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Codex Interview RPG Codex Retrospective Interview: Warren Spector on Ultima, Origin, and CRPG Design

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Tags: Origin Systems; Retrospective Interview; Ultima Underworld; Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds; Ultima VI: The False Prophet; Ultima VII: Serpent Isle; Ultima VIII: Pagan; Warren Spector; Worlds of Ultima: Martian Dreams; Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire

Warren Spector is one of the most celebrated names in the video game industry, most famous for his involvement with Looking Glass Studios' System Shock and Ion Storm's Deus Ex, as well as his philosophy of game design that emphasizes player choice, simulation, and interactive storytelling. At the end of the 1980s - beginning of the 1990s, however, before he came to work on his most widely known titles, Warren also did important work at Richard Garriott's Origin Systems, having been instrumental in the design and production of such unique and significant computer role-playing games as Ultima VI, Ultima VII Part 2: Serpent Isle, the Worlds of Ultima spin-offs (Savage Empire and Martian Dreams), and Ultima Underworld I & II (developed under Origin's supervision by Blue Sky Productions which later became Looking Glass), not to mention his role on various other Origin games such as Wing Commander, Bad Blood or Crusader: No Remorse.

As far as we know, it's been many years since anyone interviewed Warren Spector at length about his work on the Ultima games; this interview aims to rectify that. In it, Warren talks about his pen-and-paper background, his time at Origin and the design philosophy behind the games he was involved with at the time, and also shares some thoughts on the history of the CRPG genre. Have a snippet:

Could you tell us how the Worlds of Ultima series originated and why Origin decided to take the approach of making these games deliberately weird? Who was responsible for that, and to what extent were you involved in the series’ creation and the direction it was taking? As an aside, what exactly was your own role on Savage Empire, since you don’t actually appear in the credits despite being a character in the game?

You know, I bet everyone involved in the creation of the Worlds of Ultima series has a different view of how that sub-series came to be. My memory is probably as inaccurate as anyone's, but I remember it being my idea, to be honest. We simply needed to create more games than Richard Garriott and Chris Roberts could produce. And with guys like Paul Neurath and Greg Malone and Stuart Marks and Todd Porter gone, guys like Jeff Johannigman and I had to step up. I think I was the one to suggest creating a spin-off series of non-numbered Ultimas, produced by me and Jeff, that would re-use tech from last numbered one while Richard was creating ground-up new tech for the next numbered one.

My role on Savage Empire started and ended early. I wrote up the initial 20-ish page design spec (which I wish I still had!) for a lost world, dinosaur game. And I wrote up a spec for what became Martian Dreams. I couldn't make both and wasn't willing to pass up the chance to make a Victorian time travel game, so I took on Martian Dreams and Johan did Savage Empire. He and designer, Aaron Allston, probably scrapped my initial design doc instantly. No matter, Savage Empire ended up being a swell game and, despite all the traipsing around the Martian surface, I'm still inordinately proud of Martian Dreams. Frankly, I wish we'd kept the Worlds of Ultima games going.​

Starting from Ultima IV, each game in the series improved upon its predecessor, until we arrive at Ultima VIII: Pagan – a run 'n jump game focused around a lone Avatar and leaving behind the meticulous worldbuilding of the previous Ultima games. So, what was going on with Ultima VIII? The way you see and remember it, what made Origin decide to abandon its strategy of gradual iteration on the classic Ultima formula? Was there perhaps at one point a different vision for the game?

To be frank, I was working on other things when U8 was in development so you'd probably want to ask someone else what was going on with that team and that project. As an observer at Origin but outside the team, my impression at the time was that the Ultima guys had a bit of "Commander envy" – as in Wing Commander and Strike Commander envy. Chris's games had managed to reach a broader audience than anything Origin had done to date and I think U8 was an attempt to go after a broader audience. I did the same thing years later between Deus Ex and Deus Ex: Invisible War. The obvious way to reach a broad audience is to simplify, streamline and up the action. That doesn't have to compromise the integrity of your concept but it can and often does. Maybe that's what was going on in U8. But, again, that's a lot of speculation on my part.

