UA: Where We're Headed & How We Got Here


Morning everyone!

Many of you have been asking about the development cycle of Underworld Ascendant, and Paul Neurath wrote an explanation and some more details about our future plans here. We recognize this was an important question asked across our community.

My quick weekly update for you all is that we’re still working on Update 1 and planning for Update 2, which Walter filled you all in on here. Not much to share on that front since not much has changed since Friday, but progress looks good!

I was out sick for most of last week, thus my absence, but I’m catching up and should have another KS update for backers curious about their physical goods.


Thanks to Paul for these comments. I think doing this was a good idea, and I hope these words are circulated widely. I also think it was well said, honestly reflecting on mistakes while properly being optimistic about learning and making better games to come.

But while I appreciate the overall thrust, there’s one part that bothers me, and it’s the part about listening to fans. I understand that, as one of those fans, this could come off sounding self-serving or oblivious to developer realities, but I hope you’ll consider the point objectively (as I’m trying to deliver it).

It’s this:

[ S]ome of the early reviews that the original Ultima Underworld and System Shock were less than kind. For instance:

It doesn’t help that Ultima Underworld’s combat is fairly weak. Many fights felt drawn out… with little variation beyond swinging and healing occasionally. Relying on magic has its own annoyances, given that each spell needs to be incanted with several runes.

Those who like to spend hours with a manual to try to figure out to play System Shock, good luck. The rest of us choose to play Doom II instead, where we get what the game promised – full action without hassles.

I don’t think this is a strong defense. Look at those quotes – the critics were pretty clearly saying, “I like action games; these aren’t the kind of game I like, so I want less of their key features.”

But that is the opposite of the criticism OSE heard about UA, which was, “I like immersive sims [of the UU and SS kind], so I want more of their key features but I feel like UA gave me less of them by being more of a jump-in-jump-out action game.”

In effect, UA gave the original critics of UU and SS – the very people who didn’t understand that playing with system-dynamics is a valid and underused kind of fun – the kind of game they said they wanted 25 and 20 years ago!

As I’ve said elsewhere, I do think UA iterated usefully on the Looking Glass emphasis on world dynamics. The Improvisation Engine (is it still appropriate to name that?) was in part the right idea and I generally like how it was implemented, bearing in mind resource constraints. This is why I agree overall with Paul’s comments that UA took some steps in the right direction, and its most visible shortfalls were in the area of polish.

My argument is that the visible polish stuff, while important to most gamers, isn’t what mattered most to the fans of the Looking Glass kind of game. We (I’ll say “we”; others are free to tell me I don’t speak for them) are more than willing to treat visual holes in level geometry and lack of NPC animation rigging as entertaining and minor game development artifacts. Heck, we’re more than used to things like that from BethSoft’s games. :smiley:

But that tolerance for things we don’t care primarily about depends on getting plenty of what we do care about, which is top-to-bottom dynamics: the world is complex and reacts with plausible and holistically consistent consequences to the player’s choices.

The original critics of Ultima Underworld and System Shock didn’t get that this is a valid (and, I would say, important) kind of fun. We do. And it’s because Underworld Ascendant has so far fallen short of delivering this playing-with-system-dynamics fun – except in immediate tactical play – that we’ve been coming to the forums and Discord and blogs to say, “We see some positives in UA, but it doesn’t feel as much like a Looking Glass game as we’d hoped.”

So: more polish is not a bad idea. Most gamers will appreciate that. But to truly address what today’s most vocal critics – not those of 20 years ago – are saying, I believe OSE would be wiser to forego some of the polish and instead spend its time on the “meta” game: making Improvisation Engine choices matter more to the overall story and meaning of the game.

I know that’s harder to do than patching geometry holes. But I believe it’s also vastly more valuable to the hardcore fans of Looking Glass and immersive sims generally.

So I guess the bottom-line question is: are those the critics you care most about?


Come on, most of those controversial design decisions weren’t “creative risks”. They were compromises you had to make because of your lack of budget.



/Sandro -out


Part of the problem I detected early on was that we were wandering into territory incognita. Untried and untested game mechanics are good when they can be tested in isolation, within a consistent set of parameters, but too much innovation becomes experimentation for the sake of experimentation, and ends up alienating fans. For those of us expecting an evolution along tangible lines, UA was a revolution, not an evolution, and resists categorization as even an Underworld sequel.

