Al Lowe interview
More than ten years ago, legendary adventure game designer Al Lowe retired from the business. Though his renowned creation Leisure Suit Larry made several appearances without him (each proving definitively that Larry without Al is just a waste of polyester), many years passed without much being seen or heard from the former Sierra developer himself. Thankfully, with the emergence of Kickstarter as a major financial resource, that all changed a year ago to this day. To celebrate the anniversary of the Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded crowdfunding campaign, we sat down with Al to discuss his brilliant career and learn everything there is to know about his leisure suited icon.
Ingmar Böke: Hello, Al. We’re very pleased to welcome you here on the first anniversary of a very special day for Leisure Suit Larry.
Al Lowe: I’m really excited to be here and talk with you, and excited to celebrate the first anniversary of our Kickstarter campaign. What an exciting, crazy, mad, frustrating, and ultimately totally satisfying experience that was!
Ingmar: Obviously we'll talk plenty about your upcoming game and your plans beyond that, but before we go there, I’d like to have a look back at the past. History taught us you were born a poor black child in Gumbo, Missouri. Let’s talk about what happened after you left Gumbo. What did you do before you became a famous game designer?
Al: Let me start back at the beginning. My experiences came about in an odd way – I never had a computer class, never had a programming class, really had no experience doing games at all. But I did like games, I did like playing games, I loved playing computer games, and in fact the first two pieces of software I bought after I bought my Apple II in 1980 were Sierra games. One called Cranston Manor and another called Jawbreaker. Went on to Wizard and the Princess and I loved Roberta’s games, so I got into gaming as a gamer and had no idea how to be a designer because there were no classes then. I tried to actually take some classes and the only thing my local college had available were classes in FORTRAN and COBOL, which wouldn’t have helped much because neither of those ran on an Apple II.
So I really came in self-taught. I did a lot of reading. There was no internet available, of course, but I did read a lot of magazines and typed in a lot of code from magazine articles, which is what one did back in the 1980s. So I kind of taught myself to program, and once a graphics package came out for the Apple II that you could use to create games, I went ahead and wrote a couple games. Sierra found them at a computer show and made me an offer to become a game designer for them instead of what I had been doing, as a publisher copying disks and designing packaging and trying to get wholesalers and retailers to sell the products and doing a lot of work which I didn't want to do. I wanted to create games. So when they said ‘why don’t you just create the games and let us do all the dirty work for you,’ I thought, ‘well that’s a great idea, that’s what I’m going to do.’ And that’s what I did for 16 years thereafter.
Ingmar: How did your fascination with computers start?
The one and only Al Lowe
Al: I started working in programming computers when I got a job as a school district administrator and they didn’t have money for a secretary for me. I had to do a lot of paperwork, but without a typist I ended up typing everything myself. I realized that some people, like the boss’s secretary, had a word processor but it was this esoteric thing the size of a desk and very expensive and certainly not something that anybody who was just a staff member could afford. But I did find out that they had a computer with a program called Edit, a line editor that let you type in lines and then later format them using dot commands. Any line that started with a period was considered a command. And so you could say ‘make the next section bold’ and start with a .b and it would be – it was kind of like a primitive HTML.
So that’s how I started; I had to do my own typing and I thought ‘this is stupid, if I have to do the same thing year after year, wouldn’t it make sense to...' [laughs] do what everybody does today! No workers today have secretaries, everybody does it that way. I just started earlier – about 1978, I think. From that, I wanted to use the computer to do more, so I created some basic programs. They were foolish enough to give me an account and access to the BASIC compiler. So I wrote a set of 20 interrelated programs that shared a common database, to make software that I needed.
So that’s kind of how I got into the whole thing. Of course, it made the transition much easier because I had been a musician, a music teacher. I put myself through high school and college playing music. I made the transition by being a music teacher who needed to use a computer the way everybody does today, and into writing games – into programming because I had to program. Remember, there weren’t even spreadsheets around then – isn’t that amazing? When I say to people ‘I was in computers before there were spreadsheets,’ I sound impossibly old. But that’s the way it was.
