al lowe

al lowe

I'm Al Lowe and I created a series of games called Leisure Suit Larry for Sierra back in the '80s and '90s along with another 20 games and titles back in that period. I was with Sierra from 1982 until 1998 when it -- well, it was the poor victim of a hostile takeover by criminals. How about that for an opening?

I feel like that merits a follow-up question.

[Laughs.]

Can you elaborate?

The company was going great and literally had a 28 percent market share. In other words, 28 cents out of every dollar spent on entertainment software for home computers in the US went to Sierra. They had a tremendous product line in all aspects of entertainment home software, all kinds. That was the company that Ken and Roberta [Williams] literally started on their kitchen table and built to a billion-dollar market capitalization company.

One of Ken's board members on a Monday morning called and said, "I'm gonna stage a hostile takeover of your company and I'm gonna offer 50 percent more than the going price of the stock. If you fight me, every stockholder in the country will file a lawsuit against you for not accepting this wonderful offer from me." It was like, "Okay, I guess you're in charge now."

Turned out that one thing led to another, the company went away, Ken and Roberta went away, the company changed hands, and it turned out that the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, D.C. investigated and found out that the entire business was a kind of a house of cards. They didn't have the money that they said they had, they didn't have the means to do this stuff, and they ended up fining them the largest fine in the history of the United States government. Over a billion dollars, as I recall. This was pre-Enron, of course. [Laughs.] Enron broke the record, I suppose.

But, yeah. Sierra ended up being the victim of this takeover, and then, the government went after these guys and said, "You're guilty of fraud." And after a number of trials, the guy who staged the whole thing, plus at least two of his henchmen ended up going to federal penitentiary back in New England and hopefully until this day are making big rocks into little ones. [Laughs.] I hope. But I doubt it. It's probably more of a country club.

Anyway. If you have any questions about it, Google "Cendant verdict Forbes trial." Something like that. Those four words'd probably do it. The guy's name was Walter Forbes, and as I said, he was a board member of Sierra and he ended up wrecking the company.

Something you had mentioned in your email was, by your own admission, you were short on recent game-industry experience. But I'm curious, having been through that, what do you think game companies today should or could learn from that?

I think it would be "watch who you accept as a board member." I think there's been a huge change in the game industry since the '80s, when it was a lot of small-time operators trying to build a big company and acquiring and growing and acquiring and growing by buying up other small companies until we got to the point where there's only a couple great big -- just like the car industry.

Or I was going to say, just like the music business.

Go back and study the car business. Go back and study the music business. These things are not unique. There's a definite pattern of business cycles, but that doesn't mean it's a good thing. General Motors and Ford, all those guys, needed to have Japan come in and clean their clock in order to suddenly go back to making good cars again. I don't know what's gonna happen with the game business, but the big game companies are -- there's very few of them and they have a definite mindset, and it, to me, as an outsider nowadays, it looks like the mindset is "don't produce any game that hasn't been successful before."

In other words, if you're gonna do a game and you're gonna get millions of dollars out of these companies to do a big game, then not only do you have to have a proven track record, but the game itself needs to be derivative. In other words, they're not gonna put a lot of money on a weird concept that nobody else has ever tried. They want to look at last year's sales, see what sold well, and then do a game that's a little better and a little different, but similar enough that people will buy it. And I can't blame them. If you're putting $100 million or $50 million on the table? You can't really afford to take a chance on a dark horse or something strange.

But back in the '80s, one of the things that Ken Williams always pushed on us was to do something that's not out there. Do something that's not already out in the marketplace. Do something unique. Different. So it's a different attitude. Different mindset. He could afford to do that because he had King's Quest as a cash cow that would always pay the bills and he could afford to be risky with some of the other stuff.

What do you make of King's Quest coming back?

Oh, I think it's a wonderful idea. People write me a lot and say, "What do you think of the revival of Sierra?" And it's, "Well, it's not really a revival, it's some guys in LA who obtained the rights to King's Quest and are enamored with the old games." The way it looks to me right now, and from what Roberta has told me, they are quite faithful to her original concept of things, but they're building it all on their own. Ken and Roberta have nothing to do with it. I think they've seen it once or twice. But there's no old Sierra people involved in it at all. All of those Sierra people, the good ones, went on to other publishers and developers in the industry and the bad ones went on to do -- I don't know, it seems like a lot of Adobe software. I don't know. [Laughs.] That was a joke.

