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It's one thing having an idea for a new game, but making it work is another thing entirely. Thank the Lord, then, for genius programmers.
NAME: Doug Church
FIRST EVER GAME: Ultima Underworld
ALSO WORKED ON: Flight Unlimited, System Shock, Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri, Thief: The Dark Project, Thief II: The Metal Age, System Shock 2, among others
NOW DOING: Programming on Ultima Underworld PocketPC, and consulting on various projects
>> How did you get into programming and what was your first ever game?

I've programmed since I was pretty young. In college, I did some work on some XWindows games. The first "real game" I worked on was
Ultima Underworld.

>> When Paul Neurath first approached you with the idea of crossing a dungeon game with a flight simulator, what went through your mind?

That isn't really what happened. Paul had done a high level design, and a bunch of vignette-like descriptions of specific potential scenes. It was a "cross", certainly, but we didn't sit around and try and merge feature lists, or something. Paul's background was in Simulation and Simmy RPGs anyway, with
Space Rogue, and his work with Ned on flight sims. And the rest of us were mostly new to the industry or this sort of game, so it was more of just going and trying to do this very immersive, realistic, dungeon game. As to "what went through my mind", I mean, I was 20 years old and wanted to write games, so I thought: "cool, a big RPG, that would be fun to write, lets go!"

>> You produced a simple Underworld demo to show publishers in June 1990. It blew those who saw it away. What did the demo comprise of?

"Blew away" might be a bit strong. If it had blown them away, they probably would have paid a bit more attention to the project. That said, it was a simple tilemap editor (there were open, closed, and the four main diagonals). You set a texture for each tile (which was shared by all walls in the tile). And you could hit the "game mode" key to bring up the static game screen artist Doug Wike had done, with the 3D view in it, and then walk around a set of textured walls. No lighting, no floor or ceiling, multiple heights, or objects. But it was done by a small group in a month, so we were pretty happy.

>> Is it true that you guys came out with the Ultima Underworld 3D engine before Wolfenstein? Which shipped first?

Underworld was March '92. Wolfenstein was May '92. They were definitely released close, though were very different engines.

>> A lot of people think that Underworld came out after Wolfenstein, and was inspired by it. What do you say to that?

I'm 100 per cent sure we were not "inspired" by
Wolf. Underworld started before Wolf did. Wolf used a very simplified 3D engine, whereas ours was much closer to 'real' 3D (i.e. look up and down, lighting, jumping, chasms, multiple heights of tiles, 3D objects - benches, ankhs, etc). It is hard to imagine how Wolf would have inspired UW, and anyone suggesting that seems unlikely to have looked at the timing or the products.

>> The Underworld 3D engine was unbelievably good for its time. What pushed you to go one step further than anyone had gone before, in terms of the 3D environment?

It was ambitious, certainly. And we figured, for instance, that we had to do 3D objects in order to have reasonable visuals. It was kinda slow, too, though our quarter-screen view sort of made up for it. Basically, we wanted to do a dungeon simulator, and none of the programmers had really done this sort of game, so we were pretty ambitious and not too smart, basically. It was fun, though.

>> What do you think was the most innovative piece of coding in Ultima Underworld?

Actual coding? I don't know... I feel most of
Underworld's innovation was in terms of trying to bring simulation-style gameplay into a traditional RPG environment. Technically, we managed to fit a fairly flexible and detailed environment (for its time, obviously) into a reasonable amount of space, and have it support a reasonable amount of interaction and behaviours. But I think the design synthesis is the major thing.

The 3D was certainly okay, and it was the first indoor real-time 3D game to allow the player to look up and down, and jump, and chasms, et cetera. There was certainly plenty of interesting and hard work to get that going. That was all important, and hopefully helped push the technical innovation for all of us. But that progress is somewhat inevitable in our field, and the industry has continued to build on its technical successes. Sadly, as an industry we seem to know much less about design, and how to continue to extend and grow design capabilities, especially given how much effort we expend keeping up with the technology. So I think the most important things
Underworld did were trying to show the power and value of a style and type of gameplay, though I don't think many games went in that direction after us.

>> What were the main differences between working back then, and now?

Well, a six-person team, where all members do design work, is a lot easier to co-ordinate. The programmers knew most lines of code in the shipping game, and had worked on conversations, levels - everything. That sort of detailed knowledge of the entire project is not even close to possible in modern-sized dev teams.

>> What aspect of the development of Underworld was most problematic?

The part where we had no idea what we were doing, I guess. We ended up writing and rewriting many systems, as we explored what it meant to be a dungeon simulator. We tried three or four movement systems, for instance, and several combat models. We didn't know which aspects of the AI, say, were going to be most important for the player experience, so ended up writing code for many ideas which turned out to be largely irrelevant to the actual gameplay.

