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Adventure-Game Rock Stars Live in Conference

On August 24, 1990, CompuServe hosted an online discussion on adventure-game design which included Ron Gilbert, Noah Falstein, Bob Bates, Steve Meretzky, Mike Berlyn, Dave Lebling, Roberta Williams, Al Lowe, Corey and Lori Ann Cole, and Guruka Singh Khalsa. This is, needless to say, an incredible gathering of adventuring star power. In fact, I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard of its like in any other (virtual) place. Bob Bates, who has become a great friend of this blog in many ways, found the conference transcript buried away on some remote corner of his hard drive, and was kind enough to share it with me so that I could share it with you today.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably recognize all of the names I’ve just listed, with the likely exception only of Khalsa. But, just to anchor this thing in time a bit better, let me take a moment to describe where each of them was and what he or she was working on that August.

Ron Gilbert and Noah Falstein were at Lucasfilm Games (which was soon to be renamed LucasArts). Gilbert had already created the classic Maniac Mansion a few years before, and was about to see published his most beloved creation of all, one that would have as great an impact among his fellow designers as it would among gamers in general: The Secret of Monkey Island. Falstein had created Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for Lucasfilm in 1989. Their publisher had also recently released Brian Moriarty’s Loom, whose radically simplified interface, short length, and relatively easy puzzles were prompting much contemporaneous debate.

Bob Bates, Steve Meretzky, Mike Berlyn, and Dave Lebling had all written multiple games for the now-defunct Infocom during the previous decade. Bates had recently co-founded Legend Entertainment, where he was working on his own game Timequest and preparing to publish Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls, Meretzky’s first post-Infocom game and Legend’s first game ever, in a matter of weeks. Berlyn had been kicking around the industry since leaving Infocom in 1985, creating perhaps most notably Tass Times in Tonetown for Interplay; he was just finishing up a science-fiction epic called Altered Destiny for Accolade, and would shortly thereafter embark on the Les Manley games, a pair of Leisure Suit Larry clones, for the same publisher. Lebling was at something of a loose end after the shuttering of Infocom the previous year, unsure whether he even wanted to remain in the games industry; he would eventually decide that the answer to that question was no, and would never design another game.

Roberta Williams, Al Lowe, Corey and Lori Ann Cole, and Guruka Singh Khalsa were all working at Sierra. Williams was in the latter stages of making her latest King’s Quest, the first to use 256-color VGA graphics and a point-and-click interface, and the first to be earmarked for CD-ROM as a “talkie.” Al Lowe was, as usual, hard at work on the latest Leisure Suit Larry game, which also utilized Sierra’s newer, prettier, parser-less engine. The Coles were just finishing up Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire, which would become the last Sierra game in 16-color EGA and the last with a parser.

Khalsa is the only non-designer here, and, as already noted, the only name here with which longtime readers are unlikely to be familiar. He was another of those unsung heroes to be found behind the scenes at so many developers. At Sierra, he played a role that can perhaps best be compared to that played by the similarly indispensable Jon Palace at Infocom. As the “producer” of Sierra’s adventure games, he made sure the designers had the support they needed, acted as a buffer between them and the more business-oriented people, and gently pushed his charges to make their games just a little bit better in various ways. In keeping with his unsung status, he answers only one question here.

We find all of our participants grappling with the many tensions that marked their field in 1990: the urgent need to attract new players in the face of escalating development budgets; the looming presence of CD-ROM and other disruptive new technologies just over the horizon; the fate of text in this emerging multimedia age; the frustration of not always being able to do truly innovative or meaningful work, thanks to a buying public that largely just seemed to want more of the same old fantasy and comedy. It’s intriguing to see how the individual designers respond to these issues here, just as it is to see how those responses took concrete form in the games themselves. By no means is the group of one mind; there’s a spirited back-and-forth on many questions.

I’ve cleaned up the transcript that follows for readability’s sake, editing out heaps of extraneous comments, correcting spelling and grammar, and rejiggering the flow a bit to make everything more coherent. I’ve also added a few footnotes to clarify things or to insert quick comments of my own. Mostly, though, I’ve managed resist the urge to pontificate on any of what’s said here. You all already know my opinions on many of the topics that are raised. Today, I’m going to let the designers speak for themselves. I hope you’ll find their discussion as interesting and enjoyable as I do.


 

Let’s plunge right into the questions. Before I start, I’d like to thank Eeyore, Flying Gerbil, Steve Horton, Tsunami, Hercules, Mr. Adventure, and Randy Snow for submitting questions… and I apologize for mangling their questions with my editing. And now — drum roll! — on to the first question!

Imagine ourselves five years down the road, with all the technological developments that implies: CD-ROMs, faster machines, etc. Describe what, for you, the “ideal” adventure will look like. How will it be different from current adventures?

Roberta Williams: I think that “five years down the road” is actually just a year or two away. Meaning that a year or two from now, adventure games are going to have a very slick, sophisticated, professional look, feel, and sound to them, and that that’s the way they’re going to stay for a while — standardization, if you will. I mean, how can you improve on realistic images that look like paintings or photographs? How can you improve on CD-quality voices and music? How can you improve on real movement caught with a movie camera, or drawn by a professional animator? That’s the kind of adventure game that the public is going to start seeing within a year or two. Once adventure games reach a certain level of sophistication in look and feel, standardization will set in, which will actually be a boon for all concerned, both buyers and developers alike. After that, the improvements will primarily be in the performance on a particular machine, but the look will stay essentially the same for a while.

Dave Lebling: But if those wonderful pictures and hi-fi sound are driven by a clunky parser or a mythical “parser-less interface,” is this a big improvement? I think not. We can spend $2 million or $5 million developing a prettier version of Colossal Cave. Let’s improve the story and the interface! That doesn’t have to mean text adventures, but there’s more to adventure games than pictures.

Steve Meretzky: I think that in the future the scope of games won’t be limited by hardware but by the marketplace. Unless the market for adventure games expands, it won’t be economical to create super-large environments, even though the hardware is there to support them.

Mike Berlyn: Well, I think that technology can create products which drive the market and create end users — people who need or want to experience something they could experience only on a computer. In the future, I would like to explore “plot” as a structure, something which is currently impossible due to the state of the current technology. Plot cannot be a variable until storage increases and engines get smarter. I can easily see a plot that becomes a network of possibilities.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We hope as well that the improvements will be in story and design as well as flash: richer stories, more realistic character interaction, etc. Technology, beyond a certain point which we’ve already reached, really isn’t a big deal. Creativity, and an understanding of the differences between “interactive movies” and games is! The move to professional writers and game designers in the industry is helping.

Ron Gilbert: I think that plot has nothing to do with technology. They are almost unrelated. It’s not CD-ROM or VGA that is going to make the difference, it’s learning how to tell a story. Anyone who is any good can tell a great story in 160 X 200-resolution, 4-color graphics on two disks.

Roberta Williams: It’s not that I don’t think a good plot is important! Obviously it is.

Dave Lebling: I didn’t mean to accuse you of not caring about plot. You of all people know about that! I just think the emphasis on flash is a symptom of the fact that we know how to do flash. Just give us a bigger machine or CD-ROM, and, wham, flash! What we don’t know how to do is plot. I don’t think today’s plots feel more “real” than those of five or eight years ago. Will they be better in five years? I hope so, but I’m not sure. We can’t just blindly duplicate other media without concentrating on the interactivity and control that make ours special. If we work on improving control and the illusion that what we interact with is as rich as reality, then we can do something that none of those other media can touch.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We have never really used the computer as a medium in own right.

Steve Meretzky: You haven’t used it to contact the spirit world?1

Corey and Lorin Ann Cole: There are things that can be done on a computer that can’t be done with other mediums. Unfortunately, the trend seems to be away from the computer and towards scanned images and traditional film and animation techniques.2 If this trend continues, it may be a long time before we truly discover what can be done uniquely with the computer medium. One small example: the much-chastised saved game is a wonderful time- and mind-travel technique that can be a rich tool instead of an unfortunate necessity.

Bob Bates: I agree. You can’t ask a painter at the Art Institute of Chicago to paint you a different scene. You can’t ask a singer at the Met to sing you a different song. (Well, I guess you could, but they frown on requests.) The essence of a computer game is that the player controls the action. The point is to make beautiful music and art that helps the player’s sense of involvement in the game.

I have noticed that a lot of games coming out now are in 256 colors. Does this mean that 256-color VGA is going to be the standard? Has anyone thought about 256 colors in 640 X 480 yet? And how does anyone know who has what?

Bob Bates: The market research on who has what is abominable. As for us, we are releasing our titles with hi-res EGA, which gives us really good graphics on a relatively popular standard, as well as very nice text letters instead of the big clunky ones.

Steve Meretzky: I often get big clunky letters from my Aunt Matilda.

Guruka Singh Khalsa: We’ve been doing a bit of research on who has what hardware, and an amazing number of Sierra customers have VGA cards. Looks like around 60 percent right now. As for 640 X 480 in 256 colors: there’s no hardware standard for that resolution since it’s not an official VGA mode. You won’t see games in that resolution until the engines are more powerful — got to shove them pixels around! — and until it’s an official mode. All SVGA cards use somewhat different calls.

Dave Lebling: The emerging commercial standard is a 386 with VGA and 2 to 4 megs of memory, with a 40-meg hard drive. The home standard tends to lag the commercial one by a few years. But expect this soon, with Windows as the interface.

Does anyone have any plans to develop strictly for or take advantage of the Windows environment?

Dave Lebling: Windows is on the leading edge of the commercial-adoption wave. The newest Windows is the first one that’s really usable to write serious software. There are about 1 million copies of Windows out there. No one is going to put big bucks into it yet. But in a few years, yes, because porting will be easier, and there is a GUI already built, virtual memory, etc., etc. But not now.

With the coming parser-less interfaces and digitized sound, it seems as if text may eventually disappear completely from adventures. Once, of course, adventures were all text. What was gained and what was lost by this shift? Are adventures still a more “literate” form of computer game?

Bob Bates: Well, of course text has become a dirty word of sorts in the business. But I think the problem has always been the barrier the keyboard presents as an input device for those who can’t type. Plus the problems an inadequate or uncaring game designer can create for the player when he doesn’t consider alternate inputs as solutions to puzzles. I think there will always be words coming across the screen from the game. We hope we have solved this with our new interface, but it’s hard for people to judge that since our first game won’t be out for another month…

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Text will not disappear. Nor should it. We will see text games, parser-less games, and non-text games. And who cares about being “literate”; fun is what matters! I like words. Lori likes words. But words are no longer enough if one also likes to eat — and we do. We also like graphics and music and those other fun things too, so it’s not too big a loss.

