Retro Gamer

It cre­ated some of the most in­flu­en­tial games of all time and pro­duced a wealth of tal­ent that would go on to shape the in­dus­try long after its demise. Paul Walker-emig ex­plores the roots of Look­ing Glass’ en­dur­ing legacy

- Video Games · Gaming · Looking Glass · 38 Studios · Nicolaus Copernicus · Electronic Arts · New Hampshire · Austin, TX · Texas · Austin · Apple Inc · Underworld · Idaho · Valvesoftware.com · Naughty Dog Software · Alien · Mark Hamill · Paul Walker · Chuck Yeager · Origin Systems, Inc. · World of Warcraft · Ultima · Chris Parks · Apple IIGS · IBM · John Carmack · Wolfenstein · Looking Glass · Thief · Warren Spector · Spector · VR · Neuromancer · Chris Roberts · Richard Garriott · Wing Commander · Half-Life 2 · Ted Tally · Eidos Montreal · Looking Glass Technologies · Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss · Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri · British Open Championship Golf

Look­ing Glass Stu­dios was a stu­dio that was al­ways at the edge. It was at the edge tech­no­log­i­cally, a pi­o­neer in the world of 3D gam­ing. It was at the edge cre­atively, tak­ing risks that pro­duced clas­sic games with an en­dur­ing in­flu­ence. In part be­cause of its cre­ative brinks­man­ship, it was also of­ten on the edge fi­nan­cially and, even­tu­ally, fell into the precipice.

The stu­dio was co­founded by Paul Neu­rath and Ed­ward Lerner, who met at col­lege. Their first ma­jor col­lab­o­ra­tion, Deep Space: Op­er­a­tion Coper­ni­cus, was not a suc­cess and the two parted ways.

Ed­ward founded Lerner Re­search and de­vel­oped Chuck Yea­ger’s Ad­vanced Flight Sim­u­la­tor for EA, and Paul went to work with Ori­gin Sys­tems on ti­tles such as Space Rogue. When Ori­gin de­cided to re­lo­cate from South­ern New Hamp­shire to Austin, Texas, Paul de­cided to found his own stu­dio, Blue Sky Pro­duc­tions. There, Paul and his team would cre­ate a game that, in many ways, em­bod­ied what Look­ing Glass was to be­come: Ul­tima Un­der­world: The Sty­gian Abyss.

“I had done an ex­per­i­ment in the late Eight­ies where I got a very sim­ple tex­ture map­per work­ing on an Ap­ple IIGS,” Paul re­calls. “It was barely fast enough to draw five tex­ture maps in real time, but I knew it could work if I had a more pow­er­ful sys­tem. Fast for­ward a cou­ple of years to 1990 and the IBM PC, I think it was a 286 class at that time, it was just ca­pa­ble enough to do real-time tex­ture map­ping on a very limited ba­sis. For Un­der­world, we couldn’t do the whole screen, so we cut out a win­dow and then cre­ated a UI around it.”

Ed­ward of­fers a nice anec­dote that helps il­lus­trate just how tech­no­log­i­cally im­pres­sive Un­der­world was at the time. “John Car­mack, who wrote Wolfen­stein and all those won­der­ful ID games, he saw Ul­tima Un­der­world at E3,” he says. “He ba­si­cally went, ‘Oh shit!’, and went home and, be­cause he was a ge­nius, within like a month he had du­pli­cated the tech and ac­tu­ally done it bet­ter.”

That push­ing of tech­ni­cal bound­aries that Ul­tima Un­der­world rep­re­sented would come to be a Look­ing Glass trait. The game also set a tem­plate for the kinds of ex­pe­ri­ences the stu­dio would come to be known for. “I’ve been a role-player – penand-pa­per D&D and games like that,” says Paul. “I wanted to try and marry that role-play­ing – you play through a nar­ra­tive and make choices with char­ac­ters and make choices of which fac­tions you sup­port or not – to­gether with this im­mer­sive first­per­son ex­pe­ri­ence. I didn’t know where it would go. There was some sense of, ‘We’re just go­ing to try this and see if it works,’ know­ing that it might not, but it did. Once it worked, we said: ‘Let’s do more of this.’

Sys­tem Shock, and Thief, and all of that came out of that source.”

