By John Walker on April 10th, 2012 at 4:00 pm.
As infamous adventure creator Al Lowe puts it, the Kickstarter craze kicked off by Tim Schafer has, for many, been a lot like getting the band back together. So many names most famous for their games released in the 80s and early 90s are reappearing, some even coming out of retirement, with the promise of crowd-sourced funding. Many, stung by their experiences with publishers in the past, are being wooed back in, and not least among them is Al Lowe. Creator of Leisure Suit Larry, and a programmer on many of the classic Sierra adventures, Lowe hasn’t released a game since 1996, purported to have been in retirement since ’98. He’s popped up here and there since, and continues to send out jokes every day to his loyal mailing list, but at 65 years old he’s officially back, and there’s a Kickstarter to prove it. We spoke to Lowe, and colleague Paul Trowe, a man who began his gaming career at 12, play-testing for Sierra, to find out why they think now is the time to remake the Larry games.
RPS: Some people were surprised by the KickStarter announcement, when the game was announced last October. What’s the overall tone of the comments been?
Paul: They’re all positive. A lot of people want to ask about foreign language versions and Linux versions. A lot of people are saying ‘Hey, you announced this in October, why are you doing Kickstarter now?’ I’ve tried to address that in the FAQ, but we’re still getting a lot of comments on it.
RPS: So what have you been doing between October and now?
Paul: We put a business plan together, and those don’t happen overnight, and it took a while to get the advisory board agreements in place and investor shares over to Al and everybody, and get all our legal ducks in a row. We started asking for investment last month, actually in January is when we officially went out there, and the reply has been rather embarrassing actually. They don’t want to back a company that has Leisure Suit Larry involved in it.
RPS: Do you think that’s in reaction to the Leisure Suit Larry that you made, or do you think it’s a reaction to the utterly awful games that have come out in the last few years?
Al: Personally I think I poisoned the waters, but Vivendi was brilliant to come back with a totally inept game to show people the right way to do it. Was that too sarcastic?
RPS: Are people afraid of, as in, the Larry that we know and love or are they afraid of the Larry that it’s become, Larry’s nephew I suppose?
Al: My belief would be, and this is merely a guess, mere conjecture on the part of the witness, but I think that a lot of people who are involved in decision making at this point just see the last thing that came out and y’know. Thirty years ago, Ken Williams told me ‘You’re only as good as your last game’. And I took that to heart, and I really tried to make each of my games better than the last one. That didn’t happen with the Larry franchise after I left it. The two games got progressively worse and so, I think there is a lot of residual. I don’t know, people are unimpressed with the two games that were recently done, so that could be a possibility. But what we’ve seen is, on the Kickstarter campaign is that the people who remember my games know the difference, and are excited about seeing them come back to life.
RPS: Looking at the Kickstarter it looks as if it’s going well, it looks right now as if it’s going to make it. How’re you feeling about it?
Al: Well I definitely think we’re going to make it, I have no doubts about it.
[At the time of publishing the Kickstarter is just over half way, with 22 days to go.]
RPS: So how did you go from looking for investors so recently to going for a Kickstarter? I guess I have two questions, one is ‘how did you make that decision?’ and the other is ‘what would you have done without Kickstarter, what would have been happening right now?’
Al: (laughs) Paul, I should let you answer this, but I think Tim Shafer made the decision for us didn’t he? (laughs)
Paul: Yeah, we were asked by Geoff Keighley of Spike TV to come to DICE and do an interview, and so when I met Al and brought him up the escalators, Tim and Al saw each other, hugged, and I told Al about Tim’s campaign on Kickstarter, and Tim said ‘Y’know, you guys should do that with Leisure Suit Larry’, and Al said ‘Y’know, that’s a great idea’.
RPS: So where do you think things would be without that, would you be continuing to look for investment or do you think you would have had to abandon the project?
Al: No, I don’t ever give up, so we would have found the investment even if Kickstarter wasn’t around.
RPS: So why’s it so important to you, Paul, to remake the original Larry game?
Paul: I’ve been trying to remake the Sierra classics since they’ve been lost in the hands of various companies like Vivendi and Havas and Universal, and now Activision. So I approached Activision to do remakes of all the games, and I wanted to acquire rights to Leisure Suit Larry, King’s Quest, Police Quest and Space Quest, games I grew up beta testing. And Activision actually told me that they didn’t have the rights to Leisure Suit Larry and that it was in the hands of Codemasters. And I said ‘oh really…’. So the next call I made was to my friend, the CEO of Codemasters, Rod Cousens, and Rod said, ‘Sure, we could do a deal for Leisure Suit Larry.’
