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Interview: Paul Neurath on Getting Design from Good to Great

“I think of game design on some level as being similar as sculpture, where you’re cutting down to the essence of what makes the game tick, as opposed to building it up with lots of features.”

Paul Neurath was the founder and creative director of Looking Glass Studios, where he oversaw acclaimed games such as Thief, Terra Nova and Ultima Underworld. He is now working on a sequel to the latter along with a team staffed with many of its original creators. Underworld Ascendant was funded with a successful Kickstarter campaign and aims to keep what made the original a classic while bringing it into the current generation.

I had the opportunity to talk with him as part of a series of interviews about getting design from good to great (previous installments: Richard Garfield, Warren Spector). As a game design consultant, I help developers turn their games into hits, so I was very interested about the way he balances faithfulness to the original with innovation.

Paul Neurath

 

PAG: When you’re in the early stages of a project and you’re trying to figure out where you’re going, what you’re going to do, how do you choose which direction to go in, which idea to pursue out of all the possible ideas you might have for your project?

PN: For a game such as Underworld Ascendant, it’s simpler to answer because we’re doing the next iteration of that franchise, so we had an anchor in Ultima Underworld and Ultima Underworld 2. That’s our starting point. We already figured out many years ago – in the early 90s – where we wanted to take those games and so that’s our starting material.

The question, though, becomes: how do you take it forward more than three decades later because time has moved on? A lot of games have come out since and the industry moved forward. It doesn’t fully answer your question, but at least you have a point of grounding to take it from.

A lot of our discussions in the early days, when we were doing our concept work last year, really boiled down to: what are the pieces that we want to inform the next generation Underworld that draw directly from the original games? What are the pieces that we want to preserve that we thought still rang true today, that connect with players today? And what are the pieces that we want to jettison? Or new innovations that we want to try, which we didn’t get to try with the first two titles? It’s really balancing those two aspects. It’s different than if you’re creating a game from scratch.

 

PAG: For a project like this, how do you find the balance, how do you make sure to stay faithful to the original franchise but still try to bring it into modernity, if you will, to still innovate and make it feel like something new?

PN: It’s a great question. We did a lot of soul searching, thinking back and replaying the Underworlds last year, talking with the team to distill down what really made those games vibrant, why people still cared about the franchise all these years later. When we were making games in the early 90s, I don’t think I would have imagined that people would still remember and care about those games today. We just didn’t have that mindset. I think a lot of games in the earlier days were like bubble-gum, you know, they had a nice taste while you were chewing them. That was the sense. We didn’t yet have the history in the games industry, it was still too new.

But clearly there was something about Underworld that stayed in people’s minds. We still have fans that replayed it and remember it fondly. There was something very meaningful there that was more than just a passing game that’s fun to play for a bit.

Trying to tap into that and understanding that, both at a gut level and at a more analytical level, was a lot of what we were trying to figure out early on. We distilled it down to: part of it is the core experience, what you come away with when playing an Underworld, part of it this sense of a character who’s been thrown into this deep, dark, dangerous, stygian abyss dungeon, initially kinda clueless about what’s going on and just trying to get the lay of the land and survive.

That kind of survival gameplay has been popular in recent years, so that was an aspect where we looked at it and said: it worked for us in the early 90s, and that kind of very deadly survival gameplay seems to continue to have – if anything it’s gotten more interest in the last two years. That was an example of something where we said: let’s continue that, let’s take that forward, let’s preserve that aspect of it.

An example of something that we decided to jettison is the gameplay mechanics around creating your character and then progressing the character. In the original Underworlds, that was formed largely from pen and paper roleplaying games. You know, Dungeons and Dragons and such, so we had 3d6 rolls for your strength and intelligence. It was very classic pen and paper roleplaying. In 1990, when we were doing the design of that system, it seemed like the obvious thing to do. It was what everyone was doing for this kind of computer roleplaying games. We didn’t feel comfortable abandoning what everyone would do back then. That’s a fantasy roleplaying game, right? That’s what it meant to be.

Today we feel comfortable abandoning that approach. It always looked awkward or forced. This is a computer game, we don’t need to be bound by pen and paper rules, we don’t really gain by doing that. So we moved forward.

Underworld Ascendant

 

PAG: With Kickstarter projects like this, you’re interacting with a lot of old fans throughout development. Are you worried about how those changes will be perceived by old-school players versus new players who might just be discovering the franchise?

PN: No, not really. I think it’s been pretty wonderful, going through the whole Kickstarter and having these fans sharing some of their fan stories and how passionate they are about this game. We’ve been, I think, pretty careful to message ahead of our Kickstarter and during our Kickstarter that we’re going to make some changes to the original game that we need to, because the original is twenty years old. We’ve learned as designers since then, the industry has moved forward, and we need to innovate.

The original Underworld was among the more innovative games of its era. As part of the spirit we want to honor, it’s not about looking backwards and saying that we’ll freeze that in a time capsule. Since innovation was in the DNA, and it’s in my DNA and how I think about game design, it never ever really stops moving forward. That’s part of the excitement and we made sure to message that.

There may be fans out there that would prefer some of the ways we did things in the original games, but we need to move forward, keep it new and do innovations. It’s just part of what the franchise is.

