Rick Gush, designer of the Kyrandia games interview
It's hard to find a nicer guy and a more passionate lover and defender of adventure games than Rick Gush. He is responsible for the equally wonderful Kyrandia and Lands of Lore series for Westwood, but unfortunate circumstances forced him away from the company. After toying with his own development company, Fanci, and beginning a game called Sub-Zero, Rick got a call from Trecision Entertainment, and thus begins the newest chapter in his life.
How did you get started in the computer business?
Ever since I was a young person I've always invented games. Some of my favorites are Obstacle Pong, where you put extra objects, like lamps and suitcases on a ping-pong table, and then play, the obstacles being a part of the playing surface.
Another, Roll-Em, is played with a bunch of different sizes of empty sewing thread spools in a big room with a linoleum or wood floor, and the spools are shot around the room by snapping two fingers down on the thread area of the spool. Very big fun.
Nose darts, in which small darts are dropped from the nose while standing, onto a target the size of a quarter, was really big in college, and we organized leagues.
My favorite has to be though, Chinese Ping Pong, in which the players must hit the ball again on their own side of the table before returning it across the net. The rhythms and different types of shots are intruding. I wish I could make money on that idea; it's probably my single best ever.
Then, after college, I became a playwright, and wrote musical comedies for small theaters. Musical comedies are very much like Adventure Games in that story and character are the supreme content pieces. I sold the four comedies I wrote several times each, but still did not earn enough money to support myself as a playwright, so I got a job in the nursery industry. My college had prepared me to be a Horticultural Pathologist. If your tree is dead, I know why.
Years later, I read an ad in the local Las Vegas newspaper, asking for a "storyteller." I figured that was within my skill range, and gave a call. The place was Westwood Studios. Three months later, they hired me full time to write dialog for some games they were developing. I had never played a computer game before that except Asteroids, and Pong.
I am, for a dense person, a fast learner and an opinionated loudmouth, and can take charge of any situation. Within three months I was the producer of both the first Kyrandia and Lands of Lore titles. Really, Mike Legg, and Brett Sperry, the guys who had started the first Kyrandia game, were absolute sweethearts, and I definitely owe my whole computer game career to them. I'd lick the street for either of those guys.
Was there a specific game you remember that triggered a love for adventure games?
When I started at Westwood I did not know what adventure games were, and was just shown Kyrandia as it was in progress. I saw a King's Quest game and thought, gee; I can do that sort of thing.
Where was the idea for Kyrandia born?
I'm not sure. There was an online text game of that name that Mike Legg and Brett Sperry were playing. I think Brett then bought the rights to the game. The jerk he bought it from came back later after Westwood was successful and tried to make a stink, but the court case was decided against him after several years of nasty wrangling.
Was the Kyrandia series commercially successful?
The first game was a solid A-minus or B-plus, and was definitely just what the doctor ordered for the new relationship with Virgin, which was products in the pipeline. But then the next title, the Hand Of Fate, suffered mightily at the hands of an unbelievably arrogant new VP of marketing at Virgin. She, Kathy something or other, lasted only long enough to sabotage the HOF launch, and then she got the axe. HOF only did half the sales of the first title. Not a surprise, considering the cryptic ads which forgot to mention the title of the game, and the famous "nuclear explosion" box in the US release. I'm not sure what a nuclear explosion has to do with a medieval comedy game, but she would not even discuss the situation with me and said stuff like "I'm a vice-president, and I don't have to speak to Producers." Ha! An incredible twit. Gosh I wish I could remember her last name.
Then the last, Malcolm's Revenge similarly suffered from lack of marketing effort. Incredibly, the game was never even shown at a trade show. By this time Command and Conquer was hot stuff, and the brass at Westwood did not care about anything else. I'm still annoyed at the lack of respect Kyrandia got even within the company. We had too many new marketing people coming and going, and the "little" project got pushed aside.
But I think still K3 managed to outsell the other two combined. I think, but getting accurate sales figures is now impossible for a mortal like myself. There is a lot of lying that goes on.
Then, a few years later the repackaging of all three titles was quite successful, and added tens of thousands of copies to the sales totals in the first few months of the compilation's release.
Looking back, are you pleased with how the Kyrandia games turned out?
I'd really like to have the chance to make games like that again. It was a turbulent time, and more often than not, politics affected the games. Amusingly, in a bitter sort of a way, I was taken aside and told that I should become better organized if I wanted to be a good producer. This happened one month before I shipped the second Kyrandia title. I was confused. Everybody else's titles were way late and hugely over budget. HOF was brought in at six months from start to finish, and at about half the anticipated budget. I did not see where I was disorganized. But often people point the finger just to keep it from being pointed at themselves.
What preceded the decision to end the Kyrandia series?
EA was the final nail in the coffin. They killed both of my lines, the Kyrandia series and the Lands of Lores series.
What were the circumstances surrounding your leaving Westwood?
I think life affords many wonderful opportunities, and I seldom go for the safe route. I lost a fortune in stock options and could even now be making six figures to sit on my butt at Westwood, but any opportunity to be personally creative had gone, so I did too. First and foremost I'm a stupid artiste, but boy do I have fun.
