Ultima VII: Serpent Isle
Warren Spector's Gaming Talk - Formatted by Ganesh (Bootstrike.Com)
An Interview with Warren Spector of Origin Systems by David Taylor
Warren Spector produced the games Underworld I & II and is now finishing up Ultima VII, Part II: Serpent Isle. It is this last project that we concentrated on for the interview. The interview was great, and Serpent Isle proves to be *much* more than just a rehash of a published game engine.
A quick note on the questions:
We received so many great questions for Warren Spector, I simply printed them all out in the order I received them and underlined the ones we had time for. I've numbered the questions according to who submitted or inspired them. Although I mentioned to Warren where each question came from, it draws the written interview out a bit, so at the end there will be a list contributors corresponding to the numbered questions.
I showed up at Origin at 1:30, got a visitor badge and signed in at the desk then went to the lounge to wait for Warren. He had a winningly cheery voice on the phone, so I was at first expecting a 6'2" blond salesman-type with too big a smile. What walked in was a brown-haired, bearded friendly guy of medium build. I was still underlining questions, so he played a game of Spy Hunter to kill a few minutes.
The first thing he showed me was the introductory movie and endgame for Serpent Isle. The intro movie was spectacular. Completely 3D rendered and smooth- oh, so smooth. It was very sweet. Denis Loubet modelled even the human characters for this intro. And a wonderful ship- and wonderful water. You'll flip over this thing. I know it's not part of the game, but it very fun to watch. The voices are very good. The music (from a Roland sound card) is totally engrossing. This intro made the U7 endgame seem quite brief.
Warren then took me to his office (he didn't have a Roland card, and it was a slightly slower machine) to show me the rest of the game. It was quite impressive and absolutely huge. There have been many artistic changes, are lots of new monsters, a complete overhaul of the inventory system, larger and more photorealistic portraits, and a new combat gump (those little windows that pop up) to make getting certain bits of information faster. They made several improvements to the game engine to enhance the speed up to 30% in some areas.
Unfortunately, from the little I saw, some serious drawbacks from the Ultima VII engine still remained, including the slow scrolling speed when walking, the constant disk access, the less-than-ideal combat system, and the less-than-popular Voodoo Memory Manager. However, as Warren showed me all that this new world had to offer, it was clear that the point of Serpent Isle was to tell a neat, new story and this is likely going to be received well by those who are looking for content over glitz.
Some interesting new additions included a Player Education Cave at the beginning, sort of a playroom where you can learn how to interact with the world. Another change was clear goals given immediately upon entrance to this new land. The pictures of the 12 winners of the Ultima VII contest are actually used in the game (obviously doctored a bit to put them in proper costume).
The portraits are now oval and easily twice the height of the U7 ones, and they're nearly all digitized. And portraits can change! You can collect tattoos in portraits are game which help you speak to like-tattoo'd people. Also, much of the plot and setting of Serpent Isle ties up loose ends that have been dangling as far back as Ultima I. Also, you can pick any sex Avatar and choose from caucasian, hispanic, or black races. This will be reflected in your actual character on screen, as well as the portrait, inventory, and .. er .. sex scenes. We'll get to that later.
After a healthy demo, we got to the questions. Here they are:
GB: (1) Will there be a 'female only' plot in Serpent Isle?
WS: Certainly not in Serpent Isle, although you'll notice that we're not very particular what sex your Avatar is, now. In the love scenes in this game (and it is an adult game), your partners are not particularly interested in your sexual orientation.
GB: (1) Are there any motivations for guys to play female characters?
WS: Only personal ones. For variety's sake. There are some different things that happen depending on if you're male or female.
GB: You say it's an adult game, would you say explicit?
WS: I wouldn't go so far as to say explicit with characters 16 pixels tall, but there is some nudity in the game. There is a scene of a trist between you and a female character, and you're discovered in flagrante delicto and go on trial for various transgressions, and all sorts of things happen for your .. uh .. activity.
GB: (2) How many people have worked on this game?
WS: It's varied over time, but it started out with 8 or 10 who did some of the intial conceptualizing and basic work on the new technology that is in the game. We have a team now of about 15 or so, and at its peak about 35. My staff list is 53 total, so 53 people on and off. It was steady at 35 for a while. Scary. By far biggest project i've worked on.
