Conceived in 1989 by Origin Systems employee Paul Neurath and released in 1992, Ultima Underworld was the first RPG presented in a first-person perspective to use true 3D graphics and introduced many innovations in video game technology, such as allowing the player to look up and down. Its design combines elements from earlier CRPGs, such as Wizardry and Dungeon Master, with simulation elements, which led the game’s designers to label it a “dungeon simulation“. Ultima Underworld is THE forefather of modern continuous-movement first-person texture-mapped gaming. Nothing like it had been attempted before (and precious little on the same scale as Underworld for a long time to follow.)
The game takes place entirely in a large, multi-level dungeon. Progression is non-linear, allowing the player to explore areas and to finish puzzles and quests in any order. Exploratory actions include looking up and down, jumping, and swimming. The player character may carry light sources to extend the line of sight in varying amounts. An automatically filling map, to which the player can add notes, records what the player has seen above a minimum level of brightness. The game also uses physics to calculate motion.
The developers Blue Sky Productions (later Looking Glass Studios) intended the game to be a realistic and interactive “dungeon simulation“, rather than a straightforward role-playing game. For example, many objects in the game have no actual use, while a lit torch may be used on corn to create popcorn. Weapons deteriorate with use, and the player character must eat and rest; light sources burn out unless extinguished before sleeping. A physics system allows, among other actions, for items to bounce when thrown against surfaces. The game was designed to give players “a palette of strategies” with which to approach situations, and its simulation systems allow for emergent gameplay.
The game’s advanced technology caused the engine to run slowly, forcing the team to limit the viewable area by imposing a large HUD. Despite this change, the game’s system requirements were still extremely high. Doug Church later downplayed the importance of the game’s technology, stating that “progress is somewhat inevitable in our field … [and] sadly, as an industry we seem to know much less about design, and how to continue to extend and grow design capabilities“. Instead, he claimed that Underworld’s most important achievement was its incorporation of simulation elements into a role-playing game.
The game’s soundtrack, composed by George Sanger and Dave Govett, was the first in a major first-person game to use a dynamic music system, in which the player’s actions alter the game’s music.
id Software’s use of texture mapping in Catacomb 3D, a precursor to Wolfenstein 3D, was influenced by Ultima Underworld. In the book Masters of Doom, author David Kushner asserts that the concept was discussed only briefly during a 1991 telephone conversation between Paul Neurath and John Romero. However, Paul Neurath has stated multiple times that John Carmack and John Romero had seen the game’s 1990 CES demo, and recalled a comment from Carmack that he could write a faster texture mapper.
The game’s influence has been found in Bioshock, whose designer, Ken Levine, said that “all the things that I wanted to do and all the games that I ended up working on came out of the inspiration I took from [Ultima Underworld]“. Gears of War designer Cliff Bleszinski also cited it as an early influence, stating that it had “far more impact on me than Doom“.
Other games influenced by Ultima Underworld include The Elder Scrolls: Arena, Deus Ex, Deus Ex: Invisible War, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, and Half-Life 2.
The engine was enhanced for Ultima Underworld’s 1993 sequel, Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds, and again for System Shock (1994). Looking Glass Studios planned to create a third Ultima Underworld, but Origin rejected their pitches.