- 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
- Page 10 Steven Chen, Lead Designer
Interview conducted May 2019.
When, how, and at what age did you get a job at LucasArts?
I started working at LucasArts in the fall of 1994, at the age of 24. Before that I'd been working as a freelance animator in Toronto, Canada, mostly on television productions. I was preparing to move out to the West Coast and try my luck in Vancouver, BC, when a friend of a friend called up and said that he'd just gotten hired at George Lucas's game company, LucasArts, and they were willing to hire more Canadians as well. I sent a portfolio their way and suddenly found myself living and working in Northern California instead of Vancouver!
It seems to me that you joined LucasArts at a time when it was at the top of its game. Was that the sense you had? Would working at Skywalker Ranch have still been a dream job in the 90s?
To be honest I wasn't really plugged into game culture at that time. I'd certainly grown up playing games but of a slightly earlier era. I had played a ton of Atari 2600, Vic 20, and Commodore 64 games and spent more than a healthy amount of time at my local arcade, but I'd kind of missed the LucasArts phase of gaming. So when I was hired I didn't have a lot of context or reverence for what they did. I just knew that it was George Lucas's company and that seemed pretty cool. The offices were not at Skywalker Ranch by the time I was on the scene but it definitely was still an amazing thing to even go and have lunch up at Skywalker Ranch.
What was your first project at LucasArts?
My first project at LucasArts was doing some animation fixes on Full Throttle. I was sort of a clean up guy for any scenes that Tim or Larry wanted spruced up or tweaked.
What was your relationship with the LucasArts catalog before you had an opportunity to contribute to it? Were you a fan of their games?
Nope, I'm a bit embarrassed to say I was completely clueless about LucasArts's history when I first arrived.
As an animator, did you get any input on what projects you would work on, or was it simply “This is your assignment”?
For the first bunch of years you mostly went to whatever project you were assigned to. It sure seemed like everybody new to the company was put on The Dig when I started there. Myself included.
You were fortunate enough to work on some real classics during your time at the studio, but was there any project you wished you could have worked on that you didn’t?
Most definitely. To this day I still regret I didn't make a fuss to be a part of Grim Fandango. You knew right from the start, just looking at the concept art Peter Chan created, that it was going to be a special project.
You were there for the transition from 2D animation to 3D animation, and also when the studio started embracing consoles. What was that like to navigate?
Kind of insane. In the early days there wasn't a definitive 3D software used across the company. So project to project you had to ramp up on different ones. Lightwave was the first one I learned I think, then 3D Studio Max, Softimage, and finally Maya. It was crazy. I got into animation because I liked drawing by hand and I wasn't entirely sure that I would stay at LucasArts once everything switched to 3D. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that actually enjoyed animating in 3D so I stuck around!
All of the LucasArts adventures hold up magnificently, but The Curse of Monkey Island is almost in its own category in how well it has aged. At a time when “remasters” are in vogue, it seems like you could update that game just by getting the backgrounds in higher resolution, giving extra breathing room to the dialog samples, and otherwise not touching it. I know Bill Tiller has expressed the desire to be involved in such a project. Do you have thoughts or hopes on that?
It would be wonderful to see it all spruced up and accessible again! That was a project where artistically, in terms of creating the art and animating they really didn't give us many restrictions. It felt like we were allowed to pack as much as I wanted into it. Almost as if we were working on a animated feature. I'm pretty sure that has a lot to do with how it still holds up to this day.
Were you involved with any cancelled games like Indiana Jones and the Iron Phoenix, Vanishing Act, TV Wasteland, Justice Unlimited, or the earlier Full Throttlesequel that Larry Ahern and Bill Tiller were briefly working on? Were there any cancelled projects we might not know about?
I was a lead on Justice Unlimited. We had a really fantastic art team and it felt well organized for the look of it, but, from my perspective, the programming effort never really gelled together enough for us to make any real strides and so ultimately they turned the lights out on us. It was a letdown for sure.
What was the path to becoming a project leader at LucasArts, and was that an ambition you had yourself?
There wasn't a formal path that I was aware of really. Each of the project leaders there had all had different paths to the position as far as I could tell. I suppose one consistency was that they usually had a strong programming background, but not always. I personally didn't aspire to that position at the time. I was very happy just creating art for the projects!
There was certainly a perception from the fan base that LucasArts went hog wild with the Star Wars license in the late 90s due to The Phantom Menace. For several years, the studio’s output was almost exclusively Star Wars themed. What was your perspective on that from the inside?