Ingmar: Please give us an overview of your activities at Sierra before you did Leisure Suit Larry.
Al: At Sierra, I was the educational guy. My background was in teaching and Ken wanted to expand his educational software offerings, so I designed a bunch of games for Sierra including Winnie the Pooh and the Hundred Acre Woods, The Black Cauldron, and several other games for Walt Disney software. At that time Sierra had the rights to the Disney characters, and we made several games that did quite well, won a bunch of awards and things. But I realized that the real money was writing “real” games, not educational games, so I jumped at the chance to work on King’s Quest and on Police Quest, and several of the other projects. And of course since I was a music teacher and a musician and a composer (of no renown whatsoever) I also got the chance to write some of the early music for the games. In fact, if you look up Donald Duck’s Playground on YouTube you can listen to all the music that I created for that using a three voice PC Jr. speaker. Now that I think about it, it’s pretty amazing that we even got that stuff to work. It was so iffy back then. But I was at first the “education guy,” and then I was a programmer at large, and a musician at large, writing for various games.
Donald Duck's Playground
Ingmar: How did the idea of making a loosely-connected graphic adventure from Sierra's top-selling text adventure Softporn come about, and how was the character Leisure Suit Larry born during that process, since he was not a part of the original?
Al: After we lost the rights to the Disney characters, Ken and I were kicking around what I should do next, and he said ‘you know, we had a big hit with that adventure game Softporn. How about you doing Softporn, only with graphics this time?’ It originally came out as a text only game, written by Chuck Benton. I looked at it; it was seven or eight years old at that time and really out of touch. It was odd… the language, the sense of the game was strange, you’ve probably never seen a game like it. It’s available pretty much anywhere on the internet, so you can try it if you’re interested. I reported back to Ken and John Williams and a few other people in a meeting, ‘guys, that game is so out of touch, it should be wearing a leisure suit’ – and I got a laugh! I thought, ‘Maybe that’s what I can do with this. Maybe if you let me take the game and make fun of it, I can turn it into a comedy.’ And that’s what I did.
Al reminisces about the original Leisure Suit Larry
Unfortunately, the company was short of money just then. They didn’t want to pay me any advances. I said, ‘well, okay, I’ll do it on speculation. What do I care? Surely it will sell’ – because everything that Sierra published sold. So I spent three months or so programming it, while Mark Crowe spent a month of weekends and evenings creating the graphics. When we released the game, it was the worst selling title in the history of the company! The salespeople were afraid to sell it. They thought it was really dirty. That it was terrible. So I figured, oh well, we just wasted a few months of our life, but what the hell, I’ll go to work on Police Quest.
So for the next six months I banged away at Police Quest I and got that into shape in time to sell for Christmas. Meanwhile, Larry was only selling via word of month, I think its first month’s sales were 4,000 copies at a time when most Sierra titles sold 50,000 copies. It was very disappointing. What I didn’t realize was, every month while I wasn’t watching, the sales were doubling. So by the time Christmas came around, the game was selling like crazy. After a year the game was still on the Top 10 sales lists of entertainment software. Yeah, 54 weeks on the charts “with a bullet,” because it was still a rising star, which is pretty funny today when you think about how quickly games are released and fade away.
The relationship of Softporn to Larry is very scant. I kept the puzzles and the locations. There were no graphics; Mark created all those from scratch. There was one line of text that I kept in the game; the rest was discarded. There was no central character in the game; I created Larry from whole cloth. I wasn’t sure how to write a comedy computer game; there were only a few out there , so I just put in anything and everything that I thought might be funny. My attitude was ‘if I just throw enough stuff at the wall, maybe some of it’ll stick and somebody will find something funny.’ And they did. People seemed to think it was funny. Although many thought it was about sex, which it really wasn’t very much. It was much more about laughing at somebody who couldn’t have sex.
Ingmar: How much flak did you get after the release of the game because of its mature content? Obviously, it was different than anything else out there and most others probably wouldn’t have had the guts to deal with some of the things you did in the game.
