Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Damn, I wish I'd done a better job! - Meet Al Lowe, Creator of Leisure Suit Larry



Throughout the nineteen eighties and into the nineties, Sierra was world famous for producing Adventure Games. Many of the most popular games series' ever made were produced in this time.
Kings Quest, Police Quest, and Space Quest all appear regularly on top-ten lists. But perhaps the most notorious of all is the Leisure Suit Larry series. Controversial and beloved in sometimes equal measures, creator Al Lowe - the self-professed World's Oldest Games Designer, took some time out to speak with me about his creation and to go behind the scenes at the pioneering games studio.


Robin: My first real memory of Leisure suit Larry is of myself and several friends spending hours simply trying to get past the age-verification quiz, so we could even play the first game.

Al Lowe: If only you’d known about Alt-X!

R: Of course, nowadays it’s easy – you can look up on the internet for answers or cheats, but I remember we would play for ages just to get into the game proper, but that provided many laughs. It was a fun game in itself almost.

Al: Yeah, I understand a lot of kids learnt a lot about history.

R: Yeah, 70’s and 80’s American history in particular. Was that put in purely for censorship reasons?

Al: Well… I didn’t really think there was anything in the game which was that outlandish that it shouldn’t been seen by – I suppose children would be the right word – but at least Teenagers, good lord, there was nothing in there that Teenagers don’t know about. But I think part of it was that we also felt that it was a good marketing ploy – that it was so nasty that there had to be some sort of test to get in. So I think that was more the marketing guys’ thinking. But I went along with it, I thought it was a funny idea and it was a chance to make it humorous, and the more humour we could add, the better. That was my whole struggle with that game, because I’d never written comedy in my life. I didn’t know how to be or what would be funny, so I added everything that I could, and thought well, if I put some jokes in these test questions, then that would be more humour!

R: Well it definitely was, I recently replayed the first Larry game with my girlfriend, which was the first time she had played any of the Larry games and she really enjoyed it. She didn’t find the game insulting in any way and she wanted to even carry on the questions after we had got through because she found it so amusing.

Al: Well good. You know all of the questions are on my website http://www.allowe.com/, including the famous O.J. Simpson question.

R: Yeah, that one could be interpreted in several ways nowadays.

Al: (Laughs) That was just weird!

R: A bit of foreshadowing. Is it a common opinion you have experienced from female players that they enjoy the game, because obviously you have ad some negative feedback, but in general is it quite positive?

Al: The only negative feedback I’ve gotten from women has been from those who have never played the games. In fact, I’ve had women stand and support me – defend my honour – as it were, to other women, in front of me. I remember a couple of times at conferences or something were one women said “oh, you wrote that horrible game”, and another woman said “have you played that game? You don’t know what you’re talking about! This guy is funny, and the whole game is pro-female.” And she was taken aback – and I was surprised. But what I realised was, that women enjoyed the games because I think at some point they have all dated somebody like Larry, and secondly because it was one of the few games where women were always the stronger characters. Larry was just this doofus and the women were always smarter, more attractive and more knowledgeable and so forth, than he was. So yeah, I think it was actually… I used to know the word that was the opposite of misogyny.

 
R: So, talking about the earlier games, the Parser text system used by Sierra in those games could be quite frustrating, with not always knowing what you could and couldn’t type. But I always felt that with your Larry games that you had gone the extra mile, so that even if you typed something ridiculous or something the program couldn’t understand, that you would still get a funny response. The player always got something out of what they were trying.