Yep. There had been a few different shifts in upper management over the years and as it was felt that adventure games didn't really work for the console market the focus became more and more Star Wars-centric as time marched on.
Was there any kind of cultural or management shift within the company that came with that? It seems like there was a mass exodus of talent at this juncture and it is hard not to draw conclusions.
Definitely, the big shift culturally was when Jim Ward took over. The entire vibe of the studio changed at that point and I think a lot of folks didn't feel like participating in that new direction.
In 2000, Jack Sorenson stepped down, and Simon Jeffery replaced him as head of LucasArts. What kind of change did that signal internally?
At that time I felt like the switch to Simon Jeffery was very positive and he helped creatively charge the studio up again.
During Jeffery’s three years at the studio, LucasArts attempted a more even ratio of Star Wars to original games. The original games were commercially unsuccessful. Do you have any theories as to why?
I don't really. I think Simon really let the creatives in the studio do their thing at that time and nobody can ever really predict what's going to hit and what won't. It's tricky.
You were involved with RTX: Red Rock, which was Hal Barwood’s final game at LucasArts. Do you have any specific memories from that project?
Sure! It was the one time I got to work directly with Hal and I was really impressed with his organizational skills and how professionally he managed the team. You could certainly argue we made some questionable creative decisions but the project was a pleasure to work on day to day.
Do you know much about Full Throttle: Hell on Wheels and the factors that led to its cancellation?
I wasn't involved on that project but it always seemed like they were fighting an uphill battle from day one.
Do you remember the circumstances of Sam & Max: Freelance Police being greenlit? How did you get involved?
It's funny but I don't recall how that project initially came about. I think it had a lot to do with the insistence of Mike Stemmle but I don't know that for certain. I got involved because I'd worked previously with Mike on Afterlife and Justice Unlimited and shared a good rapport so I think he was eager to have me be part of the team.
Was it exciting for the team to be working on Sam & Max 2? It was, after all, the only graphic adventure game LucasArts was making at the time, or would make again. It was not a project that would have been easy to get on in the early 2000s, so I’m curious if there was a sense of “Thank goodness we get to do this game, and not a pod racer.”
Totally. Similar to Grim Fandango that project felt special right from the start. Everyone that was a part of it was incredibly enthusiastic about being there.
The story goes that the team of the game pitched a digital distribution strategy for Sam & Max: Freelance Police. Is there any truth to this rumor, and if so can you elaborate upon it? What were those arguments like, and how were they eventually shot down?
I was focused solely on the creation of the art and animation in the game and was definitely not privy to any meetings or conversations about how the game was going to be distributed or sold. I'm sure everyone involved was trying to find a way to justify completing the project there.
Although, it seems like the push was never completely abandoned. In one of the last previews for Freelance Police, Stemmle was hinting at post-release downloadable cases, and at one point LucasArts launched a web survey filled with questions about digital distribution. Is it fair to say that the model Telltale was founded on was something you guys were trying to get off the ground at LucasArts? Did you guys see that some kind of paradigm shift had to happen if adventure games were to becomes less elusive at the studio?
Again I can't really speak to that because I wasn't involved in the conversations at the time. Certainly something had to change to help switch the perspective on adventure games at that time.
The game was described as consisting of six individual cases, woven together by a larger story. This certainly sounds similar to Telltale’s first season of Sam & Max games. Aside from the actual material, what was different about what you guys were doing at LucasArts and what you were doing when you got a second chance at the license at Telltale?
That sounds about right? I can't really remember how many cases we'd sketched out for the original LucasArts game at this point. By the time Telltale obtained the license and began the real work of creating Sam & Max I was living in Portland and storyboarding on Coraline. So the biggest difference I could tell you was that Telltale had a much more shoestring budget to work with than LucasArts ever did for their version of Sam & Max.
What about the technical differences between the Telltale Tool and whatever engine was powering Freelance Police?
Ha. That is far too technical a question for this cartoonist. I honestly don't remember the engine we were using at LucasArts at that time. :)
As a fellow cartoonist, were you an admirer of Steve Purcell’s work before being tasked with his characters?
Steve's art and characters were one of the few things I was familiar with when I first got hired at LucasArts. I'd seen the Sam & Max characters in comic form and as I spent time at LucasArts I grew in awe of all the incredible art Steve had done over the years. Unbelievable draftsman and cartoonist!
Purcell was working full-time at Pixar by then. How did his role as a consultant manifest itself?
I'm not entirely sure as I was pretty much gone from the Telltale offices by then. But it certainly made sense to have him as involved as possible.
The game was going to be both be a major step forward (LucasArts’ first real-time 3D adventure game) and deliberately traditional (a return to point ‘n click). What ramifications did this have on the art side?
