Everybody knows Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer, but who are the other creative forces behind those great games? In this interview, we talk to writer-programmer-designer Dave Grossman, who has co-written such masterpieces as The Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge and co-designed Day of the Tentacle.
Hi Dave, it's a real pleasure to talk to you! Could you first introduce yourself to our readers?
Um, okey doke. My name is Dave Grossman, and I'm a professional writer. I've been making computer games for nine years, including several at LucasArts, which is why I'm here today. I'm thirty-three years old and still have all of my own teeth.
When and how did you end up working at LucasArts and what exactly did you do there? What was the first game you worked on?
I first started working there in 1989. I had just dropped out of graduate school, where I'd been studying artificial intelligence. I didn't want to design missile guidance systems, and I didn't want to starve to death. Making computer games seemed like a happy medium. Actually, I had written a small game when I was 13, and at the time I thought that would be a great thing to do for a living, but I'd long since forgotten about it. It was weirdly satisfying to be reviving that dream eleven years later.
So I signed on. At first I was what they called an "assistant designer / programmer," which was sort of an apprentice game design position. We'd work with an experienced designer on a game and we'd be responsible for the grunt work of putting the various scenes together, blocking them, writing dialog, doing the programming, and so on. And we got to help out with the design, too. The first thing I worked on was The Secret of Monkey Island, with Ron Gilbert.
Later on I became a designer and project leader, when Tim Schafer and I made Day of the Tentacle together. We did the design and then ran the production process for the next year and a half. We had all kinds of talented people working with us, which is how you make a good game. We did still do most of our own writing.
What were the day-to-day routines and the best and the worst sides in working at LucasArts?
The day-to-day routine at LucasArts revolved around the coffee maker, and it went like this: you'd walk in to the kitchen wanting a cup of coffee. There would only be a small amount of coffee left in the pot. Rather than take that last bit and be responsible for making the next pot, you'd go into a kind of airplane holding pattern, where you'd circle around the offices and come back ten minutes later to see if anyone had made more coffee. No one would have, but by then there would be two additional people in the holding pattern. This would go on all day. All the actual work got done between trips to the kitchen. Sometimes ON them, actually, because most of the people you needed to talk to were also circling for coffee.
It was good coffee, too, but aside from that the best thing about working there was the fact that it was a creative environment, where people would be drawing, talking about, and doing unusual things on a daily basis. On a good day you might see Steve Purcell out back snapping the tops off of weeds with a giant bullwhip - he'd learned to use it so that he could draw it better, for Indiana Jones. Someone would invariably wind up trying it and whipping off their own eyeglasses. While gathering material for a scene I would find myself wandering around asking people things like, "what's the worst pickup line you ever heard?" Lots of times it didn't seem much like a job.
The worst part, I suppose, was when reality intruded on our idyllic playland and we realized that we actually had to make a computer game and it had to be done pretty soon. Making computer games is a lot of work, more than most people think. And there's a point where it suddenly occurs to you that there are all these things left to do and only a couple of months to do them in, and that's when you go into "crunch mode." Everybody works all night and on weekends and lives on pizza, candy bars, and soda. Crunch mode at LucasArts could get pretty grueling and sometimes went on for a long time, I think I'd pick it as the least attractive feature of working there. Or anywhere in the industry, really - I don't think I've ever encountered a game company where they didn't do this.
How do you approach a new game project, as both writer and programmer? How do the general storyline and the single lines and gags come up?
Well, at the beginning of a new project I like to warm up a little bit. I might see some movies that have a similar feel to what I'm trying for, to get the right atmosphere in my head. When we were doing Monkey Island I went out and bought a record that had the song from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland on it. I decorate my environment a little, too. Right now there's a squeaky rubber fish on my desk, because I'm working on a game about fish. I let the story percolate a while until I have it in my head nice and solid, and then I dive right in and write the script. The more I can get lost in it, the better.
You asked about programming, too, and actually I haven't done any in years, but I think the experience helps me understand how the pieces have to fit together. Writing an interactive story isn't quite the same as writing other kinds of stories, and a programming background gives you some familiarity with the structures you use.
As far as how the storyline and the lines and gags come up, I'm not sure I can really answer that in a way that will satisfy anybody. How about "one at a time?"
Could you describe a standard game project at LucasArts from start to end?