Al: Part of that was my inexperience. I hadn’t worked a lot with the Parser that Sierra used at that time – I had done a lot of games before Larry – but some were Children’s games, some were simpler, Black Cauldron used the function keys to make choices and use inventory and so forth. So I hadn’t really designed a game from scratch that used the typing input. So I wasn’t very sure about it. What I did was write a module which I attached to the test versions of the game that stored wrong inputs onto a floppy disk. So every time somebody got the message back “you can’t do that here – at least not now!” – which was always our “we don’t know what the hell’s going on” message, that would store some data onto the disk – including what scene they were in, what they had done, what inventory they had – things like that. At the end of the Beta testing, I collected all of those files, sorted them all into this one gigantic file, then eliminated duplicates, went through and added all of the inputs that all of our testers had typed in. So a lot of that knowledge that appears to be in the game, is merely because we had a good set of Beta testers who tried a lot of things, and I went back and took the care to write it in. I couldn’t really go back and add anything to the game at that point – I couldn’t add additional animation or scenes or anything else – but I could add text. And that’s what I did, I just added a lot of additional responses, and that made the game seem more intelligent, I guess.

R: More interactive almost. Whereas you might have received some criticism in the past, you obviously had quite free reign over what you put in your games. Was it left down to self-censorship? Was there ever really anything where you thought you had to backtrack, and thought “I can’t put that in the game!”

Al: I would come up with an idea and I would ask my wife. (Laughs) I would say “Margaret, what do you think of this?” and if she would go “Oh my god!”, then I knew I couldn’t put that in. And if she said “ah, I don’t know”, well I would put it in!

R: So you had a sounding-board?

Al: Yeah, but it was more self-censorship than anything else. Ken Williams (Sierra Co-founder) gave all of the designers a lot of free reign. I think he kinda lobbied for it to be even naughtier than it was, until we got close to the end and he realised we had to ship this thing and it was going to have his name on it somewhere, then suddenly he kinda back away from me. So we left it pretty much the way it was. I can’t remember him, or anyone at Sierra, ever saying “no, you can’t do that.”

R: Not only did it have his name on the box, but Ken Williams also made an appearance in the game.

Al: Well yeah! You know part of the problem was, I always needed names for things and I had to find people that I could use their name and get away with it. So I often picked names of people or things that were at work, or I made up really crazy names that nobody would ever have, because we weren’t sure of what the legal status was for putting Al Gore in the game, or Bill Clinton for example. Later on we learned that parody is acceptable over here, and that you can get away with a lot if you call it parody. Actually you can get away with more if you are doing parody or a comedy with someone, than if you are using someone who is not famous.
Ah, Misandrist is the word I was trying to think of earlier! That is someone who hates men.


 
R: That’s my new vocab of the day! Personally for me the Larry games work well because they contain strong characters the player can relate to and entertaining storylines that tie all of the puzzles together really well. Nowadays you find some games seem to work the other way around, where story is almost an afterthought after the gameplay mechanics have already been built. For you I assume it was always a case of story first?

Al: Yeah, characters came in along with story. Sometimes I would make lists of gags that I wanted to includes, sometimes I made lists of the embarrassing situations I could put the poor guy in, and sometimes I just had lists of things that I thought would be funny and it was always a matter of how could I make the story include all of these things, and make it interesting and build upon it. But also, I spent quite a lot of time fleshing out the characters, so that the characters weren’t just sketches, but they had backgrounds, real personalities – they were different from one another.
That’s one of the things that always gets to me about first-person shooters. You have this endless supply of targets that are, to me, walking Bull’s-eyes. You feel no emotion when one of them dies – I suppose that is purposeful too, how they should be – but I think a lack of character has always been a weakness in those games.

R: There are too many faceless minions.

Al: Yeah, minions is the perfect word.

R: I remember that hidden away on the disc for Larry 6, there was a video of you performing the Larry theme tune on your Saxophone, and talking a little about your game design philosophy. Upon re-watching it, you remember how much creators were almost solely responsible for games back then. Whereas games are now produced my hundreds, if not thousands, of people. How much did that change whilst you were working, from your early games, up to Larry 7 for example?

