Josh Mandel has a truly impressive résumé, if somewhat less heralded than other former Sierra greats. His multiple talents have lent themselves both to acting (he's the voice of King Graham) and game design at companies like Sierra and Legend Entertainment, with credits on titles such as Space Quest 6, Freddy Pharkas, and Callahan's Crosstime Saloon. In catching up with Josh recently, we obviously cast a long look back at his storied career, but just as importantly, we talked about what's still to come as well. With Josh involved in the upcoming Fester Mudd, Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded and Asylum, the time was right to peer into the mind of one of the most underrated designers in genre history.
Ingmar Böke: It’s a pleasure to welcome you to Adventure Gamers, Josh. Throughout the years you've worked on tons of games for various companies, but I would like to start right at the beginning. How did you get involved with the game industry, and what were you doing before you joined Sierra?
Josh Mandel: Well, all my life I’d wanted to be an actor. It helped to have a father in the industry; I ended up getting training at Carnegie-Mellon and American Conservatory Theatre before I’d even turned 18. Throughout college in Madison, Wisconsin, I’d pursued a Theater degree, but in my off-hours, a group of four friends and I had formed a comedy group, “Batteries Sold Separately,” that performed at the university and the nearby clubs and bars. When I graduated in 1981, I was totally entranced with doing comedy live on-stage, so I decided to move to Chicago and see if could get into Second City. One of the other Batteries Sold Separately members, Karen McVeigh, was my best friend, and she suggested we move to Chicago and try to get into Second City together. Our fallback would be doing comedy ourselves if we had to.
We took classes with Paul Sills (whose mother, Viola Spolin, wrote *the* textbook on theatrical improvisation) and tried to get into Second City, but it was made clear to us that if we intended to get onstage there, we’d have to sign up for years of classes and walk the owner’s dog (I’m not exaggerating). But we had already started doing comedy on our own, and were having great success, so we stuck with that. Before a year or two had passed, we were the “house comedy act” at the Playboy Club in Chicago and frequent headliners at the Chicago Comedy Showcase, Byfield’s, and other great Chicago clubs of the time. Soon we had headlined at the majority of comedy clubs in the country. This was just before the huge comedy boom of the late ‘80s, when the Improv started opening up chains and taped comedy shows began running on cable 24/7.
Karen had gotten married along the way, then she got pregnant. In 1986, she quit comedy. In those days, you could smoke in clubs, and here was this tiny, 3-months-pregnant woman spending most of her nights in smoky clubs, and she wasn’t having any of that. So I went into advertising, with my sights set on specializing in comedic ads.
It was about then that I bought my first computer. I’d played games on mainframes before, and had desperately wanted to play adventure games. The first few games I bought were Flight Simulator, Sierra’s Black Cauldron, and a couple of Infocom games. And Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards came out very soon thereafter; it was probably among the first ten games I played.
I played these games constantly. Soon I joined CompuServe, and became so involved with the computer game community there that I became a “SysOp.” I also wrote tons of reviews, walkthrus, and commentary about the games of the era, and eventually began to sell those articles to print magazines like Videogames & Computer Entertainment. CompuServe and the magazines started sending me more games to review, so I was never lacking for games to play. Still, I was always lining up at Babbage’s to buy the latest Sierra game.
After doing this for a couple of years, Ms. Wiz, one of the other CompuServe Gamers Forum SysOps, pointed out to me that one of the forum’s best members, Guruka Singh Khalsa, was a Producer at Sierra, which I hadn’t realized. I asked Guruka if I could try betatesting for Sierra, and he agreed. It changed my life completely.
I betatested for Sierra (and Infocom and Sir-Tech) for a couple of years, and had a great deal of fun doing it. I was pretty thorough and I remember spending hours on the phone with Mark Hood (later to become the VP of Development), trying to iron out a fatal bug in Codename: Iceman.
In early 1990, Guruka asked if I’d be interested in a full-time position. By then, I was fairly well entrenched in the Chicago advertising scene (and still, peripherally, in comedy, as Karen had consented to return for occasional shows in Chicago and other nearby cities). I never imagined I would really want to give it all up to work at Sierra, but I decided to at least interview.
I was blown away by nearly every aspect of the interview. The scenery was like nothing I’d ever experienced. Ken (Williams) came out to meet me in the parking lot. Guruka and Bill Davis were welcoming and gracious and positive and enthusiastic. Everybody I met was loving their work and creating amazing things. This was when KQ5 and SQ4 were deep in production, and so I’d never seen such incredible artwork in a game.
And when the checkout woman at Raley’s, seeing me stocking up on beef jerky (to bring back to Chicago, where beef jerky was unknown), gave me her recipe, I decided: I have GOT to be a part of all this.
Ingmar: Please give us an overview of your early years at Sierra. What projects did you work on and what was it like working for Sierra back then, when the dark days of "the suits" to come were still far away.
