A wee while ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Al Lowe for a feature on adventure games, along with other influential folks in the genre. I ended up with a 15 page transcript. I only managed to use a small part of that in the two part feature, so I've put together a trimmed down version of the original interview as a bonus. What a splendid guy I am!
Al has been cracking jokes, playing the sax and making wonderful games since before I was born. He's most famous for creating the lovably pathetic Larry Laffer and the Leisure Suit Larry series of adventure games. After taking a bit of a break from the industry, he's returned to work with Replay Games, who will be remaking Larry's first outing, and hopefully the rest of them too.
DESTRUCTOID: It's been 13 years since the last proper Leisure Suit Larry game...
Al Lowe: Well, define proper.
Ones that you worked on, definitely not including Box Office Bust and Magna Cum Laude. They were pretty atrocious.
(laughs) I have to agree.
So it's been 13 years since the last proper one. How does it feel to be back working with the lovelorn -- or lustlorn -- Mr. Laffer and his adventures?
Well it's great. I'm so glad we're going to modernize these games and bring them up to the 21st century. Although we're not going to change the game itself, but user interface, voice overs, adding more music and all the graphic style and so forth, bringing it all into hi-def and just making a respectable looking product, but still keeping the gameplay the way that it was. So now it's a game about a guy who is ten years out of touch, twenty years ago.
How's it been working with Replay Games, has it been a full on collaboration or have you been bossing them about?
I'm merely in an advisory role. They wanted me on board to prevent a disaster like the other games you mentioned. I don't have any day to day responsibilities from them, particularly at this part of the process, I'm still waiting to see what develops. When it does, I promise I won't let it go to hell like those other ones.
Glad to hear it. You've mentioned in other interviews that you would be interested in pursuing Larry after you've done the remakes.
That would be a delightful result of all this, if they released the first game and it's a big success and they release the others and they are a successful enough too. The whole joy of game development is if people like what you do enough, then they allow you to do it again.
And again and again and again.
Uh huh, that was the fun part about doing games back in the 80s and 90s, every time we'd release something we'd be like, "oh man all I want to do is do another game." It was so great and so much fun. So if we could just get to that stage, I'd love that, but there's a lot of work and responsibility that goes into making a new product and I'm really appreciative that Replay's goal is to re-release a lot of the old games. But Paul assures me, Paul Trowe...
Yeah, he assures me that if these games sell he will certainly go after a new IP as well.
Paul used to work for Sierra [On-Line], didn't he?
There're several people at Replay now who are Sierra alums, so it's a great thing.
So is there a family atmosphere like there used to be at Sierra, back in the day?
Well, not as much yet because it's a new company, well I shouldn't say it's a new company, it's a new product. Plus everyone here is mostly working geographically independent. At Sierra we damn near lived together we worked 16 hours a day or something on those products in small tight rooms because we kept expanding and didn't have space for everybody. It was literally like having roommates in a college dorm.
During the later ones you had a single office in Fresno and you were all working in there, right?
For Larry 6 yeah. It was developed in a wonderful atmosphere.
You don't really see that anymore with some of the larger developers and publishers these days because there are so many people and they know their place, it's just a job.
Yeah it's hard. There's a big difference between a team of twelve and a team of 1200. If you're animator number 182 you're not going to put a lot of your personality into the project.
Yeah, there's no much room for it when there are so many people competing to get their mark on the game.
I'll tell you, in Larry 6 there is something from everyone on the team in that game. I wish I could have come up with everything that's there, but I certainly didn't... It was a wonderful team, a wonderful group of people and very creative and collaborative.
Well it certainly came across in the game, it's what got me into the series in the first place. So, thank you very much for that.
I'm glad. We kept that same feeling on Larry 7, although the team got a lot bigger. We ended up outsourcing a lot of the animation.
A lot of the tech was different, wasn't it? Because the animation was fantastic. It was like watching a cartoon, it was wonderful.
Yeah Larry 7 was great, it was a lot of fun. We ended up using an animation house to draw the in between cells, I believe they were in St. Petersburg maybe? Or Bulgaria, somewhere in Eastern Europe or Russia. Our guys drew all the key frames and we'd email it or put it on our ftp site. So those guys were not involved at all, they suffered from that animator number 182 syndrome. But our guys were able to do the creative stuff and do the key frames, then they didn't have to do the dirty work... We used to have wonderful team meetings where everybody would report their progress that week and what they saw was good or bad, but we had a common rule that if someone came up with something at the team meeting that made everybody else laugh then we had to find a way to put it in the game. That's one of the reasons the game is so funny, because those guys are a bunch of comedians.
So it was just like a brainstorm session of people cracking jokes?