Al: For the first games I did everything. I did the music, the code, even some of the graphics on the very first games that I did – and they weren’t very good! We quickly got to the point of hiring artists to do the graphics, but the problem back then was there were very few artists that had experience with computers. Those two terms were just the opposites of each other. We had a difficult time finding people who were good at art who could handle computers, as computers were pretty primitive back then. I remember one story where a guy worked on a background scene for one of the games for hours and I said to him “how many versions of this have you saved?” and he said “none, I’m not finished with it yet.” It was like “oh my god!” so then after that we started actually teaching them to save everything as they went along. It was an odd time, but as the games went along, the less responsibility I had, to the point where I worked myself out of a job I guess. In ten years, I went from doing everything, to doing nothing but writing and overseeing and supervising the team of people that did all of the hard stuff. I had a team of fifteen on the last project, who were full-time employees at Sierra.

R: Still fairly small then?

Al: Well we farmed out a lot of the art, so we had dozens of other people. And if you look at the credits – by the time we added the voiceover talent and all of the people in marketing and so forth who wanted their name on the games then, we were getting into the forty or fifty range. But we farmed out the art and that was always a fairly major part of the projects, so they got pretty big. But they were never anything like what a 3D action-adventure would be today.

R: in that same video, you mentioned a Political action game called Capital Punishment (including white water rafting with Bill and Hilary Clinton).
Was that a real project that entered development?

Al: It was a real project. We thought it was a chance to do a different kind of humour and a different format. It was much more of an action game. The problem was that Sierra didn’t have a real action game engine. What we had was an adventure game engine. And even a lot of the non-adventure games that Sierra published – that are now mainly forgotten – were published through that adventure game engine. So they hired a new programmer who had worked on a project on his own and he had developed this engine. It looked great, it was a side-scroller, and it could do several planes of depth and large environments, so we thought maybe we can do an action game and do something funny. So I came up with several levels of it. You know what, I should post the design document for that – I have it somewhere I’m sure.

R: The reason I asked was it real, is because I was researching and trying to find some information on it and aside from a couple of brief mentions, there is nothing on the internet about it.

Al: We actually got art developed, and we built the first level and you could play it. The problem was that his engine had never really been tried with a level worth of data, so every time you added an object to the game, it slowed down. And when we got to the point where we had enough data to play a whole level, the game was so slow that it was just terrible. So we killed the project and I lost three or four months of my time. This was expensive for me because I was never on a salary after the first year I worked for Sierra. I was an employee for eight months and then I got fired and immediately setup as an outside contractor who worked on royalty basis – which was the best thing that ever happened to me. But it meant that I didn’t get paid, except when a game shipped and actually made money. So the Capital Punishment project meant that I worked three of four months with no pay.

R: I can imagine how frustrating that must have been. But it sounded like a good idea for a game – something which has never really been done before or since really. There isn’t a great deal of parody in video games is there?

Al: No, and it’s gotten worse, rather than better since I left. There are very few games that make me want to play them because I think they are going to be funny. There are a few! But they are few and far between.
 
R: You have said on many occasions that you would have liked to have been involved in the production of the new Larry games. How frustrating was it for you to see your initial creation being re-used in these games?

Al: It was very frustrating and disappointing. I felt bad for the people who bought the games because I tried really hard to do the best possible title that I could and I just had the feeling that those guys didn’t. That the games were slapped together and not polished to the level that they should have been. I have to say, in Magna Cum Laude, there a lot of things there that I would have been proud to have written, but on the other hand there was a whole lot of stuff in between those scenes that was just embarrassingly bad. I’m afraid that what they did was kill my baby. They took the ideas and characters that I created and made them unsaleable now.

R: There are rumours that there might be an iPhone Larry game which will apparently be more adventure orientated, but do you feel after what has been done recently, they have maybe gone a little bit too far now?

