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Author Archives: Jimmy Maher

Life Off the Grid, Part 2: Playing Ultima Underworld

I rarely play or even see current games; the demands of this historical project of mine simply don’t allow for it. Thankfully, though, being a virtual time traveler does have its advantages. Just when I’m starting to feel a little sorry for myself, having heard about some cool new release I just don’t have time for, I get to experience a game like Ultima Underworld the way a player from its own time would have seen it, and suddenly living in my bubble is worth it.

It really is difficult to convey to non-time travelers just how amazing Ultima Underworld was back in March of 1992. To be able to move freely through a realistically rendered 3D space; to be able to walk up and down inclines, to jump over or into chasms, even to swim in underground streams… no one had ever seen anything like it before. At a stroke, it transformed the hoary old CRPG formula from a cerebral exercise in systems and numbers into an organic, embodied virtual reality. In time, it would prove itself to have been the starting point of a 3D Revolution in gaming writ large, one that would transform the hobby almost beyond recognition by the end of the 1990s. We live now in a gaming future very different from the merger of Silicon Valley and Hollywood which was foreseen by the conventional wisdom of 1992. Today, embodied first-person productions, focusing on emergent experience at least as much as scripted content, dominate across a huge swathe of the gaming landscape. And the urtext of this 3D Future through which we are living is Ultima Underworld.

Given what an enormous technological leap it represented in its day, it feels almost unfair to expect too much more than that out of Ultima Underworld as a game. After all, Blue Sky Productions was working here with a whole new set of affordances, trying to figure out how to put them together in a compelling way. It seems perfectly reasonable to expect that the craftspeople of game design, at Blue Sky and elsewhere, would need a few iterations to start turning all this great new technology into great games.

But it’s in fact here that Ultima Underworld astounds perhaps most of all. This very first example of a free-scrolling 3D dungeon crawl is an absolute corker of a game design; indeed, it’s arguably never been comprehensively bettered within its chosen sub-genre. In almost every one of the many places where they were faced with a whole array of unprecedented design choices, Blue Sky chose the right one. Ultima Underworld is a game, in other words, of far more than mere historical interest. It remains well worth learning to overlook the occasional graphical infelicities of its fairly primitive 3D engine in order to enjoy the wonderful experience that still awaits underneath them.

Needless to say, this isn’t quite the norm among such radically pioneering games. Yet it is a trait which Ultima Underworld shares with the two great earlier pioneers in the art of the dungeon crawl, Wizardry and Dungeon Master. Those games too emerged so immaculately conceived that the imitators which followed them could find little to improve upon beyond their audiovisuals. Just what is it about this particular style of game that yields such success right out of the gate? Your guess is as good as mine.

Regardless, we really should take the time to look at Ultima Underworld‘s gameplay still more closely than we have up to this point. So, today, I’d like to take you on a little tour of the most groundbreaking game of 1992.


Ultima Underworld puts its most conventional foot forward first. After the conventionally horrid introductory movie, it asks us to create a character, choosing from the usual collection of classes, abilities, and skills. The only thing here that might bring a raised eyebrow to the jaded CRPG player is the demand that we specify our character’s handedness — the first clear indication that this is going to be a much different, more embodied experience than the norm.

As soon as we begin the game proper, however, all bets are off. This looks and feels like no CRPG before it. The grid has disappeared from its dungeon; we can move smoothly and freely in real time, just as if we were really inside its world.

Which isn’t to say that Blue Sky didn’t have to make compromises to bring this free-scrolling 3D environment to life using 1992-vintage hardware. I already discussed one of the compromises in my previous article: the use of affine texture mapping rather than a more rigorous algorithm. This allows the game to render its graphics much faster than it would otherwise be able to, at the expense of a slight wonkiness that afflicts the rendering engine in some situations much more than in others. The second compromise is even more obvious: the actual first-person view fills less than half of the total screen real estate. Simply put, fewer pixels to render means that the rendering can happen that much faster.

Wolfenstein 3D

Of course, virtually every game ever made is at bottom a collection of compromises with the ideal in a designer’s head. Blue Sky made these two specific ones because they weren’t willing to compromise in other areas. Two months after Ultima Underworld was released, id Software released Wolfenstein 3D, the other great 3D pioneer of 1992. It features a first-person view that fills much more of the screen than that of Ultima Underworld, and with a considerably faster frame rate on identical hardware to boot. But its world is far less interactive. Its levels are all just that — entirely flat — and it won’t even let you look up or down. These were compromises which Blue Sky wasn’t willing to make. A commitment to verisimilitudinous simulation is the dominant theme of Ultima Underworld‘s design. It would go on to become the attribute that, more than any other, distinguishes the games of their later incarnation, Looking Glass Technologies, from the “just run and shoot” approach of id.


In light of the ubiquity of first-person 3D games in the decades since Ultima Underworld, it’s worth examining Blue Sky’s approach to controlling such a game, formulated well before any norms for same had been set in stone. Unlike what followed it, Ultima Underworld‘s preferred approach uses the mouse for everything; this was very much in line with the conventional wisdom of its era, which privileged the relatively new and friendly affordance of the mouse over the keyboard to such an extent that most games used the latter, if they used it at all, only for optional shortcuts. Thus in Ultima Underworld, you move around the world by moving the mouse into the view area and clicking as the cursor changes shape to indicate the direction of travel or rotation.

Blue Sky’s control scheme is a little different from what we may be used to, but it’s not necessarily worse. In fact, the use of the mouse in lieu of the more typical “WASD” keyboard controls for movement has at least one rather lovely advantage: moving the mouse pointer further in a given direction causes you to move faster. The WASD setup, in which each key can only be on or off at any given time, allows for no such sliding scale of movement speed, forcing clumsier solutions like another binary toggle on the keyboard for “run.”

If you just can’t deal with Ultima Underworld‘s preferred movement scheme, however, there are alternatives — always a sign of a careful, thought-through design. You can click directly on the little gray movement buttons down there below the view window. Or, in what was something of a last-minute addition, you can actually using the keyboard in a way very similar to what you may be used to from more recent games. Here, though, the WASD scheme is replaced with SADX, with the “W” key serving as the run toggle. The difference drives some modern players crazy, but it really needn’t do so. Try to get used to moving using only the mouse; you might be surprised at how well it works. (It’s worth noting as well that even id wouldn’t arrive at the WASD standard for quite some time after Ultima Underworld and Wolfenstein 3D. As late as 1993’s Doom, they would still be mapping the arrow keys to movement by default.)

While left-clicking in the view window lets you move around, right-clicking allows you to manipulate the environment. The vertical row of icons to the left of the view window lets you choose a verb: “talk,” “take,” “examine,” “fight,” or “use,” with the topmost icon leading to the utility menu. If no icon is explicitly selected at a given point, the game intuits a default action when we right-click something in the environment. The end of the short video snippet above shows how elegantly this works in practice. We notice a message scrawled on the wall, and simply right-click it to do the most reasonable thing: to read it.


The video above gives a further taste of the interface in action. Note the ability, so conspicuously absent in id’s contemporaneous games, to look up and down as we move through the world and interact with it. This is accomplished via an exception to the mouse-centric approach. It’s only a little awkward: the “3” key shifts the view upward, “2” centers it vertically, and “1” shifts it downward. It would be at least a couple of years after Ultima Underworld‘s release before any other 3D engine would offer this capability.

This video also illustrates the game’s “paper doll” interface in action, as we pick up objects from the environment and move them into our inventory. The paper doll itself wasn’t new to Ultima Underworld; it had been pioneered by Dungeon Master and long since picked up by the main-line Ultima engines among others. This implementation of it, however, does Dungeon Master one better by living entirely on the main gameplay screen. Indeed, the game has no other screens, with just one exception which we’ll get to momentarily; its commitment to a mode-less interface is even more complete than was Dungeon Master‘s. This, one might even say, is the hidden benefit of that constrained view window. Everything that surrounds it is necessary; the view window might be small, but there is no wasted space anywhere else on the screen. Even what might seem, judging only from the videos above, to be small areas with no purpose actually aren’t, as further playing will reveal. The gray area to the left of the compass will tell us what magical status effects are active; the shelf to the right of the compass is where we will build spells using runes; the crystal at far left, just below the icon bar, shows our current attack strength, and is thus vital for combat. The fact that you aren’t constantly moving between screens does much to enhance the all-pervasive sense that you are there in the dungeon.

Equally important for this effect is a general disinterest in using numbers to represent the current status of your character — or, perhaps better said in light of the game’s commitment to embodiment, your status. While numbers do appear in places — especially if you go looking for them — they’re nowhere near as prevalent as they are in most contemporaneous CRPGs. Your health and mana levels, for instance, are represented graphically by the red and blue vials on the bottom right of the screen — this being another part of the screen you might have initially assumed to be decoration, but which is actually vital.

Later in the video above, we fire up a torch, shedding some welcome light on our surroundings and showing off the game’s advanced lighting model. At the risk of beating a dead horse, I must say, yet again, that no other game of Ultima Underworld’s era or for some time thereafter could match the latter.

Finally, we see something of the game’s physics model in action, as we toss a (useless) skull against the wall. Such kinetic, tactile responsiveness is a far cry from most CRPGs, even as the strength of your character’s throw is indeed affected by his statistics. Dungeon Master, that critical way station beyond Wizardry and Ultima Underworld, pioneered some of this more kinetic approach, but the free-scrolling environment here allows the game to use it that much more effectively.

In addition to the torch, we found in that first sack the game’s auto-map. Even as its presence as a physical object in the world emphasizes the game’s ongoing commitment to embodiment, this is actually the only place where the game’s commitment to its mode-less interface falters — but what a spectacular exception it is! I’ve cheated a bit with the screenshot above, choosing a point from much deeper in the game in order to show the auto-map in its full glory. It’s a feature that simply has to be here; the rest of the game, remarkable as it is, would fall apart without it. Cartography — making your own maps on reams of graph paper — had been a standard part of the dungeon-crawl experience prior to Ultima Underworld. Even real-time dungeon crawls like Dungeon Master had left mapping to the player. By removing the discrete grid, however, Ultima Underworld made this style of mapping, if not utterly impossible, at least far too difficult to be any fun even for the dedicated graph-paper-and-pencil crowd. An auto-map was as fundamental to its design as anything in the game.

But if an auto-map of some sort was essential, it certainly wasn’t necessary for its implementation to be this absurdly fantastic. Dan Schmidt, one of the Ultima Underworld developers, has said on several occasions that he considers the seemingly plebeian affordance of the auto-map to be the most impressive single thing in a game that’s bursting at the seams with unprecedented features. There are days when I find myself agreeing.

Whilst ditching the need for graph paper and pencil, Ultima Underworld preserves the foremost pleasure of CRPG cartography: that of seeing all of the blank spaces on your map filled in, enjoying the gradual transformation of the chaotic unknown into the orderly known. The map of each level is lovely to look at as it takes shape. You want to visit every nook and cranny on each one of the levels just to make it as pristine and complete as possible. You’ll even swim the length of the underground streams and lakes, if that’s what it takes to get them completely documented on parchment.

And there’s one final thing the auto-map does which few games — few games ever, mind you — can match: you can make your own notes on the thing, wherever and whenever you want to. Did you notice all of the text on the map above? I did that, not the game. Needless to say, the programming needed to accommodate this — which, incidentally, had already been completed by Doug Church and J.D. Arnold before the rest of the Blue Sky programming team even arrived — couldn’t have been easy. In terms of both design and implementation, Ultima Underworld‘s auto-map really is nothing short of spectacular.


In the video above, we move down the corridor from the game’s starting point. Notice again how we can move slower or faster merely by shifting the position of the mouse within the view window.

We find our first door at the end of the corridor. This door can be opened by a pull chain just beside it, but we rather perversely elect to close it again and then bash it open. Our ability to do so serves as a further illustration of Blue Sky’s commitment to simulation and emergence. The main-line Ultima games as well have doors of variable strength, but, as any dedicated player of those games quickly realizes, Origin Systems had a tendency to cheat in order to fill the needs of a plot that got steadily more complex from installment to installment: many doors — the plot-important doors — are indestructible. You need the correct key to open them, whose acquisition ensures that certain bits of plot are seen before other bits. (As Ron Gilbert once put it, heavily narrative-focused game design ultimately all tends to come down to locks and keys of a literal or metaphorical stripe.)

But Blue Sky, who don’t have the same sort of eleborate pre-crafted plot full of important story beats to worry about, never cheats. Any given door may indeed have a key which you can find, but, if you haven’t found the key, it is at least theoretically possible to pick its lock, to open it using a magic spell, or to simply bash it down. Mind you, doing the last may not do your weapon any favors; keen sword blades were not made to chop through wood. Here we have yet another example of the game’s focus on simulation, albeit one that may feel somewhat less welcome in practical terms than it does in the abstract when your poor misused sword breaks at an inopportune moment — like, say, in the midst of a desperate combat.


The game’s magic system is marked by the same sense of embodied physicality as everything else. Before you can cast spells at all, you’ll need to find a rune bag helpfully left behind by one of the dungeon’s unfortunate earlier explorers. For a long time to come, you’ll be collecting runes to put in it. You combine these runes into “recipes” — most of which are found in the manual — in order to cast spells. In the video above, we place two recently discovered runes into our rune bag and then cast a light spell which can serve as a handy replacement for a torch. (Note that it takes a couple of tries to successfully cast the spell, a sign of our character’s inexperience.) All character classes can use magic to a greater or lesser degree. Even an otherwise “pure” fighter will probably find simple spells that obviate the need to cart around torches or food to be very useful indeed. Thanks to magic, there’s no time limit on the game in the form of depleting resources; by the time you’ve scarfed up all the food in the dungeon, you’ll have long since mastered the “create food” spell.

The rune-based magic system is another aspect of Ultima Underworld that smacks of Dungeon Master (as is, for that matter, the flexible character-development system in which any character can learn to do anything with enough time and effort). But the Blue Sky team has denied looking closely to the older game for inspiration, and we have no reason to doubt their word. So, we’ll have to chalk the similarities up to nothing more than the proverbial great minds thinking alike. If anything, Ultima Underworld‘s magic system is even more elegant than its predecessor’s. Because you’re collecting physical runes, rather than mere spell recipes in the form of scrolls as in Dungeon Master, the sense that everything that matters to the game is an embodied thing in the world is that much more pronounced here.


It should come as no surprise by this point that Ultima Underworld‘s combat system is built along the same lines of embodied physicality. That is to say, you physically swing (or shoot, or throw) your weapon against monsters that are embodied in the same space as you. The video above gives a taste of this, in the form of a battle against a giant rat guarding some choice booty. (Ultima Underworld may be a breathtakingly original design, but some things in the world of CRPGs are timeless. Meeting giant rats as your first opponents is among these.)