Roberta Williams: It’s true that in books stories can be more developed, involving, and interesting than in movies. I believe that there is still room for interactive books. Hopefully there is a company out there who will forget about all the “video” stuff and just concentrate on good interactive stories in text, and, as such, will have more developed stories than the graphic adventure games. But as we progress adventure games in general are going to become more like interactive movies. The movie industry is a larger and more lucrative business than the book industry. For the most part, the adventure-game business will go along with that trend. Currently adventure games are the most literate of computer games, but that may change as more and more text will be lost in the coming years, to be replaced by speech, sound effects, and animation. But I do predict that some company out there will see a huge opportunity in bringing back well-written, high-quality interactive books. It will be for a smaller audience, but still well worth the effort.

Dave Lebling: I think you’re too  optimistic about “some company” putting out text products. We are moving from interactive books to interactive movies. I’m not optimistic about the commercial survival of text except in very small doses.3 Unlike in science fiction, you don’t have to follow a trend until it goes asymptotic. Text won’t go away, but its role will be reduced in commercial adventures. Graphics and sound are here to stay.

Al Lowe: With the coming of talkies, it seems as if all those wonderful dialog cards disappeared! You know, the ones that make silent movies so literate? It’s a visual medium! No one asks for silent movies; most Americans won’t even watch a black-and-white movie. Yes, text-only games are more “literate.” So?

Mike Berlyn: As far as the future of text is concerned, my money is on it sticking around. But I’m not sure it’s at all necessary in these kinds of games. The adventure I’m just finishing up has a little bit of text that reiterates what is obvious on the screen, and manages to add to the player’s inputs in other ways to a create fuller experience. But I still don’t think it’s necessary. I’ve done two completely text-less designs, though neither made it to the market.

Bob Bates: I don’t think it’s the loss of text as output that creates a problem for the designer; I think it’s text as input. It’s hard to design tough puzzles that can be solved just by pointing and clicking at things. And if there are no puzzles — tough puzzles — you’re just watching a movie on a very small screen. The days of the text-only adventure are over. Graphics are here to stay, and that’s not a bad thing, as long as they supplement the story instead of trying to replace it.

We’ve seen fantasy adventures, science-fiction adventures, mystery adventures, humorous adventures. Are there any new settings or themes for adventures? Is there any subject or theme that you’ve always wanted to put in an adventure but never had the chance?

Al Lowe: I’ve had ideas for a Wall Street setting for a game, but somehow I can’t get out of this Larry rut. I’d also like to do a very serious game — something without one cheap laugh, just to see if I could. Probably couldn’t, though. A serious romance would be good too.

Roberta Williams: There should be as many settings or themes for adventure games as there are for fictionalized books and movies. After all, an adventure game is really just an interactive story with puzzles and exploration woven into it. There are many themes that I personally would like to do, and hopefully will someday: an historical or series of historical adventure games; a horror game; an archaeological game of some sort; possibly a western. In between King’s Quests, of course.

Noah Falstein: I’ve always wanted to do a time-travel game with the following features: no manual save or load, it’s built automatically into the story line as a function of your time-travel device; the opportunity to play through a sequence with yourself in a later — and then earlier — time; and the ability to go back and change your changes, ad infinitum. Of course, the reason I’m mentioning all this is that I — and others here — have fried our brains trying to figure out how this could be accomplished. We’d rather see someone else do it right. Or die trying.

Ad infinitum? Won’t that take a lot of memory?

Noah Falstein: Recursion!

Dave Lebling: Gosh, my fantasy is your fantasy! I’ve always wanted to do a game based on Fritz Leiber’s Change War stories — you know, “tomorrow we go back and nuke ancient Rome!” Funny thing is, I’ve always run up against the same problem you ran up against.

Mike Berlyn: My fantasy is to finish a game that my wife Muffy and I were working on for the — sniff! — dead Infocom. It was a reality-based game that had a main character going through multiple/parallel lives, meeting people he’d met before but who were different this time through. In that way, the relationships would be different, the plot would be different, and their lives would interact differently.

Steve Meretzky: In my fantasy, I answer the door and Goldie Hawn is standing there wearing… oh, we’re talking adventure games now, aren’t we? A lot of the genres I was going to mention have already been mentioned. But one is historical interactive nonfiction. I know that Stu Galley has always wanted to do a game in which you play Paul Revere in April of 1775. And before I die I’m going to do a Titanic game.4 Also, in my ongoing effort to offend every man, woman, and child in the universe, someday I’d like to write an Interactive Bible, which would be an irreverent comedy, of course. Also, I’d like to see a collection of “short story” adventure games for all those ideas which aren’t big enough to be a whole game.5

Bible Quest: So You Want to Be a God?. I like it, I like it.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Ah, but someone will sue over the trademark…6

Bob Bates: The problem of course is marketing. The kinds of games we want to write aren’t always the kinds of games that will sell. This presents something of a quandary for those of us who like to eat.

This question was submitted by Tsunami, and I’ll let him ask in his own words: “Virtually every game I have played on my computer is at least partially tongue-in-cheek. What I am interested in is games with mature themes, or at least a more mature approach to their subjects. Games that, like good movies or plays, really scare a player, really make them feel a tragedy, or even make them angry. What are each of you doing to try to push games to this next level of human interaction?”

Steve Meretzky: Well, I think I already did that with A Mind Forever Voyaging, and it did worse commercially speaking than any other game I’ve ever done. As Bob just said, we have to eat. I’d much rather write a Mind Forever Voyaging than a Leather Goddesses of Phobos, but unless I become independently wealthy, or unless some rich benefactor wants to underwrite such projects, or unless the marketplace changes a lot, I don’t think I’ll be doing a game like A Mind Forever Voyaging in the near future. Sigh.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Computers are so stupid that even the smartest game tends to do silly things. So, it’s easier to write a silly game. And the development process on a humorous game tends to be more fun. Quest for Glory II: Trial By Fire is fundamentally a very serious game in terms of story line, but we kept lots of silly stuff in to break up the tension. I call it the “roller-coaster effect.” We want the player to get extremely intense about the game at points, but then have a chance to catch his or her breath with comic relief and plain fun.

Bob Bates: My games are usually fairly “mature,” but when 90 percent of what a player tries to do in a game is wrong, you have to keep him interested when he is not solving a puzzle. The easiest way to do this is with humor; you don’t want him mad at you, after all. But I agree that we all should strive to create emotions in the player like what we all felt when Floyd died in Planetfall.

Roberta Williams: I agree with the sentiment that most adventure games, at least up to now, have been not quite “serious” in their approach to the subject matter at hand. I think the reason for that, for the most part, is that professional writers or storytellers have not had their hands in the design of a game. It’s been mostly programmers who have been behind them. I’m not a professional writer either, but I’m trying to improve myself in that area. With The Colonel’s Bequest, I did attempt a new theme, a murder mystery, and tried to make it more mature in its subject matter — more “plot” oriented. I attempted to put in classic “scare” tactics and suspense. I tried to put in different levels of emotion, from repulsion to sadness to hilarity. Whether I accomplished those goals is up to the player experiencing the game. At least I tried!

Noah Falstein: I venture to predict that we all intend to push games this way, or want to but can’t afford it — or can’t convince a publisher to afford it. But I’ll toot the Lucasfilm horn a bit; imagine the Star Wars fanfare here. One way we’re trying to incorporate real stories into games is to use real storytellers. Next year, we have a game coming out by Hal Barwood, who’s been a successful screenwriter, director, and producer for years. His most well-known movies probably are the un-credited work he did on Close Encounters and Dragonslayer, which he co-wrote and produced. He’s also programmed his own Apple II games in 6502 assembly in his spare time. I’ve already learned a great deal about pacing, tension, character, and other “basic” techniques that come naturally — or seem to — to him. I highly recommend such collaborations to you all. I think we’ve got a game with a new level of story on the way.7

Mike Berlyn: I disagree with the idea that hiring professional storytellers from other media will solve our problems for us. Creating emotions is the goal here, if I understood the question. It isn’t whether we write humor or horror, it’s how well we do it. This poses a serious problem. Interactivity is the opposite of the thing that most… well, all storytellers, regardless of medium, require to create emotion. Emotion is created by manipulation. And it is impossible to manipulate emotions when you don’t know where the player has been and you don’t know where the player is going. In linear fiction, where you know what the “player” has just experienced; you can deliberately and continuously set them up. This is the essence of drama, humor, horror, etc. Doing this in games requires a whole different approach. Utilizing an experienced linear writer only tends to make games less game-ish, less interactive, and more linear. In a linear game like Loom, you’re not providing an interactive story or an adventure game. All you’re doing is making the player work to see a movie.

Dave Lebling: Well, emotion also comes from identification with the character in the story. You can’t easily identify in a serious way with a character who looks like a 16 X 16-pixel sprite.8 If he or she is silly-looking, he or she isn’t much more silly-looking than if he’s serious-looking: for example, Larry Laffer versus Indy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. So, you are at a disadvantage being serious in graphical games. Better graphics will improve that eventually. But even so, I think Bob hit the point perfectly: the player does a lot of silly things, even if there is no parser — running into rocks in the graphic games, for example — and you can’t stay serious. The other thing is that, in my experience, serious games don’t sell. Infocom’s more serious games sold poorly. Few others have tried, and most of those have sold poorly too.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: A really good game — or story — elicits emotions rather than creating them. A good design opens up the player’s imagination instead of forcing them along a path. A frustrated player is too busy being angry at the computer to experience the wonder and mystery of his or her character and the game’s world. By having fair puzzles and “open” stories, we allow players to emote and imagine.

Okay, now we turn from software to hardware. One of the most striking developments over the last few years has been the growing use of MS-DOS machines for game development. This has led some Amiga and Mac owners to complain that there aren’t any good adventures out for their machines, or that the games that are out for those platforms don’t make good use of their full graphics and sound capabilities. How can this problem be solved?

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Well, I just about went broke trying to develop Atari ST software a few years ago. This was what made it possible to pull up roots and come to Sierra to do games. But I think the real value of all the alternative platforms has been to force IBM and the clone-makers to play catch-up. Myself, I’m waiting for ubiquitous CD-ROM and telecom. I’d really like to be doing multiplayer games in a few years. In the meantime, the cold hard reality is that IBM clones is where the money is — and money is a good thing.

Roberta Williams: Ha! We at Sierra, probably the most guilty of developing our games on MS-DOS machines, are trying to rectify that problem. This past year, we have put teams of programmers on the more important non-MS-DOS platforms to implement our new game-development system in the best way possible for those machines. Emphasis is on the unique capabilities of each machine, and to truly be of high quality on each of them. Our new Amiga games have been shipping for several months now, and have been favorably received — and our Mac games are nearly ready.

Dave Lebling: Get an installed base of 10 million Macs or Amigas and you’ll see plenty of games for them. Probably even fewer are needed, since programmers have the hots for those platforms. But in reality what you need is companies like Sierra that can leverage their development system to move to different platforms. As Windows and 386-based machines become the IBM standard, the differences among the platforms become less significant, and using an object-oriented development system lets you port relatively easily, just like in the old days. Graphics will still be a problem, as the transforms from one machine to another will still be a pain.

