LucasArts' Secret History #5: The Secret of Monkey Island Developer Reflections


How did you get involved with the project after Loom?

It was the next thing on the division production roster, and since there were really only three of us BG artists there then - myself, Steve Purcell, and Ken Macklin, we were all needed for a project of this scope.

How was drawing and animating for The Secret of Monkey Island different from the approach to the artwork of a more serious game like Loom?

Having already 'perfected' the basic mechanics of using dither to render things in the previous project, (Loom), we could now go back to thinking more about interesting 'camera angles' and map layouts. Other than that, not much difference. With only 16 colors, there are only so many possible checkerboard combos. :-)

Who did those great character close-up shots (much like the ones featured in Loom)?

If I am not mistaken, most of them were done by Steve Purcell and Martin 'Bucky' Cameron, (when they weren't out back doing target practice with their 'Indy' bull whips).

Also, what's up with that close-up picture of Spiffy the Dog in the SCUMM Bar that appears on the back of the game box but isn't in the final game? Can you verify the rumor that it was cut for space constraints?

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That was a few years back, boys, and I can't really recall. But given the fact that great things are nearly always cut from games - and books and films - in deference to space constraints, it seems a safe bet. Back then games were shipped in 1.5 meg disks for use on home computers with 30 meg hard drives, so every kilobyte counted. Makes me laugh when I think about how many megs of space are allocated to a single screen of interface art these days. ... On the other hand, it would have been VERY like Ron Gilbert to intentionally put a completely bogus 'wonder dog' character on the box that wasn't even in the game, just as a joke because there's 'always supposed to be a wonder dog in these stories.' ... And on the other hand, seems to me that there WAS a dog in the game - just for a moment in an ally way in the pirate town on your way up to the mansion. ... Are you guys sure it isn't there? May not have had any lines, or even any actual role in game play. May just have been a 'background flavor sprite'. Would also have been like Ron to take a background sprite and make a 'feature character' of it on the box just for a laugh. ... Hmmm ...can't say.

Speaking of space constraints, what types of challenges did that create for the art aspect of the game?

Oh, there were some nifty BGs left lying on the cutting room floor – as always - before it was over, including one scene looking straight down over a cliff edge down a long zig zag wooden cliff face staircase at the pirate village at the cliff's base. Alas, we illustrators are born to kill half our children for 'de man'.

How much freedom did the artists have designing the characters and creating the "look" of the Monkey Island world? Was the direction firmly set beforehand, or did Ron give free reign?

As long as Ron and Gary Winnick liked it, we were completely free. :-) But seriously, we - the artists - did invent and design much of what went into the games ourselves in those days. It was a much more hands on seat of your pants operation in those days. Everyone was handed a wrench and left to fix things then, unlike today where artists are so often given a design doc contrived by someone in Marketing, and told, "Draw this, in this style, and to these exact specifications."

How did the artwork impact the gameplay or the puzzle design, and vice versa?

As above, everyone was handed a wrench. Everyone on the team - artists, programmers, the cleaning lady, were involved in discussions with the designer, (in this case primarily Ron Gilbert), about game content, locations, and puzzles. It was a team free-for-all much of the time. Obviously, once the game design and locations had been determined, we tried to make them as interesting and atmospheric as possible ... in 16 EGA colors at 320 by 240 resolution. :-)

Presumably the environment of LucasFilm Games in 1990 was a much more intimate one than you'd likely find in a development studio these days. What was communication like among the team?

As implied above, immediate, open, collegial, unrestricted, often raucous. For one thing, it was a very, very small team that made these games then, not an entire floor of cubicled specialists as is often the case today. Nor, frankly, was Lucasfilm yet the giant corporate mega-entity that it has since become. People were kept far less 'in the place' back then.

Any specific visual gag you remember creating or that has a good story behind it?

Steve Purcell is the person to ask about that. 80 percent of the visual gags originated with him. The dialog gags came from Ron. ... The dither came from me.

There's a story that when it was time for the game to be shipped out the employees of LucasFilm Games personally went to the warehouse and assembled and shrinkwrapped the boxed copies to fulfill the shipping order. What was that experience like?

Sounds very apocryphal to me. If Lucasfilm employees went down to assemble boxes, it certainly wasn't any of us. (Though it would have been fun to make up an answer that evokes warehouse scenes from a bad Kung Foo movie.)

Did you or anyone else on the team have any idea while making the game how immortal it would become?

