Al Lowe was one of the big movers and shakers of the PC Adventure scene and is responsible for the Leisure Suit Larry games. Known for his risque sense of humour and love of puzzles, he’s continued to have a presence in videogames, recently popping up to promote a Leisure Suit Larry project on Kickstarter. Here he talks to us about the early days and his work with Sierra Online.
In the interest of starting at the beginning, let’s talk a little bit about how you first came to find yourself in the gaming industry.
I was 35 years old and had been a teacher 14 or 15 years. I was at the top of the salary scale; I had nowhere left to go as far as advancement was concerned. I was looking towards the next 20 years of my life with no additional salary. I had a new child and computers seemed like a growing field.
I backed away from teaching in a slow, stealthy manner. I got an account on the school district’s mini-computer and started programming, not with any intent of changing careers but to make my job easier. The school district had gone through some cutbacks. I was an administrator, but they didn’t have any secretaries or any assistants to help us with typing. Thankfully I was a good typist, but I saw word processing as a way to save myself a whole lot of work. But they wouldn’t buy me a word processor because the software was $8,000 and, ‘No one would ever use a word processor except the superintendent’s secretary and she doesn’t want it. So you don’t get one.’ It was a little short-sighted. It seemed obvious to me, but I guess not to everyone.
I started working on that computer and one thing led to another. I wrote a few little things in BASIC to help me do my job. By the time I was finished, I made a sellable product. So when the Apple II came out, I thought, ‘I bet I could move this to the Apple.’ And that’s what I did. I got into programming through the back door. I worked on some software on my own time. I let the school district use it for free, but I sold it to other people.
Considering that start, how was it that you came to develop games as opposed to, for lack of a better term, more serious software such as the word processor you had worked on?
In 1982, I went to a music convention at a Kansas City hotel. When the convention ended, as they took down the signs for my convention, I saw them put up signs for something called a National Education Computing conference. Since I had written that software used by educators, I thought I may as well hang around for a few more days and see what happens. Either that, or be bored silly at my in-laws’ house. It changed my life. Seeing the level of commercial software in 1982, I realised the stuff I did wasn’t so bad. I felt I could make something better than most of what they showed there. So I did.
My son and I loved playing adventure games; we owned several Sierra titles. So, when I made my games, they wound up looking like Sierra games because that’s what we liked. When I showed my games to Ken and Roberta Williams, Ken said, ‘Berta, these look like your games.’ I was honoured and thrilled.
So that’s how you began your relationship with Sierra: by approaching the company with some of your early games?
No, they actually found me. I had created two games and took them to some California computer conferences. I had the idea in July, shortly before the very first commercial graphics software was released for the Apple II. I bought a copy and in August and September, while working full-time at my school job, I wrote two games. My wife figured out how to package them and market them. She put them in plastic baggies and we ran ads in educational magazines. I looked at the software that was then available and realised that I could make games, that were fun but also educational. That was my breakthrough; why we were successful. Because we were gamers, my games were fun first, and educational, too.
In early November 1982, Applefest was held in San Francisco. My wife and I spent a lot of money to rent a booth. We set up our home Apple computer with a 13-inch colour monitor, along with a friend’s Apple and colour monitor, and showed our two games. Every publisher in the business was there, and they all came by our tiny booth. I met the founders of all the major software companies, because they were all so small. The Carlsons from Brøderbund, the Williamses from Sierra, and everyone else who published software then. They all liked my games and wanted us to create games for them and let them worry about the packaging, marketing and sales.
That seemed good to us, as we quickly realised that loading boxes and waiting for the UPS truck was no fun. After talks with all the publishers, Sierra offered us the best deal. Plus, they were local, since we lived in Fresno and they were nearby in Oakhurst. 16 years later I was still with them.
Speaking of your relationship with Sierra, during Sierra’s massive 1984 firing spree you were let go from Sierra proper and moved into contract work for the company. It seems like a somewhat unusual move on Sierra’s part, in that it would then owe you a royalty per unit sold. Can you tell us why Sierra may have made this decision?
I can tell you almost verbatim what Ken Williams told me. He said they were having cash flow problems. The 25 programmers were employees and a major expense to the company, subtracting directly from their profitability. But if they put us on contract and gave us advances against future royalties instead of salaries, those advances become prepaid assets. I went from being an expense to being an asset!
I asked Ken what sort of advances he was talking about. He threw out some numbers. I added things up, and said, ‘What about this product? Do you want me to translate this to the Commodore 64?’ He said yes. ‘Do you want me to do an Atari version of this product?’ Yes. Adding it all up, I calculated I would make at least double what I had made as a salaried employee. I asked Ken, ‘Have I just been fired?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ And I said, happily, ‘Thanks a lot!’
Two other programmers and I went home and brought back games on time. The other 23 went home and, oh, I don’t know, watched soap operas and smoked dope, I guess. I don’t know what they did, but they didn’t come back with products. So the change was good for me but bad for them. That was also bad for the company: several games due to ship didn’t because the programmers weren’t self-disciplined enough to complete them.
Looking back on it now, do you think the switch to independent contracting allowed you more freedom in what you created?