The other complaint would be cut features. Why are levels non-persistent? What happened to the living ecology? I realize team constraints can be obstacles, but maybe an Underworld sequel created by a team of four was a jump into the deep end of the pool for a first project, and possibly biting off more than one can safely chew.


This account is putting a very toasty and justificatory light on things, kicking the can to dev comms/fan expectations, and lack of polish. The segmented UU2 approach comes off as planned, when contemporary forum posts show it too be anything but. More detailed response later.


Please, never make another game again, for the sake of both devs and fans.


I’m trying very very hard to keep calm here. So I’ll write my answer as diplomatically as I can, only because I don’t want to resort to swearing and insults, but it’s gonna be hard.

This “postmorterm” is a f… joke and hurts my feelings; Let’s see why.

However, rather than duplicating our past work, we wanted to try to move the genre forward with some new design thinking. For instance, we ditched the Ultima Underworld scripted conversation trees with NPCs, and instead told the story through a mix of character voiceovers and lore sprinkled about the world as graffiti carved into stone surfaces for the player to uncover

I’m trying hard, really hard, to wrap my head around this.

Like, you seriously thought you were moving the genre forward… by… drums… 1-line voiceovers and graffities on the walls !!!

I… I just can’t. It’s like you guys have never played a modern video game in the past 20 years. Where have you been all that time ? Do you realize the genre has progressed forward all this time you were away ?

For god’s sake, go and play Prey 2017. Right now. And check by yourselves what the current standards in the genre is.

This is just ridiculous, I just have no words.

This is not the first time we’ve taken creative risks that didn’t all pan out.

You haven’t taken any creative risks. You are deluding yourselves in thinking that. There is currently nothing in Ultima Ascendent that is pushing the genre forward. Literrally none. Unless your point of comparison is 20 years-old games. In fact, most of the systems you implemented are lagging behind the current game standards. I’m dead serious.

If I had to name one system that is kind of original and pushing the genre, I’d have the mention the fire spreading and tied to the physics system. But even series like Far Cry have similar systems, so I wouldn’t even call that innovative.

Sometimes a less-than-warm reception is in part due to experimenting with new design approaches that don’t fit player expectations for the genre

This is not about new design approaches not being well understood. It’s about making a fun game.

None of your designers have objected that maybe, oh just maybe, having players come back ad nauseam in the same levels would make the game feel repetitive ? None of them thought that the lack of enemy variety or loot could be a problem ? That the lack of an interconnected dungeon is kind of contradictory to an “immersive” sim ? And that the save system is making things even worse ?

You don’t have to be a genius to realize that the design is flawed from the grounds up. This has NOTHING to do with trying new design approaches. Unless your new design approaches are “hey, instead of making the game fun, let’s bore the player instead, and see how it turns out”.

Oh, and… let’s ignore all the feedback from our community ! Damn those bastards, they wouldn’t recognize a great game if their life depended on it anyway, we must ignore what they say, basic Steam users surely will appreciate the game for what it is !

We had to make do with a fraction of the funding needed to complete our original vision for the game. We did our best to make forward progress with a tiny team.

While I sympathize with your financial difficulties… why was this never communicated to the community ?

Like, you’re telling us, right now, that from the start, you knew you couldn’t deliver the game promised on Kickstarter. You never secured the budget for it.


Just like when you waited the last minute to let us know that there would be no factions, no NPC dialogs, no interconnected dungeon, no persistent save system, etc…

This is absolutely surreal.

At no point during these 4 years it came to your mind to communicate to your backers that you wouldn’t be able to deliver the vision you described in the Kickstarter.

This is genius.

How did you think it would end ?

In addition, after having worked on the game for more than three years we lost perspective on where Underworld Ascendant stood. We convinced ourselves that the game was in more robust shape than it actually was. Had we been more objective, we would have held off the launch and worked on the game longer.

This is the cherry on the cake. Just lol. Yeah, it’s not like your entire community was telling you “please delay the game, it’s not ready, it’s horrible, it needs 6 months to a year of additional work at the very least, please redesign this and that, yada yada…”.

Yup, nobody ever said that.

And this, gentlemen, is my conclusion.