 

PAG: When you have an idea, say for a new gameplay mechanic, that you want to put in the game – for Underworld or another project – and it’s good but it’s not quite great yet, how do you get there? How do you polish it and make it really kick ass?

PN: It’s mostly a lot of hard work! *Laughs*

It’s mostly a lot of hard work, a lot of being really tough on yourself and setting sky-high expectations, and not being willing to settle. A lot of iterations, a lot of experimenting.

We took, in the early days at Looking Glass, a very iterative approach to game development and game design. We were perfectly willing to throw stuff out if it wasn’t showing promise. That wasn’t so common back then. It’s become more common in tech companies in recent years, with agile development and iterative development, but it’s not a philosophy we’ve always had.

Because making something that’s pretty good or good just doesn’t cut it. It’s hard to do, you can’t do it across the board. No game is perfect by any means. I look back at games I was involved in and there’s parts that stand out where I wish we had done things a little differently.

If you’re really pushing high and have high expectations, and you keep pounding at it and refining it, you’ll get there most of the time, for most features and elements.

 

PAG: So you’re working on a lot of prototypes? Prototyping each feature trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t?

PN: Absolutely. Maybe there’s an analogy with the saying “you shouldn’t see how the sausage is made.” It’s not a neat, elegant, well-orchestrated, beautiful process. It’s tearing things apart, reassembling them, tearing them apart again and reassembling.

Until you get pretty far along in a game, you can’t see the whole picture. It’s really hard to see. You can look at a game up to, maybe, halfway through and it just doesn’t look all that cohesive. You don’t get people to picture what this game is going to really be once the game is done.

You’re making progress across each front and experimenting. And it’s not even constant progress. You make progress on, say, the melee system. In the meantime, the magic system is kinda struggling and you’re beating your head against something that’s not really coming together. Progress comes in fits and there may be periods where you’re not making much apparent progress on the systems. It’s not easy.

 

PAG: Do you also iterate at higher level or do you try to have a very clear vision of what the overall project will look like when it’s finished and iterate on individual features?

PN: Good question. We try to keep high level goals and the vision so the concept starts well defined. I think we’re pretty good about that. The original three-page concept document for Underworld was written in the first month of the project. The game that we ended up building, at a high level, is pretty much that. We have a pretty clear vision of what we want to get to, but the details of what you implement, what needs to get done to get there, that’s where you need a lot of experimentation.

 

PAG: One issue I’ve faced in every project is when you’ve got a teammate that brings you an idea and, you know, in their mind it’s a very cool thing, but it doesn’t quite mesh with what you’re trying to do or it’s too complicated. How do you deal with that, while staying diplomatic and trying to keep your overall vision cohesive?

PN: I think it’s a combination of things. First having that vision of what this game is going to be, fleshing out the core things of the experience, the core questions of the game design, is going to answer, by the time it ships. And having the team walk through that… You want to get buy-in. The team has to go in the same direction. Part of that vision comes from the back and forth with the team members to buy into it. Part of my role as a creative director is to champion that process and sometimes ask tough questions and say “No, that direction is not going to work.”

But once you have a vision, that the team has bought into and invested in, then that can be a good lens to look at some… In the middle of development, someone comes up – and it happens a lot – and says “How about this cool feature.” Sometimes it might obvious that this might be a cool feature for a different game, but for our vision that the team is buying into, no it doesn’t completely fit and there’s no way to make it fit. So let’s keep it in the back burner for the next project.

There’s a lot of features, gameplay and elements that get bounced around through development that never see the light of day. Many, many of them. That’s part of it too, the team gets used to that there’s no sacred cow. There’s no feature that, if I come up with a cool feature then it’s got to find its way in. A lot of stuff gets cut.

I think of game design on some level as being similar as sculpture, where you’re cutting down to the essence of what makes the game tick, as opposed to building it up with lots of features. Most great games rely on just a few core things that really them forward. If you get those couple core things to really work well in concert, that gives you the guts to make a great game. You need polish and all of that, of course, but a lot of games failed because they don’t get these core elements in concert and then they try slapping on seventeen other features and never solve those core problems. You haven’t carved down to the core of what the game is about.

 

PAG: Some studios have a set of filters or questions to validate, for each new feature, if it fits into the game. Is that the process you use, or are you more intuitive?

PN: We do both. We have documents that talk about high level vision, the core experience, user stories, we walk through features, we have specs for features… There’s a combination of documents and tools that we can use to filter through ideas that may bubble up during development.

But it’s a people process too. It’s not just documents. There’s people you trust in the team to hold the vision of different aspects. We have someone who holds the artistic and the visual side of the vision and has a lot of experience and credibility on that side. And we have people who have deep, deep system design roots, like Tim Stellmach, the lead designer. His core skillset as a designer is as a systems designer. He’s been doing that on immersive games like Ultima Underworld 2 and Thief. So there are people on the team that are the go-to persons to tap into their expertise and their experience. So if a feature bubbles up about system design, someone such as Tim is an obvious person to determine does this fit into what we already have, is this going to a be a net positive or is this going to be a distraction and not really fit?

So it’s both. It’s documents and tools, but it’s people too.

 

PAG: Thanks a lot.

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