Wow. Not really - I mean, I'm not sure there's such a thing as a "standard" project, there or anywhere else. But the ones I worked on tended to be kind of like eighteen-month-long New Year's Eve parties. They start out small, with a few people setting up the decorations and laying out munchies, or in this case they're actually designing the game. Setting up the story and the puzzles, that sort of thing. Then a few guests arrive early, when things aren't quite ready, and they lend a hand. On a game project they might be drawing conceptual art or doing some initial programming. Eventually a lot of people show up and the party goes into full swing, or "production" as we call it in the game business. Artists are drawing backgrounds and animations like nobody's business, and programmers are sticking them together and making them work. Dialog is written if it hasn't been already. And everybody brings a bottle of champagne with them to the project, by which I mean their own personal touch, their own bit of inspiration.
A wave of new people arrive at about eleven o'clock. Musicians compose and perform the scores, voices get recorded, people from marketing start putting together magazine ads, and so on. And there are testers, lots of testers, playing the thing over and over and pointing out its flaws. Everybody starts to get really crazy as midnight approaches. Then, at a New Year's party there's that 10 second countdown to the end of the year - the corresponding thing on a game project is called "quality assurance." Everybody stops working and holds their breath while the game gets tested like mad for a couple of weeks to make sure it won't break when people try to play it. And then all of a sudden it's midnight, you ship the game, and everybody goes home exhausted. Except now that I think about it, midnight usually comes at about one am on a game project, so maybe it's more like a New Year's Eve party at a house with cheap clocks...
The technology has gone through big changes since your first game. How did the game development, both writing and programming, evolve during your years at LucasArts? Did you like to push the technology to its edges or just use the technology you already had?
I think the big changes in technology while I was there mostly had to do with how the art was created and displayed. We went from sixteen to two hundred fifty-six colors. We started using scanners instead of drawing things right on the computer. Everything started to look better and better, and as the hardware in the average home got more powerful we could move larger and larger things around on the screen as well. Towards the end we started using 3-D and video.
As the standards for art got higher, there was a shift in development towards planning and scripting more and more scenes in advance. You see, early on, the characters in the game were all these little puppet people. They were drawn to walk in a couple of directions, their mouths opened and closed for talking, and their arms could reach out at a couple of different heights. And that was it, they moved and talked in a very jerky, puppet-like way. In those days, a lot of the writing was done on the fly and changed quite a bit as the game was being built. It was very easy for the writer/programmer to add a whole new scene any time he or she felt like it, because no additional work was required from any other member of the team. This became harder as time went on and the characters looked bigger and better, because now you had to draw a lot of things specially for the scene or they looked glaringly awkward and out of place. Also, games eventually began talking, which meant that you couldn't add any lines after the voice recording was done or you'd have to re-hire the actors and the sound studio and so on.
So the approach gradually changed to one where things got written and set in stone earlier and earlier. Nowadays when I work on a project, more often than not the entire script is written before production really gets underway.
Did the game development become easier or more complicated with the new technology?
That's hard to say. Some things got easier, some got harder. The games themselves probably got less complicated, but I don't think the same could be said about the process of making them.
Day of the Tentacle seems to be the game project in which you got to play the biggest part of your LucasArts career. You are credited as a writer, a designer, a programmer, a producer and a director of the game. How did you and Tim Schafer came up with the idea for the game? Could you tell a bit about that game project? Any delicious behind the scenes jokes?
Tentacle was the project where they finally let Tim and I have the reins to the horse. And it's a pretty tremendous horse, actually. Good thing we had four hands, and two heads for wearing all those different hats. I don't recall exactly where the "idea" came from, I think it grew out of a lot of little things. We wanted to do something with some of the Maniac Mansion characters, and we'd always liked the tentacles. Somebody suggested time travel - I think that might have been Ron Gilbert. There was a period of a couple of months where little ideas kept getting added on, and it turned into a game. Game design is more like voodoo than anybody in the industry would like to admit.
We had a good time building Tentacle. If I laugh too hard I often have a coughing fit, and I had a lot of fits during the project. And although it was a huge amount of work, things went pretty smoothly, at least relative to other game projects I've seen. A few of the team members were briefly distracted from their duties by becoming parents, but we lured them back to the office quickly using candy and hired goons. If you look at the art for Tentacle you can sometimes find the name of Peter Chan's son, Zach, written into the backgrounds. And now that I think of it, I do remember a joke, a practical joke actually, that happened in the office around the time we first started to be known as "the baby project." Gwen Musengwa, one of the programmers, was somewhat pregnant at the time. She took a fake hand that Tim and I had in our office and stuck it in her sleeve, and she held the real hand over her belly under her sweater. She'd wander up to unsuspecting victims and tell them the baby was kicking. Then, when they went to feel it, she'd grab them with the hidden hand and scare the bejeezus out of them. No, really, it was funny.