Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Are You Cooler Than A 20+ Year Old Game?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 26, 2013

uw1terrainLong-time readers are probably well aware of my fascination with the Ultima series (and spin-offs) up until the mid-90s. And how Ultima Underworld – along with Ultima VII – hold a special place in my heart. The games are now over twenty years old, which kinda boggles my mind. I haven’t really sat down and tried to do a major re-play of these old games in well over a decade, so maybe I’m seeing things through rose-tinted goggles. But I have gone back and replayed chunks of them try and remind myself of both of what was cool about them, and their limitations.  There’s plenty in both categories.

But they provide inspiration for many RPG developers to this day, including myself.

When I was working on the level-editing tools for Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath (which I’ve been back to work on this week, as we’re shifting focus from proof-of-concept to production-level use), I had four goals:

#1 – In developing the first game, it became clear that as hard as I worked to make interesting, explorable levels, the majority of the dungeons were pretty straightforward, simple stuff. Straight halls, rooms, slopes, stairs, etc. Yet these relatively simple layouts were almost as labor-intensive as the more complex and visually / mechanically “interesting” sections. I wanted to make it far, far easier to create 80% or more of a level using just the tools. We should be able to create a pretty functional dungeon, playtest-worthy, in a single day. As a side benefit, that same data could be used to automatically generate in-game mini-maps for the player. As detailed in the above link, the point here is speed, ease-of-use, and (hopefully) an automated environment doing a lot of the error-checking / error prevention for me.

#2 – Make it flexible enough so we can add in complex, custom geometry for the other 20% of a level / dungeo, so we don’t sacrifice the potential of a modern 3D game engine for making cool environments.

#3 – Make dungeons that can be “old-school big” and still run well on desktops & tablets. Too often it seems modern RPG dungeons are tiny (see below).  As a bare minimum, it should be able to easily handle anything the size of the largest Frayed Knights 1 dungeons (the Goblin City and Tower of Almost Certain Death comes to mind).

#4 -The editor for doing the 80% should be powerful enough to replicate anything Ultima Underworld could do. But with better looking 3D, of course. In my mind, the dungeons & levels of Ultima Underworld 1 and 2 were pretty dang interesting, and I feel there’s a lot more than could be done there.  Having this flexibility as the “backbone” of any dungeon – particularly if easy to construct – would help ensure that Frayed Knights 2 would have some great environments to explore.

UU1AllMapsNow, goal #4 was based a little more on dim recollection than actually going back and playing the UU series (or System Shock 1).  I poked around a little bit, but I did not actually replay significant parts of the game or anything like that.

With the need to do some upgrades to the tools, I finally hunted down documentation for the Ultima Underworld file formats in a moment of idle curiosity, and took some time to check ’em out. The information actually came from an attempt to recreate Ultima Underworld with modern code.

I dunno – maybe there’s only a few people who find stuff like that fascinating. Like how they stored strings, back in the day when you had to work within a 640k memory “window.” Wow.

But I was mostly interested in the level data. This was amazing stuff for its time for a lot of reasons. Actually, there were some pretty amazing bits even today. You can look at this map image and see that there was a LOT to these dungeons. While I admit that in any modern RPG you are going to have some amazing detail that will blow this away, but your average modern-era dungeon “level” would fit in less than a single quadrant of an Ultima Underworld level. Seriously. With great detail comes great brevity.

But for its era, Underworld offered diagonal walls, sloped floors, underground rivers of water and lava (with currents!), moving floors, variable lighting, and something approaching realistic physics for something of a “dungeon simulator.”

So how did I do? Did I match or exceed what Underworld offered over 20 years ago? Happily, it looks like I did.  I was somewhat surprised to see some of its limitations – like slopes could only go in the four cardinal directions, and only a limited height change between them. Walls had to be the width of a full tile. The ceiling height never changed (true story! That one surprised me!).  And the levels were of the Doom-style “fake” 3D – traversable areas could not cross over each other (though I seem to recall things like bridges – special objects – that allowed special-case exceptions to this rule).

So yeah. Frayed Knights 2 happily demolishes those limitations even before I resort to custom geometry. Booyah! I managed to improve upon game technology that’s over twenty years old!

Okay, I guess that’s not exactly a super brag-worthy achievement. But I still think it’s pretty cool.

