How Makers of 'System Shock' and 'Ultima Underworld' Rediscovered Their Roots

In 1992, Warren Spector and Paul Neurath invented the immersive sim – now they're trying again

Warren Spector, creator of 'Deus Ex' and 'System Shock.' Credit: Glixel/Getty/PSM3

Sometime in early 1990, Paul Neurath showed the team at Origin Systems – creators of legendary games like Ultima and Wing Commander – a tech demo he'd built with programmer Doug Church and artist Doug Wike. It was for a new game, presented in a way that had never been seen before – in fully-textured first-person real-time 3D. And it rocked then-producer Warren Spector's world, setting him on a course that would lead him to head the development of groundbreaking games like System Shock and Deus Ex.

"I shouldn't say this, but I remember there were a bunch of Origin folks crowded around the screen looking at it, and several of the people there shrugged their shoulders and said, 'Yeah, that's cool.' And I looked at it and said, 'Do you not realize that the entire world just changed?' I browbeat my boss at Origin to let me work on the project with Paul and the rest is history. I was hooked."

Neurath's nascent studio was called Blue Sky Productions, but it would soon be renamed Looking Glass. The 1990 demo went on to become 1992's Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, which launched two months before the technically simpler – but still impressive – Wolfenstein 3D by Id Software. The genre Looking Glass were about to mint was the immersive sim, which blended the rich choice and systematic consequence of the RPG with the sense of "being there" that comes with a first-person perspective. And Ultima Underworld and Looking Glass would directly result in the creation of some of the greatest games of all time: System Shock, Deus Ex, Thief, BioShock, and Dishonored.