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LucasArts' Secret History: The Curse of Monkey Island: Captains' Logs: Ackley, Jordan, and Ahern21 May, 2009
Tell us a bit about your arrival at LucasArts and the projects you worked on up to CMI.
I was really lucky. I worked with some great teams on some legendary projects. Day of the Tentacle was my first major game. That game is a clinic in puzzle design. Just fantastic. Then Sam and Max Hit the Road which is another classic. I had the most fun adding the sound effects to the whack-a-rat game. Then Full Throttle. I mocked up the first interface for that, so I got to tweak the SCUMM interfaces to get rid of my pet peeves. Alt-F5 for instance for menu was left over from the Commodore. So, that made no sense. Also, I hated watching and waiting for the characters exit off the screen, so adventure games have double-click doors due to my ADD. Then the Dig, which was cool as it was so different in tone from the others. In the middle of those games, I briefly went to another video game company and learned a lot about how NOT to make games.
The Curse of Monkey Island was the first game as project leader for both you and Larry Ahern. How did one become a project leader at LucasArts?
We had a lot of experience, and we showed interest in taking on the responsibility. Also, we had complementary skill sets, his visual and mine technical.
The previous Monkey Island game, LeChuck's Revenge, was released in 1991, a year after its predecessor, while The Curse of Monkey Island was released in 1997. What made it the right time for LucasArts to revisit the franchise? What it your and Larry's idea, or was it something management itself proposed? Do you know of any prior, failed designs for a third Monkey Island game?
Everybody wanted the company to do a new Monkey Island game, but the stars had to align to have the right team for it. Tim and Dave weren't interested and the other project leaders had their own projects going. So the company had Larry and I who were veterans and shipped lots of product, so it was the right time. There weren't any other attempts in between Monkey 2 and Curse.
The long gap between installments also meant that the technology was far more sophisticated. How did this affect the way the art style was approached? Although I don't think there's a single person on earth who would have preferred otherwise, was 2D always the intention?
Well, the better technology just made the art better. In the days of 320x200 rectangular pixels the Lucas team did a great job of implying character, but often the characters ended up as blobs. Fortunately, other games were saddled with the same limitations and our artists made it work better. We never contemplated 3D. But we did include the "3D" option in the menu. It didn't work with most video cards of the time, of course. :-]
The bizarre ending of Monkey Island 2 gave the CMI team the unenviable position of having to come up with an explanation (until I guess Ron Gilbert's "real," non-canon continuation ever gets revealed), but the game is a standalone experience with its own storyline. How did you guys manage to straddle that line between the new and the familiar so successfully?
Honestly, we worked hard at it. If people buy a pirate game, they don't want it to start out with modern day kids at a weird carnival. So we made the opening as piratey as possible and then filled in the gaps between the two games over the length of the game. As the players get used to the weirdness of the MI universe, they become able to understand the wackiness of the MI2 ending.
As for the "real" game. I don't ever think about it. Ron Gilbert is a great game designer, end of story. No doubt he'd have made a great game, and I owe my early career to copying his design style.
But as for his version of "Monkey Island 3;" as long as it is never made it will always be perfect, and you can't compete with perfection.
Tell us a bit about how you and Larry tackled the design of the game, and how the story was concocted. Also, who wrote the dialog?
It was just Larry and me tossing a soft football back and forth in our office, coming up with bad jokes. The dialog was written by myself, Larry, Chuck Jordan and Chris Purvis. In games this large, you have two choices: Don't have a lot of dialog, or hire programmers that can write.
Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman and Tim Schafer are generally considered to be the minds behind the first two games. With Ron and Dave gone from the company and Tim presumably busy with Grim Fandango, was there any struggle to keep the game "authentic" to its predecessors?
We never thought about it. We knew the tone of the games and we matched them. Specifically, we matched Monkey Island 1, as it was more gentle and MI2 a little more rough.
The game's engine is pretty heavily based on the one for Full Throttle, with the major changes being an inventory system to accommodate item combination, and the reprisal of the sentence line. I find this interesting, as the fourth Monkey Island game was in turn heavily based on the Grim Fandango engine and made the exact same alterations. What makes the sentence line and more complicated inventory puzzle-solving irremovable staples of a Monkey Island game?
