An article by Muppet, posted on July 21. 2003.
_Muppet_ talks to Jonathan Ackley, designer of CMI.
Part 1 - In The Beginning
Okay, to begin
with, can you give us a small introduction to the world of Jonathan Ackley?
It’s a green and expansive land filled with unusually large cats, a beautiful
and talented wife, and a toupee-wearing shark singing barber-shop songs. I
don’t know where he came from, but there have been noticeably fewer unusually
large cats lately.
begin your career with computer games? And how did this beginning lead to being
employed for LucasArts?
majored in film-production at UC Santa Cruz and with that degree and some
blatant nepotism, I got a job as a data wrangler at Industrial Light and Magic.
When that project was over, I landed at job at an early incarnation of LucasArts Learning doing media acquisition for a multimedia
prototype. They needed help on the technical side and one day my boss asked me,
“Do you think you could learn how to program?” I did and moved from that
project directly onto “Day of the Tentacle.”
Did you enjoy
your time at LucasArts - or were there days when you
didn't like turning in?
to both questions.
Did you only
ever work on one project at a time?
don’t recall ever working on more than one project at a time.
What made you
decide to leave LucasArts?
worlds to conquer, I suppose. I’d made a lot of adventure games, and was
looking for something new. So I left and my wife Casey and I set up our own
company Stargazy Studios Inc. and began to do
freelance design and programming. (In case anybody is wondering, Stargazy is a bizarre fish-pie. We thought it sounded
cool.) As I was freelancing, I came across a job offer for the new Lego Mindstorms office in Novato, CA. Working
with toy robots for a living was just too cool to pass up. So Casey is still
doing interactive design and I play with robots.
Do you still
check in on the LucasArtsfansites?
If so, what do you think of them?
sure. I think they’re great.
Part 2 - Corley
Motors, Bigfoots & TheEdisons
You worked as
Programmer on both ManiacMansion and Day of the Tentacle. What changes in the making of the
original and its sequel did you notice?
I didn’t work on the original ManiacMansion. That was
well before my time. I worked on DOTT, did the sound effects for Sam and Max,
worked on 2 and ½ versions of The Dig, Full Throttle and then finally, Monkey
3. (As to the differences between ManiacMansion and DOTT…the
art was a lot prettier on DOTT.)
did programming on Sam and Max. What was working with Mike Stemmle
and Sean Clark like? Is the MonkeyIsland franchise safe in their hands?
Sean is less wielding with the whip, but Mike’s beard tickles. Those two have
made some top-notch adventure games, (Indy Fate, S&M, The
Dig) I don’t see why MI4 would be any different.
You and Larry
Ahern both worked on Full Throttle, but in different roles. Is there a lot of
interaction between various staff members - or does everyone just work in their
was certainly a lot in the early days, artists and programmers working together
side-by- side for the good of the Proletariat. There was generally less of that
as the games got bigger and you had the same amount of time to complete a much
more asset intensive project. It also depended on with whom you worked. Many
artists just like to draw pretty pictures. Larry has always been concerned with
the entire game-making process. That’s what makes him so good.
Did The Dig feel different to be part of as it took a much more
serious slant than its LucasArts predecessors?
process was the same but it hurt more because Gary Brubaker and LiviaMackin were much more
accurate at hurling foam balls at my head than were my previous co-workers. The
difference between The Dig and the other adventures I worked on was that you
couldn’t fill it up with jokes. So we had to think and work harder to make the
Is there a
chance for creative input when working as a programmer? Did you give any ideas
to the Project Leaders for the games you worked on?
depends on the project and it depends on the project leader. I was very
fortunate to work with some very generous PL’s, Tim Schafer, Dave Grossman,
Sean and Mike. (Although Tim and Dave took out the quasi-Shakesperean
ending I wrote for DOTT…go figure.)
Was there any
game at LucasArts you wish you'd worked on but
The Secret of MonkeyIsland. ‘Nuff said.
Did you ever
have ideas for a sequel to a LucasArts game (or an
original game) that for some reason never got the go-ahead?
can’t say that I have.
Part 3 - Deep In TheCaribbean...
How did you
get to be Project Leader on Curse OfMonkeyIsland?
usual way, I killed another project-leader and took his job.
Was there a
lot of pressure being the co-designer and project leader?
were you about continuing the Monkey series without Ron Gilbert's influence?
I would say that it wasn’t made without Ron’s influence. Ron influenced not
only the style and tenor of the game, but also the very structure of LucasArts at that time. Ron trained Tim and Dave. Tim and Dave
trained me. I could insert a classic Star Wars reference here about the whole
master/apprentice bit, but I’ll refrain.
we weren’t worried because Larry and I had made a large number of these games
before and we knew the territory. Mostly we worried fans wouldn’t like the game
because they wouldn’t want to feel disloyal to Ron. So Larry and I knew we had
to outdo all our previous efforts just to break even.
