The man who founded Blue Sky Productions, and came up with the idea of crossing a dungeon game with a flight simulator...
NAME: Paul Neurath
FIRST EVER GAME: Deep Space for Sir-Tech
ALSO WORKED ON: Space Rogue, Ultima Underworld: Labyrinth Of Worlds, Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri, Descent, System Shock 2, among others
NOW DOING: New studio, FloodGate Entertainment. Focus on online and multiplayer games
>> You have designed some of the most memorable PC games of all time. How and when did you get into game design?

In high school I was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons, and became instantly hooked. All through high school and college I played and ran D&D campaigns, along with variants such as Traveller, Empire of the Petal Throne, and so on. In the late 1970s I took a programming course in college, and this opened up the world of computer gaming.

We had a campus-wide time sharing system that let users communicate with each other over dumb terminals (simple text only monitors with a keyboard) that were sprinkled across the campus. It seemed only natural that the best use for such a system was to play games. So together with some like minded students, we proceeded to create multiplayer games. These were great fun, and to the alarm of the schools' system admin, we soon had a growing audience of students playing our games and sucking up much of the central computer's capacity. It got to the point where the system admin put a prohibition on game playing.

It was at that point I knew what I wanted to do when I graduated college...

>> We never played Space Rogue. It sounds a heck of a lot like Wing Commander. Was it?

Not really. Space Rogue, which was released several years before
Wing Commander, was my first attempt at blending simulation with role playing. You could fly your spacecraft around in true 3D, and it had a fairly sophisticated simulation of physics. For instance, it used true Newtonian mechanics, with gravity wells, so you could swing around a planet or go into orbit.

On the RPG side, when you landed on a space port you could get out of your spacecraft and walk around, meet aliens, have conversations, get into combat, and the like. The game also had a concept of NPC factions. Depending on the decisions you made during play, you could align your character with either the space privateers, the merchants, or the bounty hunters. There was no "right" path, and so in this sense it was a precursor to open ended, player driven designs such as
Deus Ex.

Speaking of
Deus Ex, I first meet Warren Spector when Space Rogue was wrapping up. Some of his eloquent writing is featured in the game.

There is a connection to
Wing Commander's creator, Chris Roberts. I can recall Chris playing Space Rogue intently for several days straight, and peppering me with questions as to how the 3D graphics and physics worked. At that time Chris was designing a new fantasy game, but after he played Space Rogue he changed course and came up with the design for Wing Commander. I'd like to think that Space Rogue helped inspire Chris to try his hand in the genre.

>> So, you created Wing Commander AND Ultima Underworld, and Chris Roberts & Warren Spector take all the credit for it. Isn't that frustrating?!

It would be more accurate to say that Warren has had the credit for
Ultima Underworld thrust upon him, much to his embarrassment. Warren himself has tried to set the record straight. He was the Origin producer on the two Underworld titles, but the games were conceived of and developed by Blue Sky Productions, an independent studio that was separate from Origin, much like Id Software is from Activision.

Why the confusion then? The reason goes back to the game's release.
Underworld was the first Ultima developed by an outside studio. Up until that point all the Ultimas had been the brainchild of Richard Garriott and developed by in-house teams. Furthermore, Ultima was Origin's premiere brand, and they were understandably protective of the franchise. It is perhaps not surprising then that in the game's press coverage and marketing there was scant mention of Blue Sky. Many assumed that Underworld was, like prior Ultimas, created within Origin.

Not long after
Underworld's release, Blue Sky Productions merged with another developer and became Looking Glass. This added another layer of confusion in the game's lineage. One steady voice through this period was Warren, who as producer for Underworld and its sequel, was often in the position of Origin's spokesperson for the games. People began to associate the game with Warren. Later when he grew as a designer in his own right (with Deus Ex), some tacitly added the Underworlds to his list of creative credits.

>> You conceived Ultima Underworld in Spring 1990. We heard that you wanted to cross a dungeon game with a fight simulator. Who or what inspired that?

Actually the concept for
Underworld arose in 1989, after I had finished Space Rogue. Space Rogue took the first, tentative steps in exploring a blend of RPG and simulation elements, and this seemed to me a promising direction.

However, I did not like the jarring way that
Space Rogue took the player from the simulation of flying around, which was done in 3D, to the RPG play, which was done with traditional top-down view tile graphics. I felt that there ought to be a seamless way to meld these elements, and thereby create a more immersive experience.