Al: I don’t know if there is any “they”. I think that is part of the problem. There was no continuity whatsoever on that team from anyone who had ever worked on a Larry game with me, and there was no continuity between the two teams of designers of the two games that have been released, nor of the third game which was out on cell phone, which they didn’t even bother to put a new title on – they called it Love for Sail, yet it had nothing to do with the game I wrote of the same name. What is ironic is, that on my website http://www.allowe.com/, there is a page full of twenty-five or thirty rejected titles – each of which were better than re-using the same title on a different game. They could have just done an internet search and found a stack of titles to use. But no, they just used the title that I used, on a game that had nothing to do with it – It’s just misleading to people and so forth. So when you say “they”, there is no continuity, there is nobody at Sierra anymore – there is no Sierra company – it is merely a brand they slap on whatever box they think it will help sell. There is no-one in the company that owns the intellectual property that ever had anything to do with Larry and I think most of them wouldn’t know who I am if I bumped into them on the street or if they were introduced to me – they probably don’t even know my name! So it’s now just a matter of people who look at property they own and say well can we use this like this, and then they farm it out to some other team who has never done a title like that. That team will do the best it can I guess, but it’s a sad state of affairs.

R: Anyway, let’s try to move away from that!

Al: Sorry to be so depressing (laughs).

R: Of course, you worked on many other great games – games such as Police Quest and Kings Quest 3 – where you acted as lead programmer. On those games, other than just programming, did you ever have any creative input on those games where you could put a bit of your style into them?

Al: It was minimal. Those games had their own designers who wanted things the way they wanted them. And that was one of the hallmarks of Sierra back then, that a person was in charge of a project. It pretty much reflected their thought sand wishes for that game. Whereas nowadays you have a committee of people where everybody is arguing abut what they want to put in and what they don’t. So, in the sense that I would make suggestions and Jim Walls would say “sure, let’s do that”, or Roberta (Williams) would include it, sure. I think the only humorous part of Kings Quest 3 was my contribution. There weren’t a lot of jokes in Kings Quest 3 but when Roberta needed something done, so I suggested the character do some aerobic exercises because that’s what Roberta did a lot of back then. We would be having a meeting and she would say “I can’t stay; I’ve got to go to aerobics.” And so, I thought that would be great, let’s make the poor kid do aerobic exercises. Which of course made no sense whatsoever in a castle game with a Wizard and swords and sandals and stuff – but it made me laugh – and I think everyone else got a laugh out of it.


R: Growing up I was always a big fan of Westerns, so one of my favourite games you worked on was Freddy Pharkas Frontier Pharmacist. Some magazines called it the Blazing Saddles of computer games. Does that game hold a particular special place for you?

Al: Absolutely. Freddy was a wonderful game. Ken Williams and I met, and we discussed what I could do instead of just doing one Larry game after another, because I was getting bored of just doing Larry games. So what we came up with was an idea like the Zucker brothers did (they made Airplane!) and then they started doing other movies which were humorous spoofs of other film genres. So I said why can’t I do that, why can’t I do spoofs of different genres? Ken though that was a great idea, so the first one we chose was Westerns – frankly because there hadn’t been a Western game and because I thought it was a good chance to inject some humour. Plus I thought it fit in with Coarsegold where Sierra was based – it was an old West town in gold rush country and so forth. So that became the first of the genre spoofs. After that I would do a Larry game and then the next year I would do maybe a spy game spoof, or some other genre. In fact, I did do Torins’ Passage, which was a Kings Quest type game, because Kings Quest was only coming out every other year, we thought it would be good to have a family orientated game I the other odd-numbered years.
Freddy Pharkas was a real fun title. I had just gone to a class in movie screen writing down in Hollywood by a famous screenwriter and he taught us a lot about plot and character development, but I wanted to do a game that had a strong plot to it – but do it so that people didn’t feel like they were handcuffed to this plot. I felt that this would be a great challenge. So I literally came up with the story for Freddy Pharkas first, and I think I ended up with about thirty-six or thirty-eight plot points that were key points that you had to get through by either solving a puzzle of discovering something, to make that plot point come forward. We kept a counter in that game which kept track of which stage you were on in those thirty-six chapters and we would increment that counter as you worked your way through the puzzles. I was so pleased because not one reviewers or gamer ever called me on it and said “well I got to this point and I was stuck because there was nothing else to do and I couldn’t go forward”. It was a real source of pride for me because I did it so that nobody knew I did it.