If we didn't have wacky inventory puzzles, it wouldn't be Monkey Island. It would be a bit like buying a sequel to Doom where the characters talk about their feelings and give each other back rubs.
What sorts of complications did resurrecting the Difficulty Modes idea from LeChuck's Revenge introduce?
That was pretty easy. Chris Purvis went through and pre-solved the puzzles most easily pre-solved. I think it took him a couple of days.
The minigames were really fun, and a new addition to the series. What Sam & Max an influence in this regard?
Yes, although in Sam & Max the mini-games were tangential to the story and were there to keep you engaged when you were banging your head against the table trying to figure out a tough puzzle. There was a mini-game in Full Throttle. The mumbly-peg, knife between the fingers puzzle. It was awesome, but when I wired it up Tim saw it and was so horrified at the carnage he hid it. It still exists as an easter egg in the game's proto-form.
The Curse of Monkey Island resurrected the beloved insult swordfighting segment seen in the first game. In an interview with Dave Grossman about the production of LeChuck's Revenge, he stated that the team desperately wanted to include a spiritual follow-up to the idea rather than simply re-using it, but such an idea was simply never found, and so they left the concept out altogether. CMI, on the other hand, brought back the original idea (albeit with rhymes!), much to the delight of fans. What made insult swordfighting so attractive (and apparently correct) to bring back?
Insult sword fighting is the signature puzzle of the Monkey Island series. We wanted to bring it back, but I wanted the fans to know that even though we were using the same game from MI1, that we were still working hard. So we arbitrarily decided to make the insults rhyme, which makes it MUCH MUCH harder to write.
Murray the demonic skull has earned his place as one of the series' most beloved characters. What's his origin?
I wrote the first scene with Murray. My first draft just made him a little jerk. He wasn't fun at all. I showed it to Larry, hoping for his approval but he kind of winced. So I went back through and made him pathetic. He had high aspirations, but fate had stepped in to foil him. Murray became a character people could relate to. We knew we had a star. So Chuck and Chris came to me and asked if they could put Murray everywhere in the game. I said sure. We had an unrelated skull puzzle in the crypt, so they decided to make the skull Murray. Great idea! Pretty soon his was all over the place.
The porcelain joke – explain.
Porcelain is terrifying. You need to ask?
The Curse of Monkey Island was made at a time when LucasArts was at the absolute top of their game when it came to graphic adventures. A Blizzard employee admitted at some point that the competition that the game represented was actually one of the contributing factors in why the infamous Warcraft Adventures was canceled. Although it was certainly apparent upon release, was there a sense during the game's production that it was going to be something one of a kind?
I think Larry and I knew it was. We'd worked on a number of great games and I think we had a hope it would be right up there with those.
The voicework on the game is superb, and CMI is of course the first Monkey Island game to have voice acting. How much input did you and Larry have on the casting?
We had a great voice director in Darragh O'Farrell. He did the first round of selections on all the characters and then we picked the ones we liked from the final four or five.
The soundtrack is fantastic. Did you and Larry give and direction to Michael Land in composing the score?
Very little. We would go over a scene and Michael might ask a few questions about our intent. With Michael there was little need to give him feedback. The dude is talented. The only music feedback we gave was when the music related to a puzzle. The banjo puzzle for instance was one where we gave input.
Can you tell us anything about the longer ending that resource limitations kept from going beyond conceptualization?
We had a big battle cutscene at the end planned, and we cut it for budget reasons. We knew we could do two big scenes, and we picked the shipwreck in the middle of the game. Probably not the best choice, but it had this great Kilt joke we wanted. Truth is, we probably could have done the ending. I think management expected us to go over budget as it was our first project as producers so I think they probably had some secret budget for overages hidden somewhere that would have allowed us to do the scene. But staying on budget was very important to Larry and I so we made the decision to lose the scene. From a story-telling point of view, it was the less important scene. From a pure drama point of view, it was probably more important.