Later battles will see you using the environment in all sorts of creative ways: shooting down upon monsters from ledges, blasting them with magic and then running away to recharge your batteries behind a closed door. You can also try to sneak past monsters you’d rather not fight, using not only your character’s innate stealth ability but your own skill at maneuvering through light and shadow. In fact, a sufficiently dedicated pacifist could finish Ultima Underworld while doing surprisingly little killing at all. One of the advantages of the simulation-first approach is that it really does let you play the game your way — possibly even in ways that the game’s designers never thought of.

But Ultima Underworld isn’t all emergent simulation. It does have a plot of sorts, albeit one that you can approach in your own way, at your own speed, and in your own order. You learn soon after arriving in the dungeon that you need to assemble a collection of magic objects. Doing so will occupy your attention for the bulk of the game.

This scavenger-hunt structure may be less innovative than most of the game, but it’s executed with considerable verve. Each level has its own personality and its own inhabitants, living in what feel like credible communities. Importantly, you don’t — or shouldn’t, anyway — indiscriminately slaughter your way through the levels. You need to talk to others, an element that’s notably missing from Wizardry and Dungeon Master. The dungeon’s inhabitants actually remember your treatment of them. An early example of the game’s relationship model, if you will, is provided on the very first level. Two tribes of goblins who hate one another live there in an uneasy symbiosis. Will you ally yourself with one or the other? Or will you try to thread the needle between friend and foe with both, or for that matter go to war with both? The choice is up to you. But choose carefully, for such choices in this game have consequences which you will be living with for a long time to come.

Regular readers of this blog are doubtless aware that I place a high premium on fairness and solubility in games. I’ve gone on record many times saying that a game which is realistically soluble only through a walkthrough cannot by definition be a good game, no matter what other things it does well. In this context, everything would seem to be working against Ultima Underworld. A bunch of MIT whiz kids, all freelancing without recourse to any central design authority, working in an insular environment without recourse to outside play testers… it doesn’t give one much hope for fair puzzles.

Yet, here as in so many other places, Ultima Underworld defies my prejudices and expectations alike. There are perhaps two or three places where the clues could stand to be a little more explicit — certainly no one should feel ashamed to peek at a walkthrough when playing — but there are no egregious howlers here. Take careful notes, take your time, and follow up diligently on all of the clues, and there’s no reason that you can’t solve this one for yourself. Sure, by modern standards it’s an absurdly difficult game. There is no quest log to keep everything neat and tidy for you, and, as a byproduct of its ethos of respecting and empowering its player at every turn, the game will happily let you toss essential quest items into a river, never to be seen again, without saying a word about it. At the same time, though, the utter lack of guardrails can be bracing. If you solve this one, you’ve really accomplished something. And, unlike so many of the games I’ve complained about on this blog, Ultima Underworld never feels like it’s trying to screw you over. It just won’t prevent you from doing so if you decide to screw yourself over.

Only occasionally does the commitment to simulation get in the way of friendly, fair design. To wit: after talking to a character once, trying to elicit the same information again often results only in some variation on “I already told you that!” Dan Schmidt, who was responsible for pulling all of the dialog together, told me that he believed at the time that this was only fair, another way of committing to verisimilitude in all things. Nowadays, I (and he) are more likely to categorize it under that heading of design failures known as “the designer being a jerk just because he can.” Given what a masterpiece Ultima Underworld is on the whole, it’s almost comforting to know that Blue Sky still had a few things to learn about good design.

On the other hand, I really love the way the design uses the game’s virtual space. There are a considerable number of quests and puzzles that span multiple levels in the dungeon, forcing you to retrace your steps and revisit “finished” levels. Another of Ultima Underworld‘s more unique design decisions in comparison with the dungeon-crawl tradition, this does much to give the game a holistic feel, making its dungeon feel like a living place rather than just a series of levels to be solved one after another.

The puzzles themselves are as mode-less as the basic interface. None of them pull you out of the game’s world: no riddles, no mini-games. Instead they work brilliantly within it. There are some wonderfully rewarding puzzles here, such that I hate to spoil them by saying too much about them. Following up on the clues you’re given, you’ll do things that seem like they couldn’t possibly work — surely the game engine can’t be that granularly responsive! — and be shocked and delighted when they actually do. In one fine example, you’ll have to literally learn a new language — okay, a limited subset of it anyway — via clues scattered around the environment. Sometimes challenging and often complex but never unfair, the puzzles will richly reward the effort you put into them.

Perhaps the best example of how the puzzles of Ultima Underworld are integrated into its environment is Garamon, a mysterious personage who often visits your dreams when you sleep. He at first seems like nothing more than a contrived adventure-game clue dispenser, but you gradually realize that he is a real — albeit deceased! — character in the story of the Abyss, and that he has something very personal he wants you to do for him: to give his body a proper burial so he can find peace. When you discover a certain empty tomb, and connect it with the figure from your dreams, the flash of insight is downright moving.

I could go on with yet more praise for Ultima Underworld — praise for, by way of example, its marvelous context-sensitive music, provided by the prolific game composers George “The Fat Man” Sanger and Dave Govett (also the composers of the Wing Commander score among many, many others). Yet I hesitate to cause what may already seem like an overly effusive review to read still more so. I can only hope that my reputation as a critic not overly prone to hyperbole will precede me here when I say that this game truly is a sublime achievement.

Ultima Underworld II

I have less — and far less that is positive — to say about the second and final Ultima Underworld game, which bears the subtitle Labyrinth of Worlds. In contrast to its groundbreaking predecessor, it’s a fairly typical sequel, offering as its only mechanical or technical innovation a somewhat larger view window on the 3D environment. Otherwise, it’s more of the same, only much bigger, and not executed quite as well.

The new entity that was known as Looking Glass Technologies — the product of the merger between Blue Sky Productions and Lerner Research — became a much more integral part of the Origin Systems family after the first Ultima Underworld‘s release and commercial success. The result was a plot for the new game that was also better integrated into the Ultima timeline, falling between the two games made by Origin themselves with their own Ultima VII engine in terms of both plot and release chronology. The new interest in set-piece plotting and Ultima lore does the sequel few favors; it rather straitjackets the sense of free-form exploration and discovery that marks the original. Instead of being confined to a single contiguous environment, Ultima Underworld II sends you hopscotching back and forth through its titular “labyrinth of worlds.” The approach feels scattershot, and the game is far less soluble than its predecessor — yet another proof of a theorem which the games industry could never seem to grasp: that a bigger game is not necessarily a better game.

The sequel was created from start to finish in less than nine months, nearly killing the team responsible for it. Origin and Looking Glass’s desire to get a second game out the door is understandable on the face of it; they had a hit on their hands, and wanted to strike while the iron was hot. This they certainly did, but the sequel reportedly sold less than half as many copies as its predecessor — although it should also be noted that even those numbers were enough to qualify it as a major hit by contemporary standards. Still, Paul Neurath, the head of Blue Sky and co-head of Looking Glass, has expressed regret that he didn’t give his people permission and time to make something more formally ambitious. In the future, Looking Glass would generally avoid these sorts of quickie sequels.

While the second game is probably best reserved for the CRPG hardcore and those who just can’t get enough of the experience provided by the first one, the original Ultima Underworld is a must-play. Without a doubt one of the very best CRPGs ever made, it’s even more important for the example it set for gaming in general, showing what heights of flexibility and player-responsiveness could be scaled through the emerging medium of 3D graphics. The pity is that more developers — even many of those who eventually went 3D — didn’t heed the entirety of its example. Countless later games would improve on Ultima Underworld‘s sometimes wonky visuals by throwing out its simplistic affine texture mapping in favor of better techniques, and by blowing up its view window to fill the whole screen. Very few of them, however, would demonstrate the same commitment to what Blue Sky/Looking Glass saw as the real potential of 3D graphics: that of simulating an intuitively emergent world and placing you, the player, inside it. Whether judged in terms of historical importance or by the more basic metric of how much fun it still is to play, Ultima Underworld is and will always remain seminal.

(Ultima Underworld I and II can be purchased from GOG.com.)

 
 

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Life Off the Grid, Part 1: Making Ultima Underworld

The 1980s was the era of the specialist in game development, when many of the most successful studios did just one or two things, but did them very, very well. For Infocom, that meant text adventures; for Sierra, graphic adventures; for MicroProse, military simulations; for SSI, strategic wargames and Dungeons & Dragons; for Epyx, joystick-twiddling sports and action games; for Origin, Ultima. When such specialists stepped outside of their comfort zones, the results were occasionally a triumph, but more often merely served to reemphasize their core competencies.

The most respected studios of the 1990s, however, tended toward more eclecticism. Developers like Dynamix and Westwood may have had their roots in the previous decade, but they really came into their own in this one, and did so with games of very diverse types. Westwood, for example, was happily making CRPGs, graphic adventures, real-time-strategy games, and Monopoly, for Pete’s sake, all virtually at the same time. Even the holdover specialists from the 1980s — those who were still standing — aggressively tried to diversify in the 1990s: Sierra moved into strategy games, MicroProse into CRPGs and graphic adventures, Origin into Wing Commander.

Still, if we look harder at many 1990s developers, we can find themes that bind together their output. In the case of Dynamix, we might posit that to be an interest in dynamic simulation, even when working in traditionally static genres like the graphic adventure. In that of Westwood, we can identify an even more pronounced interest in bringing the excitement of real time to traditionally turn-based genres like the CRPG and the wargame. And in the case of the studio we’ll be meeting for the first time today — Looking Glass Technologies, arguably the most respected and beloved 1990s studio of all — the binding thread is crystal clear. From beginning to end, they used the flexibility of 3D graphics to bring virtual environments to life in unprecedentedly immersive ways. Whether making a CRPG or a flight simulator, a first-person shooter or a first-person sneaker, this was their constant.


3D graphics were, one might say, baked right into Looking Glass’s DNA. Paul Neurath and Ned Lerner, its two eventual founders, met one another in 1978 in a computer-science course at Wesleyan University, where Neurath was studying environmental science, Lerner physics. For the course’s final project, they teamed up to make a 3D space game rendered in ASCII text. They got a B-minus on it only because their professor considered games to be beneath his course’s dignity.

After university, the two New England boys remained friends as they started their professional careers. When the home-computer craze got rolling in earnest, each bought an Apple II. They started experimenting, together and apart, on games much like the one they had written for that computer-science class, only implemented in real bitmap graphics, with a real joystick as a controller. These efforts culminated in a joint game known as Deep Space: Operation Copernicus, which they sold in 1985 to the publisher Sir-Tech, purveyors of the Wizardry CRPG series. Sir-Tech didn’t seem to know quite what to do with Neurath and Lerner’s very different sort of game, and it never escaped Wizardry‘s long shadow. Nevertheless, the experience of making a game and getting paid for it — however modestly — lit a fire in both partners. Each went off to pursue his own agenda, but they remained in touch, keeping one another updated on their progress and often sharing code and technical tricks.

Initially, it was Ned Lerner who made the most determined effort to become a real commercial game developer. He formed a little company called Lerner Research, and started gathering like-minded souls around him. As fixated as ever on 3D graphics, he decided that an at least semi-realistic flight simulator would be a good application for the technology. The leading product of that type on the market, subLOGIC’s generically titled Flight Simulator, he considered akin to a “textbook lesson”; he envisioned a flight simulator of his own that would be more accessible and fun. He hired an aerodynamic engineer to design a flight model for his game, which would focus on high-performance military aircraft like the legendary SR-71 Blackbird rather than the little Cessna that was forever tooling around from airport to airport in subLOGIC’s simulator. In fact, his game would let you fly any of fourteen different airplanes, in contrast to its rival’s one, and would concentrate on goal-oriented activities — “Flight Instruction,” “Test Flight,” “Formation Flying,” or “Airplane Racing” — instead of just expecting you to choose a starting airport and do whatever tickled your fancy.

Chuck Yeager and Ned Lerner discuss the vagaries of aerodynamics.

Electronic Arts, who lacked a competitive flight simulator and were eager to get in on one of the industry’s fastest-growing segments, signed on as publisher. Unlike Sir-Tech, they knew the appeal of snazzy packaging and celebrity endorsements. They convinced Chuck Yeager to put his name on the product. This was quite the coup; Yeager, a World War II fighter ace and the first man to break the sound barrier, was by far the most famous pilot in the country, after having been brought to indelible life by the actor Sam Shepard in the recent hit movie The Right Stuff. It was a decidedly nervous group of nerds and businessmen who met this aerospace legend for the first time in March of 1987. Lerner:

As we were sitting there in the office, listening to the rain outside, Rich Hilleman, associate producer at EA, was first to spot the Blazer entering the parking lot (license plate “BELL X1”). A few minutes later, we heard the unmistakable West Virginia drawl outside the door, as pure and easygoing as the man on TV who sells spark plugs with a shotgun. For a brief second, I remembered the opening scene of Patton where George C. Scott steps forward, dressed to the teeth in full military regalia. The door suddenly opened, and there he was: wearing cowboy boots, blue jeans, and a polo shirt under his racing-style jacket. General Yeager had a trim figure, and his face was tan, well-weathered, as if he had spent a lot of time outdoors. The general stepped forward, shaking hands with the members of the group, but I sensed a certain degree of reservation in his actions.

To get past this awkward beginning, we loaded in the current version of Advanced Flight Trainer. I flew the simulator for a while, then offered to let General Yeager take over. “I never fooled with these things,” he said. “That’s because, you know, the damned things are so…” — he searched for the word — “…insignificant. If you want to really scorch something, hell, you can program the X-31 in there, the aerospace plane. Now, see, you got some kid who can say, ‘Man, this thing is smoking along at mach 25.'”

The ice had finally been broken, and we all began contributing to the conversation. After discussing the subjects of liquid-oxygen fuel and the current type of aircraft that are touching the edge of space, the day was practically over. “This thing’s pretty dang realistic,” he told us. “You’ve got a lot of goodies in there.”

Released about six months later with much publicity, Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Trainer became by far EA’s biggest hit of the year, and one of their biggest of the whole decade. With that push to get them off and running, Lerner Research continued their work on the frontiers of 3D graphics, giving EA a substantially revised version 2.0 of their flagship game in 1989.

Even as Ned Lerner was hobnobbing with famous test pilots, Paul Neurath was making his own inroads with the games industry. Shortly after finishing Deep Space, he had heard that Origin Systems of Ultima fame was located in New Hampshire, not all that far from him at all. On a lark, he drove down one day to introduce himself and take the temperature of the place. He hit it off immediately with Richard Garriott and the rest of the crew there. While he never became a full-fledged employee, he did become a regular around the Origin offices, contributing play-testing, design ideas, and occasional bits of code to their games on a contract basis.

