this was the first time I was getting paid to create computer graphics all day, every day, on a subject I knew well; and I was also the first woman working in R&D at SSI full time in development. So a lot of firsts.

“I remember working hard to get as much action into static images as we could and then when we could create simple animations, doing them in such a way that they were very dynamic. Curse of the Azure Bonds is my favorite because we had gotten really good at C64 art, as well as Secrets of the Silver Blades – we started on the IBM PC and then brought it back down to the C64 and Apple II, so the resulting art was better.

“The same can’t be said for the final graphic in SSI’s flagship product, The Pool of Radiance. It had been described as a bowl of water on an altar. It was the final scene and we actually put three-stage animation into the graphics. So I drew a swirling bowl of water, on a heavily draped table flanked by skull candle holders. It wasn’t until the product had shipped and we were converting art for the IBM PC when Chuck Kroegel, the VP of R&D at Strategic Simulations, came up behind me and said, ‘That looks like a toilet.’ I was horrified. And then I sat back and laughed. The designer, the test team and the art director had all seen the same graphic, but only Chuck saw that it indeed looked like a mundane object in the real world. I still laugh when I tell that story. That altar toilet, as the final scene in the game, shipped in every version. If you were lucky enough to finish the game you got to visit the ‘Toilet of Radiance’.

Susan Manley was lead artist and project manager at SSI and is now COO and executive producer for Olde Sküül