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The SCUMM Diary: Stories behind one of the greatest game engines ever made
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The SCUMM Diary: Stories behind one of the greatest game engines ever made

July 12, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 6 Next

Impressively multiplatform

Because of the ease of portability, SCUMM games ran on over a dozen systems and in as many as a dozen languages.  We started on Commodore 64, then IBM PC, Atari ST, Amiga, 8-Bit Nintendo, Fujitsu Towns, [Fujitsu] FM Marty, Sega CD, CDTV, Mac, and most recently iPhone and iPad.  Not bad for a system that was first developed 25 years ago.  

With projects such as ScummVM, a fan-written SCUMM interpreter, additional target machines are now possible.  That Monkey Island was selected as one of five games to be running at an exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art shows how good storytelling is often more important than flash-in-the-pan games based only on technology.  

What isn't always known is that SCUMM was also the basis of many top rated educational games such as the Putt-Putt, Freddi Fish and Spy Fox games and the Backyard Baseball/Football/Soccer products developed by Humongous Entertainment.  If you peel back the covers, you would find the same commands and much of the same code as their LucasArts brethren.

Learning SCUMM

At the time, all of the designers were also programmers and SCUMM, while unique in many aspects, was also pretty easy to learn and code.  There was no manual for Maniac or Zak but before Monkey a group of 6-8 new scripters were hired and a manual was created and a one-week training class (“Scumm University”) was organized.  For the training, Ron would take the most recent game and simply delete all but one room and put objects in that room that represented a range of capabilities.  

New scripters, or “Scummlets,” would start in that room and learn the fundamentals and within a few days they were taught how to add more rooms, create walk boxes, some had artistic talent and would create their own animations, others would focus on writing dialog.  Usually by the end of the week we had a pretty good sense of the skills that each of the Scummlets had and then the different project leaders would haggle to decide which ones would work on their projects.

I think that the first “Scumm University” or “Scumm U” started with the standard verb based UI.  One of the early projects was always determining how the UI was going to work. So typically one or two scripters would get started on getting that up and running. Regarding Scummlet training, I think that one time it was at the Ranch [George Lucas’ ranch] and everyone was up on the third floor of the main house. George's offices were on the second floor so they had to be well-behaved.

The Secret of Monkey Island

The SCUMM advantage

One of the great benefits of SCUMM was how quickly a game could be prototyped.  The designer would have ideas for rooms and locations and the lead background artist could start doing sketches.  When enough of the sketches were done, they would get scanned in and you could very quickly add and connect them up using SCUMM.  Usually within just a few weeks of the start of the design process, there would be many dozens of rooms, often drawn as simple pencil sketches, and we would usually take the actors from another game and start wiring them up. You might find that a room needed to be flipped, or redrawn since they didn't connect very well, but you could rapidly prototype a huge portion of the game.

The scripters could now create preliminary walk boxes so the actor could walk around, the background artists could start converting the sketches to final artwork, and the animators could now begin working on the character animations.  Since final characters were still under development, during this development stage you might be walking around in a penciled room from Full Throttle but your main character might be Guybrush from the Monkey games. Having the placeholders allowed the designers to experiment and make changes and improvements at very little development expense.

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Chris Lynn
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Fantastic article. It is nice to learn a bit more about SCUMM and adventure games in general.

Also, does anybody remember how Monkey Island semmed to smoothly transition from one music to another? I loved that effect (which was sadly lost in the remake), but I never quite understand how they do it. Grim Fandango had something similar, as the song would dinamically change according to your actions.

It was a great effect that I don't remember seeing again. Anybody knwos anything about it?

Jeff King
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The music system was called iMuse. Info about it here:

It was pretty much ahead of it's time, and shortly after with the ability to include pre-recorded audio (as storage devices could hold more), dynamic music sort of went away. So, the SCUMM-era was a sweet spot for dynamically changing music.

Leandro Pezzente
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"The Dig" also used iMuse , IIRC from a short review on "The Next Step" about iMuse , you could build graphs that connected scenes with events with music , so all got pretty much synchonized.

Chris Melby
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The music for these games are king. I still listen to SoMI and The Digg on occasion; I own several copies of MI, and one of them is the CD version.

Monkey Island was one of the first games I played after building a 386 with a Sound Blaster, so it set the bar really high for my expectations when it comes to game music. I loved the smooth transitions between scenes and characters, especially with the music in Monkey Island 2.

I really didn't like the remake's music. It's good, one of the better aspects of these ... , but the mood just wasn't right after knowing the CD and Sound Blaster versions so well.

Rosstin Murphy
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SCUMM was ahead of its time! Looking forward to the new age of adventure games!

Rosstin Murphy
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Hahaha, the stories about Ron Gilbert are great.

John Trauger
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Reminds me very much of Sierra's Creative Interpreter.

Also scripting for Ultima Online.

Leandro Pezzente
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Yay .. Aric Wilmunder , than man has been may Game Programmer Hero since I was 12

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

David Richardson
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The importance of modular code you mean.

The two are not the same.

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I would love to translate this article into French.
Please let me know if this is possible. ^^

Jesse Joudrey
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I had the pleasure of porting a SCUMM game to the PS3 (Monkey Island). In general I was pleasantly surprised with it's architecture. Unfortunately the ps3 compiler actually generated a bug in the SCUMM engine and I had to debug the interpreted byte code without the benefit of the source it was derived from. Without an existing working copy of the game on another platform I would have been doomed, but I was able to step through the byte code instruction at a time on both platforms until they diverged. This might have been one of the most recent stories behind the SCUMM engine. Although I think other people have ported it to PS3 as well, so there may be a few versions of this story.

Sebastien Valente
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I love such kinds of articles!
Great stuff!

John Byrd
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What, no mention at all of the Z-machine? Without it, SCUMM would not have existed.