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LucasArts' Secret History: Maniac Mansion: Gary Winnick interview, co-project leader

29 Jan, 2008

Any LucasArts adventure game fan owes a lot to Maniac Mansion. It's the game that put LucasArts on the map and began a forumla for producing unique locations, weird story lines, interesting characters, and of course, an interface without typing. Recently, we conducted an interview with co-project leader and lead artist for this twisted classic. Here is your chance to learn more about the minds that teamed up a murderous meteor with talking tentacles and a nymphomaniac nurse.

Thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this interview. First of all, why don't you introduce yourself and give us a little information on your background?
Well... I've been in the art, animation, game and content development business for the last twenty five years . My professional career began in 1976, when I traveled from California to New York with three artist friends Frank Cirocco, Brent Anderson and Tony Salmons. Frank and I ended up working at 'Continuity Associates' the studio of Neal Adams a well known comic book artist. We were there for about six months, upon our return to California Frank and I opened our own free lance studio in San Jose, 'Horizon Zero Graphiques'. We continued our association until I took a full time job as an artist/animator for the home computer division of Atari. After that I went to work at Lucasfilm Games, first as an artist, then art director and finally project leader. I was at Lucas for nine years before moving on to become the art director of Spectrum Holobyte. After leaving Spectrum I became a designer at Orbital Studios, a contract game development group I co-founded. Today I'm a partner in Lightsource Studios a free-lance art and animation company located in the bay area. I'm married and have three wonderful children, two boys and a girl.

Let's look back in the early 1980's when you started working at Atari. How difficult was it to go from illustrating comic books to creating art with just a few, large pixels?
Certainly in those days moving from traditional art and animation mediums was pretty challenging. Everything was more limited, the size of pixels were bigger, you had less of them to work with in fewer colors. I remember it was a big jump to go from four or five colors on the C-64 to a whole sixteen on the IBM PC! Of course we also had fewer total frames to devote to animation. You have to remember the kind of memory those computers had, going from 64K to 128K was a big deal. The ability to design something recognizable in few pixels and colors was reduced to creating fairly iconic straight on images (robots and brick walls are relatively easy) it was always hard to do anything at an angle. Motion could be made to look passable if you figured out the right combination of frames. When something moves more naturally you can fool the eye with a series of frames as opposed to individual bit maps that don't work well as single images. Color was also a big issue getting more colors to use and anti aliasing was a real help. Today's cheapest desktop machines blow away the highest end graphics machines we had for pretty much the entire time I was at Lucas.

When you were employed at Atari, what games did you work on? Anything well known?
That seems like a pretty long time ago... my recollection might be a little fuzzy. I was only there for about seven months. While at Atari the main product I remember being involved with was game based on the Superman III movie. You know the one with Christopher Reeve and Richard Pryor. At the time Warner Brothers owned Atari and it was a film based tie in product for the Atari 800 computer. It was pretty simplistic by today's standards. There was an evil computer in the middle of a scrolling playfield, the computer was this boxy orange thing with a face on it. There were various cities placed around it on the playfield and the computer would send out electrical probes that sucked power from the cities. The player as Superman had to fly around this scrolling background using heat vision to destroy the probes before they drained all of a city's power, otherwise the city caught on fire and melted. What happened is the movie came out before the game was completed and didn't do as well as they expected, so they killed the project. I remember a couple of other preliminary products, an animated puzzle for kids that never came out and some stuff for a proposed Wizard of Oz game. I worked exclusively on graphics for the 800, everything used character set based backgrounds overlaid with animated sprites.

What was it like working in the computer game industry when it was still in its infancy?
It didn't seem like it was in its' infancy although by today's standards it must look that way. When I first started out the most successful computer games were adaptations of action arcade games. Infocom was doing text based parser driven games. The industry was very cyclic going through extreme peaks and crashes such as VCS and 8 bit Nintendo gaming systems which the computer game industry emulated on a smaller scale. We were constantly looking at emerging new hardware and trying to second guess what was going to be the next big platform stuff like the Amiga or 3D0.