Filed Under: Frayed Knights, Retro - Comments: 20 Comments to Read

  • Avatarsofsteel said,

    Brrravo! More! More! (seriously it sounds good – I look forward to how this turns out and that was a jolly interesting post, hmmm I never played any Ultima… there are a lot of it aren’t there. Any recommendations for where to start, which are the best etc?)

  • Albert1 said,

    I find interesting, in Ultima Underworld specs, the clever useage of tables i.e. the item combos. I think that table oriented programming is so underrated!

  • getter77 said,

    Nah, that’s commendable stuff—anybody that can’t see how there really hasn’t been much time in absolute terms since the then technological wizardry of the 80’s and 90’s must not be keeping an eye to the historical perspective. While myriad aspects and attributes may have evolved, it is another matter entirely to surpass something of a fundamental building block on the whole deep on down.

  • Lee said,

    I do not want to react much on the limitation/engine of games. It is an important aspect as far as it makes one enjoyable. I want to talk about UU. Your fault Rampant Coyote.
    Despite its poor overall plot I still think UU is a marvel unsurpassed in its own genre (UU2 is quite good too).
    Take the world building and ignore U5/U6, ignore the main plot, and just be a Britanian cast off in a multispecies multicultural Virtue centered colony that went (horribly) wrong. Had it been done with modern tools I feel it would have had the atmosphere of a Bioshock, with less horror and more forlorn glory.
    As a personal piece, I dreamt in my first playthroughs of finding a way to restore the (crumble) great staircase and restoring exchanges between the floors and their communities…
    UU2 offers a more solid plot and scarier depths – and dangerous headlesses – with better puzzles. The lore is interesting, the story more involved, but instead of a broken utopia you explore worlds (being) distorted (that includes Castle British) or destroyed by the Guardian. And despite all the NPC I felt far more alone in this quest than in UU1, except for one troll.

    To me FK and UU are not one of a kind. The focus is not the same, the world integration & interaction is quite different…

  • Xenovore said,


    To me FK and UU are not one of a kind. The focus is not the same, the world integration & interaction is quite different. . .

    Well, yeah. FK in its entirety isn’t the same as UU and it’s not supposed to be. (If anything it’s more like Wizardry 8.) But, for the dungeon design in FK, UU definitely provides some inspiration.

  • Bad Sector said,

    You should read this:


    It is the transcript from a GDC2013 presentation by two of the Skyrim designers, explaining their highly modular process on making the game’s dungeons. Basically they are making highly reusable “lego” pieces which then they put together in a grid.

    This allowed ten people (two of them responsible for the assets and the rest to arrange them to make the game’s dungeons) to create all of Skyrim’s dungeons.

    Personally i’m already thinking on how to make modular design in my Runtime World editor (it already is possible, but very awkward) 😛

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @Lee – exactly what Xenovore said. I’m not trying to copy UU’s gameplay – as cool as it would be, that’s not FK. But I am trying to take advantage of some of the ideas they pioneered to improve the exploration aspects of my own game.

    @Bad Sector – That’s really how the series has been handling dungeon generation from the beginning, except that earliest games combined these ‘cells’ procedurally.

  • Bad Sector said,

    Yes, the article mentions that they used these ‘cells’ since the Terminator days :-P.

    But it is more about how they design, use and combine them, not that they use cells. Other games and engines used a similar technique – FPS Creator being an example – but in many of them it was very visible.

    The article is about how to “optimize” your time with those tiles from a design POV (after all the presentation was from a level designer and environment artist :-P).

  • Cuthalion said,

    People also complain though that all the Skyrim dungeons feel the same. So maybe use with caution.

    I just have to say (again?) that Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath is probably the best title possible.

  • Anon said,

    Skyrim has many dungeons and they can differ quite dramatically. Personally, I don’t feel that they are all the same – they have four or so general types and some individually contructed ones. Most of them are well designed as far as aesthetics are concerned and some are downright amazing, IMHO.
    No, the usage of modules isn’t the problem (it was in Oblivion and especially Morrowind) but that they are often very, very linear. They are essentially nothing more than sloping tunnels, often leading the player right back to entry point. One can argue that backtracking isn’t so cool either but it’s more realistic than having to jump from a ledge at the end to find oneself in the very first room.
    Yes, they sometimes mask it well with overlapping passages but these dungeons aren’t exactly challenging for experienced gamers – in my eyes they are the weakest point of the whole game, even though they look great.

