The following is an interview with Looking Glass Technologies on their forthcoming game, Ultima Underworld 2. Thanks, Shadowcat!
ED. - We are VERY pleased to present this (lengthy) interview with Looking
Glass Technologies, the developers of the tremendous, Ultima Underworld
series. Paul Neurath and Doug Church have been very gracious at this very
busy time for them and we want to thank them for all the time and effort
they went through to do this. Because of the length of this interview, it
will be broken into two parts. [Both parts are combined in this file!!]
As Ultima Underworld II now hits the shelves, you should find this most
GB: Welcome guys! Why don't we start by giving us a little history
lesson. How did Looking Glass get started? What's the 'company history'?
Paul: Looking Glass Technologies (LGT) emerged from two computer game
development houses; Blue Sky Productions and Lerner Research. Blue Sky
created the original Ultima Underworld, and Lerner Research wrote such
hit titles as Chuck Yeager's Flight Trainer and F22. The two companies
had worked closely for some time, sharing technology and game concepts.
When it got to the stage that we were sharing staff, it was decided that
the cooperation should be formalized, and so we merged. Blue Sky
convinced the west coast based Lerner Research to move east, and we are
all now enjoying the effects of the blizzard of '92.
GB: Weren't you Blue Sky at one time? What happened to the name?
Paul: Yes, well at least half of us once went by that name. As I said
earlier, Blue Sky Productions merged with Lerner Research to form Looking
Glass Technologies, and Blue Sky was no more. We jokingly call it our
"stealth" marketing strategy, and vow to change our name every year in
order to maintain an aura of mystery.
Doug: There was also a Blue Sky Software who developed 'Hare Raising
Havoc' for Disney Software, so we wanted a unique identity from that
group as well.
GB: Tell us about how your flagship product, Ultima Underworld I got
started. What was the evolution of the Underworld engine? What were some
of the milestones you encountered? For such a small company, how did you
manage to 'scoop' the big guys?
Paul: The Underworld engine grew by spurts. The first milestone was a
1990 summer CES demo we cobbled together in 2 months to show off a
prototype. It was fast, smooth, and had true texture mapped walls,
though the ceiling and floor were flat shaded and the corridors and rooms
were all 10' high --- it looked a lot like Wolfenstein-3D in fact.
We spent the next 18 months refining the engine. We tossed out the
original 3D engine (which came from Space Rogue, an ancient game by
computer game standards) and created a new engine that would deal with
slopes and pits and the like, extended the texture mapper to floors and
ceiling, and at the last moment added a lighting model. Getting the
texture mapper to look really good proved a bear, and we never got it to
look quite as good as we had hoped (it has taken Underworld II to get
that right). So with eighteen more months we added some features and
dropped the frame rate in half. Is this evolution?
Actually, comparatively little of that time was spent on refining 3D
technologies. Most was spent working on game features, mechanics, and
world building. It is truly amazing how much effort goes into creating a
big fantasy game with its host of characters, creatures, dungeons, and so
on. In total the Underworld project took us 12 person years to complete,
and closer to a half million dollars than not. A big project by industry
standards; for our 6 person company, a huge one.
How then did we 'scoop' the big guys with Underworld? I believe it was
achieved through a potent combination of talent and focus. The
Underworld team was graced with bright and creative individuals who were
capable of rising to the challenge of the project. Consider that the
majority of the team had no prior industry experience; this was their
first game. I think that speaks worlds about their abilities.
The focus was to create the finest dungeon game, a game that was tangibly
better than any of the long line of dungeon games that came before it.
We did not have a detailed plan of how this was to be accomplished.
However, as we considered each game feature, we put it up against an
imaginary yardstick of what other games had achieved, and were not
satisfied until we found a better way. Knowing that they were aiming
high, and that Underworld was breaking new ground, the team was motivated
Bigger companies often find it difficult to maintain a high level of
excellence from their teams. Bureaucracy, lack of focus, staff turnover,
and other distractions can dilute the best team's efforts. Size can be a
disadvantage. As LGT grows, we face the same hazards as the "big guys."
We will try to avoid these hazards by keeping the development teams self
sufficient, entrepreneurial, and always focused on crafting the best
Doug: On Underworld, the most important thing was the dynamic creation of
the game. What I mean is that there was no set of rules which we
followed, or pre-written plan. We started with the idea of a first-
person dungeon simulation. We initially had one tile height, and all
tiles were empty or solid. We wanted chasms, though, and slopes, and
angles, so we added more tiles and heights and types.
As the game was worked on, people would suggest behaviours and systems,
and we would all try and figure out how to do it. For doors, for
instance. We naturally wanted doors that opened. We thought about and
figured out that we could just instance the door as a sub-object of the
frame, have the frame be a partial cut out of another texture map, and
then just rotate the door independently. Later, of course, we noticed
that every other dungeon game has doors that either slide up and down or
slide back and forth. The automap was initially conceived of as being
just a straightforward keep where you have been. We then made it so that
it actually mapped all things that you saw above a certain brightness.
Then the note-taking was added, and the ability to go to blank pages for
notes, and making sure you could tell where you had explored and where
you hadn't yet been.
