|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.
FIRST EVER GAME: Ultima Underworld
ROLE ON ULTIMA UNDERWORLD: Programmer
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
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
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
Which shipped first?
was March '92. Wolfenstein
was May '92. They were definitely released close, though were
very different engines.
>> A lot of people think
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
started before 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
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
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
>> 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
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
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
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
"Pity" isn't big in the list of words that drive
major economic behaviours.