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Levine & Ahern Interview LucasArts

With the end in sight for the development of Insecticide, the PC and DS-based action/adventure, we sit down on a nearby leaf with the ex-LucasArts crackpots at Crackpot for a nice meal and a chat. Hungry little caterpillar with a pen: Chris "The Tingler" Capel.

Okay, introduce yourselves!

Mike Levine: I'm Mike Levine

Larry Ahern: And I'm Larry Ahern

(They touch magic rings together)

Mike Levine and Larry Ahern: AND TOGETHER WE ARE .... CRACKPOT ENTERTAINMENT!

Mike Levine: Was that too corny?

Larry Ahern: Yes. And, for the record, Mike wrote that part.

Mike Levine: The last interview we did you dissed Scooby Doo, now you are taking swipes at the old JLA?! Wonder Twin jokes never get old! (do they?)

Larry Ahern: See, that's the great thing about written interviews...they often don't take place in real-time, and are sometimes not even written as presented. Truth is, there's usually quite a bit of creative liberty taken with them. For example, right now I'm in crunch mode on Insecticide, so I've subcontracted my portion of the interview to a small offshore team that is getting paid by the word, so who knows how long they might ramble on or what they might—[remainder deleted due to space limitations].

Can you also introduce Crackpot Entertainment, Pileated Pictures, Gamecock and their relationships for anyone who doesn't know them?

Larry Ahern: Mike called me up a few years back and wanted to know if I was interested in working on something with him. At the time, I just wasn't finding any of the projects I was on very creatively satisfying, and was starting to lose interest in the direction the industry seemed to be going. He suggested we start a company to do something fun and creative again. It didn't seem like the best business decision, especially given how gun-shy publishers are these days about original IP, but my primary interest at that point was creative satisfaction, so what the heck...I was onboard. We bounced a few hundred ideas around, and half-started about a hundred more in several different genres before something that Mike had suggested, "a mutant bug girl and her cockroach partner" struck a chord with us. We started riffing on it, then folded the concept in with some detective game ideas we'd been kicking around, and it started to feel like something. Pileated Pictures is Mike's other company...he can tell you more about that, and then Gamecock is our publisher. The only ones smart/dumb enough to stick their chicken necks out to promote a game about bug detectives!

Mike Levine: Well, Pileated Pictures has been my company for the last 8+ years. We do online games, animation, interactive DVD's and basically anything that is fun that pays the bills. We have a strong focus on browser based online worlds now, and are making the virtual world for Hasbro's "Littlest Pet Shop VIPs", as well as launching "planetcazmo.com" - our own MMO for tweens and teens. So, Pileated's success led directly to beginning Crackpot.

There were a lot of us "ex" LucasArts people around. Many of us were still in games, others had moved on to bigger (or smaller) things, but we all had a desire to do something original again, and the more we looked at the state of gaming today, the more obvious it became that there was a void we could fill ... So out of that, Crackpot Entertainment was born, with our mandate to make original properties for gaming and other industries!

Gamecock is our publisher. They are a new publisher but not new to games – Mike Wilson and his horde have been around and were the people behind GOD Games, and Ion Storm and ID Software (Mike was Director of Marketing there, I believe). I am sure most people have heard of them as they like to make some noise. But we love them as they were crazy enough to sign us and love Insecticide!

It was easy with Insecticide to just focus on the fact that I had a fun project to work on again, along with enough creative control to make it into something interesting. I hope people like it and that we live up to that history...

Insecticide is your first game, but of course many on your team are famous for working at LucasArts, helping create some of the best-loved games of all time. Remind our readers what games you helped create!

Larry Ahern: I started at LucasArts in 1990 and was there for 10 years. My first project was an early version of The Dig. It had some very cool elements, and I had fun doing background layouts of alien ruins (all of which were scrapped for the published version of the game), but I really wanted to be working on Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge. It was a comedy, and totally up my alley. So, I don't know if I wished The Dig into cancellation, but half way in I got to jump over to work on MI2. I animated a lot of Guybrush and LeChuck scenes and developed a good working relationship with Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman, which led to Day of the Tentacle.

[Okay...one paragraph per game means at this rate, my offshore team may be filling a novel with this list. Let me take over and cut to the chase.] I was character designer/lead animator on DOTT, and came up with a bunch of the visual gags. Then, I worked on Sam & Max: Hit the Road doing some character designs and animations (e.g. the infamous Cone of Tragedy) while helping Tim design Full Throttle. On Throttle, again I did character design and directed animation (and worked with Mike editing a bunch of the cutscenes). Following that, I teamed up with Jonathan Ackley to project lead The Curse of Monkey Island, where we tried to design our way out of the steel trap that was the ending to Monkey Island 2. I was art director and did character designs and writing on that project as well.

