Our first interviewee Al Lowe's trademark humor has helped him become one of the most beloved adventure game directors in the genre's history. In addition to writing all of the classic Leisure Suit Larry games (but not the recent Magna Cum Laude), Al had a part in various entries in the King's Quest, Space Quest, and Police Quest series and, along with Roberta Williams and "the two guys from Andromeda" Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy, was one of the key figures during Sierra's Golden Age. Al is now enjoying a temporary retirement, but still entertains internet denizens with his humor site allowe.com and his daily joke mailing list the CyberJoke 3000.
Where do you think the genre started to decline? Maybe because there were a few developers that seemed to dominate the genre, it seemed very sudden to a lot of gamers?
AL: I think it was a surprise to publishers as well as to developers. I continued to make games. When it was time for me to make another game, adventure game sales had just fallen through the floor. There were almost no sales for the last Monkey Island game. Grim Fandango had terrible numbers. It became a real challenge to Sierra to look at those sales from other companies, and those of Phantasmagoria 2 and Gabriel Knight 3, and put commit a lot of money to develop a new product.
The fall in adventure game sales was frightening to publishers and they reassessed all the potential market. This coincided with a huge rise in the 3D, first-person shooters. Plus, real-time-strategy games (which had been nothing in the early 90s) suddenly became huge. They saw a changing marketplace with no support for the most recent crop of adventure games. So why do another? That's why there was such a rapid decline.
It's funny you should mention the rise of 3D games because it seems to me that adventure games as much as any genre would be ready to take advantage of whatever technology was thrown at it. Why do you think that it's become this low production value niche?
AL: They're treated that way because publishers fund game development based on projected sales. When those projections aren't high, you can't justify an expensive development cycle. You're in a Catch-22 position: you have to guess what sales of a game that hasn't been created yet are going to be, so you have to base it on previous results. That limits budgets because they say, "Oh, it's not going to do well." That said, my plan for Larry 8 was to do it as a full 3D game, but it turned out that 3D costs lots more than 2D. When we actually started building rooms, building sets, building objects, the money got scary. The budget zoomed way up when sales (of adventure games) were way down. That's why adventure games don't get the same support as other games today.
So do you think that they were "right"? Do you think that there really is less of a market, or were they basing it on the performance of a few games?
AL: Publishers are in business to make money. If they thought there was money there, they would pursue it. They might all be wrong, but it doesn't look like it. While I love adventure games dearly, I'm afraid that their time has passed. The people that played adventure games back in the 80s stayed with them for a long time, but eventually dropped out. The people who started playing games in the 90s never really got into puzzle solving or inventory manipulation or the other adventure game ideas. I don't know how much of it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I do think that if there's a breakthrough adventure title, if some publisher produces a game that is interesting, fun, and exciting to play, and it sells well, then you'll see all the other publishers jump on the bandwagon. But until one publisher is willing to take the chance, no one else will get a chance.
What seems strange to me is that there's an effort by publishers to revive adventure game franchise; that they recognize that there's a need for these characters, but they want to make them anything but adventure games. Like the new Leisure Suit Larry (which of course you had nothing to do with), was a bizarre collection of mini-games. I'm not sure if Incredible Crisis sold well enough to justify that, but they see that as more profitable than an adventure game.
AL: The sad news is that Magna Cum Laude actually sold pretty well. I think a lot of it was pent-up demand for a Larry game. Anything would have sold and that's exactly what did. But the long-term word of mouth was not very good. It will be interesting to see if VU attempts a sequel to it.
What was the most fun you ever had creating one of your games?
AL: We had a lot of fun on all the games we made; that's one reason the games are fun to play. That stuff rubs off on you when you play a game; you can sense the environment in which it was created. When I look at some of the deadly serious games out today I wonder, "What must it have been like to work on that? That must have been terrible." The game maker's spirit shows through in the type of game that you do. So I couldn't say that there was one spot that was the most fun, but rather we had a good time on all the games.
In a recent interview with Gamespot, Tim Shaeffer, speaking of his new platformer Psychonauts (which was a fantastic game) tried to loosen the definition of what an adventure is. He said that to him it was more about how he developed the characters and the world that made it an adventure. Do you think that the way you interact with the world affects the kind of story you can tell?
AL: I'm not so sure I'd agree with Tim on that, since he seems to be dealing with semantics, but Psychonauts seemed as much Tim Shaeffer as any of his other games and I'd bet that I could well produce the "Larry Experience" in another genre of game, too. It's not whether you type a verbs and nouns or click object with some cursor as it is about the story, the characters, the environments, the music, and the rest. I'd love to have the opportunity to create a game that was tied to inventory manipulation and pixel-hunting, but that was fun in another way. I think I could create a 3D world with 3D objects and 3D puzzles but still tell a good story, with interesting characters having interesting situations and interaction. I think that's where my games were successful, not because we had 16 colors, or 50 frames per second. It's much more about the experience you create. If I did another game, it would not be like Larry 7, or Larry 5, or Larry 1, but it would be current generation, with lots more interaction, more ways of doing more things, but you would still be able to recognize it as an Al Lowe game because I put a lot of me into my games.