A fundamental flaw in the game


Sorry for the negative headline and let me tell you I don’t want to really criticize the game in an unfair way - but after reading some of the previews I fear that there could be something “wrong” with the game.

Today I read a preview of Underworld Ascendant on Gamestar.de and it wasn’t very positive. Also the preview on PC Games.de isn’t really positive. Aside from technical aspects which I think will be refined until release, I fear there is a fundamental flaw in the game.

Underworld Ascendant wants to be the spiritual successor to Ultima Underworld but according to the previews, the videos and what I have seen and read about the game, it is more if a spiritual successor to Thief or System Shock. The game seems to focus on traversing dungeon-levels filled with danger which we can brave using physics, combat, magic or cleverness. Which in itself is cool but it sounds like Thief and not Ultima Underworld.
In Ultima Underworld we discovered multiple settlements with many NPCs. We could talk to those NPCs in multiple-choice dialogue, get information, trade with the NPCs or get quests. As far as i know (correct me if I am wrong) in Underworld Ascendant we will get one city, which will function some sort of a hub - just like it was the case in the Thief games.
Ultima Underworld is a RPG which just takes place in an underground world. Yes it was also an immersive sim, featuring multiple solutions to puzzles and challenges but at its core it was a true RPG. And - at least as of now - this seems to be missing from UA.
The question is, do we really need some kind of Thief-game as a spiritual successor to Ultima Underworld?
I thought that we would get a deep RPG in which we explore a diverse world and yes discover many settlements, meet interesting NPCs that contribute to the story and quests etc. Settlements that could be enemies of each other. Something you would expect from an RPG. I wasn’t expecting some kind of Action-Adventure that will be more akin to Thief.
I fear that this is a fundamental flaw in the game.


You’re not the only one to feel this way Darkmoon. Whether this is a good or bad thing depends whether you like the Thief games. Certainly I would like to hear more about the RPG elements–even dialogue–sometime soon. I think the forumgoers are somewhat to blame for the game being tuned for stealth. We had a vote early on in these forums whether we’d be more likely to use combat, magic, or stealth to solve problems, and stealth won.


The game is just not finished yet. That’s not a flaw, that’s a feature (of game development). :stuck_out_tongue:


To rephrase this concern, the game as shown off lately seems to emphasize exciting action over exploratory depth.

If that’s a fair way to put it, what evidence would persuade you that OtherSide understand this concern and are building the new Abyss to feel like as much of a lived-in place (that’s fun to explore) as the originals?


I think we’ve touched on this subject before, so I’ll return to the rescue:


Narrative and world-building is extremely important, especially to a franchise like Ultima Underworld. People loved it because it offered you narrative solutions and ways to interact with the world that games didn’t explore yet. Talk it out with your enemies! Learn how to communicate with someone who knows the Lizard Man language! I’m sure many of our forum-goers could go into better detail about why the series was so great, but I hope we’ll all agree that Discovery and Narrative were two huge drivers.

Starker is correct: UA isn’t finished yet. We’re getting close to the end of Alpha soon (!!) and the narrative framework is already in place. However, it’s hard to show off something that needs to be lived through. On the one hand, we don’t want to take away the excitement of you stumbling upon a narrative thread for the first time and following that through by highlighting parts of it in promo materials. On the other hand, we do recognize that we should emphasize more about the narrative in the coming newsletters, since many of you are keen to see more than just the physics gameplay we’ve been working so hard on.

I believe this month’s newsletter was prepared mostly to discuss some of the PAX East coverage, as well as some of the level design that went into the training level, and then we’ll be able to start expanding on the narrative of the world in the newsletter after. We haven’t forgotten about the world and the interactions with its inhabitants!


For example seeing a video in which we meet some NPCs, talk to them, barter and get a quest.

I know the devs don’t want to spoil anything but maybe showing a small quest we get in a settlement and how to resolve it would ease the concerns of many Ultima Underworld fans.


Serious question: how would you go about showcasing exploratory depth?