Of course, with the success of Curse, I turned into your standard game design prima-donna, working next with Jonathan on an avant-garde experimental opus which eventually got shelved. After that cancellation, I was "encouraged" to make a Jar-Jar game, and soon fell into a downward spiral of booze and depression, only submitting the occasional proposal for a Star Wars Tetris rip-off just to keep my job. You can find out all the details on that Behind the Interactivity expose show they did a few years back. Anyway, then I dried out and worked on a fun pre-"Hell on Wheels" Full Throttle sequel that never got made because of the space alien invasion or some error in accounting (I don't remember), and then I finally decided it was time to leave the nest and find my way in the world.

Mike Levine: For me, I started out in the test pit and within a few months jumped over to the art department. I was learning Photoshop and other digital media apps on the side, and it turned out the art department had a big need for someone with those skills, but I cherish my time in QA as it really taught me how the entire pipeline worked, and then there was the Test Pit ... And that smell .... Unforgettable. I was a tester on Monkey 2, and then worked as an art technician on games like Sam and Max (the original!), Rebel Assault, The Dig, and I worked with Larry directly on Full Throttle and Curse editing and doing FX for the cutscenes. Eventually I was the FX lead on both Dark Forces games and then left to take a sabbatical, which lasted for one day when I took a job with a startup with some friends from ILM. Its been a wild ride!

Can you name some other LucasArtisans now at Crackpot for us and some games they worked on?

Mike Levine: We have Jacob Stephens as our co-project lead and lead level designer(Dark Forces, Star Wars: Episode I: Racer, and then he was at Nihilistic), Peter Tsaykel (formerly Tsacle) did some great work on our FMVs (Grim Fandango, Full Throttle), Ralph Gerth (Dark Forces, Grim Fandango) doing environment art, Peter McConnell doing music (too many games to name!), Julian Kwasneski doing sound (same!), Andrew Nelson and Marc Cartwright, both veterans of countless LEC titles. Of course we also had Peter Chan (Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight, and Grim Fandango), our lead concept artist, and Anson Jew (The Dig, Curse of Monkey Island) who did a bunch of the character designs and storyboards for Insecticide.

Larry Ahern: It really is a great group of a lot of our favorite collaborators from our years at LucasArts.

That's quite a heritage! Was it hard working on Insecticide trying to live up to such a proud history?

Mike Levine: In some ways yes, as this was our first time doing it ourselves. It was a little daunting as back in the day there was so much support at LEC, and big budgets – games lasted years. We had to make two versions in a fraction of the time, with a much smaller staff and budget. It forces you to get a lot more creative in terms of how you approach things, figuring out what's critical and what's not.

Larry Ahern: I think my years at LucasArts and since helped give me a lot of perspective going into this, which made it easier. I'd made a successful sequel to a Monkey Island game by just focusing on what I knew about making games, and not worrying about the rest. But, I also had a couple projects that never got off the ground, and spent a few years after LucasArts working on games that didn't interest me. So, at the end of the day, it was easy with Insecticide to just focus on the fact that I had a fun project to work on again, along with enough creative control to make it into something interesting. I hope people like it and that we live up to that history, but all I know how to do is try to have fun and see if I can crack myself and my team up with the stuff we're making, and the rest will hopefully fall into place. That and make sure not to be a prima donna or have Jar-Jar in the game. Maniac Mansion Thanks to some enthusiastic review on an obscure fan site, the Dalai Lama doesn't have to deal with my neuroses.

Do you still have a good relationship with LucasArts?

Mike Levine: We do. I think they recognize when their golden age was and they want to get back to it. We hope to see them make story driven games again as well.

Proudest moment at LucasArts?

Mike Levine: Speaking up when they took away the free candy – year one there. Only myself and Vince Lee spoke up about it. This was an outrage and the place never recovered.

Larry Ahern: Probably when the reviews started coming in and we won a few Game of the Year awards for Curse of Monkey Island. I think as we were making the game I knew it could be good. I felt like we were doing the right things (as far as I knew about making video games), and I thought we had such an amazingly talented group of writers, artists, animators, etc. But, then as we finished it up it suddenly occurred to me, "Holy crap! We just made a Monkey Island sequel, and we did a bunch of new things with it, and who knows what kind of stupid mistakes we made, and what if nobody likes it?!!!" But, by that point I couldn't follow through on my plan to move to Tibet and become a monk until I at least saw a few of the initial reviews. So, thanks to some enthusiastic review on an obscure fan site, the Dalai Lama doesn't have to deal with my neuroses.

Was it sad to leave, or inevitable?

Mike Levine: I guess it was a little of both, but at the time I just knew it was time to go. Lucas has a great history of spawning off new companies and people leaving to do great things. I knew I had more to do and had kind of hit a ceiling there, at least in terms of what I wanted to do. I needed to chart my own course.

Larry Ahern: It's always sad when something good ends, but I was probably in denial the last few years there anyway. The company was going through a big transition, lots of very talented people had already left, and upper management had changed as well. Some great new talent was coming in too, but it was still pretty chaotic as the new organization was trying to find its way in a rapidly changing games market. I enjoyed a bit of shelter from that when I was working on early proposals and designs, but something always stalled out when it came to getting my last few projects off the ground. Whatever it was, LucasArts wasn't the right place for me anymore at that time.

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