RELOADED: An Interview With Leisure Suit Larry Creator Al Lowe!
This week at Sticky Trigger, I got the chance to speak with Al Lowe, creator of the classic Sierra video game franchise Leisure Suit Larry.
Al has been involved in the video games industry since the early 1980s. As well as Leisure Suit Larry, Al is also famous for his many contributions to many classic Sierra titles, such as Police Quest and Kings Quest.
In 2013 Al released a remake of the original 1987 game, called Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded. Whilst currently enjoying retirement, Al keeps in contact with fans by sharing jokes via his website and his Cyberjoke 3000 mailing list.
With the remake being released in 2013, how long did it take for you to development Reloaded? And what difficulties did you faced during this development period?
Al: Well the real difficulty was that the original source code had all vanished. While I had some source code from the 1987 version, we didn’t have much of any for the 1991 version. So it was pretty much start from the beginning and just blog all the responses. But that was okay, because we ended up making the game so much bigger and doing so much more with it that. The original game had probably contributed 20% of the output of the final version.
But with that (and because all the graphics were low-res with limited colour) we just started from scratch. While we kept the feeling of the old characters, we went for better looks and smoother animation, along with other things with the more modern tools. The primary challenge was finding a good developer, who could really do all those things and bring it in on time.
How’s the feedback been in regards to it?
Al: We got excellent reviews for the game itself. Our sales haven’t been as high as I hoped, but I think that’s primarily because after it shipped, the next week there was a thousand more games. Then after that, ANOTHER thousand!
It slipped under the waves I guess. We spent so much money on development, that we didn’t have much money left for marketing. Whilst we did get good reviews and good press, the game wasn’t as successful as what I liked.
Were you happy with how things turned out for the remake?
Al: Absolutely. That part I was very happy about. The sad part though, is that we have a good game and nobody knows about it.
Leisure Suit Larry initially started off as an already released game entitled Softporn; which was text based adventure title to which players must earn the affection of three beautiful ladies. Regarding to the creation of the original Leisure Suit Larry, how true did it remain to Softporn? Was it more or less a direct port from what it was originally?
Al: Well, it wasn’t much as a direct port. I kept the puzzles and the settings. But as for characters, there was no protagonist. No central character for the game.
So really, there was no Larry in ‘Larry’!
The game was in a odd language as well. It talked about itself, like “I am your the puppet master” or “I will do thy bidding” and just odd stuff like that. I mean it was a text only game, so there were no graphics, and only a few scene descriptions. As I recall, I only kept one sentence from the original text; which was from the back of Lefty’s saloon, right in the back room. And it said “the peeling paint, gives the cockroaches something to look at”.
I did use his puzzles and the locations of the game originally. I doubt that the girls even had names back then. They might have, but I updated the girls and of course came up with looks for each of them. I also gave them individual motivations and lots and lots of dialogue.
The original game though; if you didn’t know how it was supposed to be played, you couldn’t play it just by going by the results on screen. In other words, if you looked around a scene, there would be something in the description, but you wouldn’t know what it was, what to do it and as a result it was an almost impossible game to finish. This was long before the Internet and Hint-books, so whilst the game itself had a lot of sales, a lot of people didn’t finish it.
With Softporn being heavily text based, would you say that it was very dialogue specific? By which of course I mean having to say specific phrases in comparison to what would otherwise mean the same thing.
Al: Well yeah, it had very limited synonyms. You gotta understand though, this was Chucks first game. I mean, he did do a good job and earned a tonne of money which set him up for the rest for the rest of his career. But as far as a great piece of programming, I don’t think he or anybody else can claim that.
So with that, it was rather specific. If you didn’t understand the exact puzzle, then you didn’t stand much of a chance just by going from the context of the game.
Yeah. And I suppose with that said, it was a time were people were experimenting with games too. There were no rule books or guides in regards to making games.
Al: Well when I started writing games in 1982, I was never able to find a book on games designing or programming. Everything I learned, I learned by playing other games and making it up myself. I learned code from books about coding.
But about games design. Nah, there was nothing man.
And you couldn’t even talk to other game designers, where they would provide suggestions such as “what is this?” “I don’t know. There is probably a better way”. There was no body of knowledge back then. You gotta understand, this was an era seven years before programs like Photoshop even existed.
