Al Lowe interview part 1, Pointtaa ja Klikkaa Co-op #8

May 13, 2021 16:00 · 5200 words · 25 minute read

welcome to point and click and today we have an interview with a certain gentleman who at least claims to be Al Lowe but um actually i did some research online and Al lowe looks about like this this gentleman is i’m not sure there are similarities so i was thinking that we could have a small quiz in the start if you don’t mind you could maybe prove your uh identity good then i can ask you all the questions to prove who you are excellent okay so ella i’ll paste the questions in the text so you can check them but i’ll read them out loud okay john williams is a a famous composer b uh sierra’s former marketing director c neither of the above or the both of the above well both of the above if you use different john williams but john williams that is pertinent to sierra was our marketing director and he was ken williams a younger brother yes okay fair enough let’s let’s try the next one the next question is so this is payback for me asking all those trivia quizzes before you could get into the game it could be it could be seeing us that maybe larry king is a tick tocker a talk show host larry laffer’s nickname for himself or the king of sweden well i don’t know who the king of sweden is but larry king’s a talk show host he used to be i think he’s not anymore yeah i think he’s not doing that gig or any other gig anymore but yeah that’s that that’s the right answer okay and then so far so good but now the final one and this is a special one okay the question is me e e okay well it’s close enough it’s the correct answer is d so i just wanted uh to give you a simulation what it was to try to answer a question where you don’t then understand the language and even if you did you wouldn’t understand the question okay i guess you’re out of it okay welcome to the show and thank you for taking the time to uh have this little chat around the world i understand you’ve been to uh finland at least once before i have indeed i went to alt fest uh um ten years ago at least i don’t know what year it was maybe 2008 something like that long time ago yeah yeah i i saw footage you actually played some saxophone there and uh it’s some other fun things had a speech and stuff hey al um you are haven’t always been a you are not currently a game designer i guess and you haven’t always been a game designer but you uh you did something else before making games tell us something about your youth and life before well i i was always interested in music um and uh i was a a a proto-geek i guess you’d say i mean i i was always the kid in school who would fix the film projector when it when it broke or um uh build the speaker cabinets for the band or uh re-solder the cables on the microphones when they went bad i i was always that kind of guy so when i learned about computers it to me it just seemed like oh god this is the ultimate toy because um you know you can build all kind of stuff with it itself and i wasn’t sure what i would do with a computer if i had one but i just knew i had to have one so i convinced my wife that we should spend a month of our combined salaries at the time and we ended up with a apple ii with 48k of memory because i couldn’t afford all 64k uh um let’s see what 16 16k of memory cost 16 200 can you imagine i i can i can easily imagine i i have some recollection of that time like not that exact time but time period yeah um and so anyway i was uh always interested in that kind of stuff i i was a professional musician for uh during high school and college that was my only job i put myself through school playing music and when i graduated from college from university i became a music teacher i taught various public schools and i did that for about 15 years until i got an apple ii and thought i this is just too much fun i’ve got to do something with this and because i had a background in education it was simple to write some educational games and that’s how i got started in software i did that for 15 years and one day sierra became the victim of a hostile takeover and the company was stolen from ken and roberta williams by crooks thieves and i can say that with impunity because they were actually convicted in u.

s federal court and ended up going to prison and spending years hopefully breaking big rocks into little ones i don’t know but uh anyway so i stayed with sierra for 15 years and it was a great time of my life i enjoyed it a lot but i’ve been retired now for longer than that i guess it’s been 22 years that i’ve been retired time does fly yeah yeah these uh these events have been uh uh talked about in many other uh interviews i actually read ken williams’s book about maybe when it came out about half half a year ago or something yes where he talked about the cuc and the very dirty dirty actions that took place in the late 90s or mid 90s i guess yeah um but we’ll go to the beginning beginning at sierra when you uh you came there after you were in uh in an apple expo or something where you met ken williams i think if i i i went to a computer show computer using educators was the show and i looked at the state of the software that was there and gosh it was just terrible i mean this was 1982 and there were no games everything was very rote learning like exercises out of a book and i had had some experience with computers before that i um uh the school district where i worked had a mini computer and they were foolish enough to give me an access code and a password and an account number and uh uh and i said well i have this great idea for a computer program and they handed me this big thick manual about this big and said okay here’s the basic programming manual go do it yourself because we don’t need the manual because no one here no real programmer would ever use basic so they literally said i took the manual home and i read it and i realized oh well this problem i have is just kind of a lot of math problems i could just write all this stuff down in the computer and it would work now today it would you know you’d make an excel spreadsheet to do this but then i wrote a basic program that added up math and did particular algorithms and i had no idea what i was doing but i had a buddy who was a computer programmer and every once in a while i’d call him up and say hey art what can i do i need