The Unabridged History of Sam & Max 2 Interview Round-up Mike Stemmle, Project Lead

Interview conducted May 2019.

Based on your credits, you joined LucasArts in the 1989-1990 arena, putting you in the same “generation” as fellow, future SCUMM project leaders like Tim Schafer, Dave Grossman and Sean Clark. Were you all “SCUMMlets” (aka junior programmers) together?

Tim Schafer, Dave Grossman, Jenny Sward, and Ron Baldwin were all part of the previous SCUMMlet class. My cohort, which came onboard mid-1990, included me, Tony Hsieh, Sean Clark, Tami Borowick, and Wallace Poulter.

If I’ve got my trivia straight, your first project was the promotional Passport to Adventure demo suite from 1990 (available here), which included that noteworthy The Secret of Monkey Island demo -- effectively an original SCUMM mini-game set in some Mêlée Island locations. Did you get to help write/design that?

Although we all chipped in a little on everything, I believe that Tami was in charge of the Monkey Island section, while Tony and I were on Last Crusade duty. Poor Sean was thrown into the lion's den of crafting the Loom demo, where he had to make sense of Brian Moriarty's brilliant, but occasionally opaque, torturing of the SCUMM language.

I may as well ask about the Loom sequel, Forge, while I’ve got you on the line. I know it was abandoned almost immediately, but there’s always been some ambiguity as to who was involved. Brian Moriarty contends that while he had ideas for two Loom sequels, he was too burnt out to make them himself at the time, and consented to their being passed off while he went on to dabble with a Young Indy game at LucasLearning, or maybe his version of The Dig. I know a Forge design document existed, and I’ve variously heard your name, Sean’s, Aric Wilmunder, Kalani Streicher and Mike Ebert associated with the project. Can you tell me anything about Forge, like what year this would have been, how far along it got and who the team members were to your recollection?

My recollection (alert: Mists of Time in play here) is that there were a few different versions of Forge banging around for a while. The one I was briefly associated with was under the direction of Jenny Sward near or after the end of production on Fate of Atlantis. Jenny, Sean Clark, and I put together an outline for a Forge idea for a few weeks, (the details of which escape me), and Jenny went off to pitch it. And that was about it. A week or so later Kelly Flock approached Sean and me about developing a Sam & Max game.

Incidentally, I did an article on the cancelled Indiana Jones and the Iron Phoenix several years back, and Aric Wilmunder indicated that you actually suggested that title. Truth or fiction?

There may be some actual truth to that. It may also be true that I borrowed it from a comic. In any event, what else are you gonna call a story about resurrecting Hitler?

There was something of a pattern of emergent SCUMM designers coming in pairs. Tim and Dave came up together. Jonathan Ackley and Larry Ahern were a duo. And you and Sean. How did the two of you go from testers and scripters through the early 90s to eventually project leading Sam & Max Hit the Road? Was there some sort of established career path for developers in pursuit of being a project leader, or was serendipity more of a factor?

I'm gonna say serendipity. There was a lot of "hey, these guys seem to be working well together, let's try them," going on at the time. As far as "established career paths" go, there were none. Just a bunch of guys 'n' gals feeling things out, trying to occasionally make a buck along the way.

I’ve gotten to interview you about Hit the Road already, so I won’t retread old ground, but it’s of course the first game starring the comic characters -- after a number of cameo appearances both in games and in the company newsletter -- and according to many still the standard bearer of what a Sam & Max game should be. It would be nearly a decade before the studio greenlit another Sam & Max game, which is a much bigger break than it took between, say, Monkey Island games. What do you attribute to that? How did Hit the Road sell in comparison to Monkey Island?

Hit the Road was profitable, but it wasn't "hey, we should immediately make a lot more of these" profitable. So Sean went off to do The Dig, and I toiled away on my particular labor of love, Afterlife. By the time those games were done, the studio had largely moved away from adventure games.

What did you think of the short-lived Sam & Max animated series?

I thought it was a hoot. I always wanted to sneak the Geek into the Telltale series.

You got to work at LucasArts throughout all of the 90s, so you got to be there – from my vantage – both during the golden age as well as through its uneasy transition into the new millennium. I know the fan perspective at the time was that a major turning point was the Star Wars prequels, which undeniably affected the studio’s output: by the time you get to the early 2000s, it’s pretty much all Star Wars games. This was also a period when consoles became dominant, which had a major influence on the types of games being developed, and I’m sure the overall rising costs of game development was a considerable factor. What’s your take on turn-of-the-century LucasArts from an internal perspective?