That registered as a joke.

Don't crash my Photoshop!

So who is it hurting if the landscape of bigger games is generally so homogeneous or derivative?

Well, let's see. Who is it helping? If you play the same game over and over again, does that really grow the number of players? Do we attract a lot of people? I tell you where the new players are coming from, and it's from the casual market. The real growth -- at least as far as my limited knowledge is concerned, the real growth in the last few years has been in casual games on phones and tablets. There's a much bigger growth percentage in that industry than there is in PC games. And of course PC games are my original love. That was what I cut my teeth on and all I was involved with.

As you said before we started, you've stopped playing games but play Candy Crush.

Yeah. Guilty.

There's nothing to be guilty about. It's a shift in your habits.

It is. Part of it was that the games that I like made me laugh, and there's such a dearth of those today. Email me and give me a list of the games that you think are funny. There've been a few, but for the most part -- I used to laugh my ass off at Space Quest and at Monkey Island and Sam & Max and those games. Well, Sam & Max is still around. And Space Quest, the two Space Quest guys are coming out with a game that was funded on Kickstarter.

Yes! Spaceventure.

That's coming out soon, and I hope people will support them because God knows we need more smiles in this business.

Why did you stop playing games?

I was a hardcore -- oh, not a hardcore gamer. I was teaching at the time. I didn't have 10 hours a day to play, but in the evenings I loved to play games and I spent a lot of time playing. So much so that I went to some shows and I said, "Gosh, I think I could do better software than that." I had been hacking. Literally taught myself to program. You gotta understand, this was the late '70s and the early '80s. There were no classes you could take. There was no such thing as game design. You couldn't buy a book anywhere that taught game design. There were no classes available. At least none that I ever found.

There were books about programming and I bought a lot of those. But, yeah. It was a completely different time. But when I saw some educational software -- I was a teacher, of course. That was my background. I had spent 15 years in the teaching profession. I saw a lot of the educational software that was out and I said, "Gosh, I could do as good as that." And so I wrote some educational games and when Sierra saw them, they were ready to start an educational division and said, "Hey, come on board and write educational games for us." So that's how I got into it. I literally produced some games in my living room. I sold them by myself and ended up selling the whole thing to Sierra, so they brought out a line of educational software, and I think I was three of the four games that they brought out in the first batch.

The problem is when you start making the sausage it's not as intriguing anymore. And plus, we worked our ass off. Sierra was tough. Ken really kept us focused on the next product. Whenever I would get feeling pretty good about a game he was doing, he would start saying, "Now, have you thought about the next game? What do you got in mind for this?" It's like, "I haven't finished this one yet! Back off!" He was wonderful that way because he kept your mind into creating something new as opposed to being bored with the old stuff. So I didn't have a lot of time left to play games. I was writing games.

What I found was when I did play games, it was with the mindset of market research. I would look at it and say, "How did they do that? Is that a good idea? Maybe I could steal that!" Or, "Why didn't they do this? That's not very good, I would've done this this way." So it was constantly analyzing and critiquing and it takes all the fun away. It became not fun to play games anymore. So I just kinda stopped playing for myself and while I was making games.

After I got out of the business, the games that I like to play were fun and funny. As I said, the comedy games are what I really enjoyed the most, and there weren't any of those in the late '90s and the aughts. It was pretty grim. So I just kinda got away from it. I haven't bought a console in 15 years, probably, and I buy very few PC games anymore.

Did you try to make an old college try after you left the business to keep yourself current or just to check stuff out? Or did you just need a breather?

It was the opposite. I never looked back. I wasn't as severe as Roberta. Roberta just took a private vow to never again speak about her past or about her history or about her games and output and place in the business. I was surprised as hell this year when they received a Founders Award at that game ceremony in Vegas because I think, as far as I know, that's the first time she's ever appeared in public since she stopped making games.

I think so too. Why did she take that vow?

