Beyond Looking Glass: Underworld Ascendant Interview

Underworld Ascendant [official site] has some big shoes to fill. Big shoes of Nostalgia +8. As a continuation of the Ultima Underworld series, with a team led by Looking Glass veteran Paul Neurath, Ascendant is picking up where the immersive first-person RPG left off a couple of decades ago. The game is currently well on its way to a $600,000 Kickstarter target and I spoke to Neurath about the project, and how it’s possible to move forward while looking to the past.

“This isn’t Looking Glass 2.0,” he says, even though Looking Glass 2.0 seems like a hell of a good thing to be. “We’re not just looking back and trying to recreate something from the past. We’re hoping to be part of the future.”

Neurath’s new studio, OtherSide Entertainment, is home to several veterans of the Looking Glass years. It’s worth noting that those years saw the creation of some of PC gaming’s greatest hits, from the original Ultima Underworld (created under the moniker Blue Sky Productions) to the System Shock games, the two greatest Thief titles and Terra Nova. The studio’s influence on the development of immersive sims continues to be felt, and not only through those alumni such as Harvey Smith and Ken Levine who have carved out careers in the first-person arena.

Looking Glass also played a strong role in shaping the expectations and hopes of gamers and critics of a certain age. When I suggested to Neurath that the promise of the nineties faded somewhat in the mass market of the last decade and a half, he disagreed.

“A game like Grand Theft Auto V would have been considered experimental because of its open world and sandbox gameplay. There’s much more receptitivity toward those kind of experiences now.”

He did, however, acknowledge that the “player-authored” experience of a game like Underworld will never reach the mass market.

“RPGs can be demanding on the player. In Underworld, you’re not playing a single character, not even a character like Garrett the thief, we give you freedom to approach scenarios however you choose to. We’re not going to tell you how to play this game.”

Games that make demands of the player in that way don’t necessarily reach the widest audience, which is why Neurath believes it would be a mistake to reach for an enormous budget. “If you’re spending 50 million dollars you need to reach as many people as possible. You can’t experiment.”

By their nature, Neurath argues, RPGs are about experimentation and improvisation. His understanding of the craft of roleplaying goes back to the earliest days of Dungeons & Dragons, when the creators of tabletop systems would send out mimeographed maps to players. Through the Wisconsin roleplaying scene of the mid-seventies, Neurath encountered Dave Arneson, and the close-knit nature of that formative environment is something that he reckons online communities and crowdfunding can recapture, to an extent.

More importantly, he thinks that CRPGs still have a lot to learn from pen and paper roleplaying. The character sheet, the avatar and the player’s intellect and personality are tools with which to overcome challenges, and those challenges should offer a diverse range of solutions. Rather than performing a poor imitation of a human Dungeon Master, a computer can provide systems that encourage emergent play, allowing unscripted situations to develop. In Underworld Ascendant, as an extension of the original Underworld games, many of the dynamic situations will be symptoms of the faction system. As Neurath describes how it’ll work, I get the impression it’s the aspect of Underworld that he’s been redesigning and elaborating on for twenty years or so.

“In the original Underowrlds there were some lighweight faction elements. Player could interact and befriend one group – becoming enemies of another group. It was fairly primitive stuff, with AIs interacting in fairly limited ways. We’re really pushing that aspect.

Creatures have their own agendas. At first the player may be mystified by the world but once you get beyond that you’ll slip into the politics of the factions. There are three main factions with much deeper dynamics between them. The player has to choose which faction to join with at some point in the game. That has deep repercussions.”

The systems driving AI behaviour in Ultima Underworld may have been “fairly primitive” but clever design goes some way toward disguising crude mechanics. Given that at least some of the inspirations for Ascendant are decades old, pre-digital games and interactions, I wonder how much technology influences design. Is a well-designed game a well-designed game forever, and how do technological advances help to communicate elements of that design?

“Technology certainly helps, but good design doesn’t depend on it.” Advances in tech help designers in ways that aren’t necessarily noticeable in the end product though. Building custom engines took a great deal of work and now, with Unity, all of the baseline elements are already in place. It’s easier to test mechanics early in the development process, iterating on design rather than waiting for the engine to be in a robust state that supports experimentation.