Any unused ideas or war stories you're interested in sharing?
Not really. It was pretty straight forward without much development drama.
The game was an immense success, and continues to hold a place as one of the most memorable graphic adventures of all time. Over ten years after the fact, what do you attribute to the game's timeless appeal?
The humor, the music and the graphic style (thanks Larry and Bill T.). The cartoony art style ages very well. More realistic art styles show their ages very quickly, but art styles with bold choices hold up.
The Curse of Monkey Island and the simultaneously developed Grim Fandango were inarguably two of the best game LucasArts ever put out, and two of the best games period, but they were also sort of the last of their kind ("their kind" being the epic-sized adventure game with impeccable production values), no doubt due to market size versus budget. Do you think adventure games continue to have relevance despite the fact that their "Golden Age" may be behind them?
Sure. I think there's a market. I'm just not sure of the size of the market. It's hard to sit down for a half hour and play part of a classic adventure. You need a few hours in a sitting and that's just hard for people to find now adays.
After The Curse of Monkey Island, you and Larry Ahern supposedly went on to attempt another adventure game called Vanishing Act. What's the scoop on that?
I wanted to try something other than adventure games, so my wife and I set up a games design consulting business.
What led you to leave LucasArts and what have you been doing since?
Interest in doing something new, and that's what I've been up to. Since then, I've worked in the toy industry, telecom, Internet, theme parks. I've followed projects that have interested me and that's been very gratifying.
Did you play Escape from Monkey Island? If so, what'd you think?
No, but not from lack of interest. I just never had the time.
What would you like to see in the unlikely event of a fifth Monkey Island game? If given the opportunity, would you be part of it?
I don't like to repeat myself. It's just kind of in my DNA.
Have you kept up with what's been going on in the adventure scene and/or the studios founded by ex-LucasArts employees? What do you think of what folks like Telltale, Autumn Moon, Double Fine, and Crackpot have been up to?
Sure I keep up with them. Some people call us the LucasArts mafia, as we've dispersed all across the globe. Mostly I think it's that like the mafia, people fear us. Only their fear is that we'll talk for hours about the "Old Days."
You're not involved with video game development anymore, but assuming you still have an interest in the industry, what role do you see things like creativity, humor, and strong storytelling (all things that could be called fundamentals of games you've worked on) having in video games in the present and future? Have we gone forward or backwards in this regard?
I definitely keep up with the industry, and I don't think I'd say I'm not involved. Just not involved in the traditional, shrink-wrap way. There's room and a place for all the things you mention. The industry is in a great spot now for innovation with new distribution models and new interfaces creating fantastic new opportunities. I have my religious viewpoints, like any designer, but at the end of the day you can't be too dogmatic. You choose the right design tools for the assignment and the target audience.
CMI was I think the first project most people know you from. When did you join LucasArts, what projects did you work on prior to Monkey3, and how did you get involved with CMI?
I started at LucasArts in 1996 working on Monkey 3, and it was my first job in videogames (so I'd be surprised if anybody had heard of me before then). I'd been working as a programmer in Georgia, I'd been a huge fan of the SCUMM games since college, and I'd always said that someday, somehow or another I was going to get a job at LucasArts. One night I bought "Full Throttle," and when I finished it thirty minutes later I said, "That settles it. I'm sending in my resume now." They called back, flew me out for an interview and a SCUMM "test," and then offered me a job working on the sequel to one of my favorite games. (I said yes).
What exactly was your role on CMI?
I was one of the SCUMM programmers. We would wire up the puzzles for all the rooms, hook up the art assets as they came in, program the mini-games, and write the say-lines and interactive dialogues.
Did you consider yourself a fan of Monkey Island before becoming part of this game? Did you feel pressured to live up to the "standard" set by the extremely high thought of first two games?
Yeah, I mentioned that I'd been a big fan of SCUMM games since college, and playing "The Secret of Monkey Island" on my Amiga was what started it. It was enough to convince me to switch majors -- before that, I hadn't realized you could have a genuinely creative job with a computer science degree.