Al: The game got a little notice but because it was never advertised (and to the best of my knowledge, it still hasn’t been advertised or marketed in any way!), it never generated much interest. There was a bill before the California State Legislature called the Leisure Suit Larry bill (for want of a better name), that said you can’t have any violence, or cigarette smoking, or drinking, or cursing, or sex, or anything else interesting in a video game. All the video game publishers jumped on the legislative committee with both feet and said ‘we have free speech in this country, you can’t censor us that way!’ Of course, they couldn’t, and they didn’t, and the bill quickly fell to the wayside.
But since there was no email then, we didn’t get a lot of letters from people. I mean, back then you had to actually take a pen, and paper, and an envelope, and a stamp, and spend a lot of time… Nowadays you just dash off an email for anything you feel like saying. Back then it took a lot of work to complain and so mostly we didn’t hear much from people.
Ingmar: After such an enormous success, it was obvious there had to be a sequel. Please share your memories of the development of the second game.
Al basks in the glory of LSL2's success, if somewhat humbled by its mistakes
Al: The idea of a sequel came up months after the game was released, certainly not immediately – we were very unsure that we’d even want to do a sequel, because it wasn’t selling very well. But once it started selling well, Sierra obviously said ‘yeah, let’s do a sequel.’ One of the things that I was disappointed in was that the first Larry was too big to fit on a 360K floppy. Yeah, I know, your eyeglasses have more memory than that today, but back then a floppy disk only held 360 kilobytes. Not megabytes, not giga – kilobytes! So it was difficult to play the game because you were constantly swapping floppies in and out. I thought it would be good if my next game could be played easily from floppy disks. So Larry 2 was created that way; it had six distinct areas where you had to finish one level before you could go on to the next, and once you did, you never had to put that previous disk back in again.
Of course, I screwed up a few times and left in some puzzles that couldn’t be solved – remember: we were learning, too. I didn’t know what I was doing. In fact none of us did; we were all making it up as we went along.
I thought, I’ve already done this wild and crazy stuff, Larry finally got laid, maybe now he should go looking for love. So that became the game, Leisure Suit Larry Goes Looking for Love In Several Wrong Places. From it I learned that people weren’t as interested in true love as they were in casual sex. So Larry 2 taught me a lesson that I stuck with thereafter: don’t get too excited about love, go for the babes and keep the game flowing.
Ingmar: You once said there would never be a new Leisure Suit Larry game after the trilogy ended. Did Ken Williams talk you into more or did you come up with the idea of a new Larry game yourself?
LSL3 was originally intended to be the final series game
Al: When Larry 2 sold great out the door, we knew immediately that we would do Larry 3. My intention was for it to be a trilogy. Up until Larry 3, I don’t remember games or movies having more than three parts; there was often a trilogy, but never more. So Larry 3 was intended to be the end of the series. I was quite surprised when the game sold even better than the first two and people wanted yet another.
Ken suggested that I work on a new concept: a multiplayer online adventure game. You’ve got to understand, this was at a time when a 1200 baud modem cost $600. Most people had 300 baud modems if they had one at all, and a 1200 was a screamin’ demon! In hindsight, to do an online multiplayer game in those days seems impossible. We tried – I worked on it for months – but it just seemed really difficult. And so I gave up after we had created a few little games that some people took to quite well and that ended up making quite a bit of money for Sierra, but it felt like a dead end to me at the time. Remember, we were a dozen years before Ultima Online came out, which was close to what we were trying to do. Imagine the difference between high speed internet and a 1200 baud dial-up modem.
So that online multiplayer adventure game was going to be Larry 4. When we gave up on that, I looked at the end of Larry 3 and thought, ‘what am I going to do? I don’t have a way to start the game up again.’ I left Larry in such a happy place, ensconced in a nice house, with a job, and a nice wife. Everything was good, how can I make the poor guy miserable again? Well, I fought that dilemma for a long time. I really tried hard to figure out a solution and came up with nothing.