Ahern handle programming, and you story (or vice versa), or was it an even split?
and I designed the game together, wrote the story and produced the
non-interactive script. Larry managed the art production. Chuck Jordan, Chris
Purvis (geniuses, both) and I programmed the game and wrote the majority of the
interactive dialog, with Larry coming in and writing key interactive segments.
fantastic: the peak of cartoon 2D adventures. But did you consider going 3D?
Dan Colon did some exceptional 3D work with the water and the pirate ships. We
used 2D filters and other techniques to make the 3D match the 2D.
In terms of
programming and design, how did CMI differ from the previous adventure games
you worked on at LucasArts?
was a feeling at the time that with the art cost and complexity of adventure
games it would be impossible to produce a game with the size and depth of our
early games. Larry and I set out to disprove that theory. The only way it could
be done was to have the design completely done, so there was a clear blueprint
for the entire game with no holes.
the design completed, Chris, Chuck and I had the puzzle logic completely
programmed in one month. Some games aren’t playable weeks before their release
date. After that, it’s like hanging muscle on a skeleton. Because the
programmers had a head start on the artists, we had time to fill the game with
jokes, make the environments more interactive and give the game an overall
polish. That said, It always amazes me when I read a
review of “Curse” and people complain about its length. I’ve only worked on one
game that had as many puzzles and was as deep as “Curse.” That was “Day of the
seem to think the play duration has something to do game depth. For them I say
this: fire up Monkey 2 and go into the library. Come out of the library onto
the dock. Get a stopwatch ready. Click on the left rear exit to the room and
start the stopwatch. When Guybrush successfully exits
the room, stop the timer. From that little sample, determine how much time was actually spent solving puzzles and how much time was
spent waiting for a character to walk somewhere. I added double-click doors
back on “Full Throttle” and game duration hasn’t been the same since.
Can you give
us some insight into the creative process on CMI; ie:
how the plot, characters, script, etc. all came together?
and I spent three months working on the design. That’s typical for one of these
monster adventure games. We had the complete plot, non-interactive script,
puzzle outline, character descriptions and room connectivity. While art is in
pre-production the programmers wire up a walkthrough
of the game. Background art starts coming in before animation, so before we’re
bogged down with art we try to make the BG as interactive as possible. We also
write the first- draft dialog.
the animation comes in and we have to change the dialog to match the character
the animators have added. Sound effects are added ¾ through the project, making
a project that you might be tired of fresh again. A little after that you get
the voice recordings. All the way along test has been telling you what’s wrong
with your game, so you make their changes… "No, Jonathan. I don’t think
you understood me. This part SUCKS!” Then comes music and then you spend months
polishing the game until it shines.
How big was
the team working on CMI? Were these all permanent staff - or were some only
needed for a couple of weeks?
height of production we had 18 people working on it at the same time. Not
counting testers, we had over 30 people working on it over the course of the
What was a
typical day's work during the period of creating CMI? Or did it vary
: arrive at
office, read e-mail. :
trouble-shoot and facilitate. -whenever: Do
my own work.
Who was the
inspiration for Murray? He's leapt to the top of many fan's favourite
originally designed to be in only one room. He was the disembodied skull
supposed to keep you company while you solved the first “locked-in-a-room”
puzzle. When I originally wrote his dialog, I just made him sarcastic. I showed
it to Larry and he gave me one of those “Gee, that’s not very good”
expressions. So, I took another crack at it and this time decided to try the
“Loveably Pathetic” tack. Larry approved, so the character of Murray was set.
Chuck and Chris came to me and asked if they could put Murray elsewhere in
the game. I said sure, and soon I was finding him all
over the place. I came into the programmer’s office one day and they said,
“Come, look at this.” Guybrush walked into the crypt
and Murray leapt down
from the rafters screaming, “DIIIIIIEEEEEEE!” Then he smacked into the floor
and moaned in pain. At that moment, I knew Murray was a star.
characters from Monkey 1 and 2 returned, no old islands were revisited. Was
this idea considered, or were you always going to have fresh, interesting
you briefly re-visit Melee and MonkeyIsland, but mostly
we wanted new locations so we could have new puzzles and new characters. It’s
interesting doing a sequel because you have to walk a fine line between new and
old. Too much new stuff and people complain it isn’t enough like the previous
game, too much old stuff and people will say you just ripped off the first
game. We decided to lean heavily toward the new because we would’ve been bored
doing a re-make of the first two games. While many of the locations and
characters were different, we decided to make the game fit the spirit, humor
and atmosphere of the previous two.
exception to that is the insult sword-fighting section, which is completely Ron
Gilbert’s creation. We loved it so much from the first game we knew we wanted
to bring it back. Even so I wanted to prove to everybody I was still working
hard, so I increased the difficulty of writing the insult-response triplets by
requiring that they rhyme.