Al Lowe: Money talks. When Mac games outsell MS-DOS games, you’ll see Mac-designed games ported to PCs. When Amiga games are hot, etc. In other words, as long as MS-DOS sales are 80 percent or more of the market, who can afford to do otherwise?

Mike Berlyn: I think we all want our games on as many systems as possible, but in reality the publishers are the ones who make the decisions.

When you design a game, do you decide how hard it’s going to be first, or does the difficulty level just evolve?

Ron Gilbert: I know that I have a general idea of how hard I want the game to be. Almost every game I have done has ended up being a little longer and harder than I would have liked.

Noah Falstein: I agree. I’ve often put in puzzles that I thought were easy, only to find in play-testing that the public disagreed. But since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade I firmly believe that one good way to go is to put in multiple solutions to any puzzles that are showstoppers, and to make the remaining ones pretty easy. I think that’s the best for the players.

Dave Lebling: I think alternate solution are a red herring because you can’t make them radically different in difficulty or the easier one will always be found first.

Noah Falstein: But if you provide incentives to replay the game, you can make both beginners happy, who will find the easy alternative, and experienced gamers happy, who will want to find every solution…

Dave Lebling: Yes, but what percentage of people replay any game? What percentage even finish?

Steve Meretzky: Games that are intended for beginners — e.g., Wishbringer — are designed to be really easy, and games intended for veterans — e.g., Spellbreaker — are designed to be ball-busters. But since of course you end up getting both types for any game, my own theory is to start out with easy puzzles, have some medium-tough puzzles in the mid-game, and then wrap it up with the real whoppers. (Don’t ask me what the Babel-fish puzzle was doing right near the beginning of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

Roberta Williams: Usually the decision of how difficult the game is going to be is made about the time that the design actually begins. And that decision is based on who the main player of the game is going to be. In other words, if it’s an adventure game for children, then obviously the game will be easier. If it’s for families, the game will be harder than for children, but easier than a game strictly for adults. If it’s a game with adults in mind, then the difficulty level lies with the designer as he or she weaves the various puzzles into the plot of the story. I think even then, though, the decision of how difficult it’s going to be is made around the start of the design. Speaking personally, I usually have a good sense of which puzzles are going to be more difficult and which ones are easier to solve. There have been a few times when I miscalculated a puzzle. For instance, in King’s Quest II I thought the bridle-and-snake puzzle was fairly straightforward, but no, it wasn’t. And in The Colonel’s Bequest I didn’t think that discovering the secret passage in the house would be as difficult for some people as it turned out to be.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We try to keep the puzzles on the easy side in the sense of being fair; hints are somewhere in the game. But sometimes the best-laid plans of designers and developers go out the window when programming push-time comes, to mix several metaphors. But we definitely plan difficulty level in advance. The Quest for Glory series was intended to be somewhat on the easy side as adventure games go because we were introducing the concept of role-playing at the same time.

Dave Lebling: I think it’s relatively easy to make a game really hard or really easy. What’s tough is the middle-ground game. They tend to slop over to one extreme or the other, sometimes both in different puzzles, and you get a mishmash.

Mike Berlyn: I tend to design games that have various levels of difficulty within themselves, and so can appeal to a broad range of players. Like Steve, I like to open with an easy one and then mix up the middle game, saving the toughest stuff for the endgame.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We made a real effort to graduate the puzzles in Quest for Glory I, easier ones in the early phases.

Al Lowe: Does anyone else feel we should lighten up on our difficulty level so as to attract a broader audience and broaden our base of players?

Mike Berlyn: Making games easier isn’t going to attract more players. What will is designing and implementing them better.

Roberta Williams: Perhaps a parser-less interface would help. But I still think that each game should be thought out in advance as to who the target audience is, and then go from there on difficulty level.

Bob Bates: I agree that what is needed is not easier puzzles. I think that players want tough but fair puzzles. Where’s the rush that comes from solving an easy puzzle? What will keep them coming back for more?

Dave Lebling: One person’s easy puzzle is another’s never-solved brain-buster. There need to be a range of games and a range of puzzles in each game. Even Wishbringer, Infocom’s “easiest” game, had huge numbers of people stuck on the “easiest” puzzles.

Adventure designs have recently been criticized for becoming shorter and/or easier. Do you agree with this criticism, and, if so, how do you change a design to make a product longer and/or harder? And are harder games commercially viable?

Dave Lebling: Games are already too easy and not easy enough, and other paradoxes. Meaning that the intentional puzzles are getting too easy, and the unintentional ones — caused by size limitations, laziness, lousy parsers, bugs, etc. — are still too hard. Harder games are commercially viable, but only if the unintentional difficulty is reduced. We aren’t real good at that yet.

Roberta Williams: It may be true, to a certain extent, that adventure games have become shorter and/or easier than in the past. Four to ten years ago, adventure games were primarily text-oriented, and, as such, could be more extensive in scope, size, and complexity. Since the introduction of graphics, animation, and sound — and, coming up, speech — it is much more difficult, if not impossible, to achieve the same sort of scope that the earlier adventure games were able to accomplish. The reason for this is mainly limitations of memory, disk space, time, and cost. We adventure-game developers increasingly have to worry about cramming in beautiful graphics, realistic animation, wonderful sound, and absorbing plots, along with as many places to explore as possible, alternate paths or choices, and interesting puzzles. There is just so much space to put all that in. Something has to give. Even CD technology will not totally solve that problem. Though there is a very large disk capacity with CD, there is still a relatively small memory capacity. Also, the way the adventure-game program needs to be arranged on the CD creates problems. And as usual, with the new CD capabilities, we adventure-game developers are sure to create the most beautiful graphics you’ve ever seen, the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard, etc., etc. And that uses up disk space, even on CD.

Mike Berlyn: Shorter? Yeah, I suppose some of the newer games, whose names will remain untyped, are easier, shorter, etc. But unfortunately, they aren’t cheaper to make. I hate to tell you how much Altered Destiny is going to cost before it’s done. Accolade and myself have over ten man-years in this puppy, and a cast of many is creating it. When I created Oo-Topos or Cyborg or even Suspended, the time and money for development were a fraction of what this baby will cost. In addition, games like King’s Quest IV are larger, give more bang for the buck, and outshine many of the older games.

Steve Meretzky: A few years ago, I totally agreed with the statement that adventure games were getting too short and easy. Then I did Zork Zero, which was massive and ultimately quite hard. A good percentage of the feedback distilled down to “Too big!” It just took too long to play, and it was too hard to keep straight everything you had to do to win the game. Plus, of course, it was a major, major effort to design and implement and debug such a huge game. So, I’ve now come to the conclusion that a nice, average, 50-to-100-room, 20-to-30-hours-of-play-time, medium-level-of-difficulty game is just about right.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: There is plenty of room left for easier games, especially since most “hard” games are hard only because they are full of unfair outguess-the-designer — or programmer or parser — puzzles. Nobody wants to play a game and feel lost and frustrated. Most of us get enough of that in our daily lives! We want smaller, richer games rather than large, empty ones, and we want to see puzzles that further the story rather than ones that are just thrown in to make the game “hard.”

Al Lowe: I’ve been trying for years to make ’em longer and harder!

Groan…

Al Lowe: But seriously, I have mixed emotions. I work hard on these things, and I hate to think that most people will never see the last half of them because they give up in defeat. On the other hand, gamers want meaty puzzles, and you don’t want to disappoint your proven audience. I think many games will become easier and easier, if only to attract more people to the medium. Of course, hard games will always be needed too, to satisfy the hardcore addicts. Geez, what a cop-out answer!

Bob Bates: You have to give the player his money’s worth, and if you can just waltz through a game, then all you have is an exercise in typing or clicking. The problem is that the definition of who the player is is changing. In trying to reach a mass market, some companies are getting away from our puzzle roots. The quandary here is that this works. The big bucks are in the mass market, and those people don’t want tough puzzles. The designers who stay behind and cater to the puzzle market may well be painting themselves into a niche.

Noah Falstein: Al and Bob have eloquently given the lead-in I was intending. But I’d like to go farther and say that we’re all painting ourselves into a corner if we keep catering to the 500,000 or so people that are regular players — and, more importantly, buyers — of adventure games. It’s like the saber-toothed tiger growing over-specialized. There are over 15 million IBM PC owners out there, and most of them have already given up on us because the games are too… geeky. Sorry, folks! Without mentioning that game that’s looming over this discussion, we’ve found that by making a very easy game, we’ve gotten more vehement, angry letters than ever before — as well as more raves from people who never played or enjoyed such games before. It seems to be financially worthwhile even now, and if more of us cater to this novice crowd, with better stories instead of harder puzzles, there will be a snowball effect. I think this is worth working towards, and I hope some of you will put part of your efforts into this. There’s always still some room for the “standard-audience” games. Interestingly enough, 60 to 100 rooms and 20 to 30 hours is precisely the niche we arrived at too! But let’s put out at least one more accessible game each year.

Dave Lebling: Most of the points I wanted to make have been made, and made well, but I’d like to add one more. What about those 20 million or more Nintendo owners out there? What kinds of games will hook them, if any? Have they written us off? I don’t think our fraction of the IBM market is quite as small as Noah’s figures make it look. Many of those IBM machines are not usable for games by policy, as they are in corporate settings. But all of the Nintendos are in home settings. Sure, they don’t have keyboards, but if there was a demand for our sort of game — a “puzzle” game, for want of a better word — there would be a keyboard-like interface or attachment, like the silly gun or the power glove. There isn’t. Why? Are we too geeky? Are puzzles and even the modicum of text that is left too much? We will have the opportunity to find out when the new game systems with keyboards start appearing in the US.

What do you all think about the idea of labeling difficulty levels and/or estimated playing time on the box, like Infocom used to do at one time?

Steve Meretzky: That was a pretty big failure. As was said earlier about puzzles, one person’s easy is another person’s hard.

Al Lowe: Heh, heh…

Steve Meretzky: For example, I found Suspended to be pretty easy, having a mind nearly as warped as Berlyn’s, but many people consider it one of Infocom’s hardest.

Bob Bates: The other Infocommies here can probably be more accurate, but my recollection is that labeling a game “advanced” scared off people, and labeling a game “easy” or “beginner” turned off lots of people too. So most of the games wound up being released as “standard,” until they dropped the scheme altogether. Still, I think some sort of indication on a very easy game, like the ones Noah was talking about, is in order. The customer has a right to know what he is purchasing.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: But Loom was rated as an easy game, and people who were stumped on a puzzle felt like this meant they were dumb or something.

Mike Berlyn: Good point! I’m not sure that labeling a product as being easy, medium, or difficult is a real solution. I know some games which were labeled “beginner” level were too tough for me. What we as designers need to do is write better, fairer, more rounded games that don’t stop players from exploring, that don’t close off avenues. It isn’t easy, but it’s sure my goal, and I like to think that others share this goal.