Of course, be­fore Sys­tem Shock, Thief, and the rest, there was the found­ing of Look­ing Glass. Though Paul and Ed­ward had parted ways after de­vel­op­ing Deep Space, they had con­tin­ued to col­lab­o­rate both for­mally and in­for­mally, in­clud­ing on Ul­tima Un­der­world. The duo even­tu­ally de­cided to merge Paul’s Blue Sky Pro­duc­tions with Ed­ward’s Lerner Re­search in 1992 and Look­ing Glass was born.

“I remember the first time I flew up there, many mem­bers of the team were liv­ing to­gether in a house that they called ‘Deco Morono’ – the house of ten dumb guys,” be­gins for­mer Look­ing Glass de­vel­oper War­ren Spec­tor, re­call­ing what kind of place Look­ing Glass was to work. “I walked into that place and it took me five min­utes to re­alise that I was the stu­pid­est per­son in that room. And it was great. Hang­ing out with peo­ple that smart and that tal­ented and that ded­i­cated was pretty in­cred­i­ble and I think speaks to the qual­ity of the games that they made.”

Recruiting a bunch of smart tal­ent – in par­tic­u­lar, Look­ing Glass re­cruited from MIT – no doubt helped in what the stu­dio would go on to achieve, but just as cru­cial was the en­vi­ron­ment they were work­ing in.

I walked into that place and it took me five min­utes to re­alise that I was the stu­pid­est per­son in that room War­ren Spec­tor

“We were lit­er­ally try­ing to in­vent the fu­ture of games,” says Ed­ward. “On some level, we wanted that VR fu­ture that you could read in a book like Neu­ro­mancer or Snowcrash and were try­ing to kick that thing off. There was a tremen­dous amount of dis­cus­sion about what we were do­ing and what the fu­ture would be.

It was a cul­ture where ev­ery­one was kind of an equal in that we were all fig­ur­ing it out, so it was a very flat struc­ture and ev­ery­one’s opin­ion was val­ued,” he con­tin­ues. “A bunch of other game com­pa­nies ended up with a sim­i­lar kind of cul­ture. I think the ones that come to my mind are Valve and Naughty Dog.”

Paul tells us that team ethos was key to what the stu­dio was able to achieve. “We re­ally cel­e­brated the teams,” he says. “We had some more than stand­out peo­ple – devel­op­ers like

Doug Church, he’s a ge­nius – but we worked re­ally hard at bring­ing to­gether di­verse skillsets.” Paul ex­plains that the team ethos was com­ple­mented with a com­mit­ment to cre­ative risk tak­ing, in­spired by Chris Roberts and Richard Gar­riott, who he met when work­ing at Ori­gin Sys­tems. “They are peo­ple who are will­ing to gam­ble on some new de­sign and maybe it works or it doesn’t work. I brought that piece of the spirit to Look­ing Glass.”

The stu­dio’s first project was a se­quel: Ul­tima Un­der­world II: Labyrinth Of Worlds. The game was well-re­ceived and per­formed well com­mer­cially, but it left Look­ing Glass with an ap­petite to do some­thing dif­fer­ent.

“We’d spent three very in­ten­sive years on the two Un­der­world games,” says Paul. “All of us said: ‘We don’t want to do another fan­tasy RPG for a bit. We want to con­tinue with the im­mer­sive sim­u­la­tor and Rpg-ish space, but let’s do it in a dif­fer­ent con­text.’ The other thing is that we just wanted to ex­plore the genre in a dif­fer­ent way, so Sys­tem Shock be­came a good plat­form to do that be­cause of the bio up­grades, and the hack­ing, and the cy­ber­punk el­e­ments. It brought a whole dif­fer­ent di­men­sion to role-play.”

“I was as sick of fan­tasy games as Paul hav­ing worked on sev­eral Ul­tima games and Un­der­world and Un­der­world II,” echoes War­ren. “I had a de­sign spec for a game that was called Alien Com­man­der, which was go­ing to be a first-per­son sci­ence fic­tion game us­ing the Wing Com­man­der tech­nol­ogy, and then along comes Paul with Citadel [Sys­tem Shock’s orig­i­nal ti­tle] and I just dumped the

Alien Com­man­der pro­posal and Sys­tem

Shock went ahead.”