Josh: The way you characterize it is funny. From my perspective, I came before everything changed for the worse. From the perspective of so many other people at Sierra, everything had already changed for the worse before I got there.
King's Quest I
My very first project was the King's Quest 1 remake. It had languished for many months, being paid attention to only sporadically. I hadn’t played KQ1 for years, so my very assignment: play through KQ1 and take notes. The programmers on the project had quite a bit of the game laid out, and had actually developed a great “room change” – a transition from one room to another – that became very popular: the scrolling effect (which we used both horizontally and vertically). In fact, there was some resistance to our using it; they wanted it for KQ5, since the KQ series was always supposed to showcase any obvious technological improvement.
I was also put in charge of translating the Game Arts games (like Zeliard and the Thexder games) into English, as we had a sort of reciprocal agreement with them; they got our games, we got theirs. Thexder and Sorcerian had already been released, but Zeliard and Thexder 2: Firehawk were waiting. Most of that work was done by Marti McKenna, a wonderfully talented writer they had on-staff in the Creative Services department and were not using to her fullest advantage. The Creative Services department was run by Kurt Busch, one of my favourite people in the world, and that department was responsible for manuals, boxes, advertisements, and InterAction.
At that time, the metal structure that had recently become the main offices had only one floor. Much of the development was done in one huge room that encompassed art and programming; Corey Cole’s cubicle was steps from Mark Crowe’s, for instance. Some of the company, I think mostly parts of the KQ5 team, were still in a couple of offices in the old professional building, the one you see at the end of SQ3, and the company had expanded to the point where, even between the two buildings, we had no place for meetings. Our weekly production meetings were held in a trailer in the parking lot.
They built a second floor on the building soon after I got there, but even after that addition, there were still teams in trailers in the parking lot.
Ingmar: Since you worked on so many projects for Sierra, it’s impossible to talk about all of them in detail, but I’d like to pick a few and learn about the creation of those games and your personal experiences. Let’s start with the King’s Quest series.
Josh: Well, there was the KQ1 remake, my first task. My role on the title was officially Producer, but I wanted to see if I could give the game a total text facelift along with the art facelift. Since I had just played through the original, I could see so many instances where the text, which was sparse and straightforward, could illuminate what the graphics (even the newer ones) couldn’t. And I wanted to show the company that, although I was hired as a Junior Producer, I could serve a better purpose by being allowed to be creative. That’s something that Producers are often not given the opportunity to do. One of my first questions, upon meeting Roberta, was if she’d allow me to rewrite the text, and she graciously gave her absolute consent (provided, naturally, that she had total freedom to change or delete any of my text). So I rewrote most of the text and dialogue, changed a couple of puzzles to make them fairer – the Rumplestiltskin one being the most obvious. And except for one line, Roberta (Williams) kept the changes, so I was delighted. Plus we had vertical AND horizontal scrolling.
King's Quest V
King’s Quest V was already in production when I arrived, and a large part of the company was given over to that. One of the aspects of the game that was new, and difficult, for the company was that some of the art was being done overseas…Korea, I think. People at Sierra were used to walking into each other’s workspace and collaborating in real-time, face-to-face, with their co-workers. Now people had to learn to try to collaborate via email, and that’s a somewhat different skillset. I thought Andy Hoyos did an exceptional job of pulling everything together and making the game extraordinarily visually memorable to everyone who played it.
I was uninvolved with that production until the voice casting, except for the usual stuff you hear from people who are on the team, and see as you’re passing monitors and corkboards throughout the day. I’ve already spoken a great deal about that experience in the past, but I’ll just say that while I’ve never liked my performance as Graham, that’s always been more than compensated for by the sheer selfish pleasure of being a recognizable part of what was a formative experience for so many players. Even if that’s the only taste of immortality I ever get, I’m immensely lucky. I was in the right place at the right time.
King’s Quest VI was another game in which I had only a passing role at best, reprising Graham and modelling as Shamir Shamazel. I assume Jane Jensen tapped me for that because, being perhaps the only Jew in the entire development side of the company, I was by far the most authentic schlemiel there. And I never said “no” to being involved in anything. It’s my favourite KQ, and I think what made it so strong was the collaboration between Jane and Roberta.
KQ7 was a blur for me because I was so involved with other things then. We all did some testing on it, as it was a very demanding and technologically different game.
Ingmar: On Laura Bow II: Dagger of Amon Ra, you worked very closely with Lorelei Shannon, who's stated how much fun she had working with you on this project. Please share your memories of its development.
Laura Bow in The Dagger of Amon Ra
Josh: I loved working on that game, too. Bruce (Balfour) made a true mystery lover’s mystery out of a much more lightweight concept, and in that sense he pushed the boundaries of what Sierra had been known for. The plotting was so meticulous and layered that you would get out of the game exactly as much as you put into it. If you played it only as a series of puzzles, intending only to get the game to progress as fast as possible, you’d greatly miss the big picture of what was going on with the mystery. The more you savoured it, investigated and took notes, the more you’d end up with an ideal conclusion.
