Underworld Ascendant Q&A
Last month you guys had the chance to submit your questions for a new Q&A with some of the OtherSide Entertainment developers. Here are their answers.
CouchPotato: What games do you play in your spare time, and if you could name your top five RPG games?
Tim Stellmach: When I have spare time these days, it mostly goes to Minecraft, as well as various board games (mostly co-ops). I guess I channel all my aggression into designing monsters instead!
If I have to pick five all-time favorite cRPGs, I’ll say Final Fantasy: Tactics, Deus Ex, Fallout: New Vegas/Fallout 3 (is that cheating?), System Shock 2, and Ultima VII.
Joe Fielder: Lately, I've played a lot of Dragon Age: Inquisition, Shadow of Mordor, Alien: Isolation, Transistor, FTL, and the board game Eldritch Horror. The Talos Principle, Darkest Dungeon, and Wasteland 2 are next on my list.
My favorite RPGs would probably have to be Chrono Trigger, Dragon Wars (aka "Bard's Tale IV"), Final Fantasy Tactics, Neuromancer, and Ultima Underworld.
Chris Siegel – Currently, I’m playing Dark Souls II, Chivalry, The Crew, Far Cry 4 and I have an unhealthy addiction to Marvel Heroes. In the RPG space, well this is a loaded question. What is an RPG? If we use the definition of Role Playing as playing a role, Thief:TDP , Shadows of Mordor, and Assassins Creed: Black Flag are up there as my favorites. In the conventional sense, as in CRPGs Baldur’s Gate II, Planescape Torment, Elder Scrolls:Morrowind, Mass Effect II, and all of the SSI gold box games. If I had to pick one of those, Pools of Darkness. Questing inside the dead god Moander with level 25 characters was pretty awesome.
CouchPotato: Most of your employees are veterans of the game industry, and have worked on various games over the years. So I was wondering if you could share your opinion on the current state of the game industry?
Joe Fielder: I think it's a really exciting time for games right now, both in the indie and AAA space. It feels like there's a shift toward creating experiences that are unique to our medium. The industry seems to be coming back around toward the sort of player driven narrative and emergent sandbox gameplay that Paul, Tim, and the others helped invent back with Ultima Underworld and Ultima Underworld 2.
Chris Siegel: Broken but getting better. Over the past 10 years the developer has lost complete control of his work. As a film studio exec once said to me “Where are your creative millionaires? I don’t trust an industry that does not compensate the creatives.” He’s right.
When I was working for a publisher owned development house we spent far too much time talking about money and marketing, and far less talking about making a fun engaging game. Games became big business, especially now with the mobile F2P space. It’s hard to fight against that in a large corporation where money is always first. They see the dollar signs. In this environment it is a tough sell to do anything risky, or even slightly off the beaten path. Hollywood has the same pressures, it’s easier to make sequels, or to follow the emulation targets. But in both games and film this leads to very stale entertainment.
But there is hope. Over the past 2 or 3 years indies are getting headlines finally. Between kickstarter and Steam Greenlight developers stand a chance to make the games they want to make without all the crazy overhead that comes with a publisher. Risk and reward. Finally we can push the envelope that frankly has been pretty stale for the past generation. Sandboxes are better than ever, and UI is streamlined, and graphics are mind blowing, but as a player I spend most of the time being railroaded into a narrative that is not mine. That bothers me. I rarely as a gamer finish games because I’m just not interested in the story the developer laid out for me. I’m far more interested in solving problems…or causing them.
This is also the first time that a midsized studio like us, or InXile will get the profits, or at least a large chunk of them. This is very new in our industry. Developers don’t make money compared to say, creative in film or television. That is starting to change. I hate to look at what we do as a business, I think most of us in the development space do, but being on the indie side have me very excited to ‘put up or shut up’.
CouchPotato: To add to the last question whats your opinion on Modern RPGs games nowadays? I only ask because we always hear developers talk about simplifying games.
Tim Stellmach: The game audience in general has expanded enormously since I started in the business. We’ve had the hard-core RPG audience all along, but now there are games to serve a much wider audience as well. And that’s great, but for a while it seemed like the hobby RPG gamer was getting crowded out in the competition for shelf space. That’s all changing now with the rise of new platforms and indie distribution channels. It’s vastly easier now to serve the needs both audiences.
Chris Siegel: Simplifying is a double edged sword. Simplifying control schemes, UI and interaction are great. Those problems have all been pretty much solved to an extent.