I have full faith in the narrative, given the pedigree of the designers, but certainly I third that I would like to see more pertaining to the narrative of the game. I think the systems in place should support what an roleplaying adventure game should ‘feel’ like, more than mirroring conventions. While it would be nice to see a more in-depth coverage of the RPG elements, I am chewing at the bit in general for more story details.


Just to shed light on where exactly we are with the narrative ingame:

The current narrative system is set up in a system of flags, but without the dialogue in yet. The script is finished and the barebones parsing system is set up, but it hasn’t been tuned at all. On top of that, the quest system just got a rework, and some of the narrative pieces are broken as a result… so we wouldn’t be able to show much for the time being. We’ll be fixing it soon, but our priority is making sure all of the basic systems are in place before we leave alpha.

Creating a livable world feels crucial to the narrative, so we’re holding off until we have a strong candidate to show for it. In the example about talking to a vendor and receiving a quest, that requires a couple of steps; showing how you can approach an NPC, the dialogue system, how the quest system works, one of the varieties of ways you can accomplish your goal, and then returning to the NPC. In even the most streamlined version, we’re missing assets for key components, as well as some of the more believable interactions we’d like to showcase. (Jaw movements, NPCs moving around in the world, NPCs reacting to your choices… etc)

I know we’ve been saying we want to touch on narrative next, and we hear you! As soon as we can, we’d like to showcase it…

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It might not have been clear, but my question was simply to ask for some specifics from Lord_Darkmoon. I have no concern myself that UA will offer plenty of “exploratory depth.”

To answer your question, though (because it’s a fun question), I can sum up the general case in one word: systems. Exploratory depth comes from complex systems, and out of combinatorial results from the interactions of simple systems.

So, some specific examples of this definition of exploratory depth could be: runic magic (combinations of runes producing different effects); types of weapon damage versus forms of defensive gear; complex underground areas rather than just floor+walls+ceiling tunnels; interacting trap systems; interacting physics systems; detailed backstories for individual characters that are revealed by gaining the character’s trust; cleverly (but not unfairly) hidden buttons/levers; deep slug trail types (really? no poison? :smiley: ); ecosystem loops (predator/prey, symbiosis, parasitism); environmental storytelling through arranged objects; and crafting of objects.

We already know a couple of these will be in the game. Add several more of them (and probably some I didn’t mention), and I’d guess we’re looking at Ultima Underworld levels of exploratory fun, if not more.


I hate to disagree, but that is a simplification of exploratory depth. Personally, I find a lot of attention to detail draws me in more than any other asset in game design. This is why I loved sprites. Hand-crafted environments that don’t reuse assets are so underrated. Lands of Lore is the perfect example of a game that uses attention to detail to draw its player into the world. To this day, the game holds up well under scrutiny, because the designers put a substantial effort into making its environments as varied, and as ‘lived-in,’ as possible. It is possibly the most charming game in my retro-collection. Not saying I enjoyed it more, just that it aged like fine wine.


Also, I find a feel of ‘tautness,’ or tension that sustains itself over time, also draws me into a game world. Thief did this by giving me ‘vulnerability,’ a feeling of always being in danger. Other games have done this differently. With heavily scripted games, it’s easy. With unscripted gameplay, it can be hard to maintain singular focus on a plot with substantial depth, unless the method of delivery supports it. Enter System Shock 2. Seeing ghosts, displays of blood on walls, the environments creeped me out, and again, that feeling of ‘vulnerability.’ I think the feeling of vulnerability can be done in an RPG, but for me, attention to food and water sources, and knowing that I may not have enough resources to make it to the next campsite, create an underlying tension to the narrative–it is not necessary for the plot to sustain attention, if other needs dwell in the background, constantly ticking away, and demanding our attention over time. Timed missions are the easiest method to do this, btw. Not that I endorse this type of gameplay. Well, maybe for a level. Just one.

