Ken Demarest (Origin Systems) – Interview

We’ve not had a great deal for your PC retro gamers lately so it’s time we rectified this and some. Wing Commander, Ultima VII, BioForge, Thief 3, have all had this man’s magic sprinkled on them. He needs little introduction, here is Origin Systems’ Ken Demarest.


Ken, an absolute pleasure to have you here at Arcade Attack! How did you first get the opportunity to enter the video game industry and do you remember the first game you ever worked on?

I had played Ultima 3 on Apple II and hex-edited the map, Years later I played Ultima VI and, on the spur of the moment, wrote a letter to Richard Garriott filled with all my ideas for Ultima VII. I also included a demo disk. I had been writing games for myself, for fun, since age twelve, including a text adventure, a top-down space shooter and more. Origin flew me from New Jersey to Austin, interviewed me, and hired me on the spot.

When I drove to Austin I brought a futon, a blue chair, and a plant. No phone. No nothing. I would work at Origin every day until I was tired (about 2am), come home, water the plant, and sleep in the futon. Then I’d wake, water the plant, go to work and repeat. I didn’t even need the blue chair.

My first pro game was Wing Commander 1. The very first thing I did was make a one-pixel water droplet fall from the ceiling in the barracks into a bucket. Then a heartbeat monitor on the bunks. By the end I wrote the AI engine, asteroid fields, navigation and waypoints, and a bunch of other stuff.


You mentioned it there, we’re are huge Wing Commander fans here at Arcade Attack. How did you get the opportunity to work on this classic title and did you know from day one you were working on something so special?

I was a 100% tech geek in those days. I knew the tech was exceptional, and I could see that Chris Roberts’ style was driving the game hard towards a vision he really felt with his heart. I took a lot for granted in those days.

Beyond the systems I named I was a jack-of-all-trades. I remember it as a kind of boot camp and really enjoyable trial by fire. When I had been at origin three days the general manager, Dallas Snell, brought me into his office and told me that Origin would go out of business if we didn’t ship Wing Commander by October 2nd. I saw nothing wrong with this. It inspired me.

Luckily he was sandbagging. I don’t think we made that exact date.


Do you know why Christopher “Maverick” Blair was never named in the first Wing Commander game and how exactly did he get his name in the later series?

I wasn’t involved in the character design or story telling much, so I don’t know. But I suspect that is was because everything in Wing1 was first-person. You want the player to envision the character as themselves, so a name could throw them off. Later, with third-person cut scenes, Blair needed a name.


Why do you think Wing Commander was such a big success and really caught gamers’ imagination even to this day?

The concept is inspiring, and nobody did it the way Wing Commander did. But we used to have a saying. When your game does well you will probably attribute the success to your skill as a game creator, but chances are good it was luck.



Did you work closely with the legendary Chris Roberts on Wing Commander, and if so, what was he like working with?

Yes. We had lots of great arguments. He is a very good arguer, but he can hear what other people are saying and listen. At least, that was my experience in the early ’90s.


In your opinion, which version of Wing Commander should be classed as the definitive and best version of the game?

Honestly I can’t say. I mean, definitely the one I worked on. For sure.


How did you get the opportunity to become the lead programmer on Ultima VII and were you a fan of the previous games in the series?

Well, I like to think that Origin’s leadership liked my skill and work ethic. I came to Origin because of Ultima, and precisely to work on U7. I was a little put off when I “had to” work on Wing1. For about a day I was unhappy. That changes quickly,

After Wing1 I didn’t think I would actually “lead” U7’s programming, but I did, and it was a great experience. I had the amazing privilege to work with Richard Garriott one-on-one before U7 officially started. He was a little burnt out, and I hope my enthusiasm might have helped us build momentum. His leadership, to me, was fantastic.


Do you have a personal favourite character in the Ultima universe and can you explain why?

I don’t really, but I suppose that learning about the gargoyle civilization in U6 was one of the best. most impactful moments in any game I’ve ever played. Entering that gate, and seeing the complete unknown, and relating their plight to the Virtues… genius.


I loved BioForge while growing up and remember being blown away by the cutting edge 3D graphics. How did you get the opportunity to work on this title and what were your initial visions for this game?

Well, I was a complete tech hound, and I was unable to perceive limitations. My work with Chris and Rich had gone well, and I could work enthusiastically nearly without limit. I had a vision for the tech from the start, and that was acknowledged to be the “hardest part.”

My vision was, however, limited. I didn’t understand the importance of great player experiences from a game play perspective.


It’s the first ever game to showcase fully 3D and texture mapped characters. How did you manage to pull off such an amazing feat and help change the look and feel of so many future video games?

Well, I just imagined it and started building. I stood on the shoulders of giants, including Paul Isaac and the entire Strike Commander team. I researched quaternions for the limb motion, and built a real-time motion capture rig using the Flock of Birds. But I stink at math. Thank goodness Lance Grooms was there to save me!


It was rightly praised by critics, but struggled to find a real audience. Why do you feel this game never really took-off and gain the recognition it probably deserved?

The gameplay wasn’t good. This was my personal limitation as much as anything else. I was all tech all the time. Jack Herman made a fantastic story in the campy style I wanted. Bruce Lemons and many others made incredible art. The animators did the best they could with the tech of the time. I’m proud of them!

If I had it to do again, I would emphasize player experience and gameplay as the first discipline.



How do you personally reflect back on BioForge and was creating the cutting edge 3D graphics for this title your proudest moment in gaming?

I probably liked creating the reflective suit hack the most. But my proudest moment was probably shipping the RTS NetStorm years later.


Did you personally start work on the BioForge sequel and do you feel disappointed this game was never completed?

I left to found a little game startup before that happened. I was pretty disappointed with Orign and EA’s choices around the sequel. Having said that, it didn’t make enough money for them to emphasize it.


Out all of the games you have worked on, which one are you most proud of and why?

I love all my children equally.


Are there any games you started work on but were never released, and if so, which unreleased game do you think would have been the most successful?

Nope. I never had a game cancelled. I know this is rare in the industry. The closest I came was Arcadia, a bet on a mass market MMO, that released shortly before the company folded.

Actually, I take that back. At Stormfront we were collaborating with Sony, but I don’t have much to say about that experience.


What projects and games are you currently working on?

I’m retired, home-schooling my son Will and teaching him to write computer games. He has a real passion for it. I recently re-captured my passion for coding and made a rogue-like, but I might never release it.


If you could be transported into any one of your video games, and live there for day, which game would you choose and why?

Ultima VII, for sure. RPGs have always had primacy in my mind.


If you could share a few drinks with a video game character, who would you choose and why?

Lara Croft, because she explores caves in exotic locales and that is how I’m spending a lot of my own time these days. Caving is keeping me fit as my birthday count rises.




1 thought on “Ken Demarest (Origin Systems) – Interview”

  1. Thanks for this article. More about this game designer please. Learned things I didn’t know!

    – his Sister

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