Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss

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a game by Blue Sky Productions
Platform: PC
User Rating: 6.0/10 - 2 votes
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See also: RPGs, Ultima Games
Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss
Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss
Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss
Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss

Games That Changed The World

A couple of fundamental myths surround the conception, birth and being of the very first Ultima Underworld adventure - one of the greatest and most influential role-playing games ever made. First myth: that Origin was responsible for making the game. Bzzzt! Wrong! Although Origin published the game (which was distributed by US Gold in the UK at the time), Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (to give the first game its full title), was in fact created in whole by Blue Sky Productions - a small New Hampshire-based development team who built its own software technology in 1990 and immediately struck up a publishing deal with Origin. After the game’s release, and thanks to some overly enthusiastic press, Origin was -wrongly - hailed as 'the gaming company responsible for Ultima Underworld'. A mistake they did little to address. Why the confusion? Quite simply, because of the 'Ultima’ name. Underworld was the first of the infamous Ultima series to be developed by a studio outside of Origin. Up until that point, all the Ultimas had been the brainchild of Richard Garriot and developed by in-house teams. Furthermore, Ultima was Origin’s premier brand at the time, and they were understandably protective of the franchise. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that in the game’s press and marketing there was scant mention of Blue Sky. Many assumed (and still assume) that Underworld was, like prior Ultimas, created within Origin. They were (and still are) wrong.

Second myth: that Warren 'Deus Ex' Spector created Ultima Underworld. Bzzzt! Wrong again! At the end of the day it was very much a team effort, though if one person had to be singled out as 'the creator of Ultima Underworld' it would have to be Paul Neurath - a D&D fan who learnt how to program at college during the 70s - and, notably, the guy who came up with the idea of crossing a dungeon game with real-time, flight simulator-style graphics... Another key player in the Ultima Underworld success story was programmer Doug Church - the man who made the 3D visuals so amazing to look at. Industry guru and immersive gaming specialist Warren Spector was indeed the producer on both Ultima Underworld games, though he arrived very late in the schedule on the first game. But, as Warren points out when you ask him, he did "sweat blood" over Underworld once on board.

Paul Neurath expands on this: "Not long after Underworld's release, Blue Sky Productions merged with another developer and became Looking Glass. This added another layer of confusion in the game’s lineage. One steady voice throughout this period was Warren, who as producer for Underworld and its sequel, often became Origin’s spokesperson for the games. That was why people began to associate the game with Warren."

Conception Of A Classic

So that’s the myths settled, now onto the game itself. As anyone lucky enough to have played Ultima Underworld at the time will already know, this was a game that broke the mould. It blew everyone away at the time -1992 - to be precise.

"Actually," says Paul, "the concept for Underworld first came up in 1989, after I had finished a game called Space Rogue for Origin. Space Rogue took the first, tentative steps in exploring a blend of RPG and simulation elements, and this seemed to me a promising direction. However, I didn’t like the jarring way that Space Rogue took the player from the simulation of flying around, which was done in 3D, to the RPG play, which was done with traditional top-down 'tile’ graphics. I felt that there ought to be a seamless way to meld these elements, and thereby create a more immersive experience." And there was. Paul had been experimenting with a primitive texture-mapping algorithm on the Apple lie system he had at the time, though it ran too slowly to be of practical use. "I thought that on a faster IBM PC it just might be feasible, and with such a technology one could create lifelike 3D interior spaces for an entire game world." And from these threads sprung the concept for Underworld.

"I wrote a high-concept design in the winter of 1990," says Paul, "and contracted with an ex-Origin artist, Doug Wike, to render an animation that emulated what the final game might look like. Then in the spring I formed Blue Sky, and brought on board the core team to develop the game. This included Doug Church and Dan Schmidt - who proved to be masterful programmers - Doug Wike as lead artist, and myself as creative director." The team got a running demo up in short order that let the player run around in texture-mapped 3D dungeon corridors. It was primitive stuff by today’s standards, but at that time nobody had seen anything like it.

"Demo in hand," Paul continues, "we , pitched the Underworld concept to various publishers. Origin liked what it saw, and suggested that we set the game in the Ultima mythos and brand it as an 'Ultima’. We hadn’t actually contemplated this of course when we came up with the original design - and it had not been set in Britannia. But we thought this was a fine idea, signed a publishing deal with Origin that summer, and the game became Ultima Underworld"

Ground-Breaking Techniques

Like other Ultima games before it, in Underworld you took the role of the infamous Avatar: a bloke dragged from the real world to Britannia - a realm of swords, sorcery, monsters and magic -and who was usually dropped into some God-awful situation and expected to solve his way out of it. In the first UU, you - as the Avatar - are framed for kidnapping Baron Almric’s daughter and are banished into the Great Stygian Abyss to either return the missing girl, or rot in hell forever.