Okay, this is the last question. What is your favorite adventure game and why?

Noah Falstein: This will sound like an ad, but our audience constitutes a mass market. Ron Gilbert’s next game, The Secret of Monkey Island, is the funniest and most enjoyable adventure game I’ve ever played, including the others our company has done. I’ve laughed out loud reading and rereading the best scenes.

Steve Meretzky: Based simply on the games I’ve had the most fun playing, it’s a tie between Starcross — the first ever adventure game in my genre of choice, science fiction — and the vastly ignored and underrated Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It.

Roberta Williams: I hate to say it, but I don’t play many adventure games, including our own! I really love adventure games, though. It was this love of adventure gaming that brought me into this business. However, nowadays I’m so busy, what with working on games of my own, helping my husband run the company, taking care of the kids and the house, and doing other extracurricular activities, that I literally don’t have time to play adventure games — and we all know how much time it does take to play them! Of the adventure games that I’ve played and/or seen, I like the games that Lucasfilm produces; I have a lot of respect for them. And I also enjoy the Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry series that my company, Sierra, produces. Of my own games, I always seem to favor the game I’m currently working on since I’m most attached to it at that given moment. Right now, that would be King’s Quest V. But aside from that, I am particularly proud of The Colonel’s Bequest since it was a departure for me, and very interesting and complicated to do. I am also proud of Mixed-Up Mother Goose, especially the new version coming out. And looking way back, I still have fond memories of Time Zone, for any of you who may remember that one.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Of adventure games, we liked the original mainframe Zork and Space Quest III. But our favorite games are Dungeon Master and Rogue, the only games we keep going back to replay. As for our favorite of all two games we’ve done, we’re particularly proud of what we are doing with Quest for Glory II: Trial By Fire. We’re also proud of the first game, but we think Trial by Fire is going to be really great. Okay, end of commercial, at least as soon as I say, “Buy our game!” But seriously, we’re pleased with what we’ve done with the design.

Bob Bates: “You are standing outside a white house. There is a mailbox here.”

Mike Berlyn: This is my least favorite question in the world. (Well, okay, I could think up some I’d like less.) But it’s a toss-up between A Mind Forever Voyaging, Starcross, and the soon-to-be-forgotten masterpiece, Scott Adams’s Pirate Adventure. Yoho.

Dave Lebling: Hitchhiker’s Guide and Trinity. Both well thought-out, with great themes. But beyond those, the original Adventure. I just played it a little bit last night, and I still get a thrill from it. We owe a lot to Will Crowther and Don Woods, and I think that’s an appropriate sentiment to close with.


  1. One of my favorite things about this transcript is the way that Steve Meretzky and Al Lowe keep making these stupid jokes, and everybody just keeps ignoring them. I fancy I can almost hear the sighs… 

  2. It’s worth noting that the trend the Coles describe as “unfortunate” was exactly the direction in which Sierra, their employer, was moving in very aggressive fashion. The Coles thus found themselves blowing against the political winds in designing their games their way. Perhaps not coincidentally, they were also designing the best games coming out of Sierra during this period. 

  3. This was not what many participating in the conference probably wanted to hear, but it wins the prize of being the most prescient single statement of the evening. Note that Lebling not only predicted the complete commercial demise of text adventures, but he also predicted that they would survive as a hobbyist endeavor; the emphasis on the word “commercial” is original. 

  4. Steve Meretzky’s perennial Titanic proposal, which he pitched to every publisher he ever worked with, became something of an industry in-joke. There’s just no market for such a game, insisted each of the various publishers. When James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic became the first ever to top $1 billion at the box office, and a modest little should-have-been-an-obscurity from another design team called Titanic: Adventure Out of Time rode those coattails to sales of 1 million copies, the accusations flew thick and fast from Meretzky’s quarter. But to no avail; he still hasn’t gotten to make his Titanic game. On the other hand, he’s nowhere near death, so there’s still time to fulfill his promise… 

  5. Meretzky had pitched both of these ideas as well to Infocom without success. In the longer term, however, he would get one of his wishes, at least after a fashion. “Short stories” have become the norm in modern interactive fiction, thanks largely to the Interactive Fiction Competition and its guideline that it should be possible to play an entrant to completion within two hours. 

  6. Legal threats from the makers of the board game HeroQuest had recently forced the Coles to change the name of their burgeoning series of adventure/CRPG hybrids from the perfect Hero’s Quest to the rather less perfect Quest for Glory. Obviously the fresh wound still smarted. 

  7. After some delays, the game Falstein is talking about here would be released in 1992 as Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. It would prove to be a very good adventure game, if not quite the medium-changer Falstein describes. 

  8. It’s interesting to see Lebling still using the rhetoric from Infocom’s iconic early advertising campaigns

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2018 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards

The scene of Larry's final conquest plays homage to Softporn's famous cover art.

Larry’s dream girl, who also features on the Leisure Suit Larry box cover, pays homage to Softporn‘s famous cover art.

Ken Williams had always loved Softporn, right from the day he first discovered it and spent three or four hours obsessively playing it. It became on that day the only adventure game, ever, that he sat down and solved all by himself, just like any ordinary fan. Still, while Softporn turned into a huge early hit for Sierra and helped to garner for the company some of its first national attention via an article in Time magazine, its shelf life was relatively short. Right from the beginning its text-only presentation — it was the only text-only game of any sort ever published by Sierra — placed it decidedly at odds with the rest of the company’s catalog. And not only was it an all-text adventure, but it wasn’t even a very sophisticated all-text adventure at that; it was a painfully slow BASIC-driven experience with a two-word parser. And then there was that cover art, with Roberta Williams, who by 1983 had become the wholesome centerpiece of much of Sierra’s public relations, posed topless in a jacuzzi with two other women and a mustached waiter straight out of Porn Chic Central Casting. Small wonder that Softporn was quietly dropped from the catalog that year. With Sierra now pursuing deals with the likes of Jim Henson and Disney, those days seemed like ancient history, the cover art a dispatch from another life.

By late 1986, with Sierra now known chiefly for Roberta’s family-friendly King’s Quest adventures, those wild early days seemed more ancient than ever. And yet Ken still couldn’t quite manage to forget Chuck Benton’s ribald game, so different in style and subject matter not only from any other adventure game in 1981 but also from anything available now, more than five years later. Always eager to see computer games as mainstream, mass-market entertainment, he was naturally eager to pursue any fresh fictional genre that could help push them there. The sex comedy had long been an established commercial winner in the cinemas, accepted or at least tolerated by all but the most morally conservative segments of society. Why not in the realm of games? If he needed further encouragement, it came about this time in the form of Infocom’s Leather Goddesses of Phobos, which rode Steve Meretzky’s naughty wit and more sexual innuendo than actual sex to near the top of the sales charts that 1986 Christmas season, becoming despite its increasingly passé text-only format Infocom’s last major hit and last title to make a real impact on the industry at large. Clearly sex sold in the realm of computer games just as well as it did in that of any other form of media. What, then, might happen if Ken gave the world a sexy game with pictures?

The New England-born Chuck Benton, after hanging around Sierra for a couple of years working on various lower-profile programming projects, had long since concluded that neither California nor the games industry was for him in the long term, fleeing back East to start a technology company of his own. He wasn’t interested in revisiting Softporn, but, as long as he was properly credited and remunerated for his original work, he wasn’t averse to someone else at Sierra doing so. Ken therefore invited Al Lowe to lunch, to ask if he’d like to have a go.

Judged on the basis of his work history at Sierra alone, Al Lowe would seem the strangest of choices to assign to a sex farce. Until now, he had been Sierra’s children’s software specialist, who had spent the last couple of years making games with Disney — about as far away from Softporn as one could get and still be working in the same industry. If you actually knew Al, however, it all made more sense. His reputation as a very funny guy preceded him everywhere; he was the sort of natural comedian who not only loved a good joke but knew how to deliver it in such a way that you almost couldn’t help but laugh. Nor was he bashful in the least if said joke was a little — or a lot — off-color.

Yet Al remained uncertain. Funny guy or not, he’d never tried to write a single line of comedy in his life. Like just about everyone else with an Apple II in 1981, he had played the original Softporn, but only vaguely recalled it. He asked Ken to give him a week or so to review the original and decide if he was really willing to spend months remaking it in Sierra’s AGI graphic-adventuring engine.

His first words to Ken at their next meeting, as repeated about a million times in interviews given by Al himself, have passed into industry legend: “This game is so out of touch it should be wearing a leisure suit!” Pop culture moves fast sometimes. Chuck Benton had written his tale of nightlife in the disco era at the frayed end of said era, approximately five minutes before disco became one of the greatest “what the hell were we thinking?” laughingstocks in the history of pop music. Thus just five years later, with the era of synthpop and hair metal now in full swing, Softporn did indeed seem as out of date culturally as it did technologically. Al would take on the project, he said, only if he could be allowed to not just remake Softporn but to make fun of it. Luckily, the line he’d used to introduce his argument had gotten a big laugh from Ken. Ken said sure, go for it.

But now, having secured Ken’s permission to make fun of Softporn rather than merely remaking it, Al found himself in a tricky situation for any would be satirist: his target, while it may have sold as many as 50,000 copies back in the day, was hardly likely to be known to everyone who might happen to pick up his new game. The vast majority of the many more people who would (hopefully) play his parody would have bought their computers after the original went out of print. And whatever else happened, the new game would need a new name; even Ken Williams wasn’t going to dare to release a game called Softporn in 1987. Al decided that what he really needed was a central character for both he and the player to abuse, one who would personify all of the outmoded disco-era thinking of this old Softporn game that most players wouldn’t know the first thing about. Indeed, amongst his litany of complaints about Softporn was the lack of any such central character; that game refers to its protagonist, Scott Adams-style, as simply your “puppet.” This was hardly unusual amongst adventure games of the 1980s; games that had you explicitly playing a character who clearly wasn’t you were very much the exception, and not always well-received exceptions at that. Still, Sierra’s own recent graphic adventures had always elected to offer a definite protagonist: King’s Quest‘s King Graham, Space Quest‘s stalwart space janitor Roger Wilco.

Batting around ideas with Sierra staffers, Al kept coming back to one employee that no one there liked all that much, a smarmy traveling sales representative named Gary whose sartorial and musical predilections were a decade out of date but who nevertheless always came back from his sales trips full of stories about his latest sexual conquests. Borrowing from the first joke Al had ever made in connection with the project, for a time the new game was to be called Leisure Suit Gary. John Williams had a sister-in-law with a reputation for hard partying that had long since garnered her the nickname of the “Lounge Lizard.” Al liked that so much that he was soon calling his game Leisure Suit Gary in the Land of the Lounge Lizards. Seeing the alliterative potential of a change of Gary’s name, and realizing that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to put a little distance between the game’s protagonist and his inspiration, he finally settled on Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards. Larry Laffer would be a “totally mild and lazy guy,” an unlucky-in-love 38-year-old — not quite the original 40-year-old virgin, but close — who’s decided to ditch his Air Supply and Barry Manilow records and head to Lost Wages (replacing Softporn‘s Lost Vagueness) to cover himself from head to toe in fake gold, cheap aftershave, and acres of white polyester, all with the goal of finally getting himself laid. Whether Al Lowe was really still making fun of Softporn by the time he’d found such a personification for that game’s out-of-dateness is more interesting philosophically than practically.

