This deliciously detailed interview with our very own senior designer Dave Grossman originally appeared in the November issue of Belgian magazine PC Gameplay Benelux. The magazine gave us permission to reprint the English version here. (They also reviewed Culture Shock in the same issue and gave it an 84% - thanks guys!)How open were the guys at LucasArts when you approached them with a new idea? Didn't you get a blank stare when you proposed them the idea for a game where a dictatorial tentacle takes over the world?
Do power mad tentacles seem like a strange idea? Actually, it was pretty easy to get the go-ahead for Day of the Tentacle. As I recall, the way it happened was that Tim Schafer and I were fresh off of Monkey Island 2 and ready to lead our own project – or as ready as we were going to be, anyway – and Kelly Flock, who was in charge at the time, asked us specifically if we'd like to do a sequel to Maniac Mansion. The license fit reasonably well with our collective sense of humor, and I think there was the feeling that having it nominally be a sequel would keep us from going too far off the deep end. So we worked on the design for a while and then presented it to the rest of the all-powerful project leader group, who recognized its merits. We were advised to cut five characters and three locations, which was a fairly standard thing to be told and we were ready for it. I think it took under a half hour to make the cuts to the design, and then we went ahead and built it.
[readmore]How did the process of starting new adventures work? Did you brainstorm until you had an idea for a whacky tentacle or pirate game, or did the LucasArts staff instruct you to come up with unique ideas?
The initial idea, like, we're going to make a game about pirates or Indiana Jones or a place where music is magic, might come from anywhere, be it marketing research or an amusement park ride or just something you were thinking about in the shower one day. From the initial seed we'd think about characters and story and brainstorm incessantly, usually starting from big ideas like "first you try to be a pirate, and then the governor gets kidnapped," and working our way towards smaller ones like "put a sweater in the dryer for 200 years and it will be the right size for a hamster." Oops, did I just give something away?How was the cooperation with Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert? You all had a unique creative vision - did you often clash on ideas, or did you complement each other?
Things were always very smooth with those two guys in particular. We have similar senses of humor, and I think we all trust each other's design sensibilities quite a bit. We didn't tend to clash much, and when we did disagree it always seemed to be very easy to figure out which way to go just by talking about it. Clear articulation of thought processes and willingness to entertain other ideas are things I think of as characteristic of Ron's leadership style, which I've always tried to emulate. Over the years I've designed with a couple of other people where things went that smoothly - but not many.Did you have to change the way you present humor in games when voices were added? Some games (like Monkey Island) had terrific comedic timing without the voices.
Definitely, writing dialog that will be heard is different from writing dialog that will be read. You have to keep it shorter, for one thing. Which is probably a good exercise anyway. Also, it's surprisingly easy to accidentally write tongue-twisters that will make voice actors want to hunt you down and flail you with the microphone cables they've chewed through. You have to be careful.How much influence did George Lucas (and Steven Spielberg) have over the games LucasArts made? Did they help you in the design process, or were they too focused on their own movie projects?
They had other things to think about and mainly left us blissfully alone to do what we're good at. I can count the number of times I met with either of them on the fingers of one hand.How was it working at LucasArts: did you get much creative freedom, or was it thightly managed from above? How did this evolve over the years?
I had quite a lot of freedom, particularly on Day of the Tentacle of course, but also on the games where I was working under someone else. As the company grew, it needed to have more infrastructure and predictability, but that didn't really extend so much to creative matters, at least not while I was still working there.How does working at Telltale compare to working at LucasArts (at the time you made Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle)?
There are some notable similarities. Telltale is still pleasingly small, as LucasFilm Games was in 1989. People tend to wear quite a few hats, and you know everybody's first name. Everybody is enthusiastic about what they're doing, and it all feels very exciting. What we don't have is a film-industry behemoth shielding us from economic realities, or an exotic hidden hillside locale, but I don't really miss either of those things too much.How was the relationship between LucasArts and Sierra? Were you closely following what the other was doing? Did you get any feedback from Sierra on the 'rubber tree' joke in Monkey Island?