I definitely felt that we had a "standard" to live up to, and I was completely insufferable. I don't know what it is about the Monkey Island series in particular that turns fans into zealots, very possessive of it and convinced that they have A Unique Insight Into How It Works. But whatever it is, I had a particularly bad case of it. In retrospect, it's ridiculous of course: when they were making the first two games, they weren't trying to reach any standard other than what they thought would be cool games. And those turned out all right.
Between CMI and now your work at Telltale Games, you've done a lot of writing for comedic graphic adventures. Do you think video game writing has improved over the years? Do you think it's become more significant?
I think the standards have slowly improved over the years, if only because there's been more money getting pumped into development. But it's not as if the state of writing across all games is uniformly better than it was in the 90s; there have always been stand-outs. The "You Don't Know Jack" series is brilliant, as was "Zork: Grand Inquisitor," and both of those were released before people had really started to pay attention to game writing.
The past few years in particular have been interesting, because there's been a big push in both directions. On the one hand, you've got games like "Portal" and "BioShock" and the "Half-Life 2" series that prove you can have solid writing in a big-budget title; it doesn't have to be relegated to the "critically acclaimed but poor-selling" category, or the indie game developer who's suffering for the sake of his Art. On the other hand, there seems to be a big movement, at least with people writing about games online, saying that traditional storytelling doesn't work in games, and that it's all about the "gameplay." So there's been more attention paid to video game writing, but it still hasn't yet won universal respect.
How is writing for interactive stories different from the approach you would take to, say, a screenplay? Do you think the types of games you've worked on (which I suppose I would classify as: "Graphic adventure games with good writing") have anything to teach other genres or lesser-quality adventure games, which tend to dole out their storytelling in cutscenes?
Yes, I've been rambling about this exact thing on my own website for a while. Basically, I think people make too much of a divide between "gameplay" and "storytelling." There's this belief that storytelling and interactivity are mutually exclusive, that when the story starts, the gameplay stops. So "Portal" and "BioShock," which both had huge story moments that didn't take place during cutscenes, are seen as this big breakthrough. But adventure games have been doing that for years. The best adventure games aren't puzzle games with good stories; the game IS the story. If you're thinking of a segment as a "puzzle," then the designers have dropped the ball. They should be "story moments," not "puzzles."
The Curse of Monkey Island works well as a standalone game, and is all the better for it. With Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman both departed from LucasArts and Tim Schafer busy with Grim Fandango, was taking CMI in a self-contained direction borne out of circumstance, or was it always the general plan? What efforts were made to keep this game "authentic" to its predecessors?
That's more a question for Jonathan and Larry, since the game design was already established before I started on the project. I do know that since it'd been years since Monkey 2 had come out, they had to come up with a story that would be satisfying to fans, but didn't require you to have played the first two games. I think they made a wise choice to base everything off pirate history and lore, instead of trying for a convoluted continuation of the story right where 2 left off, and then make callbacks to the series by incorporating and subverting the types of puzzles from those games.
You're often credited as the creator or at least the mind behind Murray the demonic skull. Tell us how the beloved character came about.
I definitely can't take credit for that character. The skull was originally just a piece of flotsam, but it was Chris Purvis' idea to make him talk, and he came up with the name as well. And then Jonathan wrote the interactive dialogue outside the ship when you first meet him. After that, we just started looking for funny places to include him, like the Voodoo Lady's hut. Any time I had to write dialogue for him, I based it off the character that Chris and Jonathan had already set up.
Was there a particular character or section of the game that you particularly enjoyed writing for?
Most of the characters I got assigned were heavy on the exposition, so it was a chore just to get them from being too long-winded. I did like writing the songs Guybrush uses to audition for the barbershop quartet. It was nice to see something so goofy and superfluous make it into the game.
The porcelain joke – explain.
What porcelain joke?
It's difficult enough to find good writing in video games, and rarer still to find quality voice acting to deliver it. As a player I adore the acting talent in CMI, but as a dialog writer for the game with things like comedic timing of your jokes being very much dependent on quality performances, were you satisfied with the way the voice work came out?