GB: (2) Who does most of the plot details?
WS: I take a different approach from Richard. Rich has a strong conception of what he wants in his story. I have basic ideas, but i like to work on several projects. I was also doing Underworld II and Arthurian Legends at the time. I gave guidelines to my project leader. One was, "Get me off Britania." I didn't want Rich to ever say "that wouldn't happen in Britania." I had several plot elements addressed concerning the Great Earth Serpent and finding out what happened to Shamino's Land of Danger and Despair.
I said, "Give me a philosophical underpinning which is equally valid but different." He went off with the writers and came back with a proposal, and i bled all over that, they came back again, and i bled some more. I can show you it in a sec, there's red ink everywhere. It's great. Then that particular project leader left. It was funny- the first pass at a plot was something called Pirates of Britania. It could have been cool, but it wasn't quite a Britania adventure. It had a Caribbean flavor involving witch doctors, and all kinds of neat stuff, but he left. And another guy, a refugee of the paper game business like me, Bill Armantrout, took his place.
GB: What is the "paper game business"?
WS: It's D&D, Gurps, Runequest, etc. Pen & paper roll-playing stuff. Turns out Bill was a wonderful writer, a programmer, and pretty much a natural leader, too. I wanted a much more traditional fantasy game, so when I got Underworld I out of my hair, I said, "Lets go back to square one." So we finally got a plot outline we really liked. By the time we got done with that, we had a team of about 10 or 15 that were ready to start work on it. So we started doing what I call "round robin design" where a small portion of the plot is written up in some detail, and we pass it around and everybody got to comment on it. Then Bill and I went over all the comments and decided how we wanted it to work out. It worked, and it didn't. It was very time consuming and I'm not sure if I'd do it the same way again, but with a team as big as this one was, I needed to make sure that everyone knew what we were doing and that everyone bought into it, or I was afraid that it was going to splinter and break up. We ended up with a very very detailed plot document. There's a shelf over there which is all documentation for this game. Some of it is technical, but there's a 3-inch binder which is just plot documentation. It was necessary. The game was huge. Even with all the documentation, when we got to implementation, people were making stuff up right and left all the time.
GB: Tell me about your previous experience in the "paper business."
WS: I started in 1987 with Steve Jackson Games and I was the developer of Toon. I love that game. It's still available 10 years later! Went to TSR and eventually ended up being the supervisor of their game division.
GB: What was your major in college?
WS: Radio-Television-Film. I almost finished my PhD.
GB: Why didn't you?
WS: I always thought the actual process of making movies was kinda dull. I saw all my friends going off for non-tenure-track positions at Podunk U. What was the point? Especially when people were paying me to make games. I've always loved games- always been a gamer. I could either teach and make no money and worry about tenure, or I could make games. Didn't seem like much of a choice. And the neat thing is that we are making movies here. I wish I could show you the original intro to Serpent Isle- I mean it was stunning! (He later did) There's stuff in there no one has ever done in a computer game- ever. And when we get CD's, man, we're there! I thought I wasted those 7 years in college, but I didn't- it's all coming back.
GB: Do you wish you'd finished?
WS: In retrospect, I kinda wish I had. But circumstances were such that the timing wasn't right.
GB: (2) Does Serpent's Isle feature more choices and/or less guidance in the main plot than did Ultima 7?
WS: Well, we gave more guidance without forcing them in any direction. I want people to have clear goals. I think the key to a good game is to not let the player ever sit there and say, "Well ... wha .. what do I do now?"
GB: (2) Should we look for any New World's of Ultima games?
WS: Not under that title. For whatever reason, the Worlds didn't perform up to expectations. That sort of bothered me because I came up with the idea for Savage Empire then passed it onto another producer. I had nothing to do with the game beyond the first 20-page design papers. That was kind of my baby. Martian Dreams is still the best Ultima game ever. I can say that because Serpent Isle isn't out yet. I'm really prejudiced, but that game, with the one problem of too much damn walking around, did everything I wanted it to do.
GB: What sets Martian Dreams apart from the others in your mind?
