RPS Interview: Al Lowe

By John Walker on February 6th, 2008 at 12:32 pm.

Anyone who grew up with games in the late 80s and 90s will be so very familiar with the name Al Lowe. Famous, infamous, certainly notorious, he was the creator of Leisure Suit Larry, a series of daft, entertaining, and ever-so-slightly naughty adventure games from Sierra. Lowe’s credits go far beyond Larry, working on stories and coding for many of Sierra’s seminal adventure series, but it will always be for the loveless lounge lizard that he’ll be remembered.

Mr Lowe

However, in recent years the name of Larry has been somewhat spoilt. Sierra revived the series with the execrable Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude, an astonishing exercise in bigotry. Lowe had nothing to do with it, his efforts now concentrated on his own website. With the news that Larry is to return once more in Box Office Bust (well, his nephew), we spoke to Al Lowe to get his reaction to the games. We also spoke about developing the original Larry and Police Quest games, the state of the industry then and now, why Lowe is no longer developing games, and some unique insight into the reason a generation grew up solving puzzles.

RPS: The Discovery Channel’s Rise of the Videogame said that Larry was the first game to be set in the real world. Do you think this is true?

Al Lowe: Gosh, it seems unlikely. But I’ll say this: it certainly was uncommon at the time. All the other niches were so full, there were so many swords and sandals games, and so many space games, and so many apocalyptic future games, that I thought something was missing. And it gave me a chance to poke fun at modern American trends.

Larry 1

RPS: Police Quest one was also 1987, which were two very starkly different approaches to the real world.

AL: Yes, I’m proud to have worked on both of those games. When Larry shipped, it had the worst sales of any product Sierra had ever released. I figured, well I’ve wasted six months of my life since I didn’t take any advances, just royalties, to get a higher royalty rate. I figured I’d better do something and they needed help with Police Quest, so I leaped over onto that team and did a lot of writing and a lot of re-coding… a lot of finishing work. I didn’t think much about Larry – I just assumed it had been a waste of time. But Larry’s sales increased exponentially, doubling every month.

RPS: Why do you think that was?

AL: I think it was a different game – a little bit adult, a little bit risqué, plus it was funny. People hadn’t seen anything like it. People told each other about it and word got around. Ken Williams was looking for where the audience was not, as opposed to today’s publishers who refuse to do anything that’s not already on the shelves.

RPS: It was an amazing time for exploring the possibilities.

AL: Yeah. Jim Walls [the police officer who co-wrote the games] had never written anything longer than a police report, but he had great stories to tell. Ken happened to be playing racquetball with him when Jim started regaling him with great tales of his highway patrol days. Ken said, “You should write a game!” Jim had just retired from the force after an incident where a perp came up to his car windshield, pointed a big .57 magnum pistol, aimed it right through the windshield at Jim’s face and pulled the trigger. All Jim could think of was, “I can’t get my damned seatbelt undone!” Fortunately, the gun mis-fired. But Jim had had enough and retired. So he had time to play racquetball, and then he wrote a game.

Police Quest 1

RPS: Those games were deadly serious.

AL: Jim was a stickler for police detail. He required every step to be precise. He wanted to make sure you felt that you couldn’t make a single mistake.

RPS: You’ve said that in the early 90s it was easier to develop than in the late 90s. Ten years on, do you think development has changed again?

AL: I would have to say it’s a mixed bag. In some ways it’s much, much harder. 3D characters, 3D levels, and particularly high-res design, are not twice as difficult to develop, but more like a factor of ten times. Games are afraid to break new ground because they’re so expensive to develop. Nobody wants to take a chance on a Police Quest or a Larry kind of game if it will cost them millions of dollars. They don’t know if it will sell. It’s much easier to do something that’s worked before, and just improve the graphics. But that’s becoming an increasingly smaller niche. The Wii has proved the point. People don’t care that the graphics aren’t hi-res, they don’t care that the angle of the character’s foot doesn’t match the 15° angle of the slope of the ramp he’s standing on, they like the gameplay. I think the average player – not the average game fanatic – but the normal gamer, cares more about gameplay than graphics.

RPS: Do you feel inspired by the Wii and DS as a designer?

AL: Not so much the DS. To me, it’s almost a throw-back to the old days. The two screens are cool, but the resolution and the capacity of the games is a big step back. I see it more as something nice to take with you somewhere, but it’s not the machine I would want to shoot for as a primary platform. But the Wii is. There’s a whole world of comic possibilities that haven’t been tapped yet with that machine. I wish that I were designing games again so I could!

Sam Suede

RPS: So why are you not designing games again?