Sys­tem Shock’s im­por­tance in the his­tory of videogames is now well es­tab­lished, re­garded as it is as one of the most in­flu­en­tial games of all time. How­ever, the game was not a suc­cess at the time, los­ing the com­pany money and rais­ing dif­fi­cult ques­tions about the stu­dio’s di­rec­tion.

“To be hon­est, my con­fi­dence was some­what shaken,” Paul ad­mits. “It was the most am­bi­tious in the scope of de­sign. Un­proven el­e­ments all thrown in the mix. It was kind of crazy; we were aware of that. There was some ques­tion­ing of are we go­ing too far out on a limb on this and so we weren’t cer­tain what the com­mer­cial suc­cess may or may not be when we launched. When we look back on it in hind­sight, we fully recog­nise the user in­ter­face was too de­mand­ing. Now you talk about ramp­ing peo­ple in, lay­er­ing stuff on so you’re not throw­ing ev­ery­thing at the player day one. Sys­tem Shock didn’t even at­tempt to do any­thing like that!”

“Look at the open­ing ‘help screen’ and hear the air quotes around help,” War­ren chimes in. “It is as­ton­ish­ing. We thought it was a good idea to use ev­ery key on the key­board or some­thing!”

Paul con­cedes that the lack of ac­ces­si­bil­ity hurt the game’s com­mer­cial suc­cess but re­veals there were other fac­tors, too. EA ac­quired Look­ing Glass’ pub­lisher, Ori­gin Sys­tems, prior to Sys­tem Shock’s re­lease and, in Paul’s words, “They didn’t get it.” In­deed, EA came close to can­celling the game mere months be­fore its re­lease. It didn’t go that far in the end, but EA’S am­biva­lence towards Sys­tem Shock still had an im­pact. “This is still re­tail days,” Paul ex­plains.

“If you didn’t have good re­tail shelf space, your game would not do well. EA se­nior man­age­ment and sales couldn’t get their head around it, it was too weird, and so [they] had low ex­pec­ta­tions.

In that era, that led to you cap­ping your sales po­ten­tial. We didn’t get much mar­ket­ing and re­tail.”

“In fact, I remember go­ing down to the mar­ket­ing depart­ment and get­ting into a shout­ing match with them,” War­ren re­calls. “The short ver­sion is me shout­ing, ‘What do I have to do to get

a hit around here!’ and the an­swer was a very quiet, very calm, ‘Sign Mark Hamill to star in your game.’ That was the think­ing at the time.”

The com­mer­cial fail­ure of Sys­tem Shock was, un­for­tu­nately for Look­ing Glass, not an aber­ra­tion. Terra Nova: Strike Force Cen­tauri (1996) and Bri­tish Open Cham­pi­onship Golf (1997) both failed to re­coup de­vel­op­ment costs, tight­en­ing the screws on a com­pany that had al­ways op­er­ated on thin mar­gins. Look­ing Glass was only able to sur­vive these suc­ces­sive com­mer­cial fail­ures thanks to the suc­cess of Flight Un­lim­ited (1995) and Flight Un­lim­ited 2 (1997). Those flight sim­u­la­tors kept the com­pany’s head above wa­ter as it went into de­vel­op­ment on what would come to be another dif­fi­cult, but ul­ti­mately defin­ing, project.

“We were about a year and a half into the project, and I’m not count­ing the first four or

I remember go­ing down to the mar­ket­ing depart­ment and get­ting into a shout­ing match with them War­ren Spec­tor

five months where we were try­ing to fig­ure out what game we wanted to make, be­fore we even got stealth work­ing,” Paul re­calls of Thief: The Dark Project’s trou­bled de­vel­op­ment. “It was get­ting a bit des­per­ate be­cause we weren’t sure we could pull it off and if we didn’t have stealth work­ing, we didn’t have a game. If it had taken another two or three months to get stealth work­ing, I think Ei­dos would have just can­celled it and it prob­a­bly would have killed the stu­dio. It was a stress­ful time.”