But the simplification of gameplay, of player options, of player agency in the world? That is troubling. In most modern sandboxes there is a very limited number of simulations going on. Most of the time interacting with them has no real bearing on the world. The AI is not playing with you, or against you. If I’m in a game that has warring factions, why is the AI not playing an RTS in my sandbox? Surely Ruler A wants to win, and probably wants to go take over territory. Ruler B is thinking the same thing. Why are they not duking it out? Why is it that it always is centrally focused on me? Sure I’m the superhero, and I will probably save the day, but why don’t I have the option to flip that table and be Darth Vader? They occasionally do put in some arbitrary ‘choice’. The choice really doesn’t seem to have any real effect other than what end game movie I get. As developers we have to get over the urge to control the player. We all hated that DM back in our tabletop days, why do we do it to our players in the games we create?
CouchPotato: Richard Garriott stated on the Shroud of the Avatar website that he will be helping you with the story & Lore, and I was wondering if you could talk more about how this will work?
Tim Stellmach: Richard’s team is co-developing back story with us. If you look at the three main factions in Underworld Ascendant, it’s kind of symbolic: there’s one (the dwarves) from the original Underworld games, one (the dark elves) that’s a crossover from Shroud of the Avatar, and one (the shamblers) that’s wholly new. We even have Tracy Hickman (bestselling author, and SotA story developer) on board to develop the connection with an Underworld Ascendant novel, telling how a clan of dark elves made their exodus to the Stygian Abyss.
CouchPotato: So how would you sell your game to backers who never played the original games?
Joe Fielder: As someone who didn't work on the original games, I'd say you should really check them out. You'll quickly recognize that there's incredibly innovative sandbox gameplay at work there, aspects of which I don't think anyone's ever followed up on fully. In many ways, they feel very modern and even ahead of the curve. You can see how they helped influence games like Deus Ex, BioShock, Minecraft, and Skyrim and will keep inspiring game makers into the future. Even a little time playing Ultima Underworld will likely make you walk away thinking, "I can't wait to play what that team makes next..."
DarNoor: My question pertains to funding. You are only asking for 600k. That seems quite low for a game like this. So do ypu have additional funding avenues such as personal investors? Also, do you plan do do early access? Thanks.
Paul: We did raise some investment before we started the Kickstarter. So we’re not starting at zero.
Early access is available now as part of our crowdfunding campaign. In addition, higher pledge levels get to participate in various types of design events with the team.
Nameless one: What made you decide to go with Unity engine instead of Unreal or some other alternative? Was cost only reason or are there other factors?
Tim Stellmach: The big attraction of Unity for me is its flexibility. Unity gives tremendous scripting access, and I think that’s reflected in the wide variety of games you see using it. Unreal is great, but if you look at Unreal games, it’s a much narrower field. That’s the trade-off each of those companies has made.
In our case, we need to do a lot of prototyping and iteration on a wide variety of game systems and player tools.
Chris Siegel: We chose Unity 4.6 for the prototype because there is nothing better for rapid iteration. One of the things we have all learned in our years of doing this is gameplay first, looks second. We wanted to hit the ground and experiment with some of our game ideas first, and try to show them off for the Kickstarter as quickly as we could. The prototype footage in the videos is after about 6 weeks of development time.
You: The kickstarter presentation talked more about history and not so much on future; can you expand more on the future ?
Tim: We’re pushing forward on multiple fronts. With the state of the art already so far advanced in physics and rendering, we can focus on integrating new developments in ecological modeling, diplomatic AI, and more. These are the big-picture systems that will make the Underworld an even more vibrant, reactive setting than ever.
And we expect there to be more opportunities in the course of development that will surprise us. One thing we learned a long time ago is that to make great games, you have to be really open and flexible as you go. You can know what your goals are, and what your process of discovery will be, but to achieve anything really new and interesting you never have a blueprint for everything, at least not at first. On Underworld Ascendant, we’re excited to be sharing that process of discovery for the first time with our backer community.
Rjshae: Is this game going to use a fully realized three-dimensional environment with climbing, jumping, falling, levitation, and flying?
Tim Stellmach: Yes, in some form. The specifics will undoubtedly evolve during development. In general, the level layout in the original Underworld games was heavily constrained by the technology at the time. Even having different floor elevations at all was a unique feature back then! So our world design and movement systems can make much more use of vertical space in Underworld Ascendant.
And you left out diving and rope swinging!
Xian: I enjoyed the combat in the original games, will Underworld Ascendant use a similar method?
Tim Stellmach: The core will be the same, in that there will be a lot of focus on timing and footwork in melee. That keeps combat from settling into hacking from static positions, what I often call “chopping down trees.” That leads to more interesting behaviors out of physics and AI. We’re also developing ways to extend that system, to get even more dynamic, running battles and engagement with the environment.
rune_74: Are spells going to be like the old underworld game? Will there be any cities?
