- Page 1 Mike Stemmle, Project Lead
- Page 2 Dan Connors, Producer
- Page 3 Kevin Bruner, Lead Programmer
- Page 4 Graham Annable, Lead Animator
- Page 5 Derek Sakai, Lead Artist
- Page 6 Jonathan Sgro, Art Technical Director
- Page 7 Randy Tudor, Gameplay Programmer
- Page 8 Richard Sun, Programmer
- Page 9 A few memories from Mark Griskey and Ronda Scott
Interview conducted May 2019.
When did you join LucasArts, and what was the first project you worked on?
I joined LucasArts in 1992 in QA. The first project I was on was Day of the Tentacle. It was exciting because I started working on the floppies which were text only, but in my second month they dropped the first “talkie” version which was I believe the first full voice product at Lucas. In the Pit we were freaked out because we all had our own voices for the characters, which we used to do while we were testing. When he heard the actual voices we instantly hated it. Which was funny because it was really well done. I complained to Captain Tripps (Jo Ashburn) who was the lead and he said well tell them what you think. I did and the response was basically “I don’t care what you think” which I understand looking back because you know the saying about opinions. Next time I made a critical suggestion I made sure there was more to it than personal feeling.
Your time at LucasArts dates back to the early 90s. You worked your way from Q&A to producing roles. Was that a trajectory you had intended from the beginning, or did it happen along the way?
No I just jumped in and did whatever was asked of me. At that time so much of the job was about making the experience of playing videogames easier to do so we could reach more people. I remember creating bootdisks, dealing with loading CD Rom drivers and moving from DOS to Win95 there was so much problem solving that went into enabling people to play our games. Overtime I just earned a reputation as someone who could figure out how to get stuff closed at a good quality. You have to remember everyone in the industry was very young at the time so the distance between QA Supervisor and President wasn’t far and we were all figuring it out together.
You would have been a witness to a lot of change at the studio throughout the years. The late 90s in particular seemed to be a turning point. There was a four-year period where LucasArts was putting out almost exclusively Star Wars games, presumably to take advantage of the release of the prequel trilogy. What was your perspective on that from within?
Well there was also the move from a PC business to console business. The idea that Star Wars would give us the brand leverage required to get a foothold on the Playstation was a reasonable business strategy, but we probably underestimated what was required on the development and marketing side. The games were taking longer to come together as we figured out the differences between a PC game and a console game and there was much bigger fallout to missing a date because of a movie launch. Prior to Episode 1 the LucasArts Games content was the anticipated Star Wars launch so people waited for it, When The Phantom Menace was released launching the games with the movie was a huge part of the plan for success.
The other hard thing internally was the level of secrecy around the project. There was so much hype and expectation that to look at the source material for Episode 1 you needed to go into a locked room that only certain people had access to. You can imagine how difficult it is to create content that way and how it would impact the culture that once generated content as outrageous as Sam & Max and Day of the Tentacle.
Anyway I remember the first time a group of us was allowed to see an Episode 1 rough cut and it was eerily quiet.
There were a lot of high-profile departures of talent during this period as well. Was there a cultural change going on at the studio that might explain this?
At young LucasArts it felt like with enough work, brain power and passion you could figure out any problem and we believed we could do the best version of anything, X-Wing was the Best, Monkey was the Best, Jedi was the Best, Grim was the Best all those products were great because we dug huge holes for ourselves that we always had the ability to dig our way out of. There was a standard of we won’t release it until it is at the highest quality like Blizzard. As products got more difficult to build and teams got bigger so did the holes and we started missing release dates. At that point everything switched from the priority being improve the creative to the priority being fix the production process so we can be more predictable. Limiting design scope is inevitable in that process and that changed things. The talent leaving hurt I think we probably felt indestructible at the time but losing visionary talent that understands what is required to build successful product in a particular organization is never good. I would say the first couple of Farewell parties a little Champagne toast is very sweet once you start doing it every Friday you have to realize you are drinking way to much champagne and definitely for the wrong reason.
Jack Sorenson stepped down as president of LucasArts at the beginning of 2000 and was replaced by Simon Jeffery. During Jeffery’s tenure, LucasArts pledged to re-invest in original IP, and it was during this era also that sequels to Full Throttle and Sam & Max Hit the Road were put in production. Did you think this was a shift in the right direction?
I was happy to have the opportunity work on such fun and inspired source material. This isn’t to say Star Wars wasn’t a fun thought out universe but there were lots of restrictions and it was getting repetitive. It was also exciting to be focusing on Adventure games and Storytelling. So as a creator I was excited, but how to make it work from a business perspective was the question.