Computers dated back in the early 80’s and 90’s were pretty much (what I’d like to call) the caveman period of computer technology. In comparison to what we got nowadays, what were some of the more difficult things you found whilst developing games on these machines?
Al: I think the big difficulty was graphics. The machines were so slow and we called upon the graphics engine to do a lot more then what other companies could do.
The early Sierra titles of 1984 and 83 (were Kings Quest came out) and up until 1988, we used an engine called AGI. I’ll never forget the first day I saw Kings Quest run, long before it came out to the public. Roberta showed it to me and I was just blown away. You could have one character on the screen and have him freely appear either in front or behind objects on the fly!
That sort of thing back then was impossible, and nobody could ever do that. I don’t think people realize just how much of a big step forward that was in realistic gameplay. Before that, games were played on a single plain or if they had to appear behind something else. You would have to go through and create special cells of animation just to make stuff like that happen.
There was no such thing as ‘in front of’ or behind. Only ONE pixel.
It was a very trivial aspect for me at the time too. The first time I saw Graham walk behind a tree and saw how you could see him through the leaves, I was like “Wait, whoa stop! You can’t do that, how’d you? There no way of doing that!”.
Certainly sounds like it was groundbreaking for you at the time
Al: It was! And many people compared our graphic engine to the SCUMM engine of LucasArts. But if you’ve ever played those games, the first lot by Lucas had limited pathways to which you can maneuver the characters around. Whilst our characters could be moved around more freely and interact with the environment on the fly.
Going back to your early projects, you were involved in developing games under the Disney license. What was your creative role on these projects?
Al: They said to me “you wanna do a Winne The Pooh game?” and I said “yeah!”.
Three months later, I brought them back a Winne The Pooh game and they said “oh, we could change this and change that!” and I said “yeah… or we could ship it because its just as good. And your changes don’t improve it”. I usually won because we wanted more money and plus, were ready to ship the game out.
My involvement with Winnie the Pooh and Donald Ducks playground were pretty much me coming up with the idea and doing the programming and text. I also produced it and handed the finish product to Disney.
When you were developing these games, did you feel that you had a lot of creative freedom to experiment with them?
Al: Well sure. I had creative freedom and they had the ultimate yay or nay. But if I decided to have Christopher Robin have sex with Eeyore or something like that [both of us start laughing] I guarantee that wouldn’t have gone out.
But I was smart enough to know my audience, which is one of the best things to know whilst writing. I knew the audience was for kids and so I wrote a kids game. My son was about that age and it was easy for me because I was reading him kids books.
Plus I love the Winnie the Pooh stories. I was a big fan and I wanted to do an honor to Milnes work.
And what better way to have this game developed by none other then a fan itself!
Al: Well yeah! and I felt the same way for the Black Cauldron.
Roberta is often given credit (or co-credit) to designing the Black Cauldron just by working one morning on the game (whilst I had worked on it for a year).
Anyways, I loved those books and it was so easy to create that game because of its wonderful source material. There was much more material that could be put into one game (or one movie for that manner) and it was was a real masterpiece. If anybody enjoys fantasy and haven’t read the five books by Lloyd Alexander, the books are called ‘The chronicles of Prydain” and you should read them.
You of course worked on other games such Police Quest and some Kings Quest titles during your time in Sierra. Again, what was your creative role on these projects?
Al: Well I wasn’t so much in a creative role in the Kings Quest projects, I was more of an editor on the games design itself. I made suggestions to Roberta and she would say “Yeah sure!” or “no, we do it my way”. So she was the boss, there was no question about that.
With Kings Quest, I was the programmer. I was responsible for the code and simply generating all of it. As far as the games design, I’d only make a suggestion here and there. Nothing too particular. Me and Bob were both sticklers for good grammar, so we did lot of fixing up for grammar and spelling mistakes. Other then that, nothing.
For Police Quest, I was a little more involved. Jim Walls was a wonderful story teller, but he didn’t really understand games design. When I got onto Police Quest, the guy programming it had already been working on it for a year now with Jim. And the only way you could’ve ever finished that game, was by doing what Jim was thinking.
