Warren Spector on the development of Underworld Ascendant: "But then we realized that we didn't want to offer that experience"


#1

Google Translated from IGN Italia: https://it.ign.com/system-shock-3-pc/154378/feature/nella-mente-di-warren-spector

And the problems encountered with Underworld Ascendant? "The team was too ambitious! And we are an independent studio, we had a specific budget to work with. I think the team in Boston (it’s not mine, I was working on System Shock 3) tried to do too much and finished for not being able to do well what he managed to put into the game. Also, they had very tight time limits, great pressure … I don’t want to make it too big on this point but let’s say that the game came out when it had to come out. And I think everybody knew that it was probably too early, but I also think it’s important to acknowledge the team that they continued to devote themselves to the game after the launch, they changed a lot: the game structure, the rescue system,

But Underworld Ascendant had another big problem: the project was born on Kickstarter, a platform that is sometimes a bit misunderstood. "You have to tell people what you’re doing before you do it. And it’s crazy, because video game development is an incredibly iterative process, in which games change all the time. People expected us to do exactly what we said during the campaign on Kickstarter. And at the time, basically, we said: “We will do the first Ultima Underworld, we will offer you that experience”, but then we realized that we didn’t want to offer that experience. It’s a game from 1992! expectations, and I’m not necessarily talking about quality, that’s another story, but we generated expectations about the game we would develop and then, to be completely honest, we didn’t meet them. If you put these factors together, the game had to come out, we had limited resources and we didn’t offer the game we promised … the players get angry, it’s obvious ". By the way, this talk is part of the reasons why we don’t know anything yet specifically on System Shock 3, despite the fact that Spector proposed articles and covers from various publications: "I am not yet ready to talk about the game, because we are still in the midst of that iterative process where we change our mind about things, while we build them, while we create systems. When we have the chance to play with it, the design changes. The story changes to reflect the things that can be done in the game, and we know that it is possible to do only now that it exists in a playable form ".


#2

When looking for things to frown at OSE for, I’d be a little wary of giving too much weight to any specific phrasing of the twice-translated words of a guy from a different project, even if that guy is Warren Spector himself :)

Still, it’s great to see that the pain of the kickstarter lesson seems to have been really taken to heart there: he hasn’t shrugged it off, he’s learned from it the kinds of development approaches that can hurt a game.

I’ve never seen it do more good than harm in any project I’ve followed, and it’s always the same kind of harm, the one he describes: you have to make promises about low-priority things.

It’s scary to imagine if Portal 1 were Kickstartered, even if smartly: say they’d only promised cosmetics, no features, so’s not to tie themselves down. So they promised only character look customizations, and a customizable pet. GladOS and the Companion Cube were products of emergent design, so wouldn’t have been prioritized above making pets with AI to follow you through the puzzles; switchable 1st/3rd person camera to see your character customizations; better 3rd person character anims; “co-op with pet” levels; etc, etc. These cosmetic things which shoulda been super low priority become the drivers of the game, and you end up with Narbacular Drop with micropayments.

I kinda feel non-toxic crowdfunding must be possible somehow, but I’ve never seen it, and I don’t see a way of handling the conflict between agile development and the needs for pledgers to know what they’re getting and become excited enough to pledge.

The Patreon model seems like it could work. With streaming development and blogs and so on, and the public paying only for those products, getting input over what they’d like to see… I could kinda see it working, maybe? I’d be interested in following any project which tried it, eat least.


#3

This. A little more specifically, this combined with trying to collect as much money as possible entirely up front. Paying for promises is problematic when developing any project – it’s just vastly worse for games which, as Warren points out, really need some creative breathing room during development.

It’s not as flashy, and for most projects would probably bring in less money total, and Feature X could still change after someone pledges money specifically because of Feature X… but maybe a funding structure based on people being able to actually pay money continuously right up to the release of version 1.0 is at least a partial solution.

That means there’s no big pot of money available before starting the project, such as you’d get from a traditional publisher. So crowdfunding wouldn’t pay for everything; you’d still have to persuade someone to give you a cash dump for pre-production, and then you’re back to having to bend your design to their whims instead of hewing solely to your creative vision.