Any idea that someone on the design team could come up with was
considered, even if only in jest. And of course, some of those jests
became reality. Smooth lighting was always mentioned as the obvious
thing to do, but probably a real pain. Same with transparencies. During
alpha some of the programmers got together and tried to hack in the
smooth lighting and it improved the look of the game immensely. The
concern was to release the best product we could, and one where we could
defend every aspect of it as something we thought was cool. It certainly
isn't perfect, but there are many elements of the game we are very proud
Some obvious milestones were the first polygon rendered scene, the first
textured walls, first animating creatures, first time we had smooth
walking physics in, the beginning of terrain, the first time we could
manipulate objects in the world editor, the AI's getting activated,
conversations, doors were quite a big deal, as the dungeon seemed a
little odd without them. It was a long project, and a lot of little
steps went into making the project as a whole work together.
GB: Wow, you guys really had some amazing challenges, yet it all came
together so well. So with this new LGT company, who is directing future
development now? Who are the principles?
Paul: Ostensibly myself and Ned Lerner, the other principle in LGT. It
is my role as Creative Director to provide overall direction and focus to
our product development efforts. I am active in ferreting out new
projects and fleshing out game designs. Ned's focus is on simulations,
and in developing emerging technologies. He's usually the first one to
jump at a new texture mapping algorithm or aerodynamic modelling
However, it is the project teams themselves that provide the most
direction. They make both the day to day implementation decisions that
are critical to success, and the big picture design decisions the guide
the project through completion. Some days I just sit back and watch.
GB: How many people work at LGT now?
Paul: Today, eighteen, tomorrow, the world! Actually, we will grow
modestly over the next year to perhaps 30 people. We also enjoy working
with a half dozen or so freelancers who are spread throughout the
GB: Just what exactly is the relationship between Origin and LGT? Are
you contracted exclusively to them? What about future products?
Paul: Origin (now part of the EA family) is the publisher of Ultima
Underworld and the upcoming Ultima Underworld II. We develop the games,
and Origin provides their publishing prowess and marketing muscle to help
make them hits. It works pretty well..
No, we are not contracted exclusively to Origin. We are what is known in
the industry as a freelance development group. Of course, we've never
worked with anyone else besides Origin or EA.
We currently have three projects under discussion with Origin; two which
are based on the Underworld engine, though one is not a fantasy game.
You haven't seen the last of us yet.
GB: How much of the game programming is done by LGT and how much is done
by Origin? Art, sound, 'engine', storyline, etc?
Doug: The game is developed by Looking Glass and published by Origin.
They are responsible for marketing, sales, distribution, and so on. We
have to write the game. We also work closely with Warren Spector, our
producer, who is sort of our contact/manager at Origin. On both projects
we have also had playtest done at both Origin and LGT, as well as by
several outside groups/people.
On UW2, we found ourselves behind on art, and Warren was able to co-opt
several Origin artists for us, which was essential in our having the
product done. Basically, we come up with a game, plot, and engine,
Warren looks the design over and offers suggestions, we go do it, and he
makes sure that Origin knows what we are up to, when we hope to be done,
and so on.
Again, there is no code or story developed at Origin -- it is all our
GB: Hehe. Your fault, eh? Yes, for a serious lack of sleep and
productivity around the world! What kind of budget issues face a new
developer like LGT?
Paul: Only expensive ones. Seriously, developing a competitive,
powerhouse game for today's PC market requires a lot of effort, which if
paid for, is costly. Each year, game players want more features, better
graphics, a richer game. To have a successful title, you must meet or
exceed these expectations. This can mean development budgets in excess
of $500,000 for a big FRP.
The question is, do game sales support these budgets? In many cases the
answer is no. For a publisher to break even at these costs, they must
sell at least 25,000 units. For a developer, who receives some fraction
of net revenue, the break-even can be in excess of 75,000 units. In
today's crowded market, only the top PC games sell over 75,000 units. As
a result, few freelance developers can afford to compete in today's PC
game market, and more and more publishers are having to do their own in-
house development to take up the slack.
For LGT to be successful in the PC market, we must create constantly
strong titles while keeping the budgets in line. Average selling titles
will not sustain us, nor will out-of-control budgets. As the PC market
moves forward and game players' expectations continue to rise, it remains
to be seen how developers will fare. Some have predicted doom. I'm not
so glum, but it will clearly be a challenge.
GB: For a huge project like UW2, how is the team organized? Who's in
charge of 'getting it done'?
Doug: There are many elements to getting a game done that is ready for
the current market. Once the directors and business types are done
ironing out paperwork and such, an initial concept is done by the project
leader and the creative director, and shown to the producer. Once
everyone has basically agreed on the high concept, a design team is
assembled, and the project leader is responsible for dividing the tasks
up, making schedules, and getting the team up and running.
Over the course of the project, the project leader tracks the progress of
the product, giving updates to schedules as well as changes in the
initial idea to the producer. Together, they evolve the design and
schedule in reaction to the progress made. The project leader meets with
the design team regularly, and later with both the designers and
playtesters. These meetings are forums for everyone to suggest changes
and discussion on game features, plot issues, and anything else. Although
the project leader has final authority in some sense, the goal is to have
the design team agree on a solution to each problem. Late in the
project, when bugs are being tracked, similar meetings occur to discuss
each bug, choose a fix, and assign the task. Through all of this, the
producer is informed of progress as well as problems, and with the
project leader decides what features to cut, or add, or change, based on
how the schedules look and on response from playtesters.
The goal is to make sure everyone on the design team has maximal ability
to be creative, and yet the project leader and producer can know what is
going on so they can keep a handle on what is left to be done, as well as
enforce a general cohesiveness to it.
