Part 4: A Welcome Oasis

Not to be overlooked in this enquiry are the developers, the folks who actually made the games, the ones who opted to stay to see all this change play out rather than play jazz on the street corner.

A question that would have been on their minds was how to get assigned to an original title at all amidst this new era at LucasArts. Certainly, it was long past the ideal time to be a builder of graphic adventures. When we interviewed Mike Stemmle about Escape from Monkey Island for our retrospective on that game, he noted that even then adventure games were plainly on the way out, and perhaps had been from the moment Grim Fandango failed to set the world afire. (Though Grim was not, as popularly claimed, a flop, being an unspectacular success proved to be just as damning.) Quoting Stemmle:

By the time EFMI got started, the writing was already on the wall for adventures games in LEC. Most of the people interested in building them were already gone, it was just about impossible to get a non-sequel adventure game started, and the budgets for building them were getting downright unviable. In that environment, EFMI was considered a welcome oasis of “Not Star Wars” within the company for a while.

When we spoke to Graham Annable (Lead Animator on Sam & Max 2) for this article, his terminology in describing the context in which Freelance Police was greenlit was remarkably similar: “We were like an oasis in the desert during that time at LucasArts.” During a contemporary interview about Escape that Adventure Gamers conducted with Stemmle and Sean Clark in conjunction with its release, the question was posed to the project leaders, “In your opinion, what makes Monkey Island 4 this year’s best adventure game?” Their cheeky response had more than a little hard truth behind it: “Being the ONLY adventure game might actually be the clincher…”

Which is not to say the creative-minded at LucasArts were complacent. When the unexpected order came down to develop sequels to Full Throttle and Sam & Max Hit the Road, it was the first time in a blue moon that any of the developers involved were presented with such an opportunity, and they didn’t want it to be their last. Change was the only hope for adventure games; the teams were determined to evolve the genre at the studio that had mastered it, rather than let it die. (LucasArts’ status as the premiere adventure developer even in their twilight of deigning to work in the genre is not exaggeration, as no less than Blizzard Entertainment saw The Curse of Monkey Island and Grim Fandango as competition it could not match with their much-anticipated Warcraft Adventures, making them an acknowledged factor in the latter’s cancellation.) The resultant strategy, which was surely a collaboration between the developers and the personnel more explicitly tasked with mitigating risk, manifested differently for the respective sequels.

In the case of Full Throttle: Hell on Wheels (aka Full Throttle 2), the idea was to approach the game as a hybrid, allowing for more immediate, action-oriented gameplay mechanics suited for consoles. The biker universe and occasional arcade sequence in Tim Schafer’s original game seemed at least on paper to make such a bid for the mainstream plausible without forsaking the IP’s essence. Sam & Max 2 would be a more genuine throwback in terms of gameplay, aside from the jump to 3D, and its innovations would instead be focused on its structure and the nature of its delivery. And of course, nothing was looked at more closely than cost. As Kevin Bruner, the game’s Lead Programmer and future Telltale co-founder and CTO, put it in a recent interview with Game Informer:

…at the time, LucasArts was run by a guy named Simon Jeffery, and he was like “We want to be back in the adventure-game business but we have to do it in a realistic way. We can’t spend huge amounts of money on adventure games.”

With Freelance Police, we were able to have the opportunity to make a game, but we couldn’t get out of control. We had to stay on time, we had to stay on budget, and be disciplined about the game we were making otherwise we would lose the opportunity. I think a lot of that affected our production strategy, development strategy, so that we wouldn’t lose the chance to make the games that we loved to make.

Unfortunately, the untreated if not exacerbated internal issues at LucasArts ensured that these efforts would proceed only with the greatest possible resistance. Citing Randy Breen again in an interview with Adventure Classic Gaming, Bill Tiller pointed to Full Throttle 2 as an example of a project that was micromanaged from the beginning. The sequel in fact began its life in a different form and with a different team – in that earlier incarnation, Larry Ahern was its project leader and Tiller the Lead Artist (making it a Curse of Monkey Island reunion of sorts). But, as Bill puts it, “Randy basically scuttled a version of Full Throttle that I was working on for no good reason other than to put his ‘own guy’ in charge of it, Sean Clark.”

The Adventure Classic Gaming article quoted from is a lovely retrospective on that earlier version of the sequel, unofficially dubbed Full Throttle: Payback. It can be found here.

While admitting his bias and emphasizing his affinity for Clark (whom he worked closely with on The Dig), Tiller saw the reassignment as an infringing power play on Breen’s part – more a case of score-settling than it was an objective management decision. (Mike Stemmle balances this account somewhat by asserting that “Sean REALLY loved working on Hell on Wheels.”)

Most provocatively, or maybe just most entertainingly, Bill indicated that the people managing Full Throttle 2 in its various incarnations (apparently, there were even more proposals for the sequel over the years than the two we’re aware of) were not especially fond of or even particularly familiar with the original game. An unsourced anecdote that made the rounds at the time held that Breen, who was said to be a motorcycle enthusiast (perhaps taking a firm hand in the sequel on that basis rather than out of any affinity for Schafer’s 1995 hit), had asked what “The Cavefish,” a cultist biker gang being reprised from the original Full Throttle, was doing in the game -- apparently puzzled as to the relationship between aquatic life and motorcycles.