I had experimented with a primitive 3D texture mapping algorithm on the Apple IIe system I had at the time. Although the algorithm ran too slowly on my Apple to be of practical use, I thought that on a faster IBM PC it just might be feasible. With such a technology one could create lifelike 3D interior spaces for an entire game world.

Finally, being a huge fan of fantasy fiction and games, I had always wanted to do a fantasy RPG.

From these threads sprung the concept for
Underworld. I wrote a high concept design in the winter of 1990, and contracted with an ex-Origin artist, Doug Wike, to render an animation that emulated what the final game might look like. Then in the spring I formed Blue Sky, and brought aboard the core team to develop the game. The core team included Doug Church and Dan Schmidt, who proved to be masterful programmers, Doug Wike as the lead artist, and myself as creative director.

The team got a running demo up in short order that let the player run around in texture mapped 3D dungeon corridors. Primitive stuff by today's standards, but at that time nobody had seen anything like it. Demo in hand, we pitched the
Underworld concept to various publishers. Origin liked what they saw, and suggested that we set the game in the Ultima mythos and brand it as an "Ultima" (the original design did not contemplate it being an Ultima, and it had not been set in Britannia). We thought this a fine idea, signed a publishing deal with Origin that summer, and thus became Ultima Underworld.

>> How did you get into dungeon games, and what had you played of that ilk before designing Ultima Underworld?

As I mentioned, I had played lots of D&D. I also read a range of fantasy: Howard, Leiber, Vance, Zelazny, LeGuin, and of course, Tolkien. Tolkien's description of Moria struck me in particular, and it seemed like a fine setting for a game.

As far as fantasy games go, I had enjoyed a number that featured dungeons, including the
Wizardry series, Zork, the Ultima series, NetHack, Bard's Tale, and Dungeon Master.

>> Why did you call your development studio Blue Sky?

Blue Sky Productions had a nice ring to it, and the name connotes thinking freely beyond the borders of convention. We would have kept the name, but we found out that there was another game studio, Blue Sky Software in California, which had started before us and had prior rights to the name. We ended up changing our name to Looking Glass Technologies in 1992.

>> We heard you had a few problems with Origin when they first came on board, and lost your initial producer. Then Warren Spector came on board. How big a difference did that make? And in what ways?

Our working relationship with Origin was rocky at times. As Warren has told me, he was surprised at how blasé Origin was towards
Underworld. This was in large part because we were an outside group, some 1,500 miles distant, at a time when Origin was increasingly focused inward on their in-house projects. It was hard simply to get their attention on our project, and in fact no one from Origin visited our studio during the first 18 months of the project.

The project also suffered because the first producer assigned by Origin left the company not long after we had signed our publishing deal. Origin assigned a second producer, but he was pulled off the project about a year into development, and we were left with no producer for a while.

Finally we asked if Origin would assign Warren as the producer. Warren had done some work with me on Space Rogue, and I respected his understanding of game design. Warren became a wonderful evangelist of
Underworld within Origin, and forged a strong working relationship with our team. At last Origin was paying attention to our project.

>> What aspect of Ultima Underworld's design and realisation gave you the most satisfaction?

Two aspects. The first was coming up with an original concept, and then seeing it actually work as envisioned. This is an all too rare opportunity in our industry, which increasingly looks towards the safety of sepals and derivatives.

The second was in building the team and helping them grow as game developers. Keep in mind that for most of the team
Underworld was their first game project. Yet the team's accomplishment with Underworld was extraordinary, and a number of the team members have gone on to become top developers in their own right.

>> What was the atmosphere like after the first Underworld reviews came in? Did you realise how big a deal your game would become?

We really did not know what to expect. It was therefore very satisfying to see the glowing reviews. I recall how one magazine gave the game a 6 rating on a 1-5 scale, and said that it was the best game ever made.

However, sales were merely good out of the gate, and so Origin did not consider
Underworld a hit. This dampened the enthusiasm a bit, and muted Origin's interest in the sequel. As a consequence the Underworlds never got the level of marketing support that some of the other top Origin games received. Nevertheless, word of mouth carried Underworld sales for many years, and they managed to rack up a half million sales between the two titles, making them hits over the long haul.

>> Which came first - Ultima Underworld or Wolfenstein 3D?

Ultima Underworld shipped about a month before Wolfenstein 3D. We had shown Id an Underworld demo the year before, and I recall John Carmack, who was all of about 19 at the time and as yet unknown in the game industry, saying that he could write a faster texture mapper...