In early 1987, Richard Garriott, who loathed New England with every fiber of his being, packed up and moved back to Austin, Texas, with most of Origin’s technical and creative staff. He left behind his older brother and business manager Robert, along with the latter’s support staff of accountants, secretaries, and marketers. A few developers who for one reason or another didn’t want to make the move also stayed behind. Neurath was among this group.

At about this same time, Neurath got the green light to make a game all his own for Origin. Space Rogue began as another 3D space shooter — another Deep Space, enhanced with some of the latest graphics technology from his friends at Lerner Research. To this template Neurath grafted a trading economy, a customizable spaceship, and a real plot. The player was even able to exit her spaceship and wander around the space stations she visited, talking to others and taking on quests. There was a surprising amount of ambition in this fusion of Deep Space, Elite, and Ultima, especially considering that Neurath designed, wrote, and programmed it all almost single-handedly from New Hampshire while most of his friends at Origin pursued other projects down in Austin. Although its disparate parts don’t ever gel quite well enough to make it a true classic, it’s remarkable that it works as well as it does.

Space Rogue sold in moderate numbers upon its release in 1989. More importantly in terms of gaming history, Chris Roberts of Origin spent a lot of time with it. Its melding of a space shooter with an adventure-game-like plot became one of the inspirations behind Wing Commander, the first Origin game to fully escape the shadow of Ultima — and, indeed, the beginning of one of the blockbuster franchises of the 1990s.

Space Rogue‘s hilarious cover art, with its artfully pouting male model who looks better suited to a Harlequin-romance cover. Paul Neurath remembers Origin’s marketing department asking him about his packaging preferences for his game. He said he would prefer a “non-representational” cover picture. Naturally, the marketers delivered about the most representational thing imaginable.

By the time of Space Rogue‘s release, Paul Neurath was a lonelier game developer than ever. In January of 1989, the last remnants of Origin’s New Hampshire operation had moved to Austin, leaving Neurath stranded in what Richard Garriott liked to call “the frozen wastes of New England.” For him, this was a crossroads of life if ever there was one. Did he want to continue to make games, and, if so, how? Sure, he could probably move down to Austin and get a job with Origin, but, truth be told, he had no more desire to live in Texas than Garriott had to live in New England. But how else could he stay in games?

At last, Neurath decided to take a page from Ned Lerner’s book. He would put together his own little company and try to establish it as an independent studio; after all, it had worked out pretty well for Ned so far. He registered his company under the name of Blue Sky Productions.

Neurath had always loved the CRPG genre, ever since Wizardry had become one of the first games he bought for his new Apple II. That love had once led him to publish Deep Space through Sir-Tech, and sent him out to Origin’s New Hampshire offices for that fateful visit. Now, he dreamed of taking the first-person dungeon crawl beyond the turn-based Wizardry, even beyond the real-time but still grid-based Dungeon Master, the state of the art in the genre as the 1980s expired. On a visit to Lerner Research, he saw the technology that he believed would make the genre’s next step possible — the foundation, one might even say, for everything he and his fabled studio Looking Glass would do in the 1990s. What he saw was the first 3D texture mapper that was suitable for use in an ordinary computer game.

3D graphics were hardly unknown on personal computers of the 1980s, as can be seen not least through the early careers of Ned Lerner and Paul Neurath. Yet, being enormously taxing to implement in the context of an interactive game, they demanded a lot of aesthetic compromise. Some early 3D games, such as Elite and the first versions of subLogic’s Flight Simulator, didn’t draw in the surfaces of their polygons at all, settling for wire frames. With the arrival of more powerful 16-bit computers in the mid-1980s, filled surfaces became more common in 3D games, but each side of a polygon was drawn in a single color. Combine this fact with the low polygon count that was still necessitated by the hardware of the time — resulting in big, fairly crude polygons — and you had a recipe for blotchy landscapes made up of garishly clashing primary colors.

A few clever developers were able to turn the limitations of 3D graphics into an aesthetic statement in its own right. But most of those who used them — among them makers of flight simulators and space shooters, such as Lerner and Neurath — suffered with their limitations because there just wasn’t any practical alternative for the sorts of games they were making. For an out-the-cockpit view from an airplane, the aesthetic compromises necessitated by going 3D were just about acceptable, given the way the distant landscape below tends to blur into hazy abstractions of color even in real life. But for a more personal, embodied experience, such as a first-person dungeon crawl, real-time 3D graphics were just too crude, too ugly. You couldn’t render the grain of a wooden door or the patina of a stone wall as one uniform splotch of color and expect to get away with it — not with the way that gamers’ audiovisual expectations were increasing every year.

A screenshot from Dungeon Master, the state of the art in dungeon crawls at the end of the 1980s. Notice how the walls, floor, and ceiling are textured. This was possible because movement in Dungeon Master was still based on a grid, giving the computer plenty of time to draw each view. A free-scrolling, truly 3D version would have had to replace all those lovely textures with great uniform slabs of gray. The result, needless to say, would not have been pretty.

None of these problems were unknown to academic computer-graphics researchers; they’d been wrestling with them since well before the first personal computer hit the market. And they’d long since come up with a solution: texture mapping. The texture in question takes the form of an ordinary image file, which might be drawn by hand or digitized from a real-world photograph. A texture suitable for a wooden door, for example, could be an extreme closeup of any slab of wood. The texture is “glued” onto a polygon’s face in lieu of a solid color. Just like that, you suddenly have doors that look like real doors, slimy dungeon walls that look like real slimy dungeon walls.

The problem with texture mapping from the perspective of game development was the same one that haunted the whole field of 3D graphics: the problem of performance. Simple though the basic concept is, a lot of tricky math comes into play when one introduces textures; figuring out how they should wrap and fit together with one another over so many irregular polygonal surfaces is much more complicated than the lay observer might initially believe. At a time when just managing to paint the sides of your polygons in solid colors while maintaining a respectable frame rate was a real achievement, texture mapping was hopeless. Maybe it could be used in another decade or so, said the conventional wisdom, when Moore’s Law put a supercomputer on every desk.

But one recent arrival at Lerner Research wasn’t so sure that texture mapping was impossible using extant PC hardware. Chris Green had considerable experience with interactive 3D graphics, having spent several years at subLogic working on products like Flight Simulator and Jet. He arrived at Lerner Research knowing that texture mapping couldn’t be done on the likes of an 8-bit Apple II, the computer on which Neurath and Lerner among so many others had gotten their start. On the latest 16- and 32-bit MS-DOS hardware, however… he suspected that, with the right compromises, he could make it work there.

There was doubtless much efficient code in the texture mapper Green created, but it was indeed an unabashed compromise that made it feasible to attempt at all. The vertices of the polygons in a 3D graphics system are defined with an X, a Y, and a Z coordinate; it’s this last, of course, that makes such a system a 3D system at all. And it’s also the Z coordinate that is the source of all of the complications relating to 3D graphics in general. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of texture mapping. To do it correctly, textures have to be scaled and transformed to account for their position in relation to the viewing location, as largely defined by their Z coordinate. But Green didn’t bother to do texture mapping correctly; he effectively threw away the Z coordinate and glued his textures onto their polygons as if they were in a 2D space. This technique would come to be known inside the industry as “affine texture mapping.” It yielded an enormous increase in rendering speed, balanced by a degree of distortion that was almost unnoticeable in some situations, very noticeable indeed in others. Still, an imperfect texture mapper, Green decided, was better than no texture mapper at all.

The video clip above, from the finished game of Ultima Underworld, shows some of the spatial distortion that results from affine texture mapping, especially when viewing things from a very short distance. Moving through the game’s virtual space can look and feel a bit like moving through real space after having drunk one beer too many. Nonetheless, the environment is far more realistic, attractive, and immersive than any first-person 3D environment to appear in any game before this one.

Ned Lerner had recently signed a contract with EA to make a driving game bearing the name of Car and Driver magazine. Knowing the technology’s limitations, he planned to use Chris Green’s texture mapper in a somewhat constrained fashion therein, to draw onto the faces of billboards and the like. Yet he wasn’t averse to sharing it with Paul Neurath, who as soon as he saw it wanted to use it to take the next step beyond Dungeon Master.

To do so, however, he’d need more programmers, not to mention artists and all the rest; if there was one thing the two years or so he had spent making Space Rogue had taught him, it was that the days of the one-man development team were just about over. Luckily, a friend of his had a nephew who had a friend who was, as Neurath would be the first to admit, a far better programmer than he would ever be.

Doug Church was an MIT undergraduate who had let himself get so consumed by the fun going on inside the university’s computer labs that it had all but derailed his official education. He and his buddies spent hours every day hacking on games and playing them. Their favorite was a 3D tank game called Xtank, written by one of their number, a fellow student named Terry Donahue. They tinkered with its code endlessly, producing variations that departed radically from the original concept, such as a Frisbee simulator. When not coding or playing, they talked about what kinds of games they would like to make, if only they had infinite amounts of money and time and no hardware limitations whatsoever. They envisioned all sorts of little simulated worlds, rendered, naturally, in photo-realistic 3D graphics. Thus when Neurath introduced himself to Church in early 1990 and asked if he’d like to work on a free-scrolling, texture-mapped 3D dungeon crawl running in real time, he dropped his classes and rushed to get in on the chance. (Terry Donahue would doubtless have been another strong candidate to become lead programmer on the project, but he felt another calling; he would go on to become a priest.)

Neurath also found himself an artist, a fellow named Doug Wike who had worked on various projects for Origin in New Hampshire before those offices had been shuttered. Together the three men put together a crude non-interactive demo in a matter of weeks, showing the “player” moving up a texture-mapped dungeon corridor and bumping into a monster at the end of it. At the beginning of June, they took the demo to the Summer Consumer Electronics Show, where, behind all of the public-facing hype, many of the games industry’s most important deals got made.

As Neurath tells the story, the response from publishers was far from overwhelming. The demo was undeniably crude, and most were highly skeptical whether this unproven new company could get from it to a real, interactive game. It turned out that the only publisher willing to give the project any serious consideration at all was none other than Neurath’s old friends from Origin.

That Neurath hadn’t taken his idea to Origin straight away was down to his awareness of a couple of strategic decisions that had recently been made there, part of a whole collection of changes that were being made to greet the new decade’s challenges. Origin had, first of all, decided to stop giving contracts to outside developers, taking all development in-house so as to have complete control over the products they released. And secondly, they had decided, for the time being anyway, to make all of their output fit into one of two big franchises, Ultima and Wing Commander. Both of these decisions would seem to exclude Blue Sky’s proposed dungeon crawler, which they were calling simply Underworld, from becoming an Origin product. Nor did it help that a sexy public demonstration of the first Wing Commander game1 had become the hit of the show, making it difficult for Origin to focus on anything else; they could practically smell the money they were about to make from their new franchise.

Luckily, Blue Sky and Underworld found a champion at Origin even amidst all the distractions. Warren Spector was a relatively recent arrival at the company, but Neurath knew him pretty well; as his very first task for Origin, Spector had spent about a month expanding and polishing the text in Space Rogue just before its release. Now, looking at Underworld, he was sure he saw not just a game with real commercial potential but a technologically and aesthetically important one. “I was blown away,” he says today. “I remember thinking as I watched that demo that the world had just changed.” Spector convinced his colleagues to take a chance, to violate their rule of in-house development and sign a contract with Blue Sky, giving them a modest advance of $30,000. If the game worked out, they might be in on the ground floor of something major. It might also be something they could brand with the Ultima name, make into the beginning of a whole new sub-series in the franchise — a revival of the first-person (albeit turn-based) dungeons that had been in every Ultima through Ultima V. And if it didn’t work out, the $30,000 they’d lose on the flier was far from a fortune. The deal was done.

With that mission accomplished, Neurath’s little team returned to the office space he’d rented for them in New Hampshire. They spent almost a year there trying to understand the new set of technical affordances which Chris Green’s texture mapper had put at their disposal. They didn’t invent anything fundamentally new in terms of 3D graphics technology during that time. Like the texture mapper which spawned the project, everything they put into Underworld could be found in any number of books and journals at the MIT library, many of them dating well back into the 1970s and even 1960s. It was just a matter of adapting it all to the MS-DOS architecture. As it happened, the hardware they had to work with was about equal to the cutting-edge research workstations of ten years ago, so the old journal articles they pored over actually made a pretty good fit to it.

They kept coming back to the theme of embodiment, what Neurath called “a feeling of presence beyond what other games give you.” None of the earlier dungeon crawlers — not even those in the Dungeon Master tradition that ran in real time — had been able to deliver this. They could be exciting, stressful, even terrifying, but they never gave you the feeling of being physically embodied in their environments. It was the difference between reading a book or watching a movie and really being someplace.

It went without saying that Underworld must place you in control of just one character rather than the usual party of them. You needed to be able to sense the position of “your” body and limbs in the virtual space. Neurath:

We wanted to get a feeling that you were really in this dungeon. What would you expect to do in a dungeon? You might need to jump across a narrow chasm. You might expect to batter down a wooden door. You might expect to look up if there was a precipice above you. All these sorts of physical activities. And we tried to achieve, at least to a reasonable degree, that kind of freedom of motion and freedom of action. That really extended the R&D stage. It was about nine months, even a year, before we had all the underlying technology in place that allowed us to visualize this fantasy universe in a manner that we felt was appropriate and would work well and would allow the player the freedom to maneuver around and perform different kinds of actions.

Over the course of this time, Neurath hired only one more programmer, one Jonathan “J.D.” Arnold, who had previously worked on Infocom’s Z-Machine technology in that company’s twilight years. But finally, in the late spring of 1991, with the basic interface and the basic technical architecture all in place, Neurath decided it was time to hire some more people and make a real game out of it all. Doug Church immediately thought of his old friends back at MIT, and Neurath had no objections to recruiting from that pool; they were smart and passionate and, just as importantly, they were all happy to work for peanuts. Given the time of year it was, Church’s old buddies were all either graduating or finishing up their semester of coursework, leaving them free to come to Blue Sky.

None of these people had ever worked on a commercial computer game before. In fact, most of them hadn’t even played any commercial computer games recently, having been ensconced for the last several years inside the ivory tower of MIT, where the nature of gaming was markedly different, being a culture of creation rather than strictly one of consumption. And yet, far from being a disadvantage, the team’s sheer naivete proved to be the opposite, making them oblivious to the conventional wisdom about what was possible. Doug Church:

I had actually played Space Rogue because one of my friends had a Mac, but the clusters [at MIT] were all Unix boxes so I ran X-Trek and NetHack and things, but I hadn’t played a PC game in five years or something. So we just said, “Let’s do a really cool dungeon game in 3D, let’s go.” It’s interesting because a lot of people talk about how we were doing such a Dungeon Master game, but as far as I know none of us had ever played Dungeon Master. We didn’t have any idea we were doing anything that wasn’t just obvious in some sense because we had no context and the last time any of us had played a [commercial] game was back when we were fourteen. We played games in college, but they were very different; you’re playing networked X-Trek or something, it doesn’t feel like a home-computer game.