As far as connections between Serpent Isle and U8 go, there really weren't many – if any. My teams and Richard's teams worked largely independently. Maybe too much so… We all tried to be aware of what was going on, Ultima-wise, on "the other side" but we were so heads-down, working like crazed weasels to hit our dates, we didn't coordinate as much as we could have. Nothing as dramatic as a shifting product vision, I'm afraid!​

Serpent Isle was your last "old school" party-based RPG. In the late 90s, while at Looking Glass, you developed a design philosophy emphasizing player choice, and then you continued with that approach in Deus Ex. During the same period, however, Black Isle Studios was developing its own signature gameplay style which also emphasized player choice, albeit in a different way – games like Tim Cain’s Fallout or Chris Avellone’s Planescape: Torment were traditional party-based CRPGs with an isometric perspective, deep dialogue trees, etc. One could imagine that, had you continued making games like Serpent Isle, they would have turned out a lot like those titles. Do you ever regret not having been able to pursue that path? Do you think you could have married the form of Serpent Isle with the essence of Deus Ex, so to speak?

Interesting question… I think I could have married Serpent Isle's party basis with DX, but I wouldn't have done it with dialogue trees and traditional RPG tropes. The key thing about games like Underworld and System Shock and Deus Ex and, yes, even Disney Epic Mickey, is that they don't rely as much on scripting (dialogue or interaction scripting), as on simulation. I think it'd be possible to make an isometric, party-based game that offers all the player choice and consequence stuff, for sure. I've often thought about giving that a try. You never know – it just might happen some day!

The interesting thing to me, though, is that you really see a radical difference between the philosophy underlying Serpent Isle and the DX philosophy. I see them both as being on the same evolutionary path. I mean, the whole choice and consequence thing grew out of a design philosophy I was steeped in during my tabletop days and then reinforced by Richard's approach in Ultima VI – the "two solutions to every puzzle" idea. The moment that changed my design life was watching a guy play Ultima VI and solve a puzzle in a way Richard and I never thought of. I kind of decided then and there to make nothing but games designed to empower players. I always thought Serpent Isle was one of those games! Maybe I'm wrong!​​

Read the full interview: RPG Codex Retrospective Interview: Warren Spector on Ultima, Origin, and CRPG Design
 

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Warren Spector said:
When I started there, teams were just starting to ramp up in size and the games were getting significantly bigger, with the move from Apples to IBM PCs with hard drives as the target platform. It just wasn't possible for team members to wear multiple hats anymore. I think we all saw that. On Ultima VI, we brought on some dedicated writing talent – Steve Beeman (who turned out to be a terrific coder and team lead) and Dr. Cat, a programmer/designer who'd been working with Origin for a while. That was the start of it. Once we got to Ultima VII the scope was so great, we had to expand again and that's when we really started going after professional writers. I interviewed dozens of writers back then, and over a couple of years hired more than 20 for Origin – we hired screenwriters, novelists, comic book writers… When you're making 100 hour games, you need a lot of words! When those 100 hours are largely under player control, you need even more! I'd be surprised if there was another game company that put such a premium on writing back then. You might even have to look to Bioware, many years later, to find a studio that valued writing as highly as we did.

Warren Spector said:
I think you give us more credit than we deserve when you ask who was responsible for the expansion of the Ultima universe. We all just loved that world and wanted to reuse elements from earlier games because it pleased us and we knew it would please the fans. As close as we had to a plan – Richard, me, Johan, Paul Neurath, Doug Church and others – was "wouldn't it be cool if…" And we were all lucky enough to work with Richard, who was open to allowing others to flesh out and enhance the richness of the world he created. But there was no plan, really.

See, this is the thing that makes me sad about Origin (and about early game developers in general). They put together these awesome professional writing teams, but they didn't really value their own creations. Not as much as they should have. It was just a thing they did haphazardly, for fun. They didn't treasure it, or seek to turn it into valuable intellectual property. There were no Bethesda-style "loremasters" back then.

It's a very different approach from today where having your own IP and your own "universe" is an important thing for developers and publishers.
 

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Awesome interview, brofists to all involved and stuffies. :salute:

See, this is the thing that makes me sad about Origin (and about early game developers in general). They put together these awesome professional writing teams, but they didn't really value their own creations. Not as much as they should have. It was just a thing they did haphazardly, for fun. They didn't treasure it, or seek to turn it into valuable intellectual property. There were no Bethesda-style "loremasters" back then.
What's sad about that? I see it precisely as why they had so much freedom and tried so many different things; if you want to add something new, you just do it, no need to replay ME 1 & 2, read the 8 novels and the comic books to be sure that what you're doing is cannon.... sure, that can lead to derpy stuff, but that's why you have an awesome team of writers, not fanboys writing AWESHUM mary-sue shit.
 

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Yeah, felipepepe, that works until the boss (in this case, Richard Garriott) decides to throw it all away because it's just a bunch of crap those nerds put together in their spare time that's alienating the casuals.
 