Yeah. Like the “Where's Dildo” thing was totally impromptu. One of the cartoonists was drawing... I don't know if you know, but programmers, at meetings, will doodle little geometric things...
Instead of taking notes.
Yeah, won't bother taking notes. And artists never write any words, they only draw pictures. So he was doodling during the meeting and came up with that dildo character and showed it to his buddies around him and they all started laughing it was like what can we do with this we gotta figure out something and someone said we've got to have music and hide him all over.
The music was brilliant.
Mark Seibert was the producer of the game and he came up with that song. That was his voice taken down two octaves I think. So it was an absolutely collaborative effort.
Well it certainly worked. I still remember "Where's Dildo" to this day and it cracks me up every time.
It was a dumb idea, but it worked.
It was perfect for Larry, as well.
It was! Absolutely.
You started out doing everything yourself, the writing, the music, the coding and everything else. With systems like AGS, which has been used a lot by indie developers, do you think we're seeing a return to this style of development in the adventure genre?
You know, I think the indie game movement has been great for the business, particularly the flash games and the AGS games, I think that's great because it brings back the small team concept of one or two people working closely together on a project and actually putting their own personalities into it. I think that so much of what we see that's wrong with games today, that there is no key personality that comes through.
I mean, like all generalities this one is wrong, but it's common for games to be very bland. I think the really successful, big teams work hard to counteract that. But for the most part it's difficult. One of the reasons that Sierra games, I believe, were memorable to many people was that they had a personality. Ken [Williams, co-founder of Sierra On-Line] allowed the game designer or director or whoever it was who happened to be doing it, allowed their personalities to enter the product and show through in the end. So if you've played Police Quest and met Jim Walls, you'd know exactly what Jim Walls was like, because that game is like Jim Walls.
A stickler for details.
Absolutely! Yeah. And if you've played Kings Quest and met Roberta you'd understand what Roberta is like, you'd feel like you already know her because her personality came through. It was the same way with me and Larry. I think that was a brilliant move on Ken's part to allow people to personalize those products. If you've played Space Quest, you know Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy, you know their just great, funny, wacky guys and real fun to be around. When they said they wanted to make a space game, Ken didn't do market research, he didn't do focus groups, he didn't do all that other kind of stuff, he said “Oh well, make a game you'd like to play.”
Back in the Sierra days it did seem like the designers had a lot more control and publishers took more risks. Many of the adventure titles filled previously non-existent niches, you've said before that Ken looked at what wasn't there and tried to put something in it.
Yeah, I call it the baseball strategy.
Okay, I don't know anything about baseball.
You have fielders in position in the field and batter who tries to hit the ball where those fielders are not. And that's what Sierra did. I remember going to a video store with Ken and we walked down the aisles and looked at all the headings above the shelves and he said “Why there are there no mystery games? Why are there no western games?” And so that was one of the things he tried to do, to get Roberta to do a mystery product and Jim to do a police product and me to do a western game.
Ah yes, Freddy Pharkas [Frontier Pharmacist].
Who would have thought that somebody would publish a game about a frontier pharmacist? If I pitched that to a publisher today...
They'd laugh, but...
Well yeah, they'd laugh, but not with me!
You've said before that having him as a pharmacist was due to you getting tongue tied in a meeting.
Yeah, I started to say farmer, then I started to say rancher and it came out as farmcher or something, then I said farmcer... pharmacy, instead of being a farmer he could be a pharmacist. It was just so wacky that it stuck.
You don't really see many parody games or spoof games anymore.
Part of that is because comedy is hard. In today's kind of animation where you create an explosion or create a body that falls apart then you can't afford to use that just once. So people go through 1000 different monsters and they all blow up 5 different ways because you have to get your money's worth out of that animation because its so expensive to create, but with comedy if you do the same joke over and over it's not going to work. There are running gags and I try to include at least one in every game, like I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard that, you know, those kinds of lines, but that's different, that's just text, not graphics. If you're doing it a sight gag, you can do it once, but man if you do it twice... well maybe you can do it three times, it depends on the set up of course. My point is that it's much more cost efficient to kill monsters a 1000 times or blow up cars or to whatever it is, than it is to create one off comedy sequences that are used sparingly.
There's still other comedy games out there, though. Like Telltale's games, have you had a chance to play any of their episodic content?
You know, when I got out of gaming I... well let me start earlier. When I got into gaming it spoiled gaming for me. Once you go into the business it becomes your business. It becomes market research instead of enjoyment. So I played a lot of games, but I'd always play them with one part of my brain analyzing what was going on, how they were doing it, what effect they used and how they did it. Those sort of things really takes away the joy of gaming and then when I got out of gaming games changed so much, there wasn't story. I got into this because I love to tell stories and story became pretty much immaterial back in the late 90's, although we've seen signs that's changing. Some of the new games have great story lines again, it's about time.
