Night Dive Studios Interviews Paul Neurath

Night Dive Studios has published a lengthy interview with former Looking Glass Studios top man Paul Neurath. The discussion ranges over a number of topics, but Ultima Underworld comes up for mention right off the bat…so let’s focus on that:

1. We’d like to hear more about the way that Ultima Underworld blended simulationist elements with RPG elements, about your vision for that idea and where it came from, and why that was so innovative at the time.

I saw the opportunity to blend the open-ended nature of sims with the traditional RPG linear format to try to create a new kind of experience with Ultima Underworld. Underworld has a plot, but unlike other RPG’s of that era we gave the player great agency in how and in what order it is solved.

For example, the player might encounter a Goblin barring forward progress through a dungeon chamber. In most RPG games the only option would be to fight the Goblin, or perhaps cast a spell to defeat it. In Underworld you could talk to Golbin and perhaps persuade it to let you pass. Or you could use your inventory of items to try to construct some protection, or distract the Goblin and run past. We found player’s coming up with solutions on their own which none of the designers had anticipated.

In parallel to the open-ended gameplay, we also wanted to bring more immersion to the experience. Most of the PRG’s of that era were rendered in 2D overhead perspective. A few, such as the Wizardry series, used a 3D perspective but the 3D was faked, with the player stepping from room to room discretely as if they were turning pages in a picture book. These approaches to rendering the world lacked immediacy.

Neurath also offers some thoughts on the relationship between Origin Systems and Looking Glass:

5. Most of the time people are fairly dismissive of sequels, particularly if they come out too quickly – you yourself have said that you felt that the second Ultima: Underworld felt very rushed, and you’ve made other comments about the way the game industry has an unfortunate habit of focusing on what sells well rather than any true attempts at innovation. Do you feel that System Shock 2 stands in the same category of “well this was decently well received, let’s just make a sequel?” or does it live up to the original and truly build on that foundation?

The publisher of Ultima Underworld, Origin, wanted the sequel out in less than a year and we delivered. But it was a rush and we cut corners. In hindsight it was unwise to kick the sequel out as fast as we could. The sequel sold half of the original, which essentially killed Origin’s interest in doing anything further with the franchise. Had we spent more time and innovated further Underworld might be a major franchise still running today.

There is an interesting parallel between the above and Origin’s later relationship with EA. It’s interesting — and perhaps a bit unfortunate — that Origin did to Looking Glass what Electronic Arts later did to Origin; the practice of pressuring developers to hammer out quick sequels was evidently a fairly common one back in the 1990s (and arguably still exists today, at least in some segments of the market).

At any rate: click on through and read the whole thing!

(Hat tip: Infinitron Dragon)