I loved working with Bruce and Lorelei, because they were so smart and so in-tune that if I could make them laugh just once or twice a day, I’d feel like I’d accomplished something. And what we enjoyed deeply about games seem to align very well: we all loved the same sort of frequent, illuminating, lightly cynical banter in the game messages, we all put a high value on the authenticity of what we were writing, we all wanted to put a lot of time and energy into the additional materials included in the box. For three designers to all be working on one game at the same time, and especially loving every minute of it, was a very rare circumstance, and it was an overall great experience. Probably particularly for Lorelei and I, since Bruce, as the designer and head of the project, was more in the firing line than we were when it came to pleasing Ken and Roberta and everyone else.
Ingmar: In the year 1993 we saw the results of a legendary combination that would bring us a Leisure Suit Larry remake nearly 20 years later: Josh Mandel and Al Lowe. Let’s hear your memories of the creation of Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist and what it was like to work with Al on this project.
Josh: It was probably the most exciting and exhausting experience I’ve ever had on a game.
In those days, Sierra was working on a star system: you cut your teeth by working with an established designer on a game, and you’d actually assume most of the burden and responsibility. If you collaborated well, if you produced a good game, you were pretty much in line to get your own game next. That’s pretty much how Jane got Gabriel Knight after KQ6, how Bruce got Outpost after Dagger of Amon Ra, how Lorelei got Phantasmagoria 2 after KQ7, how I got SQ6 after Freddy Pharkas.
Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist
So when I was given to Al to be his apprentice on Freddy, I had a good idea of what was at stake. And although I was never a fan of Westerns (and, shamefully, had never even seen Blazing Saddles at the time), I threw myself into it just as hard as I could. Al wrote the initial pass of the design, then I was asked to assemble a team from a given group of artists and programmers who were available, or about to be available. Al and I worked together on a few elements of the design that he wasn’t necessarily happy with yet, such as adding a fourth act, having Freddy’s other ear shot off in the gunfight (even in the best-case scenario), and taking out a whole “Chinatown” region of Coarsegold that we both worried would be too politically incorrect. Al agreed to let me try to put together ballads for the opening and closing, and, under an edict from Ken that all games had to have manual-based copy protection, we decided to use the manual for the prescriptions.
It was a very intense project: the programmers and I were in one room, the artists were in the adjoining room, and so we worked for months and months. Once every few weeks, I’d go to Al’s house in Fresno, or he would come into the office, and we’d go over stuff. I was writing the manual and almost everything in the game except the “critical path” dialogues which Al had put into the design.
Bill Shockley, Cindy Brown, and Steve Conrad were the programmers, and they were incredibly successful at getting SCI to do things it was never designed to be able to handle…like the ballads and the Pharmacy workbench, which gave us memory issues right up until we shipped.
The artists were Ruben Huante, Karin Nestor, Phy Williams, and Bob Gleason. Bob was extremely fast and turned out a prodigious amount of work. Ruben was the opposite, slow and methodical, and his backgrounds and “talkers” are, I think, the graphic standouts of the game, along with Bob’s massive 6-foot-long scrolling “Main Street” painting, one of my most treasured mementos of the project.
They didn’t expect the game to ship on time. So, a couple of weeks or something after the game shipped, I bumped into the head of Sales in the hallway. “How’s Freddy coming?” he asked. I was totally taken by surprise. “Umm, it’s done, and it’s shipped,” I said. “Holy cow!” he said, “I guess I’d better start selling it, then!” So it got off to a very slow start saleswise, but was steady enough over time that Ken eventually decided to give it a CD talkie release. By then, I was working on SQ6 and wasn’t even told about it ‘til Al was in the recording studio and facing a mountain of inventory-on-inventory messages. Heehee.
Ingmar: You’ve been an on-screen actor in Roberta Williams’s Phantasmagoria. Obviously, this game was a step into a new dimension of interactive storytelling for Sierra. How did you feel about this new mixture of movie and game at the time and what are your thoughts on the finished product?
Josh: I hadn’t been much of a fan of FMV, and while I appreciated Roberta’s vision, I didn’t think the technology was there (at least, for us) to do it justice.
It was an amazing production. The construction of the soundstage, the weeks of shooting, it was just a monumental effort. Once in awhile, people would find an excuse to drive over to the studio and see what was going on. The stories that came out of there were unbelievable; people desperate to get in on it somehow, or just to hang out. A design that had to be constantly rewritten to account for limitations of the format. And, I think, for everyone involved, it was just a logistical nightmare.
And it went on and on.
The end result, I think, showed too many rough edges. For as long as the game had been in production, it ended up, for various reasons, looking and feeling hasty. It certainly accomplished one thing, though (which was by design): it let everyone know that Roberta had an imagination far beyond fairy tales.