Tim Stellmach: We’re taking the rune magic system from the original games as our jumping-off point. We’ll be doing some experiments with extending that implicit idea of magical language, shooting for a more expressive system. Should be fun!
Tim Stellmach: Each of the major factions in Underworld Ascendant has its own home settlement, though I’d describe them as “towns” more than cities. We like the aesthetic of enclosed spaces, and much of the world will be contested territory and outright wilderness.
Dajjer: Will you have to eat and sleep, and most importantly do npcs have schedules?
Tim Stellmach: Yes and yes. That sense of wilderness survival from the start of the first Ultima Underworld is an important part of our overall journey for the player, from outsider to tourist to, finally, master of their domain. Part of that process will be forging relationships with the Underworld’s inhabitants. And they will not be just standing around waiting to give you quests! They have their own lives and agendas that you will have to discover.
Farflame: One memorable moment in UU1 was that "lizardmen language quest" when you learn lizard words to talk with lizardman. Could we expect something like that (or more) in Ascendant?
Tim Stellmach: As a matter of fact, lizardmen are part of the stretch goals in our current Kickstarter campaign. I’m hopeful and optimistic that we’ll get to do them. I’ve already told the team that I’ll personally wrestle any of them for the chance to update the lizardman language.
Joe Fielder: The Lizardmen language quest was one of my favorite parts of Ultima Underworld, so I'd personally love a chance to build further upon that particular corner of the Underworld mythos.
Farflame: Mr. Neurath said: "quests and story in Underworld are player-driven." Does it mean…
1. Sandbox made of many mostly simple quests.
2. There are few main stories or set of events which are not presented in the intro but player can uncover and pursue them.
What is closer to your vision?
Tim Stellmach: More the latter. I think it’s closest to describe the plot as the skeleton of the game, with the meat being open play. So there is definitely a structure there that helps orient and motivate the action, but what really makes up the bulk of the game is created by the player, not the designers. We just set up the circumstances to allow that to happen.
Farflame: Do you use lore from UU1 about Cabirus and the history of colony in Stygian Abyss? If so how are you going to change it to bring in your new races which werent in UU1?
Tim Stellmach: Yes. In fact, all of the characters, settings, and lore from the original Underworld games are available to us, and we’re drawing elements from both UU1 and UU2. We’ve teased some elements of this. For example, the dwarves were a prominent faction in UU1, while the dark elves came from New Britannia, the world of Shroud of the Avatar. Without giving away too much, it helps that all these games have strong themes of inter-dimensional travel.
Joe Fielder: We have big plans in the works. If you haven't played the original games, you'll be able to jump right in and enjoy the story immediately, but if you have, there will be aspects to the narrative that you'll enjoy even more.
Farflame: You recruited Joe Fielder who was a writer for BioShock Infinite. Do you/he has some fresh idea how to approach dialogues in underground fantasy realm? How to make some races/NPCs unique?
Joe Fielder: We definitely want to give Underworld Ascendant that deep, dark dungeon fantasy feel that was so fantastic in the original games, but in a fresh, original way that's all its own. We want it to feel familiar, but also be full of surprises. Part of that means coming up with takes on races that you haven't seen before.
We've discussed the Dark Elves as being a sort of a mix of Spartan warriors and social Darwinists, completely dedicated to pushing themselves to mental and physical perfection. Meanwhile, the Dwarves are shrewd, rugged frontiersmen, like early pioneers like Kit Carson with a bit of Deadwood and Jeremiah Johnson. They feel a real sense of ownership over The Underworld, because they helped erect much of its infrastructure. And the Shamblers are a fungal hivemind society that views The Stygian Abyss as a complete ecosystem... that would likely function better under its care.
Each faction has its own unique philosophy and agenda, which may at times make its followers into heroes or villains depending on your outlook. Each group has valid reasons for their actions – and they're definitely headed for conflict.
Farflame: Do you plan some mechanics for more realistic damage and recovery? For example - damaged arms are unusable for some time, vision can be blurred when you are strucked or confused by spell, full recovery needs healing skill and herbs… etc.?
Tim Stellmach: Without getting into specifics, we’re really interested in combat being about more than just knocking down each others’ hit point bars. We’re developing a variety of combat effects, conditions, and such. This will be less of a factor for starting players to think about, but as your character’s abilities expand (especially along the Fighter skill track) so will the depth of the combat model.
