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


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 ".


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.


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.


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?



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.


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.


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…


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


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.


All the backers aren’t angry.


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.