R: Apart from containing a little cameo from Larry in it…

Al: Yeah, that was one of the artists, who had worked on the Larry games. When he drew an outhouse in the background I thought we should put someone in there occasionally so you can interrupt them and so, next time I came back the artist had drawn an animation of Larry and I thought “sure let’s do that!” But I also included “Diamond Jim Laffer”, who looked just like Larry in one of the bar scenes, who was his great grandfather or something.

R: What was the inspiration for the main character being a pharmacist as that is a somewhat unusual hero role?

Al: I got tongue-tied during a meeting with Josh Mandel and Roberta Williams at her house, and we were sitting, talking about the game and about what we could do, and one of the questions was what could he do, what was his occupation. I started to say rancher, but at the same time I also thought farmer, and what came out was “farmercher”. And I said it sounded like pharmacist, and they both laughed – so I thought hey, if that’s funny – let’s leave it in. It gave focus to the entire plot. It became an easy way to tie everything. Once we came up with that, the rest of the game made a lot of sense. I knew I wanted to have a love interest, and I knew he had to have some kind of background. And to make the evil villain Kenny was just obvious as I had put Ken in every game up to that point and it was always fun to make fun of him – and I knew he wouldn’t sue me.

R: Which was your favourite game that you worked on, which were you most proud of?

Al: Oh, Larry 7, Love for Sail, I think so. It was the first game where I felt I really know how to do this job. Always up until then, it was always that I hoped nobody would find out that I didn’t know what I was doing and with Larry 7 I actually felt I know what to do now, I can do this. I really had a lot more confidence and I also had a good team of developers that had a lot of experience, the programming staff was real solid and they all knew the language. The big problem was we had this in-house language that was easy to use, but it had its peculiarities. There were certain ways of doing things that worked and certain ways that wouldn’t and it took programmers a while to figure out exactly what to do and to learn the language. All three of the guys on the Larry 7 team were experienced in SCI and were good coders too, they had good logical brains. So that was a godsend.


R: At that point the technology had really improved. Whereby the artistic style was just like a cartoon and then voices could be put in and more could be added once the technology got to that stage.

Al: Yeah, and the fact that we got to use real musicians to record the soundtrack. I remember how excited I was when we got MIDI, and then how bored I quickly got because it had so few real sounds that were interesting. So when we ended up on CD we had space to use real musicians and real music and work that into the game, which was a real fun aspect for me. Plus I’d gotten to the point where I was pretty confident directing voiceover talent. You’ve got to remember we all learned this stuff on the job, we didn’t have any training, nobody ever sent us to school for how to be an audio director. I just walked into the studio with these people who had done thousands of commercials and cartoon voiceover work before and it was my first day on the job – so I learned as we went along. But by the time Larry 7 came, I thought I know what I’m doing here, I can do this, I was more confident.

R: Outside of computer games, what influenced your work? Were there any particular films or shows for example that really influenced your writing?

Al: No, I wouldn’t say there were any in particular. But because the games reflected our personalities, I think all of our experiences were inside the games, so there were very few games that I had played, videos I watched, books I had read or stand-up comedians I had seen that didn’t influence me in one way or another. You’ve got to understand that when you are writing thousands and thousands of lines of dialogue – I don’t know if people realise that adventure games contain enough dialogue for six or seven or eight movies. That’s a hell of a lot of dialogue. So you’ve got to come up with ideas, and you have to come up with them quickly. So that was one of the big challenges, to find people who could write that stuff quickly. Speaking of Freddy Pharkas, Josh Mandel was great. Josh had more great lines more quickly than anyone. That was one of the challenges. So you drew upon everything you had seen or heard of, just to put things in there. That was one of the bad puzzles I created. You haven’t asked about things I am sorry about, but one of the things that I knew because I lived in Fresno – where it was common – was the Snail trick, where you poured Beer in a dish and that was how you caught Snails. And a lot of people looked and me and said “what the hell kind of puzzle is that, who would know something like that?” I always rued that I didn’t put in more clues for that particular puzzles because it became clear after the game shipped that perhaps I’m the only one that knows that.