The company's growth was very personal for both of them. You're talking about a company that they started on their kitchen table down in Simi Valley and grew until it was, as I said, 28 percent of all the entertainment software sold. They had 1,200 employees. They had thousands of contract workers in various places. The company was valued at a billion dollars. To have that wrested away from you and have your ideas be rejected as meaningless and unimportant, it was just easier for her, and I, and the other people, to just say, "Yeah, okay. Fine. You go ahead and create your first-person shooters."

We were storytellers. We were kinda thrown by the wayside. The innovations that adventure games made over the course of their lifespan were absorbed into the other genre of games. You have inventory. You have object manipulation. You have puzzles. You have all these things that adventure games that are now a standard part of most games. So the adventure-game part was kinda absorbed. But what they didn't do is grab the stories. We told stories.

Back in the '80s, we thought, "Oh, when computers get more powerful, we'll be better storytellers." But as we went on, we realized -- I realized, anyway, by the mid-'90s that people weren't looking for deeper games with deeper puzzles and thought-provoking concepts and all these things we were hoping for. They were looking for escape and raw entertainment and pleasure and not have to think. We were thinking games, and I think a lot of people -- well, the vast majority of people don't really want to think at night. They think during the day on the job and when they come home, they want mindless entertainment. And that's fine. I understand that. That's not a problem. That's why God invented network television.

What do you think caused the downfall of adventure games in the '90s?

I think it was the rise of the suits.

Not the first-person shooters?

[Laughs.] I mean, that didn't help, of course. But back in the '80s or early '90s, if you said you wanted to do a role-playing game, people woulda thought you were crazy. Nobody bought those. They were verboten. It was dead. It was gone. But then suddenly Warcraft came out and it was a huge hit and everybody went, "Oh, of course! We always knew that those games..." [Laughs.] And I kinda felt the same way about shooters, because when shooters rose up, it was like, "Oh, yeah. We went through a period of twitch games back in the '80s." No. That was a steady thing. But it became a real factor in the business, so.

So I guess my thinking is that the big problems came when game developers lost control of their companies. The Broderbund guys were programmers and gamers and developers. Ken was. Quite a few of the other -- Activision was founded by a game player, and Accolade. A lot of other companies were founded by guys who knew games and as long as they were in charge, it seemed like things were better. But when gradually their companies hired professional management -- professional managers love spreadsheets and they loved evidence, because they didn't have gut feelings that said, "Yeah, that's a great idea! Yeah, that'll sell! People will love that! Look at that!" Instead, they would say, "Well, what are the numbers here? How do we compare this? What are your comparables?"

That question, man, I think has been just a death knell for the industry because as soon as you start forcing games to have successful comparables, you're guaranteeing that you're not going to ever see anything fresh again.

You're hedging your bets.

Absolutely. And, I mean, don't get me wrong. I'm an investor. I understand money a little bit. [Laughs.] If I were putting up a lot of money, I would want to hedge my bets too. I could understand that. But I think that's the reason you don't see the crazy innovation that you saw back in the '80s and '90s.

You said "that's when the big problems came." Could make a shortlist of what those big problems are, and what the net effect of them are?

I think one problem was that in the early days games -- you know what an auteur is in the movie business, right? It's a director who has the vision and maybe writes the script or certainly oversees the script and the entire project from beginning to end. It's his vision. It's his statement. The film is his vision. I think there's a problem with that now because games no longer have that.

If you look at my games and you look at Roberta games, there's obviously two quite different things there. You look at Tim Schafer's games. It's a different set. But it feels like those people. If you've played Larry, you know me. You can't hide that much. There's not that much left of me that I haven't shared with you already if you've gone through all those games. That's the kinda guy I am. I'm not pornographic. I'm not sick. I'm not a lot of different things. But I've got a streak of naughtiness in me and I like to laugh a lot, and that comes through in my games. I think that's true of Roberta. She has a sense of fantasy. All that game out in the King's Quest games. That was one of the things that I thought was part of Ken's brilliance, that he recognized that talent in people and allowed them to pursue it. He allowed them to develop the game without much interference.

My game pitches were insane compared to what today's are because I would go in and say, "Well, what do you think I should do next?" And he'd say, "Well, what about a western?" "Okay. That's fine." And that was it. That's how we ended up with Freddy Pharkas. I remember there was one day where we went to the video-rental store and looked down the aisles at the headers, the little signs above the shelves -- do you remember video stores?

