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The Making of The Curse of Monkey Island by Jonathan Ackley

These diary entries were originally published on LEC’s website in 1997. We’ve stored them here for preservation purposes. - The SCUMM Bar Staff

In August, 1995 Larry Ahern and I locked a troop of monkeys in a room full of typewriters. "Who better than monkeys," we thought, "to design the next installment of LucasArts popular Monkey Island series?" Three months later we removed the completed manuscript and determined that it was not only completely unusable but it was also more than a bit unsanitary. Dejected, Larry and I decided that we would have to design the darn thing ourselves. We worked on it from December of 1995 until late February of 1996. In March, I joined up with our crack team of programmers Chuck Jordan, Chris Purvis, Livia Mackin and Aric Wilmunder and we began to build the game itself.

We then turned our attention to the art production. The first step to improving the graphics quality was to upgrade our game engine up to support high-resolution graphics (640x480), a huge improvement over the rectangular pixels of 320x200. When Monkey’s lead background artist Bill Tiller, who had done such a phenomenal job doing low-res backgrounds on The Dig, showed us what he could do at a higher resolution we were all completely blown away.

Our animation technology improved as well. Until recently, adventure game characters had to be drawn on the computer instead of paper. This technical limitation tended to make the characters blockier, smaller and less expressive than comparable animations you might see in an animated film. We wanted to give our animators, led by Marc Overney, the tools to do film quality work. So we worked with our ink-and-paint lead, Kim Balestreri, to develop a method of getting hand-drawn, fully anti-aliased animations into the game while still maintaining the level of interactivity found in previous LucasArts adventure games.

People always ask us what it’s like to work at a place like LucasArts, on a project like The Curse of Monkey Island. They’re always surprised to find out that it’s just a job like anyone else’s. Like most people, we roller-blade to work then stop by the sound department for a quick game of indoor hockey and some NERF weapon target practice.

Then it’s right to work, answering the same important questions you would associate with any other job. Dreary questions like; "Does the giant, man-eating crocodile need more teeth?", "Should the alien fire lasers, or friction-liquefied metal projectiles?" or "I wonder if I could break into the North American Defense command with just my web browser?"

Parts of my days are spent bug fixing...err. I’m sorry...I’ve just been reminded that we don’t have bugs. We have undocumented features.

Parts of my days are spent undocumented feature-fixing. It usually begins with a phone call from someone in the Quality Assurance department. The call goes something like this:

"We’ve found a new bug."


"No, really. It’s in the love scene."

"Ah, yes. The love scene. So tender. So romantic. What seems to be the bug?"

"On slower machines, Elaine transforms into a troll and gnaws off Guybrush’s head."

" life is over..."

"What’s that?"

"Um...Let’s just mention it in the readme."

Of course, I do other tawdry tasks during the day. I peruse the art, listen to the voice actors telling their jokes, and recline in my chair while enjoying the music Michael Land has written for the game. I know, I know. It’s a tough job, but...

A Curse of Monkey Island Diary by Larry Ahern

Dear Diary,

Things seemed calm this morning, but I think we were just in the eye of the hurricane. We're attempting to make an animated graphic adventure with the level of interactivity of classic Monkey Island games, but with production values of an animated film. Lots of animated monkeys also. It's huge! Are we mad?! (Note: find someone else to blame if problems arise. Co-project leader Jonathan Ackley a likely candidate).

10:00 a.m.: Three surly-looking animators were outside my office with pegged paper, coffee, and questions. They were plowing through the character animation and doing higher quality work than I'd imagined. I was having trouble keeping up. I realized I hadn't done the character design for the Jamaican smuggler king. Gave Yoko Ballard my bad sketch on a cocktail napkin to keep things moving. (and maybe, I thought, there's a minor Star Wars character I could have Graham Annable add an eyepatch and pegleg to and round out our, lovable pirate cast. It would be an homage.).

10:05 a.m.: More animators lined up in the hall. Answered Derek Sakai's question about multiple animations for interactive Guybrush (well, O.K., I actually sent him to ask Chris Purvis in programming). Pretended not to know Marc Overney and Anson Jew, but they weren't buying it. Didn't the art department usually bring donuts in on Tuesdays? Considered sending forged donut announcement over e-mail as a destraction.

10:07 a.m. (pressure building): Soon, I feared, they would discover my terrible secret: I didn't really know if the fire from LeChuck's demonic flaming beard burned upwards or radially. But, let's face it, there really wasn't a rule book on undead pirates. Sure, The Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge set the tone, but those were only ghost and zombie pirates—this was the Demon Pirate LeChuck, formed from the flames of a cursed voodoo cannonball! I figured our only hope was to assemble a crack team of artists and trust our instincts. (Note: tell Jonathan to have Chuck Jordan or Chris write funny line of dialogue in case I'm wrong on this one).

11:30 a.m.: Dealt with gameplay issues. Puzzle logic stuff, room connectivity. Hoped programmers didn't hate me for mentioning palette changes to the shipwreck scene. Tried to blame it on Bill Tiller, our lead background artist. I'm sure when he saw it, I argued, he'd make them change it. Yep, In the programmers spacious office. Comfy couch…sinking in…so comfy…(Note: programmers' office is great nap spot, and the art team hasn't learned yet to look for me there)..

2:30 p.m.: After lunch, discussed wackiness factor with animator Kevin Micallef and how it relates to large cartoon dog character. Should tongue hang out and flop around, or stay in character's mouth? Found myself dancing in the hallway and doing a dumb cartoon dog voice (I mean, "directing") while a guy standing by the copier gave me a suspicious look.