A supercut of most released Full Throttle: Hell on Wheels images.

(We were unable to make contact with Sean Clark to get his first-hand perspective on the production of Full Throttle 2.)

On the Sam & Max end, the pitch to gear toward digital distribution met with ironic pushback. Ironic, because the entire point of the proposal was, at least in the long-term, to obviate the very overhead on the packaging end that would more or less be the justification for the game’s cancellation by those same jumpy managers down the line.

We will look at this struggle later on, as it is an elemental component of Sam & Max 2’s otherwise crisis-free development, but for the purposes of setting the scene, it seems sufficient to show that the change being touted on the outside was not really being followed through within the halls of LucasArts. Whether the reasons were as scoopy as personality clashes or as prosaic and time-honored as the fear of change by people operating out of self-preservation, the result was the undermining of developers every step of the way. For all the talk of charting a new course, every insider account projects business as usual.

While it can seem morose to dwell on this alleged dysfunction, the extent to which it is true would surely be indivisible from any good faith attempt to get a handle on the setting of this story. The point is an especially salient one when dealing with a studio like LucasArts, which is easily deified to the degree of passively outlawing an accurate portrayal of the workspace. As Chuck Jordan wrote in his fantastic and unsentimental blog post about his time at LucasArts (he departed in 1999) following the Disney acquisition, the company he left was not the utopian, nor even particularly efficient, environment the litany of lionizing eulogies at the time were suggesting by omission. An excerpt:

On Facebook, there’ve been a lot of ex-Lucas employees posting their memories of the company. Several of them have ended by saying that it was the best job they’d ever had, which just made me feel guilty for my good fortune, because I’ve had a whole string of jobs that were much better.

And then there’s this eulogy for LucasArts written by one of the employees directly affected by the closure. I don’t want to sound dismissive of it, and I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I’m mocking it, since it was well-done and heartfelt. More importantly, it was about the people there, and it’s always been the people, not the licenses, that made the company. It’s just that looking at the pictures, I realized that there’s been so much turn-over through the years that I recognized only one of the dozens of people still working there. But reading the text — with the description of extended crunch time, missed once-in-a-lifetime family obligations, having to put family on hold for the sake of work, and having to suffer through the consequences of poor decisions by management — I thought: that’s the LucasArts I remember.

What’s most frustrating about these accounts is the underlying sense that crunch time is inevitable. That it’s all part of the sacrifices required to make something outstanding. That attitude is endemic to almost every game development studio, but it was particularly heavy at LEC. And it’s nonsense. If you’re working crunch time, that means simply that someone has fucked up. It could be the producer who made the schedule. It could be the executive who insisted on a totally unrealistic deadline. It could be the designer or lead whose direction was ambiguous and resulted in a huge re-working. It could be the co-worker who made a mistake and left it for you to clean up. And if it’s none of those people, then it’s you. Either for not making good estimates, or for not managing your time well.

Whatever the case, it’s an error, a mistake, something to be fixed. Just because it always happens doesn’t mean that it’s inevitable. If a studio doesn’t treat it as a mistake to be learned from, then they’re going to just write it into their schedules, and it’s never going to change. And if a company is still making the same mistakes in 2013 that they were making in 1999, then they deserve to go out of business. Even if they did make Day of the Tentacle.

The implication that LucasArts never surmounted its internal demons between the late 90s and its last day would certainly indicate that they remained in full force in the early 2000s. My inquiries into the suggested cultural issues at the studio didn’t yield up responses quite as open as Jordan’s appraisal, but Kevin Bruner does acknowledge that “things got a little too high school-ish,” with “politics” playing an outsized role in the work environment, while Mike Stemmle gives a polite “no comment” when pressed on whether the “weirdly” absent friction with middle management that the production of Freelance Police enjoyed was as exceptional as it sounds.

Armed with few specifics, my assessment can only be made in the abstract: The intentions to make good on Jeffery’s promises were no doubt genuine and manfully fought, but the end result proves that those intentions never succeeded in overwhelming whatever forces were countering it. As Stemmle summarizes it:

Every time a new president came in, there was a fresh wave of "okay, THIS is the guy who's going to make the company work properly" optimism. In Simon's case, the optimism lasted a lot longer, primarily 'cause Simon's a fundamentally good guy. But eventually, the pox-ridden blankets he was handed got to him, too.

The finality with which that particular wave broke may well be the reason similar efforts were never really sustained to that degree again, even if the recurring, start-stop pattern of an optimistic sputter (as some might characterize the efforts of the so-called “Heritage” team during the Darrell Rodriguez period of 2008-2010), followed by a tidal reversion to form, would continue until the patient finally flatlined for good. “Even in the best of times, LucasArts was given to fits of wild lurching,” describes Stemmle, “like a roller coaster on a track that was always on the verge of collapsing.”

And so while history tells us that the gambits meant to ensure both Full Throttle 2 and Sam & Max 2 would be rebirths rather than last gasps did not pan out, it is important to note that these failures did not occur for lack of trying. Indeed, the tragedy of the story is that there was a proactive contingent who were not content to treat the situation naively, who really were trying to read the tea leaves, who were committed to figuring out how to bring the genre the studio had perfected into the 21st century without being willfully ignorant of the business realities that ultimately dictated what lived and died.

  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