- 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 February 2020.
When did you join LucasArts, and what was the first project you worked on there?
I started in QA at LucasArts in January of 1996. My first projects were Mike Stemmle’s Afterlife and Mortimer and the Riddles of the Medallion.
Did you have a relationship with LucasArts graphic adventure games before joining the company?
Absolutely. The first LucasArts game I ever bought was Monkey Island 2, and from there I was hooked. I played them all, but especially love the Monkey Island games, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle. One of the reasons I got hired was that I was able to get Throttle to run on my old 386 PC.
Based on your credits, you came up at LucasArts through Quality Assurance before migrating to programming roles. I know Dan Connors also started in testing before taking on production responsibilities. Was it a common gateway at the studio?
Yeah, definitely. It was pretty common to start in QA and move into other departments. LucasArts also had a program in place that would pay for classes and books if you wanted to improve your skill set. That’s how I got started in programming.
The late 90s saw the build-up and arrival of The Phantom Menace, which naturally took up a lot of the air in the Lucasfilm empire. What impact, positive or negative, would you say this had on the priorities at LucasArts?
I think that the prequels and the shift toward making Star Wars titles almost exclusively had a lot to do with the demise of the LucasArts adventure game. There was still interest within the studio in making more adventures, but after Grim Fandango, nearly all of our resources were allocated to making Star Wars games, and management didn’t seem to be interested in doing anything else.
What is your take on what Jeffery was trying to do, namely his plan to supplement Star Wars titles with more original titles and revived legacy IP?
When Simon took over, I feel like the studio was starting to become a much more positive place to work again. People were excited about working on something other than Star Wars. I think his plan was a good one, in that it would allow more original, more creative thinking within the studio, without the pressure of constantly creating blockbuster titles, because Star Wars would keep the lights on.
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?”
There was definitely a sense of excitement about working on something other than Star Wars, but I started on Sam & Max after the demise of Full Throttle 2, so for me it was a little bittersweet, at least to start. I got over that initial skepticism pretty quickly, though, after seeing what the team was doing and how dedicated they were.
What was your title on Full Throttle 2, and what day-to-day responsibilities did it entail? What was the extent of your creative input? Ditto for Sam & Max 2.
I was a gameplay programmer on both projects. On Throttle I also did some work on the art pipeline. I wouldn’t say I had a lot of creative input on either of the projects, though of course gameplay programming always involves at least some creative thinking, both in the interpretation of the design and in how it’s implemented.
The narrative that emerged was that Full Throttle 2 was cancelled for quality reasons, while Sam & Max 2 was cancelled less as a judgment of the project and instead as the result of panic about the marketability of the adventure genre. Would you agree with that?
From my point of view, Throttle was something of a money pit… we had a lot of people working on it, but progress seemed to be very slow. I don’t think it was a quality issue. Sam & Max was cancelled because, we we’re told, it just wasn’t marketable. I think this was an indication of the lack of vision on the part of the new management more than anything else.
Had it come out, Sam & Max 2 would have been LEC’s first point ‘n click 3D adventure game, after the direct control approach of Grim Fandango and Escape from Monkey Island. It also would have been the studio’s first real-time 3D adventure game. Is there anything you can say about the game’s engine, since we never saw it in action? In particular, how did it compare to the Telltale Tool? By appearances, Freelance Police would have played similarly to the early Telltale games, but all we have to go on are a few screenshots.
Since Kevin Bruner was the lead engineer on Sam & Max, he of course had a lot to do with the engine design and the tools we used. He brought that knowledge and experience to Telltale, so naturally the Telltale Tool had similarities to the Sam & Max engine. But Kevin took what he knew and really ran with it, so those similarities became mostly superficial as the engine developed.
Is there a favorite sequence, puzzle, or line that stands out in your memory?
I was working on a marbles mini-game that featured young Bernard and Hogie. I thought it was pretty cool, and working with those characters was very rewarding for me. It was exactly like the marbles game I played as a kid, where you use a “shooter” marble to knock the “ducks” out of a ring made of string.
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 think that’s a given. We went from having president who cared about creativity to someone who was only concerned with numbers.
Mike Stemmle once described Freelance Police 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? Would you contend that the problems Sam & Max 2 fell victim to were exclusively external?
Yeah, I would have to agree with that. Things were progressing smoothly and the team was fantastic. If there were internal problems, I wasn’t aware of them.
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 don’t recall hearing anything directly about the project being in danger, and I was assured repeatedly that my job was secure, but I remember feeling very dubious about what we were being told after Simon left.
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 was told in a meeting with my supervisor. I don’t think anyone was given the chance to fight for the game.
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 think the cancellation was just the final nail in the coffin. The people running the company were interested in making money, not games. I don’t mean to imply that making money isn’t desirable, just that it shouldn’t be the driving force in any creative endeavor.
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?
Only a couple of days, I think. After the cancellation, I was again assured that my job was secure, but I think I knew by then this was bullshit. When the axe came down, we were only given a short time to pack our stuff before being escorted from the building.
Like others on the Freelance Police team, you were an early employee of Telltale. How did that come about?
Dan called me up and asked me to come work for Telltale not long after they started to get things going. When I started, they had just opened up the first office (it still smelled like wet paint). I have fond memories of putting my desk together that first day.
Before Sam & Max, Telltale had the Bone license. What prevented that adaptation from continuing after two episodes?
Well, Sam & Max happened. I know a few of us were still interested in continuing Bone, but I don’t recall it ever being seriously considered; there were just too many other things going on.
Was there a sense of vindication or closure when Telltale released Sam & Max: Season 1 to success?
Did you notice the date on the cardboard box in Sam & Max’s office? Sure there was. We did what they said couldn’t be done, and that felt pretty great.
How did your role on Sam & Max 2 differ from your responsibilities on the Telltale Sam & Max games?
I was still the gameplay guy, but I also got to work on the engine and had a lot more input into the creative side of things. Working with Brendan Ferguson was really great; he has a wonderful sense of humor, and was always interested in listening to what the team had to say.
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 on for eight years after that. Was there any talk of a fourth season during that time?
There was some talk of making a Christmas special, among other things, but I don’t recall any serious discussion about making a 4th season.
Do you see a future for Sam & Max at another game studio?
Absolutely. The fan base is certainly there. A new Sam & Max adventure could be a thing, given the right backing and the right team.
If I'm not mistaken, you have the distinction of having had worked at Telltale from pretty much the very beginning all the way to the end. How would you describe the early, humble days of Telltale?
It was very exciting in those early days, and there was a lot of optimism in the air about what we were doing. It was also a struggle, but we managed to keep things going against long odds.
What are you up to these days?
I can’t say much about that, but I’m really excited about what I’m working on and hope to be able to talk more about it soon!