“Come on down! Britannia is hosed.” – An Interview With Dan Schmidt

Dan Schmidt got his start in the gaming industry working as a programmer for Blue Sky Prodctions/Looking Glass Studios right out of college. He double-majored in Computer Science and Music at MIT, and leveraged both fields in his work on Ultima Underworld, developing both the creature AI and sound effects for the game. And he continues to draw upon both fields today as a programmer at Harmonix. He’s also the lead singer for Honest Bob and the Factory-to-Dealer Incentives.

In addition to Underworld, he has worked on such notable games as Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri, System Shock, Guitar Hero, and Rock Band.

Dan has blogged about some of the more…interesting experiences he had during the development of Ultima Underworld (see: here, here, and here), and was gracious enough to take the time to answer a few questions about Ultima Underworld.

Ultima Codex: How does you feel about Underworld still having a fan base 20 years after its release?

Dan Schmidt: It’s literally amazing. Computer games have a really short shelf life. It’s not unusual for people to still love movies, music, or books from 20 years ago, because they’re still easy to experience today, but to still be excited about a PC game from 1992, you either have to have a great memory or go to a lot of effort to play it now. And of course as soon as you play it now you realize how dated it is…

UC: What motivated the move to such a revolutionary 3D engine, in an era where most other dungeon-crawling RPGs were still tile-based games offering movement in cardinal directions only?

DS: This happened before my time, in 1990 I guess (I joined Blue Sky Productions in 1991 after I graduated from college). Blue Sky’s CEO, Paul Neurath, had the vision to realize that real-time rendered 3D dungeons were within reach technologically, and this fellow Chris Green (who now works for Valve), who Paul knew through his friend Ned Lerner, wrote the low-level software texture mapper that made it possible, and Doug Church wrote our renderer on top of that. Of course, going 3D with free movement had lots of implications besides just graphics, so we still had to deal with all of that. Luckily we didn’t realize how hard it was.

UC: To my mind, it has always been something of a shame that Underworld’s very powerful (for its day) 3D engine took a back seat to the rather more primitive engine featured in Wolfenstein 3D, which released a few months after Underworld. What are your thoughts on this, and do you think the state of 3D engine technology would be significantly different today had the Underworld engine been the dominant 3D technology of its day, and the springboard for future 3D game engine development?

DS: Well, the id guys were a lot smarter than us in a way. We were mostly just out of college and were naive enough to think “Hey, let’s just do everything right, full 3D renderer, realistic physics and AI, lots of plot,” and we bit off so much that we were barely able to chew it. There are a lot of places in Underworld where you can tell that we were reaching for the skies and fell short, but we get cut slack because our ambition was so obviously big. Whereas the id guys said “OK, here’s a much smaller problem that we can solve perfectly,” and they did.

Underworld was never really going to be the springboard for future 3D game engine development; for one thing, it was pretty inherently tile-based (the renderer was fully 3D, but the world model was fundamentally based on tiles). That aspect of it was already starting to get creaky with System Shock, and by the time we finally weaned ourselves off of tiles with Thief we had to basically build a new engine from scratch. In my opinion, the real lineage of first-person 3D indoor games doesn’t start with Underworld or Wolfenstein but with Doom; Underworld and Wolfenstein were in retrospect more proofs of concept.

UC: Underworld reportedly begun as a non-Ultima game; how much had been done before it was changed to an Ultima game, and what changes had to be made to it to make that transition happen?

DS: Again, this was kind of before my time, but I think Paul’s dream was always for it to be an Ultima game; he had already done a game for Origin, so he knew those guys. I do remember a big thee/thou pass. You’d think that the Origin would have had a bible or something with all the details of Britannia’s monsters or Iolo’s background or exactly what archaic diction to use, but they largely just let us wing it.

UC: Underworld 2 was conceived as a direct sequel to the events of Ultima 7, whereas Underworld was brought in to the Ultima fold mid-development. Did the writing and development process change significantly between the two games (that is: was it very different writing what you knew would be an Ultima game vs. writing a 3D dungeon crawler that later became an Ultima)?

DS: By the time we started Underworld 2, I had already moved on to Terra Nova, but yeah, Underworld 2 was clearly an Ultima game from the start, one implication of which is that we felt we had to include Castle Britannia and some of the Avatar’s usual pals.

UC: There was supposedly a demo version of the game pitched to publishers prior to it becoming an Ultima title? What area(s) of the game did that demo showcase, if it existed, and what changes were made to them by the time the game was released?

DS: That was before my time. By the time I joined I think the beginning of level 1 was pretty much what we ended up shipping, though.

UC: Was anything significant cut/removed in order to get the game released on time? Is there anything you would have liked to change?

DS: I don’t really remember cutting any features or content to speak of. We mostly had the whole thing sketched out well before the end, and then spent months fixing bugs, optimizing, and tweaking. There may have been some set pieces that we tried to set up but couldn’t quite make work well in the engine, but it’s not like anything was cut at the last minute.

The main thing I wish we could have improved was the endgame. I still think it was neat to have it largely consist of the player running away, but it would have been nice to really make a gorgeous and spectacular scene; we just didn’t have the time and resources to make something cooler.

UC: What motivated the choice of dialogue system used in Underworld, as opposed to the then-conventional (for Ultima) “name,job, by” system?

DS: The dialogue system probably existed before it was an Ultima. I think we just felt that simply echoing keywords wasn’t an interesting enough interaction for the player.

UC: If memory serves, the conversation system in the game was cited as a weakness by some of the game’s developers. What are your thoughts on it, and would you have changed it?