…but how is that different from crowdfunding as Warren described it? The only difference is that instead of being beholden to one entity who’ll threaten you behind the scenes, now you’re being screamed at in public by every gamer who gave you one stinking zorkmid.

It seems the only way to do anything interesting in this world is to suffer other people controlling the purse strings for your projects until one of them (to which you own some of the IP/merch rights) is a hit, then spending your own money on your own pet project. I’m not sure there is a solution to that.


#4

My only comment on this is that I find it a tad absurd, that this is by FAR the most information, (and quite candid at that, the closest level of candor to this being Chris’ infamous little rant), that I have seen to date on this subject, AND that it has to come from a translation from some other country!

A tad absurd.

I will still check out the game when all is said and done… right?

RIGHT?!?!


#5

Iteration’s a known thing among game development enthusiasts, and readers of postmortems. What I utterly failed to do, where a company offered unusual transparency, is perceive at every point a deviation took place, the transparent informing that the path was less on course. I failed to perceive the updates on the KS pages that gave backers an informed choice to stick around or step away. I did not see when an ambitious goal was ditched. It felt like some iteration of the goal would remain, changed or whatever, but not abandoned. I was not expecting a shocking void, but to have been dialed in to a series of changes, some regrettable and unavoidable, others that made sense and gave new perspective. I wish I knew then how to avoid negative surprise, even knowing full well that things will always start one set of ways and evolve into something extremely different as a norm. I’m sorry I wasn’t helpful enough to any party here.


#6

It saddens me that they still haven’t completely figured out why all the backers are angry.

  • “It’s a game from 1992”, well duh, this game from 1992 is far more interesting and fun to play than what you delivered with Ascendent.
  • “The team was too ambitious”, hem no, you spent all the early years jerking with physics prototypes like you had no deadline, then one day you suddenly awoke “oh by the way, we’re late, it’s time to deliver… something”.
  • “We’re stuck with the Kickstarter promises while development should be fluid”. Look FFS, don’t try to make it black & white. You did a 180° on the project without informing your backers. It’s a matter of communication, not project direction. Of course you are allowed to adjust. But leaving your backers in the dark for 4 years, and surprising everyone negatively by delivering a product that is a shadow of its former vision, all while you’ve been shouting “don’t worry, everything comes together in the last months, that’s normal for development” is incredibly frustrating to hear.

#7

Even allowing for translation gremlins, there is stuff to take issue with here, as well as agree with.

Firstly, Warren is quick to dissociate/distance himself from UA (no wonder) but I wonder how this went down…

No matter. I agree with Nyast that there is a kind of ‘flying kick’ understanding at work here. As we’ve heard elsewhere, the reasoning is very ‘contained’ by which I mean it is given specific contexts, and hence, reasons and justifications. It was the past, it was promises (and by extension, KickStarter), it was this and that…and hey, they worked on it afterwards. The last is true above all and commendable (but also unavoidable).

I’m taking this to extremes in order to show one of the post-game failings…the small scale of disclosure, or awareness or whatever. I know some of this might seem reasonable…you can’t really pee in your own backyard, especially with another large franchise re-jig on the way. And you want to draw a line.

But while I don’t agree with some things Chris has said, he did frankly acknowledge one aspect which hasn’t seen much daylight…incompetence. And that aspect is hard to ignore. Not just execution, time-scales, comms; but in conception, ideas, and especially QA. Where was the oversight?

The problem with much analysis is that it revolves around motivation, psychology, veering into borderlands of deception (and other ick). But there’s a mundane truth at work through-out…it just isn’t very well really realised in the ideas dept, no-one seems to be have been checking the quality of ideas, imagination. Hence you end up with a patchwork quilt, badly sewn together. And then working to patch it up. And that’s then tied-in with management schedules, personnel, funding, money, rugs-pulled etc

However, there is zero scope for Warren’s and Chris’s assertion that the devs ‘probably knew’ (it was coming out too early). This is like a lightbulb being ‘probably’ on, or a woman ‘probably’ pregnant, or it being ‘probably’ north or south pole. This is just absurd. An unthinking lamp-post knew it was nowhere near (and lots of us unthinking lamp-posts said exactly that, screaming).