It was a grand experiment, but I’ve come away thinking that the studio should’ve been built first, used for a smaller game or two, and then, with lessons learned, used for a big, sprawling game like Phantasmagoria. But that would’ve required a lot more foresight than most companies can afford in this industry.
Ingmar: To this day, there still is a lot of talk about the rivalry between Sierra and LucasArts in the days both companies wanted to be ahead of the other and be known as the #1 adventure game company. What were your feelings about this rivalry and how did you feel about the games from LucasArts?
Josh: I really didn’t detect much jealousy at all about LucasArts; if anything, we felt that they were probably the only people in the world who understood what we were doing.
It was obvious that there was a very different approach and a very different set of circumstances. LucasArts was just one small division of a much larger creative organization with other sources of income, professional recording studios, and so on. We felt smaller and scrubbier, I think, like they were the Hollywood big-time, with tie-ins to major properties, and we were playing catch-up with their production values.
But I never experienced anything like outright hostility. We played their games and admired them and, in some ways, strived to be like them…but with our homegrown properties and a far, far more aggressive release schedule.
Ron Gilbert’s infamous article on Why Adventure Games Suck provoked some soul-searching, which was a fantastic thing. Some of us accepted the “no deaths” paradigm much easier than others. That was a big and painful step for Sierra, given that we had our roots in the Infocom age, and it was largely due to Ron and LucasArts.
Ingmar: You’ve been no stranger to the Space Quest series as whole, but your role got a lot bigger for the sixth game. It’s no secret that the creation of SQ6 was extremely turbulent and you left before the game got finished. Can you give us a detailed look back at your role and the troubles that occurred?
Space Quest 6
Josh: Bruce Balfour and I had concocted several proposals for Space Quest 5 before Ken eventually decided to have Dynamix do it and thereby learn to use SCI. Those proposals were resurrected when Ken decided to bring the series back to Oakhurst for SQ6. One of my proposals, “Where in Corpsman Santiago is Roger Wilco?”, was selected by Ken and Roberta as the one to be produced. Ken was slightly reluctant, though, as he thought that it *had* to be more “outer space” and not so much “inner space” to satisfy SQ fans.
From the very beginning, I wanted Scott to be co-designer on the game. I had several reasons. One was that I knew his sense of humor would be invaluable. Two was that I felt his presence on the game would reassure SQ fans that they were getting a Two Guys-approved episode (well, at least 50%). And last, but not least, Scott had reached a strange point with the company where what he did best (which was Space Quest) had been taken away from him for years, and he was having a tough time deciding what to do. He was technically my employee at this point, given that he was in Product Design and that was my department. This seemed to me to be a natural fit for him.
Every time I finished a room design document, I’d drop it on Scott’s desk for his perusal and comment. He was universally accepting, but I think that at that point he was so resentful of how he felt the company had treated him that his heart just wasn’t in it. Or maybe he resented that I was in charge of the project. Or both. Or both and a whole lot of other factors.
In any event, I started off very enthusiastic about the project. I was very proud of some aspects of the design, and others I knew would surely need play-balancing for difficulty, but that’s the way it always happens: you envision something, and when it finally lands in front of the testers, they say, “What were you thinking?” And you hem and haw and change it.
Some of the first things I worked on, after finishing the basic design, were the Mr. Soylent jingle, the database of SQ races and places, and text and dialogue for all the locations I wanted to have in the demo (I wanted a playable demo from the start, as I’d done with Freddy Pharkas, with a wholly independent plot using backgrounds and characters from the game).
I really enjoyed the chance to work with Mike Hutchison, who established the look and feel of the game. He experimented a lot with combinations of pre-rendering, hand-painting, and so on, and we built the demo out of what we ended up liking the most. Just our take on the Sierra logo, with the toy rocketship sputtering around the Sierra “orb,” was an experiment that I thought really worked.
Space Quest 6
Through the process, I, too, began to lose heart, just as Scott already had. Things were changing at the company quickly and seemingly randomly; you could walk in one day and find that everything had changed, from the location of your office to who your boss was to what game you were working on. Couples were being split up as one person would be sent to Washington for the new office there and the other would stay behind in Oakhurst. There were firings, and a lot of hiring of new managers from industries totally outside of gaming. They’d get a few months to try their management style, and if it wasn’t producing fast enough results, they’d be quickly replaced. Projects were cancelled or rearranged. Some people lost it completely. It was impossible for me to go to work each day and write comedy in that kind of climate.
Ingmar: All that trouble ended up in a game many fans were disappointed about. What’s your take on the final result? What worked well in the finished game, what could have worked better?
Josh: I had very mixed feelings about the final result. Some aspects, such as the Information Superhighway, the Deepship, and some areas of Polysorbate LX and Delta Burksilon worked well for me, and the first time I played through it, I found myself laughing out loud at several points – some things that I’d put in the game months previous (and didn’t even remember), and some things that Scott and Leslie put in.