Did you have any input on what projects you would get to work on it, or was it just, “You’re assigned to this now”?
By the time Sam & Max rolled around I had some influence and I made it pretty clear I wasn’t interested in another tour on Star Wars. Kevin and I had pitched a game called Disco Brawl which was a Street Fighter with Dance moves. They basically said, “wow sounds cool but how about Sam & Max 2”.
Was there a particular LucasArts project that stands out as your favorite to work on? Was there a project you were unable to work on that you would have liked to?
DOTT and Freelance Police were great. I enjoyed the Muliplayer Testing for Outlaws I used to play as Sanchez and would light the fuse on the Dynamite and run at people. TIE Fighter was great to work on I also really enjoyed Dark Forces. One Project with a story was Full Throttle which I started out as lead tester. One night as the work day was ending Tim Schafer came into the pit he was getting ready for a late night writing session because the script deadline was the next morning. He asked me if I felt like hanging out and working on dialog with him. I had been writing with Dave Grossman, Jesse Clark and Mark Cartwright on our local cable access show Fiction by Louie so it wasn’t out of the blue, plus I had a knack for dialog lines that were also hints. At this stage of my career there were very few things that would prevent me from the opportunity to work with and learn from a legend like Tim but I said sorry Tim I have a date tonight (with my future wife) The next week Steve Dauterman left Lucas to go to Activision and they moved me to Dark Forces. I was credited on Full Throttle as guy who didn’t work on the project.
How did you get involved with Sam & Max 2?
I was one of the people that had worked on Freelance Police as Lead Tester and I was recognized at the company as someone who was comfortable on innovative products so Sam & Max made sense especially with the number of innovations being proposed for the project, Episodic production, Digital Distribution and Episodic Storytelling.
In my imagination, it would have been especially exciting to have been on a Sam & Max game, especially given the context. In the early 2000s, getting assigned to an adventure game at LucasArts would have been next to impossible. Was there a sense of “Thank goodness we get to do this, and not a pod racer?”
For me yes but for some folks Star Wars was a dream project and that’s okay too.
The story goes that the Sam & Max 2 team had originally pitched the idea of digital distribution for the game. Is there any truth to this rumor, and if so, what were those discussions like, and what kind of resistance did it face? Was there an instinct that the distribution model had to change if an adventure game was going to be a less elusive thing at LucasArts in the 21st century?
The retail market was no longer viable for products like adventure games especially traditional adventure games on the PC so everyone was bought into the idea that we needed to be innovating on all fronts. Throttle 2 was doing more action gameplay and console style controls and Sam & Max was doing the changes in distribution and format. There was a lot of support and it was seen as a potential solution but the appetite for figuring out the unknown had really decreased with the delays and low sales some of the products were experiencing.
Was the six-case structure that the game took on (and which Telltale’s Sam & Max: Season 1 carried over) an artifact of that early proposal?
Since there were no examples it seemed as good a number as any. The hope was to get a critical mass out and then get to a place where we were following up monthly with new episodes but the dream and the reality had not yet met.
If the rumors are true and management resisted the initial pitch of distribution over the web, it still seems that the idea was never fully abandoned. In one of the later previews for the game, Mike Stemmle was postulating that there could be downloadable Sam & Max cases made available after the retail release shipped. In December 2003, LucasArts somewhat ominously launched a web survey that was loaded with questions about digital distribution. Was there a debate up to the very end about how to release Sam & Max 2?
There was always debate about everything because of the number of people and departments that needed to rethink how things should be done. I think the thing that could have saved Sam & Max 2 if we finished and shipped episode one before the other episodes were done. This became standard at Telltale but at LucasArts they weren’t comfortable unless 3 episodes were in the bag.
Sam & Max 2 would have been LucasArts’ first real-time 3D adventure game. It would also have been a return to point ‘n click after Grim Fandango and Escape from Monkey Island. What can you tell me about the game’s engine, which we never got to see in action, and the lessons from the earlier 3D adventures that might have been applied in its design?
Well it was built to consider the restrictions on size because it was downloadable and we were also focused on solving episodic delivery so asset reuse and an ability to get playable fast where were the real innovation was happening. I honestly forget the specific navigation controls but I think it was a point and click Grim Hybrid. There was a notion that mini games would make it replayable and more casual. There were neat ideas about virtual awards you could win that could be part of the game.