Despite Ken’s enthusiasm, this was a very risky project for a Sierra that was still not all that far removed from a near-death experience. To keep nervous investors at bay it was necessary to make Leisure Suit Larry almost a skunk-works project. Al Lowe’s contract reflected that. He had done the Disney stuff under straightforward work-for-hire arrangements, money paid for services rendered and projects completed. For Leisure Suit Larry, however, Ken convinced him to forgo upfront payment in favor of a very generous royalty on each copy actually sold, thus pacifying his restless investors by shifting virtually the entire risk to Al himself. The game would be written, designed, and programmed by Al alone using Sierra’s standard in-house tools. The only additional staffer assigned to the project was artist Mark Crowe, who had just finished illustrating and co-designing Space Quest, and even he largely worked on it over nights and weekends, devoting his regular working hours to more reputable projects. Al took a huge risk on Leisure Suit Larry, and he would be amply rewarded; in the end the royalties he would garner from the first Leisure Suit Larry and its many sequels would leave him set for life financially. At the time, though, it was all very uncertain. This was unknown territory in more ways than one.

If we address the game that Al and Mark delivered for publication in June of 1987 purely as a piece of adventure-game design, it’s worthy of superlative praise in comparison to any other adventure to come out of Sierra to date, manifesting to any serious degree only a couple of my recent list of “sins”: there is another annoying gambling minigame that can once again only be beat through constant saving and restoring, and, this being a Sierra game, there are one or two unforeshadowed sudden deaths. There’s also one puzzle that doesn’t quite make practical sense (highlight to read: how can you get out your pocketknife to cut the rope when you’re naked and both hands and feet are strapped to the bed?), but even there it’s clear enough what you need to do that it doesn’t matter as much as it might.

Otherwise, Leisure Suit Larry is downright progressive. The places where you can screw up without realizing it are relatively few and usually reveal themselves (sorry!) in fairly short order. The puzzles make sense and are fun to solve and are sometimes even optional in the interest of keeping you moving through the game, while the meta-puzzle that is the narrative sequence of the game as a whole is very satisfying to work out. There is a time limit — Larry has just the one night to score — but it’s generous enough that, what with the occasional saving and restoring you’ll be doing as you sort things out, it’s unlikely to become one of your major problems. Al Lowe bent over backward to address the typical AGI-engine pitfalls that stem from the disconnect between the textual parser and the graphical worldview. Simply typing “look around” in each new location gives you an overview of everything of note in the area and, just as importantly, what to call everything when referring to it through the parser. He also tried to make the anemic parser as usable as possible by gleaning your meaning from the most abstract possible constructions. Simply trying to “use” some applicable item in the general vicinity of a puzzle is usually good enough. Not all of this is exactly elegant (what’s the real advantage of a graphic adventure if I have to constantly type “look around” and read room descriptions?), but it’s a vast improvement over Sierra’s previous games and about the most you could ask of him given that the problems he was trying to address are largely fundamental to the engine itself.

There are a couple of obvious reasons for the huge leap Leisure Suit Larry represents in comparison to Sierra’s previous efforts. The first is that, eager as Al Lowe has often been to dismiss Softporn, Leisure Suit Larry truly is a remake of that game in the sense that, while the character of Larry himself and all of the writing are new, the puzzly spine of the design is all but unchanged. That’s significant because Softporn was itself an unusually friendly and fair game for its day, easily the most solvable adventure Sierra released before Leisure Suit Larry.

The other reason for Leisure Suit Larry‘s success as a game design is that it, very much at Al Lowe’s prompting and hugely to his credit, became the first Sierra adventure ever to go through a proper beta test. Al:

Since the game wasn’t too big, I got it done in about three months. But this was the first non-children’s game I had written, so I was scared to death it would be “dumb” and not understand everything a player could type in.

So I convinced Ken we should try something new: beta-testing. He posted an announcement on CompuServe’s Gamers Forum asking anyone interested in beta-testing a new game to e-mail him a 100-word essay on “why I should get a free game.” It worked. We got scores of replies and ended up with a dozen great beta testers.

To track all the “you can’t do that here” errors (which is what the game says when it doesn’t have a clue what in the hell you typed!), I wrote a special piece of code. Instead of just saying that phrase, it wrote a line to a file on the player’s game floppy. (Hard disks were few and far between back then.) That line told me the scene number, location, the phrase typed, and many other details about the state of the game at that time. I compiled all those files, sorted them scene by scene, and added literally hundreds of responses to the game.

Those testers came up with some great inputs, showing where and when they were frustrated. And because of them, the game makes you think it understands much more than most games of that period.

Absurd as it is that beta testing should represent “something new” to Sierra as late as 1987, it’s difficult to overstate how much better it made the finished game. If you want to know how important actual player feedback is to an adventure design, just play Space Quest or any of the earlier AGI games and then play this one.

Leisure Suit Larry

That said, it seems safe to say that very few people bought Leisure Suit Larry to find out whether Sierra’s design craft was improving. The question most of them were asking is the same as the one that may be on the lips right now of those of you who’ve never played the game: just how dirty is it? Al Lowe and others from the good old days at Sierra have tended to downplay the sex and promote the comedy in recent interviews, claiming that even the box copy really promised much more than the game delivered. Having just played through the game again, I have to say that it’s actually raunchier than their statements might imply, if nowhere near as raunchy as might have been wished by the many teenage boys who played it furtively back in the day, hoping it would help them to get off. No, Leisure Suit Larry is nowhere close to pornography, but it certainly pushes the envelope much further than its most obvious contemporary point of comparison, Infocom’s Leather Goddesses of Phobos. While that game was largely a standard save-the-world text adventure with a narrative voice that was inordinately fond of innuendo and the occasional fade-quickly-to-black sexual interlude, Leisure Suit Larry is all about the practical mechanics, if you will, of scoring. Taken in the context of its time, it’s pretty shocking, offering heaps of stuff that hadn’t been seen before in a game from a reputable publisher, or at least not since one called Softporn: blow-up dolls, hookers, pimps, Spanish Fly, condoms, venereal disease, dirty movies, dirty jokes, S&M. A strategically placed “Censored!” stamp appears when Larry actually gets his groove on, and there’s no real nudity other than a tiny pixelated Larry at times and an equally tiny if anatomically correct blow-up doll, but if Leisure Suit Larry had gone to Hollywood in 1987 it would definitely have been R-rated. It’s admittedly shocking not so much for its content in isolation as because its content is in a game, and games just didn’t include that sort of thing in the 1980s. Nevertheless, shocking it is if you’ve been living in the G-rated world of its contemporaries for a long time like your humble Antiquarian here.

It’s a bit hard (sorry!) to see Leisure Suit Larry as a paragon of feminism, even if some of the feminist critiques that have been levied against it over the years are themselves rather overblown.

Leisure Suit Larry was criticized as sexist in a number of the reviews that appeared immediately after its release. “The game contributes nothing to enlightened male attitudes toward women,” wrote MacWorld, while Amazing Computing opined that “many women will probably be incensed.” In the years since it’s only continued to be a lightning rod for feminist critiques of videogames. After all, how could this game whose whole objective is to help Larry score with some random chick or other not objectify and demean women? Al Lowe has long responded that, far from demeaning women, Leisure Suit Larry is itself actually a feminist work in that it’s Larry who’s the bumbling lust-addled idiot, while “the women were always smarter, better read, more knowledgeable, and hipper.”

Well, I can’t quite get behind either point of view. The women — the ones in this first installment of the series anyway — are hardly paragons of independence and empowerment. We’ve got a low-rent hooker who’s never even given a name; a gold digger who demands diamonds, wine, and chocolate before she’ll put out; a buxom secretary in single-minded pursuit of some Spanish Fly to share with her boyfriend; a rich girl who apparently spends her evenings sitting naked in her penthouse jacuzzi just waiting for the next stud to come along. The game’s saving grace, such as it is, is that Larry and all of the men are equally pathetic, equally shallow, and equally stupid. Leisure Suit Larry is thus more accurately accused of misanthropy than misogyny. To what extent that’s an improvement must be in the eye of the beholder.

Leisure Suit Larry

Homophobic? Mmm… maybe…

Leisure Suit Larry

…but the jokes relating to straight sex are just as crude.

The most offensive moment in the game actually has nothing to do with sexism or even plain old sex, but is a blatant example of another nasty “-ism.” There’s a convenience store with a turbaned Indian or Middle Easterner behind the counter, a guy to whom even Larry is allowed to feel superior.

Leisure Suit Larry

This guy, who can sell you a condom amongst other things, has the “Engrish” problem of not being able to pronounce (or apparently write) his Rs: “There is a magazine rack near the front door, with a sign reading ‘This no library — no leeding.'”

Leisure Suit Larry

I feel like making fun of another person for his accent has got to be amongst the lowest and cruelest forms of “humor” imaginable. Yet the most shocking thing is this scene’s sheer laziness. It’s not speakers of Indian or Middle Eastern languages who sometimes confuse the English “r” and “l” sounds, it’s speakers of Japanese and other East Asian languages. If you’re going to indulge in broad stereotyping, at least try to get your stereotypes vaguely right according to their own lights. Al Lowe has occasionally noted how he and the others at Sierra were essentially making games for each other. This scene shows that culturally monolithic echo chamber at its worst. When I see a guy like this one behind a counter, I see someone who’s left his home and everything he knows far behind, who’s struggling to learn a new language and make a better life for his family, who’s doing something far bolder and braver than anything that the sheltered nerdy white boys at Sierra who’ve decided it’s appropriate to make fun of him have ever even dreamed of doing. He doesn’t need their grief.

Leisure Suit Larry

This always makes me laugh for some reason, maybe because it’s one of the relatively few places where Leisure Suit Larry shows a certain subtle empathy.

Refined humor this is not...

Refined humor this is not — but, yes, it is sometimes pretty funny.