There was definitely a sense that the company was shifting towards a "Mostly Star Wars with Just Enough Original Material To Maintain Our Rep" footing during those years. It's really hard to blame LEC for that, though, 'cause A) A good Star Wars game will always make 25x more money than an equally good original title, B) George has emerged from the mountaintop with new Star Wars movies, so we'd be grade-A morons not to capitalize on that, and C) Games were getting way more expensive to build.

It’s hard to see it as coincidental that a lot of veterans were leaving around this time: Tim Schafer, Aric Wilmunder, Larry Ahern, Jonathan Ackley, Bill Tiller, Justin Chin, and more. In fact, it seems like you, Sean and Hal Barwod were the only “SCUMM representatives” left by the time Simon Jeffery came along. Did you sense that a cultural change within the studio played a role in this talent exodus, or is that reading too much into things?

There were cultural shifts, to be sure, but it'd be difficult to assign an overall cause to each person who left. Like unhappy families, their individual stories were unique. Me, I stuck around due to inertia, and a firm belief that if I hung around long enough, they'd eventually let me play with Star Wars.

You and Sean were able to collaborate again on Escape from Monkey Island. That was another game I was able to talk to you about, so I won’t put you through that again, but I think what’s relevant here is that it was the only adventure game LucasArts was making at the time, and it would prove to be the last one published by the studio. Did it seem even then like getting to work on another adventure game at LucasArts would be a long shot?

Oh, totally. At the time, it felt a little like a last hurrah.

Jack Sorenson stepped down as LucasArts president in 2000, replaced by Simon Jeffery. Again, pulling from my memory of the fan perspective, Jeffery was seen as the guy trying to turn things around after all that Star Wars opportunism. A stated part of that initiative, which coincided with the studio’s 20th anniversary, was re-investing in legacy IP. That ended up amounting to Full Throttle and Sam & Max sequels. What did you think of the course Simon was charting?

Not to slight Simon, but I've honestly forgotten. I'm fond of saying that, if LucasArts had been a normal game company, it probably would've gone under about five or six times during its tenure. But it had the (infinitely patient) backing of George during its existence, so it never really functioned like a normal game company. Every time a new president came in, there was a fresh wave of "okay, THIS is the guy who's going to make the company work properly" optimism. In Simon's case, the optimism lasted a lot longer, primarily 'cause Simon's a fundamentally good guy. But eventually, the pox-ridden blankets he was handed got to him, too.

How were you approached to do Sam & Max 2, or were you the one who proposed it? I know there was also a matter of waiting out the license being available, due to Justin Chin’s Infinite Machine holding it briefly for their ill-fated Sam & Max Xbox game. How did the LucasArts sequel come about?

I know this is going to sound weird, but I don't actually remember HOW Freelance Police got kicked off. It certainly wasn't something I was expecting. It must have been Dan Connors. Dan was always championing cool stuff.

Was a sequel to Hit the Road something you’d had on your mind for a while, or were you caught off guard when you found yourself in charge of another Sam & Max game?

In order to protect my heart from being crushed, I'd written of the notion of ever doing a Sam & Max sequel by that point. The opportunity to do one was just as much a surprise as its eventual demise.

Steve Purcell seems to have been supportive of and even actively involved with the sequel. This stands in contrast to Full Throttle 2, which Tim Schafer never seemed entirely comfortable with the existence of. Did you feel the project benefitted from Purcell’s enthusiasm?

Everything benefits when Steve's involved. He's one of the better "yes, and" guys I know.

By the time Sam & Max 2 was greenlit in 2002, Steve Purcell was working at Pixar rather than LucasArts. How did this change the nature of collaborating with him on the game?

Obviously, with Steve working at Pixar, there was a lot less daily interaction with him. But a sizeable portion of the "big" ideas in the game are directly attributable to his particular brand of genius, and he had piles of script notes on the dialog.