Sierra was our main competition in the adventure game arena, so you'd better believe we were paying attention to what they were doing, and vice versa. I didn't know any of the designers there personally at the time, but I've met some of them since and can't remember any of them ever bringing up the rubber tree.Do you have any idea why LucasArts cancelled Sam & Max: Freelance Police (and Full Throttle 2)? Don't you think they missed an opportunity here to try something different/new with the Adventure genre?
All I know about that is what I hear third-hand through the grapevine, which is that it was mainly a financial decision. Aren't they all? As to whether it was a good call or a bad one, I know enough not to try to second-guess a decision made by somebody who has way more information than I have.Chip Morningstar, who worked on Lucasfilm's Habitat, has stated that in the early years of LucasArts, the movie licences (Star Wars, Indiana Jones) were treated as 'money in the bank' – they weren't used, unless a third-party publisher wanted to pay for the licence. Now, it's quite the opposite. Don't you think it's a shame LucasArts doesn't want to push the envelope anymore on creating original titles (like Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, Grim Fandango, etc.)?
I suppose so, but that's been kind of a problem with the industry as a whole rather than just one company, hasn't it? Actually, I'm hoping that digital distribution will make the blockbuster business model unnecessary and encourage innovation everywhere. What LucasArts adventure is your personal favorite, and which one was the most fun to make?
I'd have to go with Day of the Tentacle as my favorite - everything just seems to fit nicely with that one, art and music and characters and puzzles all working together to get the player to think like a cartoon character. It feels rounded and complete. As for which was the most fun to make, Tentacle would be in the running, but I'm tempted to pick The Secret of Monkey Island. Everything was totally fresh and new then - they say you never forget your first love.Any chance Ron, Tim and you will team up again to make a new game?
Ron and I have collaborated on quite a few games over the years (mainly for kids), but I think Tim is a bit busy running Double-Fine these days, so I'm not exactly sure how you'd logistically get all three of us together. Also, it would be pretty expensive. But hey, anything can happen.Do you approach the puzzles in Sam & Max differently than in the days of Day of the Tentacle? Is a little bit of frustration mandatory for puzzles, to give the player a sense of accomplishment afterwards?
Ideally, I want a puzzle to be just challenging enough that you feel clever when you solve it, but not so difficult that it crosses the line into frustrating. Frustration is not fun for most people. Mainly I find that the way a designer gets to the sweet spot isn't by making the necessary mental leap any simpler, but rather by getting the game to articulate the nature of the problem with a useful level of clarity.In the Bone games, the puzzles were relatively easy to solve as the gameworld, and the number of items you find in them, is rather limited due to the episodic nature of the game. Is this a disadvantage of episodic games, or does this fit in Telltale's strategy to not make the game too complicated?
Building the games smaller does reduce a certain inherent finding-needles-in-haystacks type of difficulty, and also makes the games less overwhelming for the inexperienced player. The Bone titles, the first one in particular, are aimed at beginners, so that was quite helpful on both points. But size is really just one of many factors to be balanced together to make a game with a challenge level appropriate to the intended audience.With Sam & Max, you're aiming for casual gamers. How are you planning to reach them and tell them about your game? These are the people that don't read game magazines, so you probably should need commercials on television or movie theaters. Continuing on that thought, don't you think the adventure developers have a fundamental marketing problem, as the audience they're trying to reach (people who like story & characters and don't need senseless violence) isn't hardcore and doesn't follow the gaming news on websites or in magazines?
TV and movie commercials are a bit outside of our marketing budget. Fortunately, casual gamers and other people of good taste who might like our game can be found all over the internet, which, not coincidentally, is a place where they'll be able to purchase our games.Adventures are still fairly popular in Europe. Do you have any idea why? Do you think American adventure developers should adapt to the European market?
Europeans obviously have staggeringly good taste, which is why they like adventure games. And I think any adventure game developer anywhere has to consider the European market, though hopefully not at the expense of losing the American one.Do you think gamers lost interest for adventures at the end of the 90s because adventure developers stopped innovating and didn't embrace new technologies and new ways to present challenges to the player?