>> If you had one special, overriding memory of the Ultima Underworld series, what would that be?

I brought an early
Underworld demo to the West Coast to show some folks, including developer friends. I recall how their jaws dropped wide as they watched the demo. You could see in their eyes that the gaming world had shifted.

>> Does Ultima Underworld have any famous fans? For example: maybe you read somewhere that Woody Allen liked RPGs, or something?

Woody Allen playing
Underworld, that would be a sight to see... I've been told that Robin Williams and Steven Spielberg are both computer game fans, but I don't know if either has tried Underworld.

>> What did you do straight after the second Underworld game?

Slept... We racked up LONG hours on that project!

Actually, we started two new games,
System Shock and Terra Nova. At that point we were burned out on fantasy RPGs, and wanted to try our hand at something different. I participated in the concept design for System Shock, although this project was always Doug Church's vision at heart. For Terra Nova I wrote up the concept design and got the team underway.

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

New studio, Floodgate Entertainment. Focus on online and multiplayer games. Can't reveal any more or I'd have to kill you.

>> 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?

What strikes me is that although the visual technology has improved by leaps and bounds since
Underworld was released, progress on game play has come along much more slowly. Particular areas where there seems much left to be done include:

+ Multiplayer designs. Multiplayer is still very much in its formative stages. I think it will grow into a huge category in its own right as designers figure out how to get beyond the first crop of titles that have been released. Multiplayer is a natural for
Underworld style games, and harkens back to its roots in D&D team play.

+ Better NPC behaviour. NPCs have always been a weak link in
Underworld style games. Getting NPCs to seem halfway believable and react to the player's actions is incredibly hard to pull off, but improvements in this area would have a huge pay off.

+ More open-ended game play. One of the design areas we pushed with
Underworld was in trying to allow the player to solve problems with a palette of strategies. For instance, to get around a foe they might do battle, or cast a spell that would paralyse it, or draw the foe into a large chamber and then try to sprint around it, or come up with some unique strategy of their own. This approach can be taken further.

>> Have you ever considered bringing the Underworld series back to the PC?

Yes. We pitched
Ultima Underworld III to Origin several times over the years, but we were unable to generate sufficient interest. It would be up to Electronic Arts now to green light a sequel.

Ultima Underworld will be coming to the PocketPC shortly. I helped put together a licensing deal for ZIO Interactive to publish this conversion, and it is far along in development. The development team is a Korean group, but Floodgate and Doug Church are helping out on some of the 3D programming.

>> How did the PocketPC version of Underworld get started?

I thought that a PocketPC version of
Ultima Underworld could be a cool game. I first went to EA to see if they wanted to publish this version, but they said that they were not publishing on the PocketPC platform. However, they were fine with me searching out a PocketPC publisher. I came across ZIO, who is one of the top PocketPC publishers, and found them very excited about the prospect of bringing Underworld to the PocketPC. It also turned out that EA was already working with them on some other projects. Therefore, it seemed a good fit, and EA closed a licensing deal with ZIO for them to publish Underworld on the PocketPC.

>> 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?

Don't despair, soon you'll be able to get
Ultima Underworld for your PocketPC!

I would prefer if there was a mechanism for older games to be sold at a very modest cost, or available for rent perhaps. However, retailer's don't have room to stock older titles the way bookstores do.

>> 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?

That's a great idea!

>> 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?

Blame it on the rapid change in computer technology. I can readily pick up my 1967 edition hardcover Lord of the Rings and read it today; or drop my Star Wars video, made from the 1977 film, into my VCR. But how am I going to play a game from those eras without a computer to run it on (setting aside emulators for the moment)?

Furthermore, the book still reads just as well as it did when it was first published, and the film, despite advances in film SFX, is still wonderful to watch. The same can not be said of most games from the 1960s and 70s. Simply put, the interactive game industry has been obsolescing itself at a rapid clip.

As for there being only 30-40 PC games on sale, I think the issue is that games are relatively expensive (more than a paperback or a music CD), so that consumers are reluctant to buy on impulse. Also, a game takes time to get into and enjoy. Unlike a music CD or film that can be fully enjoyed in a hour or two, then put aside, games likes the
Underworlds only come into their own after you've played them for several evenings, and can take weeks to finish. This makes them time intensive, which naturally leads people to buy fewer of them, and so constrains the market.
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