Definitely. That's still one of the most fun parts of working on a game with voice, getting a voice drop and hearing lines that you've written "come to life." I've been really impressed by the voice talent working with LEC and now Telltale, and how they can put a spin on a character they haven't seen and usually have no context for. And I think they nailed it by casting Dominic Armato as Guybrush; you could tell he was a fan of the games before he worked on CMI, because he just "got" it. (And since I'm kind of a cartoon voice talent geek, I've got to point out that I've now worked on games voiced by Roger L. Jackson, Tom Kane, and Terry McGovern, three of my favorite voice actors working today. That's Mojo Jojo AND Professor Utonium AND the stormtrooper who said "look, sir, droids!")
Was there any interesting cut material from the game, or some wacky/scandalous production story you'd care to share?
Production went generally smoothly, so we didn't have to cut anything or feel under time pressure to get stuff in; we actually had some time to put in easter eggs and other stuff just for fun. (The ending was indeed rushed, but that was mostly because there was such an unprecedented amount of animation in the rest of the game). One thing that I'm glad that made it in: if you use the pins or the skeleton arm on the voodoo paper doll in the Voodoo Lady's hut near the beginning of the game, it cuts to the gravedigger's reaction on Blood Island. It was just a goofy, completely extraneous joke, but it meant copying files across CDs and just more work in general than you'd think.
The Curse of Monkey Island is widely acclaimed as both a worthy entry in the Monkey Island franchise and one of the best individual graphic adventure games of all time. What do you attribute to the game's success as a sequel?
Me, pretty much.
Or actually: that just like the first two games, it was made by a really strong team who all liked what they were working on and wanted to make a great game, and had a company who was still supportive of what they were doing. The design was rock-solid before development started; Larry and Bill were constantly pushing the character design and set design towards something innovative; Chris was pushing the scripts to do things they weren't designed to do, like ship combat and an interactive clock tower; and we had great animators like Graham Annable and Marc Overney and Derek Sakai who were treating it as an interactive animated film, not "just a videogame." And Jonathan was there constantly, doing everything from writing to programming to sound effects to cutscene editing and direction and all kinds of administrative stuff that I never saw. It was just a great working environment; I kind of wish it weren't my first job in games, since it spoiled me for everything I worked on afterwards (until Sam & Max, of course).
What did you think of Escape from Monkey Island?
I actually haven't played it yet! It came out after I'd left LEC and had somewhat lost interest in adventure games. When Mike started at Telltale, he let me borrow a copy, so I can finally play it and report back when I've finished.
Since CMI, you've become involved with game design as well as writing. As a designer, what's one element of CMI that you have a problem with and would never put in a graphic adventure game today?
I really can't think of anything major. Studying Jonathan and Larry's puzzle design in enough detail to be able to wire up the puzzles is what taught me most of what I think I know about adventure game design. But if I had to pick something, it'd be the sequence where Guybrush is trapped in a gondola and locked in a dialogue with LeChuck. I think if I were in a similar situation now, I'd try to find a way to deliver all that exposition while the player was doing something else. (For people who've played Sam & Max Season 2 and are scoring at home: I've got the same problem with the first conversation with the Moai heads in Episode 2).
The days of the monster-sized, large budgeted adventure game like CMI seem to be behind us, yet you guys at Telltale are keeping the genre going strong with your episodic efforts. What is it about the genre that it continues to be relevant?
I think it goes back to that notion of storytelling as gameplay. In a well-designed adventure game, your interaction with the game has been distilled to its simplest level, and all you're doing is building and connecting story moments. If we can get better at interactive storytelling, we can prove that it wasn't just elaborate cutscenes and find-your-way-out-of-a-locked-room puzzles that makes the classic SCUMM games cool: it's that the player is actively involved in telling a story along with the designers.
Then, I'm hoping, the developers and fans of more action-oriented games will stop thinking of "storytelling" as cinematic cut-scenes controlled by the designer, and "gameplay" as just the player mashing buttons and going where you tell him to. You won't just be driving a character through a designer's story, but putting the story together and uncovering pieces of it as a result of your actions.