help how do i do this and uh he would he would help me out so i taught myself to program on a deck mini computer in deck basic uh and then when the apple twos came out about a year later um i convinced my wife that we should buy one and i was going to make us rich by this creating a integrated music festival management software package consisting of 20 programs that did different uh soft different problems when you ran a music festival now that was what i did uh for the school district and what my wife did and other people and so we had a built-in proving ground for this for this product um sadly that did not become the way we would get great wealth but but it did teach me a good lesson about programming and write about writing bulletproof code uh and so um when i went to the computer conference and saw the state of educational software at the time i thought well hell i can do better than this um my son and i were playing uh sierra games it wasn’t sierra then it was online systems but we enjoyed playing adventure games together and he was young couldn’t type couldn’t read but he could look at the pictures and i would read him the text and he would figure out you know he was equally good at figuring out solutions to the puzzles and stuff so that’s what we did we played adventure games together um and therefore it seemed likely that if i made a game it would be like that so what i did was make an adventure game that was suitable for a six-year-old uh to play by themselves and as far as i know it was the first uh game of that sort of educational game for the apple ii um spinnaker software came out at that about that same time and they had some games that were games first and educational also uh like i did but i was right in the forefront of that whole project well we took our games to apple fest in 1982 and i vividly remember uh uh we bought it the smallest booth we could buy which was 10 by 10 feet i think which was way too big for the little products the only two products we had um but we uh set up our programs and did demonstrations and various publishers all came by every major publisher in the industry was there at that show and they all came by and said you don’t want to be a publisher you want to be a designer you should write more games let us sell you know thousands of games for you and and that sounded pretty good because at the point at that point my wife and i were spending our uh free time stuffing plastic bags and copying disks and addressing and waiting for the ups man to show up and yeah it was the the whole publishing part of it didn’t have much appeal to us where the designing and writing and creative parts did so what about all the people we talked with we ended up going with sierra they had the best offer and they were also the nearest the closest to our home so that’s how uh the rest is history i guess yeah yeah it’s it’s definitely history and uh the the zip bag method worked well for canon roberta a few years before but times had changed very rapidly i guess like yeah they actually were uh by the time we signed with them they were actually putting their games in cardboard boxes yeah that’s problems yeah and then you uh then you joined sierra and uh there were about like 20 30 workers at that time i guess yeah i think there were about 20 employees when i joined and that was the year that sierra expanded rapidly uh within six months or so after i signed on uh sierra was up to 120 employees um and then came black friday original black friday yeah and that afternoon sierra had 40 employees and they’d let everybody go 80 of us go including me with the understanding that uh uh i would no longer earn a salary but i would earn royalties on products that i actually shipped uh which was better for them and turned out to be better for me because now i got paid on advances against future royalties uh and then royalties when the products sold so that that’s the way i worked for the next 15 years at sierra well i had i was a contract employee or not a country i was an outside contractor as opposed to an employee so no uh yeah it worked out well yeah and uh it must have been quite a feeling to uh jump from teaching to making like official licensed disney games in a span a few years it was there were a couple steps in between uh where i made my own games yeah uh but at that same show where um i hooked up with sierra uh ken obtained the rights to the disney characters so when he brought me on as a full-time designer uh it made sense for me to tackle uh disney characters and use those licenses we did it for a few years but what we found was that the disney at that time licensed characters were not an advantage in a game in fact they were a disadvantage i think at the time most licensed software was pretty crappy software and people enjoyed originality and different products and stuff and so so it was interesting because sierra was creating the same kinds of products but disney was taking all the profits and i was like well why are we doing all this work and disney make all the money uh so they you know it just what didn’t make business since at that time now later you know things changed and suddenly you know uh i would love to have the pixar rights at this point but yeah for a year i was walt disney software yeah that’s smart that’s so many people can’t say the same i think scott murphy did some uh and you worked with scott with uh black cauldron yes on black culture for a while yeah yeah yeah i think i actually uh trained him in uh agi uh ati was a the language that we used back then but it was never formalized it was much more a collection of subroutines that uh than it was an actual language and um i learned by sitting next to ken uh and he would program something and show me and then i would program some more stuff and i would get it wrong and he would correct me and then i would do things and so then i did the same with scott and uh several other programmers as well so it took a long time before we were organized enough to actually offer instruction of any kind in the language yeah and um and uh with the agi came lots of hits to sierra like king’s quest and space quest and then a certain white suited adventurer came along so larry larry was your breakthrough hit i guess if you had sev different kind of breakthroughs before but then along came larry yeah larry uh uh