Paul re­mem­bers a “heroic” in­ter­ven­tion from a team mem­ber that saved the project. “We had an AI sys­tem that kind of worked half the time and half the time was com­pletely bro­ken. We’d been try­ing to fix it for months and months,” Paul ex­plains. “Our lead en­gi­neer on the project, Tom Leonard, came up with a new ap­proach. He pitched it and we said, ‘Let’s just give it a try.’ Lit­er­ally three weeks later he had rewrit­ten the AI sys­tem and it worked bril­liantly. We had other pieces come to­gether,” Paul con­tin­ues. “Around the time we had a sound sys­tem to do sound prop­a­ga­tion, re­flec­tion, at­ten­u­a­tion off walls, which was key to mak­ing stealth work. That came on­line ro­bustly around that same time. A few of these pieces fell into place and, sud­denly, we had a game. The rest is his­tory.”

Paul tells us that Thief was the most suc­cess­ful game Look­ing Glass ever made. It was a vin­di­ca­tion for the team that the kind of games they were in­ter­ested in mak­ing could make money. The stu­dios com­mit­ment to push­ing the cre­ative bound­aries, even when things looked des­per­ate, had fi­nally been re­warded.

Un­for­tu­nately, it wasn’t a case of on­wards and up­wards. The stu­dio would face more prob­lems with its next big project: Sys­tem Shock 2. “When we came out in 1999, that was months after the high school shoot­ing in Columbine,” Paul re­mem­bers. “Larry Probst, who was the CEO of EA at the time, he reached out and said, ‘We may just want to walk away from do­ing shoot­ers be­cause there’s talk of those shoot­ers caus­ing these kinds of events.’ We had this meet­ing where we made our case that Sys­tem Shock does not re­ward you for go­ing in there and shoot­ing ev­ery­thing that moves. You will lose if you do that; it’s a think­ing per­son’s game. I think we half­way con­vinced them,”

Paul re­mem­bers. “We con­vinced them enough

to re­lease the game, but they did al­most zero mar­ket­ing and they put it in the bar­gain dis­count $9.95 bin 45 days after the game launched. It never stood a chance to make any money. That re­ally hurt us fi­nan­cially.”

Look­ing Glass would go on to cre­ate another suc­cess­ful game in Thief II: The Metal Age, but it wasn’t long after that the stu­dio would close its doors for good. Why wasn’t the suc­cess of Thief II enough to save Look­ing Glass this time around?

“The an­swer is com­pli­cated,” says Paul. “Our largest in­vestor was Vi­a­com, who came in the mid-nineties. It all made per­fect sense then, be­cause they had just bought Vir­gin In­ter­ac­tive and had a cou­ple of other stu­dios. They were re­ally build­ing their game busi­ness as a For­tune

100 me­dia com­pany.” Not long after in­vest­ing in Look­ing Glass, how­ever, Vi­a­com de­cided it wasn’t in­ter­ested in games after all. It quickly sold off its stu­dios and wanted out of Look­ing Glass, too. “That ended up be­ing ex­tremely painful and dif­fi­cult,” Paul re­calls. “We had no choice but to sell the stu­dio to get our lead in­vestor’s cash out.”

In the scram­ble to find a buyer, Look­ing Glass ended up be­ing ac­quired by In­ter­met­rics, who later changed their name to Aver­star. “Aver­star was a mid-size com­pany do­ing, I don’t know, $80 mil­lion in rev­enue, but it was mostly for like Gen­eral

Mo­tors cre­at­ing the com­puter soft­ware for their cars,” Paul ex­plains. How­ever, Aver­star also had a small group en­am­oured with the Nin­tendo 64. They saw Look­ing Glass as a means for them to ac­quire the skills and cred­i­bil­ity they needed to make their own games for the sys­tem. “We ended up over the next two years tak­ing lit­er­ally all of the prof­its we were mak­ing on games like Thief and pour­ing it into their team do­ing N64 games, which was a sep­a­rate divi­sion un­der our hood,” Paul says. “We ended up with sev­eral mil­lion dol­lars of debt by the time 2000 rolled around on these Nin­tendo 64 games. When in the fi­nal stretch Sys­tem Shock 2 sold ex­tremely poorly, mostly be­cause of the Columbine shoot­ing, we had a cou­ple of other things hap­pen around the same time, and car­ry­ing over two mil­lion dol­lars in debt load, our par­ent com­pany ba­si­cally just said, ‘Guys, we want to sell you off for pieces.’ And that’s what hap­pened.”

