Kimberley Ellis
28 Sep, 2008

An interview with Al Lowe: Part One

PALGN Feature | We talk about how Al got started in the industry and how games were developed in the hey-day of Sierra.
As heard on the latest PALGN Podcast we recently spoke to Al Lowe, creator of the humorous Leisure Suit Larry series of games.

For those who may have missed the Podcast or are unable to listen to it, here is a full transcript of the first part of our interview.

PALGN: Joining us is Al Lowe, creator of the Leisure Suit Larry series. Before we begin, how does a guy go from a wholesome background working as a teacher and developing Disney games to the creator of one of the most famously funny, immature games ever?

Al Lowe: Just lucky I guess. [laughs]

PALGN: When you started at Sierra you worked on the The Black Cauldron and Donald Duck’s Playground, two of what I think are arguably underrated games that came from the studio. What was your involvement in these?

AL: Well, they were my projects. I worked on them alone, basically designing them from scratch. I did most of the programming. I had help with the programming on The Black Cauldron because at the time the company was going through some tough times and Ken Williams had this new tool that no one knew how to use except himself and a couple of other people. His training consisted of showing me a scene and then getting me to do one. We actually got several guys together and worked out of Ken’s game room at his house and that’s how I learned to program in AGI. Of course there was no documentation or anything at the time and the language was very crude and crashed a lot. In fact, it ate my hard drive a few times. It was a learning experience for me.

Those games grew out of some things I did earlier. There was a Winnie the Pooh game that I did for Walt Disney and that came about because of some games that I did when I first started programming PC games. I guess I started programming when I was a music educator because I realised that the school district had a computer and if I could figure out how to use it would make my life easier. At the time I had an administrative job where I had to do a lot of paperwork, but because of budget cuts we no longer had secretaries to do our typing for us. Fortunately I was a pretty good typist, but it just irked me to do the same materials over and over.

So when I learned that when using the school district’s computer you could just type once and then edit and change it, and search and replace - all that stuff that everybody takes for granted today. When I realised that was available to me I said to myself “my God that’s so much better”. So basically my start in the industry came because I was lazy. [laughs]

It was such a revelation and I didn’t understand how people in the office didn’t see it. They were fighting to get secretarial time and I was just “God, just give me a terminal and password and let me in. I think I can figure this thing out!” [laughs] I ended up doing some amazing things that I should have never been able to do. They didn’t know that turning me lose would result in me figuring these things out. It’s kinda the same thing that happened to people ten years later. I was just fortunate enough that I had a computer in the building and a guy in charge of it that was trying to build his budget by getting other people to use it. He had an ulterior motive for letting people use it and it worked out because people saw what I was doing and said “I wanna do that too”. Soon everybody was using the computer. Of course we couldn’t afford a processor though! It cost $8,000 to get the software for this really crude program and at the time you could buy an entire Apple II for the same price and have word processing software on it.

It's funny that people don't realise that at one point Sierra has the largest selling database software in the world and the largest selling word processor. You think, well, they were just a games company, but they published a compiler, they published graphics tools, they did amazing things 25, 30 years ago.

PALGN: How did you learn how to develop the games?

AL: I decided to develop an educational game because I went to a high school band director’s convention and as it was wrapping up, I was kinda disappointed that I hadn’t learnt a lot. I saw a sign as they were setting up for the next week’s convention, which was the national educational computing conference and I had some spare time so I thought that I should go to that to see what they are doing. I had this software that I’d written, that I use for running music festivals. When I went there it was so crude. I thought, hell, I could do this. So I went out and wrote some games.

I went out and read various magazines of the time that published code and I’d type that code in and see if I could make it work, see if I could change it and what I could do with it. So I ended up thinking that I could write better games that what was available. So I went home and did that and I took them to an educational computing show [about 3 months later] and we started selling software hand over fist because people thought that my software was as good as anything out there. Basically what I did was look at the Sierra games that were out at the time and my son and I loved playing those together so I ended up making games that kinda looked like those. I made it really simple, we had a fixed grade level where there would be no words that weren't on the first grade reading list or second grade reading list. Since I had a background in education, that came naturally to me.

PALGN: Things were arguably more innovative back then. I knew that you had a background in teaching but didn’t realise that you’d deliberately designed the language in those early games like that.

AL: One of the thrills of my early career was going to a computer using educators meeting and I packed up my little Apple II and we loaded a bunch of stuff up and took these games. We got a little booth set up and we were demoing our games. At the booth next to me was Jan Davidson who was a grade school teacher who had written a little game called Math Blaster which went on to become a huge game, which led to the opening of the Davidson Learning Company that her husband ran and they ended up buying a company called Blizzard which eventually turned into World of Warcraft. [laughs]

So as I showed up to this booth next to me I was like “oh my God, it’s Math Blaster… that’s a big game that everybody knows about”. So she looks at my stuff and commented on how wonderful it was. As I was setting up my booth I realised that I’d left a power cord behind and I was screwed because I couldn’t hook up the second monitor for my demonstration. So she gave me a power cord and that's how we me. Funnily enough, we met at the early point of our careers and then again at the end of my career because Davidson [Learning Company] and Sierra were both bought out on the same day and that was the beginning of the end of the company.