We've been waiting long enough.
Haven't we? Yeah, I think it was a disappointment, I suppose. So I just kinda got out of games. I'll still play casual games. I've just grown away from them, all the adventure games and particularly the shooters. I never had much luck with the shooters. I remember playing the early RPG games and literally asking people, “I don't get it, this is the same over and over, why is this fun? What am I missing?” and basically they would say “nothing, that's what you do!” I also looked at FarmVille and those kinds of games, I actually wrote a bunch of jokes for FrontierVille from Zynga. They wanted to have a guy, I think he was the proprietor of the general store, and he would come in and tell you a joke. So they bought 300 jokes from me. So I've actually got some content there, though I'm sure I'm uncredited.
I'd be surprised if anyone wanted to be credited on FrontierVille.
You know, I had to play the game to test it and I found it, sorry, incredibly boring.
Now, with you getting back into the industry do you think you'll start doing market research again by playing other adventure games, or the competition as you might call it?
(laughs) Yeah, I think anything is possible. I'm sure I will, it seems only natural.
The Larry remakes are going to be digitally distributed. Are there going to be any physical copies?
No. Not that I know of. There aren't plans for that currently.
Do you think that's the way forward for adventure games? It seems to be more and more common, like they only go up on Steam or other digital platforms.
You don't have a chance of selling them boxed anymore.
The brick and mortar stores are getting pretty empty.
Yeah, go and try to find some software. I remember 15 years ago thinking, boy it would be great if we had a high speed pipe and we could do this. It's so instantly gratifying, I don't see us going back, that's a thing of the past. I mean they're going to stop making CDs this year.
Speaking of changes, I've noticed -- especially in the last ten years -- that puzzles have almost gone out the window in a lot of adventure games. Do you think this is something likely to change? Obviously the Larry remakes will have some fantastic puzzles, but if you go on to make any more do think they will be puzzle focused as well?
Well there's a fine line we have to walk. Everyone wants the same thing again, but it's got to be different. So how do you walk that line of it being like Larry, but not the same over and over again? Part of what I found unsatisfying about a lot of the puzzle games is that they weren't integrated into the story at all. You walk around a corner and there's some stopper. Then you have to solve that and go somewhere else. What got me hooked on adventures games was that you didn't know what you were supposed to do and you didn't know what you needed to do it. So you had to discover the items and the situations and the desires of the characters. So then you had to put two and two together and you had to use logic to figure out how to help that person and thus help yourself. I think that's a big part of games.
So it's not just progressing from scene to scene and having to get out of each scene by solving a puzzle?
Yeah, I find those ultimately unsatisfying and that's one of the reasons I made Larry 6 and Larry 7 take place in a very confined space. It was a small place where you were forced to maneuver around throughout this world and we kept some areas hidden from you at first, so you couldn't roam everywhere and new material was presented to you periodically. That way, by having all those interactions, multiple interactions with multiple characters in multiple locations, it game us the chance to really build some depth as opposed to a game where you traverse the scenery once and never see these people again, they're merely props to keep you from moving forward.
So it's better to have full characters that have a purpose and create humor rather than them being part of a puzzle?
I think it is. Everything that we've said so far is merely one way of doing things.
Now, I've heard that you're quite the fan of the ol' Bejeweled.
Oh my god, hooked. Both the wife and I. It takes longer now, but I was going to say if we have 15, 20 minutes... I'll still often kill time with that.
Do you think it's a sign that people are getting interested in puzzles? I mean I speak to a lot of people who say they have no interest in puzzles now, but then you look at the casual market and it's inundated with these sorts of games.
I think there's a group of people who can't wait to open The New York times and solve the crossword puzzle, then there's the vast majority of people who can think of nothing they'd rather do less. And that's the joy of capitalism, you get all those chances to find the things you enjoy doing. I don't think there's any doubt to whether given the chance... a lot of young people don't get the chance to find out if they'd enjoy one of these games because they never see them. But if you discover that you like that sort of thing it's great there's choices out there.
I wanted to ask about your thoughts on player control. For example, a lot of action in adventure games takes place in cut scenes or in another controlled setting. Do you think there's room to add real action to an adventure game.
Well, we did in Sam Suede. It was an action game that had comedy dialogue, so there was actually the combination of conversation trees from adventure games and puzzle solving from adventure games, but it had full blown action as well. A lot of the puzzles you had to solve were action based, you had to figure out how to move things around the environment or take something from some place and use it in a creative way somewhere else, but all of it done in full 3D with a third person camera that followed you. We also came up with a wonderful plot, I'm still very proud of that plot. I wish I could share the design document on my website, but the people who ended up owning the intellectual property swear they will use it again and therefore don't want me giving it away.