On the other hand, there was the missing comic book, which necessitated the Datacorder hints be put into the manual…that was a major screwup. The ending lacked any kind of drama; I’ve always understood why Scott didn’t want the ending I’d originally wrote (which was an elaborate reference to Leisure Suit Larry), but I don’t think the ending they settled on was what fans had come to expect from a Space Quest ending. And my biggest disappointment was inside Stellar herself. There were no real clues as to what you were supposed to do, and no real jokes that took advantage of the unique environments. I had always envisioned the internal organs to take the place of, for instance, the planets in SQ3; you’d be able to move about them fairly freely; some of them, you could explore the surface, some you could go underground, and they would be strange and foreign and slightly disgusting in that familiar SQ way. And there are tons of jokes to be made about organs and biology. But that area of the game felt extremely barren to me, and so I thought it was an opportunity somewhat wasted.
Ingmar: You've stated in the past that Space Quest 6 was not the reason you left Sierra, but rather the new structure of the company at the time. Please tell us about your departure.
Josh: The company was planning to send me to Bellevue, Washington after SQ6, and I was to become a contractor rather than an employee (which is what the designers all hoped for, as your compensation could then be tied to the performance of your game, and royalties had traditionally been generous at Sierra…albeit less so over time). But there were certain conditions and stipulations involved in the move and the projects I’d be doing in Bellevue, and the management and I negotiated these for quite some time before arriving at something mutually agreeable and proceeding to draft a contract.
Two weeks later, I bumped into Mark Hood in the hall, and he said something about one of the projects, and it became clear to me that management had already reneged on the contract. I confronted them about it (this was not Ken, BTW), and they shrugged and said, with no irony or remorse, “That’s business!”
I said, “That’s not the way I do business,” and I submitted my resignation that day.
There's always time for playing with his daughter in Josh's busy schedule
I might well have been able to go to Ken at the time and said, “Make this right,” and he might very well have done so. But I could see the handwriting on the wall: the “suits” had taken over, people with no sense of loyalty to the games or the people who’d built the company, and I knew that even if I won this battle, every day would bring a new one.
I had been talking to Bob Bates for the better part of a year about the possibility of working for Legend, and this was an ideal opportunity. Before I left town, though, I would still go into the Sierra building, to the SQ6 team, and go over design with them, and write bits and pieces, while I waited for the big move to take place. (It was then that I did my little guest spot in Phantasmagoria.) Well, one of the producers at Sierra who was trying to curry favour with the new management told them that I was recruiting artists for Legend – which was kinda funny, since Legend had no artists on staff! – and so I was banned from the building, even though I was trying to help out on the game and not getting paid for it.
It certainly left a bad taste in my mouth.
Ingmar: When you look back at working with Ken Williams for several years: What was it like dealing with him and how did your relationship change throughout the years?
Josh: Ken was a fascinating character. (I mean, I assume he still is.) I rarely worked with him closely on anything, though. He always seemed friendly, honest, and open; he wasn’t intimidating as you might expect somebody in his position to be.
He also had a very pragmatic side, and he wasn’t afraid to say anything he knew would be unpopular. He had a well-deserved reputation for coming into a team room and throwing a total curveball, and the likelihood that he’d do it only seemed to increase as we’d get closer to a ship date. And it would be something that would blow the budget and/or schedule out of the water, and he’d demand it anyway, and we always did it, even though a lot of time we thought it was unreasonable.
We had a saying: “Ken likes options.” If you presented him with several reasonable options for something, he respected that and would pick one, or cobble an acceptable compromise together out of Column A and Column B. So although he sometimes came across as an immovable object, he was perfectly open to reconsidering his decisions when presented with a logical case.
I remember somebody walking into the Writers’ Block (the room where the on-staff designers lived) and saying, “Ken ripped me a new a__hole just now.” And I said, “Ken likes options.”
Most of my dealings with Ken were happy ones, and he proved several times to me that he could be not just a good boss, but a caring one as well.
Ingmar: How did you end up at Legend Entertainment, and in what way did their way of working differ from what you knew from Sierra On-Line?
Josh: I had betatested for Bob Bates, on his Infocom game SHERLOCK!, years before I went to Sierra. Bob didn’t (and still doesn’t) remember me from that. I have immense admiration for Bob (and for many of the Infocom and Legend designers), so years later, while I was at GDC, I cornered Bob and introduced myself. We talked a lot, and continued to talk now and then over the years, and I was greatly interested in what Legend was doing at the time, carrying the flame that Infocom had started.
Finally, when I realized that the time had come for me to move on from Sierra, I called Bob right away, and moved out to Virginia to work for Legend.
Almost everybody on-staff at Legend was a programmer. It was very small (I think I was something like the 13th or 14th employee). There were no artists, no musicians, and, coming into the company, I was the only designer there who couldn’t program his own work. So it was awkward, and for a long time, I felt like I was out of my depth, that my smaller range of talents was problematic, because I had a tougher time communicating.
