Al Lowe interview

Al Lowe
Al Lowe

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.

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stika stika
Apr 2, 2013

It’s a shame the series sometimes gets a bad rep due to its adult theme

Antaios Antaios
Apr 2, 2013

Great interview! A thoroughly enjoyable read.

Advie Advie
Apr 2, 2013

yipeee !!!!

i haven’t read it yet ,but that i SO cool, Thanks AG ... i will read it tonight ..word by word!

Monolith Monolith
Apr 2, 2013

Blame the last to games to throw Larry in a coffin and nail it shut. Thank god Al is back in control.

Lee in Limbo Lee in Limbo
Apr 2, 2013

That was a fine interview. There’s a guy who really loves what he did, and is clearly enjoying the rediscovery of that love.

Kasper F. Nielsen Kasper F. Nielsen
Apr 2, 2013

I loved Donald Duck’s Playground as a child. I’ve spent countless hours playing that game - never knew Sierra made it!

seagul seagul
Apr 2, 2013

Ingmar, i love your interviews!

tomimt tomimt
Apr 2, 2013

Great interview, it’s always nice to hear about the old days of game development.

Ingmar Ingmar
Apr 3, 2013

Thanks so much, Seagul! Smile I LOVE doing these interviews, so a response like yours makes me very happy and is a great motivation to do more.

Apr 4, 2013

There is a typo In the sentence:
    “I tried to actually take some classes and the only thing my local college had available were classes in FORTRAN and COBALT, which wouldn’t have helped much because neither of those ran on an Apple II.”

“COBALT” should be changed to “COBOL”.

Jackal Jackal
Apr 4, 2013

Thanks for the heads-up, Ondej. Fixed.

syn syn
Apr 18, 2013

awesome to read about the downfall of sierra. im cusious about the details and specifics a bit more though.  anyway, its amazing they were that huge, i really had no idea.  it seemed really strange when gaming as we knew it died in the late 90s.  i always blamed the onset of 3d accelerators and polygon obsessed new graphic designers but its interesting to learn this business aspect of what happened to adventure games.  tragic really.. at least everythings coming back now!! Grin

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