If there was an opportunity to write for a fifth Monkey Island game, would you be interested?
I'm not sure I'd be the best person for it. I already worked on a Monkey Island game that I'm pretty proud of. Plus, I've got to say that reading people on the internet say "that's not the game Ron would've made!" got to be a real drag after the first six or seven years. But then, I understand where the fans are coming from: I can still remember my interview at LEC, and when they told me I'd be working on a Monkey Island game, I was just as excited to play it as I was to work on it. So I guess what it all comes down to is this: how much money are you offering? [/div]
Larry Ahernp]How hard was it to come up with a way to carry on from MI2's ending?[/p]
Man, it was a nightmare. When Jonathan and I agreed to make the sequel, we were so excited at the thought of working on a Monkey Island game that we totally forgot about the whole crazy Monkey 2 ending. We didn't know what the ending meant, Ron Gilbert didn't work at LucasArts anymore, and Tim Schafer either didn't know or wasn't telling.
For awhile there we thought about just pretending it never happened. Then we considered having Guybrush ride a futuristic motorcycle and travel through time, since those seemed to be the kinds of things fans liked in our previous games. But, finally we bucked up and tried to figure something out.
What we realized was that we'd kill the series if we spent too much time focusing on amusement parks or kids (especially at the beginning of the game)—it's supposed to be a pirate game, after all, regardless of whatever the Secret of Monkey Island was supposed to be. So we basically did our best to bury the amusement park bits as deeply as we could and focus on the pirate world.
And, for the record, I have no idea what the secret of Monkey Island is, but I'm thinking it's probably one of those subjective things like modern art. You know... what is the secret of Monkey Island to you? Probably just meant to piss off Roger Ebert, or something.
Did you have a list of characters you wanted back - Lemonhead, Wally, etc? Any you wanted that didn't make it in?
I think we talked about wanting to bring Wally back, because he was just so darn cute and it was funny juxtaposing that against the violence. And Stan seemed like a guy that could probably be shoe-horned in somewhere for a laugh. We actually thought about using a different villain, but I think there's some unwritten law about having to use the same bad guy throughout a trilogy, so I did a sketch of LeChuck with a flaming beard, and that seemed like sufficient character growth for his return.
Other than that, I'm not sure that we made a conscious effort to go down the list of characters and include as many as possible, or pick favorites. I think we just picked the ones that jumped out as useful or well-suited to situations, like the voodoo lady. But, then again, I could be totally full of it, since it's been 11 years and I can't even seem to remember my last project. Maybe George Lucas came in and told us which ones we had to use, along with his ridiculous ideas about midichlorians.
Why is Guybrush suddenly taller, blonder and beardless (a fact that is made fun of in-game)?
Platform heels, sun bleached hair from sailing around the Caribbean, and the beard was too itchy? I don't know (and I'm guessing our excuse in the game was funnier).
Actually, I just wanted to take the Guybrush design in a different direction. The original design looked great in the box cover paintings, but was fully rendered. And the in-game version was so small and pixilated that it was hard to tell what he looked like. Plus the Monkey 2 version had a few more colors for shading. We were going to be doing flat-colored traditional cel-animated characters, so I was worried that making him too realistically proportioned would just end up looking dull.
So, I guess I used the excuse of advances in the technology to reinterpret. But, I think we ended up with a version that's still true to the spirit of the character; that awkward, gangly look goes well with his personality. Plus, once he was higher res, he really got noticed by the wenches!
How did a Monkey Island 3 get pitched?
Basically, we were told to make it. I'm not sure what kind of back room deals and secret handshakes were involved to get to that decision (or if George just threw darts at a board full of employee names). But it's not like I had any complaints about working on the thing, since they pretty much gave us total creative freedom to do what we wanted with it.
Oh, yeah... and then we came up with a silly story and game pitch that we had to run past the Project Leader group for approval (a truly horrible pitch, now that I recently reread it, and one which thankfully bears no resemblance to the final game). Then we went off and reworked it, designed all the puzzles, did some more concept art, and then submitted the final game design to management for production approval.