HaHahahahahahaha! I don't think it ever occurred to any of us, (except maybe Ron Gilbert), that anything we were doing had any 'immortal' potential at all. We were just having our own little party and secretly amazed, I suspect, to be getting paid for it. Frankly, I didn't even find out Monkey Island or Loom HAD become immortal until three years ago when, after a ten year absence from the industry while doing other things, I was hired to come back and do 2-D graphics for Amaze Entertainment in Kirkland, where I currently work while not writing novels. My first day there I was taken around to meet a few dozen of the twenty-something guys I'd be working with, and three times, I was greeted with wide-eyed expressions and comments like, "You're THE Mark Ferrari?" One guy went so far as to exclaim, "You're like a living legend!" at which point I grimaced and thought, 'You mean, like the Ceolacanth? (that prehistoric and presumed long extinct fish found living off the coast of South America a few decades ago) Who knew one was still alive?' It was only then that I discovered all these guys had grown up playing the games I illustrated for Lucasfilm, and regarded them as classics of a golden age. I can assure you I was thoroughly amazed that anyone remembered, much less admired them still. ... Who knew? Then again, ironically, I am not and never have been a gamer.

Do you ever find yourself replaying Monkey Island these days?

As I just mentioned, I have in fact never been a gamer. Make'em, don't play'em. I've always been in it pretty much purely for the art, if you can believe it. So, no. I don't think I ever actually played all the way through either Loom or Monkey Island even once. And I haven't even owned copies of my own for years. Ironically, only after being hired at Amaze did one of these young devotees of my earlier work provide me with copies of my own old EGA games, (which I was astonished to discover still existed anywhere), and a DOS emulator to play them with. That was some fun! What a blast from the past. (And DAMN I was good, too - for only 16 EGA colors and pixels the size of Shea Stadium.)

As far as I know you weren't involved with any of the Monkey Island sequels. Did you ever play them and if so, what did you think of them?

No, I never played them. As I mentioned. I have always been more an artist than a gamer. (See my, "I'm a technophobe" story about being hired on initially at Lucasfilm further down.) Entertainment software has just turned out to be a good - and often interesting – place to explore the boundaries of commercial art in the digital age.

After that first Monkey Island game, I did some incidental work for Lucasfilm on Indiana Jones and the Lost Secret of Atlantis, (then referred to in-house as The Eternal Project), and a Star Wars game then in development which may or may not ever have been produced. At about that time, however, Lucasfilm Games Division was downgraded, (and however they spun it, that's what it was, a downgrade), to LucasArts, and moved off of Skywalker Ranch into an insurance office building full of cubicles in downtown San Raphael. A number of producers and designers there were 'made examples of' at that point, fired or put on probation like naughty children, etc. and the whole thing suddenly ceased to be the Jedi Rebellion, and became the Evil Empire instead. By that time there were lots of other entertainment software companies that wanted to do work for them, and feeling that the good days were down at Lucasfilm, I moved on to a freelance career with other lables that was very good to me until the 3-D revolution in the late 90s made everything I'd been 'famous' for irrelevant for a while. The only reason I'm back now is because low-end platforms like hand helds and cell phones are now powerful enough to run games like those we used to make for PC desktops, but not yet quite powerful enough to handle the full 3-D array of graphics. So, old 2-D guys like me are of some use. I expect this new career revival to me to last for maybe another year or two before even these small platforms can run the standard 3-D array. By then, I hope to be securely established as a novelist ... or a zoo keeper, perhaps.

Do you still keep in touch with any of the LucasArts old timers?

Yes, in fact. I liked all these guys very, very much, and enjoyed working with them as much or more than anyone I've worked with before or since. Ken Macklin and I are still good friends, as are I and Gary Winnick. I get in touch with Steve Purcell and Martin Cameron for one reason or another every few years. Sadly, it has been many many years since I last spoke with Ron Gilbert, whose company I always enjoyed immensely. Our lives have all gone in completely different directions and have all become very busy, so we don't see each other often, but we are still in touch, and still friends.

Any general amusing anecdotes or office stories you'd care to share?

The thing I remember most clearly about those days was the tremendous and constant humor woven through everything we did. We were all 'funny guys' back then, but the comic ring leaders were definitely Ron Gilbert and Steve Purcell. Their combined senses of humor set the tone and much of the content for Monkey Island. Steve was 'monkey-manic' in those days. There were few things he liked better than monkeys and monkey references. I suspect that this helped determine the name of the island in question. I'm pretty sure the soft drinks vending machine in the Pirate port was Steve's idea too.

