System Shock caused quite the shock (sorry) in the games scene back in 1994 and was definitely a favourite of our Adrian. He managed to track down lead programmer and Looking Glass Studios legend Robert Fermier to ask him lots of questions about said game and the other magnificent titles Robert helped bring to life such as the Thief games and Age of Mythology. And you can chat to the legend himself via his Twitter account.
How did you get the opportunity to enter the video game industry and what was the first game you ever worked on?
I attended MIT in the early 90s, and was fortunate enough to have a few social contacts in common with some MIT folks who were at Blue Sky/Looking Glass Studios. I interviewed there and a few other places after I graduated. So I managed to land a job working on a sci-fi sequel to Ultima Underworld which would eventually turn into System Shock, my first professional game. But I’d been making games for myself and my friends since middle school, it just never occurred to me to make a profession out of it until then.
System Shock was both a huge critical and commercial success! How did you first get to hear about this title and did you know from day one this would be a special game?
I went straight onto System Shock after getting hired, but it was pretty early in the dev cycle for that game (it didn’t even have a name yet at the time). But as it developed, we definitely knew we were working on something special and a little ahead of its time. I never would have dreamed at the time that it would still be remembered 25 years later!
What was your exact role on System Shock?
For System Shock (1) I was one of the core game programmers, I did a LOT of stuff including large chunks of the UI, some of the game systems, a bunch of map editor work, AI, sound, music, etc. It was a pretty small team so we all wore a lot of hats. For the enhanced CD version I was the sole programmer.
What was it like working with Doug Church and Warren Spector and are you still in contact with any of your ex-colleagues?
I learned an amazing amount from both of them, but Doug Church in particular was hugely influential on me as a young programmer right out of school. Looking back on it now it’s almost hard to believe how crazy talented the folks I got to work with at LGS were – not just Doug & Warren but Marc Leblanc, Austin Grossman, Art Min, Dorian Hart, and literally dozens of other people who are superstars in their own rights.
I still try and keep in touch with everyone from that era when I can, which is a lot easier now in the modern age of social media. Whenever we get together at GDC or cross paths at a social event it’s always great and I try to overcome my usual hermit-like tendencies to catch up.
System Shock is rumoured to be based in the same universe as Wing Commander! Can you reveal any truth in these rumours and are there any other easter eggs or bits of trivia linked to the System Shock games?
Well, we certainly can’t let those Trilackeys steal any of our anvils!
But other than the minigame, I don’t think there’s any real connection (ahhhh – Ed). There are tons of crazy inside references and obscure things in both of the System Shock games because it was just something we had fun adding at the time. “Salt the Fries”, etc.
What games and roles did you have between the two System Shock titles and why did it take so long for a sequel to be released?
I worked on a few other titles with LGS – Flight Unlimited & British Open Championship Golf, and then spent a long time on a Star Trek game that fell apart on the business / contract side. At the time System Shock wasn’t perceived as a huge success so there wasn’t a lot of momentum to do another one, it would take basically until Jon, Ken, and I left to form Irrational before the pieces fell into place (and we were able to take advantage of some amazing technical work done on the Thief side of the house).
System Shock 2 was another masterpiece. Do you remember how you and your team initially aimed to improve aspects of the game while keeping to the overall look and feel of the first title?
We didn’t really have a formal process for keeping the look & feel consistent – there were just enough people involved who worked on both games or deeply understood the first that we were mostly just able to do it directly. That was a long time ago so I’m sure I’m mentally editing out a lot of meetings and discussions, but really I just remember moving forward at high speed pretty much the whole time on that project.
How much of a different experience was working on System Shock 2 compared to the original and did you have a different role on the sequel?
In some sense it was a similar role, I did a lot of all-around generalist work, gameplay work, UI & AI, sound & music, etc. But I was much more senior on the team for SS2 and the team dynamic in general was a bit different with new folks, doing it as Irrational Games, etc. They were both amazing experiences, but pretty different. SS1 we were flying by the seat of our pants and building a lot of things from scratch, whereas for SS2 the genre was starting to emerge and we had more direct inspiration from amazing games like Half-Life.
How do you reflect back on the System Shock series of games and do you agree that the games could have been even more popular with better marketing?
Well, I mean better marketing would always help, right? But the games were never really designed to be mass market, and I think games like DOOM and Half-Life rightly had some great success by making their games more directly accessible. The kind of immersive sim we were making on both System Shock games just took a while to reach enough people who understood what we were going for. It definitely didn’t help that SS2 was caught up in a lot of the media demonization of video games after the Columbine shooting.
Is it true that an unreleased Dreamcast version of System Shock 2 was in the works, and if so, how much progress was made before it was cancelled?
I didn’t work on it directly, but I know we loved the Dreamcast and that certainly sounds plausible. I didn’t do any work on it myself though or know anything about it.
Do you think is there now room for a remastered System Shock 2 or even a third game in the series, and id so, do you have any ideas for a new game?
I’d love to see more System Shock games, and some of the necessary art decisions we made on SS2 at the time haven’t aged all that well. I’ve got a zillion ideas for new games including more immersive sims and Shock games, but who knows if the right business currents will align to ever make them a reality. Meanwhile, I have to say when I play games like Dishonored, Prey, and Dead Space I feel like the spirit of the System Shock games is definitely still alive and well today.