I’d say heavily scripted games have it easiest as far as maintaining plot density. Half-life summed this up perfectly. So did Last of Us. But the ultimate goal would be to have an underlying tension, where there is always the feeling of needing to survive. Biology sums this up perfectly. The ultimate goals of reality are to survive and replicate. If we are not busy surviving, we are busy propagating the species. If you can tap into the survival instinct, whether it is through tense plot-design, vulnerability, or resources, this game will hold my attention. I need to feel constantly like I am ‘human,’ and not some demi-god, with every chance of success, because I am immune to losing at this game. Running out of food & resources fifty stories down in a dungeon in Daggerfall is a perfect summation of this principle, both realistically and metaphorically.

Oh, and do I trust the resources that I am given. Can this ‘strange meat’ poison me? Do I need to eat this steak, but I have no fire, is there a chance I will get sick? Is this water source ‘tainted?’

There are certain games that give you permanent bonuses and permanent debuffs too, and this can make combat a gamble. Enter level-stealing and stat-stealing monsters.

I love risk. It makes the rewards oh-so-much more enjoyable.


Adding onto Dawn’s note, I feel like a lot of survival games are successful because the narrative and gameplay aspects go together extremely well.

Splashing blood on the walls and even just having a basic health system that deteriorates under specific circumstances (fall damage, poison, harmed by combat, etc) ties into a survival narrative. Every moment you’re playing, you’re looking for clues to stay alive.

Other RPGs can focus on exploring rather than survival. I think Nintendo games are pretty good about this; while you CAN die in BotW or Mario Odyssey for example, you’re not as severely punished for dying, and gameplay is much more focused on you learning and exploring the mechanics around your environment.

I like to think of UA as a balance between a survival and exploration game. The game isn’t TOO punishing if you die a number of times, and exploration/experimentation is encouraged, but dying isn’t exactly ideal, and everything in the Abyss is challenging you to stay alive.


I’ve drawn some comparisons between Thief and UA myself but that doesn’t really sound like Thief. Like, aside from the arc of your arrows physics wasn’t a big part of the game, nor was magic (or combat, for most people). It’s sort of funny looking back at promotional material for that game because they did make a big deal about physics and the so called act/react system. I still don’t know what that is.


I’m really reassured by hearing this. You can also achieve the same result by having reward meters, rather than punishment meters. How long until that next quest? Next stat point? Next piece of loot? Diablo does this well. Escaping negatives can propel you forward, but positives incentives can as well. Or, as a good quote goes, ‘a good shuttlecock deserves to be beaten from both ends.’


No offense taken. My description was a deliberately shortened opinion; there’s plenty of room for other opinions. That said, I think I’m sticking with my version for now. :wink:

The impression I get from your two replies is that you’re thinking of exploratory depth as something like “meaningful variation”: details that connote intelligent activity, and risk through unpredictability.

I like the notion of variation – I think you’re onto something there. But risk isn’t part of my definition. I don’t think danger is required in order to enjoy exploration; it mostly serves to justify obtaining extrinsic rewards for exploring.

That said, there’s an important way in which risk is not all that far off from my “systems” definition for exploratory depth, and that’s because it’s dynamic. “Explore” is a verb! So something that’s interesting enough for people to want to explore is something that has dynamic characteristics – exploratory fun is knowledge that unfolds over time as we perceive the working relationships between the components of a system and create an internal model that explains and predicts them.

The examples I gave, to greater or lesser degrees, satisfy this description. Exploratory depth comes from dynamics. If you look at a wall texture in a game, and then you recognize that same texture, and there’s never any dynamic meaning to it (e.g., the texture doesn’t represent a secret door), then there’s no exploratory depth to it. It’s not a system; it has no dynamics; once you’ve seen it, you’ve seen all there is to it.

But now suppose that texture is overlaid with water droplets, or bright orange seams, or smoking green holes, and that by hitting them with a cudgel you discover that these are always thin walls behind which are lakes, or lava, or acid. Now there’s a dynamic system – now there’s exploratory depth, so that when you see this texture again, only this time with purple lines coruscating over the seams, you know there’s something interesting behind this wall. It’s an opportunity to add to your internal model of the dynamics of this texture – to discover the complete active system, and the rules behind it.