As sad as it is that a pi­o­neer­ing stu­dio like Look­ing Glass had to close its doors, we can take heart in the fact that its legacy lives on. Its games are now recog­nised as some of the most im­por­tant in videogame his­tory and the peo­ple that worked on them have gone on to cre­ate a host of clas­sics in­fused with Look­ing Glass DNA: War­ren Spec­tor and a num­ber of for­mer Look­ing Glass em­ploy­ees would de­velop Deus Ex at Ion Storm, Sys­tem Shock 2 de­signer

Ken Levine went on to di­rect Bioshock, and a man who got his first break on Sys­tem Shock, Har­vey Smith, be­came known for cre­at­ing Thief ’s spir­i­tual suc­ces­sor, Dis­hon­ored, to name but a few.

“I like to think it’s not a co­in­ci­dence,” says Paul of the wealth of tal­ent that’s come out of Look­ing Glass. “We saw our job as de­vel­op­ing the peo­ple, de­vel­op­ing the tal­ent. Putting them in a po­si­tion where they could learn and stretch them­selves. Tak­ing cre­ative risks. I think that cul­ture car­ried on for peo­ple like Ken and oth­ers.”

“The level of think­ing about game de­sign and about the de­sign of the game’s we were mak­ing was pro­foundly deeper than any place else I’ve ever worked,” War­ren re­flects. “I think a lot of it was that sense of mis­sion. Not just a sense of ‘this is what we all want to do’, but that it was some­how im­por­tant. I remember look­ing at the games we were mak­ing and think­ing, ‘Why doesn’t ev­ery­body make games like this?’ This is what games can do that no other medium can do and we have a real chance to change the world of games.” War­ren closes by ex­press­ing a sen­ti­ment that feels em­blem­atic of the com­mit­ment this spe­cial stu­dio had towards what it was do­ing. “If I can’t make games like this, like the Look­ing Glass games, I’m go­ing to stop mak­ing games.”

that ended up be­ing ex­tremely painful and dif­fi­cult Paul Neu­rath

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 ??  ?? » [PC] Sys­tem Shock may well be a clas­sic, but even its devel­op­ers ad­mit it doesn’t have the most in­tu­itive UI. » [PC] Ul­tima Un­der­world in­ven­tory, II fea­tures a large in­tro­duced be­cause HUD and that made it of tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cult to lim­i­ta­tions go...
» [PC] Sys­tem Shock may well be a clas­sic, but even its devel­op­ers ad­mit it doesn’t have the most in­tu­itive UI. » [PC] Ul­tima Un­der­world in­ven­tory, II fea­tures a large in­tro­duced be­cause HUD and that made it of tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cult to lim­i­ta­tions go...
 ??  ?? game picks up one year » [PC] Look­ing Glass’ first
Ul­tima VII: The Black Gate. after the con­clu­sion of » The Look­ing Glass team cel­e­brates after suc­cess­fully ship­ping a game.
game picks up one year » [PC] Look­ing Glass’ first Ul­tima VII: The Black Gate. after the con­clu­sion of » The Look­ing Glass team cel­e­brates after suc­cess­fully ship­ping a game.
 ??  ?? » War­ren Spec­tor stands out­side the Look­ing Glass Austin Of­fice on the day of its open­ing as the stu­dio ex­panded from its home base in Mas­sachusetts.
» War­ren Spec­tor stands out­side the Look­ing Glass Austin Of­fice on the day of its open­ing as the stu­dio ex­panded from its home base in Mas­sachusetts.
 ??  ?? PC] Rogue ro­bots are just one of the many sted AI SHODAN puts en­e­mies the in your way in Sys­tem
Shock. » [PC] Stealth is the or­der of the day in the Thief se­ries, but that doesn’t mean you’re not go­ing to end up in a duel with a guard now and again....
PC] Rogue ro­bots are just one of the many sted AI SHODAN puts en­e­mies the in your way in Sys­tem Shock. » [PC] Stealth is the or­der of the day in the Thief se­ries, but that doesn’t mean you’re not go­ing to end up in a duel with a guard now and again....

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