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Feature TNL Developer Spotlight: Looking Glass Studios 01/14/2004
Through the years with Looking Glass

History and Background
Looking Glass Studios logoMost video game developers play it safe; they create games in established genres and follow the conventions of their predecessors. Then you have those few brave developers that dare to continually try new things, to tear down the barriers of tradition. In the console game world, a company like Treasure falls into the latter category. Treasure's Guardian Heroes, for example, strays from conventions of the beat-'em-up genre by blending in elements of role-playing and strategy to create something new. In the PC game world, Looking Glass Studios' refusal to follow a set path has contributed to its success.

The story begins in 1990. After completing the science-fiction RPG Space Rogue at Origin Systems, Paul Neurath decided to found his own company. Origin artist Doug Wike joined Neurath, who began hiring talented MIT graduates like Doug Church and Dan Schmidt. Blue Sky Productions was born, a company designed to take role-playing games in a new direction.

That new direction was the third dimension. Most RPGs up to this point were two-dimensional and used an overhead perspective, with some utilizing the first-person view in battles. Inspired by the first-person perspective of FTL's 1987 RPG, Dungeon Master, Neurath knew this was the path he wanted the genre to take as he began work on his new RPG. The tentatively titled Underworld was rechristened Ultima Underworld when publisher Origin suggested they use Richard Garriott's popular franchise. Eventually, Origin sent Warren Spector over to Blue Sky to produce the game. Spector had worked alongside Neurath on Space Rogue.

Upon its release in 1992, Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss did indeed take the RPG genre into new territory. It had the most advanced 3D engine of any home game of its time. Its more popular contemporary, id Software's Wolfenstein 3D, was a landmark title for action games and was an impressive technical showpiece, yet compared to Origin's title it was simplistic. Underworld had full 360-degree movement, which Wolfenstein lacked. However, Underworld was more than just a technological achievement. As Neurath said, "It established a new genre, combining first-person action with traditional role-playing to deliver an immersive experience." Its larger and more detailed sequel, Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds was released the following year.

After the first Underworld, Blue Sky Productions officially changed their name to Looking Glass Technologies, which was again changed a few years later to Looking Glass Studios.

Ultima Underworld ad Ultima Underworld box Ultima Underworld II box Thief Platinum box

As groundbreaking as the Ultima Underworld games were, Looking Glass managed to surpass them. Released for the PC in 1994, System Shock defied all genre conventions. To this day, gamers are unsure how to classify it. Is it a first-person shooter? Is it an adventure game? Is it a role-playing game? Well, it's all of these things. It wasn't the first game to mix first-person action with adventure elements (early 3D games like Incentive's Driller and The Dark Side did that in the late Eighties). Still, System Shock was an experience not quite like anything before it. Looking Glass truly created something unique and ahead of its time. Not until four years later with Valve's Half-Life did a first-person action game approach this level of story integration.

System Shock's story starts with your character hacking into a computer of a large corporation called TriOptimum. You get caught, but the vice-president of the company offers you a deal. You can avoid being turned over to the police if you hack into the A.I. that maintains one of TriOptimum's space stations for him. He even offers you cybernetic enhancements. You accept the offer and undergo cryogenic healing for your operation. When you awaken, you find the crew of the station dead. The rest of the story unfolds as you find various crew members' message logs throughout the station and you encounter your A.I. rival.

Looking Glass' next great achievement for first-person games was released for the PC in 1996. Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri was a mission-based action game. It provided the strategic variety and vast landscapes found in sim games like Dynamix' MechWarrior yet had the accessibility and controlling grace of a standard first-person shooter. Most games that try and stand between genres like this fail by turning away both crowds, but Terra Nova succeeds at finding the perfect balance and stands as an action classic. The only downside is that the company never completed making the game's multiplayer mode, which given the tactical nature of the game would have made it the predecessor to games like Dynamix' Starsiege: Tribes and the Half-Life mod, Counter Strike.

1998 was a year of milestones for action games with stealth gameplay. Konami released the long awaited Metal Gear Solid and Activision localized Acquire's ninja game Tenchu: Stealth Assassins. These were both PlayStation games, but the PC game world had a quality stealth action game of its own.

Thief: The Dark Project was a tale of an 18th century pickpocket trying to survive. Looking Glass dubbed their new creation a "first-person sneaker," emphasizing that this game is about lurking around and not just shooting everything in sight like most first-person action games. It's about hiding in the shadows, attacking only when necessary, and using your lockpicking skills to enter forbidden places. Like the previous Looking Glass games, Thief refused to be pigeonholed into a rigid genre definition. The influence of its stealth gameplay can seen in games like Monolith's No One Lives Forever.

Thief II: The Metal Age, released in 2000, was a solid sequel, although not vastly different from the first game. A new version of the first game with additional levels, called Thief: Gold, was also released.

System Shock 2 artwork Shodan from System Shock 2

In 1999, between the releases of the two main Thief games, System Shock managed to get a sequel despite disappointing sales of the original five years earlier. System Shock 2 kept intact what made the original great yet had a feel all its own. It was darker and scarier than the first game and showed the influence of the survival horror genre.

System Shock 2 was co-developed by Looking Glass Studios and a new developer called Irrational Games. Irrational Games consisted partly of ex-Looking Glass employees and was headed by Ken Levine, who worked on Thief as a story writer and designer.

Ultima Underworld, System Shock, Terra Nova, and Thief are Looking Glass' most notable achievements, but they weren't its only games. Looking Glass also made the following: the PC racing game Car and Driver, the PC flight sim series Flight Unlimited, the Nintendo 64 port of Westwood's Command & Conquer, the PC sports game British Open Championship Golf, and the Nintendo 64 port of Reflections' Destruction Derby.

The company was developing Deep Cover, an espionage-themed PC stealth-action game set in the Cold War era and a game called Mini Racers for the Nintendo 64, but these games were never completed. The company was financially unstable and closed down in May of 2000.

Click here for rare gameplay footage of Mini Racers, courtesy of IGN. (QuickTime, 5.9MB)

The developer's demise is not a sad one, since its legacy lives on in other developers.

Paul Neurath went to Arkane Studios and created Arx Fatalis on PC, the spiritual successor to the Ultima Underworld games. Arx Fatalis saw an Xbox port in December 2003. Also in 2003, Neurath and some other ex-Looking Glass people at Floodgate Studios released an expansion pack to Bioware's RPG Neverwinter Nights called The Shadows of Undrentide.

Terra Nova lead designer, Dorian Hart, and a few others are now at Ken Levine's Irrational Games. Irrational is currently developing the latest Starsiege PC game, Tribes: Vengeance, and the horror action/adventure game The Lost for PlayStation 2 and Xbox.

Warren Spector, Doug Church, and others are at Ion Storm Austin. They created the excellent FPS/RPG Deus Ex which expanded upon the type of gameplay found in System Shock and Thief. Ion Storm Austin developed Deus Ex: Invisible War and Thief III for PC and Xbox.


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2004 The Next Level