Many moments of outright silliness ended up preserved forever in that game, as in the name of our hero himself, Guy Brush. In those days, a sprite, (movable bit of art that could be carried around the screen with the cursor or stamped down repeatedly) was called a "brush". When one of our character animators, (might have been Steve Purcell or Martin "Buckey" Cameron), finished drawing up a sprite of the game's main character, Ron Gilbert and the then division art director, Gary Winnick, were talking about what to call the guy. The conversation went something like this.

Gary W: "So What are we going to name him?"

Steve P: "Fred. ... Fred the Pirate."

Ron G: "No. He's an action guy. He needs an action name."

Steve P: "Bob then."

Gary W: "How about Flynn, you know, like Errol Flynn."

Ron G: "No. Something original. And the Flynn estate will probably sue us anyway." Ron turns to Bucky Cameron and says, "We're going to need a girl pirate too. Just make a girl version out of the guy brush."

Steve Purcell: "That's it! Call him Guy!"

Ron G: "Yeah! Guy Brush! Why not?"

Everyone laughed, assuming then that it was only a joke. But while we looked for a better name, everyone started calling him "Guy Brush," until it stuck. To some degree, the game is a collected record of all the jokes we told each other during its production. There were few parts of the process more fun than the moments when Ron would wander into the art offices and say, "Okay. Guy wanders into this alley to find the mansion key, but something has to get in his way. Who should he meet there, and what should they say to ach other? That was always good for a half hour f hilarity. ... And a lot of it ended up virtually unedited in the finished product. That's the way things were done in those days.

If any of those dialog jokes were mine, I can't remember now. I was too obsessed with making things 'beautiful' in 16 colors to do much more than laugh at what was being said around me. These days ... all the conversation in adjoining cubes is about "the physics" of punching and shooting things. Thank god for the Sam and Max game. I'm so glad Steve is still out there making people in some office somewhere laugh. How I miss that.

What's the secret of Monkey Island?

Well, I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you, wouldn't I? :-)

Thanks for your time, Mark!

You are certainly welcome.


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Tell us about you and Dave Grossman having to pack hundreds of copies of the game into their boxes overnight.

It was more then just Dave and I, it was also Tim and pretty much the entire company. We need to get all the boxes assembled and packed to make a ship date to a retailer (I don't remember who) and the warehouse that assembled the boxes couldn't do it in time due to needing to give it's workers time off, so we all went down and worked though the night. Tim, Dave and I signed a $1 bill and placed it in one of the boxes. We never heard from that dollar again. I wonder if anyone found it.

Approximately how many times have you been asked what the Secret of Monkey Island is in interviews?

12, but that's only approximate!

How easy was Monkey Island to pitch to the LucasArts bosses? Did they like it right away?

Easy since there wasn't really a pitch process. Lucas Games was pretty small in those days and projects seem to spring up more organically, rather then through a formal approval process. I don't remember any "official green light". I just start designing and it just became a project. Simpler times.

How much did your experience working on Maniac Mansion and Indiana Jones help you plan for this game? Is there anything you did on either of those two games that, when you started working on SOMI, you made sure you didn't do?

The article I wrote right before doing MI1 called "Why Adventure Games Suck" was the culmination of everything I learned from MM and Indy. It was the template for the adventure game structure I followed in MI1.

Was there ever a CD-ROM talkie version considered, like Loom?

Not seriously, at least while I was still there. The tech to do talkies really came into being right after I left.

Why do you think that modern games are moving towards longer cutscenes with no player involvement?

Because it's hard. It's much easier to write long boring cut-scenes because that's what writers are used to. Writing for interactive is a very different art form, one that few writers even realize is out there. The foundation of the story telling in MI is what I called the "dialog puzzle". It's not so much a puzzle as it is a way of choosing what to say to NPCs. Doing this allows you to break up long scenes into short segments and keep the player engaged. But, there is a structure to these and writers who don't understand them tend to write long boring dialog puzzles.

Good & Evil looked like it was going to have a strong Monkey Island feel. Would this have been the case? I was sad when it got cancelled and Cavedog closed...

Yeah, very sad, but there is a lot of "Good & Evil" in DeathSpank.

Did you enjoy that Pirates & Whaling book?[/p]

Fun book. I have yet to find the others in a book store, so I'm going to order then on I am a book junkie. I have pretty much every book I've ever read.

Did you enjoy the student play of The Secret of Monkey Island?[/p]

Yeah, I think Chris [Heady, writer, director, producer and co-star] did an amazing job on that. One of the most impressive parts if that he contacted LucasArts and got them to give him permission. The kid's going to go far.

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