certainly changed my life and part of it was because um ken was in financial difficulties at that time and didn’t have a lot of cash flow and so he said well if you can take no advances on your next game i could give you a higher royalty rate and i said oh well that sounds good because my games had all sold up until that point and so yeah sure hire royalties that sounds good uh so it was good for him because he didn’t have to give me money up front uh and it would have been good for me if the game had sold but because it was adult-ish in think many nature didn’t take it uh and it uh was the worst selling product in the history of the company uh at a time when normal games sold 40 or 50 000 copies out the door larry sold 4 000 copies the first month and i was just sick i mean i had wasted four months of my life uh you know on this thing and i taken no advances uh so thank god my wife was still employed as a teacher because we were living off her salary and thank god for wives yeah and and uh but piracy was very widespread then uh i guess as it still is but the um uh uh larry wasn’t very well copy protected uh and so it was um a very popular game but not a why of not a high selling game but it was odd because the um uh growth rate uh if you looked at on a chart it looked like this i mean would start down here and then it just got bigger and bigger every month and after a year it finally broke into the top 10 uh with a bullet as an upcoming star and we were already doing the second game and it was already over so so it was an odd odd way to say i’d like to think that we invented shareware uh yeah we didn’t know it yeah yeah officially it came out a bit later larry one is uh it’s it’s a remake of a swords i didn’t know it is yeah i didn’t know it i got into the research and then i found out that there was a game called soft porn before larry yeah saw horn came out in 1980 i believe uh and was one of the first big hits for the apple ii at a time when apple had sold a hundred thousand apple twos ken had sold 25 000 copies of software that’s quite a large body i knew you had a pirated version so it was pretty much on every apple ii outside of an elementary school i guess probably a few elementary schools readily available and uh uh it was a terrible game i mean i don’t think chuck benton would mind if i if i called it that i think he’d probably agree um it it chuck wrote it because he bought an apple ii and wanted to write database software he thought that the future lie in uh doing um custom programming for uh garages and gas stations and you know doctor’s offices or whatever and he wanted to use the apple ii as a database program and he wasn’t sure whether he could handle it so he said i’ll write a test case well what’s what’s a good test case database he said i’ll write a game and so he wrote this simple game that had no protagonist it was an interesting um lesson in game design because there was no central character there was no uh one to follow in the game it was text only because he didn’t really want to mess with graphics so uh it was in fact it was he showed it to ken and i think ken enjoyed the the context of it and the uh and figured that sex would sell which it did uh you know uh but uh it it when i um when we lost the rights to the dirt gave up the rights to the disney characters can’t ask me what do you want to do next because i just finished donald duck’s playground i think and king’s quest 3 for roberta uh he said what do you want to do and i said gosh i don’t know what do you think he said well you know soft porn used to be a big hit but we got rid of it because of the disney catalog why don’t we call check and see if uh he’ll sell us the rights uh to do a new version of it and uh and you could update it with our new uh 3d graphic programming again in 3d correct yeah 280 pixels of graphics uh across um and uh uh i said sure yeah that’s fine so um i said let me play it first because i haven’t played it in five years maybe maybe i don’t remember it very well uh so i took the game home and played it for a week and uh uh got through it barely um but uh uh i came back and ken was in a meeting with he said well how did it go and i said oh god ken this game is so out of touch it should be wearing a leisure suit and i got a laugh and i thought oh leisure suits are funny and he said well could you do a update of the game and i said no it’s i don’t think so the only way i can do this is if you’d let me make fun of it and he said oh that’d be good and okay well um all right so i went home and then i kind of thought what have i done i don’t know how to write a comedy i’ve never written a comedy what do i know about comedy other than you know i enjoyed watching comedians over the years and comedy shows and comedy books and i thought gosh people like all those forms of comedy why wouldn’t they laugh at a computer game uh it’s just that nobody’s done one uh um and well i say nobody i think steve moretzky did some funny stuff for infocom back in the early 80s space quest might be considered a humorous question oh yeah it was released released later okay i was i always thought that it was about the same time but yeah well sure roughly yes same big characteristic yeah but i mean i had never seen or heard of space quest yeah even though i mean i think maybe scott and mark were working on at that time i don’t i don’t think so because um yeah it was you’re correct i’m wrong because uh here’s why i know uh because sierra was uh very limited in the people that could use the tools up here because people don’t realize that those games were made before there was a photoshop quite a bit before there was a photoshop yeah and and you say that to people you people go what before photoshop how could you you know you can’t you can’t do anything on a computer without photoshop um but literally we had to we i mean not me somebody who was really a good burger had to build the tools that they use to make the background images on the screen another person built the tools they used to animate the characters on the screen another person built the program that was used to create the music in the games and on and on a font editor we had to build our own font editor there was no font editors but primitive and basically yeah so so anyway there were there were very few people who knew how to use these tools