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Devil Whiskey: From Fan-Made to Self-Made

by Howard Wen
09/30/2004

Traditional pen-and-paper role-playing games encourage a reversal between player and game maker where players can become game makers themselves. For many players, this give-and-take interactivity makes RPGs appealing and empowering. Devil Whiskey is such an example, where avid players of computer role-playing games have switched roles and become game producers.

What started as a fan-made follow-up to a classic series of computer role-playing games has spun off into its own original territory, thanks in part to open source development tools. Devil Whiskey follows the mold of the fantasy computer RPGs that were popular throughout the 1980s, but are now out of favor in the present-day PC gaming market. It runs on Linux and Windows, and, while the developers sell it (as a reasonably priced $25 for download), they plan to open source its code after selling a certain number of units.

Devil Whiskey was originally an unofficial sequel to the The Bard's Tale series from publisher by Electronic Arts. Yet the game evolved to such a creative extent throughout its development that it made more sense to have it stand on its own storyline and setting. (Today, Electronic Arts no longer owns the publishing rights to The Bard's Tale series. Another company is currently developing a new game under the official Bard's Tale banner.)

The primary motivator for the Devil Whiskey project team is love for the classic role-playing computer games they grew up playing. Resurrecting this genre with better graphics and sound was a logical step. "For me, [the inspiration] wasn't The Bard's Tale, specifically; it was Bard's Tale, Wizardry, Might and Magic--all the games I used to play on my dad's PC when I was a kid. These were the games that got me playing something more complex than my Atari. [Devil Whiskey] seemed like an opportunity to pay tribute to those games I loved," says Phil Martin, a 25-year-old software engineer from Stillwater, Oklahoma. He contributed his programming skills and helped to create game maps and the plot script.

"Many of us missed these old games so much. We wanted to improve graphic detail and sound fidelity, yet keep the old school game style," says Jon Starnes, who produced various graphic and audio elements (maps and music) for Devil Whiskey. The 33-year-old from Atlanta, Georgia works as a librarian.

An Unofficial Sequel Tells Its Own "Tale"

The origins of this game date to early 1999, when people posting on fan sites dedicated to the The Bard's Tale series mused about making their own sequel. Fulfilling this idea was an on-again-off-again affair until a team came together in 2000 to build Dark Resurrection. The original idea was to produce a game with 3D graphics, but this proved to be too ambitious to realize at the time. "Make sure everyone reads this: we spent the first year and a half working on an entirely different game--a game that was much bigger and designed as an open-range 3D game," says Starnes.

Toward the end of 2000, Justin Binns, a twentysomething programmer for a U.S. National Lab from Chicago, Illinois, joined the development team. He created a 2D graphic engine that could make games that look and play in the style of the classic computer RPGs. The team decided to scale things back and, instead, produce a "tribute" to The Bard's Tale. Eventually, this would become Devil Whiskey--itself now a prequel to Dark Resurrection. "Basically, we weren't trying to create a sequel. Or, at least, I wasn't--we very quickly focused on creating a new game that would bring back the great feel and gameplay that we all remembered from the good old days," says Binns.

"Our game was intentionally meant to feel like, as I think, a Chopin prelude. It was meant to set the tone and not overshadow the bigger game, Dark Resurrection," Starnes elaborates.

Made To Be Played, and Remade, by RPG Fans

While the game has been released for sale, Starnes admits: "We think the game mechanics are enjoyable, but everything else may not be as well as we'd have liked." Devil Whiskey continues to undergo improvements and minor tweaks. The most recent update, as of this writing, added full character animations, a player-control interface similar to that of a first-person shooter, and mouse support. Animated sprites may appear in a future release.

Technically, the game uses C++, OpenGL, and Python. Libraries and other outside code include Simple DirectMedia Layer, SDL_mixer, SDL_image, SMPEG, and zlib. The draw of these tools is their cross-platform capabilities, which makes porting the game to other operating systems beyond Linux and Windows easier. Additionally, their licenses allow for commercial use, which the team needed to sell their final product.

The greatest challenge when programming an RPG, the developers of Devil Whiskey encountered, is maintaining lists of items that remain static throughout the game world. This is necessary to allow players to re-purchase items that they previously sold. Otherwise, shops in the game would have limitless inventories of items. Tracking stats is also a data juggling act: spells and items need to raise or lower player stats and interact with other stats.

While the game is closed source for the time being, its developers hope that Devil Whiskey will inspire fans to create new adventures for it. Part of the design included making the game easy to modify. The configuration data for maps, monsters, items, and every other element are plain text files, which modders can alter by using a simple text editor. Almost any image editor can produce new graphics.

"I'd like to see more user-created modifications. The modding effort is starting to ramp up, but most of it involves people changing things for themselves in-game, or creating a couple of levels to play for themselves and friends," says Martin. "I'd like to see some homebrew dungeons."

Giving Back

The developers plan to release the source code for Devil Whiskey after selling 50,000 copies--a number which, quite frankly, could be a bit high. ("As for the sales, they have been very modest and on par with first releases from small indie developers," says Starnes.) The development team elected to start their own limited-liability business entity in the hope of receiving financial compensation for their work and to make it easier for them to maintain control over their initial creative vision for the game.

Martin emphasizes they remain committed to giving back to the open source community: "Several gaming companies give away the source after a game has lived out its lifetime [in sales]. With 50,000 being our mark, I wouldn't consider it the game's lifetime, but long enough [to] let the fans take over, freeing us to continue other projects without worrying about [adding] changes to the Devil Whiskey codebase."

This spirit coincides with the relationship between producer and end user in the RPG world, too. Muses Starnes: "We are always looking for a more human connection in games. That's why people love The Sims, real-time strategy games, and in-your-face titles like Grand Theft Auto. They make connections, be it visceral cathartics or social."

Howard Wen is a freelance writer who has contributed frequently to O'Reilly Network and written for Salon.com, Playboy.com, and Wired, among others.


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