Eine deutsche Übersetzung dieses Interviews befindet sich hier.
We had the great opportunity to talk to Al Lowe, the father of Leisure Suit Larry and Freddy Pharkas - if you've ever laughed when playing a computer game, chances are good, the game was made by him.
And this is what we talked about...
Peter Clausen: What do the words “I grew up with your games” mean to you?
Al Lowe: That you are obviously one intelligent, highly sophisticated, and refined individual. [laughs]
Peter Clausen: Oh, yes.
Al Lowe: I am glad to hear that I could contribute to your maturation.
Peter Clausen: Sure. Not always in the most positive manner, I guess, but…
Al Lowe: Well, I guess that’s up to you.
Peter Clausen: Yeah. You have often talked about things you like in game development, but was there anything you did not like?
Al Lowe: Not really, it was incredibly fun. You know, I really lived in a sheltered community. Sierra at the time was almost a convent; a very privileged place where we didn’t get much contact with outsiders. And we were allowed to do what we wanted to do pretty much as we wanted. My relationship with Ken and Roberta Williams was such that as their trust in me developed I was allowed to operate as I wished. I was fortunate to create the games I wanted to create and to do my best to make people laugh.
Peter Clausen: And there wasn’t anything like crunch time, for example?
Al Lowe: There was, but much of it was self-imposed, because of the relationship I had with the company. I wanted desperately to get my games out on time because I didn’t get paid until long after the game was finished and sold. When I would ship a game on November 1, it would sell for the rest of the season, but I wouldn’t see any money until the following April. So it was very important to me to get my games out so I could see some income.
To me crunch time was necessary, but we tried our best to limit the scope of the game, so it wouldn’t become the norm. I used a phrase from the original Godfather movie. Remember when they “hit the mattresses?” There was a scene where they had gang warfare and one group would move into an apartment and just sleep on mattresses until the battle ended. That’s kind of what I did. The last month or so of every project, we “hit the mattresses” and spent every waking moment finishing the game. I see today’s game development companies schedule crunch time as a matter of fact but to us it was always the exception.
Peter Clausen: And when was it harder to develop games? In the early days or towards the end?
Al Lowe: In the end, because in the early days the games weren’t really scheduled. You had an idea, you started, and when you were finished, it shipped. There was no real crush to push for Christmas or anything else. It was much more casual since the time devoted to any one game was not that significant. It became more, but I learned to plan ahead to prevent crunch. Larry 7 was developed with almost no crunch time. We knew our schedule, we knew what we could do, and when it became obvious that we had bit off too much, we edited. There was supposed to be more girls in the game, but as we ran out of time, we edited out those girls and integrated some of their gags into the other characters, which made them stronger. Editing is always good!
Game development got better as we went along. Our worst problem was when we switched from parsers to point-and-click, which coincided with the switch from AGI to SCI. We also had problems moving to CD ROMs.
Peter Clausen: I always liked that you brought back the parser in Larry 7. What was your motivation behind that?
Al Lowe: I missed it, too. I thought that a lot of the humor I in my early games was because people didn’t know what to type and thus made mistakes, then were surprised at the game’s response. It was different in the early games. We could add a text message in a matter of seconds and change the game to reflect a new idea. However, when you have voice and even lip sync, it gets difficult. To go back to Hollywood, schedule another three-hour session with a voice artist, and spend a thousand dollars just to record one more line -- well, that didn’t happen. So planning became much more important.
Peter Clausen: So, do you think parser games would still be possible today?
Al Lowe: Parser games would be really difficult with voiceover. I don’t think these two technologies mesh.
Peter Clausen: You have quite a diverse background. You used to be a teacher, and you are also an accomplished musician. Did these previous experiences help you in your career as a game designer or do you think it’s actually better to start out with a more technical background?
Al Lowe: It’s possible to do either. I remember thinking at the time that I was at a disadvantage, but in retrospect it was an advantage. When I started I thought I was too late to make it as game programmer because you needed a background in math, or programming or computer science. I was in music, stage productions, the entertainment industry. But what I did not realize was that people with a background in math and computer science did not know what was needed to make games entertaining. I was strong in that and able to learn just enough programming to get by.