Now, in addition to working for Trecision, a wonderful Italian games company, I'm living in Italy and trying to become the next Hemingway. Please buy my novel King's Rocket when it is published this spring! Thank you.
Name the three best adventure games you've played (from the 90s).
Monkey Island (s)
Lost Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
What were your plans for Fanci and Sub Zero, and what happened to change those?
We had some huge business reversals at Fanci, and were forced to close the shop. We've got some enormous amounts of money that are still owed to us, but we're too poor to hire the lawyers it would take to get the cases through the courts and get paid. Big companies can and do screw little companies every day, that's life. I still own Sub Zero, and think it's going to crack people up when I finally get to make it.
How did you get hooked up with Trecision?
I started talking to Trecision a few years ago when I first started playing Nightlong, and the friendship just sort of grew. Sort of like Internet dating, because we actually decided to seriously look at my joining the team before we ever met in person. I think it's just another chapter in what so far has been an incredibly lucky and privileged life, thank you.
What are your future plans with Trecision?
I'm planning to stay with Trecison for the foreseeable future. I'm exceptionally comfortable here, though I will admit that holding meetings with programmers where they are discussing algorhythms in Italian is surreal at times.
I think the gaming revolution is just around the corner, and I'm ready to be one of the revolutionaries. My own push will be on wireless, Internet based relationship facilitation gaming, and at some point in time retro adventure gaming development. I even think I'll fool somebody into letting me do an interactive musical comedy one of these years.
The consensus seems to be that console games are going to grow and PC games are going to falter. Do you concur with this?
I think PC use is growing even more quickly than console growth. I think the Internet is where games will be, and I think more people will access the Internet through PC's than through consoles for the next five years, so I think there will be a lot of gaming action on PC's.
I think games publishers are generally idiots though, and they still think that graphics moving quickly make a game good, in spite of the fact that every year games with great graphics lose more money than anything else. The idiocy of publishers notwithstanding, I think the big games will gravitate towards the more uniform platforms because developing big graphics game for the variety of PC's is a nightmare. So, I predict more small Internet games for the PC, and more big monster games for the consoles.
Do you already have a first game for Trecision in the planning stages?
Ha! I'm already behind where I wish I was, but yes, I've got some titles in progress. I'm doing a really fun action title for the X-box and PS2, and we have nine people on that project now, and I'm doing a huge Internet game, and we've got as of today seven people on that team. My biggest problem is ramping up the project staffs, and we spend a fair amount of time recruiting. We desperately want more artists and programmers, (doesn't everyone?), but still we're pretty picky and have rejected a lot of candidates who either didn't really have the skills we wanted or were not the sort of team players we wanted. Here in Italy, once you hire someone, you've got to keep them for life essentially, so as anxious as we are to expand the teams, it's like looking for marriage partners, and we're forced to be cautious.
But the games I'm doing are quite fun. They are mostly multiplayer, and we play some parts on paper occasionally, and we make ourselves cry because we're laughing so hard.
Do you feel that Trecision will give you the opportunity to make games like Kyrandia again?
Without a doubt. Money is important though, and right now we need to do some other stuff to be able to afford to make more adventure games. It'll be a bit, but we'll get around to it. I've signed a very long lease on my condominium here, and I intend to stay here Italy for years and crank out some memorable stuff. We got together in the first place sort of as a mutual admiration society regarding our adventure games, so we both know we want to make some when we can. Unfortunately, there's not a publisher in the world willing to fund us to start a new adventure series right now, (Did I not already comment derogatorily concerning the sagacity of publishers?) so we'll have to be funding ourselves, I'm sure. And funding doesn't just mean the wherewithal to make the games, but also to promote and distribute them.
Can the Internet play a part in the resurgence of the adventure game?
Yes, I think the access that the Internet will provide is what will help Adventure games. New streaming content capacity will allow people to play games without needing to buy a box, and that will cause more people to play. We're still a few years away though, and (insert third publisher slam here) I foresee Adventure game fortunes going a bit lower still before they rebound.
What can consumers to do help bring this resurgence about?
I think that development costs are going to come down, and that will mean that more people will be able to make games, and that will mean that more games get made. True, fancy graphics will still be hard to come by, but adventure games have always been able to use less technologically awesome graphics quite well, if the games are well thought out. I'd encourage anybody to just go ahead and start making their own games if they are so motivated. Two guys in a garage can make anything they want, and history has demonstrated that that a few dozen times.
Where do you want to be ten years from now?
That question is sort of like asking, "What do you want for Christmas?" since I think that articulating a desire is the first step towards achieving it. Of course, above all, I want my family and friends to be happy and healthy. Additionally, for myself, I'd like:
1. To be a successful novelist.
2. To have some of my projects to be international in scope.
3. To be more involved with agricultural activities.
4. To be busy creating Interactive Entertainment that makes people laugh.
We want to thank Rick again for taking the time to answer our questions, and wish him the best of luck on all his future projects!