I was going to say, I do remember those.

Yeah, you would look and there would be little headers, signs over them, that'd say "westerns," "comedies," "drama," "spy thriller," and stuff like that. We went into the video store and said, "There's no game that's a western. Why has there never been a western game?" And he said, "Sure, go ahead and make a comedy western." So the first thing I did was find all the western-comedy films that I could and see what elements they had in common and then started figuring out how to whip all that into something that could be a story in an adventure game.

So I guess what my point there was -- I didn't mean to digress. The difference was that we had the opportunity to envision a game in our minds and take it through to fruition without any committee or market research or comparables or all that other stuff that everybody nowadays feels is critical.

Similarly, a more modern phenomenon are game consultancies or internal reviews that happen on bigger games. Do you know what I'm talking about?

Yeah, sure. All that stuff started at Sierra once Ken and Roberta got forced out. That was what the guy -- you gotta understand, one of the guys that they brought in to replace Ken was a vice president at Nabisco. I mean his previous job was selling cookies and they put him in charge of creating games? Of course he didn't know what was going on!

To be fair, though, sometimes those boxes do have mazes on the back of them.

[Laughs.] Yeah. Yeah. Peer reviews -- that was going on back in '97, '98.

I don't know if the average games fan knows about these consultancies or what they do. So I guess if you were there for the inception of these and you're aware of them, then, how do they differ today from their inception or what you remember of them?

My understanding of what happens is that there's a committee that decides whether something is suitable for sale. Is worth funding. That person was always the founder of the company back in the '80s, so it's not like there was a -- there was no one who considered everything, of course. Somebody had to greenlight a project and when a project turned toward the worse -- started looking like it wasn't going to succeed for one reason or another, they had to be able to go in and axe that thing and kill it and turn those resources in a different direction. I think it's just that -- how can I say this delicately?

You don't have to.

I don't want to be mean.

If you have your money riding on a project, you're gonna feel a lot different about overseeing it than if you're job is on the line. It's one thing to lose a job. It's another to lose -- I mean, you'll go find a new job, right? But if it's a thing of, "Wait, I've given you a million dollars and I'm getting this? This is crap!" That's a whole different mindset, and so I think today, many of the people that you see want to make the safe decision and to make the safe choice. And when they do that, you end up getting the moderate game that's right down the middle of the bowling alley and you're not gonna get the divergent creative process.

Movies went through this in the '50s, you know. The studios built up in the '30s and '40s. In the '50s they were just producing the same films over and over again. There was an indie-film movement that started in the '60s, in the Easy Rider days, that stuff back then. They did a different breed of film, a film that wasn't produced by the studio that was created by outsiders and they finally found their way in, it took a different path. Maybe we'll see the same thing in the game business. I hope so. There's plenty of room for creativity.

What was the first time you heard of an indie game as it's referred to in the modern context? Because Sierra and id Software, really, were both indie when they first started out. But nobody ever talks about them like that.

Everybody was. There was no industry. You gotta remember: Ken Williams wrote these games, his first games, so early that there was no way to sell them. Think of that for a minute. You create a product and there's no way to sell it. How the hell are you gonna make money? He would copy disks in his house and put them in plastic baggies and load up the trunk of his car and drive around Los Angeles to stores that had maybe a computer or two in a corner someplace and say, "Hey, could you put these on a shelf someplace and maybe somebody will buy 'em?"

Honest to God, he started a company. Softsell. Which was a huge distributor of games back in the '80s. He started that along with another day and ended up loving making games more. But he had to start a distribution company in order to have someplace to sell the games he made. It was funny. He started two major firms that both ended up being huge and then being absorbed into other businesses.

When do you first remember hearing that term, "indie game?"

Gosh. I don't know. I would guess in the '90s. It had to be.

Referring to who or what titles?

Referring to the first shareware games.

So, like, Apogee?

Yeah, Apogee was one, but was trying to think of the other. The guy from Vegas who did the captain -- captain something or other. But ended up becoming Westwood Studios. They had done a game that was shareware, and they had just distributed it on floppy disks and asked people to pay money for the later levels. That was the first time. When I saw that I said, "Wow, you can make a living do that?" [Laughs.] Yeah, I think that was the first time I heard that phrase. That woulda been '95, '94 maybe? God that's 20 years ago. How old I am?