My humanities background turned into an advantage, because I could make people laugh, I could entertain; I could do things that other people couldn’t. It worked out so that, at that period of game design, those things became an advantage. Today? I am not so sure. I think today’s environment is much more technical. A degree in computer science is more or less the starting point.
Peter Clausen: Which brings us to an interesting question, because I think modern game writing is often quite weak.
Al Lowe: Why is that?
Peter Clausen: I wonder about that too. Here in Europe we still get a lot of adventure games, and most of them are made with a lot of love, but the majority is just terribly written. I think that’s because the developers lack the background in arts.
Al Lowe: I was never strong in creative writing, but I realized when I played games that people expected a cohesive story. So I spent a lot of effort to write the best I could. When the time came to be funny… well, I was never a comedy writer, I didn’t know what to do. But I always liked laughing. I always told jokes. I loved comedy. So I just threw in everything that I thought might be funny. I guess it worked out all right.
Peter Clausen: I guess the lack of good writing can really be traced to the lack of artistic background then.
Al Lowe: Well, there ARE good game writers around.
Peter Clausen: Sure. Tim Schafer for example.
Al Lowe: They are just hard to find.
Peter Clausen: That’s the problem. Next question: Did you ever come into a situation where you had to compromise your integrity?
Al Lowe: No, that situation never came up. I can honestly say that I just did the best I could. I don’t recall ever being held back. Perhaps that’s a keynote of Leisure Suit Larry’s success. I was self-censoring, because I didn’t want to create anything I might find embarrassing later. I saw no need for pixelized pornography. I went for the laughs. I did more censoring to myself than anyone at the company did.
Peter Clausen: But there was stuff where you thought “Well, that’s just too crass. I can’t put this into the game”?
Al Lowe: I used my wife as a sounding board. I ran it past her, if Margaret said, “No, that’s gross!” it was out. She was my sample audience of one.
Peter Clausen: You still perform live music, right?
Al Lowe: I do, yes. I am actually going to a rehearsal tonight.
Peter Clausen: Are you ever asked on your gigs to play the Larry theme, or even perform the “Ballad of Freddy Pharkas”?
Al Lowe: No. People have too much good taste. [laughs]
Peter Clausen: Well, I wouldn’t say that. Have you heard of the Games Convention in Leipzig? Every year there is a big opening concert where they perform a large variety of game music. Could you imagine performing the Larry theme there?
Al Lowe: Well, if you fly me over, I’ll be happy to bring the saxophone along. [laughs]
Peter Clausen: Leisure Suit Larry has often been pegged as one of the first “adult” computer games. Today there are many games that are supposed to be mature, like GTA or God of War, but in my opinion they are anything but. Do you think those games deserve that rating?
Al Lowe: Well, I think many of them deserve a rating to limit them from children. I am not so sure if mature is the right word. Of course, I always thought that Larry should have an “I” rating.
Peter Clausen: “I”? What does that stand for?
Al Lowe: “Immature!” [laughs]
Peter Clausen: That makes sense. Anyway, moving on: Did you ever put humour in front of storytelling?
Al Lowe: I pretty much put humour in front of everything. I remember vividly working with Don Munsil, my co-designer on Larry 7. We sat in my office (right where I am talking with you now) and discussed the motivation for the ship’s captain. We went for days and days and days and… well… maybe hours of discussion as to what her motivation should be. Finally, I blurted out, “Hey, this is Larry! What if she is just naturally horny?!” and we left it at that. Whenever possible, we put in the funny and worried about shaping a story around it later.
Peter Clausen: What is the biggest difficulty in designing interactive comedy? Why do you think there are so few interactive comedies nowadays?
