The Unabridged History of Sam & Max 2 Interview Round-up Steven Chen, Lead Designer

Interview conducted May 2022.

When did you join LucasArts, and what was the first title you worked on?

I joined Lucasarts in the late summer of 1996 on the Jedi Knight: Dark Forces 2 project.

You have a credit on Grim Fandango, the studio’s first 3D adventure game. What was your experience working on this still-beloved game -- the last original adventure game LucasArts would greenlight?

I had a great experience on this game. I had just finished Jedi Knight and was between projects. Tim Schafer lived close to me in San Francisco at that time and I got a ride with him to the office one day. It was one of the first times I had met him. We were talking about my background in architecture and how I had taught a course in 3d modeling using Softimage which was being used on Grim Fandango. They were in desperate need of people to help finish the background scenes. By that afternoon, I learned I was on that project team and had a stack of amazing concept art to work from and started to create backgrounds right away.

From my perspective, you would have been present for periods of major transition at LucasArts. The late 90s seemed an era very much under the influence of the release of The Phantom Menace, while the early 2000s saw a new president (Simon Jeffery) and an attempt to return some inhouse focus toward original/legacy IP -- efforts that the cancellation of Freelance Police effectively closed the book on. Do you have any thoughts about the evolutions LucasArts underwent during this time, and why they might not have gone as smoothly as hoped?

I was present for lots of those transitions. Change is always necessary and always hard. When I joined in 96’ there was no Phantom Menace yet and the studio had an even split of Indiana Jones, Star Wars, as well as original titles under development. When Lucasfilm decided to embark on the new movies it was a strategic decision to focus on making content to support them. There were several original projects that got put on pause or cancelled in order to align to this new strategic direction, but even before that shift in direction there were projects that were started, proposed, or cancelled. That’s just the process of creative development, not everything everyone wants to make can get made. Every period I was present for had it’s rocky moments – some rockier than others. Why were some periods less smooth than others? The answer is simple, people are complicated and predicting the future is impossible – the point is to keep going and keep learning.

Like a number of Grim Fandango veterans, you joined Tim Schafer when he founded Double Fine Productions and participated in the early stages of Psychonauts’ famously lengthy development. What contributions were you able to make to that game as published, and what are your memories of that studio’s presumably scrappier beginnings?

Scrappy is an understatement. We started in the a space 6 feet below street level that was an old steam pipe fitting shop. It was cold, there was no heat, the roof leaked, and when it rained raw sewage would come out of the toilet and sinks. That time was awesome, we built that space out with our own two hands and bootstrapped a development studio into existence. If that wasn’t enough expectations around the new game were huge, so the pressure was always high. I wasn’t around for the last couple of years of development and release of Psychonauts, but I give that team huge props for overcoming every conceivable obstacle to bring Psychonauts into existence. Looking back at the game now, there are lots of concepts, ideas, and designs that remained out of the really early days of development that are present in the final product.

What led you to return to LucasArts?

Coming back to LucasArts was like coming home. A-lot of the people were still there, the vibe was still there, and I was really excited to be working on what would become Freelance Police.

You are credited with Additional Level Design on RTX: Red Rock. Was that your first assignment when you came back? What was it like working with Hal Barwood in what would turn out to be his LucasArts swansong?

Hal Barwood is a creative force of nature. I had worked with him on the Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine project as the Lead LD. When I came back, RTX: Red Rock was in its finaling phase of development. They needed some help working on some AI tuning and I was happy to pitch in. If there’s one person who I would say I learned the most from in the game development industry it would be Hal. I learned about leadership, how to conduct oneself as a creative professional, and what it meant to stand up for your ideas. He pushed me when I needed it and gave me the space to develop at the same time. To this day, I can still hear his voice in my head quoting some axiom or piece of advice that I would come to understand in different ways at different times later in my career.

I presume Freelance Police came next. Did you come into the project as a fan of Sam & Max Hit the Road? Was it exciting to work on a non-Star Wars title at a time when I imagine that wasn’t a statistically likely assignment at the studio?

Honestly, I had never played the old Sam and Max games previous to working on Freelance so no, I couldn’t claim to be a fan at the time. So, for me it was just as statistically likely to work on a SW game as an original game. It was super exciting to explore a new space, with new characters, and work with a new crew of people.

I found an old preview for the game from E3 2003 where Mike Stemmle identified some of the team members. Of you, he said “Steve Chen has returned to LucasArts from parts unknown to ensure that the finished product is actually fun.” It’s a pretty nebulous description of your role; could you recollect what your day-to-day responsibilities were? How did they compare to Grim Fandango?

I was the lead designer on Freelance Police so my role was a little different than on Grim Fandango where I was an environment artist. On Freelance Police I was responsible for both game system mechanics and the content design as well, I joined a fully staffed and mature team working on a game engine well into development. The game mechanics, story, art, and design for Grim were well established before I ever started working on it. It’s hard to compare the two, on Freelance Police I worked on Everything. On Grim, I worked on the environment art for a handful of scenes.

Did you preside over a design team, and if so do you remember who the other designers were?

I’ve had the pleasure of working with many different design teams. Sometimes as a lead, sometimes as a single contributor. ‘Design’ is also something that everyone contributes to on the team. The ‘designers’ might be accountable for it, but everyone is responsible for it in some way. I remember everyone I worked with in great detail, but there are just too many to list them all out here.

