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In-Depth: Al Lowe Talks Early-Days Adventure Genre Challenges In New Book

In-Depth: Al Lowe Talks Early-Days Adventure Genre Challenges In New Book Exclusive

July 30, 2010 | By Philipp Lenssen

July 30, 2010 | By Philipp Lenssen
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[Gamasutra is pleased to present this excerpt from the full Al Lowe interview found in the new book "Graphic Adventures: Being a Mostly Correct History Of the Adventure Game Classics By Lucasfilm, Sierra and Others, From the Pages Of Wikipedia", available at http://blogoscoped.com/graphic-adventures.]

Al Lowe, born in 1946, is a musician and games programmer & designer. He created many of the classic graphic adventures for Sierra, including the Leisure Suit Larry series, The Black Cauldron, and Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist. He was also the lead programmer for parts of King’s Quest and Police Quest. Al is an accomplished jazz artist and continues to play in different jazz bands.

Which kind of games did you start creating at Sierra? Was it your Disney phase?

Yeah, that was about the time of the Disney time. We still had the rights to the Disney characters, so I designed Winnie the Pooh, Donald Duck’s Playground, and did the music for Mickey’s Space Adventure and several other games done at that time. The biggest was The Black Cauldron, Disney’s 25th animated feature film.

How did Disney approach you, and what kind of control did they exercise?

They liked what I did on Winnie the Pooh, and they wanted someone to make a game from their new film. It was natural that they would contact Sierra and me.

Was it a big or small project for Disney?

They didn’t really understand video games at that time; the job was assigned to the same women who were in charge of educational film strips for the schools. They put out LP records with film strips. When the record went “ding!” some kid would turn the knob to advance the film strip one slide. That was the technology they were used to dealing with! So for them to be in charge of us, at the time the cutting edge of computer games, was rather funny.

We realized quickly that they insisted on having input. But the longer we could delay them seeing the product, the less changes they could make! They never made improvements, just made things different. “I think it should be this way!” And I was like, “Why?!” “Well, we want it that way.” So I decided to hide out until it was all done, and then we would show it to them. [laughs]

They also had trouble playing adventure games; they couldn’t get through a game without help. We would often create several new versions of the software before they could complete a previous one!

Turning to Leisure Suit Larry 1 some years later. How did this game come about and what inspired it?

It was based on Chuck Benton’s game from 1981. He wrote a text-only game called Softporn that was a huge seller, a big success... but not a great game. I kept his puzzles and one sentence of dialog. Everything else was new. Softporn had no central character, there was no Larry. The game talked to “you” as in, “you do this” and “you do that,” as if you were the protagonist of the game.

When you designed the original Larry game, what kind of restrictions were there in terms of saucy content?

None! I did censor myself but only because I didn’t want to produce a pornographic game, I wanted to make a comedy. I thought a pornographic game wouldn’t sell as well as a broad-based adventure game. I went after the people who bought King’s Quest, Space Quest and all those other “quest” games. I just gave them a different kind of quest.

What kind of tools did you use, for instance, for the original Leisure Suit Larry game? I guess at the time you had some framework to build these kind of games, or ...?

Starting with King’s Quest 1, back in 1982, Sierra developed all its own tools from scratch. They created King’s Quest under contract from IBM for the premier of the IBM home computer, the PCjr [read: “PC junior”]. IBM asked the largest publisher in the business at the time to “do a game that couldn’t be done on any other computer. Something to show off our new computer’s unique qualities.” At that time, it was the first machine with a three-voice audio chip, and 16 colors. It was a sizable leap forward in technology.

Although people laugh at it today because they called it the PCjr, it really was a great home computer at the time. It was overpriced, it had a lot of problems – but at the time, it was a huge leap over the Apple ][ and the other computers available. Remember: when the Macintosh came out a year later, it was black-and-white only, with an 8” screen. It was tiny!

To show off their technology, they had Roberta [Williams] create King’s Quest for them. Fortunately, Ken negotiated the contract so he retained the rights to the engine, the tools, and the words “King’s Quest.” IBM was happy, because at the machine’s New York premiere, the software shown was King’s Quest, up and working perfectly on a machine more advanced than any home machine in the world the #1 word processing program in the world.

But the tools weren’t like what people are used to today! Many of the games we did were done before Photoshop. You tell that to graphics people today and they say, “What, there was a time before Photoshop? What was there?!” Nothing! Sierra created a program that used vector-based graphics like Illustrator does now. To draw an object, you clicked on a start point, moved to another point, click again, and it would draw a straight line to that point. It would take you dozens of lines to, say, create the shape of an apple. Eventually you could fill it with color. To create a tree was, like, a day’s work!

Did you have the option to scan the artwork?

Nobody had a scanner! There were no scanners!

... they weren’t invented yet?

If they were, we didn’t have one, and didn’t have any way of inputting them! [laughs]

It was years before we got scanners. It must have been the late 80s before animators got scanners. They would draw pencil drawings of animation and then scan those drawings into the computer. Scanners cost thousands of dollars!