Josh mugs for the camera during his time at Legend
As much as I learned about the industry from working at Sierra, I learned much more about game design itself at Legend. These guys were totally design-focused; sharp and critical and analytical. We had meetings on a regular basis in which almost the entire company was invited to review your game design and pick it apart. It was so much more disciplined and demanding than at Sierra, where essentially each designer did what they want, with no real input from other designers, and by the time a Sierra game was in betatest, that might be the first real feedback the designer got on their work. At Legend, you had to be ready to defend all your design decisions, on the basis of the integrity of their storytelling and puzzle construction, not just on the basis of their cost.
I think that, at Legend, we were well aware that the technology was behind the curve graphically, and the feeling was that our designs, our choice of literary licenses, all of it, should more than compensate for the lack of graphic sizzle.
Finding publishing partners was a constant struggle. We were sometimes funded by publishers who knew a lot about books, but not a lot about software. There were some very lean times, but Bob and Mike Verdu, Legend’s other co-founder, somehow kept the doors open day after day.
There was a sort of rotation among the designers; you’d get to design a game, and during those periods when you weren’t working on a game of your own, you programmed on somebody else’s game. Things got very bleak financially towards the end of Callahan's Crosstime Saloon’s development, while Bob was working on The Blackstone Chronicles, and once Callahan’s was finished, I knew it would be a long time before I got to design another game at Legend. And since I couldn’t program on other designers’ games (the way those other designers helped program Callahan’s), I left the company, because I could see that if I stayed, I would have been a financial drain of limited use. I had also been extremely depressed about the way the game was treated by Take Two, who released it with virtually no support, using a buggy beta instead of the correct gold master, and who advertised it (to the extent they advertised it at all) as a Western adventure because they’d never even bothered to boot it up.
Ingmar: What other projects did your work on for Legend?
Josh: There were three that I was involved with: Mike Verdu’s Mission Critical, Corey and Lori Cole’s Shannara, and Callahan’s.
On Mission Critical, I really only tested and gave feedback to Mike Verdu, as everyone in the company did. I may’ve written a line or two, but that would literally be about it. It was sort of a revelation, as it was graphically so ambitious and cool, and the atmosphere it created was superb. I wish Mike was still designing games.
Josh with longtime friend and colleague Stuart Moulder (who eventually went on become CEO of Her Interactive)
On Shannara, Corey and Lori mostly worked offsite and so I was fairly uninvolved with it until the project was nearing completion. It was very cool to have more Sierra people working with Legend, but I didn’t have much contact with them. When the game was very far along, Bob observed that it had very little feedback other than critical path text and dialogue, and asked me to make the game more responsive. So I ended up writing a fair amount of text. I didn’t really have the opportunity to discuss that with the Coles, and I’ve never found out how they felt about it, but I tried to do their storytelling and their sense of humor justice. As with when I wrote on Al’s games, my goal was to keep the game consistent with the style of designer whose name was appearing on the game, so I tried to mimic the Coles’ style as much as I could.
Then there was Callahan’s. Legend wanted to do another game/author tie-in, so they asked which authors of sci-fi, fantasy, etc. I might want to work with. (Or, if not “work with,” then at least “adapt.”)
Legend and their publishing partner at the time had initially wanted me to do a game based on the Belgariad, David Eddings’s five-book fantasy series. I read the books and worked up what I thought was an ambitious adventure game proposal. Eddings returned it to us, stating crankily that he didn’t want kids running around his universe punching and shooting each other, and that he wasn’t interested. I suspect Eddings’s perception of all computer games was formed by watching a few Nintendo games, or Wolfenstein, or something, because my proposal was pure adventure and was not an action game in any way.
So I suggested that I’d love to work with either Spider Robinson or Dean Koontz. I was delighted when they responded most favourably to the Spider Robinson suggestion, because I had come to feel that the entire industry was taking a turn towards the dark and sinister, and here was an opportunity to let some light in. I was also relieved by the general acceptance of the proposed anthology format of the game, and gladdened that the very cool Callahan’s book series might reach a wider audience as a result of the game.
Callahan's Crosstime Saloon
Predictably, I wrote Callahan’s, for all its jokes and its optimistic themes, at one of the darkest periods of my life. I was cripplingly depressed, absolutely uncertain of every word I wrote and decision I made, and had isolated myself fairly well on an 11-acre farm in rural Virginia. The majority of the game was written there. I set myself up with a “sky chair” (a sling-like chair that hangs from the ceiling), I set up some ropes in the house so that I could open and close the garage door from the sky chair (so that I could let my dog in and out of the house). With my laptop, I sat in that chair day and night, writing and sleeping and only getting up when I absolutely needed to. I’m sure I was hell to work with, because I really had very little sense of perspective: I threw myself into the game so hard because it was the one thing that I had any drive at all to accomplish.
Ingmar: So what have you been up to since the “death of adventure games” in the late '90s until the point you teamed up with Al Lowe once more?
