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Ultima Underworld Interview with Dan Schmidt at The Ultima Codex

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Ultima Underworld Interview with Dan Schmidt at The Ultima Codex

Interview - posted by Crooked Bee on Tue 27 March 2012, 17:24:34

Tags: Dan Schmidt; Ultima Underworld

The Ultima Codex, a newly launched Ultima fansite, have done an interview with Dan Schmidt, one of the developers behind Ultima Underworld (1992). Have a snippet:

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.​

In the same interview, Dan Schmidt also shares some behind-the-scenes trivia such as:

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.)

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 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.​

Be sure to check out the full interview. The Ultima Codex have also posted the developer notebook Dan Schmidt kept when working on Ultima Underworld, and you can have a look at it here.

Spotted at Ultima Aiera's Twitter

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