The Unabridged History of Sam & Max 2 Interview Round-up Kevin Bruner, Lead Programmer

Interview conducted Februray 2019.

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

I joined LEC in September of ‘97 to work on Grim Fandango.

Grim Fandango was a massive transition for LucasArts adventure games, which had up to that point been powered by the SCUMM engine. As a programmer on the game, what kind of challenges and opportunities were posed by bringing the genre to the realm of 3D and direct control?

I was recruited specifically because I had experience in 3D. I think the hardest thing about Grim was that it was a 2D game and a 3D game at the same time, so you had the challenges of both styles.

Escape from Monkey Island was built using the Grim Fandango engine. What kind of enhancements were required to make the engine suitable for a Monkey Island game?

I don’t recall there being significant enhancements for Monkey Island, but there were a ton of bugs and mountains of sloppy code to clean up!

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?

I felt like I showed up right at the tail end of the “golden age” at LEC, so I was thrilled to be there but sad to see the studio pivot to Star Wars. However, it was very exciting to be in the throes of Star Wars getting new movies since the 80’s. We got to see quite a bit of the “new” Star Wars universe before the general public, which was very cool at the time!

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?

When Ray Gresko and Rob Huebner left it felt like a big deal. They were considered some of the best programmers and leaders in the building, and their departure created a bit of a “land rush” to fill their shoes. Things got a little “high school”-ish at that point and it was much less fun. Each team was building the engine that the future of the company would be built on! But there wasn’t a central strategy or great coordination around it, so it was sort of “Lord of the Flies”. I think that got in the way of making great games and made politics much more of a factor than it should have been.

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 absolutely thought it was the right direction! But then I might be a little biased :) What I loved about Simon was that he was approachable and seemed honest and transparent in my interactions with him. He was very committed to the non-Star Wars efforts but realistic about how much the company could invest in that, and what internal challenges those projects faced.

Did you have any input on what projects you would get to work on, or was it just, “You’re assigned to this now”?

I had input in that I was pretty vocal about what interested me! At LEC I never had to work on a project or team that I didn’t want to.

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?

Grim was the best project I worked on. I loved adventure games (still do!) and the game is a beautiful work of art. The imagery, the music, the voice acting and the writing are all top notch. Tim Schafer has an amazing ability to attract incredibly talented people to him and inspire them to do amazing work. Add that to his own substantial creative abilities and you get classics like Grim. He still doing it at Double Fine! Looking back, I didn’t realize how much of an honor it was to be invited onto that team.

How did you get involved with Sam & Max 2?

After Dan and I shipped Star Wars: Obi-Wan we needed a new project, and Simon (as well as many other people at the company) were very interested in revisiting Sam & Max as well as Full Throttle. I don’t really recall the specifics of how we ended up with Sam & Max, it just sort of happened!

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?”

Yes! I don’t think there was any other game or any other studio that was remotely close to the Sam & Max project, so it was super special. Though I do love pod racer, and the guy who ran the tech on that (Eric Johnson) is a genius and I would have worked with him at the drop of a hat. LEC was full of so much talent back then!

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?

Dan was the one who pitched the idea of digital and episodic in particular. I think the idea of taking games directly to customers was thought of as a way to reduce financial risks. Back then you couldn’t download GB’s of data, so episodic kept the games footprint small enough to be a viable digital product.

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?

In many ways, yes. But the same logic regarding price vs. amount of content for the business modeling made sense in both situations.

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, 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?

I think we wanted digital and retail, but I don’t remember there being significant push back to the digital side. I must have missed those rumors!

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?

The transition to “full 3d” actually made it easier than the hybrid 2d/3d Grim style stuff. At least from the technical point of voice. It didn’t look as pretty because there wasn’t any pre-rendered backgrounds, but I think the look would have been competitive. There was great art direction (given the 3D constraints) and it definitely looked and felt like a proper LEC adventure game.

Minigames are something of a Sam & Max tradition, but Freelance Police was said to have an especially large volume of them. Were any particularly interesting programming challenges borne out of this? I remember Stemmle making joking assurances in an interview that there would be no repeat of the infamous highway surfing minigame from Hit the Road.