When you look at those early Larry games, remember that everything you see was drawn one tiny line at a time.

The brilliant strategy that made King’s Quest different from all other games was that they figured out that there could be bands of depth on the screen. We called them “priorities” – you would put something in a priority. Today they’re commonly called “planes.” We had twelve planes possible, plus four “magic planes” that handled special situations. One was for water, another was the firm boundary that characters could not cross, one was a “trip wire” so we’d know when you’d walked through a doorway and could change to the next scene. The artist who drew the pictures had to also draw all the magic planes to prevent you from escaping the screen, water, doors, etc. using the same artist’s tool.

We also had the ability to measure distances to and from objects on the screen, and the ability to change planes. If you wanted to have a bird fly in front of a tree, you could set his plane to be higher.

There were a lot of tricks, but it was an incredibly slow process. The animation editor was a real pain. It consisted of a Paint-like program that enabled you to just draw pixels on the screen. When you had a cell finished, you would draw a box around them, cut it out, and save it as one cell of animation. The artist would typically draw a character, then copy him and paste the copy next to the original, change the copy a little, copy that, paste it next to the other two, change the new one a little more... all without any alignment whatsoever. When the time came to put those together, somebody had to figure out, well, this one needs to be offset this many pixels, and this needs to be offset that many pixels... all that was done by hand.

It wasn’t three or fours years later until they realized – well, I think it may have been me! – what we should do was what the Disney did back in the 20s: align the animation with registration pins. I suggested that we put a registration mark inside the cells of animation, in a way that the animator would be able to tell the programmer where to align them. Before that, it took three or four hours to install a three or four cell animation in a game, just trying it over and over, moving one cell a pixel to the left, moving another cell back a pixel! Just incredibly time-consuming!

We had to create a font editor, a sound effects editor, a music editor, a picture editor described above, and what we called a “view editor.” (We didn’t call them “animations,” somehow they got called “views” and it stuck.) Every tool was developed by Sierra’s in-house programmers, in C for the high-level code and assembly language for the graphic functions because processors were so slow then.

So you also programmed in assembler?

To become a programmer at Sierra, I actually took published games that were written in BASIC. When I got to Sierra, Ken said, “Well, you did those games in BASIC and we’re selling them, and they sell OK, but I still want you to do the next game in assembler.” So I did Winnie the Pooh and several of my other games in assembly language. It was an excellent learning experience and truly separated the men from the boys.

Did you also create artwork yourself?

In the early days, you had to! There was no such thing as a computer artist. In fact, we had difficulty hiring any artists to create the games, because back then art majors and those with artistic bent wanted to stay away from computers. They were just so foreign to them, and so not like a paintbrush or pencil. We had a hell of a time finding people with artistic sensibilities that would even touch a computer. You have to understand how primitive it was! I would try to help an artist, saying, “OK, now you need to save your file.” and they’d respond, “What’s a file?” Or, “Save it? It’s right there on the screen.” Or, “I don’t want to save it, I’m not done with it yet!” That was where we started.

Did the artists have a mouse or a tablet?

No, in the early days, nobody had a mouse. And while the Apple ][ had a tablet, they were very expensive so only fulltime artists had one. I was a cutting edge guy, plus I bought my own stuff because I was an outside contractor whereas the others got what Sierra gave them. I think I got a mouse around 1984. I remember I bought a Macintosh in ’84 right after they came out because I was so enamored with it. But I did Black Cauldron entirely with the keyboard. I don’t remember mice for PCs until much later.

I had an early Logitech three-button mouse and wrote macros for it that floated around Sierra for years. It was funny – years later, people were still using those Logitech three-button mice, because we programmers had developed some killer macros that used Ctrl + Click, Alt + Middle + Click, Ctrl + Alt + Shift + Click, etc., and so those three mouse buttons had like 30 functions!

To clarify, for the first artwork that you created, you were using the keyboard, to draw a line for instance?

Worse. In Dragon’s Keep, I used paddles! They were left-over from Pong – each paddle had a knob that could turn and a button to press. You held it in one hand, press the button with your left thumb, and turn the knob with your right hand. Your opponent had another paddle just like that. Since I couldn’t afford a joystick, I used the paddles to create backgrounds. You would turn one paddle to move the cursor up, and turn the other paddle to move the cursor across, and then you would press the button to draw the picture. Picture Etch-A-Sketch with a Paint program.

Bop-A-Bet [1982] was the same way. But by Troll’s Tale, I bought a joystick and that went a little faster. As soon as possible, I got out of the graphics business, so I didn’t have to do that anymore! [laughs]

[Philipp Lenssen edited the book Graphic Adventures (blogoscoped.com/graphic-adventures) and was grateful to get Al Lowe onto the Skype phone. Philipp's from Germany, living in China, and likes to create web sites, apps & games (see www.outer-court.com), and as of lately, he's exploring the world of iPad games creation. For this book he went back to one of his big child- and teenhood loves: the adventure games by Lucasfilm, Sierra and others, conducting interview with many of the people involved in their creation.]


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