Let’s talk about Full Throttle: Hell on Wheels for a second. I know you weren’t on that team, but it was a sister production and Sean Clark was its project leader. Ages ago, I did an interview with Bill Tiller, and he indicated that Sean was assigned to Full Throttle 2 by Randy Breen (Vice President of Development), whom Bill portrayed as a bit of a micromanager and admitted to having clashed with. Would Sean have joined you on Sam & Max 2 otherwise?

Perhaps. But Sean REALLY loved working on Hell on Wheels.

Did you experience any such friction with middle management, or were you more or less spared that kind of drama?

On Freelance Police? Weirdly, not so much. Everything else? No comment.

Full Throttle 2 was going to be an action/adventure hybrid designed with consoles in mind. Sam & Max 2 was going to be a Windows-only graphic adventure game. Why did Sam & Max get to retain the genre and gameplay of the original, and not Full Throttle? Was the latter just seen as more mainstreamable what with its biker universe?

Just about every iteration of Full Throttle 2 that came up for consideration over the years had an increased action element, 'cause y'know, bikers. Sam & Max got to stay in its genre because they were wise-cracking fuzzy animals. Also, I insisted.

The Full Throttle sequel was ultimately cancelled in August 2003, after at least a year of development. Do you have a perspective on what went wrong there? The cancellation seemed to be based on problems with the game itself, rather than the external factors which seemingly doomed Sam & Max, but any light you could shed would be of interest.

I've got no insights on that one, sorry.

Speaking of those external factors, the narrative that I know emerged among the fan base is that Sam & Max 2 got cancelled essentially as a reaction to all the original games that had floundered in 2003. RTX: Red Rock, Gladius, Armed & Dangerous and Wrath Unleashed all (I think) flopped, and Full Throttle 2 was cancelled in the midst of that. Everything non-Star Wars, in other words, was a money loss. In addition, the company is without a president during the six-month period after Simon steps down in the fall of 2003. It just seemed to be a perfect storm where you have an interim leadership body looking at a clear sales pattern, seeing that they had a graphic adventure game in the pipeline that they had to package next and just saying, “Nah.” Almost like the issue was bad timing more than anything. To what extent would you agree with that take on the situation?

I'm sure that all those factors had something to do with it. All I know is that I was brought into a small meeting room, and told in no uncertain terms that the entire European adventure game market had literally disappeared. There were 100,000 of them one year, and the next, nada. To this day, I wonder if the game was cancelled due to a rounding error, or some sort of half-assed European preview of the Rapture.

Do you think Sam & Max 2 might not have suffered the same fate had Simon still been around? Do you think his departure was a consequence of the lack of success of all those original games?

It's hard to say. Even at the best of times, LucasArts was given to fits of wild lurching, like a roller coaster on a track that was always on the verge of collapsing.

Backing up, let’s get into the production of Sam & Max 2. First of all, it would have boasted a brand-new engine, making it LEC’s first real-time 3D adventure game, while also representing a return to point ‘n click; it was by all descriptions SCUMM in 3D. I remember this being an exciting development among the fanbase after the mixed reaction to direct control in Grim Fandango and Monkey 4. Mere weeks before the cancellation, you even stepped in to set the record straight after a debate arose over some blurry screenshots about whether the game was “true” 3D or pre-rendered. I of course haven’t seen the game in action, but from the screenshots I have to assume the game would have played much like the earliest Telltale games. Anything about the gameplay that might surprise me?

I think you've nailed the gameplay in a nutshell. SCUMM 3D. One thing I was insistent on when I started the project was that I wasn't going to go into full development until we had a properly functioning engine, and thanks to the insane efforts of Kevin, Nick and others, I actually got my wish.

Like the first Telltale Sam & Max season, Freelance Police was said to consist of six episodes/cases. Is it accurate to say that Freelance Police and what Telltale did afterward were structurally similar?

Oh, definitely. With the exception of the mini-games. We kind of went a little cuckoo-bananas with those.

How would you compare the Freelance Police engine with the Telltale Tool?

I would not :)

Do you remember anything about the game’s storylines that you would care to share? Any particular puzzles or gags that stick out in your memory?

Basically, there were going to be six separate stories with a burbling backstory that would come to the fore in the final chapter. The big story involved the return of the ancient marauding Subarctican civilization (giant Penguins), whose high priestess (a librarian named Penelope Gwinn, get it?) would sacrifice the Chosen One to awake them from their eternal slumber. In a twist, the Chosen One would be Sam, rather than the expected Max.