AL: A couple of years back, I worked on a game called Sam Suede: Undercover Exposure. We developed a prototype and took it to every major publisher. They reacted like, “Oh, Al. Your games were some of the funniest I ever played!” or, “You’re the reason I’m involved in computers!” or “Larry got me into games and now I’m the vice president of a games company.” And then they saw the game that we developed, and they said things like, “Oh, it’s so different. It’s funny, yet it’s action-based.” And still, none of them would take a chance and offer us funding to finish it. After that experience, I figured either the business has passed me by, or I’ve passed the business by. I don’t know which. It was very disappointing.

RPS: It sounds like Ron Gilbert’s story, when developing DeathSpank.

AL: Yes, Ron and I had lunch a while back and discussed this very topic. It’s a pisser! I love Ron’s games, and I love his sense of humour. He’s a great guy. I hope it works out well for him.

RPS: Humour is such an under-developed aspects of games. I was thinking about the old Larry games, and the parsing system, compared to the barren single mouse interface of modern adventures. When you look at this now, does it make you despair?

Larry 7

AL: [laughs] Well, I did put the parser back in Larry 7. And a few old-timers loved it. But the majority of players never found it or tried it. We put a lot of effort into making it work and giving it some funny lines. My approach was to use the tools available. When we got a new function or a new feature, I would do whatever I could to exploit it for the sake of humour. When we just had a parser, I tried to come up with a lot of responses to incorrect inputs. When we had point and click, I tried to hide a lot of hot spots with funny messages. I never tried to break new ground with my games; I left that to others. What I tried to do was exploit the tools that were there to my best advantage.

RPS: Do you think the desire to be funny in the games was driven by being in competition with LucasArts?

AL: No, not really. There were so few games released back then that all of us looked forward to the next game coming out whether it was ours or a competitor’s. When Lucas released a new game, everyone at Sierra was excited because we had a new game to play! It was a quite different then. We go a month or more between games you’d care about. For me it wasn’t about competition.

RPS: So what was the drive for you?

AL: I wasn’t a comedy writer, I was a high school music teacher. I had never written anything before I started writing games. I’d certainly never written anything funny. And I didn’t even know if I could be funny. But I knew that I had a sense of humour. I used to keep the students in my classes laughing. I had enough showman in me that I thought I could handle it. So I just threw in everything I could think of. I was afraid that people wouldn’t find some things, or they wouldn’t think it was funny. That’s the hard part about creating a humorous game. You develop the game so long before an audience ever sees it. It’s not like a comedy routine where you can go to a club and try it out, then tune it the next night.

Larry parser

RPS: I’ve noticed that we seem to have lost our patience with puzzles. Developers seem to be frightened of a player getting stuck. Why do you think this happened?

AL: I have a definite thought on this. I hesitate to share it as I don’t want it to come out sounding the wrong way, but I believe that in the early 80s, you had to be ridiculously determined just to make those damned computers work. It was near impossible. Set high mem. Deal with QEMM. Customize boot up settings. Hell, I had a whole subdirectory full of autoexec.bat and config.sys files…

RPS: [Large groan as the hideous memories came flooding back]

AL: … I would save off the current pair of files into a subdirectory and copy up another pair so I reboot, all just to run a game. I probably had ten different set-ups. Just geeky shit like that drove people crazy. So puzzle solving was a requirement just to get the damned things to work. And therefore puzzle solving in games fell right into place. It’s what you were already doing. And the parser? It was just like the DOS prompt. You got a flashing cursor and that’s all. If you didn’t know what to type, you had to try things until something worked. Our games were that way. The cursor would flash and you’d think, “What am I supposed to do now?” I remember a conversation once where we speculated, “Won’t it be wonderful when 10% of American households have a computer? Think how great sales will be?” Well, now it’s well over 50% and the people that we added aren’t the people who subscribe to Games Magazine, or solve New York Times crossword puzzles, or watch PBS or BBC America. They’re the people who watch Fox! Their demands for entertainment didn’t include slapping your forehead over and over while you tried to figure out what to do next. They wanted some action… and wanted it now!

RPS: So do you think trying to make adventure games today is futile?

AL: No, not futile, but not mainstream either. They’re not the majority audience as they were in the 80s. That same small slice of people who enjoy puzzle solving, being stuck, and figuring things out still exist. Of course, the Internet has hurt the puzzle aspect of adventure games. When you know that Google can find the answer to any puzzle, it’s very tempting to go take a look!

RPS: Do you follow the adventure scene closely now?

