Kimberley Ellis
28 Sep, 2008

An interview with Al Lowe: Part Two

PALGN Feature | We talk about the fall of Sierra, the future of the adventure game genre, and the R18+ rating debate in Australia.
In part two of the interview, we discuss the fall of Sierra, the future of the adventure gaming genre and get Al's take on the hot topic that is the R18+ rating debate in Australia.

PALGN: What was it like to see such a ground breaking company disintegrate so very rapidly towards the end?

AL: I was sad. I was particularly sad for Ken and Roberta because they literally started that company on their kitchen table. It was sad because they tried to help out even after they were out of the business - they were forced out of control and eventually didn’t like the way things were going and just got out. They just divorced themselves completely from it. Roberta has been very reticent to do any interviews or discuss her career. She literally looks at it like a past life and talks of it that way, she is just not interested in being involved anymore in the gaming community. Just think of starting something out and building it up to the point where it is worth over one billion dollars. I mean that a big company and it had thousands of employees, and to watch it in six years turn to a half dozen people and nothing but a brand logo on a box has got to be tremendously disappointing.

One of the things I didn’t appreciate at the time as much as I did afterwards was that we should do something that is not there, that’s hard to do. “Give me something that’s like that thing only a little different!” You know, that’s easy to do. But when you say hit one where there ain’t, you know find what would be popular but is not currently being sold. You know that’s how Ken came up with Police Quest? He ended up having a conversation with an ex-cop and said “Hey, police stories are always big. Detective stories are very popular, maybe we should do a game about that?” There was no market research to see how previous police procedural games had sold, they just didn’t go through any of that stuff. Today if there is not a game on the market already, there is very little change of one coming out because the way they market products today is to look at what is already selling and do something that is like that…

PALGN: I think part of that is driven by cost of development…

AL: Yeah, that’s very true. Who wants to risk millions of dollars on something that is unproven? Where as back then you could risk a hundred thousand dollars or something and if you failed, you failed.

Ken was good at pushing King’s Quest, I mean, it was the company’s cash cow. [Laughs] They milked it for years and it paid for a lot of experimentation and other games that were not so successful. I mean, there was another game called Keeping up with the Jones’

PALGN: I love that game, I remember it well.

AL: Oh, did you play it? Wow! You must have been the one. [laughs] Wasn’t that an interesting game? Totally different. It was probably not too cheap to produce and nobody really got it. I’m not sure that the company advertised it very well.

You know the head of marketing was Ken’s brother who graduated from high school and looked around for a job. Ken said to him “I need somebody to load games into boxes for shipping” so he ended up being employee number one, and eventually he became head of marketing. You can say what kind of qualifications did he have, but on the other hand he knew everything about games and everybody in the gaming industry, he was a great schmoozer. I think that when John [Williams, Ken’s brother] was in charge of marketing the company that it was in its greatest period of success. When the company moved to Seattle and hired expensive, professional marketing people who had no idea what they were doing… the company actually went down hill.

Johnny came up with the idea of the Sierra magazine - that was a brilliant way to interact with customers, he came up with that idea. The company was a family company and it produced family product, so it is not surprising that a family based magazine like the Sierra magazine actually made people connect to the company… and that was a lot of fun. Writing those articles, posing for photos and a lot of the video commercials that we did ourselves. We didn’t know that you could hire people to do that stuff for you! The fist game voiceover we did for CD ROM, we didn’t hire people. When we wanted to do voiceovers we’d literally walk down the hall and ask people “Do you wanna do a voiceover for this game?” We were the YouTube of our day I guess. [laughs]

PALGN: Low cost downloadable content seems to be giving the adventure game genre a bit of a second chance. Sam & Max has been resurrected and Dreamfall Chapters is somewhere on the horizon. Do you think we have moved past the opportunity for adventure games or do you think it’s going to stay niche? Do you think we could see a resurgence at this point? - largely because the lower development costs mean that people can afford to take the chances again.