It had tons of mini-games designed, and quite a few implemented. The engine used Lua (like Grim) and the mini games were all coded in Lua. They were quite diverse from dancing games, driving games, card games, etc. And fun! I think about 6 or 7 of them actually were implemented before production stopped.

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?

It did have a bigger budget, but since the production never completed we’ll never know the actual cost. The early Telltale games were done on a shoestring. They only support 800x600 (you couldn’t change the resolution!). Those were the kinds of budget motivated decisions those early games had.

What do you remember about the storyline of Sam & Max 2 that you can share? Details remain fairly elusive.

You know it’s been quite a long time and I actually don’t recall too many specific details about the story.

As Lead Programmer on the game, what were your day-to-day responsibilities? Did you have any creative input?

I spent most of my time writing code and leading the engineering team of about 7 people. Everyone had creative input, which was amazingly cool, but I was focused mostly on technology and production processes.

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, 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?

I don’t want to contribute to speculation about what happened since I certainly have no idea what the details were! In my experience everyone at Lucas from executives to creatives were all impressively talented and doing their best.

Did you have any perspective on what went wrong with Full Throttle: Hell on Wheels, which was a sister production to Freelance Police?

I wasn’t on that team so I don’t know for sure. One of the biggest differences between the games was that Throttle was to be a “full sized” game, while we were making “digital episodes”, so we each faced very different challenges. Both games got cancelled so I wouldn’t say one production would have been better than the other. Both died to soon.

Is it true that the collapse of Full Throttle: Hell on Wheels permitted Sean Clark to join up with the Sam & Max 2 team for its last few months? If so, what role did he play?

I don’t recall Sean officially joining the team. And I wouldn’t exactly describe Throttle as “collapsing”. In the end we all got cancelled.

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 had a vision of LEC with a diverse offering of many IP (including Star Wars). I’m not sure what drove the changes at LEC at the time, but we seemed to have many leadership changes over the years and I don’t see Simon’s tenure in a different light than anyone else’s, except that most of my time was under Simon and I really enjoyed working for him.

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?

Though there was much speculation among the rank and file about this (as there always is!) but none of us knew enough about the details of the overall business to really know what drove the decision making.

Was Simon Jeffery forced out, in your opinion?

I have no idea, but as I said, I enjoyed him and the studio while he was in charge!

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?

I think we knew that the project was a special opportunity and we really wanted to figure out how to run a production well. There was also a lot of experience on that team, so all that worked to make the production “smooth”. Though we never got to the hardest part, which is closing the game, so we’ll never know how “smooth” things might have been, but it was a very very good start.

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?

The cancellation came as a big surprise to me, and we didn’t really see it coming. But those were tumultuous times. I think the game was popular around the studio since there was a lot of love for everything “Sam & Max”. Though I think Simon was transparent about the risks and requirements to make the project succeed and be viable for the company.

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”?

I think we were told by Steve Dauterman (if I recall correctly). We were all obviously disappointed but it was clear the decision had been made. I think the team was experienced enough to understand that “lobbying” for anything wouldn’t do any good. There wasn’t a lot of malice, just disappointment.

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?

I don’t know what the fully loaded, to-market costs would have been, but it’s a business and these types of games have a certain scale and appeal. It has to make business sense or it can’t happen. Remember, it’s not just about this one game, but also about the best use of the studio as a whole, and adventure games stopped making sense for them at that time.

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?

I don’t know the specifics of what the marketing team saw or how they made their decisions. I don’t recall anything about the marketing being viewed as radical though. I think there was a concern that the market just wasn’t that big.

The fan reaction was pretty bananas. Do you remember any of it?

I do! It was nice to see the outpouring and the “Save Sam & Max” petition was particularly inspiring!

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?

I really can’t say. I don’t think Sam & Max would have turned the studio around or sunk it. LEC needed to produce a lot of great games to thrive and it’s easy to look back in hindsight to speculate on where the failure points happened, but alternate solutions can never be put to the test, so who’s to say/

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?