Kind of like Softporn actually when I think about it. Really both games had the same amount of helpfulness to the player. But my job there was to figure out what players needed in order to figure out how to play it. I didn’t add any story, text or characters for the game; other then clues, insights and hints in order to get through the project.
Looking back at your history, it seems that you went through a bit of development hell in regards to the creation of Leisure Suit Larry 4. Multiplayer integration was something that was discussed previously by Sierra, but was ultimately axed. With a point and click adventure title like Larry; in what ways would’ve this been integrated? And do you think something like this can still be created with today’s standards?
Al: I think for adventure games, they were a dead end. I didn’t think they could really work and I am yet to see a title that works that way.
However what we were going for was pretty much Ultima online (except with 1200 dial-up modems). It was just too early to make that happen. We did come up with a lot of innovated things. In fact, AOL ended up owning that software after it we were bouncing around with that for ten years. Their lawyers contacted me around the year 2000 and said “we think you invented online avatars and we could pattern this and charge everyone else to make characters on screen” and i was like “What!? What are you crazy?”.
And he said “no, as far we could tell, nobody had ever given people the ability to design characters on screen and create avatars”. The more I thought about it, I guess we did. We didn’t think of it that way, but we just knew we wanted to have a representation of you that other players could see. It seemed obvious that we could do it, so we ended up doing it.
But on the other hand, we were so premature and it was just way too early. Part of the reason why I left the project was because I had a percentage of the earnings from the online system. I didn’t think I’d see any outcome for at least two years and If you’ve ever seen a picture of me back then, you know I couldn’t go ahead without eating for two years!
[both of us are chuckling]
So anyway, I decided to move onto another project and Ken let me out of that contract after six months. I was very pleased with the stuff we did, and that ended up as the basis for the Sierra network, which was later renamed ‘The Imagination Network’. It became really successful and it was really ahead of its time. That part, I was very proud of it.
Out of all the Larry games that you’ve worked on in the past, which one of them holds up as being the best one in the series?
Al: I think 7. I mean, Reloaded is great don’t get me wrong (I’m as proud for Reloaded more then anything). But I think 7 got as many more lines of dialogue and many more jokes (thanks to Josh Mandel) then the other games. Larry 7 overall; the game design and characters were excellent.
And the hint system too! There was a P.A. announcement on the boat, and when you first got on the ship, they presented funny and sometimes informative lines of dialogue. But I doubt anybody picked up on that the P.A. announcements knew where you were at in the game, or it knowing where you were stuck when it came to giving you hints. It was a very integrated way of presenting hints without people knowing about it. Like, we would have some goofy wacky joke and then suddenly, it would be “if you’re looking for this, you can find here” .
Much more engaging then just having a slap of text on the side!
Since the early part of the 2000’s the series reached pretty low point, with the spin-off Larry Lovage titles of Magma Cum Laude and Box Office Bust. To my understanding, neither you nor any other Sierra staff had involvement with these titles. What were your criticisms in regards to these games? I’ve read through some reviews, and it appears that factors such as writing and humor were one of the many things that took a hug blow.
Al: I’ve used this line before, but it sums up my feelings exactly…..
Playing through those games was like getting a video from your son’s kidnapper
[I start to laugh]
On the one hand, its nice to see that he’s still alive. But Christ what have they done to him!?
I put a lot of love into Larry Laffer. I wrote those games for ten years for about 70-80 hour weeks. If you add up the work, its probably more then ten years of full time work.
But yeah, they kind of missed the point of with these games. To me the point of these games was about a guy who was unlucky with sex and who was ultimately the butt of the jokes. For them to think “oh this is a point of the game that has big tits and bare asses” I was like “no that’s not what its about! I was making fun of that!”.
From what I played of Reloaded, really what I thought about game was that; yes its a game about scoring, but at the same time Larry is the sort of character who is constantly screwed about in regards to scoring.
Al: I thought the reason why the game sold was because men looked at Larry and said “Gee, even I’m better then that guy”. And women looked at him and said “oh yeah, I dated guys like that”. I thought it was a game to which both men and women could relate to. I think part of the game’s charm was how it walked a fine line between making itself look sexy and not misogynistic. I didn’t want to have a game that objectified women, which is why I focused on making women were the more superior characters of the game.
