The fine folks over at Night Dive Studios slapped up an interview with design veteran Paul Neurath, whose most important role-playing game contributions include Star Command, Ultima Underworld I and II, System Shock 2, Neverwinter Nights: Shadows of Undrentide (remember, it was developed by Floodgate Entertainment), and several others. Here we go:
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. Thanks for the tip, RPG Codex!
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.
2. How did the innovations you made with Ultima Underworld get built upon and expanded in the original System Shock? With the first Thief game?
System Shock, which was released 2 years following Ultima Underworld, innovated and pushed forward the genre on several notable fronts.
First, we adopted the game play to a science fiction / horror setting. This may not seem like a big deal, but back then (and still today) specific types of gameplay tend to get locked into specific fictional genres. Most shooters are sci-fi or military slugfests, 2D overhead games tend to be strategic games, etc. It was not a small thing to switch form the fantasy setting and make the gameplay translate effectively.
Second, we improved the 3D engine considerably. Underworld's engine was primitive by comparison, just barely able to handle simple 3D texture mapped scenes, and only rendered in a small VGA window at that. With System Shock we could create a much more lifelike and flowing 3D world, and with full screen and higher resolution. We also modeled the creatures in 3D, whereas Underworld used 2D sprites for the monsters. It was that much more of an immersive experience.
We also went further in terms of open-ended gameplay, giving the player even more ways to solve challenges and progress through the world. For that era System Shock is an extraordinarily deep game in this regard, with lots of subtle ways of approaching gameplay afforded to players. Latter games that took this approach such as Deus Ex to a large degree stood on System Shock's shoulders.
We went further with physics-based gameplay. The physics model enabled the designers to do a lot with emergent behaviors that were beyond what we could consider in Underworld. Things like realistic weapon recoil, character movement realistically modeled and such.
We innovated on storyline with System Shock. We wanted to tell a deep story, but could not figure out how to do this with interactive character dialog at the time, especially given the open-ended nature of the world. So we came up with the approach of having nearly all the characters you interact with having perished before you arrive at the station. You uncover scraps of the logs they left behind and piece them together to learn the story. This approach makes it feel more as if you as the player are stitching together the story through your explorations.
Describing how Thief innovated further from Underworld and System Shock some 4 years later is the topic for another interview, but in short we tried to take what we learned from these games and innovate in the stealth genre, while also trying to make the game more accessible to a broad audience than System Shock had reached.