WS: I think what sets it apart is its grounding in reality. I wanted historical characters in positions that they could find themselves. I don't like terms like "edutainment," but you really could learn something. It was an opportunity to bring Bly and Tesla and others that no one ever seemed to hear of back into the limelight. Also there was a good balance between combat and puzzle-solving. Once you got ability to teleport, the pacing of the game was really good. Pacing is something i'm worried about in SI. Is there too much walking around? Enough monsters? Too many? It's kind of a crap shoot until you go into testing. I loved the characters in MD and thought the pacing was good, too.
GB: Why was this called Part 2 instead of Part 3?
WS: Forge of Virtue was a benny. Someone realized that we could do it, and so they did it. I was already well into SI. SI was conceived as a direct continuation.
GB: Do you plan to go on with Ultima 8?
WS: No, Rich is still the Ultima Number guy. I understand he's giving John Watson, the guy who did Forge of Virtue, more responsibility there.
GB: (2) Richard mentioned in a CompuServe conference that SI was intended as the future setting of Ultima and that Britania was going to be retired.
WS: That's news to me. Actually, I've always seen SI as a kind of weigh station. It was a place that would be cool to explore with a great story, but I want to use it as a springboard to new worlds. Whether that's Earth or Pagan doesn't matter to me. Of course it will always be there if we want to come back to it, and I hope people will want to. Lemme get back to Worlds of Ultima for a second. Because Martian Dreams and Savage Empire didn't do as well as we wanted, we're still trying new approaches to using Ultima technology to tell new stories. That's where the idea for Arthurian Legends was conceived. Instead of going to weird places that Warren wants to do games about, we're going to try one more experiment which is to take recognizable traditional fantasy elements but having nothing to do with the Ultima mythos.
GB: (3) A lot of people asked this- There was an "upset spectre named Warren" in Ultima Underworld I. Was this something you knew about?
WS: No, the guys up at Blue Sky (now Looking Glass) did this. Either the guys there really hated me or really liked me, but either way, there's easter eggs like that in any game. I think they thought that would be cute. In SI, there's one that involves Dallas Cheerleaders. In Martian Dreams, there were ruby slippers you could use to go to Kansas. I was quite amused by the spectre one.
GB: (4) What kind of graphics will be used in SI?
WS: 320x200x256 colors. Same perspective. Rich is changing the perspective for Ultima 8. He's skewing it so that up is up instead of being at an angle. It looks really good. (We later met Denis Loubet to see this, and it does look quite gorgeous. It appears that the characters will be totally rendered and much larger in Ultima 8. The camera angle is trey cool.) It has some problems. You're going to miss the back half of every house. One change we're making in SI is that we're going to be a little more realistic than Ultima 7. The grass isn't flourescent green. More detail.
GB: (4) Still uses the Voodoo Memory Manager?
WS: Yes it does. That is something I personally dearly would love to change, but it's not in the cards right now.
GB: (4) Will you ever write Windows versions of these games?
WS: Almost certainly not. The problem is speed. Doing a Windows version of an Ultima or Wing Commander game would just be bog-slow. So what we're talking about now is doing games that are designed to run under windows from the start, the stuff that doesn't need high-speed animation.
GB: (5) When did you first start working at Origin?
WS: April 12, 1989. I'm an old-timer. I think I was the 26th employee down here in Austin. We were on half of one floor here. Now, we take up all of one floor, all of another floor, and three separate suites in another building. We're moving into a new building with 55,000 sq. feet, slanty walls, primary colors, I mean it's going to be a great place to play green guns (sorta like Laser Tag except it's still available).
GB: Did Richard have any influence in the building design?
WS: Let's just say Rich had a lot to do with it. It's definitely going to be a showplace.
GB: (5) Is the character Dr. Spectre in Savage Empire/Martian Dreams meant to be you?
WS: Well, yeah. And I'm in SI, too. I am the no-longer-evil-Dr.-Spectre- -the- Avatar's-friend (tm). There are so many characters who are either based on real people or look like real people. When you look at the characters Shamino or Lord British, you're going to see Richard Garriott. (That's true- the portraits look just like the real people now). When you look at Spectre, you'll see me.
GB: Where'd your last name Spector come from?
WS: There's a story in my family that may or may not be true. My family came from Estonia when it was under Soviet rule. There was some deal where if you had more than one son, he was conscripted into the army. So my great great grandfather changed one of his kid's last names. I have no idea whether that story is true.