R: You might be somewhat vindicated to know that we know about that technique in England too.

Al: Ah well good, I’m glad!

R: All of the Sierra games always seemed to share a unique feeling. You could always tell when you were playing a Sierra game. Whereas now a lot of adventure games can almost feel a bit soul-less. What do you think was so different about the community at Sierra?

Al: We were isolated from the rest of the world to a certain extent. We were out in the mountains near Yosemite National Park where we were the only games company for a long way around. So there wasn’t a lot of interaction with other developers, artists or designers. Whereas if we had been in Silicon Valley or the San Francisco area we probably would have hung out with the Lucasarts guys and traded ideas, and there would have been some cross development there, cross-breeding – of ideas! But the fact that we were stuck alone by ourselves and the fact I used to work off campus a lot. I had an office in Oakhurst but I also worked at home a lot instead. The last couple of Larry games we developed in an outside office in Fresno, so I think it made us more of a tight-knit little group. Plus we always tried to write for each other. We weren’t on the internet and there certainly weren’t any message groups, so we tended to not get a lot of feedback from customers. A few people took the time to write a letter, put it in an envelope, get a stamp, find the address they would mail it to and mail it off. But they were few and far between, so we had very little feedback. And I think today that is a lot different. People are immediately posting things on the web, their opinion of the game. So I guess it was because we tried to write for each other and to please each other. And we really tried to write for our customers and make our customers happy – but our immediate customers were each other because we would run ideas by our peers at the company, and you didn’t want to disappoint them, you didn’t want to be laughed at. I think that is one of the reasons. Plus, you’ve got to understand we had a lot of freedom. I used to tease Ken Williams because I said if you ever produced an Organisation chart of Sierra in the eighties, it would be two layers tall and about eighteen feet wide, because there was Ken and then everybody reported to him (laughs). I guess there was a layer of management at some point, but it was damn thin. He was always heavily involved and he had a great sense of what the games could be and should be and I have to give Roberta a lot of credit too, because she always pushed the envelope. I found out that if I tried to stay at the cutting edge f what we were doing I would always get burnt. So what I would do is just wait until Roberta had shipped a game and then grab a copy of the system that she had used and I would use it for the next year and by that time it would be stable because she would always be shipping games that were right at the leading edge and the Kings Quest games always needed the fastest computer made in order to make them run and you had to have whatever the latest gadget was, whether it was soundboards or MIDI synthesisers or VGA graphics cards with that outrageous 640 pixel resolution nobody could actually see because nobody had cards that did that high a resolution. Anyway, my strategy was a little different because I just rode on her coattails. She did a lot to push the envelope and make games better. I don’t know if people really realise she and Sierra produced the first game on CD-Rom. Back in the early days before I got there, she did the first game on the Apple 2 that actually had graphics. She did the first game which had colour. They did the first game which had voiceovers. It was an amazing history which I think has mainly been forgotten by people today. Gamers today don’t realise that at one time Sierra was the largest publisher of word processors and database programs for the home computer market. I mean who knows that anymore? It was a different time.

R: She made the first fully FMV game too, Phatasmagoria, so she was pushing the boundaries all of the time. You mentioned Lucasarts earlier. The fans have always seen Sierra and Lucasarts as big rivals, but was that ever the case or was it just healthy competition?

Al: We didn’t know anybody there. I don’t know anyone at Sierra that knew anyone at Lucas. Maybe some of the people in marketing, but no, none of the developers knew them. But we loved their games and it was always goods when one of their games came out because we all went home and had a good excuse to play that game because it was market research. “Hey, we’ve gotta go see what this new game is like and see what they are doing.” But no, it wasn’t very competitive at all in the sense of cut-throat competition, we were always trying to do the best games we could and we enjoyed their games also – we enjoyed them as fans.