Josh: After Callahan’s was done, I spent a lot of time doing freelance design… Sir-Tech, where I did dialogue for Jagged Alliance 2, Broderbund, where I worked on one of the Carmen Sandiego games; Microsoft, where I worked on a project that Bruce Balfour and Dan Carver (Lorelei Shannon’s husband) were doing. I did a couple of Trivial Pursuit games (actual board game editions), which was a very interesting change of venue. I spent a lot of time working with Radical Entertainment on a Crash Bandicoot game, Crash of the Titans, which, by the time it got published, bore no resemblance to the game we started out creating. I wrote a Prima strategy guide for SWAT II, which my pal Susan Frischer back at Sierra had designed, and that entailed working closely with some old friends back there. I did a couple of games and multimedia learning programs for Health Media Labs, including a very fun little traditional adventure game, The Adventures of D.M. Dinwiddie, Physician-In-Training, which taught basic first aid and health material for kids. Karin Nestor and Rich Powell, both from Sierra, worked on that as well, and it was great to be able to work with them again.
I moved to Albany in 1999, to work at Vicarious Visions, which was later acquired by Activision. VV had some hopes of reviving adventures, and I think that’s why they brought me on, but it became clear after awhile that they were headed in another direction entirely.
For much of the last decade, I’ve been doing educational games for a company that creates the software that accompanies adult education textbooks. I’ve had lots of projects based on medicine, or nutrition, and those are interesting topics for me, just as they were back when I worked on SQ6. I did get a chance to work on Insecticide with Larry Ahern and Mike Levine and a bunch of ex-Lucas people, and that was fun, and of course there have been a lot of Sierra fangames that I’ve been happy to contribute to in one form or another.
Ingmar: We've talked about the past a lot so far, but it's great that we can once again look forward to many more promising projects from you in the future. How did you get involved with Replay Games and where did the whole idea for a Leisure Suit Larry remake come from?
Josh: Paul Trowe from Replay Games called me out of the blue in late 2011. I knew Paul from Sierra; he was coming in right about the time I was going out, and he’d been a betatester for us for many years. But we’d never actually had a chance to work together on a project.
At that time, Paul had already arranged the rights to Larry from Codemasters, and he wanted to create a Board of Advisors to ensure that anything that was done with it, or any other Sierra property he might be able to license, had passed muster with four particular designers and producers from Sierra. I was honoured to be among them, and I accepted.
Paul’s plan was to remake all the Larry games, and then produce new ones. At this point, though, he may be ready to try for a brand-new Larry rather than a remake.
Ingmar: Depending on whether people already know the original game or if this is their first encounter with Leisure Suit Larry, what are the reasons can everybody can look forward to this game?
Josh: If people already know the original game, they’ll have this to look forward to: all new hand-drawn artwork and animation; all new text and dialogue with immensely more responsiveness to input; a vast quantity of voiceover (at least, on PC and Mac); some entirely new puzzles and some fine-tuning of the old ones; an additional major new love interest for Larry; new locations; and a new score by Austin Wintory, one of the most celebrated composers in the industry today.
But you’ll also find a lot of touches that are designed specifically to delight old-time Sierra fans, such as hidden Sierra references all throughout the game.
If you don’t know the original game, then you’ll find it to be a surprisingly rude, politically incorrect, suggestive comedy adventure about a 40-year-old virgin who still thinks it’s 1970. You’ll find a lot of what they now call “casual adventure”-style puzzles, but in a retro early 1980s setting. You’ll find a sort of Airplane!-style approach, where we throw a thousand gags at you and hope that you’ll find a lot of them funny.
Ingmar: Larry is one of THE iconic adventure game protagonists who still has a strong fanbase. Where does the fascination for that character come from and what is it that still appeals to people to this day?
Josh: I think so many games are based around larger-than-life characters: secret agents, steely warriors, royalty, ace detectives, spacefaring janitors, zombie hunters. People with glamorous jobs and lives that we kinda wish we had.
Larry is the complete opposite. He’s a loser in a world where, really, NOBODY has those glamorous jobs. He’s not the guy with the job we wish we had, he’s the guy we’re a little afraid we already are. When we laugh at him, we’re laughing at our own sense of being a little out of time and a little out of place. Every adult has had, or should have had, the sensation of saying something totally inappropriate or lame, of making a fool of ourselves in front of someone we want to impress. We play Larry, and we get to say, “Hey, he’s worse than I’ve ever been.” It’s comforting to know that, next to him, you’re not doing so badly.
Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards: Reloaded
Ingmar: Aside from Larry, Replay Games is also bringing us Fester Mudd: Curse of the Gold soon. What can you tell us about that project, its history and your own involvement?