RPS: So Al obviously, it must be in some way strange to go back to the beginning rather than do something brand new. How does that feel?
Al: Well, it feels wonderful in a way because it’s a chance for a game design that I believe is solid and a game itself that’s funny, interesting and a little different from what’s out there on the market to suddenly be placed in a much better environment on devices that are really capable of showing it off to the best extent possible. You’ve got to remember, when I originally wrote this game it was too big to fit on one 360k floppy. To go from two 360k discs to, wow, what have we got now, hundreds of megabytes [sic] of storage, it’s a huge thrill. And so for the game to actually realise its potential… We’re not looking to reinvent the game, we think that the gameplay is solid. It’s like a classic film or something else, you can redo it, make it look better, but I think the script and the game design are still playable and funny and interesting today.
RPS: Do you remember the frustrations you had in ‘86 and ‘87 as you were making it and do you have things that you wish you could have done then?
Al: Yeah! There are a few things that I promise will not be in the new version. Things that I realised after we shipped it that I should have fixed, that weren’t a good idea at the time. But you’ve got to understand, this was the first game that Sierra ever beta tested after being in business for ten years. They had never sent a game out of house to be tested, merely they ran it through to see if it was buggy and would crash, but as far as beta testing and getting additional input from outsiders, Larry was the first one to do that. And I think that was one of the reasons that it was successful because we had a dozen really great game players beta test that, and what I did was record all their responses that didn’t have an intelligent answer, and then I put all those answers in the game, and I think that really made a huge difference because the game understood a lot more and seemed more intelligent, although it really wasn’t.
RPS: Can you name a couple of those examples of things you won’t be putting in the remake?
Al: Not yet, but I will.
RPS: It wasn’t a long game, was it?
Al: It was not a broad game, it was a game that used a few locations but it used them over and over again so that you had to retrace your steps, and part of that was because of the limitations of the storage. We just couldn’t do unlimited space because we just didn’t have the room on the discs back then. So you’ve got to remember, a lot of people played this game off two floppy discs. In fact Paul, I’ve got to tell you this, somebody sent me an email last night that said ‘Gosh, every time I get in the taxi will I have to insert disc two?’ (laughs) We should add that to the game, that should be part of it.
RPS: I remember doing that on my Atari ST.
Paul: I remember having to create a play disc. Do you remember that Al?
Al: Oh yeah.
Paul: Oh my god. John, I don’t know if you remember this or not but when you got the original game, you couldn’t just play the game off a DOS, you had to copy disc number one, and that disc number one would be your play disc, and then once you ran the game you had to then reinsert the original disc one to make sure it wasn’t pirated, and then put your play disc back in the machine. And because it had to copy file by file, you had to keep taking one disc out and putting the other one back in, and then taking it back out, because most computers only had one floppy drive, so you were switching these discs for I think thirty minutes. People were really motivated to play this game. (laughs)
RPS: Hey, at least it was only two discs, not like twelve or fifteen.
Al: Well we got better with Larry 2. It went to six discs but I designed the game so that it was each area of the game, each level, was contained on one floppy, so it was purposefully designed to fit on those floppies so you didn’t have to shuffle those discs back and forth. But still, if you wanted to save a game, you still had to put in your save game disc…hard drives are a hell of a lot better.
RPS: Yes they are. And presumably we won’t have to put in our IRQ and DMA settings, to get the sound working…
Al: Ohh, Config.Sys, Exec.bat, oh my god…. I’m so glad we don’t have those. Although, I’m bitching here, but the first games I played were on cassette tape, so it’s a hell of a lot better than that.
RPS: So you’re re-doing everything except for the script, is that right? You’re sticking to the original script but starting everything else from scratch?
Paul: Well actually, I think if we break past our goal, we’re actually going to be adding dialogue as well, so that’s something to look out for.
RPS: Al, will that be stuff that you originally had in mind or will this be brand new content like you’re writing right now?
Al: It would be new content, it will be additional materials, I guess that’s the way to say it.
RPS: So it’s not like there’s anything you wish you could have put in originally but you didn’t have space for, that you’ve gone back to.