At first, the new arrivals all crowded into the New Hampshire office Neurath was renting. But most of them were actually living together in a rambling old three-story house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and it struck them as silly to make the drive out to New Hampshire every day. They soon convinced Neurath to let them work on the game from home. From dawn until night, seven days a week, they ate, drank, slept, and breathed Underworld there.

At a time when most studios had begun to systematize the process of game development, dividing their employees into rigid tiers of specialists — programmers, artists, designers, writers — Blue Sky made a virtue of their complete lack of formal organization. It was an org-chart-wielding middle manager’s nightmare; just about everybody wound up doing a little bit of everything. There was nothing like a designer giving instructions to a technical team. Instead, Blue Sky’s method of working was more akin to the way that things got done among the hackers at MIT — a crowd of equals pulling together (and occasionally pulling apart) to work toward a common goal. Anyone could contribute absolutely anywhere, knowing his ideas would be judged only on their intrinsic worth.

When it became clear that it was time to start making the actual dungeon the Underworld player would have to explore, the team divided up this design work in the most democratic manner imaginable: everybody made one level, then they were all combined together to make the eight-level final dungeon. Dan Schmidt, who had officially been hired for the role of “AI programmer,” agreed to take on the mantle of “writer,” which really meant coordinating with everyone to merge the levels into a seamless whole.

For most of the time the game was in development, Origin’s role and overall interest — or, rather, lack thereof — was a consistent sore spot. It often seemed to Blue Sky that the folks in Austin had entirely forgotten their existence way off in the frozen wastes of New England. This was good in the sense that they got to make exactly the game they wanted to make, but it didn’t do much for their confidence that a committed publisher would be ready and eager to market it properly when they were done. Warren Spector was busy with Wing Commander and, later, with an Ultima spinoff called Martian Dreams, so Origin initially assigned Jeff Johannigman to Blue Sky in the role of producer. Communication with him was nothing short of terrible. After going two full months without hearing a peep from him, Neurath tried to call him down in Austin, only to be told that he had left the company. A second producer was finally selected, but he wasn’t much more engaged. Blue Sky believed they were making a great, groundbreaking game, but it seemed that Origin really couldn’t care less.

In many ways, Underworld was at odds with the prevailing trends inside Origin, not to mention in much of the games industry at large. Following the huge success of the first Wing Commander, Origin was banking heavily on cinematic games with big, set-piece storylines. The company’s org chart reflected the new impetus, with film-making terminology — producer, director, screenwriter — shoehorned in absolutely everywhere. Blue Sky, on the other hand, was making something very different, an immersive, emergent, non-linear experience without cut scenes or chapter breaks. Yes, there was a plot of sorts — the player got cast into a dungeon to rescue a princess or die trying — along with puzzles to be solved, quests to be fulfilled, and other characters to be spoken to, but it was all driven by the player, not by any relentlessly unspooling Hollywood-style script. Origin, it seemed, wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, wasn’t quite sure where it fit. And certainly it’s easy enough, given Blue Sky’s unorthodox working methods, to understand why so many at Origin were skeptical of their ability to deliver a finished game at all.

The danger of Blue Sky’s approach was that they would keep iterating endlessly as they kept having better and better ideas. This tendency among hackers to never be able to finish something and walk away from it had already derailed more than one promising games studio — not least among them FTL, the makers of the storied Dungeon Master, who had yet to release a proper followup after some four years. (Dungeon Master II wouldn’t finally arrive until 1995.) The need to finish games on a timetable was, one might say, the reason that industry executives had begun to impose the very organizational structures that Blue Sky was now so happily eschewing. Doug Church remembers creating “four movement systems and three combat systems because we’d just write something: ‘Oh, this seems cool, go for it.'” Would they just continue chasing whatever shiny objects struck their fancy until the money ran out? That wouldn’t take much longer, given that Paul Neurath was largely financing the whole effort out of his pocket, with some help from his ever-loyal friend Ned Lerner, whose success with his Chuck Yeager flight simulators had left him with a bit of money to spare.

Thus they were all fortunate that Warren Spector, their once and future savior, suddenly returned on the scene late in 1991. Virtually alone among his colleagues down in Austin, Spector had been watching Blue Sky’s progress with intense interest. Now, having finished up Martian Dreams, he got himself assigned as Underworld‘s third producer. He had considerable clout inside the bigger company; as soon as he started to press the issue there, things started to happen on Origin’s side to reassure Blue Sky that their game would in fact be released if they could only deliver it.

Indeed, after almost eighteen months of uncertainty on the question, Origin finally made it official that, yes, Underworld would be released as an Ultima game. As usual, the star would be the Avatar, who was becoming quite a busy fellow between this game, the mainline Ultima games, and the recent pair of Worlds of Ultima spinoffs. The dungeon in question, meanwhile, would be none other than the Stygian Abyss, where the Avatar had found the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom at the end of Ultima IV. Underworld‘s backstory would need to be bent and hammered enough to make this possible.

Blue Sky soon discovered that becoming an official Ultima game, while great for marketing purposes and for their own sense of legitimacy, was something of a double-edged sword. Origin demanded that they go back through all the text in the game to insert Ultima‘s trademark (and flagrantly misused) “thees” and “thous,” provoking much annoyance and mockery. And Origin themselves made a cinematic introduction for the game in Austin, featuring Richard Garriott, one of the industry’s worst voice actors of all time — and that, friends, is really saying something — in the leading role, bizarrely mispronouncing the word “Stygian.” It seems no one at Origin, much less at Blue Sky, dared to correct Lord British’s diction… (The British magazine PC Review‘s eventual reaction to the finished product is one for the ages: “I had to listen to it two or three times before I fully grasped what was going on because for the first couple of times I was falling about laughing at the badly dubbed Dick Van Dyke cockney accents that all these lovable Americans think we sound like. You know: ‘Awlright, Guv’noor, oop the happle un stairs!'”)

While Origin made the dodgy intro in Texas, Warren Spector got everybody in New England focused on the goal of a finished, shipped game. Doug Church:

Not only was he [Spector] great creatively to help us put finishing touches on it and clean it up and make it real, but he also knew how to finish projects and keep us motivated and on track. He had that ability to say, “Guys, guys, you’re focused in totally the wrong place.” He had that ability to help me and the rest of the guys reset, from the big-picture view of someone who has done it before and was really creative, but who also understood getting games done. It was a huge, huge win.

It’s very easy in hacker-driven game development to wind up with a sophisticated simulation that’s lots of fun for the programmers to create but less fun to actually play. Spector was there to head off this tendency as well at Blue Sky, as when he pared down an absurdly complex combat system to something simple and intuitive, or when he convinced the boys not to damage the player’s character every time he accidentally bumped into a wall. That, said Spector, “doesn’t sound like fun to me” as a player — and it was the player’s fun, he gently taught Blue Sky, that had to be the final arbitrator.

At Spector’s behest, Neurath rented a second office near Boston — officially known as the “Finish Underworld Now” office — and insisted that everyone leave the house and come in to work there every day during the last two months of the project. The more businesslike atmosphere helped them all focus on getting to the end result, as did Spector himself, who spent pretty much all of those last two months in the office with the team.

Spector did much to make Blue Sky feel like a valued part of the Origin family, but the relationship still remained rocky at times — especially when the former learned that the latter intended to release Ultima Underworld just two weeks before Ultima VII, the long-awaited next title in the franchise’s main series. It seemed all but certain that their game would get buried under the hype for Ultima VII, would be utterly forgotten by Origin’s marketers. Certainly marketing’s initial feedback hadn’t been encouraging. They were, they said, having trouble figuring out how to advertise Ultima Underworld. Its graphics were spectacular when seen in motion, but in still screenshots they didn’t look like much at all compared to a Wing Commander II or an Ultima VII. Blue Sky seethed with frustration, certain this was just an excuse for an anemic, disinterested advertising campaign.

In Origin’s defense, the problem their marketers pointed to was a real one. And it wasn’t really clear what they could have done about the release-date issue either. The original plan had been, as they didn’t hesitate to remind Blue Sky, to release Ultima Underworld in time for the Christmas of 1991, but the protracted development had put paid to that idea. Now, Blue Sky themselves needed Ultima Underworld to come out as quickly as possible because they needed the royalties in order to survive; for them, delaying it was simply impossible. Meanwhile Origin, who had cash-flow concerns of their own, certainly wasn’t going to delay Ultima VII, quite possibly the most expensive computer game ever made to that point, for a mere spinoff title. The situation was what it was.

The balloons fly as Doug Church, Paul Neurath, and Warren Spector celebrate Ultima Underworld‘s release.

Whatever was to happen in terms of sales, Blue Sky’s young hackers did get the satisfaction in late March of 1992 of seeing their game as a boxed product on store shelves, something more than one of them has described as a downright surreal experience. Dan Schmidt:

We were a bunch of kids straight out of school. This was the first professional project we’d ever done. We felt lucky that anyone would see it at all. We’d go into a games store and see our game there on the shelf. Someone would walk up to it, and we’d want to say, “No! No! You don’t want to buy that! We just hacked that together. It’s not, like, a real game.”

In the beginning, sales went about as expected. A snapshot from Origin’s in-house newsletter dated July 31, 1992, shows 71,000 copies of Ultima VII shipped, just 41,000 copies of Ultima Underworld. But, thanks to ecstatic reviews and strong word of mouth — Origin may have struggled to see how groundbreaking the game really was, but gamers got it immediately — Ultima Underworld kept on selling, getting stronger every month. “It was the first game that ever gave me a sense of actually being in a real place,” wrote one buyer in a letter to Origin, clear evidence that Blue Sky had absolutely nailed their original design goal. Soon industry scuttlebutt had it outselling Ultima VII by two to one. Paul Neurath claims that Ultima Underworld eventually sold more than half a million copies worldwide, an extraordinary figure for the time, and considerably more than Ultima VII or, indeed, any previous Ultima had managed.

Shortly after Ultima Underworld‘s release, Paul Neurath and Ned Lerner finally did the obvious: they merged their two companies. They had recently discovered that another, slightly older company was already operating under the name of “Blue Sky Software,” making educational products. So, they named the merged entity Looking Glass Technologies. Their first release under the name would be Ultima Underworld II.

Two months after the first Ultima Underworld appeared, a tiny company out of Dallas, Texas, who called themselves id Software released Wolfenstein 3D, another first-person game set in a 3D environment. Their game, however, had none of the complexity of Ultima Underworld, with its quests and puzzles and magic spells and its character to develop and even feed. In id’s game, you ran through the environment and killed things — period.

For the remainder of the 1990s, 3D games would exist on a continuum between the cool, high-concept innovation of Looking Glass and the hot, visceral action of id, who were interested in innovation in the area of their graphics technology but somewhat less so in terms of their basic gameplay template. id would win the argument in terms of sales, but Looking Glass would make some of the most fascinating and forward-looking games of the decade. “We were thinking, ‘Why don’t we just run around and shoot?’” says Austin Grossman, another early Looking Glass employee. “But we were interested in simulation and depth. We were driven by this holy grail of simulated worlds, by that enabled choice and creativity of the player.”

We’ll be following the two companies’ artistic dialog for a long time to come as we continue with this history. First, though, we need to give Ultima Underworld a closer look, from the perspective of the player this time, to understand why it’s not just an example of groundbreaking technology but a superb example of pure game design as well.

(Sources: the books Game Design: Theory & Practice 2nd edition by Richard Rouse III, Ultima VII and Underworld: More Avatar Adventures by Caroline Spector, Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland, and Principles of Three-Dimensional Computer Animation: Modeling, Rendering, and Animating with 3D Computer Graphics by Michael O’Rourke; Questbusters of February 1992 and September 1992; PC Review of June 1992; Game Developer of April/May 1995, June/July 1995, August/September 1995, December 1995/January 1996, and April/May 1996; Commodore Magazine of January 1988; Origin’s internal newsletter Point of Origin from January 17 1992, March 27 1992, May 8 1992, August 28 1992, and December 18 1992. Online sources include “Ahead of Its Time: A History of Looking Glass” on Polygon, an interview with Paul Neurath and Doug Church on the old Ultima Online site, Gambit Game Lab’s interviews with Paul Neurath and Dan Schmidt, and Matt Barton’s interview with Paul Neurath. My thanks to Dan Schmidt and Ned Lerner for making the time to talk with me personally about their careers.

Ultima Underworld and its sequel can be purchased from GOG.com.)


  1. Wing Commander was actually still known as Wingleader at this time

 
 

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The Analog Antiquarian

I’m very excited today to announce The Analog Antiquarian, a new companion site to this one. While this site continues to be, as the subtitle says, “a history of computer entertainment and digital culture,” the new one will be for “chronicles of worldly wonders” — more wide-angle history articles about some of humanity’s most amazing achievements, beginning with the Pyramids of Giza. Going forward, I’ll be posting new articles to the two sites on alternating Fridays.

Since this is a significant change, I feel I owe you an explanation of how we got to this point.

If you’d asked me a few years ago, I’d have told you that I’d be satisfied to leave behind as my intellectual legacy, as it were, a skeptical but passionate history of the fascinating new medium of interactive entertainment, stretching from its very beginning to however far I managed to get before I kicked the bucket. But I’ve found myself getting more and more creatively restless since then. Despite trying hard to tamp the restlessness down, I’ve slowly had to face the fact that I have more I want to say and more I want to try as a writer than this site’s format really allows for. It’s not so much that I’m tired of the endlessly interesting march of technology, aesthetics, and culture which I’ve been documenting here, as that I’m tired of only writing about those things.

All of this started to come to a head about eighteen months ago, when I started to look into the game of Civilization. As a game, it’s remarkable enough in its own right, but what really floored me was the stuff around the game, particularly the tech tree and the expansive view of human invention that it depicted. To be honest, I sort of fell in love with the thing.

My first thought was thus to write a history of human invention, to explain how we got from primitive but fundamental technologies like pottery to the moon landing and the Internet. I hired a programmer to work on an interactive tech tree of my own which would show how it all fit together, how this begot that; clicking on developments on it would take you to the articles associated with those developments. But we never could arrive at a design that was unarguably more intuitive than a simple table of contents. And meanwhile I was starting to have other doubts about the idea. Could I master so much technology — I’m a writer, not an engineer — and could I write about it in a way that wouldn’t be horribly dry?

