A chat with OtherSide Entertainment, the team breathing new life into the Underworld
As those who experienced it firsthand can surely attest, the dungeon crawler Ultima Underworld was nothing short of revolutionary when it was released in 1992. Underworld featured multi-tiered levels with inclines, platforms, bridges, and water the player could swim through; as a result, the gameworld felt amazingly alive, with surprises seemingly lurking around every corner.
More than 25 years later, Paul Neurath, one of the pioneers behind games such as Thief and System Shock, has formed a new game studio in Boston called OtherSide Entertainment. Its debut game is the spiritual successor of the Ultima Underworld franchise, titled Underworld Ascendant. The game was Kickstarted to the tune of nearly $1 million, and development is well underway at the studio’s Boston headquarters.
In charge of getting the band back together, Neurath, CEO and founder of OtherSide, says things were a long time coming for Ascendant. “I’ve been plugging away, on and off, since 1994 to get the next Underworld made,” he says. “It got buried deep in EA’s vaults for nearly two decades, and only last year did the opportunity arise to bring the franchise forward as an indie studio.” This involved the formation of the team, forgoing the license itself, launching a Kickstarter, and getting the team to where they are today—deep into development on the game.
“To me, it feels like a continuation of many of the amazing improvisational gameplay elements that Paul, Tim [Stellmach], and the others at Looking Glass pioneered with Ultima Underworld and Ultima Underworld 2,” says Ascendant design director Joe Fielder. “Those games were full of great ideas, many of which went on to influence dozens of fantastic RPGs, but what surprises me is how many haven’t been followed up on. That’s good for us, I suppose, since we’re attempting to bring that player-authored experience to the next level with Underworld Ascendant.”
One key difference between Underworld Ascendant and the titles that spawned is it is that the team is ditching the pen-and-paper RPG mechanics from the original games. “No more rolling dice to see if you get 18 Strength,” says Neurath. “With the original games, we felt we needed to keep an anchor in the pen-and-paper games to ensure the games felt suitably familiar to RPG players. Now we’re free to design fully for interactive and immersive experiences that can stand on their own.”
The game’s Improvisation Engine is fantastically ambitious. The idea, essentially, is to attempt to create a setting where player will be able to approach scenarios in their own way; the thinking behind these improvisational options is to capture the sense of those pen-and-paper D&D sessions, where one’s own wild ideas aren’t limited by what’s been programmed, without the dice. “[The Improvisation Engine] comes from what we learned on games going back to the original Underworlds, through System Shock, Thief, and various team members’ work on more modern games such as BioShock Infinite,” Neurath says. Across these games, he points out, the team has in various shapes and forms experimented with technologies and design approaches that enable players to make clever choices; the Improvisation Engine builds on that experience, and then nudges it forward with some new ideas. “Our goal is to set a new high water mark with player choice, and sandbox, emergent gameplay.”
“If we do our jobs correctly, it’ll be one of the most fun, varied set of actions seen in a game, and provide the player with an enormous toolbox to experiment with,” Fielder continues. “Half the fun, for me, is to see the craziest solutions I can devise. Our crowdfunding allowed us to make great strides with that, which might’ve been a tough sell before it was up and running and only a concept on paper. Without our fans’ support, that might not have been possible.”
What already comes across in gameplay videos that have been released is the team’s bold, steadfast intention to ensure that the game adapts itself to different play styles and character specializations. We’ve seen demonstrated a player who has picked athletics and acrobatics over strength and combat skill, for instance, and their resultant ability to use these assets to evade a fight rather than succumb to it. The player’s behavior is meant to have significant effects upon the world, including which creatures thrive, what conversations players will find themselves in, and how NPCs feel towards them.
The core team is working together in OtherSide Entertainment’s Boston offices, along with a number of folks working remotely with the team, particularly with art and audio departments. “We like to work with the most talented folks we can find, and some happen not to be based in the Boston area,” says Neurath. Office conventions are “nothing exotic,” according at the CEO; instead, he’s focused on letting his talented staff function as efficiently as possible. “Mostly, it’s the fundamentals of empowering team members to thrive and being creative,” he says. “That includes letting them take risks, failing at times, and learning from that. We also take an especially cross-discipline approach to development, where design, engineering, art and audio all have essential voices in decisions, and are motivated to leverage each other’s talents and work closely together.”
“What strikes me as particularly unique about OtherSide is that there are ‘aha!’ moments pretty much every day,” Fielder adds. “The amount of talent and experience on the team is amazing. Today, it was a discussion about the ecology of the undead in the game with lead designer Tim Stellmach; yesterday, it was Paul dropping knowledge about readably varied reactions from the AI, regarding their morale toward the player. Tomorrow and the next day, there’ll be something new and memorable.”
The mix of generations of developers at work at OtherSide prompts constant, new ideas. “[We’re] not old school,” Neurath insists. “We have a mix of game veterans and relative newcomers to the industry, and they learn from each other. We’re all learning, trying out new techniques—it never stops.”
Looking back at the games that have most influenced him and his team, Neurath says Arkane Studios’ 2012 Dishonored probably comes closest to an “Underworld-style” game that he’s played in recent years. “It has some really fun, emergent gameplay, and supports both stealth and fighting approaches to working through the narrative line,” Neurath says. “It’s a really well done game, and I’m looking forward to Dishonored 2,” he says. Fielder also cites Almost Human Games’ 2012 title Legend of Grimrock as the most recent game that’s harkened back to the original Ultima Underworld. “It hit on a lot of the dungeon crawl elements, but to be honest Minecraft is the only game I can think of that’s really carried the torch forward in terms of systemic gameplay and player choice,” he says. “I think there’s a lot of wariness of those particular elements, because they seem intimidating from a QA standpoint. That’s a good thing for us, I suppose. We think the more the player can experiment, the more unique and fun of an experience it can be.”