and of course at the time you artists were in particularly short supply uh people that went into art then were not the people who went into computers it was just they were just two opposite things because you know one was very creative and and uh very left brain and the other was just totally right-brained and uh anyway the two didn’t go together so we had real trouble finding artists uh to who could learn to use the tools i remember when we were working on a one game and uh uh i i walked into one of the artists and he was uh all upset and mad and i said what happened he said he said well i lost my uh uh picture i was doing i lost the accent well how long have you worked on it and he said well all day let’s put five i’ve been working on it well why did you save it no it wasn’t done that was the love yeah i know that’s the level of people that that we had so i mean we were very uh limited so anyway when it came time to work on larry uh i think there were three people who knew how to use the tools that we used to create the graphics and macro being one of them and they they made mark a deal they said if you’ll keep working on space quest during the day and work on larry at night and weekends uh then we’ll give you a a certain royalty and um and uh if you take longer than four weeks i believe it was yeah if you take uh a month we’ll give you this royalty if you take uh longer we’ll give you less and if you take you know six weeks we’ll give you less and uh anyway he finished in a month uh all while he was working 40 hours a week at space quest he uh uh evenings and and uh weekends and did all the art including the backgrounds the credits the box the art uh everything in the game um uh for larry one yeah i it was a different time yeah i i read some interviews and books about that time period at sierra it almost gave me a feeling that it was like a group of friends or even family like having fun and making games it was it like that that’s exactly what it was yeah you know we had no feedback from anybody i mean we shipped a lot of games we saw we saw trucks leave the warehouse you know with with lots of boxes but we never heard back from anybody that they liked the game or they didn’t like it i mean we read reviews in magazines months later uh but there were no comments pages there was no there was no feedback uh from anybody i mean i guess in the course of my career there i probably got a dozen letters from people it just people didn’t take the time to do that they were busy to solve they wanted to solve the game they called the hint line a lot yes but uh but as far as telling us what they thought of the games we didn’t really get that so i i wrote and i think scott and mark did too we wrote for each other you know we wanted to please ken and roberta and jim walls and scott and mark and all the other gang that was a bob hydeman and jeff stevenson we wanted them to like uh the games and they gave us feedback but we weren’t in silicon valley we weren’t by the other game companies uh i know we traded product with other people we gave games to lucasarts and they gave us games back and that was all that was cool we like getting free games but that’s about it as far as feedback was concerned yeah um actually when i told a friend of mine that we are going to have a talk i would get the honor he asked me to uh ask you that did you uh realize or when did you realize that you have awoken a lot of things in impressionable young men how long were you in the business before you realized that something is happening remember i i was a school teacher i taught high school and and middle school uh intermediate school aged kids so i understand um adolescent youth and and also you know i didn’t i didn’t know how to write well none of us knew how to write games when we started there were no books there were no classes there were no schools um the only way you learned was by playing games and seeing what uh somebody else did that you liked uh or didn’t like and i would say oh well i’m never gonna do that or oh i like that i’ll steal that idea um but but none of us had any education or training um or background you know there was i remember when i bought my apple ii i called the local university and said can i take a class in programming and they said sure do you want fortran or cobalt so yeah so i taught myself assembly language yeah yeah um larry larry was quite it followed the plot of soft porn larry hooks up comes to lost wages hooks up with uh three women and lives happily ever after that’s the story basically um yeah uh when um i had done educational software and i had worked uh with roberta on uh programming uh uh other games but i had never uh done an adult game a game with typing where you had actually had it type input that was my first experience with that so um i was happy to take the idea of softborn and um modernize it uh with the graphics and but you gotta understand softborn um was merely the shell for larry uh i i used the puzzles and the locations and one line of text uh chuck wrote one line of text that i loved and uh kept that in the game but everything else was me um the the central protagonist there was no central figure in his game uh the computer talked with you like i am your puppet master uh order me about and i will do thy bidding this game is horrible um but uh so anyway i kept one line from chuck and uh wrote all the rest of the lines myself and and i created a protagonist i wasn’t quite sure how to do it um but i knew i needed to have some way to make uh jokes and i thought well the narrator in these games is kind of us another character so what if i became the narrator and i had this stooge to make fun of um and uh i i thought about the comedies of uh buster keaton and uh charlie chaplin and uh uh all those peers those silent comedians from back then and uh uh thought well that’s what i should do i should do a um a character that’s kind of an anti-hero that uh is uh uh then then i at some point i realized what have i done i’ve created this character that’s supposed to be the player and i keep insulting you uh i i i i talk badly to you and i give you terrible uh put you in terrible situations and i you know i’m you flush the toilet and i’ve i kill you i mean terrible things in the game but but somehow i guess it worked out in the end it was it was a it was a fun project.