I stayed at LEC until we started Telltale in April of 2004.

Do you have any media from Sam & Max 2 after all these years?

Sadly I don’t. :(

You were one of the founders of Telltale. To what extent was that studio’s business model a direct reaction to the fate of Sam & Max 2?

Telltale was very much a direct reaction to the cancellation. I loved (and still do) adventure games, and we thought we had found a way to produce them in a way that could make money. Not at a scale that would work for LEC, but at a smaller scale where it made good sense. We particularly looked at the 30,000 names on the “Save Sam & Max” petition and figured out how to make a viable game if those people would buy it.

Was obtaining the Sam & Max license a day one ambition for Telltale, or did the idea come later? I know you guys had to wait a year for LucasArts’ hold on the license to expire.

Yep. We had wanted to make a new Sam & Max game from the moment we left. We were never in a “finish the LEC” game mode though. That game wouldn’t have fit into the new (smaller) business model.

Before Sam & Max, Telltale had the Bone license. What prevented that adaptation from continuing after two episodes?

We would have loved to continue working on Bone, but there were some exciting things happening in the Bone universe (that never panned out) that complicated things. I really miss Bone..

I’m curious about the differences and similarities between the Telltale Tool and the Freelance Police engine. Without having any gameplay footage to go by, it seems like Sam & Max 2 would have played very much like the early Telltale episodes. Is that accurate? What about behind-the-scenes differences?

The Telltale Tool was brand new from the ground up. We couldn’t bring any LEC tech with us, and much of the LEC engine was built on top of other LEC tech, such as Render Droid, SMUSH, iMUSE, etc. The LEC game was fancier since it had all that foundation. Freelance Police would have had a lot more variety of game play than the early Telltale games.

Aside from the fact that none of the plots could be re-used, how was Sam & Max approached differently at Telltale versus LucasArts?

The Telltale game was much simpler, from the 3D models, animation, locations, etc. But that forced us to focus on the narrative and comedy, which is what we wanted to do anyway!

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?

I think it was simply a matter of timing and scheduling (if I recall correctly).

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 wouldn’t describe it as vindiciation, but we felt like it was certainly a major accomplishment. The Telltale Sam & Max game was not something LEC would have done. It was too small for them. So instead of proving the LEC was wrong, it felt more like we had found a solution to a tricky problem, how to bring Sam & Max to market at the right scale.

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! Mike is a big talent and experienced veteran. He contributed to many things at Telltale, not just in writing and design, but in leadership and overall influence.

I loved all three of Telltale’s Sam & Max “seasons,” and I think they got better as they went along. The last Sam & Max season was released in 2010, and Telltale continued for eight years after that. Was there any talk of a fourth season in that time?

We loved Sam & Max, but by the 4th season I think we were ready for a break. At least from the “episodic season” perspective. I always wanted to bring Sam & Max back as smaller, bite sized adventures, more like the comic (perhaps on mobile?) but by that time Telltale was serving different masters who had different business requirements.

What do you think prevented original games from being made by Telltale?

We definitely wanted to pursue originals, and we almost got one of the ground. But in the end all of the stake holders who determined Telltale’s direction decided to focus on the larger licensed games since they were generally lower risk. It’s understandably hard to say no to Game of Thrones or some other wildly popular franchise when it’s offered. I always thought we would “get around” to an original IP but it never happened.

Do you see a future for Sam & Max at another game studio?

I hope so! It’s tricky to get right since its comedy, but I bet someone can do it.

What are you up to these days?

I’m working on a new “Narrative Engine” (basically the interactive story guts of a game engine) called Beanie, which several studios have now licensed. It’s kind of an interactive script writing tool for designed interactive stories. We’re also working on some new games(?) though we’re not ready to announce anything just yet. It’s been great supporting other studios (many of whom are loaded with former Telltale folks) and helping them succeed while doing my own thing.

Anything else you want to share about Sam & Max 2?

Just glad that there is still love for Sam & Max. I hope the journey isn’t over!

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