According to Wikipedia, 68.

Yeah, yeah. That's right. You know it took me two years to get Wikipedia to put down the right date. For some reason they typed in the wrong year and made me four years older and it's like, "Hell, I'm old enough already, man." I changed it. You know how you can edit it in Wikipedia, and they'd go in and change it back. It was like, "Wait a minute! I know who I am. I have my driver's license, I know my birthday." Nope, nope. They wouldn't accept it.

I forget what I had to do but I had to go through a bunch of crap and send them a JPEG of my driver's license and then they finally changed it, so. It's not as easy to mess with as you think.

Given that you mentioned you're so receptive to talking to people who hit you up and email you, what do you feel no one has ever asked you to talk about in your games career?

Oh, man. I don't know. I've done hundreds of these interviews. I can't imagine that there's anything left that hasn't been asked.

Oh. Should we just stop now?

Yeah yeah. I always ask interviewers to do some research first and try not to ask the same questions that are all over the web already. But my website has a page full of links to interviews with me. There's dozens on that and I've stopped updating it a long time ago. So, yeah, there's a lot of me out there in some place.

Hopefully we'll get to something to something you haven't talked about before.

Not yet.

Good.

No, what I mean is not yet. You haven't come up with one yet. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] Fair enough. Well how about this: What do you feel the audience for games doesn't understand about the way that much, much bigger games are made? I'd include Sierra games, at their height, with AAA.

I think that process has changed over the years. You gotta understand, when I started, I created the box -- well, it wasn't a box, it was a folded sheet of 8.5" by 11" paper. I created the packaging, I created the postcard that went inside it, I created the label, I created the software, the text, half of the graphics. All of the code. The music. Everything. It was just very, very individual projects. One guy would take an idea and run with it and make a game and that was it.

So as games changed over the years, we first added graphics people because that was an obvious weakness. We then added writers. We added musicians. We added voice over talent. We added composers. Things grew over the years. But I think the big projects today are often run by hundreds of people, created by hundreds of people, and it's very difficult to get that individual vision when you're managing so much data and so many creators. So I would say that people probably don't understand just how difficult it is to bring a game to market and how expensive it is. You can make a movie now cheaper than you make a first-run game.

I'll tell you an interesting story. When the Software Publishers Association held the first game awards night, this was in spring of 1988, Leisure Suit Larry was nominated and so we all went to -- I think it was in San Francisco or Oakland. Maybe Oakland. It doesn't matter. But anyway we went to this big dinner and we were trying to pretend that we were the Academy Awards. But of course we weren't the Golden Globes.

So we had presenters and so forth, but Ken Williams, I thought, said something that I just loved and I thought sure would be true by now. He said, "My vision of this is once people taste interactivity in storytelling that they're not gonna be content to sit back and just watch, and that someday the Academy Awards will merely be the non-interactive segment of the storytelling industry." I thought, "Wow. That's a pretty line." But it hasn't really worked out that way yet. I don't know if that will happen or not.

I remember, too, and maybe you remember, that when DVDs first started coming out.

I remember when VHS first came out, man.

But when DVD first came out, there was a feature they were advertising, which was the ability to change the angle in a scene.

"Be your own director!"

Do you remember that?

Sure!

But it was a feature that was never really exploited of or taken advantage. I think there were a few adult films that took advantage of that but --

[Laughs.] Yeah, probably.

Not that you'd be an expert on that, but to my knowledge --

Yeah, I think that's true. That most people probably are not into creating content, they're much more into consuming it. And thank God they are.

We talked about what the audience for games doesn't understand about how they're made. What about the games media or outlets that cover games?

To tell you the truth, I haven't looked at a game magazine in 15 years. I would be the worst person to ask that because I have no basis for an opinion. So I'm just gonna -- I'll be honest, that's the truth. With Gamergate, there's obviously a problem somewhere. Let's put it that way. [Laughs.] I don't know where the truth lies and what's what.

Fair enough. Well, also said in your emails that you're short on recent industry experience, but you did go through a Kickstarter and you mentioned some of what happened as a result before we started earlier.