How did you
come up with the storyline for CMI? Did the ending to Monkey 2 prove a
challenge to get around?
we wrote an incredibly convoluted story about Elaine being turned into a ship’s
mast-head. You had to change her back before the fiery demon LeChuck burned her down. A lot of great special-effects a
la the “Gone With The Wind” burning of Atlanta scene. We
also had a number of puzzles involving Guybrush attempting
to return the wedding gifts given to LeChuck for the
monster’s undead wedding to Elaine. It would’ve been spectacular, but when we
looked at it again, we decided the story was somewhat hollow.
reworked the story until all the puzzles revolved around Guybrush
overcoming his own ineptitude and saving the one person who loves him despite
his idiocy. The emotional stakes for Guybrush became
even higher and the story fell into place. As to the end of Monkey 2 - that’s
the real curse of MonkeyIsland.
co-designer, you must have designed a lot of the puzzles in the game. Is there
a typical method for creating puzzles (get object A to use B on C)?
started by making a list of all the cool things about pirates that weren’t done
in the first games: City sieges, ship battles, smuggler’s caves, volcanoes,
“all-singing, all-dancing musical revues.” Then you see how they might fit into
the story. You see if there’s a character from a previous game that fits with
the new puzzle. If not, you create a new character. Then you add the inventory
objects that give complexity to the original puzzles. Then at the very end, you
go through and see if you have multiple inventory objects that can serve the
same purpose. If so you throw one of them out.
Did you have
any input on the voice casting for CMI? Were you satisfied with the results?
voice director, DarraghO’Farrell
listened to hundreds, perhaps thousands of tapes for us. It’s a mind-numbing
job, listening to the actors reading the same lines over and over. He spared us
that and brought us the twenty or so takes he thought were best. Then Larry and
I chose the voices we wanted with Darragh’s input
(“You don’t want that guy…he spits all over when he talks").
loved the voices, and Darragh’s direction was spot-on
for every line. I loved how he got all the nuances out of lines like, “Pepper!
You’re going undercover!”
Can you share
any jokes or unused ideas that for some reason (deadlines, etc.) never made it
was so long ago…it seems like a dream. Our original idea for the beginning was Guybrush made an assault on LeChuck’s
summer home. Wally was there and he was possessed. Guybrush
acted as his exorcist by repeatedly smacking him in the head with a croquet
anything that - after its release - you wished to change in CMI?
would’ve extended the ending, but that’s it.
There are all
sorts of rumours about this next one - why was the
ending to CMI so short? If you had a longer ending planned, what did you intend
to put in it?
have to make choices when you’re making the game. Early on we decided the most
important part of a game is the game, not the video. I’ve seen plenty of games
with exceedingly expensive cut-scenes where the game was shallow and/or poorly
made. On those games it’s obvious they focused on the cut-scenes first and game
play second. When they ran out of time and money, they cut the game.
did the game first and cut-scenes second. Let me assure you the final cut-scene
was designed to be huge and spectacular with Elaine single-handedly defeating
an army of skeletons. But, probably due to just HOW spectacular it was gonna be, there just wasn’t time to get it into the game.
But if the worst complaint people have about the game is, “this one cut-scene
was too short” I can live with that.
Were you eager
to make another MonkeyIsland game after CMI?
months among pirates is plenty for any man.
Part 4 - Stargazy-ing
places very high in Top 10/20 lists and has collected many awards for excellence
since its release. Did you expect this when making the game?
did, because I knew we had an extraordinary team. During production I told the
team they were working on a very special game, and at the time I honestly don’t
think they believed me. I don’t think there was time for them to look past the
animation they were currently working on, or the room they were wiring up to
see how fine a product it was becoming. But after the 4th or 5th adventure game
of the year award, I think they figured it out.
Are you going
to play Escape from MonkeyIsland when it comes out? Any thought on it from what we've seen
I’m going to play it! I’m looking forward to it, just like every other Monkey
If you had
been able to make MonkeyIsland 4, have you had any ideas on the direction you would have
Do you still
do any freelance work for LucasArts or keep in
contact with them?
freelance work. I’m 100% LEGO. But I still have friends back at LucasArts. They’re only two exits down the freeway, so we
do lunch all the time.
What games are
you playing at the moment?
playing “Vampire: The Masquerade” and I love it.
I have to
wheel this question out again. It's required, I think. What changes have you
noticed in the adventure games market over the years?
have always been very few quality adventure games. Now there are fewer
companies making them. Therefore, there are exceedingly few quality adventure