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:
"IT'S A NICELY DESIGNED GAME AS LONG AS YOU DON'T WANT ANY MEANING IN YOUR LIFE."-TIM
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.