Who needs a Larry 4 when you can jump straight to 5?
One day I was in the hall at Sierra talking with someone I hadn’t seen for a while, and she asked ‘What are you working on now, Larry 4?’ And like a smartass I said ‘No, Larry 5. Of course Larry 4.’ But I started thinking, that’s the answer. Who says you have to do sequels in order? [laughs] So I started thinking, what could I do if I skipped 4 and went straight to 5? I could refer back throughout the game to things that you remembered happening in Larry 4 and it could be totally nonsensical but it wouldn’t matter. Plus, it had a really surprising side effect, a benefit that I didn’t realize or expect: it got mindshare. When people said, ‘we have a new game coming out, Larry 5,’ everybody said, ‘wait a minute, Larry 5? I don’t remember playing Larry 4.’ We kind of got in their heads a little bit. It was quite successful as far as sales were concerned.
It was also the new interface for Sierra: point-and-click only, no more typing. That was a shock for all of us: Roberta, Jim Walls, Jane, Scott, everybody. We were all shocked when we finished our games and found out that they were quite easy because you didn’t have to guess what word we wanted you to type. None of us realized just how much the typing interface made a difference in gameplay. When we put the same number of puzzles in a point-and-click, suddenly people completed them much faster.
I also did another foolish thing with Larry 5; I thought that people wanted replayability, so I put in lots of alternative puzzles. Almost every puzzle in the game had another solution. One was easier and got less points; one was more difficult and got more points. Surprisingly, most people found the one and never went back to try the other. There was no attempt to better your score or get more points, even though we spelled out at the very end that you missed this and this and this and this, all these things, but nobody wanted to play them over again. They wanted to play a new game. So we learned a lesson: when you’re doing story games, people want to get to the end of the story and then they won’t play it again. So I learned some big lessons: no more alternative puzzles, and point-and-click requires a lot more puzzles!
Ingmar: What are your memories of developing the subsequent games in the series?
Al: When we moved on to Leisure Suit Larry 6: Shape Up or Slip Out, it was obvious that we had a year to develop a game. We wanted it out in time for Christmas. We had a great team of people– by then we had people trained in how to use our peculiar tools, and new tools were coming to the marketplace, like Photoshop, that enabled us to do more creative things. You must remember: all the tools we used to create those games, every utility, everything, was created by Sierra’s programmers. But once Photoshop came out, it was like, ‘oh, this is better than what we’ve been using, maybe we could use this instead.’ So we did a little bit , but not much. And that game had our first few seconds of video at the end of it. We had some silly sight gags that used video imaging. It was fun to include video, even though we were on six 1.44 MB floppy disks.
LSL6 could be enjoyed in a whopping 640x480 resolution
But by then nearly everybody was using hard drives to play the games. We did a second version of Larry 6 in higher resolution, using the new SCI interface that was 640x480. Oh man, that’s like a Blackberry phone or something today, but back then that was some high-res stuff. That was hot stuff, a big move up from 320x240. When we translated those games to the Apple, they dropped down to160x200. Pretty chunky back then.
Larry 6 was a great team. We had a small office set up in Fresno and it was just a fun development cycle. By then we knew what we were doing, and the work went smoothly. But about that same time, Ken realized that to grow the company, he couldn’t stay in Oakhurst and Coarsegold, so he started looking for a new place to move the company. He looked at Silicon Valley, but ended up in Seattle. He liked the weather, he was a boating guy and he loved the boating scene there.
So the company moved to Seattle, but none of the development did, it stayed in California. But it seemed obvious to me that the future growth of the company would be up north. So after about ten months , I took my family to visit Ken and Roberta. We had a great time, and Ken said, ‘Why don’t you just move up here? We’ll start a little development group up here. We won’t close anything down in Oakhurst, we’ll just keep both places growing.’
So I did. We sold our house in California, moved to Seattle and developed a new team. When I started, we had no development employees whatsoever. My first job was to start hiring staff. We hired some great people, people who went on to make Torin’s Passage with me, and then the next year the seventh Leisure Suit Larry game. Or sixth, depending on how you’re counting.
