Echoes of Looking GlassMar 24, 2011


I saw the news last week that former Looking Glass (Ultima Underworld, System Shock, Thief) resident genius Doug Church has just joined Valve.

Normally I don’t follow this kind of thing very closely, but Doug is one of a special group of people from my very first days in the games industry who taught me what it takes to make a game, how to stretch my mind as a game designer, and even some management tips that didn’t become relevant until years later (I’m specifically thinking of his famously short emails – if you want people to read your mail, don’t bury them in words).


My very first job was at Looking Glass (officially Looking Glass Technologies at that time).  They had just recently finished System Shock, and were in the last stages of Flight Unlimited when they had a spot to hire me.  Looking Glass was quite simply my dream job, The Ultima Underworld games were some of my favorite games ever made (and still are), followed closely by System Shock.  LG even happened to be located on the east coast, and I was just a simple boy from Maine.  I was determined to work there and it took me a long time after graduating college to actually get hired.  I didn’t even mind that they didn’t have a design job for me quite yet and I would have to do some testing and production assistance for a few months.


Flight was essentially in alpha when I joined, so the team was going pretty hard.  I got a seat in a cube-walled cul-de-sac (“pit” in LG slang) surrounded by Looking Glass all-stars Xemu, Mahk, Buzzard, and Haydn.  While I slaved away on localization data and they worked on what seemed like arcane programming things, I also pestered them with what must have been an unending stream of questions.  Over a few months of conversations through days and nights that grew longer and longer as we drew closer to shipping, these guys became my friends and personal heroes.  I think I learned more about design practice and theory in a few months of just talking to them than in all the rest of my career.


And as smart as the guys in my pit were, above them all was Doug, this mysterious presence who seemed to spend 24 hours a day in his office with the most amazing collection of CDs I’d seen outside of my college radio station.  We could spend hours at our desks arguing about ways to solve various design problems and feel like we were no closer to a conclusion, but in a design meeting, Doug would just instantly come up with brilliant concise solutions without even seeming to have to stop and think about it.


I never got to work on a game like Ultima Underworld before Looking Glass started their long, slow decline, and I’ve never seen a game since that fulfilled my particular desire for RPG adventuring from a first person perspective as well as Looking Glass managed.  And now Doug has joined Valve, possibly the most adventurous creator of first person games in existence.  I have incredibly high hopes for this combination, and wish him the best of luck.

Leave a Reply