The second
Underworld game we let get too big. We knew what we had liked in the first one, but got too defocused and built too large a world, which we did not manage to tune and detail as well as we wanted in the nine months available.

>> And what was most satisfying?

Emergent gameplay was the best aspect, I think. While we had clearly built a bunch of specific elements, at its best
Underworld allowed people to do things their own way. Some of my favourite aspects were when people would describe something that happened to them, and it was a combination of sim systems working together, to create a new experience that only that player had, as opposed to some pre-scripted thing we had written up. For instance, a player was walking down a hall, and a fireball comes shooting out of the darkness. Fleeing from it, they reach a locked door, which they try and pick, but no luck. Finally, they take out their axe and beat the door down, just as the wizard comes up behind them. But there are skeletons on the other side. With creatures on either side, the player leaps into the passing river, and heads up stream, hoping for a beach. Now, we didn't write any of that. It comes from the players play style, and instantaneous decisions when confronted by situations. While the world was very limited, we attempted to enable the player to act as they wanted to. Personally, it was also fun to be so involved. It was fun to build levels, write conversations, code systems, and so on. One definitely felt like a creator of the aspect.

>> Was there ever an Underworld 3D editor, for making custom maps?

A released one? No. Obviously we had one internally.

>> What are you doing at the moment, games-wise?

I left Looking Glass after
Thief, and since then have been doing consulting on a variety of projects. Mostly they have been very different game styles, which has been an interesting learning experience, and fun. Still, a year or two 'off' from immersive sims and I'm definitely ready to get back to it... Trying to find an opportunity that interests me and fits my goals for pushing immersive sims.

>> Where do you think immersive action adventure games will go from here? What do you want to see from Underworld-style games in the future?

Who knows? A lot of games seem to be heading towards a large scale shallow stat-based environment. And that allows developers to focus on familiar gameplay, while adding incremental improvements to the major systems. This is clearly do-able, and something that is yielding more refined versions of the games we are used to. Personally, with
Underworld to System Shock to Thief, we attempted to enable more player actions, though often by limiting the players scope. We've been trying to get rid of systems which are poorly emulated. And find ways to transfer control from the designer to the player, allowing the player to show off and do cool things, as opposed to walking people through bad fantasy/sci-fi novels where the only control they have is in combat.

My hope is that as we learn to do this better, and give the player more and more capability, we will be able to start removing these limits, and create environments where we extend the players capabilities. Ideally, we can get beyond games where the only form of player expression is what weapon you use to kill people. Sadly, at the moment, it is hard to convince publishers to do risky new design, unless you are essentially a franchise in yourself (and, really, it sounds like even Will Wright and others get significant pushback from publishers when they try and innovate). Publishers understand clones, and understand sequels, and understand faster graphics cards. But it is hard to clearly and meaningfully express game design goals to an audience of non-gamers, especially when - as the designer - one isn't quite sure how to get it all working.

>> Getting hold of Ultima Underworld now is nigh on impossible. If you can find a copy, you're lucky. What do you feel about so-called "abandonware"? How do feel about making old games freely available to the public via the web?

Publisher's don't want to have to keep supporting the old games, especially as the OS and hardware scene changes. Trying to do something with the publishers officially would be hard. So making things available through some back channel - that could work. If the publishers would allow it, which is a very different situation. Personally, I love games, and rather they be available than not. When a game reaches the point of selling less than 100 copies a year, it seems like it should be free, but completely unsupported.

>> We say it's about time developers and the IDSA came up with a central, world-wide archive of old games (possibly with a small subscription fee) so that, like in the film and music industries, classic releases can still be obtained by researchers, fans and collectors. Would you agree with that?

Well, first developers and the IDSA would have to talk. But the IDSA is about publishers. That said, personally, I think your idea would be great, especially since it would enable designers to explore the many design approaches and ideas of the past, and more effectively learn about and experiment with those ideas, as opposed to being surrounded in the specific games of now, which are often somewhat "flavour of the day." Anyway, I'd pay the subscription fee, for sure.

>> Don't you think it's a pity that you can walk into a record or video store and choose from thousands of classic titles, but in most modern computer stores there are usually only around 30-40 PC games on sale at the same time? Why do you think gaming heritage is treated so differently to that of music and film?

Because I can still sell a CD from 10 years ago and play it on a modern CD player... I mean, old eight-track tapes aren't on shelves anymore either. It's both a blessing and a curse for our industry. There are issues involving games' continued stigmatisation, and this lack of respect leading to their dismissal as potentially valid cultural objects. But old books, movies, and music can be sold in a format that can be utilised. Without an economic incentive for this heritage, it is unlikely to change.

"Pity" isn't big in the list of words that drive major economic behaviours.
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