The Man in the Leisure Suit
Al Lowe on the early days of development, humour, and the Festival of Games
Continuing the series of interviews building up to this year's Festival of Games, taking place across April 28-29 in Utrecht, here we talk to the man presenting the opening keynote - Al Lowe.
The creator of the original Leisure Suit Larry games, Al was one of the pioneers in the games industry, and here he talks a bit about the old days, about new opportunities and why funny games today are few and far between.
Q: So you're opening the conference in Utrecht this year - without spoilers, what will you be talking about?
Al Lowe: Well, I thought I'd lecture about the overall data structure content of... no, not really! I want to let people know how good they have it today, how well off they are, by giving them a glimpse back into the Dark Ages of paleolithic game development - where we had to use bear skins and stone knives to create code...
That's the basis of my talk - about the bad old days.
Q: Depending on what they're up to today, some people talk about the 'good old, bad old days', while others just talk about the 'good old days'. It's interesting to see the extent of the rose-tinted spectacles effect.
Al Lowe: We had an interesting and unique environment at Sierra - first of all we were rather isolated from the rest of the world, located high up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, close to a lot of tourists but far away from any other game developers.
So we had this isolated environment, and the only experience we had with other game developers was when a new game would come out, and somebody in our company would write them and try and swap some games... thus we'd all have some new games to play. We were all gamers, much more than we were competitors.
And another unique thing was that we had no unique tools to develop those games, other than those we developed ourselves. When I tell people that I made games before there was a Photoshop, they look at me and wonder what the Hell I did; how it was possible.
We had nothing, other than what we created ourselves - so it was a pretty different environment.
Q: I guess the industry back then was far more self-selecting than it is today. There are still barriers to entry, but they're nothing compared to those early days. You had to be pretty dedicated?
Al Lowe: Well, you didn't have to be, and a lot of people dropped out. In order to succeed you had to be able to make do with what you had. If that's the definition of an entrepreneur, then that's probably what we were.
But it was non-trivial to create a game back then. Today, the ease with which people can slap out a Flash game; there are things in that which I think: "Oh God, that used to take me hours," when today it takes seconds. It's certainly changed.
Q: For long-time gamers it's always tempting - but very dangerous - to revisit classic titles on old platforms, lest your memories be shattered... Have you ever gone back to your Larry titles? And how did that feel?
Al Lowe: Someone wrote me a while back saying they were having trouble getting Leisure Suit Larry 7 to play on modern operating systems, so I thought I should try it to see what happens. I had no trouble, it ran fine for me - but I started playing and I was amazed... it was 12 years or more since I'd seen the game, and while I knew every line at the time, I'd forgotten a lot of it.
So I found myself playing my own game, laughing at my own jokes, because I didn't remember that they were in there - in that sense it was quite refreshing. But on the other hand a lot of the old graphics don't hold up any more, and they are painful to watch.
But I think the games we did in the Nineties still have a great look to them. And the earlier games - well, the writing is still there, the characters and the jokes and stuff - those hold together well.
Q: We're now in the era of HD gaming - which is why so many tools are necessary these days. But in the transition over the years, do you think an element of creativity has been lost along the way?
Al Lowe: In the Eighties there were a lot of me-too games as well - it's just that don't remember them today. It's like, 99 per cent of everything is crap - it's an old song but I think it's proven to be true. We remember the good stuff, and classical music is the same way: For every Beethoven there are 99 duffers and hacks and amateurs - we just forget those things.
In a way though, today, I think creativity has become isolated from the large publishers. I think creativity in the main today comes from the casual games market, and the mobile market - I see the big publishers basically cranking out the same game over and over, with different graphics.
Q: There's an economic issue though, in that while bringing new IP to market has always been a challenge, failure to produce something exceptional is punished very harshly today.
Al Lowe: I agree. The attitude today - and I can't blame the publishers for this, because if it was $10 million of my money, I wouldn't want to throw it up into the air and say: "Yeah, do something really weird - do something nobody's ever seen before, and I'm sure it'll catch on!"
When the stakes are that high, you can't take chances with your investment - so that said, Sierra had a similar problem in that a lot of our games looked and played the same. That was because we had one engine that we'd developed - painfully - over a ten-year period, and we had no choice of other engines.
LucasArts was the same way - their games tended to look and play alike because they had the SCUMM engine. And the same holds true for a lot of games today - but I think the casual games market is where you can see the innovation, because it's a programmer on something for a month, and you see if it sticks.
If it does, you can build something out of it - and the only change is that the games are not being sold in boxes in stores, and they're not being promoted by major publishers. They've found a different way to sell, and that's a good thing.
Q: Minecraft is an interesting case in point - if the idea is solid, then it is possible for small teams to make an impact.
Al Lowe: Getting to the right audience is really a problem today. I don't know if you've looked around the Apple Store, but there's so much stuff on there, it's difficult to find what you want - and even if you know that there's a game out there, you have to be able to find it. Getting noticed is really difficult.
Q: Looking at Larry, for a moment - there don't seem to be many games that contain humour as a major theme these days. Looking back, there was Larry, Monkey Island, and others. Why is humour so brave?
Al Lowe: And Space Quest was another series - they were hilarious. I loved Monkey Island, and Sam & Max - there was humour in those days, but it seems to be very few and far between today. I think part of the reason is that it's just damned hard, especially when you're trying to develop a game based on an engine, where you want to have extended gameplay - not a single run through the plot.
Those things don't go together with comedy - the second time you hear a joke it's not as funny, and therefore I think the format of games stifles the execution of comedy. We did a lot of humour in Larry that was one-off stuff - you saw it once and you moved on.
But a lot of it also came about by the fact that we had a lot of extended gameplay by flushing out the environment, so that there were a lot of things to see and do, and people to talk with. Today players are much more interested in action, than in contemplative and thoughtful puzzle-solving games.
Q: It begs the question, would it even be possible to bring something like Leisure Suit Larry to market these days?
Al Lowe: Well, I tried five years ago, and I couldn't do it - so I don't know. We came up with an idea for a game, we started a game company, and we took the prototype around to every major publisher - but we were going at it from the perspective of making a triple-A title, and that was just too much for publishers to buy.
They couldn't bite off on the fact that there were no comparables - that was the big issue. I showed the prototype to a lot of people, and they said they loved my games, that they were in the industry because they played my games... and then we finished the demo and they'd say it was the first game in months they'd actually play themselves - which is a sad thing to hear.
But then the giant-killer line would always be: What are the comparables? I'd say that it was an action comedy, and they'd look at me as if they had no idea what I was talking about. Of course, there were no comparables, because nobody's done an action comedy lately. Therefore we'd get the call back that they loved the game, but they didn't think they could fund it.
Q: I guess Brutal Legend is the closest thing we've come to an action comedy that springs to mind - it was a good game, but I'm not sure it sold as much as EA would have liked. But with the new platforms, new ways to get to audiences, is it something you'd consider having another crack at?
Al Lowe: Right now I'm happily retired, and have been for ten years. It's highly underrated - people ask me if I get bored. My reply is to ask if they get bored on Saturdays... because every day is Saturday when you're retired.
So no, I'm happy where I am and I intend to stay that way.
Q: So what are you doing these days?
Al Lowe: I run a humour website - www.allowe.com - and with that site I promote Cyber Joke 3000, which is my daily joke email. For the last 11 years I've produced two jokes per day in a free email, which is great for opening the day with a smile. At least one of the jokes is clean...
Al Lowe is the man behind the original Leisure Suit Larry games. Interview by Phil Elliott.