And that’s just one example. Crafting, runic magic, offenses vs. defenses, what you can feed deep slugs to modify the active effects of their trails – all these and more are, IMO, examples of exploratory depth because they are dynamic systems whose functional rules can be modeled.

Finally, I’ll add my opinion that this emphasis on systems-driven dynamics is at the heart of Looking Glass game design. I don’t think it’s an accident that Marc LeBlanc of Looking Glass was one of the creators of the MDA game design model, which unlike other models insisted that Dynamics is an equal partner to Mechanics and Aesthetics. This is why, despite not being the kind of person who goes full fanboi on anyone or anything, I consider the Looking Glass games the greatest ever made and why I’m such a frequent commenter here: no other developers seem to get the importance of Dynamics – of active, interacting systems – to the exploratory depth I crave for fun.

I suppose if I really tried, I could imagine OtherSide making an Ultima Underworld sequel that was pure mindless action, rather than the deep, diverse RPG Lord_Darkmoon described…

…oh. No, I can’t actually imagine that. :smiley:


These examples are very nice and all, but my question is more concerned about showcasing it than the nature of it. How would you convey all that to potential players? And I don’t mean just explaining things or showing things, I mean showing it in such manner that the game becomes a must buy for these types of players.

Also, it’s more of an open question. Didn’t really mean to place the problem-solving burden on you specifically.


I agree with OP. The way the game seems to be shaping up is not the way I remember UW at all.


To tie the two threads together:
(how will this game keep within the original UW-style?) and (how do you show a game has exploratory depth?)

I would look towards the future for both. While the framework for our systems are nearly locked in place, a big part of making the world feel alive and lived in will be how we explain these systems and use it to tie into the narrative.

Flatfingers’ excellent post pointed to “discovering the rules of the world,” which is something I think every player does intuitively anyways. When you first pick up any game and try all the controls, you start to get a sense of your limitations (how far you can jump, what can hurt you and what can’t), and the goals of the game (what should I be paying attention to, what is my endgoal, how should I prioritize getting through this level?). I believe that LGS games have always had strong underlying systems that are fun to discover BECAUSE they have a certain logic to them.

Without giving too much away, I would say that one way to start indicating the importance of underlying systems is to just give people a pattern and see what they come up with. How many times have you started to play a game and immediately known it was a “boss room” just based on the open layout? People will bring in prior knowledge from their gaming experiences to inform their adventure into UA, and we’ll be utilizing some of that to help teach (or help unlearn?) certain expectations.


I would be scared if this game resembled an RPG from the 1990s. It should modernize, in every way, what an RPG means in the current decade, not ape previous successes. What I would worry most about is, does it capture the ‘feel’ of an Underworld. Based on the atmosphere, yes. But we have yet to hear story details. In terms of RPG design, we don’t want to reinvent the wheel, but cars have replaced chariots in our current gen, and it’s time to upgrade the design to fit modern ideals. Mechanically, the stealth is very Thief-like, yes, which I like, but versatility is key–how do the other systems play out? If every system is as fleshed out as the stealth, I think detailing the systems at that level may be a good next-step in the immersive sim genre, and RPGs in general. This game shouldn’t remind someone of a fond memory at a keyboard almost 20 years ago. It should invent an experience every bit as nuanced, and give new memories, equally pleasing in nostalgia’s rose-tinted glasses.

I would be worried, in a sense, if it were too close to the original design. Especially in terms of interface, and UI clutter.

In sum, I think it should resemble the originals in two regards:

a) Mechanics which fit an RPG, specifically those found in dungeon crawl designs.

b) Story and ‘feel.’ It needs to ‘feel,’ like an RPG, more than ‘be’ an RPG, and the story should be a callback, in terms of referencing cherry picked portions from the original game.

I think, in a sense, Otherside has emphasized the simulationist aspects more than describing how we are creating an RPG. I was hoping they’d get into the crux of their design once they started spilling story spoilers.