THE LOST CITY
Paul Neurath discusses Looking Glass’ cancelled plans for ThiefIII.
Looking Glass Studios announced its closure on May 24, 2000, just four months after the launch of its final game, Thief II. The studio had weathered financial troubles for many years, but its end still came as a shock. This was because Looking Glass had all but settled a new deal with Eidos Interactive, with the primary focus of the deal being on the Thief franchise. Indeed, when Looking Glass closed, it had been hard at work on a third Thief game for the best part of a year.
“Before we shut down, that engine was looking as good as Unreal”
“Thief became one of the best-selling games Looking Glass ever did,” says Paul Neurath, the founder of Looking Glass Studios. While it was a slow-burning success, the initial sales figures were enough that Eidos wanted a sequel. “But they wanted Thief II to be very modern scale, the budget was very modest, the timescale was very tight. It was, ‘Do a fast follow-up on Thief.’”
Nonetheless, Looking Glass was able to improve upon its previous work because, second time around, it understood what kind of game it was making. “We were really able to leverage our knowledge of how stealth worked, which I think made Thief II a better game,” says Neurath.
Just as work on Thief II began, however, sales of The Dark Project started to take off, and Eidos saw a viable franchise. So it signed the studio for a third Thief game, more ambitious than Thief II. “The budget was three or fourfold higher than Thief II. And the timeframe was like a two-and-a-half-year timeframe.”
With the deal in place, Looking Glass began working on Thief III in 1999. The planned features were tantalizing. Thief III would have multiplayer. It’d have a freely explorable city, and be built in a new engine, dubbed the Siege Engine.
Foremost amongst those features was that open world. “We had really wanted to push was giving the city more context and a more permanent state,” says Neurath. “Because the mission structure we did in Thief was so kind of abstracted out. The city didn’t really have a sense of place. We wanted to give the city more of a context… more of the kind of gameplay you see in the GTA games.”
Home Sweet home
Inside this city, Garrett would have a place to call his own. “The base building was part of the project. You could have your own place, you could bring your loot back there, and you could deck it out.” The story, meanwhile, would have focussed on the Keepers, the third of Thief ’s city factions alongside the Pagans and the Hammerites. Details are sketchy, but the plot would have seen Garrett embroiled in the Keepers’ politics, as their position as arbiters of the city’s status quo begins to crumble.
Another pillar of Thief III’s development was multiplayer. Looking Glass bounced around multiple ideas, ranging from co-operative multiplayer, to competitive deathmatch, and even ‘theftmatch’ style modes. Neurath can’t recall if they settled on an approach, but points out that System Shock 2, released the year before Thief II, supported a cooperative multiplayer. “We crammed in a two-player co-op mode in System Shock 2, which was kind of broken, we didn’t have time to do it right, and I wish we’d just not done it. But it wasn’t a choice because EA had made it a requirement that we have it. But us doing that work underscored, ‘We’ve got real work to do. We need to do more under-the-hood engineering to make multiplayer robust.’”
Indeed, most of Thief III’s actual development time was spent in R&D, upgrading the new engine to support a larger map that enabled multiplayer. “We were starting to look at, ‘How do we create a more complex, largerscope world that we might have to stream in, where we can’t deal with simply loading in a level?’”
Alongside this, Looking Glass was also working on visual improvements, as the Dark Engine had been designed to support software rendering, and was behind the curve on making the most of 3D acceleration technology. Chris Siegel, another Looking Glass alumnus, “Right before we shut down, that engine was looking as good as Unreal. I was sitting down for a couple of tests, and the lighting and the texture density and all that was right up there with Unreal at the time.”
Looking Glass’s Thief III never saw the light of day, but if you’re thinking the outline to Thief III sounds similar to that of Deadly Shadows, Randy Smith, the design lead of Deadly Shadows, was also one of Thief III’s project heads, and Terri Brosius, who was tasked with writing Thief III’s story, was lead writer on Deadly Shadows. Thief III might have never happened, but many of its ideas found their way out of the dark.
BELOW: ThiefIII would’ve seen Garrett tangle with the Keepers in an open world-style city.
LEFT: Paul Neurath was the founder of Blue Sky Productions, which became Looking Glass Studios.