Earlier this month, Gamasutra broke the story that after nearly seven years in retirement, Sierra veteran Al Lowe had returned to the fold with his new company, iBase Entertainment. Founded with Mindscape and McGraw-Hill veteran Ken Wegrzyn, iBase is preparing for a 2007 release of Sam Suede: Undercover Exposure, a new title Lowe is calling an “action comedy,” for all current and next-generation consoles, as well as the PC and PSP.
Best known for creating the Leisure Suit Larry franchise, Lowe is on a one-man-mission to bring humor back to gaming. Sam Suede sets out to replace the implied sex of the Larry games with an action twist that Lowe feels will put humorous games back on top. Gamasutra caught up with him about his return to gaming, his new title, and his impressions of the current industry and the days to come.
Gamasutra: So, the big news out of E3 is “Al Lowe’s return to gaming” in the form of Sam Suede: Undercover Exposure. How’s it feel to be working again?
Al Lowe: This is the best news I've had in many years. I've been wanting to do another game ever since I left Sierra, back in the 90s. I don't want to be negative about it but, I never found a deal that was enticing enough to make me come out of retirement.
GS: So there were people making you offers?
AL: Oh, sure. I had the chance to do other games, but none of them with the kind of control that I wanted and with the kind of gameplay and the kind of production values that I was used to doing. So when Ken Wegrzyn came along and asked me if I would be willing to do a game, I said, “sure, I’d love to do a game. Come up with millions of dollars and we’ll do it.” And unlike everyone else, he actually had it. So we ended up forming a company together, and we’re not only going to be a publisher but we will retain the intellectual property, which was a key factor in my being interested. So yeah, it's been a wonderful success story.
GS: You're shooting for what you're calling an action comedy. What would you say that is?
AL: Essentially we're trying to not do Leisure Suit Larry again, because that was done. I did it to death, and then someone else tried to do it after death. Well, maybe that's a little harsh. But I mean, it was done and it's been done and I'm not interested in doing that again. But I still am that same kind of funny guy and I still have the sense of humor that I’m stuck with. So I think that the humor part will not be too far from what you've seen in the past, in the old days. What I'm excited about is the fact that it's not an adventure game. It's not the same old game. It's not a game of the 90s, but rather an action based game, with all the controls and ideas and things that people are used to playing today on consoles.
GS: In terms of style, this new project seems to be something like we were used to in the 90s; humor-based games instead of blood-and-guts kind of games. How is Sam Suede going to stack up against the Grand Theft Autos of the world?
AL: I think the easiest comparison would be that where action games today have violence as their currency, we have humor. So picture every place that you would shoot somebody or slice somebody open or something else. Instead, put in a laugh there. That’s what we’re going to do. So there’s going to be guards, but instead of slitting their throats, you'll give them a wedgie. And instead of conversations with long cutscenes, we'll have humorous dialogue with conversation trees, which may be a carryover from the old adventure games and RPGs.
|Comedy Currency in the Form of a Wedgie|
The way I do humor is between people. So you’re not going to see Sam in a conversation with an alien or with an animal. There won't be bunny rabbits jumping out with machetes and things...although, that's not a bad idea for a game. Anyway, the whole gist of it is going to be real people in a real place, with a current date setting. So, the same kind of humor that I've used before. My humor always came easiest for me when it was between characters, you see. Whereas the Larry games were about a loser who is trying to get laid, this guy is much more contemporary. He's not “out of it” so much as he is out of his element and trying to learn to be a detective. So you'll see some real growth of the character over the course of the game and hopefully in sequels. Surprisingly enough, we intend to do sequels.
GS: Do you feel that this style of humor-based gameplay has a shot at staying competitive in today’s game market?
AL: Let me put this way, the shelf is full of racing games and shooters, RPGs and action games. Where are the comedies? Look at Blockbuster in the video section and compare it to Blockbuster’s game rentals section. There's a huge hole on that shelf, and we're not going to try to fill it so much as try to start it, and I hope that at some point comedy games will be as common as comedy movies are in the movie section. It's not a brilliant insight; it’s what I do best. I've been looking for a good excuse to do it. We think it's there, and we might even be wrong.
Part of the challenge of this is to get people to try it. With Larry the packaging always promised more sex than it actually delivered, but it got people to try the humor. Here we're hoping that this is not going to be at an M-rated game. At least our plans are to release it with a Teen rating. Our goal certainly is to make it a clean enough game that it will sell well at Wal-Mart and other stores. And that may disappoint some of my fans. You know, maybe there are still people who think that the Larry games were about sex, which I never thought they were. I always thought that they used sex as a lever to make people try the humor.
