Part 3: Simon Says

I’ve spent a lot of time on the years that preceded Sam & Max 2 even being announced because it is imperative to get a sense of the state of LucasArts in terms of its pool of remaining talent, the challenges and temptations imposed by an industry where costs were soaring and consoles had become dominant, and the competence of the characters negotiating that change to understand why any good faith attempt to steer the ship back into a more balanced direction was going to be at a disadvantage, if not outright destined for failure.

Picture of Simon
Simon, unique among presidents, seemed to be well-liked both inside and outside of LucasArts. So of course he was doomed.

The delayed reaction to what was being done at the tail end of Jack Sorenson’s tenure is a key point -- as Schafer surmised, it’s quite possible that the most damage was being done at a time when the effect wasn’t yet obvious in the end product. Surely, no one who played Grim Fandango (1998) could easily say the game had come out of a company that was creatively depleted, and yet the talent losses incurred as the century turned were guaranteed to manifest down the line.

Jack Sorenson’s presidency lasted from May 1995 to January 2000. He left a company with its coffers full but its brand demeaned. Even judged by its best work, LucasArts was now less distinguishable from other American game developers of a similar size, when at one time LucasArts was truly a sui generis operation -- though the company naturally continued to trade on that increasingly obsolete perception for recruiting purposes. More than that, it would be foolish to underestimate the kind of sway the Force still had over bright-eyed game developers, even at its most overmilked. Nothing dazzles like celebrity. Far from being punished for its excesses, the studio’s bottom line had been well-served.

Before January was over, George Lucas announced that Sorenson’s replacement was to be Simon Jeffery, promoted from a wordy position as “Director of Product Development and International Business Activities.” Jeffery’s background before his adoption into the Lucasfilm family had been at Virgin Interactive and Electronic Arts. Serving as Vice President would be Mary Bihr, another promotion from within. An inveterate fixture, Bihr had been involved in Marketing and Sales roles at LucasArts dating all the way back to the 80s – look for her name in the end credits of titles as far back as Maniac Mansion (1987) or Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders (1988).

The fan base Mixnmojo represented, whose primary concern amidst this executive shuffle was the Thanksgiving release of Escape from Monkey Island (the company’s sole adventure game that year, and its first since Grim Fandango, whose engine it inherited to save costs) watched the door revolve with hopeful interest. The era itself played a role in this attitude: Simon’s arrival came at a quainter time when Mojo had a fairly active relationship with LucasArts, and interviews with the newly crowned president, like this one from E3 2001, were chummy, playful affairs. Mojo’s founder felt comfortable enough to ask Simon, to his face, if he’d seen the following fan-made Flash video:

You don’t have to be indulging in wistful nostalgia to conclude that things were different back then. Mojo staffers were on a first name basis with “Internet Community Relations Specialist” Ronda Scott (who still fondly remembered the site’s primary voices in those early days, Jake Rodkin and James ‘Spaff’ Spafford, when she was kind enough to share her memories with me), and at one point LucasArts had even flirted with the idea of enlisting Mixnmojo for some sort of online revival of the sadly defunct The Adventurer. The relationship was sufficiently casual that during E3 2003, the site managed to wrangle LEC producer Dan Pettit for a taped bit that poked fun at the site’s most prolonged downtime.

In his interviews with Mojo and elsewhere, the image Simon put forth for the future of LucasArts was one of course-correction. Acknowledging that the company had strayed a bit too far from its visionary origins, Jeffery pledged to build a line-up that would return things to something approaching parity. Though they wouldn’t be followed through overnight, his intentions were explicit: a 50/50 split between Star Wars and non-Star Wars projects. The promise was that the flagship property would be exploited more carefully, with quality superseding quantity, and original IP would be earnestly invested in once again.

The below TV special produced in 2002 by the always high-pitched G4 does a good job of encapsulating the narrative that LucasArts was pushing at the time, which among other things tied their ostensible reappreciation of the legacy titles with the twentieth anniversary of the company. The occasion was further commemorated by a revamped web site that featured a nicely arranged history of the company as well as a bundle of well-curated multimedia goodies. There were plenty of bones thrown toward long-time fans in this celebration, including never before seen concept art for games as obscure as Loom.

In an interview with PR Manager Tom Sarris conducted by the BBC in 2002, reprinted below, you can again see this line being towed. (Interestingly, Sarris makes reference to a fifth Monkey Island being planned, but it obviously didn’t go forward.) LucasArts was certainly acting like it knew it had a problem:

But in the games company's 20th year, Mr. Sarris said there was more to it than just expanding the Star Wars galaxy.

The fact that it could almost depend on making money by exploiting interest in Star Wars meant it also had freedom to experiment with games and storylines, said Mr. Sarris.

In the past it has developed popular cartoon adventures such as Sam & Max, Grim Fandango, and Full Throttle.

A sequel to Sam & Max was being developed, said Mr. Sarris, as were more installments in the Monkey Island series of games.

But the company was also working on new games all of its own, he said.

One blood and sandals epic called Gladius puts the player in charge of a team of gladiators who must fight to survive in the arena against other teams.

"It's an accomplishment to have survived for 20 years," said Mr. Sarris, "There are not many companies that have been around in the entertainment space for that long."