It was was barely out of embryo stage. So, incompetence of judgement (despite and because of looming deadline).

Really, the failure has been on a larger scale than anyone has admitted to date, and as time goes by it becomes more apparent, at least to me. And while you’d have to be extremely cold-hearted not to appreciate the work the team has done since launch (and the sense of commitment in certain quarters) it also reinforces the size of the failure…not just launch, but from beforehand. All those red flags we raised, which we argued out, and which we barely wanted to admit were real until we were left with no choice…were true at the time and well-publicised. No clap on the back for us, either…we often ‘good-willed’ along.

Imagine if Doom 3 had been a similar let-down?

Finally, the comments about only really getting to know a game - and where it’s headed - once it’s playable, are both true and scary. Design, design, design. And competence. And QA. And, dare, I say it, listening to people who cherish the originals and who have a clue (any dev worth their salt knows a good critic or viewpoint when they hear it).

I think they probably still need to listen a lot where SS3 is concerned. That reputational high-road stuff ended after UA…or else it’s going to be more pride before a fall. Warren’s commentaries often leave me uneasy (as if designed for a younger, more awe-struck crowd). I don’t think anyone wants an implied ‘…grasshopper’ putting at the end of each sentence, which Warren’s commentaries sometimes invite (this might just be me). If you’re going to apologise, just do that, don’t school me at the same time.

I stiull think Chris - were he free from constraint and politics, and probably being pissed at this place - would give an accurate and blunt account if he had the chance. As he said, maybe in future…


#8

Thank you for weighing in sir, one again, everything you just said is pretty much what I was thinking!


#9

My last post is far too waffly. What I mean is: I don’t think the devs, or Warren, are that close to improving their understanding of what is wrong. Perhaps they get ‘what went wrong’ during the process, because they can point to various reasons. But that’s only part of it.

Thanks. No-one has adequately explained the kitsch tone (in ways the originals never were). Perhaps the absence of NPCs and dialogue and factions mean’t they had to amp up what was left?

It has a disinterested going-through-the motions feel, even though they may have poured their lives into it.


#10

All the backers aren’t angry.


#11

Of course, but on the grumpy-to-furious scale a sizeable number are not happy. The patches have offset and compounded this.

Usually with a given game and a largely neg rating, you’ll hear ‘there’s a very vocal minority that sways things’. True, but in general I get the impression that much of the bad feeling is split between the KS side of things; and how the game turned out independently of the statements made.

I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that the higher tiers have little interest in nailing down that dissatisfaction, or seeing it as a productive exercise for the future. Perhaps a mixture of ego, legal constraints, bloody-mindedness and ‘moving on’. The problem is, aloofness can be seen as arrogance, and patching as ‘we’re doing our bit, what more do you want?’.

I think many people would gladly stay onboard if only they felt they were being taken remotely seriously, not given the odd nose-bag now and then.

Those firefighting on the PR front-line have been excellent, though. You generally know where you stand, even when you might not agree.


#12

No, telling people up front what you’re going to do isn’t what’s crazy, that is NORMAL. What’s crazy is that you think you can just say, “well, we sold people this, but fuck’em, it’s only their money.” Imagine if that how a business software developer (or any project developer for that matter, including mind you creative ones like painters and sculpters) went to work. A business comes to them, and says, “We have these needs 1, the system must of have these requirements a b c” and the software developer goes, okay we can do it in this amount of time for this amount of money. So after that time the business comes to developer and they produce a piece of software that fills need 13, and does d and z; and the business goes, “What the hell is this!?”

And then the software developer goes, “Yeah, well, we’d said we do that, but then decided we didn’t feel like it.” You know what happens then? They get sued into oblivion, that’s what.