So in January of 1984, you were employed as the only graphic artist at the newly formed computer game division of LucasFilm. How did you get that job?
Charlie Kellner, a friend of mine who had been working at Apple became the fourth or fifth employee in the division. At that point they were all primarily software engineers and decided it was time to hire an artist/animator. Charlie thought of me and arranged a meeting with Peter Langston (the then head of the division) David Fox (Rescue on Fractalus) and Dave Levine (Ballblazer) at Siggraph to show them my portfolio. I met them for a follow up interview at their offices in San Rafael, I think they offered me a full time job a few weeks later.

What was the atmosphere like at LucasFilm Games when it was just starting out? Was it hard work? Did you guys have fun?
It was both, hard work and fun, before I had a family or any other type of life we all ate, slept and breathed computer games. In those days I felt I was working for the coolest company on the planet sandwiched in between ILM and Pixar. Every day was an adventure surrounded by some of the most innovative talent in computer graphics, science and motion pictures. Lucasfilm was a place everyone wanted to be, everyone gave 110%. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

Maniac Mansion was a very bizarre, twisted, and outrageous game. I can only assume this was reflected by the personality of the people designing the game. Were you guys just as bizarre and twisted at the office? Did you goof off a lot while putting hamsters in the office microwave?
For us there was certainly a sense of fun, creativity and challenge, Ron and I were thrilled to be designing our own game. We definitely had a sense of the kind of story and humor we wanted. The overall genre of twisted comedy was something that really appealed to us. We were big consumers of that medium, books, films, television, music, games and toys. Ron and I wanted to develop a cast of characters and situations that could work together, the more bizarre and strange the better. The characters we developed embody many highly parodied personality traits of various people we knew. Some of the situations and related puzzles are very exaggerated twisted versions of events we either experienced or heard about from friends, or just plain made up (however no hamsters died in the making of this game).

What was it like working with Ron Gilbert, who is now considered by some to be a legend due to his Monkey Island games?
He's certainly one of the most talented programmer, designer, storytellers I've ever met. Ron's a perfectionist and helps instill that desire and attention to detail in everyone on the team. Ron likes to work and play hard, he's driven to make any project he's involved with the best it can be. On top of that we share the same 'twisted' sense of humor.

What did you think of Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman's sequel, Maniac Mansion 2: Day of the Tentacle?
I think they did a great job maintaining the integrity of the original characters, concept and feel, Ron and I were involved in many of the early brainstorming sessions. The advances in hardware on the PC gave us much greater latitude. On the art side we were able to have beautifully designed Peter Chan backgrounds and really cool animation by Larry, Anson and Lela (I hope I'm not leaving anyone out). Tim and Dave also had the bizarre sense of humor, creative and technical ability necessary to create a credible sequel that I'm certainly impressed by.

In 1992, you worked on Defenders of Dynatron City with Steve Purcell, who is very well known for his Sam and Max comics. What was it like working on this project with Steve?
Steve is someone I'm still in touch with, we've continued working together on a variety of projects. Steve is probably on of the most talented artists I've ever met, working with him was really fun. He could take any rough concept we came up with just an idea or rough sketch and transform it into an amazing finished drawing. On top of that he can write and not just story treatments but dialogue, witty, insane, hilarious dialogue. All you have to do is look at Sam and Max and you know what I mean.

