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Interview with Looking Glass Studios' Paul Neurath at Night Dive Studios

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Interview with Looking Glass Studios' Paul Neurath at Night Dive Studios

Interview - posted by Infinitron on Sat 28 September 2013, 13:52:41

Tags: Looking Glass Studios; Nightdive Studios; Paul Neurath; System Shock; System Shock 2; Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds; Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss

Night Dive Studios, the guys responsible for the rerelease of classics such as System Shock 2 and I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream on GOG.com, recently redesigned their website. I took a look at it and found an interview with Looking Glass Studios veteran Paul Neurath, which was apparently conducted back in May or June. It's a pretty interesting read:

1. We'd like to hear more about the way that Ultima Underworld blended simulationist elements with RPG elements, about your vision for that idea and where it came from, and why that was so innovative at the time.

Before working on Ultima Underworld my business partner and I had done development on 3D flight simulations, including Chuck Yeager’s Fight Trainer. Working on flight sims I learned the potential of open-ended interactive worlds. You could choose what plane to fly, where to fly it, how to fly, what mission to accept. There was nearly always multiple ways to complete a mission. This open-ended nature afforded the player great agency in how they interacted with the game.

In contrast the RPG’s of that era were heavily scripted and mostly linear experiences. The game designers would lay out a plot, and then the player mostly just uncovered what the designer intended. A talented designer, much like a talented fantasy writer, could certainly create a compelling experience. But it lacked in player agency, which seemed a lost potential for what is an interactive media.

I saw the opportunity to blend the open-ended nature of sims with the traditional RPG linear format to try to create a new kind of experience with Ultima Underworld. Underworld has a plot, but unlike other RPG’s of that era we gave the player great agency in how and in what order it is solved.

For example, the player might encounter a Goblin barring forward progress through a dungeon chamber. In most RPG games the only option would be to fight the Goblin, or perhaps cast a spell to defeat it. In Underworld you could talk to Golbin and perhaps persuade it to let you pass. Or you could use your inventory of items to try to construct some protection, or distract the Goblin and run past. We found player’s coming up with solutions on their own which none of the designers had anticipated.

In parallel to the open-ended gameplay, we also wanted to bring more immersion to the experience. Most of the PRG’s of that era were rendered in 2D overhead perspective. A few, such as the Wizardry series, used a 3D perspective but the 3D was faked, with the player stepping from room to room discretely as if they were turning pages in a picture book. These approaches to rendering the world lacked immediacy.

At that time in 1990 real-time 3D texture mapping was only being done on $100,000 graphic workstations. We figured out how to adopt the high-end workstation algorithms to work on a lowly PC, making Ultima Underworld the first game to feature 3D texture mapping. The experience was transformative, dropping the player into the midst of what feels to be a living, breathing fantasy world. This immersion helped reinforce the open-ended sim gameplay, allowing for more freeform exploration of the world.

5. Most of the time people are fairly dismissive of sequels, particularly if they come out too quickly – you yourself have said that you felt that the second Ultima: Underworld felt very rushed, and you've made other comments about the way the game industry has an unfortunate habit of focusing on what sells well rather than any true attempts at innovation. Do you feel that System Shock 2 stands in the same category of “well this was decently well received, let's just make a sequel?” or does it live up to the original and truly build on that foundation?

The publisher of Ultima Underworld, Origin, wanted the sequel out in less than a year and we delivered. But it was a rush and we cut corners. In hindsight it was unwise to kick the sequel out as fast as we could. The sequel sold half of the original, which essentially killed Origin’s interest in doing anything further with the franchise. Had we spent more time and innovated further Underworld might be a major franchise still running today.

System Shock II development was a different situation. We intended with System Shock II to do full justice to the original and to push forward with a number of notable innovations. And I think we delivered on some fronts, less so on others.

What happened with System Shock II is that we ran into financial trouble during development that handicapped our efforts. Also LookingGlass had been acquired during that time, and so development decisions were no longer entirely our own. We did the best we could given these challenges and I’m proud of what we released with System Shock II, but it was not without some compromise.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle was in marketing. The Columbine shootings happened just before the launch of the game. Our publisher, Electronic Arts, was understandably hesitant about releasing 3D shooters, even games like System Shock II that were only incidentally shooters. EA ended up doing a low-key launch of the game, which undercut sales. When the sales were weak they pulled the plug on the title, putting it into the bargain bin just 90 days after launch.

Despite the bad timing on the launch and the challenges we faced in development, System Shock II was recognized as an innovative and notable game by the press and by the fans who’ve actually played it. It has left its mark.

8. What do you think about Kickstarter and other alternate methods of funding games? Do you think that if Looking Glass had access to that kind of alternative back in the 90s that the company may have survived?

Perhaps so. We relied on venture funding to grow the studio, and it turned out that LookingGlass was not a great fit for the venture model. This was heading into the heyday of the first dotcom bubble where venture guys were looking at 20x and higher potential returns. We are simply not on that trajectory. Even today it is difficult to see where venture fits well with traditional AAA PC or console game development.

Crowd funding does seem to be working for fans of classic games, with a relatively modest but dedicated audience willing to fund some of these titles on order of $1M to $4M, and in a few cases substantially more.
Unfortunately, while Neurath does recognize the efficacy of crowdfunding, he's still a true believer in the Glorious Tablet Future.

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