The Unabridged History of Sam & Max 2 Interview Round-up Richard Sun, Programmer

Interview conducted June 2019.

When did you join LucasArts? How old were you?

  1. I was fresh out of school, so 21 I guess.

Were you familiar with the studio’s catalog before joining the company?

Yes, of course! I had played a large percentage of them over the years.

Your first credited project at the studio seems to be Escape from Monkey Island, where your role is listed under programming/design/writing. What were your day-to-day responsibilities on the project like?

This was my first job out of school, and it was so much fun. Generally speaking, myself and another programmer, Ryan Danz, scripted together the entirety of the content of the game, working with other programmers working on the core tech and engine. The two of us had a pretty wide range of responsibilities, but the core of it was coding room, puzzle, and mechanics code in Lua. We also painted up layering for room backgrounds, created walking areas, and more. One of the most entertaining parts was that for everything that wasn't the main story path, which was authored by the game directors, Mike Stemmle and Sean Clark, Ryan and I had a ton of freedom to add in whatever random extra objects you could look at or interact with, and write dialog lines and jokes for when you did that. We also contributed to game design and mechanics ideas.

One of the most magical moments of my life is the first time hearing a voice actor's reading of a dialog line I wrote (and it being pretty decent). It's such a cool feeling that first time.

Were you a fan of the Monkey Island series before you made a contribution to it?

Definitely! I love hilarious, goofy stuff.

What sort of challenges and opportunities came with the jump from 2D to 3D, as far as the Monkey Island universe is concerned?

Well, as this was the first thing I worked on in games, I didn't have a lot of context to compare to, and for the most part, I've spent most of my career building games in 3D. However, we weren't the first to do this in adventure games, as we were following in the footsteps that Grim Fandango had tread before it, so we weren't starting from scratch.

What was it like working with Mike Stemmle and Sean Clark?

Super fun. Both are fun loving souls, and full of humor and laughter. I got along great with both right away. It's been a while, but I still see and hang out with Sean a bit when I see him at GDC and other game events. I credit Sean as the person who introduced me to gin and tonics as a delicious refreshing beverage. =D

It seems like you would have joined LEC at a time of transition. The turn of the century saw console platforms come into dominance, and LucasArts was doubling down on Star Wars games to capitalize on the prequels. What was your perspective on the company’s identity during this period?

I was too young at the time to recognize the business and company culture complexities of what was going on. But looking back, I like to joke that I was part of LEC "gen 3." In general, reflecting back, I feel like the company went through cycles of flipping what it wanted to prioritize. I don't know what the truth of it is to be honest, but it feels like it would flop between "why aren't we being more original and creative? Do more original IP! GO!!". then after a couple years "why aren't we losing so much money? We should be leveraging our platinum IP strength, why aren't we doing that? Star Wars and Indiana Jones!!! GOOO!!".

When I first joined and for the first several years, there was a lot of focus on original content, and tbh I tried to get myself on those original IP games, as I liked the adventure of it all.

At the beginning of 2000, longtime president Jack Sorenson stepped down and was replaced by Simon Jeffery, who attempted to steer the company into investing in more original IP as well as legacy properties. What did you think about this plan?

I was too young to have a perspective, and Jack and I only overlapped by a tiny bit. But as I mentioned, I quite like working on original IPs.

How did you get involved with Sam & Max: Freelance Police? What was your title on the project?

After finishing the unfortunate RTX: Red Rock, I was going to be assigned to another project one way or another. I've always loved Sam & Max, and was one of my all time favorite adventure games. The insane humor just resonates so well with me. I remember trying to sell my placement on the team, and ultimately I did. I was a programmer on the project.

The project reunited you with Mike, though Sean, the other co-lead of Sam & Max Hit the Road, was assigned to Full Throttle 2. What other members of the team do you remember?

Of course there was Kevin Bruner and Dan Connors, who led the project as lead programmer and exec producer alongside Mike as director. They, needless to say, went off to found Telltale and had an illustrious run there. A bunch of team members followed them there then or shortly after. Including Randy Tudor, Jon Sgro, Joe White, Karen Petersen, Derek Sakai who I saw recently, and many others.

Nate Schaumberg was also part of this team, whom I later worked a ton with more at Planet Moon. There was Graham Annable, our lead animator, who went on to do amazing work at Laika as well as more games along the way. I'm certainly forgetting to name numerous other great people, but it was a great team.