Imagine if you go to a sculptor, and the sculptor says, give me x amount of dollars and I’ll make you a statue of a knight in two months, two months later you arrive you find what the sculptor is making isn’t half-finished and its actually a bust of a biker, rather than a statue of a knight. And the sculptor tells you, “Yeah, well, I didn’t feel like a statue of a knight anymore.”

And the worst and the craziest part; is that this dipshit has not one moment of reflection that maybe the way they go about making games is wrong. Not one hint of a care that perhaps they should change.

And the real craziest thing, that apparently every idiot in the gaming industry has the exact same attitude and refuse to ever scratch themselves behind the ears to thinking, that maybe they need to change something. Every bloody studio we’ve seen over the past decade or so, major ones, sit around fiddling their thumbs restarting and restarting without a clear idea in mind what they’re going to do, and then suddenly the deadline comes up, and the entire studio has to make a full year of 90 hour work weeks to make the deadline. Disgruntled employees that quit and leave the company in droves, because they don’t have the guts yet to unionize and go on strike, and I doubt that will do anything if they don’t understand that the fundamental problem in the games industry is the lack of proper fucking design practices and sticking to the designs!

You’d think somewhere along the line, somebody would go, you know maybe our design and development process is screwed up and we need to make some changes. But nope, just keep on plotting on, no design, no script, barely an idea, sit several years on their asses paying a developors who sit there not knowing that to do, so they go make rocks and tress, until a year before deadline, here’s your 90 hour work week.

And the idiots in charge, like Warren Spector don’t think the failure of the development is crazy, no it’s crazy that anyone should expect to make a design and sell a project on that design. It’s not crazy, it’s INSANE!


#13

You’d be right if that’s what happened…

You can lay many charges at the feet of the devs (not least incompetence) but to suggest it’s just a matter of choice or changing preference is silly. By all means criticise those design choices within their control, and inept management, and even more inept game-making (and what they chose to say, or not say) but you can’t just white-wash external events out of the picture…funding, publishers, personnel. Sure, some of these could perhaps have been predicted or dealt with differently (many decisions were simply idiotic, we know) but not all circumstances and decisions were in their control, all of the time.
I.e. it wasn’t all ‘whim’.

Btw, I agree that Warren’s words come across as aloof and patronising (mainly a cop-out, in fact) but that doesn’t mean there weren’t real-world constraints that happened out of the blue. Agreed, there should have been fall-back positions in place…but really what we’re left with is a team that was in some ways kidding itself, and working from memory, never entirely engaged with what the originals were really about. In some ways it was a curious exercise in pretence, even if they really believed in what they were doing (actually, I think any real belief stopped about half-way through).

Warren Spector is obviously not an idiot, but it’s a risk to play off your rep Yoda-style, like that…and it’s asking for trouble with SS3 given its current position.


#14

My impression – I absolutely could be wrong – is that there were a couple of important moments early on.

The first moment would have been when it became clear that a true sequel to UU/UU2 was simply out of scope for the team and the final tally of Kickstarter funding. And the second moment, I’d guess, came not too long after, when a new design plan coalesced around making an action game with reusable, dynamically rich areas, each playable in 15 minutes or so, that referenced low-cost elements of the original games.

If that’s anything close to accurate, those are both entirely defensible things. Most projects don’t get overfunded like a Chris Roberts promise, so design visions are forced to live within time and money constraints. You try to be as creative as you can within those limits. The revised concept of an action game with reusable dynamic areas is not crazy given the resources available. That’s a game with a fair chance of being completed.

Again, though, if there’s any accuracy to this recounting, it also means the breakdown came when the revised design wasn’t clearly explained, right then, to backers. Of course there’d have been a lot of upset comments, and angry demands for refunds, and threats of “bait-and-switch” complaints made to Kickstarter. And there still would have been some backers who were surprised on Launch Day. It definitely would have been an unhappy, difficult time.

But that frank explanation, given at the time when it was clear a conventional sequel to UU/UU2 could not be made, would have preserved more goodwill for OtherSide and (importantly) its future games.