You have also worked on a number of Age of Empires games, how did you get the opportunity to work at Ensemble Studios?
After System Shock 2 I wanted to get back to where my family was, so I made the really hard decision to leave Irrational. When I was looking for studios in Dallas, I noticed Ensemble and I loved the original Age of Empires, so it seemed a great place to apply to work at.
What was your exact role on the Age of Empires games, and how do you reflect on these true RTS classics?
I was the lead programmer for Age of Mythology and the “Titans” expansion, and I contributed a tiny amount of code to Age of Empires 3 and did some playtesting for Age of Empires 2. As my first strategy game AoM has a very special place on my heart and Ensemble also had a lot of extremely talented folks who came together to make those games. Going from Looking Glass to Irrational to Ensemble, each time I was incredibly fortunate to work with such talent and learn so much. I have a lot of thoughts on RTS as genre but they definitely are too long to fit here!
How did you start C Prompt games, and can you give us a brief background of your games company?
After spending 9 years with Robot, my good friend Ian Fischer (design partner with me on almost all our games from 1999 onward) and I decided that we wanted to make some strategy games that didn’t really fit with Robot’s vision. So we started up a new company to create what we had in mind – and thus was born C Prompt Games!
Heretic Operative looks amazing! Please share with our readers a background of this game?
I’ve loved boardgames my whole life, and Heretic Operative is in many ways a love letter to games like Arkham Horror and Talisman. So when we were setting out to make our first game as C Prompt, making a “digital boardgame” seemed like a good way to build to that passion and also build a lot of new technical infrastructure that we can use for new games going forward. While Ian and I have had a lot of experience making games, running a business takes a different set of skills, so this was also a good way for us to jump right into the deep end and start learning those lessons.
When will Heretic Operative be released and on what platforms?
It’s out now! (to extremely positive reviews – Ed) We released it on Feb 18 on Steam (Windows). We’re not averse to other platforms if the business case is right, but we’re a very small shop so we have to take the maintenance costs of multiple platforms very seriously. Check it out here: https://store.steampowered.com/app/958740/Heretic_Operative/
I love the digital boardgame elements of Heretic Operative! How did this idea come about and are you a big fan of board games?
I have a collection of literally hundreds of boardgames, they take over almost every piece of available shelf real estate in my house. So yeah, I’m a fan. It’s incredible to see so many great board game ports – Galaxy Trucker and Sentinels of the Multiverse for example have digital versions which start with an incredible game but are enhanced further by their digital translation. Plus we are starting to see more games made directly as “board games” for a digital platform, and that seemed a good fit for C Prompt’s first game.
What other projects and games are you involved in?
We’ve got a number of game prototypes in the works, I like to mess around with ideas and sometimes they are just a few paragraphs and sometimes they are playable. We will be doing some additional content for Heretic Operative, but I also want to get our next game out there for people to play! We learned a great deal from creating Heretic Operative that I’m eager to put into practice on the next game.
Out of all the games you have worked on, which game are you most proud of and why?
That’s like asking which of my kids is my favorite! (ha ha! – Ed) There are different reasons I love them all (even British Open Championship Golf), but Age of Mythology is probably my favorite if I absolutely had to choose. It’s one of the games I spent the longest time working on, it was my first time being more directly involved with the design of the game, my first strategy game, and I just really love strategy games. But on a different day I think I could make an equally compelling case for System Shock 1 or System Shock 2 or Heretic Operative.
How did you get the nickname Xemu?
College nickname, and it just kind of stuck. Yes, there’s a story behind it but I’m not sharing it here 🙂
If you could step inside any of the games you have worked on and live there for a day, which game would you choose and why?
Probably Flight Unlimited or British Open Championship Golf if I didn’t want to get murdered by a demented AI or vengeful demigod!
Did you ever start work on any games that were never released and if you could release any of these game today, which would you choose and why?
Did I ever. In fact I’d estimate at least half of my career has been on unreleased games, the longest of which was nearly 5 years working on an action-MMO at Ensemble that was going to be set in the Halo universe. But the one I’d release today would be some of the crazy experimental emergent-gameplay games we had in progress at Robot – and in fact I still intend to revisit those gameplay themes at some point in the future.
What are your personal favourite video games of all time?
I have played a LOT, I mean a *LOT* of video games, so it’s really hard to narrow this one down. Civilization, Ultima Underworld, Starflight, and Ultima 5 were all incredibly formative games for me. The Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed series are my favorites of the more modern big budget games. Purely by hours, it’s hard to beat World of Warcraft since I’ve been playing it off and on since launch. In more recent times, I’d say the Europa Universalis, Anno, and Atelier game series represent the kind of depth I aspire to in my own games (and of course love to play).
If you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?
Is it cheating to choose Sid Meier (yes! – Ed) because he’s in some of his own games, or historical figures from Europa Universalis/Civ? Of fictional characters, I’d probably most want to knock back a few (non alcoholic) drinks and hang out with Guybrush Threepwood, because he’d make me laugh and we’d probably get attacked by a three-headed monkey.