GB: Now that Origin has been bought out by EA, what effect do you think
this will have on future potential games from LGT through Origin?
Paul: Little if any. EA is being smart by letting Origin call their own
development shots. Origin's value lies in their knowledge and ability to
create and publish sophisticated, state-of-the-art PC games. This is not
something EA wants to change. What EA will add is deeper pockets, great
distribution, and a wider base of titles and platforms. This should
benefit us as much as Origin.
Do you plan to publish your own games in the future?
Paul: We have no immediate plans to publish our own games. Publishing is
a tricky business that we would just as soon leave to the likes of EA and
GB: Well, let's get to this fascinating new adventure about to be
unleashed upon us. Tell us about the storyline of UW2? The Abyss in UW1
is no more, so what's the general plotline behind this second installment?
Doug: Well, UW2 continues one year after the destruction of the Black
Gate in Ultima VII. While the Guardian appeared to be thwarted, he's back
wreaking havoc again, basically holding the Ultima "hall-of-fame" hostage
inside Castle Britain. The game will be out in a week, and you can hear
more about the plot then, so I will just say that you explore eight
alternate worlds, as well as doing much exploring in the castle and its
various cellars, while attempting to thwart the newest attempt by the
Guardian and those he holds power over to take over Britannia.
GB: What was the main goal for UW2?
Doug: Our goals, or your goals as a player?
GB: Your goals as a designer?
Doug: Your goals you will know soon enough, when the game is released.
Our goals were to enhance the play value and plot as much as possible, as
well as improving elements of the simulation. New texture mappers were
written, graphics were greatly enhanced with better initial art and larger
source bitmaps. The plot was made much larger and, in my mind, much more
interesting. Better and more 3-D puzzles and more action that happens in
the 3-D view was also important, with pressure plates, moving terrain, and
GB: What are the hardware requirements for the game? Disk, memory, etc?
What are the minimum realistic requirements for full detail play? 486?
Doug: A 386-33 with a fast video card does an okay job, but for full
detail and digital effects a 486 is a good thing.
GB: Will the game be single person still, or will a party join you in the
dungeons? If no party, why not?
Doug: Still a single player game. The action/motion nature of UW makes a
party very hard to deal with. Say there was a chasm of lava, and you
want to jump it, so you run and jump and make it. Your companion who you
make carry all the food jumps as well, but is carrying so much that their
top speed is too low to make the jump, and they fall in the chasm. Lots
of problems like this crop up, along with the interface issues of real
time control of the first person characters. Basically, we think that
restricting the game enough to make it a party game would ruin a lot of
the things it does well.
GB: You can pick to be a female if you want in UW2. Are there any
differences in gameplay or other areas where the difference is
noticeable? If no difference, why offer the capability?
Doug: So that if you want to play a female character you can. I don't
understand this question at all, really. All our wall textures just
serve as walls, should we just have them all say "WALL". You can pick
any character head, though the only difference is the portrait. But for a
lot of people (myself included) it is nice to have a character to
identify with as themselves. It is a role playing game.
GB: Can you transfer characters from UW1 into UW2? If no, why not? What
about bringing objects forward too?
Doug: No. We wanted to make sure the game play was as well-balanced as
possible, to challenge all sorts of players, and make sure climactic
battles were interesting, and so on. We wanted Underworld II to be the
best game it could be, and game pacing was a major part of that. To get
the pacing the way we wanted it, we had to have all characters starting
at roughly the same level. We could have imported your characters name
and drop the skills and objects, but what would be the point?
GB: Will there be a demo version of UW2 like was done with UW1?
Doug: No. There just wasn't time to build one.
GB: Will UW2 run properly with common utilities like QEMM, 386^Max,
Stacker,etc.? Doug: Well, if they are properly and stably installed, there
should be no problem. The final version of the game was built on a
machine running EMM386, Smartdrive, and Stacker, and the game runs fine
there. We have tested extensively with many popular software system
enhancements, but in the DOS world it is now impossible to test every
GB: Has the user interface been changed or improved at all? The combat
system in the first one was a lot of "slide slide, click click".
Doug: Sorry. We chose to take a route between a numbers based combat
system and a fully arcade one. The result is that the system has role
playing elements, such as skills and such, as well as 3D collision
checking to determine what part of your foe was hit and so forth. We
think that the best part of the combat system is the ability to move and
fight at once, and attempt to gain better ground and position over your
GB: What enhancements have been made to the UW2 engine over UW1 to make a
Doug: Here's what we included in the ORIGIN For Press Only sheet. (It's
a little "hypy," but it will give you an idea...)
o Eight new worlds to explore -- from fantastic castles to ice caverns,
towers and strange, alien realms.
o Expanded 3-D view window -- 30% larger and more panoramic than the one
in Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss.
o Larger, higher-resolution graphics for creatures and NPCs, with
additional frames of animation for smoother, more lifelike movement.
o Treacherous new terrain features, including slippery ice and dangerous
water currents designed to challenge even the most experienced game
o All new, more detailed wall textures, many of them digitized, make the
world look even more realistic.
o More 3-D objects than before. Beds, chairs, tables, shelves, chests,
barrels and more allow you to walk into a room and instantly know it's
a bedroom or a dining hall or a throne room...
o Digitized sound puts you right in the dungeon. Digitized sound
effects, stereo panning and digitized speech make the Underworld
experience more realistic than ever.
o New trap and puzzle types feature animated, multi-level obstacles,
moving terrain, pressure sensitive trap triggers and more.
o Detailed, close-up portraits of scores of characters whose attitudes
and actions vary based on your decisions.
o New magical spells allow you to attack around corners with Deadly
Seeker, bowl your enemies over with Shockwave, create deadly artifacts
with Poison Weapon, and more.
o Screen save option allows you to capture any game screen -- even your
automap -- as a .GIF file.