GS: Now, is this going to be packaged as “the newest game from Al Lowe, creator of Leisure Suit Larry” or are you going to try to leave that behind you?
AL: You know, that was 10 years of my life. It's tough to leave behind. I don't think I've done an interview yet with anyone who hasn't played the Larry games, and I've been in a bunch of interviews in the past two weeks. So I don't know how I could do that. I don't know if will say on the package…I don't know if Leisure Suit Larry will be on the box anywhere, no.
GS: The reason I ask is that a lot of people may have missed the point of the original Larry games and ascribe them the title of “sex games.” Are you worried about that stigma carrying over to your new project?
AL: That stigma may exist among people who don't really know the old games, but the people who played through them, they know the content, and I think the content of this one won't be that far off in terms of subject matter. I mean, there are a lot of risqué lines, a lot of double entendres, and a lot of titillation, but there's no real sex in the game, and there pretty much wasn't that in the old Larry games. It was very mild, but for back then it was pretty wild. Today that would be no problem.
GS: Did you take any impressions away from E3 about the state of modern gaming and the future of games in today's marketplace?
AL: I didn't laugh much at all. In fact, I started to say I didn't laugh at all, but I might have seen only a couple things that made me laugh, which is worse even than in years past. I think the industry is... this is certainly not any deep insight on my part, but I think the industry is really in a copy rut. They look at what's done and they do maybe another one like that, only more so. And I think that's a terrible situation. That's the same way that movie studios were back in the old days before the independent studios came up and actually showed Hollywood that they could do things that weren't the same old movie over and over again. To a certain extent, that's what we're trying to do here. I hope that we can. I hope we’re not too early for that but I do believe that it's going to happen. I do believe that you can't continue to manufacture games on an assembly line, and expect them to become better just because you spend multiples of millions of dollars on them. It doesn't work that way. There's more to a game than that.
GS: What do you feel could be done to improve the state of modern gaming? Do you think that people will be able to embrace this initiative to “lighten up?”
AL: I don't want people to “lighten up” so much as I do to become creative. I’ll tell you what, the game that I'm so looking forward to of the whole bunch was Spore. Because Will’s doing something that's kind of like a Sim game, and it certainly smacks of him. It's true to his style, and yet, it looks wonderfully different and creative. And I really love his line about “massively single player.”
GS: Now also from E3, was there anyone or anything you thought embodied what was wrong with the industry, or anyone besides Will Wright who seemed to really be on the right track?
AL: I think that Spore stood out for me because it was quite different from other games. And most of the other games didn't stand out. My criteria were creativity and not doing the same game over and over, as I think that's what I'm trying to do. So that's what I was looking for. I would have liked to have seen more comedies. You know, I still believe that people have a sense of humor. I think that comedies sell movies, comedy sells TV shows, comedy sells books and print and magazines and all other types of things. Why are games exempt?
GS: Apart from Sam Suede, is there anything else in the works from iBase?
AL: Oh no, this is full-time project. We're building a company as well as the product. We don't intend to just be a development studio, we want to be a publisher and build the company into a viable alternative. And frankly I think there's room now for the small studios to come up and we’re going to test that rule.
GS: Are you worried about feeling pressure from the market to deviate from your “game plan” in the future? Let's say Sam has run his course and you want to make more games...
AL: I can always give him a big gun. Oh wait, wait, we can add crates, we don't have any crates in the game! And what about vent crawling? We haven't done any vent crawling yet!
GS: You've got your finger on the pulse of the community.
AL: Obviously my tongue is firmly in my cheek here, but I think people are not being given the variety of games choices that they used to. Frankly, I can understand it from a publisher's point of view. If you spend $10 million in development and then $10 million in marketing... $20 million for project, you can't afford to take the chance and do something that's really strange and really out there and really different from everything else. You've just pretty much painted yourself into the square that says “this has got to be compared with other products and come out better.” I'm old enough to have seen the American automobile industry do the same thing, and it didn't work for them. It didn't work for Hollywood movies. It doesn't work in a lot of places.
GS: So rather than end up in that scenario where you're comparing yourself to other products, you figured the best way would be to just remove yourself from the comparison altogether?
AL: Sure, we’re shooting for “vague.” I'm sure you know that one of the big ways that publishers figure out budgets is by doing “comparables”. They look at other products, and say “here are five other games like this, and how did these sell? That's how much this will sell and I'll allocate this much money to the project.” That is a formula that works, but it works to create games that are like other games.