Had it come out, the game would have been LucasArts’ first real-time 3D adventure game, whereas their initial foray into 3D (Grim Fandango and Monkey Island 4) used pre-rendered environments. What do you remember about the brand new engine, which was never seen in action by the fans?

The full 3D was delightful and looked great. However, I remember the engine being more interesting as it was a different way to think about object and data driven content creation than I had seen before, and it was Kevin's vision for the tech to serve a way of building this type of content. While I have never seen the Telltale tech, I understand the principles and design of the system was very similar.

Escape from Monkey Island stands as the last LucasArts adventure game. How would Freelance Police have taken LucasArts adventures to the next step, had it come out? There were rumors about an intention to make things more accessible.

Hm. that's an interesting bit of trivia that I hadn't realized I had a part in. Lol So while it was fully 3D, it also ventured back to a more conventional point and click style, which ultimately in my opinion probably serves adventure games a bit better in the end. It was also a bit more episodic in nature, and had a bunch of minigames in the game with their own mechanics, and this is where a bit of innovation was happening. You can see today that episodic is where adventure games have evolved, which was largely frontiered by Telltale after LEC retreated from this market, so I think this vision turned out to be where the genre was going.

As far as "accessible" I'm not sure what that would mean, so I don't think I have much perspective on that.

Would you say the gameplay was similar to the Sam & Max games Telltale would put out a few years later? What about technical differences? I would imagine Telltale would have had fewer resources to work with in its earliest days compared to LucasArts.

Similar in that they're both point and click, but I'd say they wound up pretty different in content. Having not worked at Telltale I couldn't make any fair assessment about resources or whatnot. However, I'll cheekily claim that our game at LEC would have been better... both because I worked on it therefore I am biased, AND because it never came out so nobody can prove otherwise. MUAHAHA.

How big of a role did Steve Purcell have in the game’s production?

I don't remember too clearly, but I believe that he would consult and review stuff. He showed up a couple times at parties or whatnot, but he wasn't in the office with us or anything like that. I do have a Sam & Max poster that he signed that is hanging on my wall which i absolutely love.

I was able to speak with Mike Stemmle, who indicates that you were involved in the wiring up of at least some of the many mini-games. Do you remember the concepts of any of these mini-games? Were there really going to be nineteen of them? Do you remember how many got implemented before the plug was pulled?

I remember some. many never really got fully out of R&D/prototyping phase, and I wouldn't say all the ones I worked on were FUN yet. The 3 I remember working on off the top of my head were one where you were playing a giant game of cricket where Max was in this steel cage ball, and Sam was driving the cruiser, and you had to ram your car or the opponents cars and try to get the Max ball through the wickets. It was pretty hilarious. Getting the car physics to be wacky yet controllable was a challenge. Though now that I think about it, I just realized I made a simple single player Rocket League w/ AI opponents in the context of Sam and Max in 2003. holy crap. If only I had known.

There was another one where you basically had a simple Parappa style beat matching game in a school dance or something like that, which was pretty fun. And the last I remember is one where you're riding giant mechanized bunny ears and sort of American-gladiator thwacking at an opponent on the other bunny ear to try to get them to fall off. I can safely say I never got this one to be actually fun before it got canned.

Do you remember much about the story of the game?

Only vagueries. It's been a long time. But part of the episodic nature meant that each episode had a bit of a standalone case to solve, and I think I remember that there was a meta narrative that knit them all together. But generally, somebody calls in a mystery, you go to some crazy location and solve it, and there's some crazy thing that connects them all.

Did you have a favorite scene from the game?

It seems mundane but the scene I remember most is just their office. It's in every episode, and it's so just earnestly and delightfully Sam and Max's office. I'm sure if I could remember more i'd have a better answer, but i just loveSam & Max so much. lol

It is said that Freelance Police was conceived with the possibility of digital distribution in mind. Do you remember discussions about releasing the game’s six cases over the web, similar to what Telltale would go on to do?

Honestly, no, I don't remember much about this at that time.

At LucasArts, 2003 came to a close with some ominous developments, at least where non-Star Wars games were concerned. The troubled Full Throttle 2 was cancelled, and soon after Simon Jeffery stepped down, leaving the studio without a president for over six months. Do you have any insight or opinions on these internal events? Did it make the team nervous that Sam & Max could suffer the same fate as Full Throttle?