GB: Was there any design philosophy changes from UW1 to UW2? Did you do
Doug: The biggest advantage was that we had four full time designers on
the project, as opposed to UW1 where the programmers did much of the
world design and conversation writing. Thus, we had time and resources
to make multiple editing passes on the layout of each level, paying
special attention to the traps and resources available on it. We tried
to make sure that as you played there was always interesting stuff the
player could do, so that even if you had been somewhere before, if you
looked carefully you could discover something new. We also wanted more
puzzles and challenges (and just interesting stuff) in the 3D world.
Portcullises opening and closing, pressure plates, and so on were used
much more to make sure the game had more interactive.
GB: How big is the game compared to UW1?
Doug: I would guess it is approximately 3 or 4 times bigger, whatever
that means. Like the mystical "playing time" number, it is hard to say
on this one.
GB: Is there a possibility of any add-on modules for future Underworld
games like was done with Forge of Virtue or the mission disks for Wing
Doug: The editor we wrote could be used to easily create some add-on
modules. However, at the moment there are no concrete plans to do a data
disk, though it is certainly being discussed.
GB: In UW1, the creatures were pretty small. In this new game, are the
creatures going to look different?
Doug: They are all 250% bigger (areawise) than in UW1. They have 1.5
times as many animation frames. They look much better. We are quite
GB: What's new about the magic system in UW2, if any? Any new spells?
Doug: Yeah, we now have a bunch more spells (16 or so) as well as a bunch
of magic items, including several unique magic weapons. Underworld had
about 80 magic items, this one has about twice that.
GB: Will it have more secrets? Sir Cabrius' sword was hidden well in UW1
Is the gameplay more balanced?
Doug: Well, it will have different secrets, that's for sure. There are
many puzzles which are not essential to win the game but challenging,
fun, and often rewarding. As to more balanced, we have made various
tweaks to work on it. Skills are checked more often (lots of
conversations check your Charm, Acrobat is useful on ice, Repair is very
nice, and on). Encumberance depends less on strength than it used to, so
players with low strength can still carry a reasonable amount.
GB: Is there anyway to climb up something instead of just jumping?
Doug: Nope. There would be too many puzzles which would be have been
ruined by this capability.
GB: Can you swim underwater now in addition to regular swimming? Can you
retrieve any objects under water? In the future?
Doug: No. As with outdoors, we want to do this. However, we couldn't
come up with a really cool way of doing it which we could get done for
UW2. Soon, though, soon...
GB: What type of design tools do you use to create the dungeons,
characters, generally the whole game? Did you create an 'editor' of sorts
to 'layout the game'?
Doug: Absolutely. We have an editor we use to layout the dungeons and
the objects. In fact, see the accompanying screen shot. (Press F-10 or
left mouse button). Until March of 1991 we only had an editor. The game
is written so that the editor, the playtest game, and the shipping
executable are all the same code. Various compile time flags are turned
on and off to set what gets put in (enabling and disabling various
subsystems and subeditors, allowing various cheats and cheat menus, and so
The editor allows the designers to terraform and texture a level, and then
place objects in the map as they want. The object browser allows the
designer to bring up data on the current object such as quality, status,
and so on, and edit any special flags for that type of object (what spells
are on it, data on traps and timing, directions doors open, and so on).
From the editor, a single key stroke or menu choice allows you to enter
"game mode" in which you can just play the game (although you can disable
creatures, set quest flags, teleport around, and so on).
So the designer typically works in the editor to set up a particular room
or scene or trap or puzzle or conversation, saves the work, pops over to
the game, tests it, then goes back into the editor and reloads and
changes it, all within the editor. The only design task not built into
the editor is the conversation compiler, which is a standalone piece of
For conversations, one writes a source file and compiles it, then goes
into an editor and creates the appropriate character, and then can go
into game mode and talk to said creature. Overall, I think the editor is
the coolest piece of software we have written, but mostly just because it
is the most complex.
GB: Will any of this game take place above ground? Why or why not? What
about full motion games that include mountains, deserts, towns, the
Doug: Obviously, it would be wonderful to have a realistic 3D game with
full indoor-outdoor continuous smooth motion. I am fairly sure there are
many people attempting to solve that problem satisfactorily. However,
with UW2 we felt that we did not have time to do a really superb job of
outdoor motion (i.e., we could do no more than have a dungeon with outdoor
wallpaper) and therefore decided to keep UW2 indoors and wait until we
had time to do a really thorough job on the outdoor problem.
GB: Would you categorize UW2 as a 'harder' game than UW1? Puzzles, that
Doug: There are many more 'classic' puzzles than in UW1, such as lever
puzzles, mazes, and so on. As previously mentioned, UW2 is significantly
larger than UW1, and thus there are also more puzzles to do.
GB: Is UW2 a linear game or is it more free-form in terms of exploration
and puzzle solving?