I think the scene in the convenience store might just help us get to the core of what really bothers me about Leisure Suit Larry‘s humor, to the reason that, while it might make me chuckle here and there, I’ll never consider it great comedy. It’s all about mean-spiritedly making fun of people who are — or who are perceived as — weaker and more pathetic than the people who made the game. Al Lowe is a clever guy and he comes up with some clever gags, but his game is at heart an exercise in bullying, looking down on safe targets from a position of privilege and letting fly. There’s no real warmth and little empathy, no sense of shared understanding between the player and the caricatures going about their business onscreen, and certainly not a trace of the bravery that would be required to go after targets in a position to actually defend themselves. I can’t help but draw a contrast with Knight Orc, a game with a caustic edge even more finely honed than this game’s, but one that was willing to speak truth to power, to knock people down a peg who could actually use a little comeuppance. But most of all I think again of Leather Goddesses, a game I find myself liking even more when I compare it to this one. “Sex is fun!” Leather Goddesses tells us. “Everyone should be having it!” “Look at this loser who can’t manage to just score already!” says Leisure Suit Larry in response.

The "boss key" is another innovation Leisure Suit Larry "borrows" from Leather Goddesses. In this case, though, it's only applicable if you happen to work for a condom manufacturer...

The “boss key” is another innovation Leisure Suit Larry “borrows” from Leather Goddesses. In this case, though, it’s only applicable if you happen to work for a condom manufacturer. Leisure Suit Larry really likes condoms. At least it promotes safe sex. (Just try having sex with the hooker without one…)

Anxious to avoid accusations of selling filth to minors, Sierra came up with the clever idea of a trivia quiz using questions stemming from the 1970s and earlier to make the player “prove” that she really was as old as she said she was. Some of the questions are decidedly obscure, to such an extent that they create quite a challenge to those of us today who are well over the the age of eighteen, but, what with almost thirty years having gone by, aren’t quite up to scratch on our Baby Boomer trivia. Thankfully we have a secret weapon in Wikipedia.

Martha Mitchell was

a. a porno star.

b. a famous author.

c. the outspoken wife of an Attorney General.

d. all of the above.


Who starred in Bedtime for Bonzo?

a. Clint Eastwood

b. Fred Astaire

c. Cary Grant

d. Ronald Reagan


 Kwi-Chang-Caine became famous by saying

a. “I am not a crook.”

b. “The barren fig tree bears no plumes.”

c. “Hi, sailor. New in town?”

d. “Aaaaaiiiyeeeaagggh!”

As the sheer quantity and variety of questions will attest, the quiz became a huge source of amusement in its own right for Sierra, just about everyone around the office pitching in with a question or two. The questions’ time-capsule quality, the knowledge that these things were once common wisdom amongst people of a certain age, makes them one of the most interesting things about Leisure Suit Larry to an historian like me.

As for the quiz’s ostensible real purpose of keeping the kids out, it must have been moderately but hardly comprehensively effective even in the years before Wikipedia. Gamers in that era were, by necessity, incredibly patient, and there’s very little the average teenage boy won’t do if you promise to reward him with a glimpse of sex. Plenty were willing to try again and again waiting for the same questions to recur, or to scour encyclopedias or libraries for the right answers. At worst, the quiz did allow Sierra to maintain the public position that they’d be horrified — horrified! — if an underage player managed to play their “adult” adventure game, that they were doing everything reasonable to prevent that from happening. Their case was strengthened by Ken Williams’s longstanding policy of not supporting the Commodore 64, the computer with the most active cadre of teenage users. The MS-DOS machines where Sierra focused most of their attention were much more expensive than the likes of Commodore’s little breadbox, and thus their user base tended to skew much older. Still, it it’s safe to say that lots of teenage boys evinced a sudden interest in the business computers their parents kept tucked away in their home offices, another sign of the coming Intel/Microsoft hegemony in the home as well as the workplace.

Sierra was in a delicate spot all the way around with Leisure Suit Larry, needing to protect their image as producers of wholesome products for the Radio Shack demographic whilst also getting the word out to those who might be interested in its illicit thrills. There was never any real possibility of being able to sell the game through Radio Shack, despite the close personal relationship Ken Williams had built with their senior software buyer Srini Vasan. Radio Shack’s roots were planted deeply in the soil of Southern Baptism; there was simply no way they were going to put a sex farce on their shelves. Thus Sierra’s task, which primarily fell onto the thin shoulders of their young marketing director John Williams, must be to make the game sell well enough through other outlets to offset the loss of the retailer that accounted for one-third or more of Sierra’s revenues every month, while at the same time not jeopardizing that very cozy relationship upon which they so completely depended.

So, a careful treading was seemingly called for. At the same time, though, John, despite being a grizzled veteran of the software wars, was still a very young man of barely 25. Everybody wants to feel like a rebel once or twice in his life, and John couldn’t resist a bit of crowing about the new ground Sierra was breaking. He greeted Leisure Suit Larry‘s release with a series of three feature articles for Computer Gaming World heralding the “new wave of adult entertainment software” — a wave at the forefront of which would naturally be Sierra. By the time of the third article the first returning tide of outraged reactions — which, one senses, John was expecting and almost welcomed in his rebel heart — had begun to pour in.

Dear Sierra,

I read with regret in your recent newsletter that you intend to go into the porno software business. How any company with your fine products and reputation can make such a poor decision is beyond me. The glorification of loose moral behavior has caused a rise in social disease and divorce and a general decline in the quality of American society. The money you make from this filth comes at a high price.


Dear Sierra,

Please drop that puerile, obviously immature slimeball John Williams into a greasy brown wrapper and drop it in the nearest trash compactor. Please remove my name from your customer list. I don’t need trash, I can get that anywhere.


Dear Mr. Williams,

Recently, I purchased your HomeWord Plus program. I am very happy with it, but I am returning it because I cannot tolerate your behavior. I have read your little “editorial,” where you trumpet the arrival of filth and perversity in computer gaming. I will not do business with any company that would give a job to someone like you.

Just as Infocom had experienced with Leather Goddesses, the reaction in the industry could best be described as “nervous.” Shops and distributors were aware of Leisure Suit Larry‘s huge potential appeal but very timid about openly promoting it for fear of a backlash. Many chains sold it only discreetly, tucking it away quietly on a top shelf. One independent shop took a more definitive stand, sending a demo copy back to Sierra cut in two with a hacksaw. One of the major software charts simply refused to rank it. A customer-support person inside Sierra quit in protest when told she would have to answer questions about it; a newly hired programmer bowed out on his first day when told about it. Ken Williams himself got nervous enough that he ordered all of the jokes about “gay life” to be removed from future versions. If John Williams had deliberately courted controversy, he did indeed receive a modicum of it to enjoy.

The question of to what extent and how quickly that controversy led to sales for Leisure Suit Larry is a more complicated tangle than one might expect. In his many interviews Al Lowe has long told of what a flop Leisure Suit Larry was on its initial release, nothing less than “the worst-selling game in the history of the company.” He attributes much of this initial failure to Sierra’s alleged ambivalence about the game, which led to an unwillingness to promote it and a seeming desire — Ken having presumably thought better of his initial enthusiasm — to just bury it quietly. Only slowly and largely through word of mouth, as Al tells it, did the game build momentum, and it didn’t start doing really big numbers until, depending on the interview, six months to a year after its June 1987 release.

Leisure Suit Larry

Ken Williams gets a cameo. Note the reference to the original Leisure Suit Gary’s profession as a “traveling software salesman.” This is the only place it’s referred to in the finished game. Woops!

It’s a tidy narrative, but there are a lot of reasons to question it. In the last of his articles for Computer Gaming World, John Williams claims that, far from falling on his face in typical Laffer style out of the starting gates, Larry has been “our second most successful product launch, second only to King’s Quest III.” A list of bestsellers for September and October of 1987 published in Sierra’s newsletter shows an only slightly more mixed picture, with Leisure Suit Larry nestled comfortably behind King’s Quest III and Space Quest, the third best-selling of Sierra’s adventure games. That performance is made more impressive when one remembers that Leisure Suit Larry remained barred from Radio Shack, source of fully one-third of Sierra’s sales. The preponderance of the evidence would seem to indicate that Leisure Suit Larry was that rarest of all beasts: a game that was quite successful on its initial release but also turned into a grower, steadily building its momentum and continuing to sell well for years. Nor is there any evidence that Sierra was really all that scared by Leisure Suit Larry. While certainly aware that they had to avoid throwing it in the face of the likes of Radio Shack and other conservative retailers, they clearly conceived it from the beginning as a series, like all of their other adventure games; the finale explicitly (sorry!) promises a sequel which would indeed come in very short order (sorry!), within a year of the original. Nor were they shy about promoting it in their newsletters, or for that matter shy about writing major feature articles for Computer Gaming World heralding its arrival.

Whatever the precise timing, all are agreed that by the summer of 1988, the game’s one-year anniversary, Leisure Suit Larry had become the biggest game Sierra had ever released that wasn’t a King’s Quest, with the hapless Larry Laffer himself well on his way to becoming the most unlikely of videogame icons. The sequels poured out of Al Lowe for years, some strong, some not so strong, but taking more design risks than you might expect and always serving to maintain Leisure Suit Larry‘s place as Sierra’s second-biggest franchise, the perfect alternative to the family-friendly King’s Quest series. For a time there Hollywood was even seriously interested in doing a Leisure Suit Larry sitcom, going so far as to fly Al Lowe down for some meetings that ultimately never panned out. As so often happens in long-running series, Al took more and more pity on his perpetual victim as the series wore along, steadily filing down his sharper edges and finding unexpected seams of likeability. By the time of Leisure Suit Larry 7 in 1996 the little fellow was starting to become downright lovable, a far cry from the skeezy, crudely drawn weirdo of the first game.

Leisure Suit Larry 7: Love for Sail

Leisure Suit Larry 7: Love for Sail

While Leisure Suit Larry itself was a massive success, Ken William’s broader agenda of which it was a part, that of opening up the world of gaming to more diverse sorts of content, had much more mixed results. In the last of his Computer Gaming World articles, John Williams muses about the possibility of a movie-style rating system for games that could create havens for all sorts of new content: G-rated children’s software; PG-rated action games for the teens; R-rated interactive dramas telling realistic, topical tales; even X-rated games constituting the full-on pornography that Leisure Suit Larry, to so many teenagers’ disappointment, wasn’t. Putting their money where their mouths were, Sierra had at the time another game in the pipeline that was “adult” in a different way than Leisure Suit Larry: Police Quest, a gritty crime drama written by a veteran police officer. (Unfortunately, it would prove to suffer from most of the typical Sierra design flaws from which Leisure Suit Larry is so notably free.)

In 1988 Leisure Suit Larry won a Codie Award from the Software Publishers Association for “Best Adventure or Fantasy/Role-Playing Program.” Al Lowe remembers the mood on that night as Ken Williams, president of the SPA, gave the keynote address before an audience that included Robin Williams, Hollywood’s most noted games fan.

He [Ken] said that that he thought this was the first of many of these awards to come in the future, and that at some point the Academy Awards would be seen as merely the non-interactive video awards. The real awards would be for interactivity because once you’ve played interactive stories you won’t be content with sitting back and being passive, with watching stories. I thought that was a brilliant statement, and for five or ten years after I thought it was coming true.