I don't remember the timing of these events relative to each other, but I do remember the demise of Full Throttle II. I think partway into the project we were all feeling the danger, but we tried to persevere and hope for the best. The game was shaping up and was clearly going to be a great adventure game. The minigames were some of the bigger risks, but hadn't been incubating that long yet.

Do you think things might have been different had Simon remained?

Again I can't remember the timing but maybe?

I have intermittently kept in touch with Simon, though I've never asked him about this. Maybe I should some day.

Do you think the commercial performances of the studio’s original games at that time – RTX: Red Rock, Gladius, Armed & Dangerous and Wrath Unleashed – had any bearing on the fate of Sam & Max 2?

I don't know for sure, but I can't see how it wouldn't have at least indirectly. As I mentioned, I perceived the company would seem to realize one year that it was losing gobs of money, and double down on strong IPs and defund original stuff. So I can imagine a company wanting to risk mitigate if a strategy wasn't paying off. However, this wasn't the story at the time. It was more simply that the company believed that based on research it had done that the adventure game market was dead and no money was there to be made. Ironically, Telltale and others proved there was a market out there.

Whether or not it was big enough for LEC to be interested, I'm sure I wouldn't be able to say with much confidence.

The game was cancelled in March 2004, which was something like eighteen months after it was announced. Previews of the game showed up in April and May magazine issues, suggesting that the decision was abrupt. Is that your memory?

Semi-abrupt. I remember that we actually survived an extra couple months because when the brass took a look they kind of said "oh crap, this is actually pretty damn cool... maybe we should rethink". and then decided to kill it anyways.

How was the cancellation announced to the team? How did the team react? Was there any attempt to lobby for a reversal?

The leadership of the team brought it to the rest of the team is what I remember. Everybody was pretty bummed out. Shortly after a bunch of people quit many of which to go form Telltale, so there you go.

I remember there was a public attempt to try to revive it. Somebody made a "save max!" t-shirt w/ max holding a bazooka. I own one of these. =D

What do you remember about how far along the game was?

Umm. I think the tech and tools were getting pretty mature, contentwise I'd say maybe... 25-30%? but I can't quite remember too clearly.

Did you have any awareness of the fan reaction? It was pretty bananas.

See above about t-shirts. =)

Telltale was formed almost immediately by members of the team, quickly swelled its numbers with additional LucasArts veterans, and made a deal with Steve Purcell for the Sam & Max license. Did it give you any satisfaction or closure when Telltale proved that Sam & Max games could be successful when LucasArts, by implication, thought otherwise?

I honestly didn't really think of it that way, so I guess I'd have to say "no" but it's not to be taken negatively. I was a bit worried that Telltale wasn't going to work out, so I'm glad it did for when it did, but mostly because of the various people who were there, less so for some sense of justice or anything like that. For me, closure wasn't there to be had, as I tend to put a lot of myself into what I'm building, so THAT product has never come to be, even if a different incarnation exists through Telltale's efforts.

I also don't view that Telltale's success in the area meant that Lucasarts would have been. It's not just that they're adventure games, it was the approach, the business model, etc. It's too hard to say if it would have played out the same if LEC had continued on.

What do you think the legacy of the cancelled game is? Do you think it foretold the digital revolution that would happen for adventure games?

The legacy is, frankly, simply Telltale (which now sadly has it's own post humus legacy). Foretelling isn't really relevant, as it suggests some people saw what was coming that then became manifested unavoidably. In contrast, Dan and Kevin, for all their strengths and weaknesses, went out and made their vision for the space a reality, and a market grew around their vision. There's also more than 1 part to that. Digital was going to happen regardless, and many people saw this coming. Episodic, and ongoing interest in narrative driven gaming was the more interesting part of the vision, and continues to hold true as a space people are interested in.

Do you have any Freelance Police artifacts still lying around?

I'm not telling and you can't make me. ;)

I did mention a poster, which I cherish.

What are you up to these days?

Since Lucasarts, I worked at Planetmoon for a bunch of years (having slid over there loving Armed & Dangerous and Giants), then ran a small game company I co-founded with Planet Moon founder Nick Bruty. Then a short stint at the tail end of Kabam. And currently for the last couple years, working on VR social experiences at Facebook. (which as it turns out still has a lot of relevance to games).

I still try my best to be a ridiculous human and like to find ways to make people laugh.

Any other particular anecdotes or memories about the project you care to share?

Sadly, I can't think of anything. I'm old and my memory is failing. lol.

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