PALGN: You mentioned the end of Sierra - Sierra was really ground breaking back in the early days. How much did you learn from each other?

AL: This is weird to say this, but this was a time before there was a Photoshop. I mean, you say that to people, and they say, "what?!" There were no graphics tools, there was nothing available - Sierra had to invent a picture editor, something to paint dots on a screen.

When Ken [Williams] first created the graphics adventure game, he created a vector-based drawing program that had fill and the various tools and that was it - there was nothing, there was no program, he had to create one! The weird part was that for years, you ran the graphics program by typing Roberta [Williams, his wife], because he named it after her so she could draw things on the computer.

When we did animation it was incredibly basic. I mean, we had no animation tools at all – other than what we had invented ourselves. So, yeah, we did learn a lot from each other. A lot of what we did came from Roberta’s insistence on making things better. She was just a pain in the butt to the system developers because she always wanted more. They were trying to get the bugs out of what we had already shipped.

PALGN: It’s interesting that you mention bugs, as there was no such thing as the internet or downloadable patching back then. What did you do with patching? If you did have a problem with a game after shipping, what did you do?

AL: We had people who tested the game, kids from the local high school that would come in after school and they would test the game. If they found something wrong, they’d write it up and somebody would fix it. But mostly you would test the game yourself, and when you didn’t think of something and someone else would find something wrong, it makes you think of how handcrafted those products were because every little thing had to be done and it took time to do those things. In other words, for you to move a character across the screen, we had to program all the boundaries for that walking and we had to program each cell of the animation and draw it in. We had to program what would happen if you moved from here to here: how many steps you would take, how many pixels would move at a time, let alone all the high level programming about how to keep score.

Eventually we developed techniques for all of that: the programmers shared code and chatted pretty much with each other and we would talk about “How did you do this?” or “How did you do that?” Eventually we developed techniques and then we started sharing those just literally by having a floppy disk full of little programs that we would pass around to each other. I invented the first test program that we used; it was literally called Testing I think. You would give it a parameter of a scene number in the game and then you would run the scene. Until that time, you would start the game from the beginning and play until you got to a point where you would find a bug. As the games got longer and longer, that took more and more time away. Where as with this program, you would just load up the one room and you could get that scene done and work it out, then add it to the whole game. The whole process was one of trial and error as we went along.

Larry 1 was the first game that the company ever beta tested. We didn’t know anything about beta testing. I’d read a couple of articles that said that software was beta tested and we though that maybe we should do that with a game, but we never had the time. I mean, you’d develop a game and it would take three months of your time, and when you were done you’d just want to get the game out the door and get on to the next one. With Larry 1 it was early Spring and there was no real market for games so we kind of said “maybe we should test it and see.”

We developed a group on Compuserve, found some people on the gamers forum that were interested in testing, and we would mail them a floppy disk. I wrote a little routine that, every time they got the message "You can't do that here, at least not now...', which was my generic "I don't know what's going on" message ... would write down data to the floppy and store where they were, what they'd typed in, what scene they were in, what the animation was, what the character states were, and so forth. When I got those files, I got this gigantic text file back and I used DOS's sort routine to go and sort it. I went through and eliminated all the duplicates, and finally I had a set of commands that people had tried and had failed at. And, I implemented every one of them! Because they were all things I hadn't thought of and it was like if they thought of this, I think that's one of the reasons Larry 1 seemed smarter than other games at the time. Not because I was smarter, but because a lot of people contributed to it!

PALGN: One thing I loved about the old Sierra games was the attention paid to narrative and character transformation, even given the medium’s extreme limitations. Leisure Suit Larry is a real paradox compared to the rest - he seems to blithely ignore all of his transformational experiences, yet at the same time go on a highly transformational journey. Did you do to create a deliberate counterpoint to everything else Sierra was doing or was that just where the writing took you?

AL: [laughs] That’s a wonderful insight that I must agree with. Well, in a way I’d like to think that I did. My actual goal was to do something that other people were not doing at the time. So when I looked at the game market and saw that everything was either swords and sandals or space, you know a dark vision of an apocalyptic future which everything was back then. Come to think of it, everything still is isn’t it?

PALGN: It is, except now we’ve got lots of Space Marines…

AL: What I was trying to do was do something that the others weren’t doing and that’s why I set the game in current times and made sure that he [Larry] had situations and problems like most guys have today, as opposed to stumbling across dragons and finding the fairies and talking pigs – there’s not a lot of those around Vegas. Although, come to think of it there a number of them at your local bar [laughs]

Our interview with Al Lowe continues in part two. PALGN would especially like to thank Al for giving up his time for the interview.

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1 Comment
5 years ago
Man, I didn't realise he did The Black Cauldron. That was my #2 game on the Apple IIc (after Ultima V). Awesomeness, sheer awesomeness. The dude has a sick portfolio.
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