This vision for games as a truly mainstream phenomenon like movies, games in a veritable smorgasbord of niches of which at least one or two were guaranteed to appeal to absolutely everyone on the planet, had been with Sierra almost from the beginning and would remain with them until the end. Ken, John, Roberta, and everyone else involved in steering Sierra fully believed that a new era of interactive entertainment was on the horizon. In some senses they would be proved right; games would indeed go mainstream in a big way. But in others they would be proved very, very wrong; games have still not challenged the critical respect or cultural relevancy of Hollywood. When other publishers saw how much money Sierra was making from the franchise and also saw that no one was burning down their offices because of it, Leisure Suit Larry was inevitably copied, sometimes so blatantly as to almost defy belief. Yet there seemed little desire from the industry at large to push beyond the occasional sniggering sex comedy into stories that were “adult” in more subtle ways.

So, then, was Leisure Suit Larry a bold work that tried to break down barriers and redefine the sorts of fictions that games could deal in? Or was it just another example of an industry caught in an eternal adolescence, one unable to address sexuality except through farce or porn? Perhaps it was one or the other or neither; more likely it was both.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of August/September 1987, October 1987, and January 1988; Amazing Computing of February 1988; Retro Gamer 19; Sierra Newsletter Vol. 1 No. 2. Al Lowe has also written fairly extensively about his most famous creation on his personal site.

Much of this article is also drawn from my personal correspondence with John Williams as well as interviews with Al Lowe conducted by Matt Barton, Top Hats and Champagne, and Erik Nagel. Last but far from least, Ken Gagne also shared with me the full audio of an interview he conducted with Lowe for Juiced.GS magazine. My huge thanks to John and Ken!

The original Leisure Suit Larry is available for purchase from GOG.com in a pack that also includes all of the sequels and even Softporn.)

 
 

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Splendid Isolation: Sierra at Mid-Decade

Some Sierra products of the latter 1980s

The hardest day that Ken Williams ever spent at the helm of Sierra On-Line was one in April of 1984. That was the day that, with cartridges full of the simple action games the venture capitalists had urged him to produce piling up in warehouses following the Great Videogame Crash and with red ink spilling everywhere, he was forced to let two-thirds of his employees go. In ten hours or so Sierra shrank from a company of 120 employees to one of 40. Always one to look another straight in the eye and tell it like it was — a quality that earned for him fantastic loyalty and even love amongst his charges — Ken sat in his office all day delivering the shattering news himself to shocked visage after shocked visage. He went home determined never to have another day like that again, never again to let the advice of others lead him to ruin. Love them or hate them for the strong opinions that their leader was never reluctant to express, no one would ever again be able to call Sierra a follower.

The most important lesson Ken took away from Sierra’s near-death experience was to be very choosy about what platforms he chose to support in the future. He had, for instance, decided that he had no use whatsoever for game consoles of any kind. He would never waver from this position, not even when new household names like Nintendo and Sega would convince many of his similarly vociferous console-hating peers to reconsider. For Ken the consoles that had nearly become the death of his company would always reek of snake oil and volatility, the computers that had birthed it of stability and sanity. Admittedly, at the time that Ken came to this conclusion it hardly stood out like it would in later years. In 1984, believing the time of the consoles to be done forever and foreseeing world domination on the horizon for home computers was very much the conventional wisdom. But the other major platform lesson that Ken had learned, or thought he’d learned, ran just as deep in his psyche but in a far more contrary direction: he had decided that not only the consoles but also the cheap home computers that were supposed to replace them were on the way out.

When one talked about a “cheap home computer” in the United States in 1984 one was almost invariably talking about the Commodore 64, which had just enjoyed an absolutely massive Christmas that made it the premier gaming platform in the country by a mile, a position it would hold firmly for another three or four years. Even when it became clear that the home-computer revolution at large was sputtering, the 64 remained the rock that sustained most of Sierra’s competitors. And yet already in 1984, when the 64 was just coming into its own, Ken Williams was making and following through on a decision to abandon it. A few more 64 titles would trickle out of Sierra over the next year or so, projects that had been in the works before the Crash or porting offers from third parties cheap enough to be worthy of a shrugged assent, but by and large Sierra was done with the Commodore 64 just when the rest of the industry was really waking up to it.

Ken’s loathing for the 64, which he dismissed as a “toy computer,” and its parent company, upon which he tended to bestow still choicer epithets, was visceral and intense. Commodore, just as much or more than Atari and Coleco, had loomed large over Sierra’s ill-fated foray into cartridge games. Many of the cartridges piled up in warehouses, threatening to smother Sierra under their storage costs alone, were for the 64’s older but weaker sibling, the VIC-20. Commodore had all but killed the VIC-20 software market overnight in 1983 when they’d unexpectedly slashed the price of the 64 so far that it didn’t make sense for computing families not to replace their old models with the shiny new one. In killing one of their own platforms without giving even an inkling of their plans for doing so, they’d left Sierra and many other publishers like them high and dry. Now it was 1984, Jack Tramiel was gone, and Commodore’s new management was claiming to be different. To at least some extent they really were earnestly trying to turn Commodore into a different sort of company, but it was all too little too late for Ken. He was done with fly-by-night operations like theirs. He believed that Sierra could hope to find truly safe harbor in only one place: inside the comfortingly bland beige world of IBM.

Sierra’s embrace of IBM might read as shocking, given that their own culture seemed the very antithesis of the crewcut-sporting, dark-suit-clad, company-theme-song-singing world of Big Blue. It’s certainly true that a big part of Sierra’s corporate personality was born from the last embers of the counterculture fire of the 1960s, which had managed to smolder for longer in California than just about anywhere else. Their hippie outlook was reflected not just in the image they preferred to project to the world, of a sort of artists commune tucked away in the bucolic wilderness near Yosemite, but also in a certain hedonistic spirit in which just about everyone, especially in the early days, indulged at least a little bit.

Yet there were also other, more conservative currents at work inside Ken and thus also inside Sierra. Ken had spent much of the 1970s as a jobbing programmer working not on the likes of the DEC PDP-10s, where creativity ran wild and so much hacker culture had been born, but on the machines that the industry referred to as the Big Iron: the huge, unsexy mainframes, all clattering punched cards and whirling reel-to-reel tapes and nerve-jarring industrial printers, that already by then underpinned much of the country’s industrial and financial infrastructure. This was the domain of IBM and the many smaller companies that orbited around it. Most hackers looked upon the mainframes with contempt, seeing only a hive mind of worker drones carrying out dull if necessary tasks in unimaginative ways. But Ken, especially after being dumped into the chaos that was the early PC market upon founding Sierra, saw stability and maturity there. Whatever else you could say about those machines, you knew they were going to be there next year and the year after and even the year after that. And you knew as well that, while IBM might move slowly and with infuriating deliberation, they were as close a thing to an irresistible force that the world of business had ever seen once set in motion. One bet against Big Blue only at one’s peril. And IBM was eminently predictable, a blessed trait in an emerging industry like the PC market. They were unlikely to suddenly undercut and destroy one of their platforms without giving all of their partners plenty of warning first. In short, IBM represented for Ken a legitimacy that the likes of Commodore and Atari and even Apple could never hope to match.

Adding to this was the fact that Sierra had had a surprisingly long and close relationship with IBM already, one that by all accounts had engendered a certain mutual trust and respect. IBM had first approached Sierra — not the other way around — in early 1981, just a few months after Ken and Roberta and brother John had packed up and moved out to Oakhurst to start their new company/artists commune in earnest. IBM was soon to introduce their first PC, to be known simply as the “IBM PC,” and they wanted Sierra to port a few of their Apple II hits — most notably their landmark illustrated adventure game The Wizard and the Princess — to their new platform in time for its launch. This Sierra did, thus beginning a steady and often fruitful relationship. IBM again came to Sierra for games and other software for their new home-oriented machine, the PCjr, in 1983. The PCjr turned into a flop, but not before IBM funded the development of Sierra’s revolutionary new AGI platform for making animated adventure games as well as the first game written with it, King’s Quest.

Thanks to its open, scrupulously documented hardware design and a third-party operating system that Microsoft was all too happy to sell to anyone who asked for a license, by 1984 clones of IBM’s PC architecture were sprouting up everywhere, just as they had in the mainframe industry in earlier decades. The IBM PC was fast leaving the nest, becoming a well-established hardware and software standard that could survive and develop independently of its parent, a unique phenomenon in the young industry. With so much of corporate America already wedded to that standard, Ken judged that it couldn’t die. More boldly, he also judged that sooner or later it would become the standard everywhere, not only in business but also in the home. The industry would need to settle on one platform across the board someday soon as software continued to grow more complex and porting it to half a dozen or more machines thus ever more costly. No platform was so well-positioned to become that standard as the IBM PC. In anticipation of that day, the IBM PC must be Sierra’s first priority from now on. Second priority would be given to the Apple II line, for which they still retained a lot of knowledge and affection even as the confused messaging coming out of Apple following the launch of the new Macintosh made them less bullish on it than they had been a year or two earlier. Everything else would be ignored or, at best, given much lower priority.

The decision managed to be simultaneously short-sighted and prescient. For many years to come Ken and his colleagues would look forward to every successive Christmas with no small sense of schadenfreude, certain that this simply must be the year that the idiosyncratic also-rans faded away at last and IBM’s architecture took over homes as it already had businesses. For quite some years they were disappointed. Commodore, after very nearly going under in early 1986, got a second wind and just kept on selling Ken’s hated 64s in absurd quantities. And yet more incompatible platforms appeared, like the Atari ST and Commodore’s new Amiga. Sierra somewhat begrudgingly ported their AGI interpreter to both, but, because the games took no advantage of these new machines’ much more advanced audiovisual capabilities, they weren’t generally well received there. For some it seemed that Ken was leaving millions on the table out of sheer stubbornness. Restless investors talked pointedly about “chasing pennies” in the clone market when dollars were ripe for the taking.

Yet in the end, if admittedly in a much later end than Ken had ever predicted, the IBM/Microsoft architecture did win out for exactly the reasons that Ken had said it must: not perhaps the most sexy or elegant on the block, it was nevertheless practical, reliable, stable, and open (or at least open enough). When the big break came, Sierra would be well-positioned with titles that supported the new sound cards, graphics cards, and CD-ROM drives that were making these heretofore dull machines enticing for homes at last, well-positioned to take a spot at the forefront of mainstream computer entertainment.

But that’s a story for later articles. What we’re interested in now is this interim period when Sierra, whilst waiting less than patiently for the clones’ breakthrough, found ways of sustaining themselves in markets ignored by just about everyone else. While the rest chased Commodore 64 owners, Sierra existed in splendid isolation in their own parallel universe. Happy as they were to sell their software through all of the usual gaming channels, far more was sold through shops dealing in IBMs and IBM-compatibles who mostly catered to business customers — but, hey, even businesspeople like to have fun sometimes. “It’s like we were dealing with a distribution channel that our competitors failed to even see was out there,” says John Williams. Still more important, the real key to their survival during these oft-lean years, was yet another alternate channel that even fewer others bothered to explore: Radio Shack.

