The Story of Ultima Underworld
The Story of Ultima Underworld
by Paul Neurath, Co-Founder of Looking Glass Studios
I started in the computer game industry in 1983, writing computer games by myself and with several other collaborators over the years. I got to work with many of the pioneers from that era, including Ned Lerner, Richard Garriott, Chris Roberts, the Carlson brothers, the Sir-tech guys, and even John Romero. This was a time when the industry was still a small, tight nit community.
Some of my favorite games at that time were the classic CRPGs, such as the Wizardry and Ultima series. I can fondly remember playing the original Wizardry with a group of friends huddled around an Apple II. However, with their abstract visuals, these games required a bit of imagination to achieve suspension of disbelief. In the latter 1980's a game called Dungeon Master was released on the Amiga. While the game play was fairly standard fare, its first person 3D perspective, with detailed bitmapped walls and animated sprite monsters, had more impact and immediacy than prior CRPGs. This game provided a glimpse into the future.
After finishing Space Rogue for Origin in 1989, I decided to try my hand at a traditional fantasy CRPG game, but with a new approach that would bring even more immediacy than Dungeon Master. I wrote a high level game design for what was then simply called Underworld, and contracted with Doug Wike, an x-Origin artist, to do concept artwork. It seemed promising.
In early 1990 I began to assemble the team, which included several recent MIT grads, notably Doug Church and Dan Schmidt. Doug and Dan were members of the infamous House of the 10 Dumb Guys, who were all but dumb. More of these "dumb" guys would later join the company. Doug Wike also joined the team as lead artist, and we soon had an in-house staff of 8 on the project. I found office space in idyllic Salem, New Hampshire (nearby America's Stonehenge no less), set up the company under the name of Blue Sky Productions, and was in business.
Our first technical hurdle was tackling texture mapping. I had toyed around with crude texture mapping algorithms on the Apple II in the late 80's, and was able to render a few frames a second with a single polygon. I suspected that it might be possible to do a full scene in real time on the faster IBMpc computers of the day. I got in contact with Chris Green, a talented IBMpc programmer I knew through my prior collaborations with Ned Lerner. Chris soon came up with a working texture mapping algorithm. For some unfathomable reason his test texture was a black and white photo of Abe Lincoln, so at first we got to see lots of twisted and distorted Abes starting back at you in 3D.
Within a few months we put together a prototype which demonstrated walking smoothly around a 3D dungeon rendered with texture mapping. Even though it was a rough prototype, nobody had seen anything like it before, and a lot of mouths gapped wide open. We shopped the game to a handful of publishers, including Origin, who we ended up signing a licensing agreement with that summer. Origin proposed that we leverage the Ultima brand, which we thought was a fine idea, and so the game was renamed Ultima Underworld.
Work progressed steadily, and the pieces started to come together. A world editor was built, the rendering pipeline was fleshed out and refined, physics and AI's implemented, and so forth. Often people on the team chipped in for a variety of roles. For instance, we split up responsibility for design for the dungeon levels. As the "veteran" game design hand on the team, I did the first two levels, but the other levels were done by a variety of programmers, artists, and designers on the team - and for most this was their fist game design experience. In hindsight, it was somewhat miraculous how well it all fit together in the end.
Development was not without its challenges. One challenge was running the company on a very tight budget. As a recall, Origin only advanced $30,000 towards development, yet the game ended up costing $400,000. Fortunately I was earning some royalties from Space Rogue, and my old collaborator Ned Lerner chipped in some funding as well. We got by in part by being cheap: for instance, I can remember buying vinyl window blinds for the office at K-Mart for $8.95 each.
Another challenge was working with a team which was mostly very young and had little prior game development experience. Fortunately, we had an incredibly talented and passionate team. Also, in some ways their not knowing what was possible let them do more than an experienced team may have tried to tackle. A lot of learning transpired, and for myself, there was enormous satisfaction in seeing the team learn and grow, ultimately producing a brilliant game.
A final challenge was maintaining a good working relationship with Origin. Things started out well with Richard Garriott's enthusiastic support of the project. As the keeper of all things Ultima, Richard was instrumental in helping integrate the Ultima fictional elements into the game up front. However, as the development progressed through 1990 and into 1991, we had less and less interaction with Origin. Origin had assigned two producers to be their liaison with us over that period, but neither had much involvement in the project, and each in turn left the company. When the second producer left, we only learned of his departure a month later when I called to find out why we had heard nothing from Origin in a while.
It was clear that Ultima Underworld was not getting much attention from Origin. Given that Origin was 2,000 miles distant, had only vested us once over the first year of the game's development, and was busy attending to its internally developed games, this was perhaps to be expected. We were at a low point, and had even begun to hear talk of Origin terminating the project.
I had worked with Warren Spector during the tail end of Space Rogue, respected him greatly, and so we proposed that he be assigned as our new producer. Warren understood immediately what we were trying to accomplish with the game, and became our biggest champion within Origin. Had not Warren stepped in this role at that stage, I'm not sure Ultima Underworld would have ever seen the light of day.
As is typical in game development, we crunched long hours during the final months. Unique to this crunch was our renting out temporary basement space just outside of Boston so as to get around the long commute much of the team had been enduring in their drive up to New Hampshire (in a Geo Metro no less). The basement "office" was a featureless, windowless room that always seemed to have air whistling underneath its doors. The furniture was Blue Sky cheap; $15 folding beach chairs and tables. Despite the austere working environment, the game came together amazingly well in the final stretch, and we delivered the Gold Master just about two years after we had started.
Ultima Underworld went on to sell nearly half a million copies, win all sorts of awards, and become one of the top Origin titles. Furthermore, it established a new genre, combining first person action with traditional role playing to deliver an immersive experience. LookingGlass would go on to explore new dimensions of this genre with System Shock and then Thief, but Ultima Underworld will always hold the special distinction of being the first of its kind.
Thanks for the post. Interesting.
I for one was one of those that was left gaping. That game was amazing then and it still is!
Thanks aardvark... definitely worth the repost, that.
In case anyone missed them, I guess this is a good place to point to the collection of Game Bytes articles I grabbed out of the archives a little while back. If you enjoyed reading this article, there's a bunch more informative nostalgia to be found here:
Yes, its great to read that article again.
Now wouldn't that be fun.
Np, every1. Neurath's post is chock full of cool info.