As it happened, Escape from Monkey Island stands as LucasArts’ final adventure game, but had it shipped, Freelance Police would have moved the studio’s 3D adventures beyond the pre-rendered approach, not to mention restored point ‘n click gameplay. What challenges were posed by the effort to successfully translate Sam & Max to 3D?

Freelance Police was designed to be an episodic game that could expand beyond what was the initial game. In those days, expansion packs and DLC were a relatively new idea so the biggest challenge was designing gameplay systems and a world that could be expanded upon and added to.

What do you recall about the engine, which I understand would have been brand new?

It was a new engine for the most part. What I remember most was the animation coordination system, it made it really easy to sequence animations and game events in the game in real-time as we were building it. A very novel idea at the time. Iteration is key in game development and this system made it super easy to try thing out and iterate on them until they were good.

Beyond the obvious progression in technology, what would the game have represented in terms of evolving the graphic adventure for the 21st century (Full Throttle 2, for example, was conceived as an action/adventure hybrid), or was the aim to be more consciously traditional?

The aim was to add new stuff like episodic content and mini-games while still maintaining a traditional feel to the game, so lots of dialogue and puzzles were a huge part of the experience.

Do you recall a favorite episode, sequence, minigame, or puzzle?

My favorite mini-game was one where you were controlling a car on a football field knocking people around inside of giant steel frame balls. It was like an version of Rocket League.

I suppose developers are not necessarily given justification for a project’s cancellation, but I’m curious if one was offered anyway. Mike Stemmle recalled being pulled into a meeting and told that the European market for adventure games essentially evaporated overnight – suggesting that LucasArts was led to believe, or chose to believe, that the genre was no longer viable. What’s your memory of how it went down, and what did you make of the decision at the time?

Mike Stemmle is a consummate professional, hilariously creative, and was a great project leader. When the project was cancelled Mike pulled the team into a conference room and just said that we were stopping development and that management felt that the fans of the genre while passionate about it were not growing in number and that it wouldn’t be financially viable to release it. Cancelling a game well into development is a hard thing to do. People put their heart and soul into a it and there’s no way to not have it be a huge downer for everyone.

Steve Purcell estimated that the game was between two-thirds and three-fourths complete when it was cancelled. Was the game really that far along when the axe fell, to your memory?

We were certainly pretty far along in development. Most of the originally designed content was in the game at that time, but you have to remember that the last 10 percent of a game’s development is often the heaviest lift. So while it was mostly content complete there was still a-lot of work left to do.

After the cancellation of Freelance Police, a handful of its team went on to join (or found) Telltale Games, and a series of subsequent layoffs over that year saw the exodus of a number of other longtime developers. Judging by your credits, you survived this purge. What project did you pivot to next?

Yeah, talk about transitions. Lucasarts was essentially rebooted from the ground up in 2004/5. I did manage to survive this period as well. The next projects for me were an Indiana Jones project, and The Force Unleashed 1 and 2.

Did you ever play the Telltale Sam & Max games? Did you feel any vindication that they were made – in the sense that it proved an episodic Sam & Max title could work when LucasArts essentially insisted through its actions that it couldn’t?

I honestly never played the Telltale games, but I’m really happy that many of the people I worked with ended up working on these successful titles.

You were on the team of Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings, which was also cancelled – at least in its intended form. How did your role on that game compare to Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine, which you were Lead Level Designer on?

It was completely different. On SOK, it was a new engine, new team, basically new company. Infernal Machine was the last game built on the Jedi Knight engine with a seasoned team and the late 90s version of Lucasarts. Looking back what’s interesting is that both games were sort of hinted at what games like Uncharted did later. Lots of games in development at that time were trying to deliver on the whole concept of cinematic action gameplay and the tools and engines of the time were only just beginning to really be able to do that in a seamless way.

From the outside, I remember the scuttlebutt being that Staff of Kings was abandoned when the decision was made to focus resources on The Force Unleashed, a sibling production that happened to be, well, a Star Wars game. Is there any truth to that, or were there other factors?

I was on both projects and my recollection from that time was that SOK was not abandoned but some key needed resources were transferred to the TFU project to help finish it. This sort of thing happens all the time at bigger studios where multiple projects are under development. People are always hard to come by and studios need to prioritize and focus on projects from time to time. I’m sure there were other factors involved but I had no first hand knowledge of them.

How far along was that game when the plug was pulled?

SOK was at a ‘vertical slice’ level of development at that time. We had a very playable demo of the game and had many of the other levels and mechanics under development.

Did you ever play the third-party Wii port of Staff of Kings that eventually came out? Can I assume that the internal project would have been dramatically different?

SOK for Wii was developed by a A2M (Artificial Mind and Movement). I did play it quite extensively during it’s development. It’s a great game and I’m really happy that the story, characters, and much of the inspiration for the levels we had for the Xbox and Playstation versions of the game made it into the Wii version as well. A2M did a fantastic job coming up with unique gameplay for the Wii and adding different takes on the story that worked on that platform.

What are you up to these days?

These days, I’m the Senior Product Director for Penumbra’s REAL Immersive Healthcare products. We’re building an ecosystem of advanced rehabilitation products that use VR to address cognitive and physical impairments. It’s a team of clinicians, scientists, hardware and software developers focused on creating experiences that help people feel better and be better.

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