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Yeah, felipepepe, that works until the boss (in this case, Richard Garriott) decides to throw it all away because it's just a bunch of crap those nerds put together in their spare time that's alienating the casuals.
How's that any different from rebooting any other game? Elder Scrolls had a loremaster and all that, but just look at Oblivion... people will retcon or reboot whatever they want bro, no matter what the nerds that had the ideas think about them.

And honestly, I don't blame them that much when they are just hired goons... Imagine someone comes to Obsidian and ask them to do Wizardry 9, but in a real-time-fps way "like Skyrim, removing all that silly sci-fi shit". I mean, fuck, rebooting the lore and relasing it simply as "Wizardry" is probably the most honest thing they can do.
 
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Awesome interview, brofists to all involved and stuffies. :salute:


What's sad about that? I see it precisely as why they had so much freedom and tried so many different things; if you want to add something new, you just do it, no need to replay ME 1 & 2, read the 8 novels and the comic books to be sure that what you're doing is cannon.... sure, that can lead to derpy stuff, but that's why you have an awesome team of writers, not fanboys writing AWESHUM mary-sue shit.
Black Isle treated Fallout the same way and it made Tim Cain quit. He cared about the Fallout universe and disagreed with the direction it went.

Also, Bioware clearly had as much freedom as they needed because they retconned tons of shit with each game.
 

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Yeah, felipepepe, that works until the boss (in this case, Richard Garriott) decides to throw it all away because it's just a bunch of crap those nerds put together in their spare time that's alienating the casuals.
How's that any different from rebooting any other game? Elder Scrolls had a loremaster and all that, but just look at Oblivion... people will retcon or reboot whatever they want bro, no matter what the nerds that had the ideas think about them.

What happened with Oblivion isn't really on the same order of magnitude as what happened in Ultima 8 and Ultima 9. The Ultima lore wasn't just changed or even "raped". It was just unceremoniously flushed down the memory hole, completely ignored.

You just couldn't do that sort of thing these days, especially in story-centric franchises like BioWare's. For one thing, it would cause massive fan outrage.

Listen to what the man says:

There's no doubt RPG's were out of favor by the mid-90s. No doubt at all. People didn't seem to want fantasy stories or post-apocalypse stories anymore. They certainly didn't want isometric, 100 hour fantasy or post-apocalypse stories, that's for sure! I couldn't say why it happened, but it did. Everyone was jumping on the CD craze – it was all cinematic games and high-end graphics puzzle games… That was a tough time for me – I mean, picture yourself sitting in a meeting with a bunch of execs, trying to convince them to do all sorts of cool games and being told, "Warren, you're not allowed to say the word 'story' any more." Talk about a slap in the face, a bucket of cold water, a dose of reality.
 

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Good interview guy and gal.

I would have followed up on his simulation vs die rolling by asking him about simulation vs abstraction. An abstraction doesn't have to be a die roll. I also would have asked him how important he thinks interaction with other characters in games is and if he thinks there is a better way than scripting and dialog trees like games have been doing since forever.
 

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There's no doubt RPG's were out of favor by the mid-90s. No doubt at all. People didn't seem to want fantasy stories or post-apocalypse stories anymore. They certainly didn't want isometric, 100 hour fantasy or post-apocalypse stories, that's for sure! I couldn't say why it happened, but it did. Everyone was jumping on the CD craze – it was all cinematic games and high-end graphics puzzle games… That was a tough time for me – I mean, picture yourself sitting in a meeting with a bunch of execs, trying to convince them to do all sorts of cool games and being told, "Warren, you're not allowed to say the word 'story' any more." Talk about a slap in the face, a bucket of cold water, a dose of reality.
This is just depressing.
 

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Regarding Serpent Isle and Deus Ex having the same design philosophy:

Despite the Ultima 7 engine's rudimentary simulation and physics implementation, it was still pretty far from being a game that allowed you the kind of "environmental C&C" that Deus Ex did. And considering that it also had less lateral freedom than Ultima VII, I naturally assumed that at that point in his career, Warren was concerned with storytelling above all.

On the other hand, it's true that Serpent Isle and Deus Ex are both quite linear games. In fact, despite being all about "choice" Deus Ex is actually more linear - but I assumed that was more due to genre convention than anything else. It was, in the end, a mission-based FPS developed in the age of Quake and Unreal. Didn't they originally plan to create an alternate UNATCO/MJ12 loyalty storyline, after all?

In summary, I guess it's unwise to make assumptions!
 