Doug: Much as in UW1, we hope players will explore a large area and come
back for things, rather than clearing each square foot as they go. In
fact, we are pretty sure that people will end up playing that way, even
if they don't start that way. The plot is of course somewhat linear, in
that certain events trigger others and so on, but at any time in the game
there are many things which the player can be working on.
GB: This is going to be (once again) a totally cool game. Hopefully, all
the bugs have been squashed (more on that later).
GB: There were a number of devices (pulleys,secret doors, levers, etc.)
that didn't seem to do anything in UW1. Are there other red herrings in
Doug: Probably. We are trying to simulate an interesting world full of
stuff, not just have a linear path from start to finish and give you a
prize. The world is full of odd stuff -- what can we say?
GB: Now a question many players are dying to know. Will UW1's remaining
bugs ever be fixed?
Doug: No, we are vicious beasts who like hearing about people's ruined
save games. :-)
Doug: Actually, in the two-and-a-half calendar months of playtest on UW2
we found two inventory problems which also existed in UW1. A new version
of the executable should be on the BBS's within a few weeks, after we have
verified that it hasn't created any new problems and still works.
GB: Regarding these bugs. There seems to be an annoying proliferation
of very fatal bugs that are still crawling around in some games these
days. You've said that some nasty inventory bugs in UW1 still remain,
though are being squashed. What is LGT philosophy towards testing and
verification? Do you use outside beta/play testers? Why or why not?
What steps are being taken to ensure the quality of your products?
Paul: Yes, UW1 has bugs. We tried our best during playtest to eliminate
them, but a few got through. In our defense, I would say that UW1 has
comparatively few bugs for a game of its size and complexity (no, I won't
mention other titles). Understand that UW1 is more than 10MB of code and
data, including a lot of hairy assembler; there's lots of opportunity for
things to go wrong.
We playtest our games as thoroughly and comprehensively as anyone in the
industry. UW1 went through 3 months of playtest, which at its peak had
nine full time playtesters hammering away. We made each playtester play
through the game dozens of times, often filling out ORIGIN's grueling
checklists of every feature in the game. By the time they are finished,
playtesters did not even want to look at the ads for the game.
We also use some remote beta sites to check for bugs and play balance.
Remote users offer us an objective evaluation of the game. We don't ask
them to do checklists because that would be cruel and unusual punishment.
When releasing a game like UW1, it is always a balance between holding it
for another week or two to find more bugs, or releasing it to the market.
After a while, the former becomes expensive and less fruitful as you get
down to finding only a couple of bugs a week. At the same time the game
players are asking us to do the latter. We could playtest every game for
an additional month beyond the normal playtest cycle. There would still
be bugs, though, and it would add significantly to development costs. We
try our best to reach a workable medium.
Doug: As I mentioned earlier, several bugs that were tracked down in UW2
were from the UW1 parts of the engine. They have been fixed in UW1 and a
new version will be ready and on the nets fairly soon.
Many people seem to say "If I had been a remote playtester, I would have
found the bugs." Although there were many comments of the form
"Inventory doesn't work" and also many explanations of why this was so.
However, none of these were correct about what the bug was, and all of
the bugs were found by in-house playtesters working on UW2. I don't think
the problem was lack of Beta testing, but rather that we were rather
unlucky in not managing to reproduce them in UW1. Once we heard a
significant number of comments on the inventory bugs we wrote a bunch of
code to track inventory transactions, and we then put that in UW2 so that
playtesters would know if it happened. The three bugs were found over a
six week period, with five people playing that whole time. So it isn't
as if the bugs happened every time, or that they happened to every player
no matter what.
We try to automate the testing procedure as much as possible, writing code
to render frames. For instance, 100 million frames were rendered from
various levels of the game to make sure the renderer didn't hang. We
also, as mentioned, have code to sanity check the game state in
playtesting versions of the game so that players could make sure things
With UW2, we ended up shipping much later than we wanted to because
playtesters said certain puzzles were too hard or too annoying, or that a
certain thing was hard to deal with. Also, we wanted to release the
cleanest game we possibly could, and so ended up playtesting longer than
we thought we were going to have to. We have a version that we passed
all playthroughs and feature lists, but which we are holding for a week
to have the game played by a bunch of new players, both off- and on-site,
so that we can be sure the game is both fun and bug free.
We really do try to make our games as clean as possible -- that's why
we're holding Underworld II for some extra playtesting, even though it's
already "signed-off" and the delay will cause us to miss Christmas. It's
just the right thing to do.
GB: We agree! Kill the bugs BEFORE they hit the shelves, not after. On
another topic, the beginning cinematic sequences were quite dramatic in
UW1, but the end-game sequences were less so. Why is that? Speech at the
beginning, but not at the end.
Doug: Well, we can't both take less disk space and have more speech, it
just isn't going to happen. As we figure that more players see the intro
than the endgame, we focus more on it. In UW2 we punted speech out of
both cutscenes, so that what little room we could make for digital effects
could be used for sound effects and plot-related events.
GB: Let's move on to some general technology observations of yours.
What's your take on 'virtual reality'? It's been a widely abused
term. There have been several rumors of the Ultima series going 'VR'
soon with gloves/goggles etc. What are your feelings about LGT products
in this area?
Paul: Abused yes, but VR is still cool. In my mind, the goal is total
immersion to the point that you can't readily differentiate reality from
VR. The Holodeck on Star Trek: the Next Generation is a perfect example.