“In the original Ultima Underworld, we were frustrated that we couldn’t render a full screen. Now, the platform is so powerful that we can concentrate on what we’re doing with it rather than putting effort into the most basic things.”

There’s also the other aspect of technology, digital downloads and online feedback. “In the Looking Glass days, you worked on a game for a long time and hoped it was the right game, then you threw it over the retail fence and it was done. Now, we don’t have to work through publishers and the retail channel, we can distribute directly to the fans and take more creative risks.”

In a way, Neurath is turning the idea of Kickstarter as a modern phenomenon on its head during our conversation, indirectly likening the crowdfunding process and fan participation to those early exchanges of maps and rulesets in the RPG scene that grew out of tabletop wargaming societies.

Those early experiences are important to him, clearly, and the closest he comes to criticising the current output of the larger studios is telling. There’s a tendency to borrow ideas from non-interactive media, whether that be books, films or television, while the social interaction of tabletop gaming is too often ignored. “Some AAA games lose the beauty of the interactive medium to hit a mass audience”, he says.

I question whether looking back to the nineties, and even the seventies, might be a mistake. Is there an inherent contradiction in attempting to recreate an experience that was innovative and ahead of its time?

“Part of the DNA of Underworld was looking way forward, and that DNA is alive and well. People can go and play them for the first time today, and once they get past the graphics, the gameplay still hasn’t been exceeded in some cases.” He talks, briefly, about the development of Ultima Underworld 2, which was more of a 1.5 as many ideas were dropped in order to finish the game on time.

Some of those ideas will be picked up again now and they are ideas that haven’t been fully expressed elsewhere. Despite his positivity about the gaming industry, Neurath acknowledges that progress can seem slow.

“I would never have imagined twenty years ago that the games industry wouldn’t have moved forward so much. It feels like we’re behind where we should be but remembering that we’re only three decades in.

“There’s plenty of space to grow and we’ll be looking to do that, but the game will feel familiar to people who loved the originals. At its core, Ascendant is an immersive dungeon crawl. Just as the success of the latest edition of D&D shows, some things are perennial.”

Underworld Ascendant’s Kickstarter is live.

45 Comments

  1. Crafter says:

    my only concern would be on the ability of a small team to develop such a game.
    Otherwise, I am sold !

    • pepperfez says:

      My only concern is whether I’ll be able to play as a mushroom man.

    • MadTinkerer says:

      Well most of the team are the exact same people who have already made two Underworld games, and many other games since (just not always together). The only thing I would add is Warren Spector, but otherwise I can’t imagine a better team to make an Underworld game.

  2. ResonanceCascade says:

    I’m pretty amazed that this is the only serious Looking Glass style game that has hit Kickstarter so far. Seems like that’s fertile ground that not a lot of people are taking advantage of. I’m glad that it’s looking like they’re going to hit their target.

  3. Detocroix says:

    I know the team has experience and motivation, but the project sounds way too massive and way too overpromising to be realistic at all. I would have understood “Hey we want to make Underworld 3, but with proper graphics and controls. You get to experience the drama and exploration of collapsed civilization or whatever” but they have insanely undefined goals…

    …also there’s a massive difference between having stylized pixel art (Underworlds) and having generic low fidelity 3D art from somewhere between Quake 1 and Unreal Tournament 2004. The graphics and visual design of Underworld Ascendant is already old and horrible. Please if you succeed in your Kickstarter and somehow have any chance of delivering the game, please get proper 3D artist and don’t go with the lazy ass route of Wasteland 2, Shroud of the Avatar, and few others, who don’t even bother getting good artists. 3D artists are not that expensive, you can sacrifice one ferrari for a decent artist team.

    • ResonanceCascade says:

      The art design of Ascendant isn’t “old and horrible” because it doesn’t even exist yet. If you’re talking about the prototype footage — which was clearly labeled as a prototype — then yes, it’s not great looking. Because prototype.