Al: No, but there are things that over 25 years I have wished that I’d put in, and those will get in.
RPS: Do you think it’s going to be slightly more difficult to sell? I mean Larry’s very much a product of the 80s, all his spoofing is very much of the 80s. Do you think it’s harder to bring that across now?
Al: It’s an interesting question. I just read an article in the New York Times last week that said the biggest, hottest thing in Hollywood now are films about the 80s. So I think ‘Hey, I’m right in the mark, man’ (laughs). So I hope that’s true. I think part of it is the fact that a lot of the people who played my games at a, how can I say this, at a tender age, are now at the point when they can afford tablets and iPhones and things, and also afford to actually buy the product instead of stealing it like a lot of people did. I think we’re going to see a lot of support from people who remember the game fondly but maybe never finished it, because it was a difficult game to finish without a hit book or the internet.
RPS: Yeah. So you mentioned Tim Schafer and I think it’s interesting back in those days, maybe slightly later than the original Larry, but the rivalry between Sierra and LucasArts, a lot of it came down to deaths in games, what are you going to do about that?
Al: Y’know, there was never any rivalry between the game designers or the companies. I think there might have been a perceived rivalry from the point of the fans. I’d always look forward to whenever Lucas would ship a new game because it gave me something new to play. We swapped games back and forth all the time back then. I think you’re right about the death part, part of Larry, especially the first Larry, part of that is the dying part, although we got rid of that in later games. I think by Larry 3 it was difficult to die, by Larry 5 it was impossible, and 6 and 7, I don’t think there were any death scenes. It’s a different way of playing and we can work around it.
RPS: But of course with Larry and many other Sierra games it was pressing the wrong arrow key and falling off a cliff. I think that was probably fairly widely recognised as frustrating. Is that going to still be in there, are you going to have those deaths be possible?
Al: I will say some of them, we’re going to go on a case by case basis, but a lot of the deaths were just a way of telling people ‘you can’t really do that here, we don’t have any way of handling you walking forward into the camera because if you walk out into that street you’re going to get hit by the taxi every time, because there ‘aint no game over there’ (laughs). And the same way with the dark alleys, I could have put up a fence and had Larry just go walk up to a fence, and that was the end of it, but to me it was more fun to have him walk over and get beat up and then it’s like ‘oh yeah, well that’s funny, I guess I won’t do that any more’.
RPS: So what is it about Larry that you love so much?
Al: What I love is that he’s the alter-ego that I never had. My part in the game is, I’m the narrator. That voice, that god-like, all-knowing voice and stuff, the guy who always gets the last line is me, and Larry is this buffoon that I get to mock and make fun of, and what’s not to like?
RPS: So he’s obviously stuck with you, and when I spoke to you a couple of years ago we talked about how sad it was to watch what was happening to the licence. So can you talk about the moment when you realised you could have him back?
Al: Well, yeah, Paul contacted me and I said ‘Are you serious, you really think you can do it?’ and he said ‘Yeah, I think so.’ And then, Paul, how long did it take? It was like another six months or something or a year. It took forever to finally get it through the lawyers and get things done and I have to hand it to him, Paul really hung in there. He’s tenacious and he stuck with it until he got what he wanted, and here we are.
RPS: You worked on a bunch of other Sierra games, I know you worked on the Police Quest games, did lots of programming and dialogue for those. Do you have any ambition to bring… In your Kickstarter you’ve talked about wanting to bring back all those classic series, but is there any in particular that you have a real passion for, that you’d really like to give another chance to?
Al: In my book, the number one would be Space Quest because I just love Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe, I thought that humour was just… I thought it was better than mine, y’know (laughs). I really liked it a lot, I thought it was just that wonderful sardonic and creative and wry humour, I just loved it. I just love stuff like ‘Thanks for playing, you’ve been a real pantload’. That was one of my favourite lines in all games.
RPS: Would that be difficult to bring back because, I don’t want to get into personal issues, but those guys certainly had a falling out – I can’t remember how it all worked – I know there’s been some sort of torrid history there. Do you think that would be a game you could bring back and get them on board with?
Al: I’ll leave that one to Paul. Do you think you could get Mark and Scott to come back into the fold?