Personally, I think the adventure game market floundered because it's easy to design a bad adventure game and lots of developers did. I don't think it had anything to do with lack of technology or innovation.Some people claim adventures should have 2D graphics. What's your opinion on this? Do you think that by stating this, these people deny the adventure genre to evolve? The same could have been said of real-time strategy games.
I think it's kind of silly to say that adventures should have any particular type of graphics. It's like saying all paintings should be done in a Renaissance style. I love 2D graphics, but right now I'm working at a 3D studio and there are certain things I really like about it. For one thing it makes it outrageously easy to set up effective camera angles for cinematic presentation. On the other hand, it sometimes gets in the way of what I'd like to do for animation. There are various trade-offs, but I've never seen anything that would convince me to limit myself to any specific number of dimensions.While games like Quake look very dated by todays standards, games like Day of the Tentacle or Grim Fandango still look modern thanks to their stylised graphics. As the cost of producing state-of-the-art graphics engines increase, don't you think the industry will have to come back from hyperrealism and return to a more stylised approach?
I'm not sure the industry will get over its fascination with realism until it achieves perfection, which is to say, not for a long time. But I wish it would. I've never thought much of realism in games, mainly because it seems like a wasted opportunity. You can make the game look any amazing way you can imagine, so why emulate the same old reality you see every morning over sausage and eggs? There must be a lot of bored art directors out there.Some people claim a good adventure should have brain-teasing puzzles. Others say the adventures should evolve: the core of adventures is story & characters, and puzzle-solving is just a means of interaction and challenge. What are your thoughts on this, and how do approach this in Sam & Max?
I guess I'd come down somewhere between those two camps. I like the puzzles, but I don't think their primary attraction is to be something that boggles your brain - I can get that in any book of brain-teasers anywhere. I do think they provide a terrific way for the designer to structure and balance the experience and to let the player drive the action of the story by following the natural dictates of curiosity. So you'll find plenty of puzzles in the Sam & Max series, intended to make you think, but hopefully not to completely stymie you and keep you from reaching the end.Adventures were absorbed by other genres - games like Beyond Good & Evil and Knights of the Old Republic have good stories, strong characters and some puzzle-like challenges (Knights of the Old Republic even had the make-4-gallons-with-3- and-5-gallon-containers puzzle). Do you think the adventure genre has to take over elements from other genres?
I certainly think adventure games can learn things from other genres. Games have figured out effective ways to present all kinds of dramatic experiences - car chases, shoot-outs... minesweeping, even. If my story has a car chase in it, I'll be looking to driving games for inspiration. (Did I mention that Sam & Max does have a car chase in it?)Bone: Out from Boneville & Bone: The Great Cow Race are two of the few recent games that make you laugh. Do you have any idea why games have become so serious?
I don't know - I suppose some people think funny implies frivolous, so maybe developers think serious is the only way to be taken seriously? Naturally, I would disagree. I think comedy is probably the only way to take a close look at the world and remain sane afterwards.David Cage from Quantic Dream (Indigo Prophecy) has stated that storytelling, characterisations and innovation will be the defining elements to broaden the market. In that respect, do you think this will herald the return of adventures, IF they embrace innovation?
Those things are all important to adventure games and they certainly will improve the medium, but at the same time they don't address what I see as the fundamental problem with the average adventure: weak gameplay. Too often players are asked to do things that are too hard, too easy, too arbitrary, completely nonsensical, boring, or frustrating, and no amount of storytelling will turn that into an enjoyable experience. Adventures won't be viable unless their working parts are as well designed as those of other kinds of games.While Hollywood has big budget blockbusters and smaller films that don't make that much money but are also cheaper to make, the big game publishers seem to focus only on blockbusters. Do you think the industry has to return to smaller games? Al Lowe thinks Telltale has an excellent idea with episodic games, because it's a return to the old approach of making games, in that the development-process only takes about 6 months.