The opening episode featured a dance off at a high school gym where all the kids started mysteriously acting like extras in West Side Story, as well as a mini-game that could've served as a prototype for Rocket League.

One episode had a Zamboni fight.

One episode took place at a Burning Max festival, and featured the Freelance Police's arch-nemeses, Mann and Sachs.

Another episode brought the Rubber Pants Commandos into play, as they sought out former child star Il Gato Grosso, who was stealing all the city's diapers.

The fifth episode took place on an international space station funded by third world countries, and featured a TRON-like villainous AI protected by a shield of nachos.

And there was a recurring character who played a bassoon. 'Cause I love bassoons and hate animators.

Freelance Police was said to be chock full of minigames. Which of those do you remember, and what was the thinking behind ramping up their volume so drastically (according to a magazine preview, there were to be 19 total) compared to the handful in Hit the Road?

We were a little panicked about our stories and puzzles being so short, so we wanted to inject replayability into the mix. In hindsight, we may have been about 39 skoshes too ambitious for our own damn good. The DDR-esque dancing game in the first episode alone nearly drove poor Rich Sun insane.

I was able to speak briefly with Mark Griskey, who composed the music for Freelance Police. He mentioned that the soundtrack had gotten as far as “scratch tracks” and that he endeavored to give the music a somewhat noirish vibe to complement its storyline. Any memories of the music and how you might compare it stylistically to the excellent work Jared Emerson-Johnson would do a few years later for the Sam & Max universe?

There was definitely a desire to go noirish.

One of the magazine previews of Freelance Police suggested that the game’s success at retail could lead to downloadable cases down the line, indicating that a Telltale-like distribution model was being toyed with. Later on, rumors emerged that Freelance Police was in fact considered from the very beginning for digital distribution. Is that true? If so, was this an agenda driven by the team, as a way of keeping the genre afloat at the company? And does the fact the game ended up being committed to as a retail product after all – to its grief – mean that management vetoed the idea? I’m very interested in whatever you can remember about those conversations.

Dan and Kev were definitely enthused about the prospects of digital distribution from day one. My recollection is that it always remained an option right up until the cancellation date.

In the past, you’ve described the production as smooth and the crew as a dream team. Was Sam & Max 2 really walled off from the problems that were seemingly infecting other internal projects at the time? How do you account for that, and in retrospect were there any signs from above of what was to come? How was the game seen by management?

I suspect that I was shielded from a lot of whatever was going on upstairs until the ax came down. So that was a blessing. And, all things considered, development was remarkably smooth. I had all the people I wanted, and they all worked like the dickens to make all of my crazy ideas come to life.

You guys managed to nab the original voice actors, Bill Farmer and Nick Jameson, which Telltale was unable to do only a few years later. Were you able to sit in on the recording sessions?

Sit in? I was all over those babies. There is nothing quite as fun as voice recording sessions for adventure games.

Any tales from them? Any tantalizing cameos or noteworthy gets for supporting characters, like Edie McClurg in Monkey 4? Was all the voice work finished?

I'm not sure if this is widely known, but Penelope Gwinn was played by Emmy-award winning funny lady Alex Borstein. She was a delight. Sgt. Blip was played by Phil Lamarr, another MadTV alum, and a voiceover hero. Also, Mann and Sachs were played by Farmer and Jameson, each doing impersonation of the other. Did I mention that the sessions were fun?

I want to say that the work was bout 60% finished. Most of the cut-scenes had been done, but there was a lot in the later episodes that needed to be written/recorded.

In November 2003, a thread was started on the “Something Awful” forums by someone who claimed to have been a visitor to one of the Freelance Police voice recording sessions, complete with photographic proof. He claims you showed him a yet-to-be-released second trailer for the game (distinct from the E3 2003 trailer everyone is familiar with). Any memory of this? Was there really a second trailer?

Hmmm. I don't recall.

There’s a rumor that Sean Clark joined the Freelance Police team in its final months after the demise of Full Throttle 2. Fact or fiction?

Now that you mention it, I do seem to recall him popping in and out to add some professionalism to the process. But that should definitely be filed under the "things Mike is likely misremembering."