Not so much, no. In those early years, Ken was searching for anything that was publishable. Any professional product sold like crazy; there just weren’t enough people programming. It’s the opposite of the situation today. Now people are coding everywhere; Flash games are created left and right. If you go look at the iTunes Store, there are hundreds of thousands of apps. Of course, most of them are crap because the barrier to entry is so low. Back then, games were cheap to develop; the difficulty was finding people with the skills to create them or the propensity to learn.
On the topic of entering new fields and learning new skills, in the past you have made it fairly clear that prior to Leisure Suit Larry you had never really tried your hand at any sort of comedy writing. Basing the entire game around comedy is a pretty major step, in that case. What inspired you to make that kind of shift?
It was my first attempt. Ken and I were discussing my next project when the idea came up. Back then, designers didn’t submit elaborate designs. There were no greenlight committees or market research. Ken and I went to lunch, he asked what I wanted to do next, and I didn’t care. He remembered that [Softporn Adventure] had been a big seller five years earlier. ‘Maybe you could update it using our new interpreter. Bring it up to date and maybe it would sell again.’
I promised to look it over. I still had a copy at home that I had pirated some years earlier. The game was very crude, even by 1986 standards. I found it laughable. I didn’t see it had any chance as a serious game. When I reported back to Ken, I said, ‘That game is so out of date it should be wearing a leisure suit.’ He laughed. I said I might be able to do something with it if I could mock it and make fun of it. Ken said to give it a try. At the time, the company was short of cash. He suggested that if I did it on speculation, he’d give me a much higher royalty. It was a risk-free investment for him. Since I had money coming in from royalties on other games, I agreed.
So I worked on the game for about three months, I think. When it shipped it was the worst selling product in the history of the company because all the sales people were scared of it, because it was dirty, it was nasty, they weren’t sure if anyone would buy it. So it was a self-fulfilling prophecy of defeat. But a funny thing happened: after it shipped, I saw the sales and initial orders and it was just very discouraging. I thought I had just pissed away three months of my life, but Sierra came to me and said the Police Quest programmer was having real trouble and asked if I could help bail out Police Quest. I said sure, I’d take a look at it, so I jumped right into working with Jim Walls on the first Police Quest game and basically rewrote much of the text and added to the design Jim had already. Jim basically had a story but really didn’t have any alternative information, so if you didn’t already know what to do next there was no way the game could tell you. So Jim and I spent a lot of time going through the game and went, ‘What do you do next, Jim? How would you know that?’ I can’t tell you how many times that phrase came up in the three months I worked there. So we fleshed out the design and gave people a chance of being able to beat the product and finish the game.
People were getting interest in Leisure Suit Larry right?
In that time, Larry just started to sell itself by word of mouth. People played it and liked it, stores learned that the game wasn’t that dirty, that it was safe to sell, and that it was a funny game. Sales every month just doubled; it did that for a year. 13 months after it came out it showed up on the top ten and went up through the top ten. I don’t know if it ever went to number one but it was in the top five for quite a while. Today games don’t have a chance to earn a place like that; there just isn’t the shelf life. If they don’t sell in the first month people just put it in the discount bin and move to something new.
The humour in the game certainly does seem to be what people love most about it. Playing the game, it seems like much of the humour could also be a bit of an inside joke.
Well, there were a lot of inside jokes. Basically, I didn’t know how to write a comedy. There were really only one or two games up to that point that had been funny at all. Every time I thought of something that might be funny, I just kind of threw it in. That’s really how it worked. We developed those games in an incredibly interactive environment. For example, I would play the game and think of something to add to it. I could exit the game and be back to my editor in a second or two. I could change a line or two of code, it would only take a second or two to compile it, and I’d be back to that scene in the game. It was an incredibly interactive round-trip experience. There was no waiting for a build, or compiling giant stacks of code or going out for coffee while you were waiting for the machine to compile code. So that’s the way I wrote: I looked at what Mark Crowe had drawn for the scene and I’d realise someone is going to say, ‘Hey, look at that,’ so I’d add a ‘look at that’ message; or someone is going to try to pick that up, so I’d better add a ‘pick that up’ message. Whenever I could, I tried to make those messages funny.
Plus we just tried to think of funny things we could do. For instance, there was a flasher in one scene outside the casino and Mark, when he drew it, drew it as two midgets standing on one another’s shoulders so that when they opened the trench coat you could see the outline of these two guys, one on the other’s shoulders. Anything we could think of – he drew a dog that just sort of walked across the screen and I thought, ‘What can I do with that?’ I wound up creating a timer that would count the frames since the last time you moved, and if the timer hit frame 254 I had him come out and head towards you, then the animation of him peeing, I think I did that myself. I think I just got in the editor and added some yellow dots.
I think the biggest thing that made Larry funny and successful was that it was the first game we ever beta tested. I created a routine that stored to floppy disk anything that someone typed in that wasn’t recognised by the game. We always had that message that said, ‘You can’t do that here. At least not now,’ which basically meant: ‘I have no idea what the hell you’re typing.’ Any time that message came up I stored what they typed, where they were, what inventory they had and other variables. I took all those inputs and sorted them all by scene number and put almost all of the stuff into the game. I added a message for anything they had tried to do.
Notable Al Lowe Games
You can read the rest of our interview with Al Lowe in issue 87. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
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