Today VR researchers are using gloves, goggles, and other hardware to
achieve immersion, and it does not quite work. The hardware is still too
slow, too low resolution, too clunky to really pull it off. That may
change soon, and in the meantime the VR equipment is still fun to play
with, if not perfect.
Like any other game developers who still have blood pumping through their
veins, we'd like to get into VR. In a sense our 3D simulations already
do some VR. While we don't support special hardware, we do try to
immerse the player in a world simulated on the computer. For instance,
the real time texture mapping we use is similar to the technology used in
SGI's Reality Engine. When the hardware matures, we will be ready.
Doug: The abuse of the term doesn't diminish the value of true VR.
Similarly, the fact that a product attempts to use some of the techniques
of VR without having real telepresence doesn't make it pointless. VR is
still a young field, and as with all other scientific endeavors, there are
good reasons to hope that the technology will continue to get more and
more impressive. Whether it will really have any impact on the
lifestyles of the mythical "normal" people is yet to be seen, but it is
clearly an important, evolving field, and as with many evolving technical
fields, expect to see some of the early work's first applications show up
GB: 320x200 resolution games are looking kind of crappy next to SVGA
games. Will LGT be supporting SVGA (640x480) resolution games in the
future? What is needed, technically speaking, to support a high-res game?
Paul: Our exotic sports car simulator, Car & Driver, already supports
SVGA. Admittedly the highest resolution (640x480) is only used for title
and menu screens, but we do use 320x400 (a non-standard SVGA mode) within
the game, which looks pretty good.
Technically, it is fairly easy to support SVGA modes. There are a lot of
variant hardware cards on the market that are slightly incompatible, but
it's all very do-able. The issue is speed and storage. Today's SVGA
cards just can't support 10 frames per second animation at 640x480
resolution. And an image at this resolution can require up to 4 times
the storage of standard VGA. Until CD-ROM becomes a standard, you're not
going to see a lot of SVGA graphics in a game.
Doug: Until local bus or coprocessed (ie. TI34020 type) video is widely
available, games that render a 640x480 scene will not be very common. In
a typical rendered game, over half of the time is spent simply placing
pixels in video memory. Until that operation can be parallelized or
radically sped up multi-hundred MHz processors) there is no way around
this bottleneck, it is a "feature" of the lovely late 70's bus
architecture found in the IBM PC which is still in 486-50's we buy today.
GB: Is your texture mapping done on the fly? What part of the scene is
computed on the fly and what part is precomputed?
Doug: I'm not sure what you mean by precomputed. The textures are
predrawn as flat unlit bitmaps, and the creatures as flat unlit sets of
animating frames. Each actual scene is rendered completely on the fly,
with a combination of various texture mappers, scalers, shaders, and so
on. If you have an idea for precomputing it, please share...
GB: Poor choice of words on our part. Pre-drawn or pre-generated is what
we meant. Have you considered the use of alternate input devices for more
sophisticated character actions?
Doug: In a work on the ultimate cyberspace playhouse, the author
suggested 22 input devices. Although we would love to support gloves and
data wands and head-mounted trackers and foot monitoring systems, no
users have them. R&D for that sort of thing costs real money, and as a
game company on tight margins, we can't afford to support anything that a
significant number of customers won't be able to enjoy. If someone wants
to give us money to do a VR box, things would change a bunch. Until
then, we will be sticking to commonly available hardware.
GB: What's your feeling about the OS wars going on now? Have you
considered programming for a 32-bit OS like OS/2, NT, Solaris for PCs,
NextStep, UNIX for PCs, etc? With the DOS limit of 640K, are you forced
to do something different soon? How are you planning on getting around
Paul: Not seriously. OS/2 has some real strong features, but it, like
the other OS you mentioned, are not mainstream enough for games.
We have already addressed the 640k limit by going to protected mode. All
of our future PC games will require a 386 or 486 with at least 4MB RAM.
We don't like having to abandon the 286 audience, but the 640k barrier is
really problematic. It was a choice of holding onto 1986 technology or
letting our games grow. The only consolation I can give to 286 owners is
that 386s prices have come way down (but spring for a 486 if you can
Doug: As a UNIX hacker, I'd love to be able to say we were thinking of
UNIX or other real OS games. As someone who is in the industry, and
knows where things sell and where they don't, I have to admit that in the
current market we would just be throwing money away if we developed for
GB: Technically speaking, where do our machines need to be soon to break
through to new levels of gaming? What's on the horizon (in your crystal
ball) and what types of hardware/software advances are you advocating for
Paul: Let me polish my crystal ball some. There, I see a 6502 in your
future! Seriously, I look forward to the following milestones reaching
the mass market: (1) more storage, such as CD-ROMs, (2) at least 4MB RAM,
(3) 486-33MHz or faster processor, (4) a SVGA card that is actually fast,
(5) an inexpensive sound card (>$100) that does everything the best sound
cards do today. Once this level of hardware reaches the masses, we will
be able to really push the technology.
The software advances will come mostly from the computer game design
community. In the perpetual quest to outdo each other, designs and
software technology will improve. I predict that this advance in
software will ultimately be more impressive than advances in hardware
(though I'd still like that fast SVGA card).