R: I was recently looking at important Sierra dates and it is almost exactly eleven years since the major layoffs where many lost their jobs. What would you say are your fondest memories from Sierra?

Al: My fondest memory, that’s a good one. Let’s see. A lot of things are flashing through my brain right now. I think some of the very early years, the industry was so small back then and there were so many companies that were based in California that one summer, it was kinda like the industry got together and went white water rafting. It was all of the guys from Broderbund and Synergistic – who remembers that company – and Serious Software (which was not the Serious which is out there now) and Sierra, which was On-line Systems back then. But we all went white water rafting and kinda hung out – it was great fun.
But one of the vivid memories for me was the Kings Quest 4 debacle. And it was one of those bittersweet things because it was incredibly difficult, but by the same token because we all worked so hard it became a memory that really stuck with us. The company had just created a new language. When we started we wanted some improvements in the programming language we had. We got a guy in charge of that team and he decided the future was in object-orientated programming. We had been doing sequential programming and sub-routines. So instead of giving us a slightly improved version of our old language which did a few new things and accomplished more, but we knew how to program it and all knew what to do, he instead started all over and ended up creating an object-orientated language called SCI. In one sense he was right, it was a brilliant move because it set the company up to be able to do lots of things faster and better than we ever had before. On the other hand he was really wrong from a business standpoint because it took all the knowledge that we had developed over six or seven years, and developed and learned the language and threw it out the window and we were all beginners again trying to figure out what to do. So that new language was going to be tested with Roberta’s’ game that came out that year, Kings Quest 4. The programming department wasn’t very well managed, as I mentioned earlier, so Ken got a couple of guys who seemed pretty smart and said you guys program Kings Quest 4 and we’ll come back in a few months and see how it’s going. So he got two guys who didn’t really catch on to the new language and they weren’t really forceful in their dealings with the language team guy, who was creating this thing, so they never really understood what was going on.
So we got down to the Fall and the company was very involved with taking the company Public, selling stock on the Stock Market. And that would be great, we would all make some money from our stock options and everybody would be happy, and the big thing they were selling Wall Street on was the company had this new language that was going to revolutionise things and it had a new game coming out that was going to be a hit – but nobody bothered to check on that game, until September 1st. When they went down, they started seeing how much wasn’t finished – started doing some managing you might say – and they realised there was no way it was going to be done and if the company was going to go public they would be highly embarrassed and they wouldn’t ship their first game. So suddenly all of the programmers were called together one weekend and they said we are going to stop development of all other titles and that everybody who is a programmer and everyone who is an artist is going to work on Kings Quest 4 and we have to ship it by the end of September. So we had twenty-nine days to finish a game which had been ten months in development already, and wasn’t even close to being done. So what we did was, we got everybody into a great big room and we all worked until we fell asleep. We rented Motel rooms and we took turns and they changed the sheets. Guys would go in and sleep in the morning and people would work all night. It was just incredible, around-the-clock programming. I remember one guy prepared his timesheet and he had worked, I believe, one hundred and ten hours that week and I laughed at him because he had gone home early a couple of nights (laughs). That was how many hours we put in, so there were a lot of stories about that. But we actually did ship the game on September 31st! It had to ship by the end of the month. It was incredible, it was literally just work til you drop, go take a shower come back and work again for eighteen or twenty hours or so.

R: Apart from games you personally worked on, what are some of your favourite adventure games you played?

Al: You know I think my favourite game of all time probably had to be Loom, which is not particularly well known, but boy if you can find a copy of it, play it. It’s a brilliant game.


R: I really love Loom too, I imagine because of your musical background you enjoyed that aspect of the game.

Al: Exactly, but it was a well done game too.

R: Do you still ever play any modern adventure games at all?