      • Detocroix says:

        Many games at least coin little bit of the visual style in prototyping phase, they have absolutely nothing but promises to show. Even a small student team at few hundred bucks would have done better “prototype” graphics if that’s what you want to call it. Games are not supposed to look final in prototyping, but they are supposed demonstrate at least some graphical decency.

        • Psychomorph says:

          The “prototype” was made of Unity assets. They did not do any of this by themselves. It was to show off the general idea and problem solving mechanics. So far only the concept art is their own and it looks awesome.

          They will hire proper artists once they have the money and will start really building the game. Why do you think they do the Kickstarter?

          So you wouldn’t back their KS, because grafix sux and by this not give them the fuel they need to run development, to make grafix not sux? …the curse of pennyless inde devs.

          • BockoPower says:

            You make sense but “Lord British” surely is not a pennyless indie dev. Neither is Paul Neurath.

          • ResonanceCascade says:

            Why do people assume that the folks who launch Kickstarter campaigns haven’t already invested heavily in the projects themselves? Even relatively “wealthy” people don’t necessarily have hundreds of thousands of dollars just lying around, and the ones who do can’t always predict which exact thing they would be best off spending it on as they prepare for their crowdfunding campaign.

            Lord British is one of the rare people who probably did have enough money to completely self-finance, and whether he should or shouldn’t have is a different discussion. He isn’t involved with Ascendant.

          • Detocroix says:

            Concept art looks good if you look at it 50 or 33% scale, but if you look at how they’ve done it it’s absolutely dreadful compared to anything other than hobby projects.

            I am not talking about they should have massive omg Call of Dutee kraphex like you think I do, I am talking that they could have done semi-modern graphics with decent visual design if they at least considered investing anything to it. Throwing a Kickstarter out with promise “Look we did your favorite games mid nineties” is cashing in on people’s nostalgia. They haven’t even tried yet, or if they did, they definitely should have something to show for it.

            Look at Wasteland 2, how awesome assets they did by getting complete hobbyist work on their game while the lead developers drove around in ferraris (look at the money, look at what they managed to do), compared to what proper dedicated art team of Divinity Original Sin did.

            They stomped some random assets in for the Underworld Kickstarter and ask you to commit more than they did. Maybe they used Unity Asset Store assets, if they did, they definitely got the cheapest and least rated assets you can get because I know Unity Asset Store has EXCELLENT quality assets for insanely cheap prices… They definitely didn’t use Unity standard assets for those awesome designless visuals and awesome graphics they have.

          • Psychomorph says:

            @BockoPower:
            That is why I didn’t back SoTA. :D Well, I didn’t back it not only because it looked dreadful, but because it promised gameplay and mechanics that I found to be dreadful. I still watch the update videos and SoTA is not a game for me, so my instinct was right.

            In any case, I don’t think Neurath is as wealthy as Garriott. His company went bankrupt and I don’t know what he did after it, but I doubt he had enough money to make a proper prototype. Who knows.

            @Detocroix:
            “Call of Dutee” Lol, I misread it as Call of Dupre at first. :D

            Maybe you’re right, but I’m alpha tester of a indie game that has been in development for some time, founded by an industry veteran (quite the experience) and I asked him the same questions and made the same assumptions about what could be achieved and what not.
            After many discussions we had about this subject I accepted that making games, self funded, is not what it seem to those who are not making games themselves. It seems like all you need is a couple of folks and a couple of bucks to make quality, but it’s a hell lot of more difficult. So difficult in fact that you often see project being canceled, or in development for ever.

            I see these things with more humility these days. And learnt that the harshest judgments usually come from those who have the least of clue about the subject matter (no offense meant).

        • welverin says:

          They have explicitly stated they haven’t put more effort into t he graphics at this point because it makes prototyping gameplay easier and less expensive, saying that once assets are built it makes changing things more expensive.

          Therefore this is not what the game will look like when it’s done, presuming they get the funding they need, hence it is foolish and misguided to criticize the look of the game at this point.