Though characteristically skeptical, the Mojo community took well to this rhetoric, which it should be noted was soon substantiated -- Jeffery did make good on his 50/50 pledge, as some of the titles namechecked in the above excerpt hint. The following non-Star Wars games were released or put into production under Jeffery’s watch:

  • Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb
  • RTX: Red Rock
  • Gladius
  • Secret Weapons Over Normandy (a welcome reprise of the historical flight sim after a decade-long hiatus)
  • Armed & Dangerous
  • Wrath Unleashed
  • Full Throttle: Hell on Wheels
  • Sam & Max: Freelance Police

And oh yes, there were plenty of Star Wars games supplementing that. Jeffery was instrumental in forging relationships with third party developers (BioWare and The Collective among them) that would prove to be better custodians of the moneymaking franchise than LucasArts itself, while the San Rafael studio attempted to rebuild its own status as a formidable developer. The direction was hopeful, though in retrospect the restructuring that LucasArts commenced in the name of that ambition was not necessarily off to an auspicious start. Randy Breen and Michael A. Nelson, both hired soon after Jeffery’s appointment, would four years later come to be seen as two of the hatchet men who carried out the beheading of Sam & Max.

LucasArts E3 2002 Game Trailer Mix

While the Mojo crowd could certainly have stood for more of an adventure game presence in the unveiled line-up, there was really no negative way to spin what Jeffery was outlining, which was plainly an improvement. Hope was further buttressed by a reminder that LucasArts’ stable of proven craftsman was not entirely drained dry. For all the troubling evacuations chronicled earlier, certain old timers, like Hal Barwood, Mike Stemmle and Sean Clark (all of whom had graphic adventures on their resumes) remained available to be put on a project worthy of their skillset. Perhaps, with a president who truly valued the talent that had been preserved, the ingredients still existed for some kind of comeback.

The Sam & Max 2 announcement banner from

But while it’s one thing to have intentions, it is another to carry them out. Simon Jeffery was one man, and the direction he was hoping to effect, which certainly seemed level-headed enough, would only succeed with competence from below, support from above, and a certain degree of luck. There isn’t overwhelming evidence that he was in possession of any of the three.

The speculated ineptitude that had infected entire departments of the company under the tail end of the Sorenson epoch would now exact its toll under Jeffery’s term. For while a bad Star Wars game might still sell, a middling original game had no shot, and even a good original game could be unleashed to ruin with a poorly thought out release strategy. Essentially, creative personnel were tasked with meeting AAA standards despite depleted resources and more pressure than ever in terms of schedules and budgets, while non-creative personnel were now going to have jobs to do after years on autopilot. Rebuilding what were now suddenly crucial skills that had been permitted to atrophy was not going to happen at the flip of a switch, and the casualty of those growing pains would be the products themselves.

Stemmle teases the sequel to Sam & Max Hit the Road in a developer profile published on as part of the site's 20th anniversary celebration. It was a convenient time for the studio to tout its 'commitment' to its legacy titles in the form of the two announced graphic adventure sequels, but times would change quickly.
Stemmle teases the sequel to Sam & Max Hit the Road in a developer profile published on as part of the site's 20th anniversary celebration. It was a convenient time for the studio to tout its "commitment" to its legacy titles in the form of the two announced graphic adventure sequels, but times would change quickly.

As for the folks above Jeffery, we are even more reliant on speculation. But a historical view of LucasArts gives the impression of an appendage that ultimately answered to Lucasfilm suits, at least after the restructuring of the early 90s. On paper, that period of reorganization gave the company certain optical autonomy but in hindsight may been a major step toward entrenching it beneath corporate influence. I don’t know anything privileged to support that belief – even if I find myself wholly convinced by artist Mark Ferrari’s illustration of a dismaying change in priorities – but what I do know is what happened.

It didn’t happen out of nowhere. Even from the early days, the motion picture arm of Lucasfilm had a certain attitude toward the Games Group, wondering aloud at any opportunity whether this video game experiment was pulling its weight. Quoting again from Gamasutra’s 2013 piece:

Falstein said Lucasfilm would have annual meetings for the whole company, and it was not uncommon for employees from the movie side of the business to question the Lucasfilm Games side project, to suggest it was a distraction that ate up resources when the company should have been focused on making movies.

The exact degree to which Lucasfilm executives with no video game affiliation exerted control over the subsidiary likely fluctuated over the years, but the impression one is left with is that George Lucas would stand up for the interactive business against such naysaying – until the day he didn’t. And without that protection, what those playing rooster thought this “distraction” ought to be is what LucasArts inexorably became in the end: a licensor and occasional publisher, rather than a development studio. The revolving door of presidents that characterized LucasArts’ final decade does everything to support this idea and nothing to contradict it.

Taking that view, it’s easy to imagine that faceless bean counters, the sort who would have had no particular attachment to the LucasArts “legacy,” possibly didn’t even play video games, and yet ultimately drove the fate of the company, liked the late 90s version of LucasArts just fine.

It’s easy to imagine that Simon Jeffery’s plan to make a change, however reasonable and even conservative it seemed to the likes of us, may have attracted quite a bit of scrutiny from an overseeing body that would have preferred the ruthless, lucrative efficiency of franchise-flogging, outsourcing, and immediate returns.

It is just as easy to imagine that there would have been little patience for seeing a longform gambit play out.

  1. Page 1 Introduction/Justification
  2. Page 2 Part 1: Star Wars Interactive
  3. Page 3 Part 2: Brain Drain
  4. Page 4 Part 3: Simon Says
  5. Page 5 Part 4: A Welcome Oasis
  6. Page 6 Part 5: “The only game, really"
  7. Page 7 Part 6: Spot the Pattern
  8. Page 8 Part 7: “The smoothest project I ever worked on”
  9. Page 9 Part 8: General Shut-Uppery
  10. Page 10 Part 9: “I mean, kickass we got Slashdotted”
  11. Page 11 Part 10: Telltale Now
  12. Page 12 Parting Reflections
  13. Page 13 Appendix: Sources and Acknowledgements