DS: Well, being stupid kids who didn’t know any better, we were trying to implement a fully realistic dungeon simulation in every respect. That means realistic graphics, physics, AI, combat, …and conversation. So by that standard, any conversation model was going to fall short (and they still do, twenty years later!). We were kind of disappointed that we didn’t come up with some magic bullet that solved the “conversation problem” and had to fall back to “conventional” dialogue trees. Later we came up with a nice solution in System Shock by making all the NPCs dead already so you couldn’t converse with them at all, but that’s not something you can really reuse too much.

One thing that we did do to make things more realistic in Underworld is that if you asked someone the same question over and over again, he wouldn’t just continue to dispense the same answer, he’d say “I already told you that!” Somehow we thought this was a feature. Like I said, young and stupid…

UC: I know that different individuals worked on each map level and I’d love to know how these levels were brought together into the overall plot. Did the designers have clear goals to accomplish with each level or was the overall plot put into the game right at the end, after the world had been built?

DS: By the time we started constructing the eight levels, we knew what the plan of the game was, with the talismans and the parts of the key and all. So everyone knew what functions their level had to fulfill in the plot. Besides that, everyone was pretty much on their own. I remember in particular J. D. Arnold’s Lizardman language puzzle on level 3 (can you tell that he used to work at Infocom?) and Jon Maiara’s Pac-Man homage on level 5.

I was then responsible for knitting everything together into a whole, including making sure the entire “plot” worked and editing all the conversations to make sure that they all had some sort of similar “house style” in both content and function.

UC: Whose crazy idea was it to recreate Pac Man and Qbert in Underworld?

DS: The Pac-Man “mine” was totally the idea of Jon Maiara, who designed level 5. I think he just noticed that it would be totally possible to implement first-person 3D Pac-Man in our engine, and once we realized that we even already had ghosts, there was no other possibility. This was back in the days when you didn’t get sued for doing things like that.

The Q-Bert homage was in Underworld II, so I don’t know who was responsible for that.

UC: You’ve shared some funny anecdotes about the game’s development on your blog in the past. I can only assume there are other such highlights, so if you think of anything in particular that you’d like to share, feel free to do so. This many years on, the game still captures a lot of fan interest…and so does the history of how it came to be. We’ve been fortunate (over the past year or two) to see different pieces of the history of various Ultima games come to light, but Underworld itself has always been a bit of a black box. It’d be nice to crack it open just a little to mark its 2nd decade.

DS: I’m trying to remember any other trivia I haven’t already posted…

  • Our internal name for the Lurker was the Pond Squid. It became the unofficial mascot of Blue Sky.
  • We knew that our throwing UI (dragging from your “paper doll” into the 3D world) wasn’t ideal when a tester tried to shoot an arrow at a goblin and instead threw his pants at it. (I am sure half the people reading this have done the same.)
  • We thought everyone would want to use fine mouse control for movement but threw in WASD controls at the last minute for people who couldn’t handle the mouse. At the time, of course, there wasn’t any standard for how to navigate a 3D environment with a keyboard and mouse.
  • One tester’s girlfriend, upon seeing the Headless art: “Why is the bear wearing underwear?”
  • The biggest feature I wish we had gotten more credit for: the automap. It was gorgeous by 1992 standards, and let you take notes anywhere. I don’t think people seeing the game in 2012 can realize how amazing the automap was for the time.
  • Another thing that deserves more credit: Doug Wike’s great creature art. It’s all blown-up sprites and looks super dated now, but he did a lot with just a few pixels and a very small number of colors. (Keep in mind that we had a total palette of 256 colors and that included light and dark shades of everything.)
  • The Slasher of Veils was originally named Ranthru because he ran through a gap between worlds. We ended up reusing the name for a different NPC.
  • The talking door on level 6 was not actually a door. To save memory, inanimate objects had many fewer properties than animate objects did, including the reference to their conversation tree. So that conversation tree actually belonged to an offstage rotworm.
  • We can still crack each other up by quoting lines from the intro cut scene (“Treachery and doom!” “…a thrashing sack slung over its massive shoulder.” Our joke at the time was that “Baron Almric’s distinctive mispronunciation of “Stygian” is a trademark of Origin Systems.” Jon also wrote up a whole set of subtitles before we got the official script from Origin. The only one I remember is Garamon saying “Come on down! Britannia is hosed.”
  • The game was finished with the whole team working for weeks on end in a single Somerville office basement room, as you have probably read elsewhere. Money was at a premium, so the tables were doors on top of file cabinets, and the chairs were these awful red canvas “director’s chairs”. Imagine sitting on those for 15 hours a day. It’s a wonder we can all still walk. Movie directors must all have terrible backs.
  • The renderer was so complicated and so brittle that the only way we determined it was robust enough to ship was when we could finally let it run overnight, taking snapshots from a new random point of the level every frame, without coming in the next morning to find that it had crashed.
  • The main system I was responsible for was the creature/NPC AI. Because they were all rendered as low-res sprites, one of the biggest elements of the combat AI was making sure that the creatures you were fighting stayed far away enough from you to look good on screen. Not something I considered when I started writing it!

UC: Thanks for all the information and answers, and for taking the time here.

Dan also, very graciously, dug his old Underworld development notes out of a box and scanned them to PDF for us. Be sure to check them out!

Note: Dan also talked about the Pac Man homage on his blog:

One part of one of the levels, designed by Jon, was a Pac-Man homage. You had to run around a maze, which I believe faithfully duplicated the first level of Pac-Man picking up “ore” while avoiding ghosts. How Origin let this through I’ll never know, but they did have one complaint: Jon had named the ore “unobtanium” (yes, the same joke that Avatar used 20 years later), and they insisted that that name was too silly. So we changed it to “zanium” in protest…and apparently they were perfectly fine with that.

James Cameron, eat your heart out!