Doug: The limitations of the PC Bus are fairly serious. It will be
possible to do more and more impressive cutscenes and canned sequences
with bigger drives and faster machines, but rendering really requires
changing almost every pixel every frame, and that means better I/O. CD
ROM is essential to get full speech and large libraries of source
material. A sound card with a real on board synthesizer (i.e., LAPC-1
like) as well as a few clean digital channels with stereo that doesn't
cost too much is also essential. Finally, a fast processor, and, as I
said, coprocessed video would really make it possible to move to a whole
new level of intensity. For now, CD and such will allow better
cinematics, and more speech, but offer less than we might hope for the
look of the next generation of flight simulators and other "reality"
GB: What about networked or multi-player games? Over the modem? Are
these types of products in the works?
Paul: Multi-player games are the future. The question is, when will they
reach the masses. Gamers can now enjoy networked games over a variety of
services. However, they can be expensive to play, many of the games are
not up to retail shelf standards, and of course you need a modem.
Therefore the audience is more limited than for stand-alone games. This
makes it difficult for development groups like ourselves to justify the
cost of a multi-player game. I hope this will change.
Doug: Hey, Pong is a great game, because it is two player. X-Windows has
some brilliant games because it allows many players to interact in many
ways in the same "world." Hopefully soon the mainstream game market will
have the equipment for this sort of thing to run and be widely used.
GB: Will you be supporting new sound cards in the future like the Gravis
Ultrasound that can do wave table synthesis? What about other sound
Doug: For UW2 we used a modified ('souped up?') version of the UW1
engine. We didn't rewrite the music system, the only change was adding
digital effects for SoundBlasters. With our next round of releases we
plan to support all the new sound cards, but not for UW2. Sorry...
GB: What's your direction for CD-ROM games? What's needed and what's in
Paul: I think it's clockwise. Already some of our titles are out on
shovelware. The next step is dedicated development for CD-ROM.
Surprisingly, one of the issues we've faced is storage. Some of our
designs actually call for 2+ disks: once you have a lot of storage, you
design things on a whole new scale. Suddenly the 600MB looks small. As
always, software engineers will use up all available resources.
Doug: As Paul hinted, we have some new designs which are specifically for
CD-ROM. Will we do them? It depends on the market, where we can get
contracts, and what we want to do. But it is clearly true that the CD-
ROM platform presents a whole new set of possibilities and problems, cool
features and annoying limitations. Once enough market shows itself and
high-end design houses start taking CD-ROM seriously enough to put top
design and coding talent on the platform for original projects, I'm sure
that I don't know what will happen but it will be impressive.
GB: What type of rendering engine did you create to do the smooth motion?
Doug: It's actually a 3D language, which supports a whole slew of 3D
primitives. We simply compile a set of instructions on the fly each
frame and then call the 3D interpreter to run them. As with any 3D
system, you can set eye coordinates, rotate frames of reference, place
points, connect sets of points with various fills (shades, flat polygons,
textures, lit textures, translucencies, whatever). There are also bitmap
scalers and other primitives, such as object instantiation primitives, so
you can decide to render a table at 30 degrees from normal or what have
you. Basically, a clipper takes the map data and decides which
objects/walls you can see after the clipping pass is done, and as it does
so writes them to the database, and then calls the renderer.
GB: Oh yeah.....I knew that...! Um.... What type of programming language
is used for both UW1 and UW2?
Doug: Underworld II is 2.2 Mb of C, 2MB of Assembler, and about 800K of
conversation code (an internal language which we wrote a compiler for, as
well, of course, as an interpreter for running them in the game). The
support code for various tools (the conversation compiler, the packers and
archivers, picture and animation conversions, and so forth) is about
another 1MB of C. Underworld I is similar, though probably only about
70% as big. Second project syndrome definitely hit UW2.
GB: What's your feelings about other types of "motion" games like
"Legends of Valor" and "Wolfenstein 3D"? Have you heard about "Doom" from
ID? Just general reaction?
Paul: The ID games are great. Wolfenstein 3D is intense, with lots of
action. I've only heard rumors about Doom so I can't really comment. I
saw the ad for Legends of Valor wherein it said "Ultima Underworld, move
over" and compare it to Underworld. As they say, imitation is the
sincerest form of flattery, but they are lagging the target. Underworld
II is a significant step up from the original and includes all kinds of
Doug: The ID games, as Paul says, are indeed very cool. The action and
pacing in Wolfenstein are very well done. Not only is the technology
cool, but the game design works with the technology very well to create a
very playable game. I haven't gotten to play Legends yet, but I was sort
of disappointed that they start by saying "Ultima Underworld, move over."
First of all, when you a design a game you should just do what you think
is cool, not try and compete with some other product. Secondly,
Underworld came out in March of 1992, and as such seems like a silly thing
to be trying to do again.
Overall, "motion" games are fine. I'm a game designer because I think
games are very cool. Whatever the genre, it is always nice to find a
game one enjoys playing or is impressed by, because it makes it more fun
to be in the industry. When you see a neat new game, it is exciting.
I am often asked "How do you feel about Wolfenstein" or "Is Underworld
better than Wolfenstein." I usually answer that they are different, and
both seem really cool to me. I have never heard anyone complain that
they wish only one of them existed, or that the existence of both is
ruining their life. As far as I can tell, both games are well liked and
well played, which is cool. Some people seem to feel that the two have
to be at war, or judged, but frankly I think both companies are doing good
jobs at writing cool games, and hopefully most people are just happy to be
able to play one or both.
GB: Will we get to a point soon when full digitized speech is available
throughout the game? It would add a lot to the game.