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This quote is why we don't get the games we love anymore:

Having said that, I had to unlearn an awful lot of what I knew as a tabletop game designer when I moved over to Origin. I mean, in tabletop gaming your simulation tools are seriously limited. All you have are dice and combat or spell tables to tell you whether you accomplished something. Even in the early days of electronic games, we could actually simulate action and it always amazed me that developers – to this day – stick with the conventions of tabletop gaming even though they're completely unnecessary in videogames. I mean, who needs levels and combat skills and +5 swords and secret dierolls under the hood when you can simulate the force with which a sword smashes into a wooden door?...

:decline: Yet he still made some of the best games in history!!
 

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This quote is why we don't get the games we love anymore:

Having said that, I had to unlearn an awful lot of what I knew as a tabletop game designer when I moved over to Origin. I mean, in tabletop gaming your simulation tools are seriously limited. All you have are dice and combat or spell tables to tell you whether you accomplished something. Even in the early days of electronic games, we could actually simulate action and it always amazed me that developers – to this day – stick with the conventions of tabletop gaming even though they're completely unnecessary in videogames. I mean, who needs levels and combat skills and +5 swords and secret dierolls under the hood when you can simulate the force with which a sword smashes into a wooden door?...

:decline: Yet he still made some of the best games in history!!

He used the tools available to him at the time. There are more tools available nowadays which means there are more wrong choices.
 

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Warren Spector is a quasi-sim hack who got lucky and every interview he gives and every post-Deus Ex game he produces is proof of this.

I don't think there's any "quasi" here. RPG "quasi-simulationists" don't propose throwing out the concept of stats entirely.
 

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I don't think there's any "quasi" here. RPG "quasi-simulationists" don't propose throwing out the concept of stats entirely.
There's still going to be some abstraction. Par exemple, Deus Ex may have a health bar for each segment of the body but it's still a HP abstraction nonetheless.
 

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I don't think there's any "quasi" here. RPG "quasi-simulationists" don't propose throwing out the concept of stats entirely.
There's still going to be some abstraction. Par exemple, Deus Ex may have a health bar for each segment of the body but it's still a HP abstraction nonetheless.

True, but I think he's gone beyond Deus Ex. Deus Ex had "combat skills", after all.
 

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I don't think there's any "quasi" here. RPG "quasi-simulationists" don't propose throwing out the concept of stats entirely.
There's still going to be some abstraction. Par exemple, Deus Ex may have a health bar for each segment of the body but it's still a HP abstraction nonetheless.

True, but I think he's gone beyond Deus Ex. Deus Ex had "combat skills", after all.
Well he's been hating on skills and statistics since 1998 (and probably earlier) http://www.rpgcodex.net/forums/inde...occasionally-nsfw.57009/page-445#post-2371746
 

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Spector's fascination with simulation ironically probably stems from his experience with tabletop games. The tabletop games went from simple mechanics to bloated mechanics and books over the years due to designers continually trying to simulate real combat on a game board. Spector's desire to skip that and go right to a virtual and highly graphical simulation without dice mechanics makes sense in that regard. The reason that games such as he describes do not interest me is because I like the mental calculations that come with determining my next combat move. Despite that I did love the Thief series, which doesn't seem to have much in the way of stats and random occurrences.

I don't see Spector as much of a coder or programmer, but instead a project manager. And he was probably a great boss to work alongside. If people hated him, he wouldn't have gotten the kind of cameos that he received in Worlds of Ultima or in Ultima Underworld.

So a tip of the glass to old man Spector. While at Origin, he might not have created worlds himself, but he allowed the creation of worlds to happen on budget and on time.
 

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Sounds a bit like Dan Vávra from Warhorse on the topic of simulation and abstraction.

I can enjoy an action game, and I don't expect much else from developers with a history of developing action games. However, it's a little sad (for us fans of classics) when developers with a history of abstract CRPGs turn towards that streamlined/action-y direction. It's like a drama movie director suddenly taking cues from Michael Bay.
 

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Awesome interview, brofists to all involved and stuffies. :salute:

See, this is the thing that makes me sad about Origin (and about early game developers in general). They put together these awesome professional writing teams, but they didn't really value their own creations. Not as much as they should have. It was just a thing they did haphazardly, for fun. They didn't treasure it, or seek to turn it into valuable intellectual property. There were no Bethesda-style "loremasters" back then.
What's sad about that? I see it precisely as why they had so much freedom and tried so many different things; if you want to add something new, you just do it, no need to replay ME 1 & 2, read the 8 novels and the comic books to be sure that what you're doing is cannon.... sure, that can lead to derpy stuff, but that's why you have an awesome team of writers, not fanboys writing AWESHUM mary-sue shit.

I'm sick to death of the Tolkienizing of every video game universe.
 

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