Defenders of Dynatron City went on to become an animated TV series as well as a comic book. What was it like to see a project you worked on spread into other forms of media? Were you involved at all in its development?
In this case it was pretty cool because Lucasarts was the licenser to both DIC (the producer of the show) and to Marvel on the comic. As such, given the status of the company we pretty much retained creative control. Most people who take a story property to other mediums usually don't have the opportunity to exert that level of control over the product. Lucasarts was very supportive of my vision and I was allowed to pretty much direct our interactions with the studio. In the case of the comic book my involvement was even more hands on as I was good friends with and involved in getting Steve Purcell to agree to write the comic and Frank Cirocco to draw it. I also co-plotted some of the issues with Steve, Marvel pretty much gave us a free hand. Although both projects were short lived I was pretty happy with the outcome from a creative point of view. My main criticism of the pilot show was we never really got a good view of the monster at the end otherwise I was really happy with the cartoon. In addition to Steve it also gave me an opportunity to work with and get to know other very talented people in licensing and other areas of the company, Howard Roffman, Eric Stein, Cynthia Wuthmann and Vital Vayness to name a few.

Similarly, Maniac Mansion was also turned into a TV sitcom on the Family Channel, but the story and characters were very different from the game. What did you think about the TV show?
That experience was a bit different, Ron and I had very little interaction with its' development. At first we were involved with creation of the initial pitch materials for the show as an animated series, but it eventually developed into a live action pitch. The TV development group brought on Eugene Levy (of second city TV) as the producer, they re-developed the show into the sitcom that ended up airing on the Family Channel. It was pretty different from our vision, obviously we would have liked to have had more of a hand in the development of the show.

What other games did you work on while at LucasArts?
At first almost everything we did until we really started to grow. After Balblazer and Rescue the next two projects were The Edilon and Koronos Rift both of these games used a newer version of the Rescue fractal landscape generator. I created all the art and animation for the Edilon and worked with another artist Jim St. Louis on Koronos. After that I was the artist/animator on a variety of other titles including Labyrinth and the multi-player Microcosm which down scaled became Club Caribe on the Q-Link commodore network. I think this was followed by our first simulator title Pegasus around the time we started working on Maniac.

Other titles I directly created art, animation or backgrounds for included Zak MacKraken, Loom, Pipe Dream, Dynatron City, Nintendo Star Wars and Paul ParkRanger for the learning group. As the division grew so did the art department I eventually became the division's art director. In that capacity I was involved in the production of Monkey Island, Monkey Island II, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Battlehawks and The Dig as well as a plethora of outside conversions and other related projects. Ultimately the last real project I did was Dynatron City although I worked on a variety of other proposals and was initially involved in the brainstorming for Day of the Tentacle.

What is your best LucasArts "war story?"
It's pretty hard for me to pick out one story... But I guess one that sticks in my head was when we flew down to Hollywood to shop around Dynatron City as an animated cartoon pilot. One of the things you need to realize about Lucasfilm is although it's a state of the art film and entertainment company the culture there is not very much like Hollywood. The bay area location, the people and the company culture is much more down to earth than anything you'd encounter in Hollywood.

Anyway when we were developing Dynatron, both the head of the games group Doug Glen and Howard Roffman the VP of Licensing felt it was worth pitching to various animation companies in Hollywood to see if they would develop it as a pilot. So after we had put together enough material I flew down to L.A. with Howard and Vital Vayness (also from Licensing) to go on a pitch meeting at DIC.

When we arrived we were ushered into an impressive office complete with its' own bar and a wall of windows overlooking a view of a near by major studio. We met with Andy Heyward (the president of DIC) who pretty much sat there expressionless during our entire spiel on the project. I remember having no clue as to how he was reacting to the presentation, after which Andy thanked us and said he'd get back to us soon. When we stepped onto the elevator and the doors closed Howard turned to me and said smiling "Great Meeting!". He must of been able to read Andy better than I could because he called the next day and made a deal for the pilot.

You left LucasArts in 1992. What prompted this decision?
It really came down to being made an offer I couldn't refuse at the time to head up the art departments at Spectrum Holobyte. I had been at Lucas for nine years, a pretty long time in this business. Most of the people I had worked with had moved on, I felt ready for a change.