Al Lowe: The biggest problem is to figure out when people know what they need to know in order to get the laugh. In other words, you don’t know when the setup for the joke comes, or even if it came at all. Therefore you have to be very careful to design things so that people encounter things at the right time, at the right places, it feels right. The player should think everything is very free form, wide open, and flexible. They should believe they can many things. But sometimes you can’t really let them do this before they have done that. Those things occasionally come back to bite me. I know there are puzzles (I hesitate to say bugs) in some of the games where you will do something that we never intended you to be able to do at that point in the game. Often, it’s because there is no good reason for it (other than you have read a hint or walkthrough), so you read ahead and do it while it’s convenient for you but long before you should have. The game then has a problem handling it because we didn’t expect you to do that yet. There is one of those in Larry 5, where you go into the KRAP studio. There is a pushbutton on the wall which you cannot yet know the key code for. But if you read a walkthrough, learn the key code, and enter it, the game’s like “What the hell?” and gets confused.
Peter Clausen: But why do you think there is so little interest in making comedic games these days?
Al Lowe: Gosh, I guess people have forgotten how to laugh.
Peter Clausen: I am afraid so.
Al Lowe: Because comedy movies never sell…
Peter Clausen: Yeah, right.
Al Lowe: Comedy television isn’t popular… funny books don’t sell… so no one should ever make a funny game either.
Peter Clausen: That would be ridiculous.
Al Lowe: Wouldn’t it? I don’t understand it at all. It’s like people say, “When I pick up a controller, I lose my sense of humour.”
Peter Clausen: That’s interesting because I think these days games are becoming more and more niche. Sci-Fi shooters for example – those genres wouldn’t really be that successful in movies or on TV. So why don’t people try to translate the successful genres from other media into games?
Al Lowe: That’s an excellent point and one that I think the large publishers ignore. They miss that point completely. So much of the game industry today is based on an “It’s either a hit or it’s out” mentality. We can’t do that and still expand the marketplace or develop new genres. If Sierra had said, “First, go to the software store and buy ten humorous games with sexual innuendo and then we’ll talk about producing your Leisure Suit Larry game…” well, of course it wouldn’t have happened. Same with Space Quest. There was no humorous space game before it. There were no comparables, so today those games could not get made.
To a certain extent, I understand the publishers’ dilemma. If you asked me for ten million dollars, I’d ask some serious questions too. Games are so expensive that publishers can’t afford to lose money which creates the kind of industry we have today. It’s seems similar to how Hollywood movie studios were run in the fifties and sixties. There was very little innovation in films then, but when the independent studios started, people could produce films cheaply, without great production values, without great stars, and with unknown talent, unknown writers, and shoestring budgets. They then made innovative films. I believe that small, independent game studios are the future of gaming, because the big publishers can’t afford the risk to produce a big loser.
Peter Clausen: So, what do you think about the current gaming market. We have the Playstation III, which is all about power, but on the other hand we have the Nintendo DS and Wii, where innovation is actually allowed.
Al Lowe: And where innovation is actually affordable.
Peter Clausen: That too.
Al Lowe: To do the technology-stretching for the PS III and Xbox 360, you must spend incredible sums of money. If your soldier hero walks up a ramp and his ankle needs to bend at a 15° angle because it’s a 15° ramp, then some animator and some programmer have to spend extra hours to make that happen. And that costs money. But if you have a rolling sticky ball and simple animated figures that stick to it, it’s cheaper to produce. I think it goes together. I believe the innovation of the future will be in online games, because they can be made cheaply and still turn a profit.
Peter Clausen: Have you heard about the new Dreamfall chapters?
Al Lowe: Is that from the guys who did The Longest Journey?
Peter Clausen: It’s the sequel to The Longest Journey, and now they are going to make new episodes as online chapters. So after Sam and Max, that’s another series that seems to be going online.
Al Lowe: I really wish them the best. Those are really great games.
Peter Clausen: I love the Sam and Max episodes. They improve from month to month. But back to consoles, have you played some of the new adventure games on Nintendo DS?
Al Lowe: I must admit I don’t have much use to buy a Nintendo DS. I don’t do a lot of commuting or waiting around. I am usually in front of the computer or in my home theatre, so I don’t own a DS.
Peter Clausen: But do you think it’s an interesting direction for the genre, because more and more adventures are popping up on the DS?
