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Playing Catch-Up: Al Lowe

Playing Catch-Up: Al Lowe

July 18, 2005 | By Frank Cifaldi

July 18, 2005 | By Frank Cifaldi
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Although he is credited as the lead designer on Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist and Torin’s Passage, both critically acclaimed adventure games from the days when their publisher, Sierra On-Line, was synonymous with such accomplishments, Al Lowe is unarguably best known as the creator of the Leisure Suit Larry franchise.

Leisure Suit Larry chronicled the adventures of one Larry Laffer, a lovable loser whose first adventure, 1987’s Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards, was almost the antithesis of the other Sierra franchises of the time. Rather than recovering a king’s treasure, or battling pirates in deep space, Larry’s only aim was to lose his virginity. Some dumpster diving, drunken gambling, a bottle of Spanish Fly and a blow-up doll later, Larry won the hearts of a new lady friend and an enthusiastic audience the world over.

The game’s success inspired five sequels, all designed and written by Lowe himself, which finally climaxed with 1996’s Leisure Suit Larry 7: Love for Sail. Part four of the series was mysteriously skipped, inspiring a running joke that made appearances in games even as distant as the Space Quest franchise. Later that same year, Sierra founders Ken and Roberta Williams sold Sierra On-Line " including all of its game franchises " to a company called CUC International, who would eventually turn the company around and sell it to Vivendi International. As a result, Sierra’s once all-star team of game designers, including Scott Murphy, Mark Crowe, and yes, Al Lowe, were terminated during a massive layoff in February, 1999. Lowe has not designed a game since the 1998 spin-off Leisure Suit Larry’s Casino, leading us to wonder just what he’s been up to these past seven-or-so years?

“I didn’t fully retire in ’99, actually,” Lowe told Gamasutra. “I spent all of the year 2000 creating the world’s best scheduling software, just in time for the dot-com bust.” The site, JackNabbit.com, was described by Lowe as having a logo featuring a white, Wonderland-like rabbit, with a big clock on his back. “Isn’t that just so…dot-com?”

Since then, Lowe has also been running Al Lowe’s Humor Site (allowe.com), where he continues to arouse chuckles with text, audio, images, and a free daily email joke list called CyberJoke 3000™, which has amassed over five thousand subscribers in its five-year run, with no publicity or press to fuel it. The site was also a way for Lowe to connect to his fans for the first time.

“I worked really hard trying to produce games people would like,” he reflected, “and try to make them laugh. I’d work on these games, and I’d get these spreadsheets with the sales numbers, in the thousands and eventually the millions, and before I started this website and began getting emails, I never made the connection between those numbers and people. It was such a surprise to see just this amazing outpouring of gratitude for doing what I loved to do.”

Additionally, Lowe has been doing a lot of volunteer work, is an active member of the National Model Railroad Association, and plays in a sixteen-piece jazz band around the Seattle area. He didn’t, however, have anything to do with last year’s Leisure Suit Larry: Magna cum Laude, despite vague contract negotiations with VU Games.

“They actually wanted me to sign a contract stating that I would never publicly say anything negative about the game,” he explained, “before I’d even seen it!” Eventually, he did see it. “It was like receiving a ransom video from your son’s kidnappers,” Lowe said. “You’re happy he’s still alive, but at the same time, he’s being tortured. The kind way of saying it is that I was extremely happy our negotiations fell through. Had I got involved, I would have wanted to change almost everything.”

Would Lowe go back into videogame design? “Oh, absolutely. I would love to do another game,” he said, rather enthusiastically. “I’ve got some great ideas to bring comedy back. I was so happy to see Psychonauts, and I really think we need more of that kind of game. If I could find a publisher to give my ideas a chance, I’d jump right back into it.”

[Frank Cifaldi is a Las Vegas-based freelance author whose credits include work for Nintendo Official Magazine UK, Wired, and his own Lost Levels website.]


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