That part in particular is a very serious deception. That should have been communicated right from the start, so that backers would know exactly the level of risk involved when they were backing it. Isn’t that basically a violation of Kickstarter’s terms of use?


Stop being angry with them. They did nothing criminal. They just managed to not tell the truth and con everyone out of their money and hopes for a good game. Just never touch or back anything this sad circus clown troupe ever produces. Only YOU can prevent forest fires and another disaster like UA.


Nyast, I couldn’t agree more , all of this from start to current position, is a lie!

Yep , with Curratum, don’t, won’t, and never touch anything from them.


From my understanding, they went on Kickstarter with the assumption they’d get more money from their investors to fill the gap in the budget. So this was an honest attempt at Kickstarting the game. I’m fine with that.

The deceiptive part is when their investor bailed out, “months” after the KS, and never bothered telling us that they no longer had the budget. For years they continued - probably hoping for new investors or a publisher deal. They never got the “full vision” budget, and never told us. The honest thing was to explain the issue and let everybody know that they’d have to shrunk the vision, and offer KS refunds for those that wanted it. Instead they kept their mouths shut ( and all of our money ) and knew for years they’d never be able to fullfill the original vision.

At least this partially explains the disconnection between backers that were expecting an Underworld spiritual sequel, and the recent comments from the devs “we had never intended to make an Underworld successor”. Since they knew pretty much right after the Kickstarter they’d never be able to do a proper UU sequel, and that’s when they shifted their design towards a “Dark Messiah” design; so from their perspective, it is true that they never intended to do an UU successor since… pretty much the beginning.


Sure, but my point is, there was no mention of that during the Kickstarter. The KS campaign makes it sound like they can (somehow) make the game with just $600,000 (which, admittedly, sounded pretty crazy at the time). The KS doesn’t say “we’re going to be shopping around for a publisher, because we need one to finish the game.”

I probably would’ve backed it anyway. But it was, in my opinion, misleading to backers.


This arrogant, disingenuous sort-of mea culpa leaves me even more angry than I was before. Especially the fact that there seems to be zero intention to change course. This is at least how I interpret the following:

“as a studio, we will continue to take creative risks even with this reality.”

That means, they are going to take exactly the same rotten approach to future games, regardless of what fans and backers might think.

Sorry, but against this background, I have to agree with Curratum.

Or at least, please don’t ruin any more epic franchises.


I’m not fine with that. The Kickstarter campaign had a basic goal (which was reached) and several stretch goals (some of which were reached, too).

It is reasonable to expect that once the basic goal was reached (a necessary condition for successful KS), they can make the game basically as promised.

They never told anyone that they don’t have a real commitment for the funding needed to make the basic game (“several times” the KS amount) - or that their funding can be withdrawn at any time.


I do remember them saying they had additional funding on top of the kickstarter, before the kickstarter goal was reached. I don’t care to search for a link but they brought that up repeatedly when asked if $600,000 was really enough for the game they were trying to make. Presumably that’s what he’s referring to.

I’m not sure what can be done for UA. You could fix every single bug in the game and fix the save system, and you’d still be left with a game about doing rote fetch quests for factions that don’t really exist. To fix the whole game would be to make a different one entirely.
Despite all this I would, of course, love to see OSE pull it together in the future even if I don’t expect it. Just please don’t touch Thief unless it’s to release its source code.


After this arrogant non-apology it is time for Night Dive to yank SS3 and find a real dev team to complete. Wow. I used to respect and admire these guys.


I have not been one of the belligerent haters on this forum, and I’ve even tried to call for patience and civility. But this explanation or whatever you want to call it is this close to turning me into a belligerent hater.

I mean, wow. What an epic fail. Honestly, you might’ve been better off keeping your mouth shut.

Can I change my vote from Yes to No on the poll about whether or not I’d fund the game knowing what I know now? (I know it doesn’t matter, of course; I’m just expressing how I feel.)

Right now I’m also inclined to agree with the notion that Night Dive should take the System Shock IP elsewhere. (Yeah, I’m sure there’s a contract or something; again, I’m just expressing how I feel.)


I don’t think this was aimed at us. At reviewers, perhaps, or future investors. But not at players, I don’t think.