Al: You know, I haven’t played an adventure game in years. Part of the problem is when you go to work in the industry; you do it because you love games. I did, I got interested in games and love to play them and wanted to go into that line of work. But what happens is once you are in the business, playing games became market research, and it took away the joy of actually playing the game for your own entertainment. So after I got into the business, it became a case of I enjoyed it, but didn’t really have time anymore. It became market research in instead of enjoyment, and it kind of stayed that way. The games that I play, I still play analytically – you know I try to see behind the workings of them – what they are doing and how, which takes away from the enjoyment of it.

R: Some of the older adventure games such as Monkey Island and Broken Sword have been re-imagined recently and put out on the iPhone and Nintendo Wii and DS. Do you think in cases where the control method is touch and motion orientated, is that the way forward for adventure games? It seems to lend itself to the genre.

Al: I think anything that breathes fresh life into the genre is a good thing. It’s difficult to see much of a future for pure adventure games because they have gone through really tough times with no signs of a revival and a pure adventure game today is a tough sell. On the other hand, I do see a lot of hope in the casual game market because I think that a lot of the things that we used to do in the old days are not being done by big publishers today, but by casual game developers, who have a small team and you can do a lot of good work and develop games which have a lot of personality.

R: I’ve seen that you often attend gaming shows and conventions around the world. When you go and meet your fans, does it make you miss producing games?

Al: In a sense I do, but in another sense I’ve moved on. I was fortunate to get out at a time when the getting was good. The pure adventure games had been falling – although my games never did, my sales always had increased, where each game had sold better than the last. But by the time the new management came in at Sierra, they were unsure of what to do and they picked a course of follow the leader and that never gets you anywhere. When Ken was replaced by the other people, it was the definite downfall of the company, and it only took it six years to go from twelve hundred employees to just five. And those five employees turned off the lights and locked the doors and went home. It’s sad to see a company that started on a friend’s kitchen table and turned into a billion-dollar market capitalisation, then urn into nothing but a word on a box.

R: In interviews before, you have said how Larry is just an extension of your sense of humour. Is it gratifying that nowadays, over twenty-five years later, people are still entertained by things that used to make you laugh?

Al: Very much so, and very surprising! When we did those games, particularly the first one, I thought games back then had a shelf-life of maybe a couple of years and then they were gone. There was nowhere to find them, nowhere to buy them, you couldn’t download them. There was no future. So when we find out that people are still playing twenty-five years later, that’s incredible. I never would have predicted anything like that. So yeah, it’s incredibly satisfying, but also humbling. Because it’s like “damn, I wish I’d done a better job!” (Laughs).

R: Finally, to verify that you are really Al Lowe, can you remember the answer to this question – I find computer games with adult content…
A – Offensive
B – Acceptable
C – Repulsive
D – Under my bed

Al: (Laughs) Easy, D!

R: Ah, you wouldn’t have be able to play the game, although... you know the cheat, so you’d still be ok!

Al: Alt-X! (Laughs)

10 comments:

  1. Always refreshing (and nostalgic) reading what Mr. Lowe has to say. And this is a most impressive second post too. Keep it up!

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  2. Awesome, awesome read! And such an impressive share of new insider details never heard until now! This is priceless.

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  3. Wow, it took me several coffee breaks to finish this interview. Well, I visited Al's site (not leaving it without a laughing) and Wikipedia in parallel for more information. It's a great interview, you have a lot of adventure-game-knowledge and Al's answers are entertaining and very informative; I think that he's a great guy!

    Even though it's another sad story, I'd love to read a question about Sam Suede as well. It's a pity that we'll probably never see neither this game nor Lust In Space.

    I wonder if Sam Suede was somehow connected to the Freddy Pharkas idea and the never developed spy game spoof...

    Many thanks to both of you!

    Oh, and Al, don't forget to look for the Capital Punishment design document. :D

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  4. Hm, maybe I was wrong about Sam Suede...

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  5. Awesome awesome article! Excellent interview!

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  6. Great interview, was very fun to read.

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  7. http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/leisuresuitlarry/make-leisure-suit-larry-come-again

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