Al Lowe: I hope they do.
Peter Clausen: Would you be willing to develop handheld games?
Al Lowe: I love game development. My ideal game would be a state of the art game which was funny. And while the DS and those machines aren’t state of the art, they could still be fun. So, I’d be open for it.
Peter Clausen: And what do you think about the new Leisure Suit Larry that’s been announced for cell phones?
Al Lowe: (Laughs) Well, I’d certainly like it to be the best it can be.
Peter Clausen: Have you seen the screenshots with two characters strangely resembling you and Ken Williams?
Al Lowe: No, I haven’t. When is the game shipping? Do I need a lawyer? [laughs]
Peter Clausen: I don’t think they have actually announced a date yet. However, it seems to be an actual point and click adventure game, albeit with Larry Lovage in the lead.
Al Lowe: Well, I wish them luck. The whole trick is in the writing and design. If they design a good game and make it funny, that’s great. But if they don’t, what’s the point?
Peter Clausen: Milking the franchise?
Al Lowe: Is it? Did the last game make a lot of money?
Peter Clausen: I don’t think so. And rightfully so. Do you think Magna Cum Laude could have been salvaged?
Al Lowe: By me?
Peter Clausen: Hopefully. But even if it had been somebody else, do you think there were some interesting basic concepts or was the project doomed from the get-go?
Al Lowe: I can see why they made a lot of the decisions they made. The fact is: the main character was aging and they didn’t have the original writer to carry on that character so I can understand why they made a new protagonist. But I was disappointed they called it a Leisure Suit Larry game when it didn’t feature Leisure Suit Larry. But to take Larry’s nephew and start afresh – sure, I could see that. But it’s all in the writing. I know that the game had terrible difficulty getting started. They worked on it for a year and then threw everything out and started fresh because it was neither funny nor suitable. The game they finally shipped seemed quite schizophrenic to me. Certain parts of it were very, very funny, but other parts were just wretched. Designing is about checks and balances. As I’ve said, I censored many things that didn’t work. But it felt like their writers had a great sense of humour, but that the designers thought the game was about being dirty.
Peter Clausen: And that’s actually what Larry never was about.
Al Lowe: Right, I tried to keep it at the level of late night cable TV. If you want pornography, you can rent a video for a dollar and see much better stuff than you’ll ever see with animated characters on a computer screen. At the risk of sounding redundant, it was all about the humour. And when things where actually related to real situations, we took it one step further and made it silly. Something that people don’t always realize is that my games were always on the side of the women. They were always the stars, the heroes, the smarter, brighter and subtler characters. Larry was the doofus. I always thought the games were empowering to women and degrading to men. I know that many women enjoyed playing the Larry games because while Larry would bumble through eventually, the strong characters in the game were all female.
Peter Clausen: However, I always thought Larry became much more sympathetic as time went on. Do you agree?
Al Lowe: I think so too. I guess it’s because, as time passed, I grew to like the guy.
Peter Clausen: Also, his voice in the later games was just so goofy, it made him lovable.
Al Lowe: Man, Peter, that was one of my hardest decisions ever. I spent a day in Hollywood listening to wonderful actors reading the lines for Larry 6. And then, literally overnight, I had to pick one of those actors to be the voice of the character. I spent hours listening to voices. In the end, I was really pleased with Jan Rabson. He did a great job of voicing that character and bringing out the silliness and lameness of the character. And I loved Neil Ross as the narrator. Here’s something most fans don’t know: Neil was also the narrator in Freddy Pharkas. He doesn’t sound at all like the same person, but he is. His tongue-in-cheek delivery was spot on. The interplay between him and Larry was just great, even though they never worked in a studio at the same time. But the way they played back and forth was really fun.
Peter Clausen: During casting, did all the actors try to characterize Larry in the same way, or did some actors for example try to make him macho?
Al Lowe: Well, I directed the auditions so I lead them in the direction I wanted. But still, I got a totally different voice from each person. And the talent was the best in the business, the major Hollywood voiceover guys. While they’re not names anyone recognizes, here’s an example. One of the actresses in my games, also did all every female voice in South Park for years.