I really hate being second-guessed at my job by people who weren’t there to make the hard design choices or to help with the implementation slog. So I’m not going to go any further with this. Whatever OSE “should” have done is in the past. All they can do is learn and move forward from where they are now.

This was just one game. (Albeit, as a first game, an important one.) What matters to me are not one-offs, but patterns. I’ll be sticking around for Game #2 from OtherSide Boston (in addition to System Shock 3 from the Austin team, of course!). YMMV, naturally.


#15

Flatfingers…I agree with you about trying to second guess what happened, must be maddening if you were there and now you see various stabs at piecing it together. But why are people doing that?

But that’s still not really the point. You’re right when you point to the lack of ‘frank explanation’. That’s being kind. There was more than a casual aversion to letting on what was really happening - perhaps because, understandably, there are legal constraints and you have to put on a brave ‘team-face’ and tough it out. And then, after all, you have ‘names’…even if you don’t have a game, or are losing interest in the originals (too old now? Or too difficult to meet that standard?) . And pride. Then you’re dug-in and realise you have to stick to this fairytale version even though it hurts your moral sense. Maybe. Then it goes too far, and before you know it you’re living an embedded set of shared delusions (or lies, if that’s what you think). Where to draw the line?

All that would perhaps be understandable were it not for the fact that a few of us cottoned-on in realtime, after a lot of digging and questioning (remember the run-upto the Vertical Slice?) and there was the opportunity right there to fess up. I know, because I forced it into the open after getting some explanations (on the forum) from some devs about the various MIAs. As did others.

As I’ve said before, it pretty much all died a death after the first playable version in terms of actual game design. That was the high point, because at that time it was undoubtedly still a UU game.

Then we had a 2 year death-spiral of ‘containment’, nonsense, and a giant house of cards predicated on some never-never land of it all coming together. Difficult, even with a high level of competence. If anyone were in any doubt about the state of the fiasco, then talk of Aellita, Feats, and Social Influencers and water-cooler replay moments let you know pretty quickly that they’d given up, exiting the UU world for silly kitsch and ‘bring your own game’.

Of course, it was more complicated than this, but that’s the gist. They settled for pastiche, flavoured with pale echoes of other game properties, thinking that somehow this usage of generalised mechanics would endear it to a more modern (and less * fuddy duddy purist*?) audience. Which, you know, is what modern games have to do. Well, don’t they…?

I could live with some of this if it had been handled competently, and also they could have found a way to out an iota of the truth. But when give a chance to come clean, it was consistently fudged. Some of this, of course, was legal constraint no doubt…but surely not all (non-contestable…it’s all there on the forum if you were there). None of this is to do, even, with the KS fudging, or subsequent shifting goalposts or general shrugging…or the absolutely squalid treatment of smaller platforms (SMPITA deserves a medal for patience alone).

In other words, there was more known about things than was let on, we can be fairly sure (though I had a single snippet of insiight into this late on, when it was far too late, in fact…and basic decency means not posting a private comment publically). I’m not saying they knew it was crap…I’m saying they knew without a shadow that there were very, very serious concerns about whether anything would come together…and that was even allowing for the fact that they knew what we didn’t know; namely, that whole mainstays of a game like this were not even present, even though they’d said dialog trees and NPCs and similar were out. It was late and partial disclosure of the worst kind (‘we’re telling you now, better late than never’…but even that was only a microcosm).

As for the endless QA debates raging on before and after…it was RIGHT HERE IN FRONT OF THEIR BLOODY NOSES within minutes of new info or versions landing that real QA was given…on game-play,look,world, everything. But no, ‘we have great QA set-up, the best,on so many fronts’. All we needed was the red hat. And ontop of that, ‘trust us, we’ve made the originals’. Right, hindsight.

That’s why other forums matter less than this one…because this is where the most useful feedback (ahem, disclaimer) was given, even if it was sometimes tough to take as a dev,and we were demanding in many ways (like asking for a dev presence once they’d said there would be a dev presence etc). But anyone with half a clue about dev could see ultimately (book boom) that the critcism had unity, consistency, and actually cared about the UU games. Those same games that this was a purported sequel to, or ‘re-imagining’ or whethever spritz you want to give it.

