Most modern gamers probably don’t realise how much their favourite games owe to classic first-person RPG Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, which laid the foundations back in 1992 for games as diverse as Deus Ex, Bioshock and the Elder Scrolls series. Featuring a large open world, NPC and faction interactions, and a rudimentary crafting system, it was a game way ahead of its time. Now original creator Paul Neurath, a man who’se been involved in the development of several solid-gold classics over the years (Thief 1 & 2, System Shock 2, Descent… not a bad roll-call), is bringing the franchise back to life with Underworld Ascendant, a soon-to-be Kickstarted spiritual successor in production at his new studio OtherSide Entertainment. I managed to get hold of Paul for a lengthy chat about his new project.
GameWatcher: First of all, what made you come back to the Underworld series now after so many years?
Paul Neurath: Well more or less I’ve been trying to get the rights to do a new version of the Underworld franchise going back to 1994. We finished the last Underworld (sequel Ultima Underworld 2) in 1993, and the plan all along was to continue it as a franchise, but it fell beneath the cracks of the corporate labyrinth. We started with [publisher] Origin Systems, and Origin was acquired by EA in I think around 1993, and that complicated things, and though we tried we just couldn’t bring it back. After a number of tries though, we managed to have some success bringing it back just recently, and that opened the door to bringing the franchise forward.
GameWatcher: So how does Underworld Ascendant tie in to the original games? Is it a true sequel, or more of a spiritual successor?
Paul Neurath: We have the rights to use all the content from the original game, all the design and art and everything, all the IP. Except the Ultima brand itself. EA is doing its own thing with that name, and they didn’t want the confusion of us as a separate studio using the name. The original Underworld games were only loosely tied to the brand anyway, it was more just a branding thing. There were some elements in there, but it was more of a cousin to Ultima than directly tied in. But you know, we are definitely planning to use some of the content, characters and monsters, magic and elements from the original Ultima Underworld in Underworld Ascendant.
GameWatcher: What’s the make-up of your new studio? Do you have a lot of people who worked on the original game?
Paul Neurath: It’s a mix. There are only five people who worked on the original game, that was a long time ago! The team now is around a dozen, but we do have a few – myself, I came up with the original concept and was the creative director of the original Underworld and oversaw the sequel, we have the lead designer from the second game, he’s our lead designer on the new game. We’ve got the guy who did most of the narrative work on the original games. Warren Spector, who was our producer way back when and then later worked with us at Looking Glass is a creative consultant on the project. So we’ve got a few people from the original Underworld, some others who worked with me at Looking Glass on titles like System Shock 2 and Thief, games informed by Underworld, and then we’ve got a few younger guys who’ve worked on games like Bioshock Infinite, the new Deus Ex, things like that.
GameWatcher: How closely do you intend to stick to the gameplay of the original? Do you want this to be a straight up revival of the formula, or will you be updating things for a modern audience?
Paul Neurath: Well, bit of both actually, which is tricky. Our take is that there was a lot of good stuff in the originals. Partly by luck, partly by some of the talent that worked on them, they ended up being pretty special games that have really stood the test of time. Lead game designers still talk about the original Underworld as a very modern game in terms of some of the ideas. The graphics are dated, but with Ascendant we’ll be able to upgrade those with all the technology afforded by modern PCs. That’s actually the easy part. The original came out in 1992, and was one of the first games to use a mouse interface in an immersive 3D game. We hadn’t figured out the scheme really, our system worked but it was a little clunky. Since then we’ve had waves of FPS games, all of which have mastered the first-person interface with mouse and keyboard. So that will be changed and updated, the visuals improved, but a lot of the core gameplay still holds up.
When I play recent games, triple A games, there’s a tendency to make them as accessible as possible. You kind of have to when you’re spending millions of pounds on the project. But that also constrains you in a lot of ways, because you can’t always be so innovative and experiential with the gameplay. One of the things about Underworld was that we had a very player-authored experience, very sandbox kind of gameplay. You were dropped in this dark, dangerous place, and there was a lot of mystery, you didn’t really know where to go. We didn’t show players a quest arrow, they had to find out themselves. We gave the player a lot of choice, and it was up to them how they wanted to play. There were no right or wrong choices. The idea that two players experiencing the same game can see and do things completely differently, we love that stuff. But it is a little more difficult to develop, and more challenging for players without the hand-holding. To answer your question the new game will feel very familiar to fans of the originals, but we’re also going to push forward and try some things we never had the opportunity to do before.
GameWatcher: One of the things you’ve told us about Ascendant is that there are three main factions in the game. How do those come into play?
Paul Neurath: That’s one of our areas of innovations, pushing forward from what we were doing in the original game. The original had several factions spread across the dungeon who you could do missions for, the dwarves the goblins, the ghouls and so on. It was fairly restrained though, more along the lines of doing one quest for one faction at the expense of pissing off the others. It was pretty limited. With Ascendant we’re going a lot further with that, we want the sense that all the factions are intelligent races with their own back stories and motivations, and there’s a dynamic where they aren’t at all-out war but there is a kind of rivalry between them all, they do skirmish with each other. There’s also a dependency though, because they need other for certain things. It’s a complicated dynamic.