It was a dream project to work on from an art perspective. A lot of our processes were clearly defined for making an adventure game already and we'd gotten quite good at 3D graphics by that point. It was the best of both worlds.
Can you talk a little bit about the art team? Who was working with you and how was work distributed?
I was leading the animation team I believe and heading up the art was Derek Sakai. Derek is a good friend and an incredible blend of technical and artistic skill so it was a joy working with him on the project. You knew nothing was going to slip through the cracks. We had some really solid animators on the team too. Yoko Ballard and Mike Dacko really took their work to another level on that game.
The fans never had the opportunity to see very much of Freelance Police. Any highlights we could have expected? The Sam & Max universe offers boundless possibilities and I imagine must be a heck of a sandbox for an animator to work in.
Yeah there was a ton of fun stuff in it. One piece that I always think about is this really wonderful animation that Yoko created of Max bouncing on a trampoline (for a mini-game within the adventure). Max did this really sweet little somersault in the air at the peak of his bounce and it added so much to the experience.
Do you have any media from the game still lying around? You tweeted recently that you had found a big batch of storyboards. Any screenshots or videos on a dusty old hard drive?
Unfortunately I think the only stuff I have left are my scribbly little storyboards. :(
What happens to the assets of a cancelled game, anyway? Does it all just wind up in a vault guarded by Mickey Mouse? I know that when Double Fine did their Day of the Tentacle remaster, they were able to go back to the original voice recording tapes to get higher quality voice samples, so it seems like Lucasfilm runs a pretty good archive.
Your guess is as good as mine. I always imagine that last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark with the big warehouse.
Whatever external issues caused the game’s demise, Stemmle described the production as the smoothest he had ever been on, and the developers who worked on it as a dream team. It was like you guys were insulated from the issues that seemed to be plaguing other internal projects of the time. Is that how you remember it?
Yep. We were like an oasis in the desert during that time at LucasArts.
Was the project popular inside the company, but outside the team? Were there any signs of what was to come?
I think everyone knew that hanging over us the entire time was the notion that the age of adventure games was supposedly over, but we just kept our heads down and worked hard. There were always signs that we could be axed at anytime but we wanted to prove the doubters wrong.
Is it true that Sean Clark, who was co-project leader of Hit the Road, joined up with the project after Full Throttle 2 fell apart?
I honestly don't remember? That may have happened. Sean and Mike were good friends and worked well together, so that makes sense.
Simon Jeffery stepped down in October 2003, shortly after Full Throttle 2 was cancelled. For the fans looking in from the outside, and among whom Jeffery was well-liked, it was hard not to connect his departure with the company’s recent string of flops (all non-Star Wars). Do you have any insight there? Do you remember the event?
I don't. And I'm not sure it's fair to link the lack of success of the original titles with Simon at the time.
LucasArts had yet another commercial failure in December 2003, when it launched Planet Moon’s terrific Armed & Dangerous into an overcrowded marketplace. In retrospect, do you think there was a sense of things coming to a head in terms of the studio’s financial situation?
It was definitely a tough time for LucasArts. The landscape had changed a lot and the company was trying hard to find a new identity that would carry it forward beyond the obvious rallying around the Star Wars license.
At that point, LucasArts was being run by a group of managers who were acting as a sort of interim presidential body. It was this group that cancelled Sam & Max 2 despite the fact that it was nearing completion (you’ve described the game as 80% complete). How did word come down? How do you remember the announcement? Was there any opportunity to fight for the game, or was it just an unceremonious dispatch?
It was one meeting. They called us all in to a conference room and told us they were pulling the plug on the project. It was presented as not a reflection of our effort but more a reality of where the games market was at. I think the managers who delivered the news were legitimately sincere about how sorry they were but it still felt like a horrible gut punch at the time. It hurt to not have them support us all the way through to the end, regardless of what the market appeal was deemed to be.
The cancellation was incredibly abrupt from the fan perspective, but there could not have been much more warning internally. The game was cancelled in March 2004, and previews of the game shows up in the April 2004 issues of various magazines, so all signs point to a decision that was unanticipated. One April 2004 issue of a magazine even contained a LucasArts recruitment ad that featured the Sam & Max characters!
Yes, as I mentioned before, we all knew this was a reality hanging over us the entire time but it did feel unanticipated and abrupt when it happened.
The fan reaction to the cancellation was pretty bananas. Do you remember any of it?
Yeah! It was one of the few bright spots about such a bummer situation! It felt great that so many people felt so passionate about the project outside of LucasArts.