So, I set that plan aside. Instead I decided to write a series of articles for this site, exploring the assumptions and ideas behind Civilization‘s view of history. And, as many of you doubtless remember, I did see that plan through. Yet I was never entirely happy with the articles that resulted, and today I’m less happy with them than ever. Building intellectual castles in the sky just isn’t what I’m best at as a writer. I’m better at telling exciting and interesting stories, sneaking the Big Ideas into the cracks and crevices of the narrative.

Regardless, I made a resolution after I finished the Civilization series to buckle back down here in my wheelhouse of gaming history. But many of you who do creative work probably know how that sort of thing goes. That little muse, once she starts talking to you, is impossible to silence. I still wanted to try another sort of writing, and the Civilization series hadn’t done much to scratch that itch. I finally realized there was only one way to be free of her nagging. I started planning a second site once again, even as I still cast about for just the right approach.

For a time, my plan was to write nothing less than a general history of all human civilization, a sort of 21st-century answer to Will Durant. I still find that idea inordinately appealing in some ways, but the more I thought about it, the more concerns I started to have. If such a project was not to take dozens of lifetimes to complete, it would have to be written in a very summarized way. Could such summaries really satisfy my itch to write personal stories full of plots twists and drama? I also was aware that this type of a history could all too easily become a long narrative of war and oppression, of all the worst sides of humanity. I realized that I’d rather focus on the instances of hope and beauty that occasionally rise above that ugly tumult, reflecting the best rather than the worst in us.

At last, I realized that what I was looking for had been in front of me all the time in Civilization: the wonders of the world. These big, singular achievements all have rich, deeply human stories behind them, and I can’t wait to tell them. I don’t necessarily intend to slavishly follow Civilization‘s set of wonders, merely to use the idea as my guide. It’s a less conceptually ambitious approach than some of the other ones I’ve kicked around, but I think it’s exactly the right one for me, given my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. I hope and — in my more self-confident moments anyway — believe that I can do a fantastic job with it. At any rate, I need to try if I’m not to wonder forevermore whether I could have pulled it off.

Now, to speak more directly to you, the readers of this site:

When I’ve wandered off into digressive territory on this site in the past, it’s gotten a mixed reaction: some really liked these changes of pace, some just wanted me to get back to computers and the games they play. This latter is a perfectly reasonable point of view to hold, and I’ll try to dissuade you from it only to the extent of suggesting that you at least have a peek at the new site, just to see if it catches your interest. If the answer is no, fair enough. For you, this announcement today will come as a bit of a disappointment, as it means fewer of the type of articles you do enjoy. I won’t try to spin that into a positive thing. I just hope you’ll be patient with me and my muse, and will want to continue to read and support The Digital Antiquarian on this somewhat slower schedule. Who knows? Maybe having another writerly outlet will make the articles I do write here better. (Oh, yes, I did promise not to spin, didn’t I?)

If, on the other hand, you’re excited by what you see on The Analog Antiquarian, we’ve just arrived at the awkward part of this announcement — the one where I have to ask for your help. The new site is an experiment. In light of all the angst that I went through getting to this point, I’m committed to giving it a good solid try, but the fact remains that each article there demands even more time than each one here; I just can’t continue to do it forever unless I can build a reasonable income from it. I’ve therefore set up a second Patreon campaign for the new site. Please do think about pitching in whatever you can afford and whatever you think the work is worth. (I wish I didn’t have to ask you to sign up for a whole new Patreon, but there just isn’t any alternative. Patreon unfortunately doesn’t offer any way to opt-in for some types of content but not others within a single campaign.) I would be eternally grateful for your support, which, there as here, will let me do the work I love and also put something of real positive value into the world at the same time.

And finally, there is one other thing I would ask of you — even of those of you who aren’t particularly interested in the new site. If you know anyone personally or have social-media circles that might really dig the new content, please do let them know. Establishing a new site on the crowded Internet is hard, and it’s made even harder when you’re a social-media hermit like I am. I’d be ever so grateful for any help you could give in getting the word out.

I think that’s about all I need to say here. You can read more justifications and explanations in the new site’s introductory article and its Patreon page. Again, I hope some of you will find the topics I’ll be tackling on it as exciting as I do, and hope to see some familiar names turn up there. And I hope to see all of you back here next Friday, for the next serving of Digital Antiquaria. Thank you for being the best readers in the world.

 

Life on the Grid

I’ve long been interested in the process by which new games turn into new gaming genres or sub-genres.

Most game designers know from the beginning that they will be working within the boundaries of an existing genre, whether due to their own predilections or to instructions handed down from above. A minority are brave and free enough to try something formally different from the norm, but few to none even of them, it seems safe to say, deliberately set out to create a new genre. Yet if the game they make turns into a success, it may be taken as the beginning of just that, even as — and this to me is the really fascinating part — design choices which were actually technological compromises with the Platonic ideal in the designer’s mind are taken as essential, positive parts of the final product.

A classic example of this process is a genre that’s near and dear to my heart: the text adventure. Neither of the creators of the original text adventure — they being Will Crowther and Don Woods — strikes me as a particularly literary sort. I suspect that, if they’d had the technology available to them to do it, they’d have happily made their game into a photorealistic 3D-rendered world to be explored using virtual-reality glasses. As it happened, though, all they had was a text-only screen and a keyboard connected to a time-shared DEC PDP-10. So, they made do, describing the environment in text and accepting input in the form of commands entered at the keyboard.

If we look at what happened over the ten to fifteen years following Adventure‘s arrival in 1977, we see a clear divide between practitioners of the form. Companies like Sierra saw the text-only format as exactly the technological compromise Crowther and Woods may also have seen, and ran away from it as quickly as possible. Others, however — most notably Infocom — embraced text, finding in it an expansive possibility space all its own, even running advertisements touting their lack of graphics as a virtue. The heirs to this legacy still maintain a small but vibrant ludic subculture to this day.

But it’s another, almost equally interesting example of this process that’s the real subject of our interest today: the case of the real-time grid-based dungeon crawler. After the release of Sir-Tech’s turn-based dungeon crawl Wizardry in 1981, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the ideal next step would be: a smooth-scrolling first-person 3D environment running in real time. Yet that was a tall order indeed for the hardware of the time — even for the next generation of 16-bit hardware that began to arrive in the mid-1980s, as exemplified by the Atari ST and the Commodore Amiga. So, when a tiny developer known as FTL decided the time had come to advance the state of the art over Wizardry, they compromised by going to real time but holding onto a discrete grid of locations inside the dungeon of Dungeon Master.

Gamers of today have come to refer to dungeon crawls on a grid as “blobbers,” which is as good a term as any. (The term arises from the way that these games typically “blob” together a party of four or six characters, moving them in lockstep and giving the player a single first-person — first-people? — view of the world.) The Dungeon Master lineage, then, are “real-time blobbers.”

By whatever name, this intermediate step between Wizardry and the free-scrolling ideal came equipped with its own unique set of gameplay affordances. Retaining the grid allowed you to do things that you simply couldn’t otherwise. For one thing, it allowed a game to combine the exciting immediacy of real time with what remains for some of us one of the foremost pleasures of the earlier, Wizardry style of dungeon crawl: the weirdly satisfying process of making your own maps — of slowly filling in the blank spaces on your graph paper, bringing order and understanding to what used to be the chaotic unknown.

This advertisement for the popular turn-based dungeon crawl Might and Magic makes abundantly clear how essential map-making was to the experience of these games. “Even more cartography than the bestselling fantasy game!” What a sales pitch…

But even if you weren’t among the apparent minority who enjoyed that sort of thing, the grid had its advantages, the most significant of which is implied by the very name of “blobber.” It was easy and natural in these games to control a whole party of characters moving in lockstep from square to square, thus retaining another of the foremost pleasures of turn-based games like Wizardry: that of building up not just a single character but a balanced team of them. In a free-scrolling, free-moving game, with its much more precise sense of embodied positioning, such a conceit would have been impossible to maintain. And much of the emergent interactivity of Dungeon Master‘s environment would also have been impossible without the grid. Many of us still recall the eureka moment when we realized that we could kill monsters by luring them into a gate square and pushing a button to bash them on the heads with the thing as it tried to descend, over and over again. Without the neat order of the grid, where a gate occupying a square fills all of that square as it descends, there could have been no eureka.

So, within a couple of years of Dungeon Master‘s release in 1987, the real-time blobber was establishing itself in a positive way, as its own own sub-genre with its own personality, rather than the unsatisfactory compromise it may first have seemed. Today, I’d like to do a quick survey of this popular if fairly brief-lived style of game. We can’t hope to cover all of the real-time blobbers, but we can hit the most interesting highlights.


Bloodwych running in its unique two-player mode.

Most of the games that followed Dungeon Master rely on one or two gimmicks to separate themselves from their illustrious ancestor, while keeping almost everything else the same. Certainly this rule applied to the first big title of the post-Dungeon Master blobber generation, 1989’s Bloodwych. It copies from FTL’s game not only the real-time approach but also its innovative rune-based magic system, and even the conceit of the player selecting her party from a diverse group of heroes who have been frozen in amber. By way of completing the facsimile, Bloodwych eventually got a much more difficult expansion disk, similar to Dungeon Master‘s famously difficult Chaos Strikes Back.

The unique gimmick here is the possibility for two players to play together on the same machine, either cooperatively or competitively, as they choose. A second innovation of sorts is the fact that, in addition to the usual Amiga and Atari ST versions, Bloodwych was also made for the Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, and Sinclair Spectrum, much more limited 8-bit computers which still owned a substantial chunk of the European market in 1989.

Bloodwych was the work of a two-man team, one handling the programming, the other the graphics. The programmer, one Anthony Taglioni, tells an origin story that’s exactly what you’d expect it to be:

Dungeon Master appeared on the ST and what a product it was! Three weeks later we’d played it to death, even taking just a party of short people. My own record is twelve hours with just two characters. I was talking with Mirrorsoft at the time and suggested that I could do a DM conversion for them on the C64. They ummed and arred a lot and Pete [the artist] carried on drawing screens until they finally said, “Yes!” and I said, “No! We’ve got a better design and it’ll be two-player-simultaneous.” They said, “Okay, but we want ST and Amiga as well.”

The two-player mode really is remarkable, especially considering that it works even on the lowly 8-bit systems. The screen is split horizontally, and both parties can roam about the dungeon freely in real time, even fighting one another if the players in control wish it. “An option allowing two players to connect via modem could only have boosted the game’s popularity,” noted Wizardry‘s designer Andrew Greenberg in 1992, in a review of the belated Stateside MS-DOS release. But playing Bloodwych in-person with a friend had to be if anything even more fun.

Unfortunately, the game has little beyond its two-player mode and wider platform availability to recommend it over Dungeon Master. Ironically, many of its problems are down to the need to accommodate the two-player mode. In single-player mode, the display fills barely half of the available screen real estate, meaning that everything is smaller and harder to manipulate than in Dungeon Master. The dungeon design as well, while not being as punishing as some later entries in this field, is nowhere near as clever or creative as that of Dungeon Master, lacking the older game’s gradual, elegant progression in difficulty and complexity. As would soon become all too typical of the sub-genre, Bloodwych offered more levels — some forty of them in all, in contrast to Dungeon Master‘s twelve — in lieu of better ones.

So, played today, Bloodwych doesn’t really have a lot to offer. It was doubtless a more attractive proposition in its own time, when games were expensive and length was taken by many cash-strapped teenage gamers as a virtue unto itself. And of course the multiplayer mode was its wild card; it almost couldn’t help but be fun, at least in the short term. By capitalizing on that unique attribute and the fact that it was the first game out there able to satiate eager fans of Dungeon Master looking for more, Bloodwych did quite well for its publisher.


Captive has the familiar “paper doll” interface of Dungeon Master, but you’re controlling robots here. The five screens along the top will eventually be used for various kinds of telemetry and surveillance as you acquire new capabilities.

The sub-genre’s biggest hit of 1990 — albeit once again only in Europe — evinced more creativity in many respects than Bloodwych, even if its primary claim to fame once again came down to sheer length. Moving the action from a fantasy world into outer space, Captive is a mashup of Dungeon Master and Infocom’s Suspended, if you can imagine such a thing. As a prisoner accused of a crime he didn’t commit, you must free yourself from your cell using four robots which you control remotely. Unsurprisingly, the high-tech complexes they’ll need to explore bear many similarities to a fantasy dungeon.

The programmer, artist, and designer behind Captive was a lone-wolf Briton named Tony Crowther, who had cranked out almost thirty simple games for 8-bit computers before starting on this one, his first for the Amiga and Atari ST. Crowther created the entire game all by himself in about fourteen months, an impressive achievement by any standard.

More so even than for its setting and premise, Captive stands out for its reliance on procedurally-generated “dungeons.” In other words, it doesn’t even try to compete with Dungeon Master‘s masterful level design, but rather goes a different way completely. Each level is generated by the computer on the fly from a single seed number in about three seconds, meaning there’s no need to store any of the levels on disk. After completing the game the first time, the player is given the option of doing it all over again with a new and presumably more difficult set of complexes to explore. This can continue virtually indefinitely; the level generator can produce 65,535 unique levels in all. That should be enough, announced a proud Crowther, to keep someone playing his game for fifty years by his reckoning: “I wanted to create a role-playing game you wouldn’t get bored of — a game that never ends, so you can feasibly play it for years and years.”

Procedural generation tended to be particularly appealing to European developers like Tony Crowther, who worked in smaller groups with tighter budgets than their American counterparts, and whose target platforms generally lacked the hard drives that had become commonplace on American MS-DOS machines by 1990. Yet it’s never been a technique which I find very appealing as anything but a preliminary template generator for a human designer. In Captive as in most games that rely entirely on procedural generation, the process yields an endless progression of soulless levels which all too obviously lack the human touch of those found in a game like Dungeon Master. In our modern era, when brilliant games abound and can often be had for a song, there’s little reason to favor a game with near-infinite amounts of mediocre content over a shorter but more concentrated experience. In Captive‘s day, of course, the situation was very different, making it just one more example of an old game that was, for one reason or another, far more appealing in its own day than it is in ours.


This is the screen you’ll see most in Knightmare.

Tony Crowther followed up Captive some eighteen months later with Knightmare, a game based on a children’s reality show of sorts which ran on Britain’s ITV network from 1987 until 1994. The source material is actually far more interesting than this boxed-computer-game derivative. In an early nod toward embodied virtual reality, a team of four children were immersed in a computer-generated dungeon and tasked with finding their way out. It’s an intriguing cultural artifact of Britain’s early fascination with computers and the games they played, well worth a gander on YouTube.