AL: Not seriously. I’ve moved away from the whole business. I work on my website, www.allowe.com, my daily joke list, CyberJoke 3000™, and I do volunteer work for non-profit web sites. CyberJoke 3000™ is nine years old now. I send out two jokes every weekday morning, so people can start their day with a smile. If you enjoyed the humour in my Larry games, you’ll enjoy the website. There’s some risqué stuff there, but there’s nothing pornographic, filthy, nasty, ugly or racist.

RPS: Talking of pornographic, filthy, nasty, ugly, and racist, let’s move onto Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude.

AL: Nice segue! [laughs] I’ve said before, it was like getting a videotape from your son’s kidnapper; on the one hand, you’re glad he’s still alive, but on the other, my God, look what they’ve done to him!

Look what they've done to him.

RPS: Looking back, a couple of years since it came out, what are your thoughts?

AL: I would have thought they would have called me before they started the next one. Unfortunately, they didn’t. They’ve announced a new game that will be released in a year or so. It’s got to be better than Magna Cum Laude, right?

RPS: You’d think.

AL: But I have nothing to do with it.

RPS: When MCL came out, I gave it 3% in PC Gamer. It was just sickening. If anything, it highlighted how much better the original Larry games were…

AL: I guess in a way it was a compliment. It proved that what I did wasn’t that easy.

Magne Cum Laude

RPS: It made me realise how much those early games were on the side of the women.

AL: Well, that was always the case with my games. How do you take a chauvinistic arsehole of a guy and make him likeable? I solved it by making him think he was cool and on top of things, but then to make him lose. The women in the games always came out on top. I can’t tell you how many times a woman has said to me, “Oh, you’re that Al Lowe. I hate your games! You wrote that chauvinistic Larry game.” But invariably, another woman would come to my defence, saying, “Have ever played his games? If you had, you’d know better…” It’s always nice to have a women defend your honour [laughs].

RPS: However, that’s not the case any more for the Larry series.

AL: No, not with
Magna Cum Laude. It irks me that I had to pay full retail price for that game at a store. They didn’t even bother to send me a review copy! I guarantee you: I wish I had my thirty bucks back.

RPS: After the review came out, the publishers threatened to put the 3% mark on the box, to get revenge.

AL: I’d say you’re pretty close to my opinion. Part of it was the way they did it. They had a couple of Hollywood comedy writers write the scenes for the game a year before they finished it. They did their bits, threw it in the hopper, and left. They weren’t around to see how their ideas were implemented. Some parts were really funny, like the monkey with the British accent who was addicted to cigarettes. I would have been proud to put that scene in a game. But then there was so much more that was, just, what were they thinking?

RPS: The scene that stands out for me was when you’d strap a dildo to a teddy bear, then use it to… well it seemed like rape, to me, a psychologically disturbed woman.

AL: Yeah! What the fuck? The game was almost schizophrenic. There was one side which was interesting humour, then there was this just weird stuff. For instance, Larry would walk up to a girl on campus and say some kind of smarmy line, something like, “What would look good on you? Me!,” something fine like that. And then she would reply with, “Fuck off, cock-sucker!” What? WHAT? That’s the best you could do? And I never want to play “quarters” again!

Box Office Bust

RPS: I read an interview with the development team on the new Larry game, Box Office Bust, where they said they wanted to make a game that you would enjoy playing.

AL: If that’s the case, why didn’t they just have me design it for them?! Maybe they spent all their money on voiceover talent. People are supposed to ooh and ahh because they hired Carmen Electra. That’s not what makes good games. I bet they spent more on voiceover talent than I ever spent making an entire game. I can’t imagine what that list of talent cost them.

RPS: So given that you’ve said you’re retired, if that call came through and they asked you to make a new Larry game, would you do that?

AL: Well… [a long pause], I would certainly be open to it. But there are so many shades of grey between that statement and reality. Would I have control? What sort of deal would we make? But, assuming all that could be solved, hell, yes! I’d love to do another game! Part of the reason I hesitated on this answer, and qualified it, was because Ken Williams really spoiled me. I had total artistic control of my games and our financial negotiations were pretty much, “You want to do another game?” I’d reply, “Yeah.” and he’d say, “Okay. Have fun!” Very relaxed. I was totally in charge, and apart from reasonable budgetary restraints, I had enormous freedom.

RPS: Who knows, maybe the next one will be better.

AL: Well, my belief is it won’t be any worse!

The End

, , , .

29 Comments »

  1. AK says:

    JW’s vendetta against the utterly harmless and self-consciously preposterous Magna Cum Laude continues. Print, Internet… where next?!

  2. John Walker says:

    Sky writing.

  3. Butler` says:

    Your opening paragraph to the MCL review has to be one of the best ever.

  4. Meat Circus says:

    Resistence is futile, AK.