Farflame: What level of interactivity between items and game world could we expect from your Improvisation Engine? For example - could you use hammer and chisel to cut holes (crude stairs) in rock walls to climb up? Or throw boulders into stream to create a pond?
Tim Stellmach: We’ll be able to do some interesting things with destroying and transforming things around you, but the specifics are a major subject of iteration for us. The hydrology of the Underworld is definitely an area of we’re actively developing, as we’re evaluating the most fruitful approaches to our ecological system.
mercy: Will we be able to kick in locked doors? Can we lay traps? And Will there be a levitation spell to quickly fly through the dungeon like in The Elder Scrolls: Arena?
Tim Stellmach: As a matter of fact, forcing doors was one of the very first interactions we added when we started our prototype. Laying traps is high on our list for the Thief skill track. And we have a whole variety of movement options, both magical and non-magical.
Nerevarine: Arx Fatalis was a very logical progression of the Ultima Underworld design template. Have the developers played or examined Arx Fatalis? If so, how much have the ideas introduced in Arx Fatalis influenced the development?
Tim Stellmach: It’s been a long time now since I played it. I remember thinking they really captured the tone of imprisonment. And their magic system was daring (if not without its rough edges). I imagine I’ll be coming back to it more than once in the course of development.
Kordanor: In Mass Effect 3 and other games the Multiplayer Mode seems like a tacked on feature which the game didn't really profit from. How do you think Co-op will be integrated so that it feels integrated, complementing the game?
Paul: That’s a good question. There’s no doubt that if you add co-op to a single player game after the fact, that’s really challenging to do well. So, if you take that approach, it does show. We’re looking forward to being able to tackle that from the ground up on Underworld Ascendant, and we think we’ve got some innovative solutions to it. Right now, we haven’t talked much about it because it’s still a pretty far-off stretch goal. We’ll have a lot more to say as it comes on the horizon.
Dogar: Will the thief class be inspired by Thief, one of Neurath's previous games? If so, how so?
Tim Stellmach: Well, we happen to have the lead designer of the original Thief games on board. I think it’s fair to say we helped write the book on stealth gameplay. That said, there are big differences between building the whole game around stealth and supporting it as one possible play style. You can play Underworld Ascendant many different ways.
Pessimeister: What can you tell us about the nature of the dungeon design in Underworld Ascendant and how will it differ compared to the original games. and will it feature any similar classic
Tim Stellmach: The biggest difference is that we’re able to do such more, just from a technical standpoint, than was possible in 1992. In those days, you couldn’t even dive underwater, or have one tunnel cross over another. So we have a lot more freedom with vertical space, and varied movement modes. Stylistically, though, it’s still a dungeon crawl, with a lot of the same classic design tropes (like secret doors, traps, the importance of light and darkness).
Pessimeister: What can you tell us about the dungeon delving music of Underworld Ascendant? It would be amazing to hear new work from George Sanger (aka the Fatman), or even a modern re-imagining of any themes from the original games in Underworld Ascendant.
Tim Stellmach: In fact, for our Kickstarter campaign video, we selected a piece based on Sanger’s original Underworld themes. That was done by Michael Veloso, a classically-trained composer lately of Harmonix Music Systems. We love it!
Pessimeister: Are you planning to have many easter eggs from the original games as the crew from Arkane did in Arx Fatalis? (Ultima Underworld mode)
Tim Stellmach: I’d hate to compare. But our games have always had a lot of love letters to the games that came before them, like the Akalabeth-inspired maze in Underworld II and the “Game Pig” games in the System Shock games. I expect it’ll be hard to restrain ourselves.
Nerevarine: How much will the later games from Looking Glass Studios, along with Deus Ex, influence Underworld Ascendant?
Tim Stellmach: Quite a lot. Of course, the original Underworld games are the source of our story, tone, and themes. But we learned a lot since making them, and the industry as a whole has moved forward too! Tiger Style’s Waking Mars (designed by Looking Glass alum Randy Smith) is a high water mark in ecological gameplay, for example. We’ll build on elements of stealth gameplay from Thief, character customization from System Shock 2, and more.
Chris Siegel: LGS influences me when I look at games every day. So, from my point of view, that is the bar I want to reach with Underworld Ascendant.
That's all guys I hope it wasn't to long. I wish to thank everyone at OtherSide Entertainment for answering all of our questions, and all of you who sent me your questions.
You can still pledge to the Kickstarter, and help fund more stretch goals.
Information aboutUnderworld Ascendant
Developer: OtherSide Entertainment
Play-time: 20-40 hours
Voice-acting: Partially voiced
Regions & platforms
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2018-11-15
· Publisher: 505 Games