Peter Clausen: Speaking about actors, back in the day there were talks about a Larry movie featuring John Lovitz, right?
Al Lowe: I think they already made a Larry movie. It was called Deuce Bigalow. Rob Schneider basically took the Larry character and made a film out of it. I considered it high praise. [laughs]
Peter Clausen: But an actual movie was never planned?
Al Lowe: I wouldn’t say that. The movie rights were optioned to several different companies who explored several screenwriters, scripts and actors. But nothing ever got produced.
Peter Clausen: Did you ever get to look at any of the scripts?
Al Lowe: I actually remember one interesting script that was written for Jim Carrey to star. It was like “Dumb and Dumber Go to the Playboy Mansion.” It had nothing much to do with Larry, other than the name. They missed the boat completely.
Peter Clausen: So it’s probably better a movie was never made?
Al Lowe: Well, it’s better that THAT movie never got made. But I still think a hilarious film could have been made.
Peter Clausen: On the “Player One Podcast” you recently talked about puzzles being so important to adventure games, because back in the eighties people were used to solving puzzles on their computer. Everyone who used MS DOS, everyone who had to configure his PC had to be a puzzle-solver in some way. I agree with that, but do you think adventures necessarily need to be puzzle-focused? In Japan for example there are lots of interactive novels which are basically like adventures that have been stripped of the puzzles. Do you think that concept could work in the west?
Al Lowe: I don’t know if there is a market for interactive novels. When text adventures started, perhaps one tenth of one percent of people had a computer. When graphic adventure games began, maybe the top one percent of people had a computer. I remember a conversation with Ken Williams where we speculated, “Won’t it be wonderful when 25% of Americans own a computer? Just think how many games we’ll sell.” Now 75% have a computer, but they’re not interested in solving puzzles. It’s just like with games magazines. Many more people subscribe to People magazine than to Games magazine. Human beings have a wide range of interests and there will always be markets for different products, but those markets are of varied sizes. I think the time of strong sales for adventure games is gone. On the other hand, a lot of adventure gaming’s strong points have been used by other genres. RPGs, and even shooters, are getting storylines…
Peter Clausen: True, but I think the typical adventure story can’t be told in another genre. Something like Larry could never work in another genre. And, for example, if you broke a game like Gabriel Knight up with combat it just wouldn’t work.
Al Lowe: Well, I remember Roberta’s attempt to integrate the two.
Peter Clausen: King’s Quest VIII?
Al Lowe: Yes. I didn’t like the game at all. I only played it because she told me how to get into “God mode.” Then I just scurried around each level, killing all the monsters so then I could solve the puzzles and enjoy the adventure aspect of the game. To me, the monster killing was a bore that had to be done, like a job. After it was done, I could have some fun. So yes, there are stories to be told in adventures that can’t be told in any other medium.
Peter Clausen: So we can only hope that they will at least make a small comeback.
Al Lowe: I think story games will make a comeback. You’ll see plot and character development again in the future. I’m not going out on a limb here; I have thousands of years of history on my side. People have always told stories and interesting tales of characters. I don’t see anything that will change that in the future. The current crop of games are merely an aberration that will somehow integrate these missing elements back in and create a genre that’s even more interesting. At least, that’s my hope. If we don’t, games will become a tiny little niche, particularly computer games. The console people have figured out how to make games that are more interesting to wider variety of people.
Peter Clausen: By the way, did you notice that a lot of the concepts that have become really popular in the console world recently are ideas that you came up with years ago? When one looks at the concept of Donald Duck’s Playground, which was basically a mixture of mini games and world building, it’s quite similar to games like Nintendogs and Animal Crossing. Well, at least in spirit it is.
Al Lowe: Isn’t that interesting how those things don’t change in twenty years?
Peter Clausen: Especially because nobody else ever did it after Donald Duck’s Playground. And then in 2006, it suddenly explodes into its own genre. Also, you had the option to make the main character in Larry 7 look like the player, and now customizable avatars like Nintendo’s Miis are all the rage. How does it make you feel when you think about the fact that you had these ideas many years earlier?
