David Fox, the creator of Zak McKracken was involved in many of the older LucasArts adventures. We asked him some questions about the good ol' days and the recent developments in the independent adventure scene.
A-T: "Recently the fan group LucasFan Games released a complete VGA remake of Maniac Mansion, which has been downloaded more than 200.000 times in the first three weeks after its release. Did you play it? How do you like it?"
D.F.: "Sorry, no I haven't played it. I'm on a Mac and the remake is for PC only :-( "
A-T: "Why do you think those old LucasArts adventures are still that popular?"
D.F.: "I'm continually amazed by this! We all figured the life of these games would be a few years at the most. By then, the old platforms would be gone, and people would move on to flashier and more impressive games. But we didn't count on emulators, nor the loyalty and enthusiasm of all the players!"
A-T: "What do you think about fanmade sequels or remakes of games like Maniac Mansion or Zak McKracken? Do you think the old games should be left as they are or are you honoured that people still remember those games?"
D.F.: "I'm absolutely honored that people remember them and still like them. And I think using existing games as a starting point to create new ones makes a lot of sense. That's how I learned about games - by converting existing games to other platforms, and adding another level of polish in the process."
A-T: "In the past LucasArts has forbidden fans to publish fanadventures based on their IP. Do you think it is legitimate for them to protect their IP this way or should fans be allowed to create free remakes and sequels?"
D.F.: "Well, it's definitely legitimate for a company to protect its IP. But I think they should also encourage fans to create remakes and sequels. Especially in the case where the games aren't being actively marketed by the owner of the IP."
A-T: "Evil powers (aka the creator of Maniac Mansion Deluxe) force me ask the following questions. If you can't remember (or if you are sued for answering them) just skip those. While browsing through the scripts of the original game LucasFan found the lines "I killed it!" in the room with man-eating plant and "The plant's gone. I'm stuck here!" in the room above. Is it possible to kill the plant and if so how?"
D.F.: "Hmmm... Good question. I wouldn't be sued - but it's been so long, I don't remember. Maybe if you poured irradiated water from the swimming pool on the plant that would kill it. Try it!"
A-T: "What does "L.F.L.U. Rah!" mean, which is written on the pennant in Ed's room?"
D.F.: "LFL is the legal abbreviation for Lucasfilm Ltd, so L.F.L.U. would be an in-joke - Lucasfilm Ltd. University!"
A-T: "Why is it possible to feed the Meteor to the plant only in the NES version? Was it already planned in the first versions of the game? If this wasn't planned why was it possible to burn down the garage in those versions?"
D.F.: "After our first few games, once a game was complete, the conversion was usually managed by someone other than the original designer/project leader. I'd say that in this case, the manager of the conversion (I believe it was Douglas Crockford) may have taken some liberties in adding additional options that weren't thought of in the original game... Could have been as simple as a playtester saying, 'Hey, how come I can't feed the Meteor to the plant?"
I know there were other changes for the NES version, based on Nintendo requests (like the "call Edna for a good time" message being removed)."
A-T: "Was it planned initially to put the gas for the chainsaw in the next game or did you just forget it in Maniac Mansion? Or is it in the game and we just didn't find it?"
D.F.: "No, the chainsaw was part of a joke for the first game... You saw all this "blood" on the walls, and a chainsaw, and were supposed to think about the chainsaw massacre movies. But the blood turned out to be ketchup, and the chainsaw was always intended to be there as set dressing, not part of the gameplay.
So, since so many people asked "where's the gas?", as annother in-joke, I added another prop to Zak, a can of gas on Mars. And no, there's no way to take that can of gas and use it in Maniac :-)"
A-T: "What was it like to work at the "old" LucasArts, with all the great designers and developers who still have a large fan community? Are you still in contact with your former colleagues?"
D.F.: "It was by far the best working environment I've ever been in. Everyone was excited to be there, we had great collaborative sessions, brainstorming, philosophical talks about game design over lunch... It was a great group of very talented and dedicated people. And yes, I'm in touch with many of the original team... Some more frequently than others. And I occasionally get to work with some of them on other projects."
A-T: "I guess the toughest competitor in the late 80s and early 90s was Sierra, a company who created much more adventures than you did. What did you do to be better than them?"
D.F.: "Yes, there was definitely a sense of competition within Lucasfilm Games towards Sierra (though I suspect not much in the other direction). I know Ron Gilbert played most of their games, and his frustration with them gave birth to the inspiration for the SCUMM games, and to Ron's rules of Adventure Game design.