What companies and products have you worked with since you left LucasArts
Well as Art Director at Spectrum Holobyte I was involved with several products that came out. Mainly one of the Falcon sims and a Star Trek title as well as a National Lampoon licensed Chess Game. After leaving Spectrum I co-founded a game development group Orbital Studios. At Orbital I designed the children's title Dinonauts Adventures in Space published by Virgin Sound and Vision. I was also involved in designing a large adventure game 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea... The Adventure Continues for South Peak Interactive.

In 1996 I joined my long time associate Frank Cirocco forming Lightsource Studios (check us out at: lightsourcestudios.com) a free-lance art for hire and content development studio in San Jose specializing in sci-fi, fantasy, world building production design, art and animation. Over the last five years we've provided a wide range of visual development and other services for a diverse collection of clients including Electronic Arts, Adobe, J Walter Thompson, Dreamworks, Namco, Universal Studios, Mattel, Surfmonkey and The Learning Company to name a few.

Do you still keep in touch with any of your fellow LucasArts employees?
I have many close friends and professional relationships that were developed over the years at LucasArts. I met and got to know a some of the most talented and creative people of my career, not to mention some of the nicest . People I've stayed in contact with both personally and professionally include Vital Vayness, Ken Macklin, Steve Purcell, Cynthia Wuthmann, Lela Dowling, Iain McCaig, AJ Redmer, Doug Crockford and Eric Stein to name a few. I've continued to work with many of them on an ongoing basis.

In retrospect, how do you think the computer game industry has changed since you first started out? Has it gotten better, worse, or a mixture of both?
As far as I can tell it's a mixture. It's definitely better on a lot of levels since computer gaming is now a well established industry. The personal computer is a basic part of life it's become a standard appliance in virtually every home like a TV.

The ongoing increase in compute power and associated lowering of cost (imagine if the auto industry could provide you a safer, faster and better looking car than last years' for less money each year) has made high quality delivery systems more and more accessible to the public and let's not forget the Internet. On the flip side better machines with faster processors and high resolution graphics fuel an expectation for software with higher production values and associated budgets. So the presentation side of the art form the level has definitely advanced. However like the film, TV and other entertainment businesses these soaring production costs make people less inclined to take chances because financially its' become a hit driven business.

I guess I should get to the inevitable and standard question: What do you think about the industry's focus shifting away from adventure games?
In my opinion I've observed the gaming industry to be extremely cyclic as we introduce new platforms, new consumers continue to come into the market. Ease of use promotes greater mass market appeal for story based adventure games for users less interested in more twitch and shoot style arcade play. Obviously there will always be audiences for both genres, but I strongly believe there can be an expanding market for adventure games in the future based upon the evolution of broad band internet and other platforms providing a suitable delivery medium and growing user base.

What advice would you give to people today who are interested in getting into the computer game industry, either as an artist, writer, or even project leader?
Make sure you take the time to learn the basics and start at the beginning. It's pretty unlikely that a serious company will hire anyone for one of these positions unless they have some track record in that area. I know this sounds familiar and feels like the chicken and egg problem however there's lots of ways to approach getting started. Obviously do as much studying and work in the area you've chosen. Many companies offer apprentice or intern programs, check them out. On the art side build up the most impressive portfolio possible. In the event that you have the opportunity to show your work to a particular company make sure it has a connection to their product line or other areas they are interested in. For example if the company primarily makes 3D space games, show them examples of 3D space ships not pencil drawings of people's faces. If you don't have the right material concentrate on building up that part of your presentation before you burn that opportunity to show off your work.

And finally, do you think there is a serious lack of purple meteors and talking tentacles in games today?
Sure... But the easiest way to fix that would be another sequel to Maniac I don't know if it's in the cards, you probably have a better idea about that than I do. If Lucasarts ever decides to do one I know I'd be happy to consult on the design.

Once again, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us. Best of luck with your future projects!
You're quite welcome, thanks for the opportunity.

Interview conducted by Andrew "telarium" Langley, Monday, August 20, 2001.

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