As the producer, what were your day-to-day responsibilities on the project? Did you have any creative input?
Figure out the business model, build and manage the production process, manage the budget, lead the online experience effort, manage milestones, schedule, etc. From a creative standpoint I mostly edited and proofread but I saw and signed off on everything. I also played the content a lot and give QA type suggestions. Mike was very collaborative and great to work with, I think Brendan Q was coming out of his shell as well. The beauty of Sam & Max is every artist is inspired to make it funnier. So first you get the written ideas which are funny then the concept art is funnier, then the animators make it even crazier and finally the voice actor takes it over the top. It’s amazing to be a part of its very inspired.
I have to assume that Freelance Police had a somewhat bigger budget than at least the earliest Telltale Sam & Max games. How would this have manifested itself to the player?
Bigger scenes, more diverse environments, more characters. We were still thinking about re using sets for episodic production but we didn’t re use sets as much as we did at Telltale.
What do you remember about the storyline of Sam & Max 2 that you can share? Details remain fairly elusive.
I think they were six unique cases without a thru line which would have been . I remember Sam and Max are called to a high school to break up a gang fight. It was a tribute to A West Side Story. There was an episode that took place at a Winter Festival, and my favorite was an episode where Sam and Max faced off against the arch nemesis Mann and Sachs who had just broken out of prison. Sam and Max didn’t realize they had arch nemesis but Mann and Sachs were so obsessed Sachs had gotten surgery to make his human mouth shaped like Max’s . It was wonderfully weird. The final showdown takes place at a Desert festival called Burning Max where they burned a forty fort Max replica. This also took Sam and Max by surprise.
The original titles that were released during Jeffery’s run – RTX: Red Rock, Gladius, Armed & Dangerous, and Wrath Unleashed – were not commercially successful, which contrasted, natch, with the reliability of Star Wars games. On top of that, Full Throttle: Hell on Wheels was cancelled, which amounted to a lost investment. What do you blame for the struggles the studio had with its original releases? Was it the quality of the games? Marketing fumbles? Plain old bad luck?
The LucasArts brand outside of Star Wars didn’t have much pull in the console market. LucasArts found its success with original titles on PC and I don’t think the organization understood what was required to appeal or sell to a different type of gamer. Having achieved so much success previously it was hard for the organization to reflect upon failure and use it to improve.
Is it true that the collapse of Full Throttle: Hell pn Wheels permitted Sean Clark to join up with the Sam & Max 2 team for its last few months?
Sean is a great developer but he had just invested so much energy in Full Throttle 2 that it would be unreasonable to expect he could go from dealing with the end of FT2 and Jumping right into a moving train like Sam & Max. Had the production lasted a little longer it would have been nice to have him but Sam & Max was over not long after Full Throttle.
Simon Jeffery abruptly stepped down as president in the fall of 2003. Instead of a new president being appointed immediately, LucasArts was run on an interim basis by its “General Manager and Vice President of Finance and Operations,” Mike Nelson. What role, if any, do you think the absence of a president played in what happened to Sam & Max 2? Would it have been spared under Jeffery’s watch?/
Simon made a bold and admirable move in moving back to original properties and it resulted in some unique and inspired work making it into the market place but to do it we weren’t working on Star Wars games. Time ran out on the original IP experiment and focus switched to maximizing Star Wars.
I’ve often wondered how much power the president of LucasArts really had in the grand scheme of things. When you look at the history of company, you see such a revolving door of leadership, and it seems to point to a body higher up in Lucasfilm that was maybe wielding the real power. Did you have any sense of the pressures from above that might have limited what a president could do?
Early on games were an experiment and there was a trust that those kooky games guys had it figured out and they did. For a time LucasArts was the best. However as it became a bigger business and opportunity more people started to pay attention. There was a Board and the president reported to the Board.
Sam & Max 2 seemed to be insulated from the problems that were apparently plaguing other internal projects. Mike Stemmle once described it as the smoothest project he had ever been on, and credited the experience of the team for that smoothness. Do you agree with that perspective? Were the problems that Sam & Max 2 fell victim to exclusively external or circumstantial?
There was that feeling of building something special that doesn’t always happen and the talent was amazing, Ultimately there was too much unpredictability around the business model. Had there been positive momentum at the company there would have been a willingness to innovate but when they cancelled Sam & Max 2 it was about focusing the best talent on Star Wars.
The idea that the cancellation was as surprising to the team as it was to the fan base seems to be credible, especially since magazine previews for the game showed up a month after it was axed. (Surreally, there was even a LucasArts recruitment ad featuring Purcell’s characters.) Still, were there warning signs in retrospect? Was the game popular with management? Did Jeffery’s departure change the tone?
