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

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

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

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

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

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.

26 years later, Spector is working with Neurath again, and they're collaborating on two of their most treasured creations from that golden age. But the studio is new: OtherSide Entertainment. At OtherSide's Austin branch, Spector is building a studio to make System Shock 3. In Boston, meanwhile, Neurath is working on Underworld Ascendant, a third game in the series, having spent 20 years trying to get the license out of Electronic Arts, who finally agreed on the basis that they wouldn't permit use of the Ultima name. And also a spin-off, Underworld Overlord, which became OtherSide's first release when it came out on December 8.

Overlord is perhaps not what you're expecting. It's certainly not an immersive sim but it is immersive in its own right – it's built specifically for Google's Daydream mobile VR platform. Spector neatly describes it as "Dungeon Keeper meets tower defense." You play as an evil lich defending your dungeon against heroes out to plunder your treasure. You can move your view of the action by jumping between floating eyeballs throughout the level and you control your disembodied lich hand through gestures with Daydream's wireless motion controller. You can cast spells, set traps, and command your monsters to take the invading heroes down. If they get to your "animus," where your life force is stored, it's game over.

It might seem something of a deviation for a studio with a heritage like OtherSide's, but Overlord sits closer to Neurath's interests and experience than it might seem. He's been working with VR since the Nineties, when Looking Glass' System Shock and Flight Unlimited were patched with support for Forte's VFX1 and the Victormaxx CyberMaxx. These early headsets were on the cutting edge in their day, though they were cursed with bad optics, limited head tracking, and laggy performance that made users hurl.

We're very stubborn and we're very committed to a particular approach to games that is finally coming back.

"The opportunity to do a VR game was something I've been keeping an eye out for," Neurath says of the project, which has taken six months to build and launch. "When we heard about Daydream, we thought it was a great opportunity. It's a lot about learning. I go into a lot of games knowing I don't know a lot and that we have to figure a lot of stuff out. That can be scary but also very motivating and fun. You can get some great innovations out of that."

Overlord was conceived from an ambition to make a comfortable VR game, which is why it presents its action from switchable vantage points instead of first-person. According to Spector, he and Neurath learned during their earliest experiments in Nineties that most people simply don't want to play longform games in VR. Beyond all that, Spector and Neurath hope that Overlord conveys what VR is good at creating: "The sense that you're in that environment and can manipulate things, that's a very powerful piece of VR," Neurath says.

Working with mobile games isn't unfamiliar to him, either. His previous studio, Floodgate Entertainment, which he founded in 2000, initially worked on the Neverwinter Nights series and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic before transitioning into casual and mobile games. The studio was acquired by the then Facebook-focused game studio Zynga in 2011. "It was an interesting time, for sure," Neurath says.

At Floodgate, he started to see the challenges small studios would face in getting traction on Facebook and the App Store and the advantages having the backing of Zynga would bring. The studio was the 10th acquisition Zynga had made in just 10 months, and it collected many other greatly experienced developers, such as Brian Reynolds, creator of Civilization II and Alpha Centauri. "I learned a lot, no regrets in that sense," he continues. "[Things] obviously didn't quite pan out for Zynga. When we were acquired, it was the peak, but Facebook and social gaming didn't grow as people were projecting." Floodgate was closed in 2014.

Spector has weathered similar storms in the games industry, having sold his studio, Junction Point to Disney in 2007, only to have it closed down in 2013. "I needed some different challenges because I had been making games for 30 years," he says. He established a game development program at the University of Texas, but midway through his three-year contract, he started to get restless. "I realized I still had things I needed to make," he says. "I needed to make some games."

Neurath called to ask if Spector would be on his advisory board alongside Doug Church, the programmer on the original Ultima Underworld demo. Spector eagerly obliged. "Underworld was a seminal experience for me," he says. He also helped fundraise for the studio, and during a fundraising trip they took together, Neurath revealed that he'd bought the rights to make a System Shock game. "I jokingly said, 'I should make that for you,'" Spector says. Two weeks later, Neurath called and ask him to make it for him.

There's a real sense that OtherSide is a group of developers who have come full circle on the ideas about player-led game design, the ideas that led to the immersive sim which first got them excited about making games. Apart from Neurath and Spector, there are plenty of developers at OtherSide with a similar pedigree: Nate Wells, who started his career at Looking Glass and served as art director on BioShock and The Last of Us; designer Steve Nadeau, who got his break working on Flight Unlimited; and Joe Fielder, who wrote on BioShock Infinite.

"We're very stubborn and we're very committed to a particular approach to games that is finally coming back," says Spector. "It's funny, back in the day, we'd look at each other and ask why everyone isn't making games like this. This is so obviously what makes games unique."

They're bringing to bear all the experience they've learned since, and applying modern technology to games that not too long ago had to fake with heavy scripting the spellbinding realness of their worlds. Today, the immersive sim gets much closer to a simulation, better realizing its promise of a world in which players can express themselves by freely and creatively solving problems.

It takes a particular kind of studio – a studio like Looking Glass, perhaps – to make games that really live up to this ideal. "Us being independent, nimble, able to be innovative and take creative risks is a strength in tackling these kinds of experiences," says Neurath. And perhaps, having weathered acquisitions and closures before, it's something he'll be able to maintain. For Spector, it’s about building a creative and collaborative culture in which it’s possible to express strong opinion. “I like to describe it as respectful argumentation. Out of arguments you get the best ideas, and from passion you get the best ideas.”

"If I couldn't make games like Underworld, System Shock, Thief, Deus Ex, I would stop making games, " he says. " I have no interest in doing anything else."