Josh Mandel interview

Josh Mandel
Josh Mandel

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.

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rtrooney rtrooney
Mar 4, 2013

Bravo! I know it took a lot of courage to admit to that one time in your life that things weren’t going exactly as planed. I am so grateful that you are my friend.

Mar 5, 2013

What a wonderful read. I could have read another six pages of that. For anyone who’s interested, here’s an interview Mandel (and Al Lowe) did with an Australian podcast a couple months back…both men are incredibly easy to listen to:

Honest, humourous, decent- they’re the impressions I’ve gotten of this man ever since I’ve become more aware of him since the Larry Kickstarter.

And I like his response to the blunt “adventure games need to evolve, don’t they Josh?” question.

Toefur Toefur
Mar 5, 2013

Most interesting interview I’ve read in a while. What a great guy!

Kasper F. Nielsen Kasper F. Nielsen
Mar 6, 2013

Great interview. Josh certainly have had an interesting career so far, albeit with a lot of ups and downs.

James Bit James Bit
Mar 6, 2013

Always happy to read more from Josh Smile

It was a real privilege to chat to both of those Al and Josh on our podcast - really easy to talk to.

I think Al said it best when he described Josh as a “Stealth Genius”. I’m glad he’s getting more press highlighting his accomplishments.

Sefir Sefir
Mar 7, 2013

And don’t forget! Josh is a regular in our CCS Community Playthrough in the AG Forums! There are interesting posts from his side that provide some extra insight and words of wisdom!

Stinger Stinger
Mar 13, 2013

Spectacular interview. A.A is right, I could have kept reading for a long time. We owe Josh a big debt of gratitude for how incredibly great the SCI1 era at Sierra really was.

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