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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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.