Tandy 1000

Like the clones that were also so important to Sierra, Radio Shack wasn’t the most exciting retailer in the world. In compensation they were, like IBM, stable and reliable, a quality that endeared them enormously to Ken. In fact, they were after his own heart in more ways than one. In late 1984, when Sierra was still teetering on the razor’s edge of bankruptcy, Radio Shack made a concerted and very clever attempt to succeed where IBM themselves had failed at making a PC clone that people would actually want to buy for the home. The Tandy 1000 was in some ways an outright PCjr copycat, incorporating its 16-color graphics capabilities and its three-voice sound synthesizer. Tandy, however, ditched the PCjr’s horrid keyboard, added a menu-driven shell on top of MS-DOS (“DeskMate”) to make it easier to use, and in general made a proper computer out of it, as expandable as any other clone and without all of the artificial constraints and bottlenecks that IBM had built into the PCjr to keep it from competing with their “big” machines. At about $1200 it was still much pricier than the likes of the Commodore 64, but it was also much more capable in most ways, able to handle typical productivity tasks with ease thanks to its 80-column display and its compatibility with the huge ecosystem of MS-DOS software. It was a very compelling product for a family looking for a somewhat serious computer that could also play games in reasonable style and that wouldn’t completely break the bank. A hit for Radio Shack, it became nothing less than Sierra’s savior.

To understand how that could be, you have to understand two things about Radio Shack. The first is that, while Radio Shack did sell some third-party software, their selection of same was far from overwhelming. What with Radio Shack not selling the more popular gaming machines like the Commodore 64 and being far from aggressive about seeking out software for their shelves, most publishers never really thought about them at all, or if they did concluded it just wasn’t worth the effort. The second salient point is that Radio Shack customers, especially those who splashed out on a big-ticket item like a computer system, were astonishingly loyal. Radio Shack was the dominant retailer in the rural United States, and even more so in the oft-forgotten markets of Canada and Australia. As John Williams once put it to me, “Every town in Canada and Australia had a Radio Shack, even if the only other retailer was a small grocery store.” Many a Radio Shack customer had literally no other option for buying software within fifty or even a hundred miles. Even those customers who lived a bit closer to the center of things often never seemed to realize that they didn’t have to buy software for their new Tandy 1000s from the meager selection on their local franchises’ shelves, that Babbage’s and Software, Etc. and ComputerLand and plenty of others had a much greater selection that would also work perfectly well. Whatever the reason, people who liked their local Radio Shack seemed to really like their local Radio Shack.

This combination of little competition on Radio Shack’s shelves and a captive audience to buy from them spelled gold for Sierra, who established a relationship with Radio Shack and made them a priority in exactly the way that virtually no one else in the industry was doing. Ken struck up a warm relationship early on with Radio Shack’s senior software buyer, a fellow named Srini Vasan, that went beyond that of mere business acquaintances to become a genuine friendship. The two came to trust and rely on each other to a considerable degree. Ken would call Srini before initiating a new project to see if it would “fit” with Radio Shack, and Srini in turn was occasionally willing to take a chance on something outside the partners’ usual bill of fare if Ken really thought it could become a winner. Srini also made sure that Sierra got pride of place in store displays and in the catalogs that Radio Shack shipped to all and sundry. By 1986 no less than one-third of Sierra’s revenue was coming through Radio Shack — the difference and then some between bankruptcy and a modestly profitable bottom line. Radio Shack proved such a cash cow that Sierra even violated Ken’s usual sense of platform priorities at Srini’s prompting to port some of their adventure games as well as other products to one of the Tandy marquee’s lower-end IBM-incompatible models, the Color Computer, where they were by all indications also quite successful.

Selling to the typical Radio Shack customer — rural, conservative, often religious — meant that the software Sierra moved through that pipeline had to be noncontroversial in every way, even more plainly G-rated than was the norm for the industry at large. So too the corporate image they projected in selling it. In this as in so much else Roberta Williams was a godsend. Just a few years on from posing as a topless swinger in a hot tub for the cover of Softporn, she was now an all-American Great Mom, the perfect ambassador to the Radio Shack demographic. Sierra took to featuring her picture — looking always friendly and wholesome and pretty — on the back of all her games, over a caption declaring that “her games have sold more copies than any other woman in computer software history” (a bit of tortured diction that did prove that their copywriting skills still weren’t quite on par with their abstract promotional instincts).

The products they were peddling through Radio Shack and elsewhere can be largely broken down into three categories: one well-remembered today, one only more vaguely recalled, and one virtually forgotten. Those that everyone remembers are of course the AGI-driven graphic adventures, which began with the first three of Roberta Williams’s long-running King’s Quest series, released in quick succession just a year apart from one another, and then gradually opened up as resources became less straitened to include alternative series like Space Quest. Paralleling these releases, and sometimes running under the same AGI engine, was a line of educational software that often used the classic Disney stable of characters. There was some conflation of these two product lines, particularly in the case of King’s Quest, which was often marketed as a family-friendly, vaguely educational adventure series suitable for the younger set and, again, perfect for the typical Radio Shack family. Finally came the forgotten products that were actually quite a useful moneyspinner in their day: Sierra’s line of home-oriented productivity software that had their HomeWord word processor and their Smart Money personal-finance package as its star attractions.

The Disney partnership fit well with the general image Sierra was projecting. After all, what could be more Middle American than Disney? That said, it’s very much a sign of the times that the deal was ever made at all. Sierra was just barely scraping by from week to week, hardly a huge media company’s ideal choice to become a major partner. But then the stock of Disney themselves was at the lowest ebb of its history, in the middle of a long trough between the death or retirement of Uncle Walt’s original Nine Old Men and the critical and commercial revival that was 1989’s The Little Mermaid. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Disney was also trying to fend off an ugly hostile-takeover bid from the predatory financier Saul Steinberg. Sierra actually bought the Disney license, with Disney’s tacit approval, from Texas Instruments, whose bid for world domination in home computers had been thoroughly cut off at the knees during 1983 by Jack Tramiel’s Commodore. Buying the preexisting contract from Texas Instruments allowed Sierra to dodge Disney’s usual huge upfront licensing fee, which they couldn’t possibly have paid. Nevertheless, Sierra paid dearly for the license on the back end via exorbitant royalties. Even at their lowest ebb Disney had a way of making sure that no one got rich off of Disney but Disney.

While Roberta Williams worked on the Disney products on and off when not busy with her King’s Quest games, Sierra’s principal Disney point man was a former musician, musical director, and music teacher with a ready laugh and a great gift for gab. His name was Al Lowe, and Ken Williams had already fired him once.

Lowe had first come to Sierra’s attention via a couple of self-published educational titles that he’d written on his Apple II using BASIC and Penguin Software’s ubiquitous Graphics Magician. Ken was so impressed by them that he took over the publishing of both, and also hired Al himself as a designer and programmer. Al learned assembly language at Ken’s insistence and wrote a children’s adventure game in it called Troll’s Tale, only to be fired after less than a year in the great purge of April 1984. But then, as a dejected Al was about to leave his office, Ken threw him a lifeline. As remembered by Al himself:

“I want you to work as an outside contractor. You write games, and I’ll pay you advances against future royalties instead of a salary. For accounting purposes, if you’re a salaried employee you’re an expense, but if I’m paying you advances against future royalties you’re a prepaid asset. It’ll make the books look better.”

In time Al Lowe would become more important to Sierra’s commercial fortunes and public image than any other member of their creative staff short of Roberta Williams.

Like so much Sierra software, this copy of Mickey’s Space Adventure was sold through Radio Shack. Note the sticker at bottom left advertising Tandy 1000 compatibility.

But first there was Disney, who became a notable pain in the ass for him and everyone else who had to deal with them. Disney has always been known amongst their licensees as control freaks, but in this case they were control freaks who were also clueless. Responsibility for oversight of Sierra’s work ended up getting kicked down to their educational-films division, a collection of aged former schoolteachers who didn’t even know how to boot a computer yet were desperate to prove to their own managers that they were contributing. The problem was that their lack of understanding of the technology involved sharply limited how productive those contributions could be. For instance, Sierra’s artists were constantly being told that they needed to make Mickey Mouse’s ears “rounder” when it simply wasn’t possible; the pixels themselves were just too big and too square. Disney, says John Williams, “knew nothing about the media we were creating, didn’t care, and didn’t want to.” Al Lowe developed the most effective strategy for dealing with them: to ignore them as much as possible.

I would rarely send them anything unless they begged me for it, and I always made sure it took me a few extra days to get something ready for them. I basically played a passive-aggressive postponement game with them. And it worked out because they didn’t really have a lot of good suggestions. They often suggested changes so that they would have some imprint on the product, but their changes were never for the better. It was always just to make it different, so that they could say they’d done something.

The combination of Disney’s control-freak tendencies and their high royalties quickly soured everyone on the deal, iconic though the characters themselves may have been. In the end it resulted in only a handful of releases, including one each for Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, and Winnie the Pooh, with most activity stopping well before the license itself actually expired. The entire episode is dismissed by John Williams today as an “unproductive side trip,” while Ken Williams walked away from the Disney experience having learned yet one more lesson that he would use to guide Sierra from here on in a direction that was, once again, contrary to the way just about everyone else in the industry was going. From now on they would stay far, far away from licenses of any sort.

Perhaps the most worthwhile result of the partnership was a full-fledged AGI adventure game based on Disney’s 1985 box-office bomb The Black Cauldron that was largely designed by Roberta and programmed, as usual, by Al Lowe. Being designed to be suitable for younger children than even the King’s Quest games, it ditches the parser entirely in favor of a menu-driven interface and is nowhere near as cruel as the typical Sierra adventure game of the era. It would prove to be good training for Al’s next project.

The winding down of the Disney arrangement might have made Al Lowe nervous, may have made him wonder if it also meant the winding down of his career — or at least his career with Sierra — as a maker of games. If so, he didn’t have to be nervous very long. Soon after The Black Cauldron wrapped, Ken invited him to lunch to discuss a dangerous idea that had been brewing at the back of his mind for a while now, one that if carried through would send his new, family-friendly Sierra ricocheting back toward the debauchery of Softporn. We’ll join Al Lowe at that lunch, during which he’ll be introduced to the idea that will change his life forever, next time.

(This article is largely drawn from my personal correspondence with John Williams as well as interviews with Al Lowe conducted by Matt Barton, Top Hats and Champagne, and Erik Nagel. Last but far from least, Ken Gagne also shared with me the full audio of an interview he conducted with Lowe for Juiced.GS magazine. My huge thanks to John and Ken!)

 
 

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