Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Warren Spector, Andrew Stanton, and Barsoom

Stop me if you've heard this one before: I have a great idea for a game.

For those whose eyes haven't glazed over already, let me explain... but I need to backtrack a bit first.

In 1992 I brought home a computer game that changed forever my ideas of what a game could be. It was Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, and it has never gotten the positive notice it deserves for the features it offered.

Here's a partial list off the top of my head:

  • true three-dimensional environments and objects
  • numerous characters to interact with
  • hundreds of places to explore in eight large levels
  • thousands of objects to find and use
  • open-world design allowing the player to follow the game story at his own pace
  • intricate storyline set in the popular Ultima universe
  • branching dialogue system
  • "constructive" magic system with undocumented spells that could be discovered
  • music that changed depending on the player character's context (walking or combat)
  • a simple but completely new language to learn, with meaningful gameplay value
Bear in mind: this was 1992. A lot of these things seem obvious today in games like Oblivion, but they were astonishing innovations at the time.

It's also worth noting that Ultima Underworld shipped before Wolfenstein 3D. Where Wolf3D offered only a 2-1/2-dimensional world, players of UU were already enjoying a true three-dimensional gameworld. Of course the system requirements for UU were higher than those for Wolf3D, despite UU's relatively simple 3D graphics. id absolutely deserves credit for (among other things) Wolf3D's remarkable optimizations that allowed it to run on many more of the personal computers of 1992 than UU. (John Carmack, in fact, has said that Wolf3D's graphical engine was based on his seeing an early version of Ultima Underworld's graphics and feeling he could do better.) But in terms of providing a rich and highly immersive space to explore, UU blew the doors off that goal well before anything else.

(An in-joke reference to Wolf3d's greater success despite having far less depth might have been found in UU's sequel, Ultima Underworld 2: The Labyrinth of Worlds. In a section of the game rendered in a 3D wireframe style, the player character encounters a hostile goblin named C.I. Crunchowicz whose name bears a certain resemblance to that of the hero of the Wolfenstein games, B.J. Blazkowicz.)

If Ultima Underworld 2 improved on the features of the original, Looking Glass's next game, System Shock, came close to perfecting them.

Then came Thief.

Then, from Ion Storm, came Deus Ex.

So what do all of these games have in common besides setting their absorbing and intelligent gameplay mechanics inside huge and deeply-realized worlds?

Warren Spector.

Which brings me (finally) to the aforementioned great idea for a game, which depends on two facts I just put together today.

1. After Ion Storm, Warren Spector formed his own development company, Junction Point Studios. JPS was acquired in 2007 by Disney, and we were told that this would give JPS access to Disney's and Pixar's stable of characters and worlds.

2. Andrew Stanton, a long-time writer, producer and director with Pixar, has acknowledged that he's mostly done with a screenplay for Disney for a live-action film. This movie will be based on Edgar Rice Burroughs's first novel, A Princess of Mars, the first in the "John Carter, Warlord of Mars" series of adventure tales set on the Red Planet.

See where I'm going with this?

I've been suggesting for several years now that Burroughs's Barsoom novels would make a fine basis for a MMORPG. But there's no reason why -- in the right hands -- they couldn't also be translated into a superb single-player game.

Since both the movie and Junction Point Studios are Disney properties, why not take advantage of that synergy?

JPS is apparently already working on a game for Disney (the so-called "Steampunk Willie" concept). But aside from that admittedly large impediment, am I the only person who thinks a collaboration between two creative and smart people like Andrew Stanton and Warren Spector to bring Barsoom to life as a gameworld is worth pursuing as a rare commercial and artistic opportunity?

I could happily wait until 2012 for a game like that.

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