Well, the Kickstarter experience was wonderful. I guess for -- that was about 2012, was it? 2013. For 15 years before that I have been receiving emails from fans through my website and I tried to answer all of them. I may have missed a few but for the most part I answered all those things, and I always had the feeling that that Kickstarter campaign was successful because of that. That I hadn't ignored the people that had been kind to me, I guess, is what I'm trying to say. So when it came time for us to ask for help funding that project, the fans came through and we ended up raising much more than we initially asked for. So that was a real pleasure. It felt like a really nice payback of kindness, you know?

So I had a heck of a good time with it. It was a chance for us to be very creative. We came up with wacky prizes and reward levels and just crazy stuff and we ended up producing it. I think a lot of Kickstarters, they have problems along the way, but we held in there and within a year we produced the game and we produced all the rewards that we had promised people. Now I understand since then that some people had some trouble with delivery in Europe, or something. There have been problems. But for the most part -- I even flew to Texas to help package games. I stuffed discs into sleeves and put sleeves into boxes and I autographed posters and I signed books. All that stuff. We had a four-day packing party when we created all the 10,000 packages, I think we made between us. So it was a real fun effort. A team effort. It was very heartening to see.

But the sad part was when we put the game up on the marketplace, we had maybe a week of intense interest and suddenly we sank below the waves of new products coming out and we became one of the 100,000 games that were published that year or however many they're up to now. I have as many fans in the game press as I think anybody does. We never talked to a single outlet that they didn't say, "Oh, yeah! We've love to do a story on your game, Al." So I did hundreds of interviews. We got all the publicity and press that we could. When we were done, the game -- eh, it piddles along. But it's just such a competitive environment and there's this ocean of product out there. I'm amazed that any game makes any money at all because there's just so many.

I guess the real truth is that one percent are hits and maybe five percent make a profit and the other 95 percent either break even or lose money. That's a tough way to make a living.

I think, too, there are people who are trying to make indie games -- and there are definitely some that get noticed, but that's the thing I think many people don't have even have a concept of, which is that these folks aren't making a lot of money off it. Much more, you'd be hard-pressed to name many indie developers who have released three good games? Or five good games.

How to end up with a million-dollar publishing company? Start with three million.

You don't have to talk about this if you don't want to, but you mentioned you actually don't get royalties from the re-release?

Oh, I did. I got a little pittance. But the CEO of the company and I had a falling out, and I'll let people Google that and find out. I'm not going to get into that here. Paul and I just had a falling out and he's refusing me to pay anything, and it's not worth suing him for it. So he can just have it, I guess. [Laughs.] That's the way it worked. I gotta give Paul Trowe credit. He did a masterful job with the Kickstarter. Most of the success of the Kickstarter was because he was relentless. He worked and worked and worked on that thing, constantly updating the site, answering comments and questions from people, and I give him credit where credit's due. He did a great job on that.

Shifting gears here, I wanted to ask you about The Black Cauldron.

Wow. That's 30 years. I remember doing it! I tell you, you talk about indie games -- that was right after Sierra had real trouble. Sierra went through a period where they expanded big time into Atari 2600 cartridges and got their asses kicked by ET one Christmas. Most of their cartridges ended up coming back to them and they lost a lot of money. They had a huge layoff. They went from 120 employees to 40.

Every kid in the country wanted an ET game and the game came out right before Christmas and sucked. But most of the parents didn't read game reviews, and so they bought the game for their kids and the kids all said, "Mom! This game sucks. Get me a Sierra game!" And of course the mom said, "No! You've got this game. You play it or else." And all the Atari game machines went in the closet and never came back again.

So the games we created that were on cartridges were expensive to produce. You gotta understand, by that time, you could put a game on a floppy, put on a label, put on a sleeve, put it in a box, throw in some documentation and a postcard to register for the magazine or whatever and shrink wrap it and you'd be out the door for under a buck. Maybe 75 cents. So you could develop a game, stick it out there, and if it didn't work, you got the games back. But you could peel the labels off and recopy the disk. I mean, you weren't even out the cost of the sleeve or the disk or the postcard or anything. You could still use that on the next game. And we often did that. That's not a secret.