When I first signed up here, the line at the top of the forums stood out to me as a vivid acknowledgement of where they had fallen and where they needed to improve:


That, to me, told me that they get it. It perfectly set my expectations, and framed my gameplay. By placing that at the top of their page in all caps, they were taking ownership of the problems. And I’ve seen the same level of acknowledgement of the problems elsewhere on these forums.

But this post reads as an attempt to re-cast the series of excruciatingly painful tradeoffs that they were clearly forced to make, as a set of planned-from-the-start risks… which they would willingly take again, and plan to. I’m puzzled, since the obvious truth is something I can really empathize with, and threatening to pull this same stuff again is… not.


we ditched the Ultima Underworld scripted conversation trees with NPCs

“Ditched” makes it sound like a bad idea, rather than the very sad thing that it was in Thief and System Shock, which made those games too so dead and lifeless. They were fun “immersive sims”, but they were not RPGs. Underworld and Deus Ex were RPGs. Interactive NPCs are the difference between these two genres. Notice how Fallout 76 is no longer a RPG, and is not nearly as popular. The only two things they changed were multiplayer, and removing interactive NPCs and replacing them with signboards.

And looking at the game design, it’s clear that the Faction representatives were meant to be doing a whole lot more than just sitting there silently, and characters everywhere were meant to be more interactive.

As it is, the only two characters for which the “speak a single line, Skyrim-guard-style” approach was fully realized, were the two talking skulls, and they are from an area that I never found a way to open, so I think was cut from the content, possibly left for a DLC, along with joining factions, buying faction items, the three faction races (other than as facemasks on the quest board), pets and backpack items, whatever they are. These were all clearly tradeoffs because they didn’t have the money to pay people to code, design, write, translate and test dialogue trees, let alone design, build, skin, rig, weight, animate and voice entire new animated character races.

So all that had to fall by the wayside, and they were forced, as the monetary doom counter ticked up, to focus on “Minimum Viable Product”, cutting off those wonderful pounds of flesh that they were so very heavily vested in, just so that at least some of it could see the light of day.

I know this because I’ve lived this. And of course it gets my very deepest sympathy, because it really sucks bad to be in that position.

Ultima Underworld II featured an early version of this approach with portals that led to different “worlds”.

Underworld 2 contained a far more advanced version of this, with zones that retained their state in savegames, and which you could revisit at any time once you unlocked them.

And again, it’s super obvious from the level design that this was planned, but was cut content. The plan was clearly to do an Ultima-style “unlock each zone in turn”, with 6 zones that you could then access as you liked. This is the only rational reason to design a ring of six portals, and the long trek home, rather than always just use the “shortcut” portal by the quest board. The ring of portals tells us louder than any design document could, that the plan was to have more than one portal unlocked and active at once.

But for that to have worked, the zones would have had to be more “alive”, so that they could retain their state after the player had entirely cleared a level, without the area becoming just a lengthy trek to get to a location the next time they jumped through the portal. And they didn’t have time or money to develop that kind of “living ecosystem”. And merely respawning monsters would feel cheap. So they had to find an easier, cheaper, faster way: and that way was zone resets with slightly randomized monsters.

Anyone who’s played it knows full well that these things they had to cut are written all over the level design. You can see the painful ghosts of the developers’ dreams in every silently hovering lizardman standing mute testimony to the interaction that he is a placeholder for. Every over-large hallway, every empty tower, every unused feature, every smoke-bombing ninja mob (are they the outcasts? I never figured it out), every piece of wooden scenery that appears or disappears between trips to a zone, it all cries out that this place WAS planned “TO HAVE MEANING IN ITS LIFE”… but that meaning couldn’t be fulfilled within the constraints that fate set the devs.

The truth is a far better story than saying “We were brave to risk making an immersive physics sim instead of a full immersive RPG, and we’ll take equally stupid risks again because we know no better.”

So perhaps Paul’s words were aimed not at us, but rather at some potential investor, willing to fund “cutting edge risky” stuff, but not fund people who’ll make painful tradeoffs in the light of new constraints? It’s a stretch, but otherwise, I can’t understand why this argument would be made.


After reading it a second time today, I seriously get the impression that Paul Neurath’s intention was to add insult to injury for us backers. Tellingly, he didn’t even dare to put his name anywhere in that link.

As far as I’m concerned, my last sympathies for this team have now gone. I wouldn’t mind if they go bankrupt.