|The man who founded
Blue Sky Productions, and came up with the idea of crossing
a dungeon game with a flight simulator...
FIRST EVER GAME: Deep Space for
ROLE ON ULTIMA UNDERWORLD: Designer
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
>> 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
was the first Ultima
developed by an outside studio. Up until that point all the
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
Actually the concept for Underworld
arose in 1989, after I had finished 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
As far as fantasy games go, I had enjoyed a number that featured
dungeons, including the Wizardry
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
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
was their first game project. Yet the team's accomplishment
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
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
sales for many years, and they managed to rack up a half million
sales between the two titles, making them hits over the long
>> Which came first -
or Wolfenstein 3D?
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
>> 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
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
+ 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
+ Better NPC behaviour. NPCs have always been a weak link
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
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.
However, 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
>> How did the PocketPC
version of Underworld
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
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
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
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.