    You know that come judgment day, Mr Walker will be there, tutting and dispensing withering disdain to ALL OF CREATION.

    You can count on it.

  5. AbyssUK says:

    Somebody let this man make a game!

  6. Saul says:

    Spot on about puzzle games. But we are a niche prepared to spend money on this shit. Give us product, dammit. PRO-DUCT!

  7. Man Raised By Puffins says:

    JW’s vendetta against the utterly harmless and self-consciously preposterous Magna Cum Laude continues. Print, Internet… where next?!

    A vendetta which is forever accompanied by Larry’s poorly concealed digital penis, it would seem.

  8. Richard says:

    Blatant self-blogging link to the past – a retrospective look at the series. I link in case anyone was wondering a bit more about the different games. It’s always funny to see someone play one for the first time, expecting something dirty.

    Or, as the opening to the Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist demo would have it…

    “Oh, the game of Freddy Pharkas,
    Comes from old Al Lowe, who made his mark as
    Dad and designer of Larries 1-5
    But while Larry’s slightly nerdy
    Freddy isn’t in the least bit dirty
    Short, lewd, or balding
    Or pushing 45…”

  9. davidAlpha says:

    @richard

    larries 1-5?? I always liked larry 6 best and I was under the impression that Al Lowe made that game. Dont tell me I’ve been living a lie…

  10. Dan (WR) says:

    Great interview John – Al seems like such a nice guy. It’s a real shame he’s not making games any more.

    I didn’t realise that Al had worked on Police Quest. I have mixed feelings on the Police Quest games because they were so viciously unforgiving that I felt slightly nervous playing them. I wish there were some police procedural or whodunnit games out there – I heard about the forthcoming Women’s Murder Club game, but the few screenshots I dredged up made it lookdistinctly lousy.

    By the way Rich – what do you think is worse – Magna Cum Laude or Hopkins FBI? ;-)

  11. Richard says:

    larries 1-5?? I always liked larry 6 best and I was under the impression that Al Lowe made that game. Dont tell me I’ve been living a lie…

    Larry 6 wasn’t out by that point – or at least, not by the time the demo for Freddy was put together. IIRC, both were released in 1993. Al definitely designed 6 (which was a big jump on the atrocious LSL5, especially in terms of non-linearity, but I still didn’t think a whole lot of), and 7, which was a genuinely good adventure, as well as an excellent sequel.

    I have mixed feelings on the Police Quest games because they were so viciously unforgiving that I felt slightly nervous playing them.

    The remake of PQ1 isn’t too bad. Still rampant SSDS, but it’s much better about pointing you in the right direction.

    By the way Rich – what do you think is worse – Magna Cum Laude or Hopkins FBI? ;-)

    Oh, Hopkins FBI, by miles. At least Magna Cum Laude had a few minor redeeming bits (like the D&D game with Morgan and… um… er… ah…). Hopkins is cack on every conceivable level, and a few that would make the Control Voice from The Outer Limits go “Buh!?”

  12. KingMob says:

    I wish Richard Cobbett and John Walker could be joined at the hip to create some amazing adventure game reviewing mutant monstrosity. Internet: MAKE IT HAPPEN!

    Seriously, I just read Walker’s slanders of the Myst games (I read Cobbett’s retrospective on the Larry games a while ago) and it occurred to me, aside from the famous Old Man Murray article blaming that Gabriel Knight puzzle for killing adventure games, these two guys are the best reviewers out there… you get the idea they complain because they love.

    ps. Al Lowe designs, Walker and Cobbett on dialogue… wouldn’t that just be the Portal of adventure games?

  13. tackle says:

    tickle your ass with a feather?

  14. Richard says:

    Yes, it’s raining. Hopefully it’ll clear up soon.

    ps. Al Lowe designs, Walker and Cobbett on dialogue… wouldn’t that just be the Portal of adventure games?

    Man, I need to get some people so I could have someone call them about things like that…

    (And yes. I grew up with adventure games, and they’ve got a real place in my heart – just inside the aorta, second valve. I just save my nostalgia for the older games, where it applies.

    Aside from anything else, I remember the genre when it was the trendsetter – the one that used the latest technologies, and repeatedly pushed the boat out on everything from story to character to setting. Most of the modern ones – hell, for over a decade now – have completely forgotten this, and worse, been far too happy to fall back on things like “But nobody minded fifteen years ago!”

    Needless to say, that’s not an argument I have much time for…)

  15. Kinglink says:

    If you make a sequal to LSL you really need to make sure Al Lowe likes the game. He hits the nail on the head. Larry wasn’t the issue, the minigames, and female dialog is the issue.

