Underworld Ascendant: Where We’re Headed & How We Got Here
Charitably, the launch of Underworld Ascendant was rough. On release the game was too buggy and shy on polish. We should have done better, and we deeply apologize to our fans for falling short.
It’s also evident some our fans wanted a game that played much closer to the original Ultima Underworld. It’s been painful to hear these players describe how we missed expectations. Although we tried to be clear with press and fans during the development of the game, in hindsight we could have done a better job communicating what Underworld Ascendant was and what it was not.
Despite the game’s flaws at launch, we believe there is a core of goodness to Underworld Ascendant. Our job now is to address the concerns players have expressed and improve the game; making what is good about the game shine through more brightly.
Improving the game starts with listening carefully. We have been soliciting players’ input, making improvements, and listening more. The day after we launched, the team shifted focus to making the game better. We’re fixing bugs, balancing the game further, and rolling in gameplay improvements. One example — shortly we will roll out a robust SAVE GAME feature, something many fans have asked for. We hope you will be patient with us and give Underworld Ascendant the chance to show it can be worthy.
For a look at our development roadmap going into the next few months, click here.
For those interested in understanding how games get made and where things can sometimes get off track, below is a deeper look into how Underworld Ascendant ended up falling short of our expectations at launch.
The OtherSide Team
17 December 2018
To provide some context, understand that the Underworld series is especially close to our hearts. Those of us who worked on the original Ultima Underworld threw ourselves into that game and took some crazy creative risks. When the game launched, we had no sense if players would like it. Turns out they did. That encouraged us to explore the immersive simulation genre further with games such as System Shock, Thief and Deus Ex.
Two decades later, when we had the opportunity to make a game related to the Underworld series, we jumped at the chance with Underworld Ascendant. However, rather than duplicating our past work, we wanted to try to move the genre forward with some new design thinking.
For instance, we ditched the Ultima Underworld scripted conversation trees with NPCs, and instead told the story through a mix of character voiceovers and lore sprinkled about the world as graffiti carved into stone surfaces for the player to uncover — similar to how we used narrative voice overs in Thief and audio logs in System Shock. We also decided not to build an expansive, continuous dungeon to explore. Instead, we built self-contained corners of the dungeon that players would jump to through magic portals. Ultima Underworld II featured an early version of this approach with portals that led to different “worlds”. In Underworld Ascendant we took that further, parceling out quests that would direct you to a primary goal in particular corners of the Abyss.
There are other examples of ways in which, for better or worse, we deviated from the original Underworld model. Sometimes a less-than-warm reception is in part due to experimenting with new design approaches that don’t fit player expectations for the genre. Players may come around to appreciate these design choices in the years following launch. Or not so much. But as a studio, we will continue to take creative risks even with this reality.
This is not the first time we’ve taken creative risks that didn’t all pan out. It’s also worth recalling that some of the innovations we tried in past games were, at least initially, received less than enthusiastically. Ultimately many came to view these games as classics, but some of the early reviews that the original Ultima Underworld and System Shock were less than kind. For instance:
It doesn’t help that Ultima Underworld’s combat is fairly weak. Many fights felt drawn out… with little variation beyond swinging and healing occasionally. Relying on magic has its own annoyances, given that each spell needs to be incanted with several runes.
Those who like to spend hours with a manual to try to figure out to play System Shock, good luck. The rest of us choose to play Doom II instead, where we get what the game promised – full action without hassles.
Taking creative risks is only a part of the story of Underworld Ascendant’s launch. The project faced funding hurdles early in its development. We had lined up a healthy funding commitment with a partner, many-fold more than the Kickstarter funding we later raised. Unfortunately, several months following the Kickstarter our funding partner made a strategic pivot away from the sort of game we were making, resulting in the funding falling through. We had to make do with a fraction of the funding needed to complete our original vision for the game. We did our best to make forward progress with a tiny team. However, it was slow going as we wandered through a development desert for nearly 2 years.
In the summer of 2017, 505 Games stepped up as our publishing partner to help bring the game home. At long-last we were able to step up the pace of our progress. This past Summer we felt confident that we had scoped the game correctly and that we’d be in solid shape for a Fall 2018 launch.
With 20/20 hindsight we were overly optimistic. Part of that came from our prior experiences making immersive simulations, where a lot comes together in the final months. Having a small development team, along with the legacy of an artificially protracted schedule that resulted in relying on now outdated code, ended up impinging on our ability to execute on the same level of progress. In addition, after having worked on the game for more than three years we lost perspective on where Underworld Ascendant stood. We convinced ourselves that the game was in more robust shape than it actually was. Had we been more objective, we would have held off the launch and worked on the game longer. Instead we pushed hard and hit the planned November launch date.
As a consequence, the game went out rougher than it should have. None of the challenges the project faced are an excuse. We should have done better.
Mistakes aside and despite its flaws at launch, we believe Underworld Ascendant has the bones of a truly good game, and we’re now working hard to make the goodness show through much better.