GB: (5) Well, we know what game engine SI will use- the Ultima VII one with improvements, right?
WS: With improvements! Don't forget- paper dolling, the bigger photographic portraits, more speed.
GB: (6) I quote the next question, because although I too was curious, it was a little forward. "I'm interested to know what the pay scale for producers is. I have heard that Warren gets paid a lot less than some producers at Origin because he hired on early when Origin was in its infancy."
WS: That must be my wife who asked that! Thank you, dear! To be honest, one of the things I like about Origin is that no one talks about money. I don't want to get into it, and no one at Origin gets into it. Let's just leave that one alone and not talk about money. Origin producers in general get paid less than producers on the West Coast.
GB: Is that going to change with EA having bought Origin?
WS: We've been told that will not change. It's just cheaper to live in Austin than it is in S.F. or San Mateo. Origin is not a place to get rich. It's a place to change the world and see stuff everyday that no one has ever seen before, but it's not a place to get rich.
GB: (7) Will they create add-ons for SI or older Ultimas?
WS: There won't be add-ons for old Ultimas. You can probably count on add-in disks (like Forge) for every future Ultima. Ultima 7 wasn't designed to allow that. Ultima 8 is being designed from the start with add-in disks in mind.
GB: (7) How does everyone at Origin feel about the EA buyout?
WS: Hey, so far so good. It's natural to be a little nervous when you are "acquired", but they've really left us remarkably alone. I haven't noticed any significant difference, except that we're getting lots of cool t-shirts and there isn't as much arguing over small purchase requisitions. It may reflect the deep pockets of EA or just the Christmas season. I think everyone is real excited about it.
They're cool people. When I went out there, I found out they're basically just like us. And before I perceived them from afar as towering monster things. It's like when I left Steve Jackson Games and I found out everyone at TSR was just like me. Same thing; when you're a little tiny company, you tend to think a big company is made up of these big evil ogres. But no, it's been great.
GB: (8) Here's a "flame" as well call it on the net. It starts by saying, "This isn't a flame, but... I really enjoyed Ultima 7, but I was really disappointed that Origin seemed to do its beta-testing with the consumers. What are you doing to make sure that SI will be bug-free."
WS: First of all, it's never our intention to play-test with the consumers. That's just not in anybody's best interests. The problem is that our games are HUGE. There's no one who does games that are as large and complex as what we do. That's not me talking as an Origin employee, it's just that no one pushes the technology the way we do. There are a lot of games out there, and I will not name names, but where people say, "Wow, look at that!" And two days later, we'll have working prototypes that do the same thing.
I mean, we push the technology further than anyone else around. When you do that, you're going to have bugs. We always try to do the best we can. We don't rush products, but you never have as much testing as you want. We have had some problems in the past, there's no denying it. Will SI be bug free? No. I mean, you just sort of resign yourself to that. We have a QA staff of 17 people. We have 12 people playing 8-12 hours a day of SI. All we can do is all we can do. I think one example of Origin's commitment to shipping clean games is Underworld II. There was a version which would have made Christmas. When it got to the final stage of sign-off, everybody said, we think we could ship this one, but let's take some more time to be sure.
Just to be sure! We missed Christmas- capital letters- WE MISSED CHRISTMAS. That's a BIG deal. Is Underworld II bug-free? No, of course not. I genuinely think that it's impossible to ship a game that's bug-free. One thing we did do on UW II is that we started using out-of-house testing firms. Before people start screaming, "Oh- me me me me!", this is a professional testing firm, not individuals who want to play the game. We're not quite ready to take that step yet.
I hope we use them more than we have in the past. They have a really good adversarial relationship with the producers. They make their money by making us look bad, and that's exactly the sort of thing we need. The guys in the QA department have to get bored and are going to start to cut corners after playing it for weeks. That's human nature. The guys out-of-house are fresh, still hate us, have nothing to loose by pissing us off.
GB: (9) Where does the Ultima get their storyline?