Although the storyline could not be considered particularly original or innovative, the techniques used to bring the game to life certainly were. Technologically, Blue Sky pulled out the stops, as programmer Doug Church testifies: "We wanted to do a dungeon simulator and none of the programmers had really done this sort of game, so we were pretty ambitious and not too smart, basically. But it was the first 'indoor’ real-time 3D game that allowed the player to look up and down, and jump, and had chasms, lighting, multiple heights, and 3D objects such as doors, benches and ankhs." Which made a massive difference at the time, as Paul Neurath remembers:

"I brought an early Underworld demo to the West Coast to show some folks, including developer friends. I can remember their jaws dropping as they watched the demo. You could see in their eyes that the gaming world had shifted." Up until that point gamers had grown accustomed to classic 'tile-based’ RPGs such as Dungeon Master, which did not allow complete freedom of movement. "It was kinda slow, too." admits Doug, "though our quarter-screen view sort of made up for it." Admittedly the game was slow, even on a top-of-the-range-at-the-time 486DX2 66MHz. though that did little to dampen the enthusiasm of anyone who played it.

Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss shipped in March 1992 - two whole months before John 'Quake' Carmack and Apogee released Wolfenstein 3D - something worth remembering if you assumed that Wolfenstein 'started’ the whole 3D revolution.

"Underworld shipped before Wolfenstein 3D. We had shown id a demo the year before, and I remember John Carmack (who was all of about 19 at the time, and as yet unknown in the games industry) saying that he could write a faster texture mapper..." Doug Church warns that the UUfWolf 3D engines were very different and that comparing them would be unfair. While we agree with Doug to some extent, in our humble opinion Ultima Underworld was a far bolder exercise in terms of fully realising the gaming environment. Wolfenstein may have been fast, but the levels were boxy and lacked the scope and realism of Ulfs superbly organic designs. On top of that, Underworld went five or six steps further in terms of game design - with non-player characters, proper conversations, multiple solutions to problems, a rune-based magic system, a flexible inventory, and much more besides. Which, in our eyes, makes the game even more ground-breaking than many people give it credit for.

"I think the most important thing UU did," says Doug, "was the way in which it attempted to show the power and value of a style and type of gameplay." In other words, it had an open-endedness - a freedom - that shaped the way immersive action games would be made in the future. Though as Doug points out, not many games went in that direction until much later.

Unparalleled Success

It wasn’t easy making a game like Ultima Underworld though. The game went into development in 1991, and, as Doug explains, they weren’t short of problems. "We ended up writing and rewriting many systems," he says, "as we explored what it meant to be a dungeon simulator. We tried three or four movement systems, for instance, and several combat models. We didn’t know which aspects of the Al, say, were going to be most important for the player experience, so ended up writing code for many ideas which turned out to be largely irrelevant to the actual gameplay."

Critically, the game was an unparalleled success, one magazine going so far as to award the game six marks out of five. But was UU a commercial success? "Sales were merely good out of the gate," says Paul Neurath, "and so Origin did not consider Underworld a hit. This dampened the enthusiasm a bit, and muted Origin’s interest in the sequel. As a consequence, the Underworlds never got the level of marketing support that some of the other top Origin games received. Nevertheless, word of mouth carried Underworld sales for many years, and they managed to rack up half a million sales between the two titles, making them hits over the long haul."

After Underworld

Following the release of the second Ultima Underworld game - Labyrinth Of Worlds - both Paul and Doug, as well as many of their UU colleagues, took their experience to games such as System Shock, Terra Nova and Thief tor Looking Glass Technologies - all of which represent further advances in this particular style of immersive action adventuring. Were the team not tempted to complete the Underworld trilogy instead?

"We pitched Ultima Underworld III to Origin several times over the years," laments Paul, "but we were unable to generate sufficient interest." Apparently, it would now be up to Electronic Arts to green light a sequel, if there ever was one. However, there is some good news on the horizon. As Paul lets slip: "Ultima Underworld will be coming to the PocketPC shortly. I helped put together a licensing deal for ZIO Interactive to publish a conversion, and it has come a long way in terms of development -they’re quite far along. The development team is a Korean group, but my group FloodGate Entertainment and Doug Church are helping out on some of the 3D programming, which is very cool."

A further enquiry to ZIO reveals that this will be available for download from its online shop some time in midFebruary. Which is superb news, as both fans of the original and those new to Ultima Underworld will now be able to get hold of this once-lost classic, and experience its many and varied delights. Now that is very cool.

Download Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss

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System requirements:

  • PC compatible
  • Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP

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