I think the point and click interface Ron developed was much friendlier than the Sierra "guess the parser" interface. We also didn't use death as a way to prolong gameplay, and I think most of our puzzles actually made sense in real-world terms (though sometimes they were pretty whacky, like using the garbage disposal to make bread crumbs). Interestingly, our games were more popular in Europe than in the States, and that still seems to be the case (take a look where all the fan sites are based!).
I also remember having Ron demo one of Sierra's games while we were working on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade... It had some much more elaborate animation in it than we had been using. At first, I remember all of us being depressed that they passed us up. Then, we figured out how we could improve on what we saw, and modified our animation tools to let us create more impressive animations. I think the scene where Indy uses his whip to pull a plug out of the bottom of a pool of water."
A-T: "Why did you create mainly adventure games? Just a commercial decision?"
D.F.: "No, I don't think it was a commercial decision. I think it had to do with the people attracted to Lucasfilm. I can speak for myself, but it probably applies to others. I wanted to work at the company after having been blown away by the Star Wars films. While watching those films, I had the sense that a complete universe existed behind them - I loved the attention to detail that helped transport the viewer into that universe. And I loved the story.
So, as one who wanted to create interactive stories, Lucasfilm was the perfect place to go. I loved playing the early text adventure games (and in fact worked with Scott Adams of Adventure International to convert many of his games to other computer platforms). So that was the natural area for me to focus. I was much more interested in story telling than shoot 'em ups. And I suspect this was the case for many of the other designers.
We all felt we had to live up to the high expectations surrounding our group, and give the world the best entertainment we could... getting as close to the feel of a Star Wars film as possible, and creating immersive, self-contained universes.
And in those days, it was actually the project leaders/designers that came up with ideas for what their next projects would be. They would go through a review process, and get thumbs up or down. It usually wasn't marketing coming to us and saying "we need three adventure games and one action game." I know this changed in the early 90s after I left the division."
A-T: "Most of us know you as the man behind Zak McKracken. If you were given the ressources to create an official sequel, what are your ideas for Zak McKracken 2? Would it contain the same amount of labyrinths as the first part? ;)"
D.F.: "Hah! No, NO LABYRINTHS!! That was the one thing I wish we hadn't have done so much of. But considering how much space we had on the floppy disk (wasn't Zak two sides of a C64 disk - about a total of 320KB?), that was the most space-efficient way to prolong gameplay. At least we didn't keep killing you off!
Other than that, I hadn't really thought of it before. Given my political leanings, there would also be some sharp satire poking fun at the establishment. Hey, maybe stopping all those aliens who took over the government?"
A-T: "Why was the 256 color FM Towns version of Zak McKracken only released for the hardly known FM Towns console? A PC version would have made many people happy."
D.F.: "I'm sure that was a marketing decision. At the time, PCs didn't have 256 colors. Most were still 16 color. And by the time the PCs caught up to the FM Towns or Amiga, we were on to other games. Marketing didn't want to put more time/money into old games because they just didn't think there would be a market for them."
A-T: "What is your favorite game next to Zak McKracken (LucasArts and non-LucasArts)?"
D.F.: "The first two Monkey Island games! I was also very impressed with Myst."
A-T: "What were your reasons to leave LucasArts in 1992?"
D.F.: "For the last two years I was at LucasArts, I was working on a Location Based Entertainment project in a separate division called Rebel Arts and Technology. We had a collaboration with Hughes Simulation to create a totally immersive experience, called the Mirage project. We got pretty far, built a prototype that was a two-seat cockpit with surround sound, a wide screen view out the front (bouncing off of a collimating mirror), and an Amiga as a heads-down display. Unfortunately, the costs for the system were just too high, with about $500K for the image generator alone! So, when the project was disbanded, I left the company rather than going back to working on home computer games. I really wanted to do other LBE projects instead."
A-T: "On your web site electriceggplant.com you claim as your goal "to design and produce interactive entertainment that enriches and empowers those who experience it". Is there a chance to see you again in the gaming or even adventure industry?"
D.F.: "Yes, if the right opportunity came up, I'd seriously consider it."
A-T: "No matter what you will do in the future, we wish you good luck with it. Thank you for some great games, lasting memories and for taking the time to answer our questions!"
D.F.: "Thank you! And thanks for asking such a great set of questions!"
D.F.: "Here's another photo... This is very hi-res, never published on the Web (image 1). I scanned it from a large proof print I have from ILM. This is the photo used for the cover of the game (Rescue on Fractalus!). You can zoom in and see the detail of the saucer (image 4)... And on the face of the pilot (image 2)... Since this is a composite image, I'm both the pilot in the cockpit and the one being rescued!
The photo was take inside the cockpit I sent you in the B&W image (image 3). All the instruments are done with plastic and paper with lights shining from behind. The background was added (a painted over photo of a real landscape), and of course the fire and effects were added... All by ILM."