    • MadTinkerer says:

      Dear Underworld Ascendant Team,

      There is indeed a problem with the prototype’s graphics. The graphics are insufficiently old and horrible. Please halve the number of polygons and reduce the resolution to a proper 320×240. Don’t forget to hide the magical unbreakable “easy mode sword” in the usual place. Make sure to include words like “Oubliette” without any other clue as to what the heck an oubliette is or where a player might look for one or even the option to ask characters what an oubliette is. And don’t forget to make sure the random number generator starts with the same seed every time you start the game.

      Most importantly, if you can murder an entire faction just by talking to the right people and not lifting a finger against them yourself, then you have absolutely made a game that is faithful to the Underworld spirit.

      Your truly,
      The Mad Tinkerer

  4. BockoPower says:

    Please excuse my ignorance but wasn’t Shroud of the Avatar supposed to be the spiritual Ultima successor or is it totally different franchise by “Lord British” now?
    And while speaking of it, anyone playing Shroud of the Avatar? Is it good? The steam reviews seem to like it. Will its development slow even more now?

    • ResonanceCascade says:

      Ultima Underworld was a first-person Ultima spinoff series (and wasn’t even originally designed as an Ultima game at all). Shroud of the Avatar is an MMO that’s kind of an Ultima Online spiritual successor. Neither Ascendant nor Shroud has the Ultima license — not that it’s worth much these days anyway.

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      basilisk says:

      You are correct, but not even Richard Garriott has the rights to the Ultima brand. Those are with EA.

      OtherSide claim to have the rights to every single aspect of Ultima Underworld except for the single word “Ultima” in the title. You see, the game itself is not really part of the Ultima universe; it was hastily crammed into it mid-development and is contradicting the canon in many ways. The sequel had more Ultima in it, but still not that much. The actual gameplay of Ultima VII, which is what Shroud of the Avatar is mostly based on, and of Ultima Underworld don’t have almost anything in common, and neither do these two Kickstarter projects.

  5. ChairmanYang says:

    While I’ll be watching the project closely, I’m not convinced Underworld Ascendant is going to be all that experimental or innovative. At least not from the information revealed so far.

    Like, a deep faction system sounds wonderful, but it has been done before, and done well. Fallout: New Vegas is the obvious example, but there are others. The “improvisation engine” described on the website sounds like some pretty straightforward emergent elements (do you want to swim near the monster, distract it, or fly over it?), none of which seem especially fresh or unusual.

    I don’t agree with arguments that claim all major innovations have already been mined, and that now it’s a matter of minor, incremental improvement. Indie games in the last few years alone should make that claim dubious. So if the new Underworld wants to impress me by being “ahead of its time”, it’s going to have to do a hell of a lot more than it’s claiming.

    • Shadowcat says:

      I’m not expecting Underworld Ascendant to be “ahead of its time” — and frankly it’s just not possible for the new game to be groundbreaking like the original Underworld.

      I’m just expecting it to be a damned good game in the (brilliant) Looking Glass style, and with some nice new touches thrown into the mix.

      That’s plenty good enough for me; and if a damned good game sounds like something you’d like to play, then maybe it’ll be enough for you too?

  6. gunslingerfry says:

    I hope they don’t make as much money as they’re trending toward (1.6M). Stretch goals are the bane of Kickstarter. I would love to see actual evidence of whether stretch goals do anything to increase contributions because the only thing I’ve seen is stretch goals causing projects to spiral out of control.

  7. dethtoll says:

    As long as it’s more playable than UU or even Arx Fatalis, I’m in.

    I bounce off those games so fast because the controls are rubbish and Arx Fatalis has the added bonus of being hideously ugly and extra complicated.

  8. Muzman says:

    The team is pretty fab at the moment. But I think there should be a stretch goal to Lure Doug Church from wherever the heck he is these days.

  9. fuggles says:

    Excelsior! Finally terra nova is getting mentioned in the looking glass pantheon – kudos and thanks Adam.

    • ResonanceCascade says:

      Yeah, Terra Nova is an underrated game. The shooting isn’t great, but the A.I. still holds up. I have never felt more like I was co-operating with an honest-to-god human that I did playing with the teammate bots in Terra Nova.