You were one of the earliest employees of Telltale, part of that wave of folks that either left or were let go from LucasArts after Sam & Max 2. Would you say the death of that project directly caused Telltale Games, or were the two events less interrelated than has become lore?
I think it certainly hurried along the formation of Telltale, yes. I'm pretty certain Telltale would have formed eventually regardless but that event helped it along to happen.
Was getting the Sam & Max license an ambition by Telltale from day one? I know there was a matter of waiting out the expiration of the license LucasArts had on Sam & Max.
I'm sure it was a hope but it certainly wasn't a guarantee by any stretch. We had to focus on what we could do with what we had at the time.
Was there a sense of closure when Sam & Max: Season 1 got released, since there was a lot of overlap between the teams?
I'm sure there was. For certain.
I was always sad that the Bone series was not seen through, especially after The Great Cow Race felt like such a big jump from Out from Boneville. Was that just down to Telltale not having the resources to juggle multiple projects at the time, or were there other reasons? Are you looking forward to the upcoming feature film?
By the time The Great Cow Race was under production I had left to work at Laika. David Bogan took over as creative director and I'm sure a big reason The Great Cow Race was so good had a lot to do with him taking the reins. I don't know the exact reasons that Bone didn't continue at Telltale but I'm so happy for Jeff Smith that there's finally going to be a feature film.
Like a lot of disillusioned LucasArts fans, I was following early Telltale with great interest. I remember the original web site, and your Dank the Caveman comics. At one point (I forget the context) you guys shared a picture of a Dank fully modeled in 3D, but he was never used for anything public-facing. Was he meant to appear in a game at some point?
We had certainly toyed with the idea but Telltale started taking off and went in so many new directions that Dank stayed as just a comic strip.
When did you leave Telltale and why?
I left Telltale at the end of 2005. I would never have left but the double opportunity of storyboarding on a feature film (Coraline) and moving to Portland, Oregon was too much to pass up for me at the time. And the fact that Dave Bogan was going to step into my role, I knew that Telltale would be left in good hands artistically.
Do you own Nelson Tethers now? I was curious how that worked, especially with Telltale being liquidated.
What are you up to these days?
I continue to work as a story artist at Laika Studios up in Portland, Oregon. I've been here since their first film, Coraline, and have stuck around ever since. I was lucky enough to co-direct their third feature film, The Boxtrolls back in 2014. Outside of Laika, I've created a series of graphic novels for early readers about two sloths, Peter & Ernesto, which has been a lot of fun and is actually up for an Eisner award this year. Oh! And I've been doing a daily doodle every day for the last 5 years on my Instagram account (grickle14) for anyone who's missing seeing Puzzle Agent/Grickle style artwork in their life.
What do you think the legacy of Sam & Max 2 is? While it isn’t necessarily spoken of in this context, it seems to me almost an inciting incident in the digital revolution that would come in its wake with Telltale, the rise of crowdfunded adventure games, and the general shift toward leveraging direct access to a loyal fan base to make niche games a plausible business proposition. If you look at it as a timeline, the assassination of Sam & Max 2 is sort of the Franz Ferdinand flashpoint moment.
Ha. I suppose you could say that. Time will tell. The internet is an impossible place to predict.
In retrospect, it seems clear that whatever voices were trying to convince LucasArts management to explore digital delivery with Freelance Police knew what they were talking about. Do you think that this idea was too ahead of its time for the powers that be?
If it had been discussed I'm sure it was too sketchy for management to get on board with at the time. It's really hard to convince folks of new things when there's no proven data or history to back up the choice.
Sam & Max 2 seemed to signal the end of LucasArts as a development studio. There would be a few more presidents and a few more half-hearted attempts at revitalizing in-house production, but those efforts always reversed, and the way the company ultimately just became a licensing house seems somehow ordained to me after those turn-of-the-century business decisions. Do you think things might have gone differently?
Yeah, the forces at play seemed to set a pretty predictable path for LucasArts after that point. If any of the original IP titles had been lucky enough to be a hit in those early 2000's then maybe a slightly different course could have been mapped out, but the pull of the Star Wars license is a tough thing to ignore.
While the various studios that have developed games for them are gone, there’s a certain durability to Sam & Max as characters. I was just reading that Purcell will debuting a new strip to commemorate the release of some new collectible Sam & Max figurines. They’re still kicking, humbly but reliably. Do you see a future for them in the interactive space?
Sure. I'd never count out Sam & Max. Or really anything that Steve Purcell can come up with! Steve's the reason Sam & Max endures and probably always will.