The Unabridged History of Sam & Max 2 Interview Round-up Derek Sakai, Lead Artist

Interview conducted March 2019.

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

I originally joined LucasArts in 1996. I was initially hired as an animator to work on The Curse of Monkey Island, but I just caught the tail end of helping wrap up the cutscenes for the game Outlaws before moving onto CMI.

What was your relationship with the LucasArts catalog prior to joining the company? Were you familiar with their adventure games?

The first LucasArts game I played was Day of the Tentacle and I was instantly hooked. I still remember my college roommates and I crowded around a monitor laughing and yelling solutions to the puzzles.

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?

Being part of the Lucas family during that time was absolutely amazing. There was a lot of excitement surrounding the prequel trilogy and that carried on beyond anything I've ever experienced to this day. But despite spending so many years at LucasArts I actually worked on very little Star Wars. In fact I only helped out on a few cutscenes for Knights of the Old Republic 2 and The Force Unleashed.

In early 2000, Simon Jeffery was appointed president, replacing Jack Sorenson. 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 believe it could have been a step in the right direction for the company, but I think Lucasarts at that point was set up to sell blockbusters and just wasn't prepared to handle a smaller IP on the scale of Sam & Max.

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”?

It was more a case of what project was the best fit for your individual skill set which for me luckily always ended up aligning with projects I wanted to work on anyways.

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?

I really enjoyed working on The Curse of Monkey Island as it was one of the last projects that I ever worked on that involved traditional animation production. There were definitely some late nights hunched over a light table, but it really was an experience I will never forget. The one project that I really wanted to work on but couldn't was Grim Fandango. Ever since Day of the Tentacle I had always wanted to work on a project with Tim Schafer.

How did you get involved with Sam & Max 2?

I had left Lucasarts in 2000 and I was actually back in Canada working for another company when I was presented with the position of Lead Artist on Sam & Max 2. There was no way I was going to pass on the opportunity to return to see my friends again and get to work on a sequel to a classic Lucasarts adventure game title.

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?

I wasn't involved with any discussion around digital distribution for the game, but it is possible that it was being considered.

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 ramifications did that have on your end of things?

Since I had just started back at LucasArts at that point it really didn't have any ramifications on my end as everything seemed new again for me.

Steve Purcell’s universe and the Star Wars universe are two very different things, and you’ve played in both sandboxes. What sorts of art challenges and possibilities are unique to the former?

The biggest challenges that come from working on a license with comic book source material is the interpretation of going from 2D to 3D. Often in 2D the characters are only drawn from flattering angles with strong silhouettes and cheated forms. When the characters can roam around freely in 3D it is not as easy to retain that visual design appeal from all angles.

Can you talk a little bit about the art team? Who did you work with?

(It's been such a long time that I can't remember everyone's names but I'll do my best) Steve Purcell did the Character Designs...Chris Voy was the Lead Environment Artist...Graham Annabelle was the Animation Lead...Joe White and Karin Nestor were animators...Kathy Hsieh and Eddie Del Rio worked on Environment concepts...Derek Becker and I think David Ryan Paul worked on the Character models.

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

Mostly I was the responsible for coordinating and maintaining the look of the game. I worked closely with Mike and Steve on pre-production and then communicated their vision to the rest of the Art Team during production.

Steve Purcell was at Pixar by this point, but I understand he had a consulting role on the game. Did he have any interaction with the art team?

Steve was great to work with and supplied the character designs for the project and gave feedback on getting the Sam & Max models dialed in.

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?

The team really did gel well right from the get-go. I truly believe it was the motivating factor as to why many of the team continued to work together again under Telltale Games.

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 came into work one morning and it was pretty much "This is what's happening". I had no idea leading up to that point that there was even any discussion of the project being potentially cancelled.

What did you make of the decision?

I just remember being very disappointed since we were so close to being done and couldn't really understand at the time why such a drastic decision was being made so suddenly.

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

I do remember the backlash and petition that started from the announcement. I was really touched by all the support from the fans and it helped give some meaning to all the hard work our team had put in during a difficult time at the company.

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 remained at Lucasarts until 2008 where I worked mostly on the never released PC version of "Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings.

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

I think I have a copy of the E3 trailer video somewhere...

Like other members of the Freelance Police team, you joined up with Telltale. What motivated you to go there?

The most substantial motivating factor was that Telltale was comprised of talented people that I had worked closely with in the past that I trusted and shared a common vision with.

How was your role on the Telltale Sam & Max games the same or different compared to your role on Freelance Police?

At Telltale the only Sam & Max season I was only involved with was The Devil's Playhouse, which was handed off to me from the very talented Pete Tsacle. My role on the project was essentially the same except that I started from the ground up on Freelance Police.

Each Telltale season looked better than the last, and with The Devil’s Playhouse the tech had improved to the point where you guys were really able to nail the universe of the comics. What sorts of enhancements to the Telltale Tool allowed for this progression?

On the art production side of things it was mostly improved real-time and baked lighting/shadow tech that allowed us to take things up a notch.

What are you up to these days?

I was part of the unfortunate Telltale Games shutdown last year. After spending a few months brushing up on the latest 3D production software that I had been putting off, I just recently landed a job with FreeRange Games.

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