Paul: I believe there are already CD-ROM games with fully digitized
speech. This is a strong feature, and hope it soon becomes a standard.
Speech recognition tied to an intelligent parser would be even better,
but don't hold your breath on that one.
Doug: I wouldn't expect to see full speech in a non-CD product any time
soon. As to CD's, see my remarks above. Obviously it would be a great
way to immerse players in the game.
GB: What new titles are you working on now beyond Underworld II?
Paul: A variety of titles including two flight simulators and a science
fiction game. Likely as not, there will be a follow-up to Underworld II
GB: Will Underworld technology be used in future Ultima series (Serpent
Isle, 8:Pagan, 9:Ascension) games?
Paul: Serpent Isle is almost complete and has made no use of our
technology. Pagan is underway, and also does not share our technology.
Perhaps U9 will make use of our code; though that project will not start
for some time.
Doug: As earlier mentioned, LGT and Origin share no code. Thus, the
exact technology will not be used. However, obviously texture mapping
and first-person rendering are not our invention. As you no doubt know,
many games that will soon be coming out have this sort of rendering.
GB: What do you think about the electronic 'on-line' community as opposed
to the traditional gaming magazine approach? Are you trying to reach and
hear from more on-line customers? Does Game Bytes fill any of your needs?
Paul: On-line services are a great forum for game players, with immediacy
and interaction that print magazines can't match. We always get first
reactions about our games on-line, including lots of useful feedback.
Magazines, being more formal and having lower bandwidth, tend to filter
out a lot of feedback. You only get the opinion of a handful of
reviewers. While these reviews can be insightful, they sometimes lack
the wider perspective available on-line.
Doug: The best thing about the on-line community is that feedback is much
faster, and comes from more players and less professionals.
GB: Recently, it seems like more and more games are going for more flash
and graphics, seemingly at the expense of gameplay and true game value.
What are your thoughts on this as it relates to your own products? The
UW combat model, for example, could use some fine tuning, where specific
strategic and tactical plans could be initiated to target a specific body
area. These could involve specific areas like inflicting a special type
of wound, or a broken bone? Your thoughts about combat?
Paul: Good question. Yes, there is a definite emphasis on flash and
graphics -- production values if you will. Why? Because it sells games.
Most people want flash in their games: VGA over EGA, animation over
static, 3D over 2D. Is this bad? Not in and of itself. However, if game
design is sacrificed for flash, the players lose. We try to do both
As for UW1 combat, the early development plan called for a more
sophisticated combat system that would feature a variety of attack styles,
different damage for each hit location, and other details. However, we
found that the extra options tended to make the user interface cumbersome,
and that many playtesters did not appreciate the details behind the combat
mechanics. Therefore it was scaled back in detail. In this case, it had
nothing to do with flash.
Doug: The gameplay of Underworld is dependent on an enjoyment of quick
responsive interaction. We didn't want a combat system in which you
initiated attacks into special zones and stuff, we wanted a fast, simple
combat model which would appeal to people who didn't want a 12 stage
combat system. We attempted to merge elements of traditional role
playing, simulation, and dungeon combat adventures. We did not attempt
to remove "real game value" and "gameplay," we tried to make the game
appealing to players who did not want to have huge reams of statistics and
complicated commands for interacting with the game.
GB: What other types of games could be developed using the Underworld
Paul: Anything but Chutes and Ladders.
Doug: Well, any you can think of and can convince us would be cool, I
would guess. However, next to the huge list of new features we want to
implement is a huge list of games we would do once we had the features,
so there is a queue.
GB: Will there be an Underworld III, IV, V, etc?
Paul: If Underworld II is received as well as the original, I'd lay odds
on an Underworld III.
GB: For someone wanting to break into computer gaming, what advice would
you give them?
Paul: Escape while you can! Seriously, I would start by playing the best
games out there, and trying to understand what makes them work. The next
step would depend on one's skills. Today's games require the skills of
project leaders, programmers, artists, writers, designers, and musicians.
I would make sure that I had expertise in at least one of these fields,
and could make a unique contribution. A warning: writing computer games
is challenging and hard work (yes, it's fun too). Success in this
industry usually comes from being bright, motivated, creative, and willing
to work long hours. If I have not scared you off yet, you might want to
send your resume to LGT; we are looking for strong candidates.
Doug: Be really psyched, be in the industry because you want to produce
games which other people will be into, because when you are working 80+
hour weeks for a few months to meet a deadline on a game, you have to
believe in it and enjoy it to make it through.
GB: What other computer games do you guys like to play? Are there other
favorite games you enjoy? What games do you think are pretty hot?)
Doug: Sonic and NHLPA '93 on the Sega are big hits. We have a ping pong
table at work which is very popular, as well as a Robotron machine for
some good, mindless entertainment. We take a brief look at most new
titles, and every so often one catches someone's fancy and they play it
for a while. The demo for The Incredible Machine impressed everyone a
great deal, but we are resisting playing with it until we actually get
this Underworld II thing done.
GB: Guys, I can't tell you how great it's been to be able to talk with
you and get your insight into so many things. Underworld 1 was a landmark
game, and there seems little doubt that Underworld 2 will be just as
tremendous, if not more so. Good luck with your release and stay in touch
with your new developments. Thanks once again for a great interview.
This interview is Copyright (C) 1992 by Game Bytes. All rights reserved.