Paul: I already spoke to Scott. Scott’s down for Space Quest. Mark works for Pipeworks, which is a Foundation 9 company. Foundation 9 is a very large independent studio and Mark said that that would be a direct conflict of interest for him, but if you recall in the last Space Quest, which was Space Quest 6, it was all Scott and Josh.
Al: Josh Mandel. And Josh is in on board here.
Paul: Josh was already on board, so in my opinion Space Quest 6 was one of the funniest ones out of all of them, so I think to make either Space Quest 7 or to reboot Space Quest 1-6, it’s more of a legal right than anything else. I’ve been friends with Scott ever since they closed Sierra, and once we announced that we were doing Leisure Suit Larry, I called Scott immediately and I said ‘If we get the rights to Space Quest, will you hop on board and do this with us?’ and he said ‘Absolutely, yes.’
Al: That’s good news.
RPS: Although remaking the original Space Quest wouldn’t take long, it’s only about an hour and a half long I think! So Paul, something like the licence for Space Quest, which I believe is currently in the hands of Activision, who obviously don’t have any intention of doing anything with it, how difficult is that process to start?
Paul: What you’re saying is actually not true. It’s been licensed out already, and we’re in negotiations with the company that has it licensed out. And I want to say it’s looking good, but right now I’d give us 50/50.
RPS: Oh okay, that’s really interesting. I’m really surprised it’s been licensed out because it’s been dormant for what, twenty years?
Paul: Activision told us that they wanted $500,000 up front, and greater than 50% revenue share for those properties. I told them ‘good luck on getting that’, because I don’t think anybody’s going to pay that fee. I can tell you that they changed their tune about six months after that.
RPS: So also with King’s Quest, they’ve been uncharacteristically generous in allowing fan projects. Have you seen the project the Silver Lining?
Paul: The Silver Lining wasn’t available for sale…
RPS: That’s right, yes.
Paul:And in addition it wasn’t really a King’s Quest. In my opinion they did an injustice to the King’s Quest franchise.
RPS: That’s interesting, why do you think that?
Paul: I just don’t think it held true to Roberta’s vision, just like I don’t think the Leisure Suit Larrys that have come out after Al wasn’t involved held true to Al’s vision. And that’s why I refuse to work on a Leisure Suit Larry game if Al wasn’t involved. I refuse to work on a King’s Quest game if Roberta’s not involved.
RPS: Would Roberta be willing to be involved, she’s been out of the industry for a while hasn’t she?
Paul: I can’t speak for Roberta, but I can tell you that we’re currently talking to her and Ken.
RPS: It’s like getting the old gang back together.
Al: We’re putting the band back together!
RPS: One last gig!
Paul: I’m doing the best I can.
RPS: So obviously these games are really important to both of you, and we all know that the adventure genre is thriving and doing well. Are there any modern adventures that you play now?
Al: When I left the field I left games behind, so I have to admit I’m out of touch.
RPS: Do you think that’s a disadvantage or an advantage when you come back to remaking Larry?
Al: I think it’s both, I think it’s something I’ve got to work around, and I’ve got to grow over, but in a way there are some advantages too because I still remember how we did things and what people liked and didn’t like, and I’m sure that we will stay true to that original code, and if that’s what people are looking for, which it seems to be by the response to our Kickstarter campaign, then I think they’ll be pleased.
RPS: So I’m interested to know, why when, as you say, you left games, you left games – why was that? You were gaming from cassettes, so why did you move away from it?
Al: Well it’s interesting, in that when you cross over and instead of it being a hobby it becomes a job, suddenly it takes the joy out of gameplay because first of all, you’re really busy, I mean we worked our asses off at Sierra in the old days, and you didn’t really have time to play games just for your own fun. So you would play games, but you were always looking at them, studying them and trying to figure out what they were doing differently, so it became much more of work instead of play. You were analysing and trying to make sense of what the other game designers were doing, what they changed, get ideas from them, and things that they had done better than what we were doing, and so forth. So when it came to playing games it became much less fun and much more work. But, when I retired, suddenly all the games that I had loved to play, which were particularly adventure games, and humorous adventure games, vanished, and my alternatives were Halo and Warcraft. It was just like ‘Jeez, there’s nothing here that interests me.’ I played the occasional adventures over the years but it just became a thing of, ‘well, I think they’ve moved away from where I want to be.’
RPS: You’re trying to bring them back I guess, back to where you want them to be.
RPS: Thank you for your time.