The Tracks of His Games
Reflections on a decade of games from Doug Church
Posted on 01/30/2000
INTERVIEW: Doug Church

Ultima Underworld
(May 1990-March 1992)

Shot One

It was nice to have about six people on a team. We had no dedicated designers, so everyone built levels. The company was up in New Hampshire at that point, but all the programmers were in Cambridge, MA or south of there. For the final four months, we rented a tiny basement office and hired a bunch of friends from college to come test. We had about eight of us in this 15x15 room, sitting in uncomfortable red deck chairs, faxing bug lists to Origin and back, blasting music and playing Monkey Island II about 30 minutes a day to avoid insanity. [Producer] Warren [Spector] came up for about six weeks and still has unpaid parking tickets. The air-conditioning in the building was a total mess, so it was really cold, and high winds would rush under the doors continually. We had whiteboards with everyone’s current best times to solve the game in the current build. Kevin Wasserman managed to get down under 45 minutes.

Ultima Underworld II
(April 1992-December 1993)

Shot Two

Well, this was initially gonna ship in February [of 1993], then tried to move it to November, and then tried desperately to make Christmas. The final build was actually made on my laptop (using Stacker to get drive space) in Warren’s office. We cut it Dec 18th, or something, but there was one bug we couldn’t reproduce, and everyone really wanted to go home for Christmas. We ended up taking a few days off, checking it a few more days and using that version anyway. Almost all the artists were remote contractors, so I’d end up calling nine different area codes every couple days to check up on things. Trying to describe how the monsters should look by phone was a total pain.

System Shock

Shot Three

Underworld I was defined by a little animation lead artist Doug Wike had done, showing the user interface, a monster and some movement. Shock was defined by two little three-paragraph "minute of gameplay" documents. Pretty much everything derived from them somehow. We moved offices a month before ship date, so we were desperately trying to rebuild the network and the whole team was around 20 hours a day that month. Right near the end, [programmer] James Fleming decided he couldn’t take the lame texture maps with stars drawn on them and wrote a real system to do the starfield. Warren had pretty much forbidden us to add any code at this point, but we were confident, so we put it in. He was not pleased. The day after, Harvey Smith, the QA lead down at Origin, was testing a new version in a cube next to Warren and called out "Look, now they’ve added a Kilrathi ship to the starfield too." We tried to keep them from shipping the floppy version and instead just ship the CD version, but Origin would have none of it.

Flight Unlimited
(March 1993-March 1995)

Shot Four

The team had done a bunch of very cool stuff, the FBO, the flight model, the instructor, the renderer, so on. But it was almost like four separate programs, with no connection. Luckily, Mahk [Marc Leblank] and Xemu [Rob Fermier] from System Shock were willing to grind out a bunch of user-interface and connections, and they helped get everything playing nicely together (mostly). This game had one of our best bugs, in which late in testing we discovered that due to the, ah, extreme elegance of the class design, we were actually redrawing the whole screen twice a frame in some cockpit modes. Perhaps our best speedup ever per lines of code removed.

Thief: The Dark Project
(April 1996-November 1998)

Shot Five

It was a mess, because we weren’t quite sure what game we were doing, and once we finally decided it was Thief, and that you were gonna be stealthy, no one believed us (sometimes ourselves included). On the face of it, a game where your goal is to not get involved in situations does pose some design issues. Luckily, everyone on the team could keep thinking "does the task I’m working on right now enhance the player’s ability to be a Thief" and that certainly helped the design. We lost a lot of time to demos and proof-of-concepts and general angst about gameplay, but in the end there are parts of the game which are exactly what we hoped for. It is sort of sad our original plans for a game where you were Mordred, Lancelot was a jerk, Merlin a marketing guy traveling back in time, Arthur a despot and Guinevere a lesbian never got made, but these things happen….

by Steve Bauman
©2000 Strategy Plus, Inc.

System Shock 2 PC BOOK 09/99 $16.95
System Shock 2 CD 08/99 $14.95
Thief 2: The Metal Age PC BOOK 04/00 $17.95
Thief 2: The Metal Age CD 03/00 $24.95
Thief: The Dark Project CD 12/98 $14.95
Thief Gold: The Dark Project CD 11/99 $12.95