The computer game of Knightmare, however, is less intriguing. Using the Captive engine, but featuring hand-crafted rather than procedurally-generated content this time around, it actually hews far closer to the Dungeon Master template than its predecessor. Indeed, like so many of its peers, it slavishly copies almost every aspect of its inspiration without managing to be quite as good — much less better — at any of it. This lineage has always had a reputation for difficulty, but Knightmare pushes that to the ragged edge, in terms of both its ridiculously convoluted environmental puzzles and the overpowered monsters you constantly face. Even the laddish staff of Amiga Format magazine, hardly a bastion of thoughtful design analyses, acknowledged that it “teeters on unplayably tough.” And even the modern blogger known as the CRPG Addict, whose name ought to say it all about his skill with these types of games, “questions whether it’s possible to win it without hints.”

Solo productions like this one, created in a vacuum, with little to no play-testing except by a designer who’s intimately familiar with every aspect of his game’s systems, often wound up getting the difficulty balance markedly wrong. Yet Knightmare is an extreme case even by the standards of that breed. If Dungeon Master is an extended explication of the benefits of careful level design, complete with lots of iterative feedback from real players, this game is a cautionary tale about the opposite extreme. While it was apparently successful in its day, there’s no reason for anyone who isn’t a masochist to revisit it in ours.


Eye of the Beholder‘s dependence on Dungeon Master is, as the CRPG Addict puts it, “so stark that you wonder why there weren’t lawsuits involved.” What it does bring new to the table is a whole lot more story and lore. Multi-page story dumps like this one practically contain more text than the entirety of Dungeon Master.

None of the three games I’ve just described was available in North America prior to 1992. Dungeon Master, having been created by an American developer, was for sale there, but only for the Amiga, Atari ST, and Apple IIGS, computers whose installed base in the country had never been overly large and whose star there dwindled rapidly after 1989. Thus the style of gameplay that Dungeon Master had introduced was either completely unknown or, at best, only vaguely known by most American gamers — this even as real-time blobbers had become a veritable gaming craze in Europe. But there was no reason to believe that American gamers wouldn’t take to them with the same enthusiasm as their European counterparts if they were only given the chance. There was simply a shortage of supply — and this, as any good capitalist knows, spells Opportunity.

The studio which finally walked through this open door is one I recently profiled in some detail: Westwood Associates. With a long background in real-time games already behind them, they were well-positioned to bring the real-time dungeon crawl to the American masses. Even better, thanks to a long-established relationship with the publisher SSI, they got the opportunity to do so under the biggest license in CRPGs, that of Dungeons & Dragons itself. With its larger development team and American-sized budget for art and sound, everything about Eye of the Beholder screamed hit, and upon its release in March of 1991 — more than half a year before Knightmare, actually — it didn’t disappoint.

It really is an impressive outing in many ways, the first example of its sub-genre that I can honestly imagine someone preferring to Dungeon Master. Granted, Westwood’s game lacks Dungeon Master‘s elegance: the turn-based Dungeons & Dragons rules are rather awkwardly kludged into real time; the environments still aren’t as organically interactive (amazingly, none of the heirs to Dungeon Master would ever quite live up to its example in this area); the controls can be a bit clumsy; the level design is nowhere near as fiendishly creative. But on the other hand, the level design isn’t pointlessly hard either, and the game is, literally and figuratively, a more colorful experience. In addition to the better graphics and sound, there’s far more story, steeped in the lore of the popular Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms campaign setting. Personally, I still prefer Dungeon Master‘s minimalist aesthetic, as I do its cleaner rules set and superior level design. But then, I have no personal investment in the Forgotten Realms (or, for that matter, in elaborate fantasy world-building in general). Your mileage may vary.

Whatever my or your opinion of it today, Eye of the Beholder hit American gamers like a revelation back in the day, and Europe too got to join the fun via a Westwood-developed Amiga port which shipped there within a few months of the MS-DOS original’s American debut. It topped sales charts in both places, becoming the first game of its type to actually outsell Dungeon Master. In fact, it became almost certainly the best-selling single example of a real-time blobber ever; between North America and Europe, total sales likely reached 250,000 copies or more, huge numbers at a time when 100,000 copies was the line that marked a major hit.

Following the success of Eye of the Beholder, the dam well and truly burst in the United States. Before the end of 1991, Westwood had cranked out an Eye of the Beholder II, which is larger and somewhat more difficult than its predecessor, but otherwise shares the same strengths and weaknesses. In 1993, their publisher SSI took over to make an Eye of the Beholder III in-house; it’s generally less well-thought-of than the first two games. Meanwhile Bloodwych and Captive got MS-DOS ports and arrived Stateside. Even FTL, whose attitude toward making new products can most generously be described as “relaxed,” finally managed to complete and release their long-rumored MS-DOS port of Dungeon Master — whereupon its dated graphics were, predictably if a little unfairly, compared unfavorably with the more spectacular audiovisuals of Eye of the Beholder in the American gaming press.


Black Crypt‘s auto-map.

Another, somewhat more obscure title from this peak of the real-time blobber’s popularity was early 1992’s Black Crypt, the very first game from the American studio Raven Software, who would go on to a long and productive life. (As of this writing, they’re still active, having spent the last eight years or so making new entries in the Call of Duty franchise.) Although created by an American developer and published by the American Electronic Arts, one has to assume that Black Crypt was aimed primarily at European players, as it was made available only for the Amiga. Even in Europe, however, it failed to garner much attention in an increasingly saturated market; it looked a little better than Dungeon Master but not as good as Eye of the Beholder, and otherwise failed to stand out from the pack in terms of level design, interface, or mechanics.

With, that is, one exception. For the first time, Black Crypt added an auto-map to the formula. Unfortunately, it was needlessly painful to access, being available only through a mana-draining wizard’s spell. Soon, though, Westwood would take up and perfect Raven’s innovation, as the real-time blobber entered the final phase of its existence as a gaming staple.


Black Crypt may have been the first real-time blobber with an auto-map, but Lands of Lore perfected the concept. Like every other aspect of the game, the auto-map here looks pretty spectacular.

Released in late 1993, Westwood’s Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos was an attempt to drag the now long-established real-time-blobber format into the multimedia age, while also transforming it into a more streamlined and accessible experience. It comes very, very close to realizing its ambitions, but is let down a bit by some poor design choices as it wears on.

Having gone their separate ways from SSI and from the strictures of the Dungeons & Dragons license, Westwood got to enjoy at last the same freedom which had spawned the easy elegance of Dungeon Master; they were free to, as Westwood’s Louis Castle would later put it, create cleaner rules that “worked within the context of a digital environment,” making extensive use of higher-math functions that could never have been implemented in a tabletop game. These designers, however, took their newfound freedom in a very different direction from the hardcore logistical and tactical challenge that was FTL’s game. “We’re trying to make our games more accessible to everybody,” said Westwood’s Brett Sperry at the time, “and we feel that the game consoles offer a clue as to where we should go in terms of interface. You don’t really have to read a manual for a lot of games, the entertainment and enjoyment is immediate.”

Lands of Lore places you in control of just two or three characters at a time, who come in and out of your party as the fairly linear story line dictates. The magic system is similarly condensed down to just seven spells. In place of the tactical maneuvering and environmental exploitation that marks combat within the more interactive dungeons of Dungeon Master is a simple but satisfying rock-paper-scissors approach: monsters are more or less vulnerable to different sorts of attacks, requiring you adjust your spells and equipment accordingly. And, most tellingly of all, an auto-map is always at your fingertips, even automatically annotating hidden switches and secret doors you might have overlooked in the first-person view.

Whether all of this results in a game that’s better than Dungeon Master is very much — if you’ll excuse the pun! — in the eye of the beholder. The auto-map alone changes the personality of the game almost enough to make it feel like the beginning of a different sub-genre entirely. Yet Lands of Lore has an undeniable charm all its own as a less taxing, more light-hearted sort of fantasy romp.

One thing at least is certain: at the time of its release, Lands of Lore was by far the most attractive blobber the world had yet seen. Abandoning the stilted medieval conceits of most CRPGs, its atmosphere is more fairy tale than Tolkien, full of bright cartoon-like tableaux rendered by veteran Hanna-Barbera and Disney animators. The music and voice acting in the CD-ROM version are superb, with none other than Patrick Stewart of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame acting as narrator.

Sadly, though, the charm does begin to evaporate somewhat as the game wears on. There’s an infamous one-level difficulty spike in the mid-game that’s all but guaranteed to run off the very newbies and casual players Westwood was trying to attract. Worse, the last 25 percent or so is clearly unfinished, a tedious slog through empty corridors with nothing of interest beyond hordes of overpowered monsters. When you get near the end and the game suddenly takes away the auto-map you’ve been relying on, you’re left wondering how the designers could have so completely lost all sense of the game they started out making. More so than any of the other games I’ve written about today, Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos, despite enjoying considerable commercial success which would lead to two sequels, feels like a missed opportunity.


Real-time blobbers would continue to appear for a couple more years after Lands of Lore. The last remotely notable examples are two 1995 releases: FTL’s ridiculously belated and rather unimaginative Dungeon Master II, which was widely and justifiably panned by reviewers; and Interplay’s years-in-the-making Stonekeep, which briefly dazzled some reviewers with such extraneous bells and whistles as an introductory cinematic that by at least one employee’s account cost ten times as much as the underwhelming game behind it. (If any other anecdote more cogently illustrates the sheer madness of the industry’s drunk-on-CD-ROM “interactive movie” period, I don’t know what it is.) Needless to say, neither game outdoes the original Dungeon Master where it counts.

At this point, then, we have to confront the place where the example I used in opening this article — that of interactive fiction and its urtext of Adventure — begins to break down when applied to the real-time blobber. Adventure, whatever its own merits, really was the launching pad for a whole universe of possibilities involving parsers and text. But the real-time blobber never did manage to transcend its own urtext, as is illustrated by the long shadow the latter has cast over this very article. None of the real-time blobbers that came after Dungeon Master was clearly better than it; arguably, none was ever quite as good. Why should this be?

Any answer to that question must, first of all, pay due homage to just how fully-realized Dungeon Master was as a game system, as well as to how tight its level designs were. It presented everyone who tried to follow it with one heck of a high bar to clear. Beyond that obvious fact, though, we must also consider the nature of the comparison with the text adventure, which at the end of the day is something of an apples-and-oranges proposition. The real-time blobber is a more strictly demarcated category than the text adventure; this is why we tend to talk about real-time blobbers as a sub-genre and text adventures as a genre. Perhaps there’s only so much you can do with wandering through grid-based dungeons, making maps, solving mechanical puzzles, and killing monsters. And perhaps Dungeon Master had already done it all about as well as it could be done, making everything that came after superfluous to all but the fanatics and the completists.

And why, you ask, had game developers largely stopped even trying to better Dungeon Master by the middle of the 1990s?1 As it happens, there’s no mystery whatsoever about why the real-time blobber — or, for that matter, the blobber in general — disappeared from the marketplace. Even as the format was at its absolute peak of popularity in 1992, with Westwood’s Eye of the Beholder games selling like crazy and everything else rushing onto the bandwagon, an unassuming little outfit known as Blue Sky Productions gave notice to anyone who might have been paying attention that the blobber’s days were already numbered. This they did by taking a dungeon crawl off the grid. After that escalation in the gaming arms race, there was nothing for it but to finish whatever games in the old style were still in production and find a way to start making games in the new. Next time, then, we’ll turn our attention to the great leap forward that was Ultima Underworld.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of April 1987, February 1991, June 1991, February 1992, March 1992, April 1992, November 1992, August 1993, November 1993, October 1994, October 1995, and February 1996; Amiga Format of December 1989, February 1992, March 1992, and May 1992; Questbusters of May 1991, March 1992, and December 1993; SynTax 22; The One of October 1990, August 1991, February 1992, October 1992, and February 1994. Online sources include Louis Castle’s interview for Soren Johnson’s Designer Notes podcast and Matt Barton’s interview with Peter Oliphant. Devotees of this sub-genre should also check out The CRPG Addict’s much more detailed takes on Bloodwych, Captive, Knightmare, Eye of the Beholder, Eye of the Beholder II, and Black Crypt.

The most playable of the games I’ve written about today, the Eye of the Beholder series and Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos, are available for purchase on GOG.com.)


  1. If one takes the really long view, they didn’t, at least not forever. In 2012, as part of the general retro-revival that has resurrected any number of dead sub-genres over the past decade, a studio known as Almost Human released Legend of Grimrock, the first significant commercial game of this type to be seen in many years. It got positive reviews, and sold well enough to spawn a sequel in 2014. I’m afraid I haven’t played either of them, and so can’t speak to the question of whether either or both of them finally managed the elusive trick of outdoing Dungeon Master

 
 

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Star Control II

In this vaguely disturbing picture of Toys for Bob from 1994, Paul Reiche is at center and Fred Ford to the left. Ken Ford, who joined shortly after Star Control II was completed, is to the right.

There must have been something in the games industry’s water circa 1992 when it came to the subject of sequels. Instead of adhering to the traditional guidelines — more of the same, perhaps a little bigger — the sequels of that year had a habit of departing radically from their predecessors in form and spirit. For example, we’ve recently seen how Virgin Games released a Dune II from Westwood Studios that had absolutely nothing to do with the same year’s Dune I, from Cryo Interactive. But just as pronounced is the case of Accolade’s Star Control II, a sequel which came from the same creative team as Star Control I, yet which was so much more involved and ambitious as to relegate most of what its predecessor had to offer to the status of a mere minigame within its larger whole. In doing so, it made gaming history. While Star Control I is remembered today as little more than a footnote to its more illustrious successor, Star Control II remains as passionately loved as any game from its decade, a game which still turns up regularly on lists of the very best games ever made.



Like those of many other people, Paul Reiche III’s life was irrevocably altered by his first encounter with Dungeons & Dragons in the 1970s. “I was in high school,” he remembers, “and went into chemistry class, and there was this dude with glasses who had these strange fantasy illustrations in front of him in these booklets. It was sort of a Napoleon Dynamite moment. Am I repulsed or attracted to this? I went with attracted to it.”

In those days, when the entire published corpus of Dungeons & Dragons consisted of three slim, sketchy booklets, being a player all but demanded that one become a creator — a sort of co-designer, if you will — as well. Reiche and his friends around Berkeley, California, went yet one step further, becoming one of a considerable number of such folks who decided to self-publish their creative efforts. Their most popular product, typed out by Reiche’s mother on a Selectric typewriter and copied at Kinko’s, was a book of new spells called The Necromican.

That venture eventually crashed and burned when it ran afoul of that bane of all semi-amateur businesses, the Internal Revenue Service. It did, however, help to secure for Reiche what seemed the ultimate dream job to a young nerd like him: working for TSR itself, the creator of Dungeons & Dragons, in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. He contributed to various products there, but soon grew disillusioned by the way that his own miserable pay contrasted with the rampant waste and mismanagement around him, which even a starry-eyed teenage RPG fanatic like him couldn’t fail to notice. The end came when he spoke up in a meeting to question the purchase of a Porsche as an executive’s company car. That got him “unemployed pretty dang fast,” he says.

