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Interview: Al Lowe Talks New iPhone App, Evolution Of The Adventure Game Genre
Interview: Al Lowe Talks New iPhone App, Evolution Of The Adventure Game Genre
November 9, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander

November 9, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC

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

CyberJoke 3000 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.

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E Zachary Knight
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The problem with writers is that the games industry as it is is having a hard time accepting them into the fold. Not that writing hasn't improved, but that it is still not considered as important as other aspects of the development process.

Growing up, my exposure to games came from two areas, JRPGs and Adventure Games. Most of the adventure games I played were of the point and click variety, but I really enjoyed the level of comedy in them.

But both of those areas of gaming were strong in their story telling components. No other game genres have captured my interest in such a way.

Keith Nemitz
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I had the pleasure of working with Al at Sierra, and more recently the good fortune to meet him again this year. His enthusiasm and good nature still inspires me today. My adventurie-kinda games: 'The Witch's Yarn' and 'Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble!' owe much to the mind-space he cracked open with L.S.L. games.

It can't be repeated too often, but women loved the original Leisure Suit Larry as much as men. That's an accomplishment!

Timothy Ryan
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Please forgive these provocative, over-generalized comments:

We don't get the migration of quality writers into games because:

(1) Games are rarely story-driven.

(2) Writers would rather use their talent in a space where they have more control (film/books/tv) and better pay.

(3) Writers don't understand the limitations, requirements and potential of player choice and interactivity.

(4) When players are in control of a story they have the conceit to want things to always go their way and YET no good story has the hero winning all the time.

(5) Good writers grew up READING, and video games, TV and the Internet have reduced the pool of potential writers.

(6) Though bad writing will often hurt sales, good writing RARELY makes a game successful.

Yannick Boucher
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God bless Al Lowe! :D (and the LSL and Sierra of old...)

Cody Kostiuk
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Lowe's right about point-and-click negatively affecting the core puzzle solving aspects of adventure games. The freedom available through a text-parser is quite liberating and the solutions for puzzles feel more satisfying because it's not a matter of clicking the hand icon on something and watching what the game wants to do with that input. There's just so many unexpected and unintentional things that can happen with the point-and-click method that puzzles had to be simplified to cater to the control scheme.

Regarding writing, I don't think publishers want to market quality writing. The current target audience of adolescents don't care much for writing either. The video game industry will mature eventually, but I think it'll start by going back to its roots... you know, that interactive fiction gives writers total control and freedom to express themselves. It even has a text-parser!

Nick Zafiris
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Can’t forget those config and autoexec files!

Without wanting to insult anyone, and I may be wrong, but my belief is that there is an issue with many modern US writers and this has nothing to do with games. We see it on Hollywood all the time and I think it’s because two main reasons.

1. Writing Guidelines. They try to always follow specific plot guidelines with the Three-Act Structure, The Hero’s Journey, etc., and so this has started to make stories repetitive. I mean is it really necessary to follow strict writing rules? Maybe the problem is not in the structures themselves but the thoughtless use of them.

2. Dialogues. Major problem as they’ve come to a point in which they’re either uninspired, have no respect for culture and history, make pointless use of profanity, have no humor (dumb cliché jokes instead) and the list can go on and on…

You either have to watch an old or even independent American film, and European and Asian films in order to see some writing quality. Have you seen any French, German, Spanish or Italian films? Great flow, smart dialogues, humor, quality. Even extremely low budgeted films from smaller countries like Belgium, Romania, Poland, etc. simply capture you with their plots. How many times have we seen a European film remade in Hollywood 2 years later only to make it worse?

What Al Lowe said about the writers at Sierra not having any formal background in writing might have been the key to the success of all the Sierra adventure game series.


Cody Kostiuk
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Oh, and I don't know if this really means anything, but the left menu on Gamasutra's front page lists: PROGRAMMING, ART, AUDIO, DESIGN, and PRODUCTION. However, I don't see WRITING. Could it be buried under an existing category?

Christy Marx
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Hey, Al, you forgot about me! LOL! Not only did I come solidly from a writing background (animation, tv, comics, etc.), I can easily say that the quality of storytelling and writing in my adventure games has contributed to having a long-lasting and enthusiastic following. People write to me all the time to say that they're *still* playing Conquests of Camelot and Conquest of the Longbow, they introduce the games to their kids, they buy the Camelot poster and they wish adventure games would come back. Considering they were MS-DOS based games, that's saying something. They're not doing it because of the crude pixel art.

For those of us who are game writers and visual storytellers, it has been an uphill battle to bring our skills to bear in game development. There are many writers like me who understand design, who understand the needs and requirements of making games, and who should be an integrated part of game development from the beginning on any project where story and writing can make a difference. This is a collaborative medium. A game needs many elements working in harmony to succeed -- good gameplay, good tech, good art, good music and sound...and good storytelling/writing.