WS: I don't have a clue. We watch a lot of movies, read a lot of books. We're wacky creative guys. You sit in a room with enough weird people, and ideas start coming. This is the highest stress place I've ever worked, and yet it's the best place I've ever worked. There aren't many places where you can but your feet up on a desk and say, "Hmmm. Shoud that dragon be red or green?" Sometimes we'll go out and see a movie, and say, "Gosh, we've gotta do a game like that." There's a movie I want to do so bad I can taste it. The inspiration for it is a movie named "Hard- boiled" by John Wu. I had a vague tickling of an idea for a game, and when I saw that movie, it all crystalized. We suck stuff in from the culture around us.
GB: (10) Will SI be as dark or darker and more forboding than Ultima 7?
WS: It is certainly not a Happy,Happy-Joy,Joy kind of game. I don't think it is quite as dark as U7. That was Rich's phase he was going through or something. SI is still an adult game.
GB: (11) Here someone asks about the paper-doll inventory. Will it look like the screen shots?
WS: No. I'm ashamed of those screen shots now. It's much nicer. The other thing is that the inventory gump now has a button which you can press to pop up a combat gump.
GB: Why do you call them "gumps"?
WS: I dunno. They're little window-like things. Most of the game was written in AGIL, an in-house language for conversations and usecode. AGIL stands for Another Goofy Interpretive Language. Funny-Little-Acronyms-R- Us.
GB: (12) When is an enhanced CD version of this game going to come out?
WS: Ultima 7 does not lend itself to CD's as they exist right now. That's because we hit the hard drive ALL the time. The engine hits the hard drive constantly. It would just be painfully slow playing off a CD. We may use it as a delivery medium. That's more of a marketing decision. We prefer doing Wing Commander games, for example, because you can play them from the CD. When are we going to go CD-happy? It can't happen too soon.
I would kill to be able to ship the 21 Mb intro to SI that some people saw at the trade shows. I would love to a whole game that does that. We were doing stuff like match cuts with overlapping action. They've been doing that in Hollywood since 1910. We can't do it on computers because we don't have the storage capacity. We had stuff like that in the original intro all over the place. CD's bring 'em- we want 'em. Buy 'em!
GB: (13) Has the problem of almost continual disk access been solved?
WS: No. It has not been solved.
GB: (13) Has the jerky motion of the screen when you're moving fast been solved?
WS: We've gotten some speedup of the engine. Our benchmarks say that you'll get up to a 30% speed increase. Is it a speed demon? No, but it is somewhat faster than the original engine. Believe me, we all feel that painfully, but we've done the best we could. You're still going to be hitting that disk a lot.
GB: (13) Did the combat intelligence of your partners increased? Was the light sourcing algorithm changed?
WS: Answer to both is no. We would have had to go really deep into the engine to mess with the combat code. Our mission was not to mess with the engine but to tell a neat new story. The lightsourcing I thought was pretty good. There are certainly problems. When going into a dungeon, finding a torch if you don't already have one can be a real pain. We came up with ways to deal with that which were appropriate in each context.
GB: (13) The screen shots of the intro reminded me of the KQ6 intro. Is the 3D modelled animation done at Origin?
WS: That's in house. Our entire art department is the best in the business. I'm absolutely convinced of that, and no one is going to sway me. Our senior artist, Denis Loubet, is brilliant. He can do things on a PC that the guys at SIGGRAPH with their Suns and SGI's say can't be done. He does it routinely. He's immensely talented. We do storyboards. He routinely trashes them and makes them better. In Wing Commander, I did the original shot breakdowns. Chris Roberts, Jeff George, Denis Loubet, and I sat on that balcony right there and went over the storyboard stuff, and I might as well have just thrown mine away.
Denis just started sketching and I'm going, "Oh yeah. Oh yeah." I mean, I've taught people how to make movies- I did that in grad school, and he's just got a real flare for that stuff. We did pretty much the same thing with Serpent Isle. He built this amazing boat model. Then we said, we also need water. And he said, "Well, you can't really model water." So we said, "Oh sure you can, Denis." So he did it and came back with water.
Unfortunately, animating modelled water takes up immense amounts of diskspace. Then we asked for a modelled guy. I didn't want to rotoscope him. So two days later, he came back and there he was. The guys in the SI intro *never existed*. They were all in Denis' mind. Richard saw those, and now he's going to use little modelled guys throughout Ultima 8. I think that's so cool. Denis is a genius.
GB: (13) Does Serpent's Isle take place before or after Underworld II?