So what do you think the future holds for the adventure genre? Obviously we're getting a lot of remakes because people might have missed them the first time around and are now put off by the graphics, so they are getting a chance to play them now. Do you think that might get more people interested in the genre?
Well there's the people who know of the games but because they are dated so they don't play them. The analogy there is black and white films. They're a really hard sell. There are some great films, I can't get my kids to watch them even though I know they'd love them, but they're old fashioned, they don't look good and the characters talk a bit funny. So there's that genre of people who are nostalgic for it, but don't play them because they don't look good. So there's a chance we'll pick up those people. There's also the chance that younger people who have never played these games or experienced this will see this and go, “Hey this is kind of fun to actually think. I don't do that in these other games once I learn what the game mechanic is, I just do that a million times.” So yeah, we might pick up... I mean our belief is that we will pick up new players from this experience and therefore they will be interested in additional games like that and I would love nothing more than to see thinking games and character development and plot and comedy return to popular games.
There's certainly nothing quite like Larry.
And that includes the recent Leisure Suit Larry games! (laughs)
I try and forget about them. You had an idea for a Larry cartoon, didn't you?
During its popularity there were many movie ideas, one was cartoon based, several were live action.
That would have been very strange; a live action Leisure Suit Larry.
Yeah. I remember one of the scripts was written was written when Jim Carrey was really hot and it was kind of written like a Dumb and Dumber Larry.
Oh... that sounds odd.
I thought: Oh my god, this isn't right at all! Then of course he chose to do Cable Guy instead. So there have been various scripts and the rights have been licensed over the years but nothing ever came to fruition.
It seems that a lot of videogames are moving into different medium and there are a lot of properties moving into cinema and comic books.
My son actually wanted me to make a series of Larry action figures.
That would be brilliant!
Can't you just see it? He was a big Star Wars collector and the Todd McFarlane characters which were so beautiful, but you can just imagine putting Larry's sense humor into that marketplace? There's been nothing like that.
Yeah, there really hasn't. Speaking of Larry's sense of humor, do you think that censorship is more of a problem now than when you developed the games originally?
It was never much a problem with me, because I had a wife. Any time I'd come up with something I'd say “Margaret, what do you think of this?” And she'd say “You can't do that!” So it never really was a problem. But I still get occasional emails from people who really thought that Larry was about the porn.
Often, it was the polar opposite of that.
You know, I have a standard response which is: Gosh you know it was a joke, I used sex to laugh at Larry. I tried to make a game where you laughed at sex rather than being excited by it.
Nobody really wants to be like Larry.
(laughs) Yeah. Go read pornography, it's a lot cheaper than buying an adventure game so you can see pixilated parts.
It's not very titillating.
Not to me. I never really saw it, but I did see laughing at that behavior and that's what I was trying to do.
And the women that Larry pursued were a lot stronger than him. Both physically and their character...
In every way, shape and form. They could snap him like a twig or give him a verbal lashing that would make him cry. They were his superiors in every way. I think it's odd that anyone could find it sexist, or pornographic.
On more than one occasion I've been introduced to women and they would say “He wrote Leisure Suit Larry” and the woman would go “Oh that horrible game” or something, and invariably I would ask “Well, have you played it?” and they would say they no and some woman standing nearby would jump to my defense and say “You need to go play that game! It's not misogynistic at all!” Just the box is, the packaging is sexist. It's actually misandristic.
I remember, at one point -- I think it was in Larry 6 -- there was the Easter egg where you could get one of the trainers to take her top off, but then Larry dies because she knocks him out and punches him all the way up into the ceiling.
The dying stuff came about because we couldn't afford to come up with animation for everything you did in the game, but on the other hand a lot of it would make sense that somebody would want to do that. So what could we do? It took a long time before we learned that we could do a game without killing you. I took a while, it took a while to do that.
I suppose that now you're doing the remakes you'll have an opportunity to fix things that you didn't like or didn't work.
Absolutely, We're going to fix the “PITA” puzzles, the pain in the ass!
I've just got one last question. Where do you see yourself in the future, if the remakes are a success. More Larrys? An action comedy like Sam Suede?
I would love to get involved again in gaming, we just have to see what happens. I really don't know. It could be fun.
I suppose you must want to be cautious after what happened to Sam Suede.
Al can still be found making people laugh at his humor site and gaming gods willing, we'll be seeing more games from him in the future.
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