So, imagine out surprise when we hear ‘yes, you guys, we’re listening…great ideas…now, how does a more cuddly version of Jar Jar Binks sound, and Feats you can compare with your friends for those special moments?’ Yeah, right, ignore the scream and the mounds of pulled hair and the heads banging into walls, and give 'em some Lara Croft-esque proto artwork. Yes, really. Not once, but 10 times, because, you know, those great external testers we’ve got are just loving it (disclaimer again, I couldn’t test the game).

Flatfingers, to go back to your last point…it’s not a one-off game, it’s also a mentality,and a reflection of management capabilities,and competence at the tecnhical level, as well as ideas. And if there’s anything of that mentality remaining, a similar thing couldwell happen, different team and all. The ‘we’re listening’ stuff can also be queried. Yes, Sam is listening, but who else? Warren at altitude…? Chris? Who, exactly?

No-one likes to be second guessed, but when you ruin a property like UU ground you can expectto be second-guessed, sadly.

When and how all this happened doesn’t really matter much except to a Gamasutra post-mortem, but the morals of the whole thing remain a problem. It’s easy to hunker down in the face of the Steam stuff…it’s so vitriolic that that in itself can become the subject, letting the game off in the process.

It’s this place where the explanations are really due. Sam can only do so much, because she is working from what she’s been told, and arrived after much of the damage was done. It was different if you were here, following on a day-to-day basis. Nothing really adequately explains this mess, yet.


#16

Amen, brother.

Someone needs to grow a pair and speak up.

Because PRIOR to this debacle?

They had ‘names’…


#17

Ok, uh … “perfect storm” ?

the idealism of the nostalgia, the unrealistic expectation of the kickstart goals, loosely tethered and missing priorities, stranded development practices, and some good old marketing hub bub flub.

got it !

I’m still enjoying the heck out of all of this. even you chaps, flogging the carcass.

maybe we should make a whole thread of only lizard tongue. that will pass some time.


#18

Another Italian interview: https://www.outcast.it/home/warren-spector-intervista

But anyway. Regarding Underworld Ascendant , I believe a number of things have happened. The team was too ambitious! And we are an independent studio, we had a specific budget to work with. The team in Boston, which is not my team, I was working on System Shock 3 … I think they tried to do too much and ended up not being able to do well what they managed to put into the game. Moreover, they had very tight time limits, great pressure … I don’t want to make it too big on this point but let’s say the game came out when it had to go out. And I think everyone knew it was probably too early. However, I think it is important to recognize the team that they have continued to dedicate themselves to the game after the launch and have improved it a lot. I’m not sure if the third update has already been published (the interview was recorded on April 11th, a day after the update was published), but they changed a lot: the game structure, the rescue system, narrative elements … they continued to work on it a lot and I hope the players, regardless of whether or not they gave it a chance at the beginning, they will try it now. I hope they recognize the team’s effort to improve the game.

The other problem is Kickstarter. You have to tell people what you’re doing before you do it. And it’s crazy, because the development of video games is an incredibly iterative process, in which games constantly change. If I told you what we were planning for System Shock 3 before we started, you would be amazed … maybe negative, maybe positive, I don’t know, but the point is that games change during development and people expected us to do exactly what we had said during the Kickstarter campaign. And at the time, basically, we said: "We will do the first Ultima Underworld , we will offer you that experience ", but then we realized that we did not want to offer that experience. It’s a 1992 game! In short, we generated expectations, and I’m not necessarily talking about quality, that’s another story, but we generated expectations about the game we would develop and then, to be completely honest, we didn’t meet them.

If you put these factors together, the game had to come out, we had limited resources and we didn’t offer the game we promised … the players get angry, it’s obvious.


#19

Hahahahahaaaa

j/k

:p


#20

“Oh, god, players are expecting the vision that we promised them during the Kickstarter ? Didn’t they know that game development is iterative and that changing the game genre is totally okay ? How dare they ? I’m shocked.”