Ingmar: In 1996 we saw the release of the seventh game, which you've called your favorite Leisure Suit Larry. What do you remember about its development and what is it that makes the game so special to you?
Al: Larry 7 was my favourite; I thought Love for Sail was the best of the games that I did, frankly because by that point I had learned how to do this thing. It took me 5 or 10 years to figure out what to do, and dammit, just when I got good at it, the bottom fell out of the adventure game market. It turned out that Larry 7 was the last of the Larry adventure games. Well, it was the last, until just recently. Larry 7 was really fun because we did a lot of subtle things that worked well. It was the first game that had real musical instruments playing pre-recorded music as opposed to MIDI or that horrible PC tweaker that we had to use in the beginning. And we developed a great team here in Seattle, a great bunch of people who did a great job. Mark Seibert was my producer and he made everything go as smooth as silk so we could focus on being funny.
Al's favourite Larry adventure was sadly to be his last (until now)
We had a team meeting every Friday afternoon We had a rule at the meetings that, if anyone got a laugh with some idea for the game, we would try to work it in. And that’s where Dildo came about. “Where’s Dildo?” in Larry 7 was one of my favourite ideas, and it wasn’t mine. Jason Piel was doodling, drew Dildo, and made everyone laugh. The animators loved it, they animated it. The programmers used their spare time between bug fixes near the end of the project to insert ever more locations in the game where you could find him.
It was a fun team and a creative place to work. Then came the dark side.
Ingmar: Originally, Love for Sail was meant to be followed by Lust in Space. Unfortunately, a lot of things changed at Sierra in the meantime and you left the company in 1999. How much work did you invest into part 8 and what can you tell us about the original concept?
Al: After Love for Sail, we came up with the idea for the next game, which maybe got a little over the top… I don’t know that we jumped the shark, but maybe we were going to. Lust in Space was, I thought, a great idea for a game, and let me do different things to put Larry into a different environment and poke fun at even more adventure game ideas. But management changed hands at Sierra. Ken and Roberta started that company on their kitchen table in the late '70s and built it until it had a billion dollar market capitalization. At the height of its success, one of its board members staged a hostile takeover and wrested control of the company away from Ken and Roberta under false pretenses. He basically stole the company in a fraudulent manner and is now in a U.S. Federal penitentiary. Hopefully he’s miserable. As far as I’m concerned, I hope he rots there.
Ingmar: What are your recollections about your last days at Sierra? Explain how the mood in the company changed after Ken left and what made you leave in the end.
Eight years after LSL7, the franchise was resurrected with Magna Cum Laude: No Al, no Laffer, no adventure, no fun
Al: It was a horrible time; the company went through terrible turmoil. Without Ken at the helm, nobody knew exactly what to do. They brought in a guy whose previous job was selling crackers for Nabisco and they wondered why game development went downhill! The management did not know what they wanted, so they would listen to a game pitch and couldn’t tell whether it was good or not. So they would fund it, and wait a while and then see how it came out. If people liked it, they’d stick with it for a while. But usually they’d get cold feet and cancel it. They wasted millions of dollars developing products that might have been great but never shipped because they were cancelled after they had been in development.
With a terrible management scheme and a terrible string of managers, Sierra became a real revolving door with people changing jobs constantly. The writing was on the wall. The good people, the backbone of the company, started looking for other jobs and found them; they were good people, of course they got a job. But that left just the weaker people, so the company went downhill quickly. Four years after Ken and Roberta were ousted, the company was in dire straits. Six years afterwards, they turned off the lights and locked the doors, sending the few remaining people to Los Angeles to a different office. Sierra and all the things that we’d worked for all those years, turned out to be just another logo to be stuck on whatever box they felt like sticking it on. The company changed hands multiple times, going from the crooks who stole it, to another company, to another company, to another company, at least five times. I had one friend who had six different business cards in two years. Things were in turmoil.
