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The second major project to fall through--and the one that most Sam & Max fans will forever associate with the day their faith in humanity died--was back at LucasArts where it all began. "I believe it was shortly after the news that Infinite Machine was folding up that I got a call from LucasArts," Steve says. "The idea of revisiting Sam & Max was floating around LucasArts but they didn't want to approach me as long as Infinite Machine's game was alive. Since I already had a job at Pixar, the idea that Mike Stemmle (Hit the Road co-designer) would be leading the project made it even more appealing."
Sam & Max: Freelance Police was announced at E3 2002 with a trailer showing off the characters' move to 3D. Rather than one long road trip, this game was designed as a series of six loosely related cases. In addition to Mike Stemmle, who was in charge of the game's creative direction, other project leads included Dan Connors and Kevin Bruner. Steve worked on the game as an advisor: "I was the guy to consult on everyone else's smart, funny work. Actually I worked most with Mike on the stories for the individual cases and the overarching uberstory, as he liked to refer to it. I also managed to squeak out some character concepts along the way."
Although LucasArts had largely moved away from the roots that made its adventure games so popular in the 1990s, Mike recalls that working on Freelance Police was like old times. "Funny things were always happening. During one meeting, the artists were showing off the latest animations and characters from an episode revolving around a 'Burning Max' festival, which featured, among other things, copious nudity. Unbeknownst to me, one of the many buck-naked models crafted by our cheeky modelers was none other than yours truly. Now, back then I was a lot of things, but an attractive naked man I was not. Soon afterwards, a video clip of my cartoonish naked form doing a sultry dance on the grounds of the festival was making its way through the halls of LucasArts. Although I've since tracked down and obliterated most of these videos, I keep one on my hard drive at home as a reminder me to stick with my diet."
Steve has his own fond memories of the production. "Once I had submitted a notes pass on one of Mike's scripts. He emailed me that he read one joke out of context and didn't think much about it but once he figured out where it fit in the game he nearly horked milk out his nose. That pleased me quite a bit," Steve says. "I loved receiving funny animation cycles of this or that like an endless jumping Max. I'd keep them on my laptop and surreptitiously show them around, proudly, as if they were baby pictures."
Production seemed to be going well, but in March 2004, Freelance Police was unexpectedly cancelled. "I can still remember the chill that went down my spine when our marketing department informed me that the entire population of European adventure game players had, over the course of less than three months, died," says Stemmle. "You'd think a massacre of such proportions would've been reported more widely." LucasArts officially attributed the decision to "current marketplace realities" and "underlying economic conditions" and, in one fell swoop, caused Sam & Max fans around the world to weep. Openly.
Steve remembers getting a cryptic email from Mike asking him to stop by the office. "Of course that was right at the moment when things had seemed to be cruising along without a hitch. That's how that kind of thing always seems to go." So how did Steve feel about the cancellation? "I've worked on projects that have gotten cancelled before so I think I took it pretty well. I felt worse for the crew, who had a lot more of their time invested than me. I knew that the public might automatically assume the game had been in trouble so I issued an official comment to let fans know the game itself was in good shape--that the decision was strictly a marketing choice."
The fans weren't willing to give up Freelance Police without a fight. They mobilized and ultimately circulated a 32,000 signature petition to LucasArts to express their disappointment over the cancellation. A German company called Bad Brain claimed to be in talks with LucasArts to buy the nearly finished game, but nothing came of it. The future of a new Sam & Max game looked bleak.
Meanwhile, Dan Connors and Kevin Bruner, who left LucasArts soon after Freelance Police was cancelled, were busy setting up shop at Telltale, with the idea of delivering games episodically over the internet. In the summer of 2005, LucasArts' rights to make a Sam & Max game expired, and Steve started talking to Telltale about starting fresh. In September the deal was inked and announced, to the cautious optimism of thousands of fans, and in December, Sam & Max took their first tentative steps back to life in the first of a series of webcomics inked by Steve and hosted on Telltale's website. The ongoing series, which went on to be nominated for an Eisner award in 2007, started out in the cemetery behind Kilpeck Church in England with Sam & Max clawing their way back from an untimely burial.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Sam & Max Season One debuted in the fall of 2006 to fan elation and critical acclaim. The series had six episodes that ran through May 2007. Then in June, Steve and Telltale announced that to commemorate the 20th anniversary since the first Sam & Max comic's publication--and to restore faith in humanity to every last heartbroken fan--the fiercely sought Surfin' the Highway comic collection would be returning to print. More episodic Sam & Max games are currently in development. And the future's wide open, because as long as there's a crazy guy named Steve Purcell coming up with new ideas and crazy fans who are dying to hear them, the world will never see the end of Sam & Max.
Next time: Bloopers!