But when we got into the Atari business, suddenly we had to pay the Atari company $6 I believe it was to copy a cartridge. When you burn the cartridge, the cartridge was not usable again. It was that game. It was burned in. That's all it would ever be. So the company had to make a box and they had to do all the other things and put in the documentation and pay for shipping and put this $6 cartridge in the box. So instead of a 75-cent investment, they had $7. When all those games didn't sell at Christmas, the stores sent them back, and Sierra had to -- well, they couldn't give them the money back, because the way the business works is you don't get paid until the games sell pretty much. There's a 90-day lag between when the game ships and when the money starts coming back.

So, anyway, what had happened was the first quarter of the year, all these games started coming back to Sierra. Instead of sales to cover those $7 cartridges, we got nothing. And we still had all the employees, we still had all the cartridges, but there was no money. And so literally one Friday morning, Ken started calling people into his office and by that afternoon, the company had dropped from 120 employees to 40. It was a black Friday. It was a tough day.

"So," they said. "We still want you to do a game for Disney. But we really don't have a place. Why don't you come and work at my house?" And so for months, many months of that project, I hauled my computer up and set up in Ken and Roberta's game room and sat next to Ken and Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe. We all sat there and created the Black Cauldron game because there was just no money left to do it any other way. So, yeah, we became indie developers. We didn't intend to. It's how it worked out, though.

This is a very tiny question about it. Do you remember what was behind the decision to switch from a text parser to function keys? Was it merely to make it easier for children?

The whole idea was so you didn't have to type. I had done a couple of games first, educational games, where all you needed was -- they were adventure games, but they had multiple-choice answers. So you would use the spacebar to move the cursor between multiple choices and then you would press the enter key to proceed. Or you could use the joystick and press the joystick button to enter.

And so the Disney people liked that idea and said, "Could you do something simple like that?" Well, for a full-blown adventure game, it seemed a little simplistic, but what we came up with instead was the function keys were always on the IBM keyboards back then, so we ended up using the function keys. And it's odd because the names that I picked for the function keys are the same names that we ended up using 10 years later for the icons on the verbs bar that we put across the top of screen. Remember when Roberta came up with the idea of using icons?

It was kind of super ahead of its time.

It was in a way! It's funny. We ended up using the same verbs because it's common to the adventure-game language. We had a use and a look and a take and inventory and all these keys that were -- yeah, that were used in Black Cauldron and then we kinda dropped that whole idea and never used it again until, I don't know. When did the point and click thing start? '88? So that's about four or five years later.

Do you remember any additional verbs being in contention for those games when you were working on them? This is a really weird, nerdy question.

That is! Now there's a first one on that! "What verbs were in contention?" [Laughs.] Wow. No, because with Black Cauldron, we were trying to be as simple as possible and so we tried to narrow it -- or I tried to narrow it down to the bare minimum. And I think Roberta also kept that idea with King's Quest V? I should remember this.

That's the one where you play as Graham.

Right. But is that the first point and click?

Yeah, I think so, because IV was Rosella and I remember typing.

We'd type in "wear crown" and that was the giant killer for programmers, because all I would do is type in the words "wear crown" and then not hit enter and then maneuver him in some position and just start some sequence and hit enter and it would always break. We would always break the game every time. [Laughs.] So I know we typed in King's Quest IV.

Anyway, yeah. I think the only -- I had fun with it later with the Larry games because I thought, "I wanted to do something different." And that's why I thought of adding the zipper, which was a pretty vague reference. It could mean that you unzipped your pants or you removed your pants or do something with your penis in some manner.

[Laughs.] That doesn't sound vague.

I guess that was the verb of choice.

Well, this will be my last question.

Congratulations on that nerdy question. That was fun.

So, it's been 15 years since you've really paid close attention to games. Maybe you don't have a strong opinion on this. But how would you like to see bigger games progress creatively?

I think storytelling. I'm just a sucker for that. It feels like all the things that they're doing now shouldn't go away, but they could be so enhanced through better storytelling. I think too often today the games are built on a game mechanic that you come up with some kind of Spider-Man's web slinger or magnetic shoes or sticky feet, or I don't know. Some kind of thing. But then the game gets built around that gameplay mechanism at the expense of story. That the story is just tacked on later and it's too damn often in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

I would love to see better stories and personally I would love to see some humor come back. We had a lot of comedy games back in the days and it seems like we could have them again now.

don't die Logo