    UU on the other hand is of course only one big dungeon but the levels are sufficiently different – and large enough – to qualify as separate dungeons (at least in modern standards). A a “man-made” construction it’s also plausible while Skyrim offers some very convincing “nature-made” dungeons and sunken structures (the one with the sorcerers on top of the tower, for example).

    So while Skyrim has the best looking dungeons of the Elder Scroll series it also has the easiest – at least in my book.
    UU is a completely different beast and was a challenge from beginning to end.

    The difficulty of a dungeon shouldn’t depend solely on the strength of the enemies within but also on how the player has to maneuver through it (to survive). And there’s quite an array of possibilities: climbing, opening closed gates, finding hidden levers, perhaps intentionally collapsing stuff to progress, secret door and passages, dead ends, traps etc. etc.

  • Noumenon said,

    Bad Sector, great link! And I think that “put one highly unique thing per dungeon” has kept Skyrim fresh for 200 hours now. I just cleared a tower this morning that was a bog standard tower with one hagraven in it — but this tower had a large winged skeleton over an altar, and a soul-gem-based trap that instantly brought me back to the only other time I’ve seen one, fighting hagravens on a hilltop. So it was an exciting tower after all.

  • McTeddy said,

    I love the modular design tools, but I was one of the people that hated Skyrims dungeons. I found them to be bland and repetitive.

    But I agree with Anon that my problem wasn’t the rooms being similar… but the linear aspects killed it. I hated being forced to walk through door one to get a key… so I could go through door 2 where I flip a switch to open door 3. That drove me nuts.

    While I agree modular design can be repetitive… I think that it can be done right. If this can save a developer time, money and stress I believe it’s a very good choice.

  • Albert1 said,

    Well, as far as I know, Dungeon Siege employed a similar 3d “tile-based” system – I’d like to know what Cuthalion, Noumenon, Anon & McTeddy think about its environment.
    Another game that uses a similar approach is “Amnesia” by Frictional Games.
    Neverwinter Nights too used, if I remember correctly, a system where you placed prebuilt rooms&corridors.
    From a programming POV, it’s probably one of the best ways to exploit geometry instancing.
    However, I still prefer a mixed approach: building the outline of a level with brushes/sectors, then adding details with furnitures (columns, etc).

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    As someone who spent WAAAAY too much time (well, okay, that’s a lie… it was exactly enough time, but it was a LOT) making Neverwinter Nights adventures, I can confirm it’s large-tile-based nature. The big difference between something like NWN and the Elder Scrolls titles was that the NWN maps were all done on a 2D plane – while there were elevation changes within a tile, going to a new “level” required a map swap. Not that this was a big deal.

    The cool part was that even after knowing exactly what tiles were available & how they did it, they did a great job of disguising rooms with different lighting and added models. Particularly with the uber “community mod” with all of its added models. The rooms became effectively “sound stages” where you could “dress you set” – and that was really the key to making them very interesting.

  • Albert1 said,

    @Coyote: another interesting level editor was the one used to build the hack&slash “Severance: Blade of Darkness”. It looks similar to the one you are building, only that the sectors are subtracted geometry from an imaginary “filled” universe. One of its best features was the ability to set the ceiling type for each sector – various kind of arcs, etc, with tweakable parameters.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Huh. That sounds like one more game I need to add to my very long list of games to look at. The subtractive geometry thing was pretty popular following the release of Unreal (which was a substractive-geometry engine itself). Sounds like Severance had it’s own engine though…

  • Albert1 said,

    Severance was a sort 3D Gauntlet with some – untweakable – RPG stats. In 2001 it was very technically advanced, with its stencil shadow system. Another interesting fact is that it was almost entirely written in Python: one could browse the .py files in the game folder. I think GOG.com sells it for $~5.

  • Modran said,

    Am I the only one seeing a Minecraft world in that second screenshot?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Heh, I didn’t think of that (too close to the subject matter, I guess), but it does kinda resemble it. It’s the low-res tiles I think. One key difference is Minecraft doesn’t do diagonals.

  • fabrulana said,

    I loved the idea of the Ultima Underworld series and enjoyed playing them… No question in my mind on playing the next Frayed Knights.