Did Ron have any involvement?
Ron had left the company several years before we started the project, and I didn't really feel comfortable calling him up and saying, "Hey, I was thinking of ruining your game and just wondered if you could tell me some stuff about it so that I can ignore that and do something else instead."
But, to this day, I'm extremely appreciative of the positive comments he's made about the game.
Was there much opposition from the fans (like us) or press over the idea of continuing the much-loved MI series without Ron, changing the art style, giving Guybrush a voice etc.?
You know, I really don't remember worrying about it that much. I don't know if we were stupid or naïve or what, but I didn't have much of a sense of people breathing down our necks about how it should be done. I think we had such high standards internally, that we felt like nobody would judge us more harshly than ourselves. And, it seemed like it was hard to screw it up if we got to do beautiful high-res art and full voice.
Oh, and come to think of it, we didn't have internet connections back then, which was convenient for sheltering us from the wrath of the Monkey Island fan community. I'm thinking of making my next game out of a shack in Montana, in order to recreate those same ideal conditions.
COMI is thought of by many as the most attractive LucasArts adventure, as it really is like a living painting. How hard was the art and style to develop and create (over past adventures)?
Our goal was to look like an interactive animated feature film. We'd done previous projects where we wanted detailed rendered backgrounds, but the tech never could handle it very well, so there were always compromises. Curse was great because we knew going into it that we'd finally reached that point where we could make a game that wouldn't look dated in a couple of years. We were no longer working in limited palettes or low resolution, so all we had to do was not screw it up.
A lot of the success is due to Bill Tiller's great sense of color and lighting. And he will tell you that we definitely put him through the ringer to get to that point. But, it was more an exploratory process with the style that he was going through to reach our common goal; just hammering on variations until it felt like it clicked. We were lucky to have the time to do this at the beginning of the project.
How was LucasArts to work in at this point?
LucasArts was a great place to work during the development of Curse. We were still doing some pretty creative, original work, but were big enough and successful enough to have more money and resources at our disposal. Plus Jonathan and I had a big corner office with a couch, some Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, and a Nerf basketball hoop (a critical piece of equipment for any successful brainstorming meeting).
This was the final SCUMM engine game and the last point-and-click LucasArts adventure to be released. Did you have any idea this was going to be the case while you were developing COMI?
Nope, we were blind and living in a happy shiny bubble as the world around us was besieged by fire, earthquakes, and real-time 3D engines (actually, I guess the rt3d engines were just down the hall for Grim Fandango and Jedi Knight). Well, I suppose we knew there were other things on the horizon, but we still thought that if we made a great game, that there would always be a market for what we were making. Little did we know of the coming darkness.
Connected to the last question, were you worried that the Grim Fandango engine was going to make COMI obsolete as soon as it was released?
No, because thankfully Tim is slow. We knew that he would make a really cool game and that everyone would love it, but it was clear from the beginning that he was making something epic, it was based on a new and complex IP, and he was building some new tech. Pretty much guaranteed to be late.
Also, we had the Monkey Island IP going for us. If we'd come out with something new, with Grim Fandango just on the horizon, things could have been worse. But, I think after 5 years of no Monkey Island, there were a lot of fans looking forward to a new game in the series.
Were you ever asked (or wanted) to help with Monkey Island 4?
I think there was one time that Mike and Sean inquired about the thinking behind one of our story elements. But, maybe after I explained how we left monkeys with typewriters in our office over the weekend to come up with that one, they realized that getting my input was useless.
I have to admit, though, it was hard at times to see another Monkey Island game in development and not run over and suggest ideas or offer a little direction. But, Monkey Island wasn't my baby anymore, and I had to let it go. I won't lie; I got a little misty-eyed, but were they tears of sadness or pride? Our little pirate was going to have to make it on his own in the world.
Plus, maybe the Monkey 4 team realized that I didn't know the Secret either and they kind of wanted to find their own way. And the last thing they needed was taking on some weeping consultant, unless contractually obligated or forced at musket-point.