So, he wound up back home, attending the University of California, Berkeley, as a geology major. But by now, it was the 1980s, and home computers — and computer games — were making their presence felt among the same sorts of people who tended to play Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, Reiche had been friends for some time already with one of the most prominent designers in the new field: Jon Freeman of Automated Simulations, designer of Temple of Apshai, the most sophisticated of the very early proto-CRPGs. Reiche got his first digital-game credit by designing The Keys of Acheron, an “expansion pack” for Temple of Apshai‘s sequel Hellfire Warrior, for Freeman and Automated. Not long after, Freeman had a falling-out with his partner and left Automated to form Free Fall Associates with his wife, programmer Anne Westfall. He soon asked Reiche to join them. It wasn’t a hard decision to make: compared to the tabletop industry, Reiche remembers, “there was about ten times the money in computer games and one-tenth the number of people.”

Freeman, Westfall, and Reiche made a big splash very quickly, when they were signed as one of the first group of “electronic artists” to join a new publisher known as Electronic Arts. Free Fall could count not one but two titles among EA’s debut portfolio in 1983: Archon, a chess-like game where the pieces fought it out with one another, arcade-style, under the players’ control; and Murder on the Zinderneuf, an innovative if not entirely satisfying procedurally-generated murder-mystery game. While the latter proved to be a slight commercial disappointment, the former more than made up for it by becoming a big hit, prompting the trio to make a somewhat less successful sequel in 1984.

After that, Reiche parted ways with Free Fall to become a sort of cleanup hitter of a designer for EA, working on whatever projects they felt needed some additional design input. With Evan and Nicky Robinson, he put together Mail Order Monsters, an evolution of an old Automated Simulations game of monster-movie mayhem, and World Tour Golf, an allegedly straight golf simulation to which the ever-whimsical Reiche couldn’t resist adding a real live dinosaur as the mother of all hazards on one of the courses. Betwixt and between these big projects, he also lent a helping hand to other games: helping to shape the editor in Adventure Construction Set, making some additional levels for Ultimate Wizard.

Another of these short-term consulting gigs took him to a little outfit called Binary Systems, whose Starflight, an insanely expansive game of interstellar adventure, had been in production for a couple of years already and showed no sign of being finished anytime soon. This meeting would, almost as much as his first encounter with Dungeons & Dragons, shape the future course of Reiche’s career, but its full import wouldn’t become clear until years later. For now, he spent two weeks immersed in the problems and promise of arguably the most ambitious computer game yet proposed, a unique game in EA’s portfolio in that it was being developed exclusively for the usually business-oriented MS-DOS platform rather than a more typical — and in many ways more limited — gaming computer. He bonded particularly with Starflight‘s scenario designer, an endlessly clever writer and artist named Greg Johnson, who was happily filling his galaxy with memorable and often hilarious aliens to meet, greet, and sometimes beat in battle.

Reiche’s assigned task was to help the Starflight team develop a workable conversation model for interacting with all these aliens. Still, he was thoroughly intrigued with all aspects of the project, so much so that he had to be fairly dragged away kicking and screaming by EA’s management when his allotted tenure with Binary Systems had expired. Even then, he kept tabs on the game right up until its release in 1986, and was as pleased as anyone when it became an industry landmark, a proof of what could be accomplished when designers and programmers had a bigger, more powerful computer at their disposal — and a proof that owners of said computers would actually buy games for them if they were compelling enough. In these respects, Starflight served as nothing less than a harbinger of computer gaming’s future. At the same, though, it was so far out in front of said future that it would stand virtually alone for some years to come. Even its sequel, released in 1989, somehow failed to recapture the grandeur of its predecessor, despite running in the same engine and having been created by largely the same team (including Greg Johnson, and with Paul Reiche once again helping out as a special advisor).

Well before Starflight II‘s release, Reiche left EA. He was tired of working on other people’s ideas, ready to take full control of his own creative output for the first time since his independent tabletop work as a teenager a decade before. With a friend named Fred Ford, who was the excellent programmer Reiche most definitely wasn’t, he formed a tiny studio — more of a partnership, really — called Toys for Bob. The unusual name came courtesy of Reiche’s wife, a poet who knew the value of words. She said, correctly, that it couldn’t help but raise the sort of interesting questions that would make people want to look closer — like, for instance, the question of just who Bob was. When it was posed to him, Reiche liked to say that everyone who worked on a Toys for Bob game should have his own Bob in mind, serving as an ideal audience of one to be surprised and delighted.

Reiche and Ford planned to keep their company deliberately tiny, signing only short-term contracts with outsiders to do the work that they couldn’t manage on their own. “We’re just people getting a job done,” Reiche said. “There are no politics between [us]. Once you start having art departments and music departments and this department and that department, the organization gets a life of its own.” They would manage to maintain this approach for a long time to come, in defiance of all the winds of change blowing through the industry; as late as 1994, Toys for Bob would permanently employ only three people.

Yet Reiche and Ford balanced this small-is-beautiful philosophy with a determination to avoid the insularity that could all too easily result. They made it a policy to show Toys for Bob’s designs-in-progress to many others throughout their evolution, and to allow the contractors they hired to work on them the chance to make their own substantive creative inputs. For the first few years, Toys for Bob actually shared their offices with another little collective who called themselves Johnson-Voorsanger Productions. They included in their ranks Greg Johnson of Starflight fame and one Robert Leyland, whom Reiche had first met when he did the programming for Murder on the Zinderneuf — Anne Westfall had had her hands full with Archon — back in the Free Fall days. Toys for Bob and Johnson-Voorsanger, these two supposedly separate entities, cross-pollinated one another to such an extent that they might almost be better viewed as one. When the latter’s first game, the cult-classic Sega Genesis action-adventure ToeJam & Earl, was released in 1991, Reiche and Ford made the credits for “Invaluable Aid.” And the influence which Leyland and particularly Johnson would have on Toys for Bob’s games would be if anything even more pronounced.

Toys for Bob’s first game, which they developed for the publisher Accolade, was called Star Control. With it, Reiche looked all the way back to the very dawn of digital gaming — to the original Spacewar!, the canonical first full-fledged videogame ever, developed on a DEC PDP-1 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology circa 1962. In Star Control as in Spacewar!, two players — ideally, two humans, but potentially one human and one computer player, or even two computer players if the “Cyborg Mode” is turned on — fight it out in an environment that simulates proper Newtonian physics, meaning objects in motion stay in motion until a counter-thrust is applied. Players also have to contend with the gravity wells of the planets around them — these in place of the single star which affects the players’ ships in Spacewar! — as they try to blow one another up. But Star Control adds to this formula a wide variety of ships with markedly differing weaponry, defensive systems, sizes, and maneuvering characteristics. In best rock-paper-scissors fashion, certain units have massive advantages over others and vice versa, meaning that a big part of the challenge is that of maneuvering the right units into battle against the enemy’s. As in real wars, most of the battles are won or lost before the shooting ever begins, being decided by the asymmetries of the forces the players manage to bring to bear against one another. Reiche:

It was important to us that each alien ship was highly differentiated. What it means is, unlike, say, Street Fighter, where your characters are supposedly balanced with one another, our ships weren’t balanced at all, one on one. One could be very weak, and one could be very strong, but the idea was, your fleet of ships, your selection of ships in total, was as strong as someone else’s, and then it came down to which match-up did you find. One game reviewer called it, “Rock, Scissors, Vapor,” which I thought was a great expression.

Of course, even the worst match-ups leave a sliver of hope that a brilliant, valorous performance on the field of battle can yet save the day.

You can play Star Control in “Melee” mode as a straight-up free-for-all. Each player gets seven unique ships from the fourteen in the game, from which she gets to choose one for each battle. First player to destroy all of her opponent’s ships wins. But real strategy — that is to say, strategy beyond the logic of rock-paper-scissors match-ups — comes into play only with the full game, which takes the form of a collection of scenarios where each player must deploy her fleet over a galactic map. In the more complex scenarios, controlling more star systems means more resources at one’s disposal, which can be used to build more and better ships at a player’s home starbase; this part of the game draws heavily from the beloved old Atari 8-bit classic Star Raiders. A scenario editor is also included for players who get bored with the nine scenarios that come with the game.

Star Control strains nobly to accommodate many different play styles and preferences. Just as it’s possible to turn on Cyborg Mode in the strategy game and let the computer do the fighting, it’s also possible to turn on “Psytron Mode” and let the computer do the strategy while you concentrate on blowing stuff up.

Star Control in action. The red ship is the infamous Syreen Penetrator.

Yet the aspect of Star Control that most players seem to remember best has nothing to do with any of these efforts to be all things to all players. At some point in the development process, Reiche and Ford realized they needed a context for all this interstellar violence. They came up with an “Alliance of Free Stars” — which included Earthlings among its numbers — fighting a war against the evil “Ur-Quan Hierarchy.” Each group of allies/thralls conveniently consists of seven species, each with their own unique model of spaceship. Not being inclined to take any of this too seriously, Toys for Bob let their whimsy run wild in creating all these aliens, enlisting Greg Johnson — the creator of the similarly winsome and hilarious aliens who inhabit the galaxy of Starflight — to add his input as well. The rogue’s gallery of misfits, reprobates, and genetic oddities that resulted can’t help but make you smile, even if they are more fleshed-out in the manual rather than on the screen.

Reiche on the origins of the Illwrath, a race of arachnid fundamentalists who “receive spiritual endorsement in the accomplishment of vicious surprise attacks”:

The name “Illwrath” comes from an envelope I saw at the post office, which was being sent to a Ms. McIlwrath in Glasgow, Scotland. I didn’t see the “Mc” at first, and I swear, my first thought was that they must be sending that envelope to an alien. I am sure that somewhere there is a nice little Scottish lady laughing and saying, “Oh, those crazy Americans! Here’s one now calling me an evil, giant, religiously-intolerant space spider — ha, ha, ha, how cute!” Hmm… on second thought, if I am ever found beaten with bagpipes or poisoned with haggis, please contact the authorities.

Around the office, Fred Ford liked to say that the Illwrath had become so darn evil by first becoming too darn righteous, wrapping right around the righteousness scale and yielding results akin to all those old computer games which suddenly started showing negative statistics if you built up your numbers too far. (Personally, I favor this idea greatly, and, indeed, even believe it might serve as an explanation for certain forces in current American politics.)

Reiche on the Mmrnmhrm, an “almost interesting robot race” who “fear vowels almost as much as they do a Dreadnought closing in at full bore”:

When I first named the Mmrnmhrm, they actually had a pronounceable name, with vowels and everything. Then, in a sketch for the captain’s window illustration, I forgot to give them a mouth. Later, someone saw the sketch and asked me how they talked, so I clamped my lips shut and said something like, “Mrrk nsss,” thereby instituting a taboo on vowels in anything related to the race. Though the Mmrnmhrm ended up looking more like Daleks than Humans, the name stuck.

Reiche on the Syreen, a group of “humanoid females” who embody — knowingly, one likes to believe — every cliché about troglodyte gamers and the fairer sex, right down to their bulbous breasts that look like they’re filled with sand (their origin story also involves the San Francisco earthquake of 1989):

It was an afternoon late last October in San Francisco when Fred Ford, Greg Johnson, and I sat around a monitor trying to name the latest ship design for our new game. The space vessel on the computer screen looked like a copper-plated cross between Tin Tin’s Destination Moon rocketship and a ribbed condom. Needless to say, we felt compelled to christen this ship carefully, with due consideration for our customers’ sensibilities as well as our artistic integrity. “How about the Syreen Penetrator?” Fred suggested without hesitation. Instantly, the ground did truly rise up and smite us! WHAM-rumble-rumble-WHAM! We were thrown around our office like the bridge crew of the starship Enterprise when under fire by the Klingons. I dimly remember standing in a doorframe, watching the room flex like a cheap cardboard box and shouting, “Maybe that’s not such a great name!” and “Gee, do you think San Francisco’s still standing?” Of course, once the earth stopped moving, we blithely ignored the dire portent, and the Syreen’s ship name, “The Penetrator,” was graven in code.

Since then, we haven’t had a single problem. I mean, everyone has a disk crash two nights before a program is final, right? And hey, accidents happen. Brake pads just don’t last forever! My limp is really not that bad, and Greg is almost speaking normally these days.

Star Control was released in 1990 to cautiously positive reviews and reasonable sales. For all its good humor, it proved a rather polarizing experience. The crazily fast-paced action game at its heart was something that about one-third of players seemed to take to and love, while the rest found it totally baffling, being left blinking and wondering what had just happened as the pieces of their exploded ship drifted off the screen about five seconds after a fight had begun. For these people, Star Control was a hard sell: the strategic game just wasn’t deep enough to stand on its own for long, and, while the aliens described in the manual were certainly entertaining, this was a computer game, not a Douglas Adams book.

Still, the game did sufficiently well that Accolade was willing to fund a sequel. And it was at this juncture that, as I noted at the beginning of this article, Reiche and Ford and their associates went kind of nuts. They threw out the less-than-entrancing strategy part of the first game, kept the action part and all those wonderful aliens, and stuck it all into a grand adventure in interstellar space that owed an awful lot to Starflight — more, one might even say, than it owed to Star Control I.

As in Starflight, you roam the galaxy in Star Control II: The Ur-Quan Masters to avert an apocalyptic threat, collecting precious resources and even more precious clues from the planets you land on, negotiating with the many aliens you meet and sometimes, when negotiations break down, blowing them away. The only substantial aspect of the older game that’s missing from its spiritual successor is the need to manage a bridge crew who come complete with CRPG-style statistics. Otherwise, Star Control II does everything Starflight does and more. The minigame of resource collection on planets’ surfaces, dodging earthquakes and lightning strikes and hostile lifeforms, is back, but now it’s faster paced, with a whole range of upgrades you can add to your landing craft in order to visit more dangerous planets. Ditto space combat, which is now of the arcade style from Star Control I — if, that is, you don’t have Cyborg Mode turned on, which is truly a godsend, the only thing that makes the game playable for many of us. You still need to upgrade your ship as you go along to fight bigger and badder enemies and range faster and farther across space, but now you also can collect a whole fleet of support ships to accompany you on your travels (thus preserving the rock-paper-scissors aspect of Star Control I). I’m not sure that any of these elements could quite carry a game alone, but together they’re dynamite. Much as I hate to employ a tired reviewer’s cliché like “more than the sum of its parts,” this game makes it all but unavoidable.