I think the games industry has developed a blockbuster business model for the same reason that the movie industry did - a bottleneck in distribution. For movies it's the limited capacity of theaters, for games it's limited shelf space in retail outlets. Game stores only have room for a certain number of games, so you have to be one of the top sellers to even stay on the shelves. Making games smaller won't help this by itself (in fact, it's harder to keep smaller games in stores since they're also theoretically cheaper, which means the store makes less money per square inch of shelf and they don't like that), but digital distribution will - and already is, as evidenced by the emergence of the casual games market. Hooray for the internet and its infinite shelf space!What do you think of the current state of the industry? Do you think there's change looming around the corner, with indie games getting a platform via digital distribution services like STEAM? What signals do you think are most hopeful for the future of gaming?
I do think digital distribution is starting to mean we get a wider variety of things to play with, now on consoles as well as PCs, and that excites me. Selling small games that are popular with a niche audience is becoming a viable business model, which should mean all sorts of peculiar things will get made. I can't wait for the first game aimed at left-handed people who love wombats.Would games like Bone and Sam & Max be a success when they're only distributed in brick & mortar stores? If not, do you think digital distribution is the future to produce games that break the mold?
A small game like a Bone or Sam & Max episode would make a great low-cost impulse buy in a store, but the obvious brick-and-mortar thing to do with an episodic game series is to treat it like a television series – package them together when the season is finished and sell them as a set. A standalone game of small size would have a harder time competing, but I do think digital distribution is going to be very, very helpful on that point.Games like Psychonauts and Beyond Good & Evil, which have interesting stories & characters and build upon the Adventure genre, weren't commercial hits. Do you have any idea why this is? Would they have benefitted from digital distribution?
I think those games are just too large to benefit from digital distribution as it stands today. Even with current broadband, the pipe into people's homes isn't wide or fast enough for a painless download of something that size. We humans are not a patient species.In the old days, games were able to become a hit during many months, but now titles that aren't selling well are taken quickly out of the stores (like Psychonauts). In that respect, do you think digital distribution is helpful? Al Lowe thinks that many gamers don't want to look up slightly older titles (e.g. a year ago) anymore because they don't have an interesting story (while older films do get picked up, because they have a good story).
With infinite digital shelf space, being taken out of the store won't be a problem any more, but having people find your game will actually be harder. They won't just see it sitting there physically in the store and pick it up, they'll have to be pointed to it by something or someone, be it reviews or word of mouth or online ads or what have you. Games will still disappear if you don't market them.Say, some rich guy bought the Monkey Island/Maniac Mansion properties from LucasArts and offered you a limitlesss budget to make a new game in the series. Would you take the opportunity, and if so, how would such a successor look like – a traditional adventure, or something new?
A limitless budget? How can I turn that down? OK, the first thing we need is to build a recreational spa to keep the development team happy. After I'm relaxing in the hot tub, I think my approach would differ depending on which series it was. The two Maniac Mansion games are pretty different from one another, so I would be inclined to do what we did with Day of the Tentacle, which is pretend it wasn't a sequel and do something new, still focusing on characters, story, and puzzles. With Monkey Island I'd just bring in Ron Gilbert and let him do whatever he wanted so long as he promised to let me write the dialog.Hollywood is announcing movies from games at a very steady rate. A recent rumor was that Tim Burton was going to direct a Grim Fandango movie. Would you like to see a Day of the Tentacle or Monkey Island movie (other than Pirates of the Caribbean) getting made? Or are you too afraid a director like Uwe Boll would produce a film that makes you gouge out your eyeballs with a spoon?
Somebody did a high school play of Monkey Island that you can watch on the internet, and that was fun to see, so I guess I'd think it was cool if somebody made movies based on those games. Though I do think Pirates of the Caribbean WAS the Monkey Island movie I'd have wanted to see, and I'm not sure what anybody could do to top it. As for somebody making something I don't like, well, so what if they did? It wouldn't spoil the original. The Howard the Duck movie, for example, was a notorious stinker, but I was and still am a fan of the original comic book series.Thanks again to PC Gameplay for allowing us to reprint this interview.