AL: That’s an excellent question. I wrote an article ten years ago about what adventure games did and while I would never say never… For example, in the early 1990s you couldn’t give away an RPG. Role-playing games were just so antiquated and look at the turn around they had. I won’t say never, but it seems to me that those So it seems to me that the puzzle based games were a product of the times In the 1980s a computer itself was a puzzle solving game: you had to figure out DOS, you had to type in commands, you had to spell words correctly… it was unforgiving with syntax, an unforgiving command structure and everything that came out of it was very unforgiving and you had to be a sleuth just to configure your autoexe.bat file and config.sys files. I remember I used to have a whole lot of subdirectory of those things that I would keep around so if I wanted to play a game like7th Guest I could reboot and play without having to change the file again. With those computers, you had to be a puzzle solving person and a typist. So I think that when those games came out they were perfect for that market.

I remember a conversation that Ken and I had once where we talked about how wonderful it would be if we could just have computers in ten percent of all American homes. Think how great our sales would be? What we didn’t figure on was that when the market got that big that consumers wouldn’t have the same interests as they had in the early years. While I would love to see Sam & Max, Strong Bad and the others succeed, I just really have a feeling that it is going to remain a niche product. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, I think a good product that makes a decent profit is fine. Every game doesn’t have to be the giant Hollywood blockbuster. That’s a mentality that you see today and that is just foolishness. If you’re not in the Top Ten you’re going to lose money, and that’s just brutal, and foolish because you need to produce games with a reasonable budget and for people to have reasonable expectations. I don’t know how Spore will ever make a profit. It looks like a delightful game and it has for the six years I have been seeing promos for it. But when you have a development cycle that is so long and so expensive it really makes it difficult. I estimate that the long answer to your reasonably short question is that it will remain a successful genre and that new developments - in the Flash game genre for example, can bring back puzzle solving and adventure games.

PALGN: I don’t know whether you are aware of this or not but Australia is one of the few OECD nations that doesn’t have an R18+ rating for games. There has actually been a bot of a global backlash recently because Fallout 3 had drug references censored from the global version due to issues on getting the game into the Australian market. While none of your Leisure Suit Larry titles got an R18+ rating, Magna Cum Laude actually got banned from the Australian market.

AL: I think they did a service to the Australian public. [laughs] But I’m not bitter… [laughs] Actually, while we are talking about Magna Cum Laude, I must say that it was insulting to see what they did to my character and my game ideas, but on the other hand it was kind of flattering because it made people realise that it wasn’t so easy to make a good Larry game.

PALGN: Given that we don’t have an R18+ rating for games, it’s a very hot topic with the gaming media in Australia at the moment. They are trying to change the system but there is one specific polititican in South Australia who is blocking it. What’s your take on the importance of an R18+ rating for games?

AL: You need to get that one guy out of office.

PALGN: I think a lot of people agree with that.

AL: How foolish is it to be able to go into a store and buy a book that graphically describes sex? Because it is called a novel it is allowed to be sold. Why can you go and rent a DVD or buy a DVD and see things and not be able to buy computer games with similar content? We’re talking about freedom of expression here. While I’m a parent and soon to be a grandparent, I would not allow my children to play Leisure Suit Larry until they were old enough to get the jokes, but on the other hand I would fight for people’s right to be able to make those decisions themselves. People have to parent their kids, it’s a job. If you are going to bring life into this world, you need to stick around and raise it. That’s not the same as saying “Please parent for me Attorney General. Please do my parenting for me!” I guess what I am trying to say is that I am strongly in favour of good parenting and I am also strongly in favour of the freedom of expression.

PALGN: Have you ever thought about coming down to South Australia and running for office? We could use a replacement.

AL: That is one thing that I have not thought about. [laughs]

PALGN: You could add that to your list of careers…

AL: I think that politics is one career that I would not do. [laughs]

If you haven't already read it, don't forget to check out part one of our interview with Al Lowe. PALGN would especially like to thank Al for giving up his time for the interview.

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5 years ago
Great read! This is certainly a guy with traditional experience and his heart in the right place. How time changed it all for this industry, we'll never know..
5 years ago
Al, come to SA! I'll vote for you! icon_biggrin.gif
5 years ago
Just catching up on posts...I'm new. But Al Lowe has my vote aswell.
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