I was really sorry. Ken was broken-hearted. He watched something he had built from scratch into this huge successful company spiral into the dirt. When he was forced out, Sierra earned 28 cents of every dollar spent on entertainment software. Think about that: bigger than EA, bigger than Microsoft, bigger than Blizzard, bigger than everyone. It was so sad. Ken called them up and said, ‘you know, I built this company from nothing, I could help you save it.’ But they weren’t even smart enough to accept his advice. It was a sad time in gaming history.
I stayed on for a little while after this all happened and watched part of the death spiral, but it seemed obvious to me that they didn’t know what they were doing. The management was confused; they thought that adventure games wouldn’t sell anymore because people weren’t interested. And so they didn’t sell, because they didn’t develop any new games, and it’s hard to sell product if you don’t have new product. So I retired. My investments had worked out well in the '90s and I thought, well, I’ll just see what happens. So I retired from Sierra and I have been happily retired, well, almost ever since, until just recently.
Ingmar: Even though most people know you for your work on Leisure Suit Larry, you were also the creative mind behind two other popular adventure games. Let's start with Freddy Pharkas: How did that whole concept come about?
Al: Freddy Pharkas was an idea that Ken and I came up with after talking about what other kinds of games that we could do. You know, today, publishers look at the marketplace and say ‘give me a game that’s just like that other game, only a little bit different.’ Ken’s attitude was, 'what games haven’t there been? Let’s try and do something like that. Do something that’s not out there.' That was Ken’s philosophy in game development: put out a game that’s not already on the market. We looked around a video store and saw westerns were popular, and I said, ‘you know, a comedy western would be fun. Maybe I could do a comedy western.’ And he said, ‘yeah, let’s do that.’ [laughs]
I thought, now what could I do for a comedy western? I watched every video that I could find of western comedies, – there’s not that many! One day I met with Josh Mandel and Roberta Williams at her house and I said, 'we need a job for this guy, what’s he going to do?' And I started to say ‘he could be a farmer’ and ‘he could be a rancher’ and I got the two words confused in my mouth and I said ‘he could be a pharmacist.’ [laughs] That didn’t make any sense, but they both laughed, and I said, ‘hey, why couldn’t he be a pharmacist? That would be fun.’ And from a mistake came a fun aspect of the Freddy Pharkas game, working as a pharmacist, mixing chemicals. Josh Mandel’s hilarious book of home remedies was wonderful. Josh produced that game and did a lot of the writing, so if you like Freddy Pharkas, Josh deserves a big part of the credit for it. He’s one funny guy, and I’m so happy to be working with him again on Leisure Suit Larry Reloaded.
Freddy Pharkas involved a special collaboration of creative minds that continues today
Ingmar: Another game you were responsible for was Torin’s Passage, which you described as a King’s Quest-type game with more humor. Please share your memories of how that project was born.
Al: Torin’s Passage was an idea in the same vein: I wanted to do a game that wasn’t like Larry and Ken wanted a game that was like King’s Quest, but wasn’t. At the time there was a movie called Mrs. Doubtfire starring Robin Williams. I took my daughter to it, and I noticed something in the theatre: there were two pitches of laughter during that film. One was high-pitched little laughs from the kids who laughed at the slapstick humor and the other was this low-pitched heh heh heh laugh from the adults in the audience at the risqué parts that went right over the kids’ heads. And that was about the time that I was thinking about Torin, and I thought, why aren’t there games like that? Where a kid could play with an adult, and they both could enjoy the game only at different levels? That’s the way I played with my kids, and we enjoyed it, so I thought 'let’s do a game that way.'
That was the point of Torin, a game with humor for both adults and kids, puzzles for adults and kids, and a storyline that both could relate to. That was the first game that we did in Bellevue, and the first game that shipped from the Bellevue Sierra office after the move to Seattle.
Ingmar: Between your departure from Sierra and your recent return you have been largely off the radar of the adventure game community for many years. What were you up to in those years? Just enjoying retirement?
