Polygon Examines the History of Looking Glass

Former Looking Glass concept artist Robb Waters' reimagining of the Drone, from System Shock.

Polygon has published a lengthy article entitled Ahead of its Time: The History of Looking Glass, by one Mike Mahardy. It is, as it promises, a comprehensive look at the genesis, achievements, and downfall of Looking Glass Studios, Paul Neurath’s Cambridge, Massachusetts-based game development studio, which produced such games as Ultima Underworld, System Shock, and Thief.

You can actually listen to the whole thing, if you have an hour:


Failing that, click on through and give the article a look. Here’s a little taste:

…And as Origin grew in Texas, the company brought [Warren Spector] on board.

Shortly after, Garriott moved the company to Massachusetts, where his brother and co-founder Robert was living. Along with Spector, they continued to grow the company, despite its relocation. They also tapped into a new talent pool, which they didn’t have access to in Texas.

Garriott says it was hard to make games in Massachusetts without meeting Paul Neurath. The budding designer was already experimenting with his Apple II, showing his games to anyone possible. The man who would later found Looking Glass was one of Origin’s “first great authors,” Garriott says, and the company was eager to bring him on board after several chance meetings.

Neurath led design on Space Rogue, a sci-fi role-playing game that laid the foundation for his later titles: a blend of role-playing elements and simulation that allowed the player, and not designer, control of things.

And after Space Rogue’s release, when Origin returned South, Neurath was left with a studio, development tools and funding of his own. So with newfound experience from his time with Origin, he founded Blue Sky Productions, the company that would become Looking Glass Studios.

“That’s really what formed the studio,” Garriott says. “Paul having a home base when Origin sort of abandoned him up there. And I think Looking Glass was very ahead of its time, setting the standards which other studios are finally starting to pick up.”

Neurath recruited Doug Church, a programmer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to help with Blue Sky’s first project: a first-person role-playing game set in a fantasy world. Church would go on to establish the project’s technological base and play leading roles on the studio’s later projects.

Neurath also contacted Doug Wike, a former Origin employee, to create a short animation that showed a creature moving toward the player in real time. It took a month’s work, but when they finished it, the small team had a tangible demo to showcase.

In search of a publisher for the project, Neurath showed the animation at Consumer Electronics Show in 1990, where Garriott and Spector happened to be in attendance.

“I was blown away,” Spector says. “I remember thinking as I watched that demo that the world had just changed.”

Associated with the article, Polygon has also published a number of related pieces, which examine the lasting impact that Looking Glass had on the gaming industry. There’s an article about the inspiration that the development team behind Gone Home took from Looking Glass, and there’s also (obviously!) an article about Irrational Games. Guitar Hero developer Harmonix is also featured, and the final accompanying piece delves into the history of the Xbox and finds a Looking Glass connection there.