Al Lowe: I wish they would send me a royalty cheque! [laughs] I don’t want to sound religious or weird, but I had a vision back in 1981 that had to do with interactivity. I remember thinking, “In future games, people will be digitized, their faces and bodies put into the game, so they can star in their own movies.” I still haven’t seen this pulled off, but I believe it will be, some day. I tried it in Larry 7, letting you record dialogue and add your face to the game but that was primitive compared with what we’ll see someday.
Peter Clausen: So, do you think any other idea of yours is going to come back? Maybe CyberSniff 3000?
Al Lowe: I’d hope so. We got as many laughs out of that little square of smells as we could.
Peter Clausen: Do you still keep in touch with anyone from the old gaming days? We met Bob Bates of Legend Entertainment fame at the Games Convention in Leipzig last year, and he had some very kind things to say about you.
Al Lowe: Well, that’s very nice of him. Bob’s a gentleman, and I have known him for many, many years. I enjoyed being invited to the Game Designer’s Conference, which is a very exclusive club of about 35 authors who write games with stories. Bob Bates is there, and Steve Meretzky, Noah Falstein and a lot of the successful guys in this business. I was privileged to go the last few years. It’s one of the few places where I feel like I’m the dumbest guy in the room.
Peter Clausen: Was there ever any kind of friendly rivalry between you and Steve Meretzky?
Al Lowe: Not at all. Never. Because I just love Steve’s stuff, and the funnier he is, the better. He’s a great guy too. In the same way, I never really felt any rivalry with the Lucas games. I thought Ron Gilbert’s stuff was hilarious, as was Tim Schafer’s. There’s so little comedy, there’s room enough for all of us.
Peter Clausen: Did you actually know the Lucasarts guys back then?
Al Lowe: Well, in the very early days of Sierra, the industry was small enough that we actually hung out together. We had weekend whitewater rafting trips back in 1982 or so. Later on… no, not really. The industry grew far too fast for that to continue. I didn’t really meet any of the Lucas people until after the Game Developers Conference started. There’s another interesting piece of history: Chris Crawford started that conference in his living room, and the next year it went to a restaurant, and then it moved to a hotel, and became bigger each year until it evolved into the monstrous show it is today. The game business has changed a lot over the years. I do still get a chance to see Ken and Roberta Williams, and I exchange emails with Scott Murphy. Jane Jensen lives nearby, so I get to see her on occasion, too.
Peter Clausen: And she’s developing a new game.
Al Lowe: I know. I am really excited about that.
Peter Clausen: Me too.
Al Lowe: And this summer there is going to be a major Adventure Convention in August. Scott Adams, Jane Jensen and I (among others) will be there. It’s going to be a fun weekend, I think.
Peter Clausen: I only have one final question left. To end this on a classy note, could you tell us the dirtiest joke you know?
Al Lowe: (Laughs). No. But I could give you 3,600 of them.
Peter Clausen: Oh? Tell me about that.
Al Lowe: I just realized that I haven’t spent enough time plugging my website during this interview! But if you go to www.allowe.com, you’ll find it full of the things that make me laugh. If you enjoyed my games, you know my sense of humour. I also run a free daily joke email so every weekday you can get two jokes and links to things that I find interesting or amusing. I have done this the past seven years.
Peter Clausen: And you never repeated a joke?
Al Lowe: I try my best never to repeat.
Peter Clausen: Thank you very much for this interview!
Al Lowe: You are welcome. And in closing, I would just like to thank all the game players who bought my games over the years. And even to the ones who didn’t buy them, who just “borrowed” them. I am happy that they enjoyed my weird sense of humour, and my humble little attempts to make you laugh.
Interview with Steve Purcell & Dave Grossman (Sam & Max)
Interview with Charles Cecil (Broken Sword)
Interview with Bob Bates (Eric the Unready)
Text Copyright Peter Clausen 2007
Pictures Copyright Al Lowe, Sierra