And yet the single most memorable part of the experience for many or most of us remains all those wonderful aliens, who have been imported from Star Control I and, even better, moved from the pages of the manual into the game proper. Arguably the most indelible of them all, the one group of aliens that absolutely no one ever seems to forget, are the Spathi, a race of “panicked mollusks” who have elevated self-preservation into a religious creed. Like most of their peers, they were present in the first Star Control but really come into their own here, being oddly lovable despite starting the game on the side of the evil Ur-Quan. The Spathi owe more than a little something to the Spemin, Starflight‘s requisite species of cowardly aliens, but are based at least as much, Reiche admits a little sheepishly, on his own aversion to physical danger. Their idea of the perfect life was taken almost verbatim from a conversation about same that Reiche and Ford once had over Chinese food at the office. Here, then, is Reiche and the Spathi’s version of the American Dream:

I knew that someday I would be vastly rich, wealthy enough to afford a large, well-fortified mansion. Surrounding my mansion would be vast tracts of land, through which I could slide at any time I wished! Of course, one can never be too sure that there aren’t monsters hiding just behind the next bush, so I would plant trees to climb at regular, easy-to-reach intervals. And being a Spathi of the world, I would know that some monsters climb trees, though often not well, so I would have my servants place in each tree a basket of perfect stones. Not too heavy, not too light — just the right size for throwing at monsters.

“Running and away and throwing rocks,” explains Reiche, “extrapolated in all ways, has been one of my life strategies.”

The Shofixti, who breed like rabbits. Put the one remaining female in the galaxy together with the one remaining male, wait a couple of years… and poof, you have an army of fuzzy little warmongers on your side. They fight with the same enthusiasm they have for… no, we won’t go there.

My personal favorite aliens, however, are the bird-like Pkunk, a peaceful, benevolent, deeply philosophical race whose ships are nevertheless fueled by the insults they spew at their enemies during battle. They are, of course, merely endeavoring to make sure that their morality doesn’t wrap back around to zero and turn them evil like the Illwrath. “Never be too good,” says Reiche. “Insults, pinching people when they aren’t looking… that’ll keep you safe.”

In light of the aliens Greg Johnson had already created for Starflight, not to mention the similarities between Starflight‘s Spemin and Star Control‘s Spathi, there’s been an occasional tendency to perhaps over-credit his contribution — valuable though it certainly was — to Toys for Bob’s own space epic. Yet one listen to Reiche and Ford in interviews should immediately disabuse anyone of the notion that the brilliantly original and funny aliens in Star Control II are there entirely thanks to Johnson. After listening to Reiche in particular for a few minutes, it really is blindingly obvious that this is the sense of humor behind the Spathi and so many others. Indeed, anyone who has played the game can get a sense of this just from reading some of his quotes in this very article.

There’s a rich vein of story and humor running through even the most practical aspects of Star Control II, as in this report from a planet’s surface. The two complement one another rather than clashing, perhaps because Toys for Bob is clever enough to understand that less is sometimes more. Who are the Liebermann triplets? Who knows? But the line makes you laugh, and that’s the important thing. When a different development team took the reins to make a Star Control III, Reiche’s first piece of advice to them was, “For God’s sake, don’t try to explain everything.” Many a lore-obsessed modern game could afford to take the same advice to heart.

Long after every other aspect of the game has faded from memory, its great good humor, embodied in all those crazy aliens, will remain. It may be about averting a deadly serious intergalactic apocalypse, but, for all that, Star Control II is as warm and fuzzy a space opera as you’ll ever see.

Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t go in for plot. In fact, the sequel’s plot is as elaborate as its predecessor’s was thin; the backstory alone takes up some twenty pages in the manual. The war which was depicted in Star Control I, it turns out, didn’t go so well for the good guys; the sequel begins with you entering our solar system in command of the last combat-worthy craft among a shattered and defeated Alliance of Free Stars. The Ur-Quan soon get wind of your ship’s existence and the last spark of defiance against their rule that it represents, and send a battlefleet toward Earth to snuff it out. And so the race is on to rebuild the Alliance and assemble a fleet of your own before the Ur-Quan arrive. How you do so is entirely up to you. Suffice to say that Earth’s old allies are out there. It’s up to you to find the aliens and convince them to join you in whatever sequence seems best, while finding the resources you need to fuel and upgrade your spaceship and juggling a whole lot of other problems at the same time. This game is as nonlinear as they come.

Star Control II takes itself seriously in the places where it’s important to do so, but never too seriously. Anyone bored with the self-consciously “dark” fictions that so often dominate in our current era of media will find much to appreciate here.

When asked to define what makes a good game, Paul Reiche once said that it “has to have a fun core, which is a one-sentence description of why it’s fun.” Ironically, Star Control II is an abject failure by this standard, pulling in so many directions as to defy any such holistic description. It’s a strategy game of ship and resource management; it’s an action game of ship-versus-ship combat; it’s an adventure game of puzzle-solving and clue-tracking. Few cross-genre games have ever been quite so cross-genre as this one. It really shouldn’t work, but, for the most part anyway, it does. If you’re a person whose ideal game lets you do many completely different things at every session, this might just be your dream game. It really is an experience of enormous richness and variety, truly a game like no other. Small wonder that it’s attracted a cult of players who will happily declare it to be nothing less than the best game ever made.

For my part, I have a few too many reservations to go quite that far. Before I get to them, though, I’d like to let Reiche speak one more time. Close to the time of Star Control II‘s release, he outlined his four guiding principles of game design. Star Control II conforms much better to these metrics than it does to that of the “one-sentence description.”

First, [games should be] fun, with no excuses about how the game simulates the agony and dreariness of the real world (as though this was somehow good for you). Second, they [should] be challenging over a long period of time, preferably with a few ability “plateaus” that let me feel in control for a period of time, then blow me out of the water. Third, they [should] be attractive. I am a sucker for a nice illustration or a funky riff. Finally, I want my games to be conceptually interesting and thought-provoking, so one can discuss the game with an adult and not feel silly.

It’s in the intersection between Reiche’s first and second principles that I have my quibbles with Star Control II. It’s a rather complicated, difficult game by design, which is fair enough as long as it’s complex and difficult in a fun way. Some of its difficulty, however, really doesn’t strike me as being all that much fun at all. Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for a while know that I place enormous weight on fairness and solubility when it comes to the games I review, and don’t tend to cut much slack to those that can only be enjoyed and/or solved with a walkthrough or FAQ to hand. On this front, Star Control II is a bit problematic, due largely to one questionable design choice.

Star Control II, you see, has a deadline. You have about five years before Earth is wiped out by the Ur-Quan (more precisely, by the eviller of the two factions of the Ur-Quan, but we won’t get into that here). Fans will tell you, by no means entirely without justification, that this is an essential part of the game. One of the great attractions of Star Control II is its dynamic universe which just keeps evolving, with or without your intervention: alien spaceships travel around the galaxy just like yours is doing, alien races conquer others and are themselves conquered, etc.

All of this is undoubtedly impressive from a game of any vintage, let alone one as old and technologically limited as this one. And the feeling of inhabiting such a dynamic universe is undoubtedly bracing for anyone used to the more static norm, where things only happen when you push them to happen. Yet it also has its drawbacks, the most unfortunate of which is the crushing sense of futility that comes after putting dozens of hours into the game only to lose it irrevocably. The try-and-try-again approach can work in small, focused games that don’t take long to play and replay, such as the early mysteries of Infocom. In a sprawling epic like this, however… well, does anyone really want to put those dozens of hours in all over again, clicking through page after page of the same text?

Star Control II‘s interface felt like something of a throwback even in its own time. By 1992, computer games had almost universally moved to the mouse-driven point-and-click model. Yet this game relies entirely on multiple-choice menus, activated by the cursor keys and/or a joystick. Toys for Bob was clearly designing with possible console ports in mind. (Star Control was ported to the Sega Genesis, but, as it happened, Star Control II would never get the same honor, perhaps because its sales didn’t quite justify the expense and/or because its complexity was judged unsuited to the console market.) Still, for all that it’s a little odd, the interface is well thought-through, and you get used to it quickly.

There’s an undeniable tension between this rich galaxy, full of unusual sights and entertaining aliens to discover, and the need to stay relentlessly on-mission if you hope to win in the end. I submit that the failure to address this tension is, at bottom, a failure of game design. There’s much that could have been done. One solution might have been to tie the evolving galaxy to the player’s progress through the plot rather than the wall clock, a technique pioneered in Infocom’s Ballyhoo back in 1986 and used in countless narrative-oriented games since. It can convey the impression of rising danger and a skin-of-the-teeth victory every time without ever having to send the player back to square one. In the end, the player doesn’t care whether the exhilarating experience she’s just had is the result of a meticulous simulation coincidentally falling into place just so, or of a carefully manipulated sleight of hand. She just remembers the subjective experience.

But if such a step is judged too radical — too counter to the design ethos of the game — other remedies could have been employed. To name the most obvious, the time limit could have been made more generous; Starflight as well has a theoretical time limit, but few ever come close to reaching it. Or the question of time could have been left to the player — seldom a bad strategy in game design — by letting her choose from a generous, moderate, and challenging time limit before starting the game. (This approach was used to good effect by the CRPG The Magic Candle among plenty of other titles over the years.)

Instead of remedying the situation, however, Reiche and his associates seemed actively determined to make it worse with some of their other choices. To have any hope of finishing the game in time, you need to gain access to a new method of getting around the galaxy, known as “quasi-space,” as quickly as possible. Yet the method of learning about quasi-space is one of the more obscure puzzles in the game, mentioned only in passing by a couple of the aliens you meet, all too easy to overlook entirely. Without access to quasi-space, Star Control II soon starts to feel like a fundamentally broken, unbalanced game. You trundle around the galaxy in your truck of a spaceship, taking months to reach your destinations and months more to return to Earth, burning up all of the minerals you can mine just to feed your engines. And then your time runs out and you lose, never having figured out what you did wrong. This is not, needless to say, a very friendly way to design a game. Had a few clues early on shouted, “You need to get into quasi-space and you may be able to do so here!” just a little more loudly, I may not have felt the need to write any of the last several paragraphs.

I won’t belabor the point any more, lest the mob of Star Control II zealots I can sense lurking in the background, sharpening their pitchforks, should pounce. I’ll say only that this game is, for all its multifaceted brilliance, also a product of its time — a time when games were often hard in time-extending but not terribly satisfying ways, when serious discussions about what constituted fair and unfair treatment of the player were only just beginning to be had in some quarters of the industry.

Searching a planet’s surface for minerals, lifeforms, and clues. Anyone who has played Starflight will feel right at home with this part of the game in particular.

Certainly, whatever our opinion of the time limit and the game’s overall fairness, we have to recognize what a labor of love Star Control II was for Paul Reiche, Fred Ford, and everyone who helped bring it to fruition, from Greg Johnson and Robert Leyland to all of the other writers and artists and testers who lent it their talents. Unsurprisingly given its ambition, the project went way beyond the year or so Accolade had budgeted for it. When their publisher put their foot down and said no more money would be forthcoming, Reiche and Ford reached deep into their own pockets to carry it through the final six months.

As the project was being wrapped up, Reiche realized he still had no music, and only about $1500 left for acquiring some. His solution was classic Toys for Bob: he ran an online contest for catchy tunes, with prizes of $25, $50, and $100 — in addition to the opportunity to hear one’s music in (hopefully) a hit game, of course. The so-called “tracker” scene in Europe stepped up with music created on Commodore Amigas, a platform for which the game itself would never be released. “These guys in Europe [had] just built all these ricky-tink programs to play samples out,” says Reiche. “They just kept feeding samples, really amazing soundtracks, out into the net just for kicks. I can’t imagine any of these people were any older than twenty. It makes me feel like I’m part of a bigger place.”

Upon its release on November 30, 1992 — coincidentally, the very same day as Dune II, its companion in mislabeled sequels — Star Control II was greeted with excellent reviews, whose enthusiasm was blunted only by the game’s sheer unclassifiability. Questbusters called it “as funny a parody of science-fiction role-playing as it is a well-designed and fun-to-play RPG,” and named it “Best RPG of the Year” despite it not really being a CRPG at all by most people’s definitions. Computer Gaming World placed it on “this reviewer’s top-ten list of all time” as “one of the most enjoyable games to review all year,” and awarded it “Adventure Game of the Year” alongside Legend Entertainment’s far more traditional adventure Eric the Unready.

Sales too were solid, if not so enormous as Star Control II‘s staying power in gamers’ collective memory might suggest. Like Dune II, it was probably hurt by being billed as a sequel to a game likely to appeal most to an entirely different type of player, as it was by the seeming indifference of Accolade. In the eyes of Toys for Bob, the developer/publisher relationship was summed up by the sticker the latter started putting on the box after Star Control II had collected its awards: “Best Sports Game of 1992.” Accolade was putting almost all of their energy into sports games during this period, didn’t have stickers handy for anything else, and just couldn’t be bothered to print up some new ones.

Still, the game did well enough that Toys for Bob, after having been acquired by a new CD-ROM specialist of a publisher called Crystal Dynamics, ported it to the 3DO console in 1994. This version added some eight hours of spoken dialog, but cut a considerable amount of content that the voice-acting budget wouldn’t cover. Later, a third Star Control would get made — albeit not by Toys for Bob but by Legend Entertainment, through a series of intellectual-property convolutions we won’t go into in this article.

Toys for Bob themselves have continued to exist right up to the present day, a long run indeed in games-industry terms, albeit without ever managing to return to the Star Control universe. They’re no longer a two-man operation, but do still have Paul Reiche III and Fred Ford in control.

To this day, Star Control II remains as unique an experience as it was in 1992. You’ve never played a game quite like this one, no matter how many other games you’ve played in your time. Don’t even try to categorize it. Just play it, and see what’s possible when a talented design team throws out all the rules. But before you do, let me share just one piece of advice: when an alien mentions something about a strange stellar formation near the Chandrasekhar constellation, pay attention! Trust me, it will save you from a world of pain…

(Sources: Compute!’s Gazette of November 1984; Compute! of January 1992 and January 1993; Computer Gaming World of November 1990, December 1990, March 1993, and August 1993; InterActivity of November/December 1994; Questbusters of January 1993; Electronic Gaming Monthly of May 1991; Sega Visions of June 1992; Retro Gamer 14 and 15. Online sources include Ars Technica‘s video interview with Paul Reiche III and Fred Ford; Matt Barton’s interviews with the same pair in Matt Chat 95, 96, and 97; Grognardia‘s interview with Reiche; The Escapist‘s interview with Reiche; GameSpot‘s interview with Reiche.

There’s a rather depressing pitched legal dispute swirling around the Star Control intellectual property at the moment, which has apparently led to Star Control I and II being pulled from digital-download stores. Your best option to experience Star Control II is thus probably The Ur-Quan Masters, a loving open-source re-creation based on Toys for Bob’s 3DO source code. Or go hunt down the original on some shadowy corner of the interwebs. I won’t say anything if you don’t.)

 
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Posted by on December 21, 2018 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction