- 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 March 2020.
When did you join LucasArts, and what was the first project you worked on?
I started at LucasArts in 2000, as a global resource for Maya development. The first game project I worked on was Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds.
You served as Technical Director on a number of LucasArts titles. What responsibilities did that position entail?
It was an Art TD position, where I oversaw the art pipeline to the game engine. Ensuring the artists have the tech they need, writing tools, organizing data, overseeing rigging, building render pipelines, etc. Liaison between the art department and the engineering department.
What was your relationship with the LucasArts catalog prior to joining the company? Were you familiar with their adventure games?
I grew up playing all the classics. I played Sierra games as well but LucasArts titles were my favorites. I started with Monkey Island and played them all. Those games are why I pursued a career at LucasArts.
You joined the studio the same year Simon Jeffery was appointed president. During Jeffery’s tenure, LucasArts pledged to re-invest in original IP, and it was during this period 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 after years of almost solely Star Wars games?
For sure. The company needed the right balance of Star Wars and “original IP” to be healthy. Maybe the games wouldn’t make as much money, but the adventure games were part of the company’s legacy.
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 definitely pushed to work on S&M 2 and Full Throttle 2. I can’t remember the circumstances of the other projects.
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?
In terms of shipped games, RTX was my favorite to work on. It was a great team and the project was doing some innovative things, technically and design wise. There was nothing shipped during my tenure that I wanted to work on that I didn’t get a chance to. I, of course, would have loved to work on the classic adventure games but I was still in middle school. After I left in 2004, LucasArts really didn’t ship much.
How did you get involved with Sam & Max 2?
I heard it was happening and I made sure I was on it.
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?”
I was very excited. I didn’t mind the Star Wars work though.
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 don’t remember this very well. There was something unique about the distribution.
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?
I believe it was an evolution. There were many reasons why Telltale went with episodic, it was core to the studio.
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 don’t recall, I wasn’t necessarily privy to that anyway.
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?
Our team was already familiar with making 3D games, so it wasn’t a big deal.
Steve Purcell’s universe and the Star Wars universe are two very different things, and you’ve played in both sandboxes. What sorts of technical art challenges and possibilities are unique to the former?
Building cartoony characters with very animated faces can be challenging. So are realistic faces but in a different way. It’s generally more fun to build art for a stylized game.
Can you talk a little bit about the art team? Who did you work with?
On S&M2 – Derek Sakai, Chris Voy, Karen Purdy, and Graham Annable for sure… beyond that my memory gets muddied as to who was on S&M2 vs FT2.
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?
Well, its 3D. Also the mini-games required more programming effort.
What do you remember about the storyline of Sam & Max 2 that you can share? Details remain fairly elusive.
I don’t remember the story very well. I remember some of the mini-games.
What were your day-to-day responsibilities on the project? Did you have any creative input?
Building Art Tech and pipelines. Managing rigging. Helping out the artists. I had no creative input besides advising as to what parts of the design were technically challenging.
The original titles that were released during Jeffery’s run – RTX: Red Rock, Gladius, Armed and 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 on the struggles the studio had with the original releases? Was it the quality of the games? Marketing fumbles? Plain old bad luck?
Full Throttle 2 had some quality issues and was dragging. It still had a chance to get on track though, it just wasn’t given that chance. It’s easy to market Star Wars and there’s a large dedicated fan base. Those other games had some good qualities, they just couldn’t necessarily find the audience, or the audience didn’t find the games…
Can you speak a little bit about RTX: Red Rock, which was Hal Barwood’s last project at LucasArts?
RTX had a great team. We enjoyed what we were building together. I remember some rough times but overall it was positive and we released an interesting product. I enjoyed working with Hal.
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 recall working with Sean in the S&M2 pit after Throttle was cancelled, but I don’t remember in what capacity exactly.
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?
I really have no idea.
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?
My impression was always that George didn’t pay LucasArts much attention, besides that I have no insight.
Was Simon Jeffery forced out, in your opinion?
If I did have any thoughts on that, I have forgotten them all.
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?
It was smooth. I owe that to Kevin’s technology plan, Dan’s production plan, and a team of great artists. Kevin and I learned from our past projects at LucasArts and focused on tech that was user friendly and built for rapid/smooth development. S&M 2’s downfall was purely due to upper management’s perception of market place realities.
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?
I think we were wary after FT2 was canned, but SM2 was a better product and so close to completion. It seemed silly to cancel it.
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 can’t recall.
What did you make of the decision?
The fan reaction was pretty bananas. Do you remember any of it?
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 left later in the year, once Telltale was ready to get going.
Do you have any media from Sam & Max 2 after all these years?
Like other members of the Freelance Police team, you joined up with Telltale. What motivated you to go there?
Was burned by the two projects I wanted to work on being cancelled and the future of LucasArts seemed pretty grim. Starting the company with Kevin & Dan was an exciting opportunity.
How was your role on the Telltale Sam & Max games the same or different compared to your role on Freelance Police?
Since Telltale was a much smaller company, I wore more hats in the early days. Such as I did some of the character models and much of the VFX, on top of my usual TD duties.
Each Telltale season looked better than the last, and with The Devil’s Playhouse it felt like 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
We continually made improvements to the shaders. Bringing in more experienced and talented artists also helped. The animation system and general performance of the Tool was improved every iteration (but you wouldn’t always know it based on what we shipped).
What are you up to these days?
I finished up WD4 with the Still Not Bitten team. Doing some contract work for various games companies. Doing some teaching.
Anything else you want to share about Sam & Max 2?
I hope somehow, someday, people are able to play it (though it will look rather dated).