Josh: Prank Entertainment came to us with Fester and wanted to know if we were interested in publishing it. I played it, Al played it, I think everyone at Replay played it at least a little. For my part, what instantly struck me about it was the way Paavo Harkonen, the designer, stays so faithful to his inspiration: the golden age of adventures from both Lucas and Sierra. The animation and artwork, the characters, the music, the responses, the puzzles – they perfectly capture the feel of those games. And the game itself is breezy and fun and clever in its own right, apart from its retro execution.
We decided to go ahead and publish it, because it’s frankly exactly the kind of product that’s suited to a Replay Games audience: an audience that appreciates what the old adventures did right. And while I did not want to impose any stylistic influence on the game whatsoever, I saw a lot of punchlines sort of “waiting to happen” in the game. So I wrote to Paavo and I asked him if he’d be open to collaborating on fleshing it out even more and boosting the absurdity factor.
He was extremely open, and generously accepted my input, and I think that, between the two of us, we really did greatly increase the number of flat-out laughs in the game, and improved some of the puzzles as well.
Fester Mudd: Curse of the Gold
Ingmar: Obviously, you and Al aren’t the only former Sierra people who have returned to the genre via Kickstarter. I’m sure your fans were very happy about the support you have all shown to each other. It seems like the bond between many of you is still very strong. Do you have an explanation for that – does it perhaps have something to do with the vibe during the early Sierra On-Line days that will always be something special?
Josh: I think all the credit really goes to the fans.
During Sierra’s golden age, we got tons of mail. Most of the time, that mail was extraordinarily supportive of what we were trying to do. People credited Sierra games with teaching them to read, teaching them to type. Larry and Space Quest became formative in young people’s developing sense of humor, the way Mad Magazine did for generations. Families played some of these games together and created powerful memories for everyone. So I think everyone at the time knew that we were creating something special and lasting, even if it didn’t feel like it on a day-to-day basis.
They haven’t let us forget it in the intervening years, either. Between fangames and websites and forums, the fans have constantly shown this incredibly durable love for the Sierra quest games. That hasn’t been lost on people like Al and Jane and Scott and Mark. I’d be surprised if any of them had stopped hoping that somehow, someday, we’d be able to start up again. And I think we all recognize that what benefits any one of us in the current climate benefits all of us.
Ingmar: You are also a part of one of the most anticipated indie adventures of 2013: Asylum by Agustín Cordes. Obviously, I’m not the only fan of your voice acting. What can you tell us about this project and how you got involved?
Josh: Agustín had asked me – and this was probably two years ago already – to do a little cameo voice in the game. I had known him only by reputation, but then I played Scratches, and I was very impressed. Not too long after that, he sent me an early design for Asylum, and asked me to send him some samples of the voice he wanted me to use.
I sent him the samples, and he wrote back that I had done exactly the kind of voice he’d had in mind for the lead, but that he was reluctant to ask me to commit to something like that. But I accepted pretty quickly. It’s a stretch, to do something that serious and grim, and that’s fun… plus, being an integral part of Agustín’s game is just too alluring an offer to turn down.
Ingmar: In our Christmas video you stated how much you still love adventure games and that you check out all the new stuff on our website. Does that mean you also try out a lot of games from other developers? Any recent adventure games you played and liked?
Josh: I try a lot, but rarely play to completion. And ever since the Kickstarter for Leisure Suit Larry, I haven’t had as much time as I’d like even for sampling.
I have been trying to branch out a bit. I’ve been trying to play more mobile games lately, and I’ve also been sampling the “casual adventures/HOGs” that seem to have sprung up by the thousands while I wasn’t looking. There are a few of those that I’ve enjoyed, but only the way you enjoy, say, a bad horror movie: it’s fun while you’re watching it, but as soon as you’re done, you don’t spend one moment thinking about what you’ve just seen. There doesn’t seem to be any “there” there.
Ingmar: Which adventure games – apart from your own – are the ones you can’t wait to play?
Josh: Moebius and SpaceVenture. Mystery Game X.
Ingmar: It seems like all the adventure-related projects that had recent commercial success differed a lot from classical adventure game structures (Heavy Rain, The Walking Dead). Would you agree with me if I’d say that there is a reason for that and that adventure games need to evolve to get more attention in the future? Or would you say it’s enough to appeal to all the old schoolers who played the original games and accept that classical adventure games are a niche product?
Josh: I don’t think adventure games *need* to evolve, but they will, just as every genre evolves. And some evolved versions will be more popular than others. Nor do I think that we have to consign more “classical” adventures to old schoolers. The reaction to Larry, and the early testing we’ve done, shows that classical adventures can attract new users. It may always be a niche audience, but that’s okay. There’s no shame at all in not being the dominant form of gaming, and there are even a few advantages, such as not being the beneficiary of a million lousy me-too products that flood the market and ruin the genre.
Ingmar: Thanks a lot for doing this, Josh. We appreciate it, and we wish you well in your upcoming projects. Any last words for the readers?
Josh: You’re very welcome. And to adventure gamers: we know something that the rest of the gameplayers don’t. Be secure in that. We don’t need to hit them over the head with our superiority.