In game development there is so much risk and so many ways that things can go wrong that you have to constantly push in a way that makes existence possible. Throughout the process there are people in decision making positions doubting the team’s ability to deliver, doubting the business opportunity, challenging the quality and presenting the case for killing the project. So there is always that threat but you need to get past it, address legitimate concerns and improve chances for success. So while it wasn’t surprising it was disappointing because our mode of operation was do everything we could to keep it alive. We knew the content was great, we knew we were executing something cool and we were wired to make it happen so that’s what we did in every context.
How did the team learn of the decision? Was there any chance to fight for the game, or was it just “This is what’s happening”?
They probably told me and me and Mike told the team. It likely sucked immensely.
To help explain the mindset behind cancelling Sam & Max 2, do you have a notion of what kind of costs would have been associated with delivering that game to retail in 2004? Was it really cutting losses to just throw eighteen months (or more) of development out the window because no one knew how to market an adventure game? Or was it more of a slate-cleaning move by the new people in charge?
What we spent wasn’t large by comparison but neither were the revenue forecast. Digital Distribution was a longer term play that likely would have positioned LEC well. It s a bummer because we were working on a cool streaming download system, with add ons and updates. We were also looking at other channels I was trying to get Rogue Squadron on to Real Arcade as a proof of concept. At the end of the day they invited me to a meeting at Lucasfilm with LucasArts publishing and some LucasFilm folks where a Kellogg Business School grad student explained how downloadable games wouldn’t be viable for 10 years.
Ironically, the marketing/packaging costs that evidently sent management into a panic were precisely the costs that would have been dramatically reduced by a digital distribution model. What, then, caused resistance to the idea in the first place? Was it just too radical for LucasArts?
If the responsibility was on the team to prove it we never presented the pitch for how this could revolutionize the business model for the company. We were focused on just the project level and it was to small potatoes for them to consider.
The fan reaction was pretty bananas. Do you remember any of it?
We were really fighting for about a month to keep it alive so we were pretty heads down. We were aware of the petition and were glad people were fighting for it.
In the alternate timeline where Sam & Max 2 was released and successful, do you think it would have changed anything otherwise for LucasArts? It seems to me that the die was already cast and the studio was on its course toward becoming, essentially, a licensing house. Do you think there was any future for adventure games at LucasArts at that point?
Sounds like a Sam & Max episode. Sam and Max need to find a portal to an alternate dimension to convince Simon Jeffrey to stay on an save Freelance Police leading to all kinds of unintended consequences including JJ Abrams directing a film with Peter Dinklage as Sam.
In the terse press release announcing the cancellation, LucasArts said that there were no plans to reduce staff. Nevertheless, layoffs commenced soon after, and most of the Sam & Max 2 team was gone either by pink slip or by choice soon after. How much longer did you remain at LucasArts?
About 3 months.
I thought the voice acting in the Telltale games was terrific, but I’m still curious: What prevented Bill Farmer and Nick Jameson from returning, when LucasArts had been able to bring them back?
Probably scheduling and money.
Was there a sense of vindication or closure when Telltale released Sam & Max: Season 1 to success, especially considering that there was overlap in team members with Freelance Police?
I think finishing Season 2 was when we really felt it especially since it was so well received.
Mike Stemmle was eventually able to re-team with Sam & Max for the third Telltale season. Was it gratifying for him to do so?
I hope so.
What do you think prevented original games from being made by Telltale?
What about Puzzle Agent?
Do you see a future for Sam & Max at another game studio?
I hope so.
What are you up to these days?
Advising companies interested in narrative in games, Working with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation to help them figure out how to work with game companies and reach out to developers and gamers affected by Type 1. If you know of any folks that want to help out or have ideas I am on twitter @danconnors01 I don’t use it much but if someone wants to talk about Diabetes or any other thing I would start. Also I got some other stuff happening too.
Anything else you want to share about Sam & Max 2?
There are times in creative environment where everything converges. The right people with the right level of experience and passion get together and build content that is perfect for the audience it is serving. Everyone involved knows they are part of something special and in that time the sense of purpose required for greatness is there. That was Lucas Film/LucasArts in the glory days but things changed. LucasArts tried to recapture that greatness but it was a different time and a different environment and it couldn’t. However like these things do it sent people out to strive to build their own environment for creative magic and new ideas were able to flourish and so it goes.