There’s evidence that the game’s cancellation was almost as abrupt from within as it was for us. I’m thinking specifically about the fact that magazine previews got published in April 2004 issues – meaning, after the fact. Surreally, one magazine even had a LucasArts recruitment ad featuring Purcell’s characters. Was this really that sudden an event or were there warning signs?

Totally sudden. No foreshadowing. Not even any twoshadowing.

If the game was as far along as rumored, my assumption is that management balked at the cost of packaging and marketing the title. Was the expected price tag of that really so overwhelming as to justify eating eighteen months of development costs, or was there something going on beyond dollars and cents?

Candidly, Freelance Police was also starting to run over budget and slip its schedule. Nothing catastrophic, but it was going to require some serious closing work to get it out the door.

In December 2003, LucasArts posted an online survey that had questions related to Sam & Max and digital distribution. In retrospect, it’s hard not to draw cynical conclusions about this – like, say, that LucasArts had hired a third-party firm to gather “data” that would support the decision they were already inclined to make. Does this web survey sound familiar to you at all?

It does sound familiar. I think it was something Dan put together. The timing of it may have just been... unfortunate.

I spoke to Dan Connors, and he recalled a demoralizing meeting with Lucasfilm higher ups “where a Kellogg Business School grad student explained how downloadable games wouldn’t be viable for 10 years.” Do you remember this?

I might have been at that meeting, but I may just be remembering Dan fuming about it (in his low-key kind of way).

Despite the “No plans to reduce staff” mentioned in the terse cancellation press release, there were indeed layoffs immediately thereafter, including key Sam & Max 2 personnel. Famously, that included the Telltale founders. You remained at LucasArts for several months longer, I believe. What were you working on, and what were your thoughts about Telltale? Would you have predicted that they’d be developing new Sam & Max games the very next year?

I figured they'd get their hands on Sam & Max fairly quickly once they got up and running.
Me, I started digging in to writing dialog for Star Wars games. All that inertia eventually paid off.

Very recently, Graham Annable uncovered a giant stack of storyboards for Freelance Police. Do you have any material still lying around, like screenshots? Here is a link to our galleries of all such things that we believe ever got released, if you want to contribute something we don’t have. “I fear the wrath of Disney Legal“ is an acceptable response.

I am appropriately wary of Disney Legal's wrath.

When Telltale’s Sam & Max games proved the digital business model, did it feel like vindication for what you guys had tried to do with Freelance Police?

Oh most definitely.

You eventually joined a lot of your old cohorts at Telltale, and were there just in time to contribute to their third and final season of Sam & Max. Was there a sense of closure for you when you got to reunite with the characters?

Sooooooo much closure. Closure the likes of which cannot be imagined. I even got to use my rejected love theme from Hit the Road. Now THAT'S closure.

The cancellation of Sam & Max 2 led directly to Telltale, and Telltale’s success in the digital space seems to have inspired the subsequent shift to alternative financing/distribution of adventure games, such as the wave of crowdsourcing. Is it going too far to think that what happened to Freelance Police was a falling domino that led to a digital revolution of sorts that gave niche games a chance to be viable again?

I don't think it's going far enough. I'd also like unwarranted credit for personal computers, Candy Crush, and pumpkin spice lattes.

Seriously, the digital download revolution was going to happen. I'm just happy that Dan and Kev had the foresight to ride the wave.

Do the game’s assets still exist as far as you know? I’m just saying, we live in a world where a completable build of Warcraft Adventures got leaked.

Again, I am appropriately wary of Disney Legal's wrath.

For all their hardships, Sam & Max have proven quite enduring. Under Telltale they got three new full-length games alongside re-releases of the and comics and animated series, a smattering of merchandise, etc. Even now, a collectible figurine is slated to be released later in the year. The duo is still standing, while that’s the case for neither for LucasArts nor Telltale. What do you attribute to the durability of the characters, and what kind of future would you like to see for them?

Besides the inherent spiffiness of the Steve's characters, I think a lot of the reason that Sam & Max endure is that they haven't been been beaten into the ground. A handful of comics. One season of an animated television show. One full-length video game, and 16 episodes of a serialized adventure game. And that's over 30+ years. There's so LITTLE Sam & Max product out there, you'd swear they were a British sitcom.

What are you up to these days?

I'm the creative director over at MunkyFun games, working with Nick Pavis on mobile games. It's a great gig, and it lets me use my underutilized math brain.

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