Al: After I left Sierra I retired completely. I was tired of games, got completely away from games, stopped playing games, stopped buying games, and just decided to retire and be happy. It’s amazing how enjoyable retirement is. I hear people say ‘I could never retire, it would just be so boring.’ I’ve never had that problem. I’ve found that there were too many things to do, too many things that I am interested in. I’ve really enjoyed retirement.
But then Paul Trowe called me from Replay Games and said he thought he was going to get the rights to the Leisure Suit Larry games back from whoever happened to end up with them after all that company turmoil in the late '90s and 2000s. Paul wanted to remake the first game. And I said, ‘Paul, if all you want to just do a remake, we did that in 1991 and we can do the same thing again. But I’m really not that interested in that. If we’re going to do it for modern machines, I want to improve it, make it much better. Make it better, play smoother, make the graphics better – you know, redo everything.’
That worked to our advantage, because in all the turmoil of Sierra falling apart, they lost all the source code and all the graphics resources and all the music, everything that we created over the years. We had nothing to go on except the original game. We started with that. We played the game and wrote down everything we could find. We reverse engineered it. But when the Kickstarter was so successful, we were able to do more than just reissue the game with new graphics, etc. We’ve added another girl and we’ve added lots of puzzles. The game is much harder than it was. I even fixed some of the puzzles that I hated from the original game. Our goal was to make sure that every walkthrough on the internet won't work.
Early art from Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded. The look has significantly improved, but poor Larry's fortunes haven't.
Ingmar: Lots of things have changed since the release of your last game when it comes to accessibility in adventure games. Did you have a look at what happened in the genre in the meantime, or will Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded be totally old-school in terms of mechanics, interface etc.?
Al: Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded will be old-school in game mechanics but quite modern in UI, look, feel, touchscreen smart, with great retina-res graphics, superb voiceovers (on computers, but not mobiles), smooth hand-drawn animation, and state-of-the-art music from Austin Wintory.
Ingmar: As this is the first anniversary of Leisure Suit Larry appearing on Kickstarter, it's only natural to ask: Was Tim Schafer's success responsible for you going the Kickstarter route or was that something you were planning to do anyway?
Al: It was funny how we got into the Kickstarter thing. The night before Paul and I attended a conference, Tim Schafer posted his project on Kickstarter. We watched his success: within four hours he got all the money he needed for the game, and within twelve hours he had gotten much more. The next morning, as Paul and I entered this convention, who did we see in the lobby but Tim Schafer. Tim and I hugged and said hi. I congratulated him on his big success, and he said, ‘Man, why don’t you do this?’ I turned to Paul and said, ‘Why don’t we do this?!’ So we did; the morning after meeting Tim we started planning our Kickstarter. We had great fun. We did the video, came up with all the reward levels and schemes. Josh Mandel came on board, and created the hilarious reward levels. That was exactly a year ago.
Ingmar: Obviously your campaign was a huge success, which is impressive proof that the Larry franchise still has many loyal fans around the globe. But how do you explain such a favorable reaction so many years after the release of Love for Sail? I mean... adventure games have been declared dead and everything, so if that’s true... what went “wrong” and made your campaign such a success?
Al: What made the Kickstarter campaign so successful? I like to think it was because Larry had a personality. Larry was a character that was well developed – like some of the great characters of computer games. People related to him; they had a fond spot in their heart for him. How else can you explain people giving up $650k of their own money to help us reissue a game – well, for the fourth time if you count Softporn, then the original Larry in ’87, and the remake in ’91. Yes, this will be the fourth go-around for this game. Now, it’s a hell of a lot different than it was in ’91, which was far different from ’87, which was extremely different from 1980, Chuck’s version. But a lot of it has to do with the impression that the game made on people back in those days. You know, the box was always more risqué than the contents, but many people had fond memories of growing up with Larry. We kind of convinced people that the games were dirty, but once we got them into the game and they realized it was actually funny, they stuck with it because of the humor. At least, that’s what I like to think.
