Interview: Al Lowe Talks New iPhone App, Evolution Of The Adventure Game Genre
Leisure Suit Larry
creator and Sierra-era veteran Al Lowe has effectively retired from the game industry, but was intrigued enough by the opportunities on Apple's iPhone platform to create a new app, CyberJoke 3000
Although it's been over 11 years since Lowe worked on a game, he's maintained his humor website
, and a long-term mailing list where he shares his jokes with fans and fellow humorists. Over the years, he says, he accumulated such a collection that, when approached by developer Binary Mill, he saw an opportunity to put them into the app, which launched on September 25.
"I started playing with the iPhone, and realized there were a lot of joke apps out there -- and they were all silent, like the days of text adventures," he says. "And most of the jokes were just terrible. They were badly edited... it was basically shovelware, full of misspellings, grammatical errors... and the [iPhone] ships with earphones! That should be a clue to you!"
"Anyway, my idea wasn't that startling, but just to record someone who could really tell a joke, telling the jokes," he says. That someone turned out to be comedian Chuck Myers, reading over 100 of Lowe's favorites in CyberJoke 3000
. "So far, it seems to be a big success," Lowe adds.
And there are plans to keep updating, he says. Over some 10 years of maintaining his daily joke mailing, Lowe says he's developed and curated a stable of over 5,000 jokes, so there's plenty of material left with which to keep CyberJoke 3000
continually updated for free.
"I'm also hoping that we're going to have a free edition approved any day now," says Lowe of the $2 app. "We should soon have a sample edition, which I wanted to call the 'Cheap Bastard Edition,' but Apple wouldn't approve that," he laughs.
Lowe and Binary Mill wanted to go above and beyond the joke apps available on the App Store in many ways. Users can give star ratings to jokes for their personal favorites, see how others have rated them on a worldwide server, and view the most popular jokes at any given time.
Lamenting The Recent Larry
is Lowe's first game-related work since his retirement. Although two Leisure Suit Larry
games have released since then without his involvement, it's fairly well known that Lowe was displeased with the results.
Lowe's Larry was a luckless middle-ager in polyester and Hawaiian print trying to lead the Lothario's life, stumbling through seedy scenarios usually in pursuit of a woman, and often getting in over his head. Although they were adult-intended games, their sexual themes were more classic comedy than truly risque.
Later installments in the series seemed to interpret the sexuality as crudeness, and focused more on poor taste than what Lowe thought was fun humor. "Both games were disappointing to me personally, because when you create something, give it life and nurture it over 10 years and 7 games, you would hope that if you don't get a chance to carry it on, at least someone else would do a good job of supporting it," he says.
"I think what happened was they missed the point of the games," he says ruefully. "People who played the games know that [they] were about humor, and about awkward situations, and making fun of that lifestyle. And I think the two developers who did the subsequent games really thought that it was about balloon-like breasts and pornography."
"I guess my reaction would be I had higher hopes," adds Lowe, pointing out that those interested in more depth regarding his feelings on the franchise can read his thoughts
at his website.
Mulling A Comeback?
Given his regret over how his legacy was handled in his absence, does Lowe ever consider a return to the game industry? "I think about it, but I think about it in a negative way," he says candidly. "My belief is that gaming changed, and there's no going back at this point."
Lowe argues that the adventure game heyday of the 1980s is simply impossible to recreate in the current era. "I think adventure games were the perfect game for the '80s, because in order to be a PC owner, in order to use a PC, you had to be able to type and spell everything perfectly; you had to be a puzzle solver, you had to be able to reconfigure all your config.sys files, change drivers -- all those geeky things."
"I used to have a subdirectory full of autoexec.bat files, and each one only worked with one particular product," he recalls almost fondly. "If I wanted to play 7th Guest
, I had to reboot my computer with a different config file, and I had probably 10 of those, based on whatever I was doing."
The PCs of that time period forced a certain resourcefulness on the part of the user that translated well to the games themselves, says Lowe: "That's the perfect mindset for adventure game players. You have to love to solve puzzles, have to love to type, to sit and stare at the screen until you figure out exactly what's going on so you can make it happen."
Although many adult gamers in today's generation remember point-and-click games fondly, Lowe says even the advent of that input changed things -- and helps explain why Sierra titles were less successful on Mac computers. "I think that whole point-and-click did away with the puzzle-solving aspect," he opines. "As more people entered the marketplace, the level of involvement in that sort of thing went down."
Could The Adventure Game Era Return?
As new audiences are drawn to accessible games thanks to social networks, browser games and the proliferation of a considerable casual gaming segment, a new generation of gamers has the opportunity to become familiar with accessible point-and-click mechanics and puzzle-solving. Might these new gamers show an interest in the format of adventure games of yore?
"I would love to say that I think they would, but I'm afraid that sales show they are not interested," says Lowe. "We've had a long dry spell, here... so I'm not going to say 'never'; somebody might come up with the perfect answer and crack this nut, but I haven't seen it yet, and I'm not expecting it."
People remember the work of Lowe and his contemporaries fondly in part because of the clever writing and stories that often accompanied adventure games. The way that writing in games has evolved has also both surprised and disappointed Lowe.
"I thought for years it was the technology that was holding us back, that the writers were going to come out and support the medium [once the technology evolved]," he says.
"You've got to understand that Roberta [Williams, of King's Quest
fame], Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe from Space Quest
, and Jim Walls from Police Quest
and me, all the guys who wrote adventure games back then, all the Sierra team -- none of us had any training as writers," Lowe continues. "Each of us enjoyed watching movies, we enjoyed humor and comedy, but none of us had any background."
It surprises Lowe that those games are remembered for their writing, given that in his view, the teams were essentially a group of programmers and artists "stretching." "We kept thinking that the big shift was going to be when the 'real' writers discovered this medium and came in and took over for us, and actually brought good writing into computer games," he says. "I sadly discovered that this was not the case."
Lowe never expected that when he established his website for humor and jokes, he'd hear from so many adventure game fans. "I've gotten literally tens of thousands of emails since then from people who actually took the time to write me," he marvels. "I don't know that I have ever done a letter like that to anybody, but I've sure loved hearing from people like that."
The daily joke emails were a way to keep in touch with his fans, and now Lowe hopes CyberJoke 3000
will be a natural extension of the joke collection he's curated among those enthusiastic humor readers.