We’re retaining the concept that the player will be a human from our world who falls through a magic portal into the underworld, which is an interesting and fun concept that we think works in a lot of ways for a role-playing game. So when the player lands in this dungeon they’re a stranger in a strange land, and ultimately they’ll be in a position to choose which faction to align with. The choice is up to the player, and that choice will have ramifications throughout the rest of the game. And all that ties into a larger narrative arc.
GameWatcher: How about character development? The original game had a class system of sorts, will you be retaining that for Ascendant? Or will you switch to a kind of classless skills system?
Paul Neurath: Good question. This is very much a role-playing game, and for me we’re going pretty much back to the roots here. I played Dungeons & Dragons a lot during the 70s and I loved that kind of gameplay. At a high level what we want to do is offer the player a wide range of character types to play, allowing them to put together a character from a wide range of talents and skills for a very unique experience. For players who aren’t quite as into role-playing and character development, we’re going to have a handful of archetypes – warrior types, wizards and so on - and you can choose those archetypes and pretty much play out the rest of the game like that. That’s fine! You don’t have to explore other things. But other players might start as a fighter, then later on start picking out thief skills of mage skills, so we want to give you lots of choice. We want the player to have a bit of structure early on, so they’re not making big choices without even knowing the system. A lot of role-playing games have that thing where you choose one ability for your character, then thirty hours later think “oh man, wish I hadn’t done that!” So there has to be some subtlety to it.
GameWatcher: Are you keeping the same real-time combat from Underworld?
Paul Neurath: Yeah, again those aspects will be familiar to players who’ve played the originals, and even modern games like Skyrim. It’s all fluid and real-time. It’s part of the immersion; immersion isn’t just about the graphics and visuals. It’s everything. One of the things we learned from Thief is that audio can be just as important. Creating this sound-scape with the environment was subtle but incredibly important. That’s true for the gameplay as well, you want this sense that the player is really rooted in this place. We want that suspension of disbelief that you get from reading a really good fantasy novel, or watching a good film. Same with everything in the game, the audio, visuals, mechanics, you want to trick the player into believing that this isn’t an abstraction, they’re really in this fantasy world. So real-time combat becomes important.
Before Underworld, these systems were abstracted out into turn-based games, so you’d do that RPG thing of thinking everything out, checking your stats and your skills to see if you had the right ability. It was all informed by pen and paper gaming. What real-time action does is invest you in that moment to moment experience much more effectively. It makes things much more open-ended, and gives players the ability to try out things that black and white dice roll mechanics don’t really allow. We want players to feel really empowered, and if they come up with a clever solution that the game designers didn’t think of, all the better.
GameWatcher: Ultima Underworld also had a lot of interesting little survival mechanics; you had to find food to eat, and there were some simple crafting options. Are you going to expand the survival aspects at all?
Paul Neurath: We’re still in pre-production, so some of these ideas aren’t fully fleshed out yet. I’d put that in the category of trying to create a broad palette of mechanics and systems that allow the player to experience the game in a variety of different ways. We did that in Underworld, we had those basic crafting options and survival mechanics, so we will definitely go deeper on that. But this isn’t going to be a survival sim, you know? There won’t be any one thing the game is about. It goes back to being an RPG, where we want to accommodate all sorts of play-styles. It won’t be just about sneaking, it won’t be just about charging into combat with a big sword and a suit of armour. It’ll be about all those things!
GameWatcher: Was the intention always to run a Kickstarter campaign for Underworld Ascendant? Was that your planned model from day one?
Paul Neurath: Well last Fall we as a team talked about how we could bring this project to the fans. I did have a chance to talk to Richard Garriott, Chris Roberts, Brian Fargo, other people who have used the system very successfully. This is all kind of new to me, so I had to learn what it was all about. We ended up making the decision to take this to Kickstarter because we felt that as an indie studio we wanted to see our vision through, take some creative risks like we did with the original game. I think that’s a big part of being a game designer, not just making prettier graphics and more of the same content. I hope there’s a lot of gamers out there who appreciate some innovation and risk-taking, and also want to be involved in all that. Rarely do fans get to feel part of that process.
There’s an unknown of course, we don’t know exactly how things will turn out, but that’s no different from any other project I’ve worked on over the years. You need some space to be creative and to experiment, and Kickstarter is a larger part of reaching out to fans and inviting them into that process. Sometimes it’s messy and unpredictable, but it can be a lot of fun. Previously there’s always been a wall between us and the fans, but now we can distribute early builds, ask for feedback, ask what they want in the game. That’s great. It’s better for us to have the fans right there from the start.