      • Shadowcat says:

        Regarding the A.I., I’m not sure I’d go quite as far as that, but I do think (a) the devs did a damn good smoke-and-mirrors job; (b) it was entirely brilliant for its time; and (c) when your squad is kicking ass, or bails you out, it’s pretty awesome.

        OTOH, I’ve hurled a lot of curses at my squad over the years, over their inability to carry out simple instructions…

        • fuggles says:

          Fair to say I am a terribly biased Terra Nova Fanboi, but I thought the AI was really good, although I’m a bit of a micromanager for those little auto turrets. I loved how the shouts were generally always accurate and useful too. Shooting was interesting, for the time I guess it was satisfactory, but pure mouse look would be amazing. TN Remastered – Gearbox, get on that with the Arma engine or something!

  10. djbriandamage says:

    Oh Mr. Adam, the Kickstarter link at the bottom is broken. You seem to have changed “projects” to “procts”. So unless Underworld is some allusion to proctology (and if so I regret Kickstarting this) please fix this typo.

  11. Tutamun says:

    “We can take greater risks that the big publishers would not be comfortable doing.” @3:35
    I backed at the lowest tier because I did enjoy Ultima Underworld. But this sentence in the pitch video nearly made me skip this project. It’s great that they can take risks and try new innovative game play… the only thing is I don’t see any interesting ideas in the pitch. I’m fine if they deliver a solid sequel in modern graphics. But that does not sound like a great risk… I’m sure many people would enjoy this.

  12. racccoon says:

    As I know longer contribute to begging, its amusing n funny to watch all the people kneeling down to give into their hats.. lol
    I wonder if they really do give to normal people who have no money and are homeless.

    • MajorMalphunktion says:

      I’m the producer on this project, and yes, I donate my time to feeding the homeless.

  13. KeeperKrux says:

    I don’t think Harvey Smith was ever part of LGS. He was an Origin and Ion Storm dude.

  14. Jackablade says:

    You’re a grumpy lot today. Personally I’m happy to throw out some money for a game developed by Looking Glass alumnus because it’s a game developed by Looking Glass Alumnus and will result in the possibility of more games developed by Looking Glass Alumnus to come.

    • Shadowcat says:

      Well said.

      I’m extremely cynical about most Kickstarter projects, but (despite Paul’s explicit claim of OtherSide not being LGS2), this is still the nearest thing we’ve seen to a LGS revival, and that prospect alone is deserving of support.

      If you were disappointed when you learned that Looking Glass had closed, then consider contributing something — anything — to this project, just to say “Yes! I do want there to be more games in the Looking Glass style; so here’s a few dollars to say ‘Thank you for the amazing games of old, best of luck for the new Underworld, and here’s hoping we get more such games in the future as well…'”

  15. toshiro says:

    “Games that make demands of the player in that way don’t necessarily reach the widest audience, which is why Neurath believes it would be a mistake to reach for an enormous budget. “If you’re spending 50 million dollars you need to reach as many people as possible. You can’t experiment.””

    This resonates well in me. There is a trade-off here that is too often ignored or even hidden, but is ever present. Deeply satisfy a few, or make everyone content.

    To be honest, what I feel here is a couple of very intelligent dudes that want to revel in their imagination and love for the world in general and video games in particular, they’re asking for money to do just that and maybe they will create a wonderful, wonderful game at some point. But it might take 10 years. If this would have been clearly communicated, I think I give them some of my hard earned money. Because I want to let creative and intelligent people free in this brutal world. For me to do that however, I demand more honesty. With that said, I sincerely hope it gets funded. Somewhat paradoxical perhaps.

    • MajorMalphunktion says:

      One of the ways I think about it is, we have our defined goals…and don’t fill in with unneeded size.
      We don’t need to build New York to create an engaging game with all the parts and widgets we are talking about.
      It’s a matter of where do you spend your development time.
      Most games money is spent in looks and marketing.
      We plan on spending it in gameplay and AI for example.

      As for the demo- it’s just that. Maybe that is a failure of our DNA, but we always have, and probably always will, concentrate on gameplay first, looks second. Of course I remember a time where prototype was blocks and circles moving around a checkerboard world.
      The release will look nothing like the demo.