Ahead of its Time: The History of Looking Glass Studios

Polygon has treated us to a thorough history of Looking Glass Studios, taking us through the legendary video game designers who passed through its doors, the revolutionary titles that they worked on, the impact they've had on the industry over the past 23+ years, the competition that they were up against in the early days, and much more. There's a lot of important information to take in, here:

Garriott says it was hard to make games in Massachusetts without meeting Paul Neurath. The budding designer was already experimenting with his Apple II, showing his games to anyone possible. The man who would later found Looking Glass was one of Origin's "first great authors," Garriott says, and the company was eager to bring him on board after several chance meetings.

Neurath led design on Space Rogue, a sci-fi role-playing game that laid the foundation for his later titles: a blend of role-playing elements and simulation that allowed the player, and not designer, control of things.

And after Space Rogue's release, when Origin returned South, Neurath was left with a studio, development tools and funding of his own. So with newfound experience from his time with Origin, he founded Blue Sky Productions, the company that would become Looking Glass Studios.

"That's really what formed the studio," Garriott says. "Paul having a home base when Origin sort of abandoned him up there. And I think Looking Glass was very ahead of its time, setting the standards which other studios are finally starting to pick up."

Neurath recruited Doug Church, a programmer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to help with Blue Sky's first project: a first-person role-playing game set in a fantasy world. Church would go on to establish the project's technological base and play leading roles on the studio's later projects.


First-person exploration-based role-playing games are commonplace today. But in the early '90s, they didn't exist. Ultima Underworld changed that. Influenced by Garriott's role-playing innovations with the Ultima series, Looking Glass combined Neurath's design skills and Church's first-person tech to create the inaugural first-person role-playing game before genre juggernauts Deus Ex, System Shock and The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim.

As the game's publisher, Origin wasn't fully confident in Ultima Underworld during its first year of development. Neurath says the publisher seemed apathetic about the project communication was scarce, with progress meetings occurring "once in a great while." Neurath says this may have been a result of Blue Sky's 1,500-mile distance from Origin, or because the title had no precedent to base sales projections on.

Regardless, Origin only advanced Blue Sky $30,000 for the title. Its end cost would be $400,000, largely funded with Neurath's royalties from Space Rogue, as well as some from Ned Lerner, Neurath's founding partner.

And after two producers at Origin left the project for undisclosed reasons, Neurath says he thought Origin would drop the project. From inside Blue Sky, the situation looked dire.

But then Spector took over production. He had initially asked Origin higher-ups to supervise the project from the start but was redirected to other projects. Upon taking over, though, he visited Blue Sky's office, coordinated from inside Origin, and regularly kept the developers on track as the game approached release in 1992. He became, as Neurath says, the "champion of Underworld."