  16. Richard says:

    Larry wasn’t the issue, the minigames, and female dialog is the issue.

    I disagree with the last bit. The game was shit, but the key problem that made it such a hateful game was its attitude – turning a series that could very easily have been misogynistic rubbish into… well… misogynistic rubbish that deserved all the scorn Larry’s ever been given.

    Hell, just look at the game mechanics. On a purely practical level, all of the Larry games boil down to the girls being locks that open up plot coupons (whatever form they take) that unlock the Final Girl’s heart. That’s ignoring context, and just focusing purely on the mechanics – the game structure.

    Technically, MCL did the same thing. In practice, they missed the point. In Lowe’s games, either Larry’s dealing with a girl who’s specifically out for fun (very rarely sex specifically – more usually things like buying trinkets or going bungee jumping), playing him for a sucker (Fawn, Tawni, Annette, Gammie, etc.) or he’s genuinely interested in them, only for it to all utterly go wrong (most of them). What people always forget about Larry is that he’s not really after sex, he’s almost always in search of love.

    Magna Cum Laude was the only one that specifically had ‘bang these girls’ as mission objectives, to the point that there’s even a sequence during the Harriet level where Larry goes on for hours about how she doesn’t do anything for him, but he’s got to keep trying to score with her anyway. There’s another bit with Bilzarbra where he makes it clear he’d rather gnaw his leg off than hear her babble on.

    Why’s he trying to shag them? Because it gets him one step closer to getting on a TV show, and with it, the chance to get with a girl he actually likes. That’s it. No pretense at romance, no attempt to make the end-goal mean anything. It’s for a short at picking one of three stereotypes off a list and hopping in bed.

    That’s not the only problem with MCL’s attitude, but it’s the one that spiralled off into its frankly poisonous attitude towards most of its female characters, and a lot of the atrocious teen-movie scripting. That’s without mentioning what it did to most of the others, the cruelty of many of the sequences, or the incredible tackiness throughout.

    In fairness, the dialogue wasn’t as bad with some of the characters who were spared that, like Tilly the super-villain sorority queen or Morgan the geek. It was almost a shame; the writers occasionally getting a chance to write for actual characters, then be back to pretty much spitting out overly long linking scenes about the talking breasts the designers so clearly saw the rest of the cast as.

    (Hell, one of the three endings is actually called ‘End With Boobies’…)

    There’s nothing wrong with sex jokes, or even cruel humour per se, and I don’t care how many breasts the game bounces around or how many sex scenes it puts in. What bugged me was the context for it all – that while the earlier games were comedy games pretending to be seedy; MCL was just plain seedy, sexist trash. Sadly, it also sold, even though its deserved fate was to have trained battle-weasels infiltrate the Vivendi warehouse and torch every copy with napalm.

  17. Alan Au says:

    LSL4 is where it’s at.

  18. inle says:

    I’m really interested in something Al Lowe said–that the mindset that you entered simply running programs on old PCs was inducive to puzzle solving, as well as informing the user interface. I used to laboriously suffer through all that configuration bullshit like everyone else–I remember once taking a solid week of trial-and-error tinkering and collecting good and bad advice from a dozen different sources before I could get a game running (one that me and my friend had saved up for). It was like an adventure game in itself! Now, after nearly 20 years of GUIs and DLLs, I get exasperated when a game doesn’t start immediately or I’m forced to use DOSBox to run old games; conversely, I quickly lose patience with difficult or demanding games, certainly more than I used to. It goes to show how much we’re trained, in a way, to accept out of interactivity, and how much is asked of us in return.

    I’d like to thank you RPS guys for giving us these interviews of legends who the industry now views as dinosaurs. It’s very telling, and more than a little sad, but all the more valuable for it. Fortunately, guys like Ron Gilbert are finally doing what they have to to get their ideas out–going indie.

  19. Filipe says:

    @ Alan:

    Heh heh, was wondering when somebody would bring it up.

  20. Kunikos says:

    Hey guys could you bear in mind that some people like to read either at work (lunch break) or in front of children, so perhaps some light censorship on the nudity would be in order (with a link to the original if the person desires to see it in the buff, so to speak).

  21. Joonas says:

    Yeah, not appreciative of the screenshots.

    Just last weekend I played through Larry 1-2 with my wife. We got the 2006 collection with titles 1-6 (1 being the VGA remake) and intend to go through them all.

    No, not going to touch MCL.

  22. sir_carrot says:

    I grew up on the Sierra games… buggy as they were, I miss the incredible talent and imagination of the developers – Lowe in particular.

    It’s hard to understand why no one in the industry has offered him a position in any capacity for far too long. Even just for dialog…