We had a great time going through this process, redoing this game and making it better. And I think people will be surprised to see how well the game plays on current devices. While the PC and Mac versions work great with the standard mouse interface, it’s also a touch screen game now. It feels so natural to move Larry around with your finger instead of a mouse. So it’s been a blast.
LSL: Reloaded Kickstarter video
Ingmar: Give us an idea of the creative work between you and Josh Mandel. In what ways do you guys complement each other’s ideas and how important was it for you to approach this project together with him?
Al: One of the great things about this project has been the chance to work with Josh again. After working on several different projects with him at Sierra over the years but mostly on Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist. I’ve learned to love this guy. He’s been great. He's done all the important work that’s needed for a game today. I really appreciate how hard a worker he is and how much goodness he’s added, and how much humor he has. He’s one of the funniest people I know! And I mean that most sincerely.
Ingmar: One of the key motivations behind this project seems to be the possibility of following up with a real sequel if the remake is a success. How optimistic are you that in our next interview we’ll be talking about the upcoming release of Leisure Suit Larry 8, and how far along are you in already preparing for such a project? Would a new game have anything in common with your orginal ideas for Lust in Space or would it be something completely different?
Al: We currently have the rights to remake all the current games. If these sell well, we hope to obtain the rights to do new titles, to do a game that would extend the franchise. To do Leisure Suit Larry 8 and completely ignore the two horrible catastrophes that Sierra released without me. I want to go back to the series the way it was. We’ve had great results from this game so far. It looks like it’s really going to be a success, which means that I hope we’re going to be able to do it. But the key is to get you and your friends to actually pay for the product! The way you get more product is to support the games that you like. A big problem with the industry today is piracy, so if you like the games, pay for them. It’s not going to kill you. You know, we used to pay $60 or $80 for a game. Games were crazy expensive. Now they're a few dollars. So if you like the game and you want to see more, support it.
First LSL: Reloaded game teaser
Ingmar: Lots of your former colleagues have similarly made a return to adventure game development thanks to Kickstarter. How closely have you followed all these new projects, and what do you think they could they mean for the future of this genre?
Al: I’ve been following all of the Kickstarter campaigns, and supported all of them myself. It’s been really fun to see Ken Allen and Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy and Jane Jensen come back and be successful. The majority of projects that start on Kickstarter fail. It’s not a slam dunk. But Sierra built a good reputation over the years for a quality product, and it’s been fun to see that all the Sierra guys have had successful Kickstarter campaigns. That’s really cool. I’m so proud to have been a part of it.
You know, Sierra back then was a special place. We were doing the games that we wanted to play. I created games for the other guys at Sierra because I wanted them to laugh at them. I wanted them to have fun. We were trying to outdo each other. Part of it was that we were isolated – up in the Sierra mountains, with no other game companies around, we couldn’t go for beer with guys from other game companies. Once in a while we would swap games with LucasArts and others, but for the most part we were off in our own little world. That was good in some ways and bad in others. [laughs] But it’s really been a kick to see people acknowledge just how special things were then. You know, we made games we liked, and we evidently brought a lot of joy to people all over the world in doing so. That’s really been the greatest part.
Having my own website, I’ve received hundreds of thousands of emails over the years telling me how much they enjoyed the games. I never got any of that back when I was doing the games; it was only after the internet came and it was easy to email that they wrote me to tell me how they felt about the game. How it changed their lives, or what a difference it made. That’s been really a great joy to me. I’ve loved it.
Ingmar: Thanks a lot for doing this interview, Al. Most appreciated! I wish you all the best with Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded, and we’re hoping to see many more new games from you in the future! Any last words to all those loyal Leisure Suit Larry and Sierra fans among our readers?
Al: Sierra, and Larry, and all the games and the people who worked at Sierra, and the fans, … all have a soft spot in my heart. I’m so proud of the experiences I had there. I hope that we’ll be able to bring joy to a new generation of gamers who have never seen my silly little games. I hope we can give them a laugh and a lot of smiles and joy from this new game. Thank you so much for the opportunity. And if you've read this far, I hope you'll visit my website allowe.com for even more laughs!