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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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