Larry was always the butt of the jokes and the one dude who was always getting shit on (sometimes literally) throughout these games. I thought it was much more fun to make fun of a bumbling doofus then it was to make fun of women. Not a lot of games really focused on having the protagonist an anti-hero (which Larry is).
Seeing as I brought up the topic, how did you go about making the jokes for Leisure Suit Larry?
Al: Oh well its simple really. You face a deadline when the game has to be done, and you look at the calender and say “oh Christ, I only have this many months left” and you stick everything you find funny into it. That was pretty much my motivation. I put in everything I could’ve thought of that didn’t cost a lot of money. We didn’t have a lot of money, so I had to come up with more creative things. The time deadline was both my motivation and enemy. I felt if you didn’t set yourself that, you’ll end up like Peter Molyneux or Tim Schafer and end up being late to either releasing the game or not even finishing it.
I think a part of this work habit comes from my time as a musician. I’ve been playing almost my whole life and started getting paid from the age of 13. I did that during my time at high school and earned extra money ever since then. If somebody said that my gig starts at 8 o’clock Saturday, they’re not really interested on you showing up 10:30 Sunday. If you’re not there Saturday, you wont get paid. The show must go on, you gotta have a time and you gotta work from there. I guess that’s one of the reasons why out of the 27 projects that I’ve worked on, 25 have been on time.
Let’s talk about music, because from a very early age, music has played a very big part in your life. Having performed gigs during your time in high school and working as a high school music teacher for over a decade; what was your main driving force into pursuing a career in games development?
Al: [Laughs] well I didn’t have a driving force.
There were no games back then. There was no games development. I was in the middle of a career long before video games even started. I was teaching for a number of years before the very first video arcade even opened. I can remember vividly when Pong came out and the Magnavox console, and all these other precursors to gaming. When the Apple II came out, I had no clue why I would ever need one and what I could even do with it.
Simply I thought it was the future, and I thought I could do something with it to make money. At the time I had access to a mini computer in late 1970’s and used that how everyone else uses computers nowadays. It seemed obvious that word processing and database management was the future.
Spreadsheets weren’t even invented back then. Can you imagine that?
I really can’t!
Al: [Laughs] I know!
Spreadsheets weren’t invented yet. Anyways, I used data bases and word processes. When the Apple II came out, I thought that I could probably figure out a way to use this for something. I went to conferences and saw some early educational software’s but none of them were any good.
By that point, I had already wrote software for my job. I wasn’t a programmer, I was simply just a user who just wanted to do things more efficiently.
So when I saw these games, I thought I could do it. I convinced my wife to use a month of our combine salaries to buy a Apple II with 48k memory, 220k floppy disc drives and a little 9 inch green screen monitor. I also bought an Epson MX80 printer that outlasted all of the other models. Used that sucker for 7 years!
Couldn’t afford the extra two hundred dollars though for that extra 16k of RAM!
I also bought a hard drive to help me out to the Black Cauldron. It was 20Mb of shortage and when reformatted it, I looked at it and laughed out loud “oh my god, how will I ever fill that space!?”
But yeah, I believe that I paid 1200 dollars for that as well.
For any future independent developers out there in Australia, do you have any encouraging words of wisdom that you could provide to them?
Al: Start 30 years ago…..
[We both laugh]
You think they’ll find that helpful?
Build a time machine!
Al: Yep, build a time machine. Back then, it was so incredibly different. We would have people line up in stores and wait for the new game to come out because of how they had already finished their previous titles. Picture that with today’s marketplace; when you can’t possibly have the time to play every single game that comes out.
Its a more competitive field then what it was today. Part of that is because its easier to get started and get into the business. On the other hand, its so difficult to make a living.
I think I’ll just tell you what NOT to do. Don’t do the same damn game that somebody else has already done. There is so much of that around nowadays. If you don’t have a fresh idea or a take on something, I’d say its better to stop and do something else instead. There’s plenty of First Person Shooters out there and you’re not going to make a better one, find a different approach and come up with something fresh.
I would like to personally thank Al Lowe for this interview.
If you’re interested in seeing more of Al’s history (want to see some awesome jokes), be sure to visit his website