WS: Here's the the sequence: it's Ultima 7: The Black Gate. Then Underworld II takes place a year later on the aniversery of the defeat of the Guardian. Serpent Isle takes place 6 months after that. 18 months after Ultima 7, you're ready for Serpent Isle.
GB: (13) Where exactly does Serpent Isle exist?
WS: Frankly, we didn't want to answer that. At various times when the moons of Britania and the sun are in the right position, these huge pillars rise out of the sea. The original intro animation for this was great. The pillars would come up, and the water would roil and boil, and water would be dripping off of them and everything. (It was awe- inspiring). If you sail through them at that time, you like go to another dimension. Where is Britania in realtion to Earth? Well, who knows?
GB: (14) What sort of technical breakthroughs are here?
WS: The paper-dolling. Our mission wasn't really technical breakthroughs here. It was to tell a neat story. We compensated for that by making a MUCH bigger world than Ultima 7. I think Ultima fans appreciate that epic scope.
GB: (14) How much space on the disk drive does it take?
WS: Probably a meg or two more than Ultima 7. Probably about 22/23 Mb.
GB: (14) What new peripherals are supported?
WS: Same as Ultima 7.
GB: (14) When will it ship?
WS: Now there's a question. I'll give you the same answer that I give upper management, which believe me, asks on a daily basis. How many bugs are there in the game? You tell me. There's one legitimate task to do- to get the endgame music into the endgame. And that should be today or tomorrow. After that, we're doing nothing but debugging. My guess is late February.
GB: (14) What kind of memory requirements are there?
WS: About 575k of lower RAM. And it's Voodoo, so 2 Megs of memory total. It's a big game. Buy lots of 486's!
GB: (14) When will there be an Ultima where the conversations are totally speech and not text?
WS: *sigh* The sooner the better. My guess is probably a couple of years away. It will probably involve CD's. It could happen this year. But it'll probably be '94.
GB: (14) When will we see SVGA games?
WS: There are proposals on the table now for 640x480x256 colors. Frankly, games that don't use SVGA in the years to come aren't going to make it.
GB: (14) What about multiplayer games?
WS: Doubt it for the near future, but some proposals on the desk have to have it. I'd say next year at the earliest.
GB: (14) What are the premises for the next to Ultima games, 8 and 9?
WS: Talk to Richard. He's the Ultima Number guy.
GB: (14) Has EA had any involvement in the planning, development, or approval of Origin games?
WS: Not so far. They've left us pretty much to our own devices.
GB: (14) Forge of Virtue was kind of a strange product. Is there anything similar going to come out for Serpent Isle?
WS: It's certainly been thought of. It's a sales thing. If SI does well, we'll be able to do it. We've got two good proposals for one already. The setting for one is Earth, the other isn't.
GB: (14) And a last loaded question from our beloved Editor: What do you think about Game Bytes?
WS: I think GB is swell. I have the first seven issues. I love the screen shots and am very impressed with it. I think it has much better perspectives on games than the glossy magazines.
Well, that was the interview. Warren was very friendly and talkative and seemed really excited about the work they're doing. Expect some creative games from this guy.
With that, we wrapped up the interview. Warren took me to the room where they edit the world of Serpent Isle. It had a master computer which stored the world and acted as a sort of world control system, where slave machines could check out little pieces to edit and then check back in. The editor was at least as elaborate as the game itself and took almost as long to write.
We then went to visit Denis Loubet to see this wonderful 21 Mb intro which couldn't be shipped with the game because of its size. Suffice it to say that it knocked my socks off. When you see the intro which ships with the game, try to imagine yourself much closer to the action, with hundreds more details flooding your vision and animation so smooth the 320x200 resolution seems like something more. And the pillars rizing from the sea are just plain flattening.
We also took a look at the perspective that Ultima 8 will be played from. Place the camera about 10 feet south and 45 degrees up from the main character, facing north, and you'll get an idea of what we were looking at. The character is 3d rendered and can walk in 8 directions. If I get the chance, expect Loubet to be the next target of my tape recorder!
Here is the list of kind people who submitted questions for the interview (thanks!):
(1) Liz Stokes, New York, New York (USA)
This interview is Copyright (C) 1993 by Game Bytes Magazine. All rights reserved.