Left the question of "dog slobber" unanswered. Gotta trust Kevin on that one; he's the trained professional (Note: check with Human Resources department and find out if guy at copier was new Director of Technology or just the copier repairman).

4:00 p.m.: Hung out with Dan Colon, 3d animator for the project, trying to decide how much lava for LeChuck's underworld fortress. Dan needed the background, and a final frame count. Thought about writing all this on Post-it notes. I figured if I stuck the notes all over my shirt, I might remember what I was doing after I was accosted by an animator en route back to my office.

4:10 p.m.: Accosted by Kim Balestreri, Lead Ink & Paint person. We discussed the palette for an undead skeleton pirate; she already finished painting the scene, since I was unavailable for input earlier. Then she added another Post-it to the front of my shirt (Note: Shot looks great! Don't let Kim know about nap spot in programmers' office, or she might let me goof something up, instead of just painting it on her own).

4:30 p.m.: Clint Bajakian's office; also very comfy (and downstairs!). He's our sound designer. Forced to hear demon effects for LeChuck's voice. Jonathan and I argued about the difference between "otherworldly" and "netherworldly," and how much echo was needed. Meanwhile, Clint did some fantastic pitch-shifting effect that "is" LeChuck.

5:45 p.m.: Returned to office where Maria Bowen and Kathy Hsieh, our background artists, and several animators were laying in wait. A couple of shots from our dramatic opening battle puzzle were concerning them. How stormy should the sky be? How many skeletons? And, how much debris should be left when they explode? No more stalling—I had to answer these burning questions. Let's take their ideas and wire them into the scene, I suggested. I'll know when I see it.

6:00 p.m.: Spent the last 15 minutes shooting cannons at zombie pirates in a rough-wired version of the opening battle scene. Everybody loved the way the bones rained down on the water. All questions answered. Our plan seems to be working: get talented people on the project and leave them alone to do great work.

6:20 p.m.: For many here, the work day is over. I, however, must stay late, making up all kinds of exaggerated stories for magazine diaries into the wee hours of the evening.

The Curse of Monkey Island Diary by Chris Purvis

So you want to know what a programmer on a LucasArts adventure game like The Curse of Monkey Island does all day? Well, our days are filled with lots of complicated and important tasks. The first thing I do each morning is the most important thing I do all day. I sit down at my computer and, of course, I read my E-Mail.

Lets see here… The first letter is from Jonathan Ackley and Larry Ahern, the Project Leaders. "…We've decided that the jokes you are writing aren't funny enough, you're fired…" Ah, just another inspirational reminder to keep up the good work. They're such kidders. Actually, the best part about programming a LucasArts adventure is that you get to write lots of the interactive dialogue and jokes that go into the game. It's very rewarding, at least it is as long as everyone else thinks your jokes are as funny as you think they are.

Okay, next letter… This one is from out Art Technicians. Looks like they have something ready for me. "…For this animation to work properly, Guybrush must be facing southwest anytime you want him to pull the umbrella out of his pants…" Livia Mackin, Kim Gresko, and Andrew Nelson are the Art Technicians on the game. They take the raw art that is produced by the artists and animators, and process it so that it can be wired into The Curse of Monkey Island. They have one of the toughest jobs on the team because they have to take all this 32-bit art and reduce it to 256 colors, all the while maintaining the aesthetics of the original piece. Fortunately for us, they are good at their jobs, and it’s almost impossible to tell that the game is only 8-bit color.

When the Art Techs finish processing an animation, they hand it off to the programmers to actually add it into the game. We then have to make sure that Guybrush is using the right colors, standing in the right place, and is scaled correctly when the animation gets run.

Okay, I'm done with that. Uh-oh, the next letter is from Dan Pettit, our Lead Tester. "…When I use the pistol on the pirate literature Guybrush's head turns backwards and he starts sliding all over the room. Pathetic fool! I have defeated you just as I defeat all of your programming kind! HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" (Sometimes Dan and his testers get a little excited when they find bugs in the game). Well, unfortunately he's right. This is the kind of bug that can actually happen in a game programmed in SCUMM. It's up to Dan and the rest of the Quality Assurance team to make sure that we're the only ones who ever see them. I'd better fix that now.

Well, what do you know, it's time to go home. Just one more letter in my inbox. "…Chris, are you done with that darn PCGamer article yet? If not, you’re fired!...Those kidders, again. I guess it’s more overtime for me.

The Breaking of The Curse of Monkey Island by Dan Pettit

When I was assigned to The Curse of Monkey Island I was quite excited. I mean, who wouldn't want to be involved in the third installment of the greatest adventure game series of all time.

My first goal: Play Monkey Island one and two. So, I played the originals (yeah the life of a tester is a hard one) and after numerous hints and tips I was done, ready to test away.

Quick call to Chris Purvis and Chuck Jordan, the Curse programmers:

"I'm ready to DESTROY...uhhh, I your game!"

"Sure, Dan. We're just about to burn the 1st version. You’ll get a disk right after lunch."

Later that decade, I received my version and embarked on the newest adventures of Guybrush Threepwood. Granted it wasn’t much to look at. The art was all temporary, made up of pencil sketches and character animations stolen from The Dig or Full Throttle, but at least I was playing. Then WHOOPS! I found my first bug. I made another quick call, this time to Jonathan Ackley, one of the Curse project leaders.

"Uh...Jonathan, The Curse of Monkey Island just initialized my modem and is using my credit card numbers to order several expensive cheese platters and a hardbound edition of Alfred Hitchcock’s Diet Secrets."

"Oh, my. That does sound serious. I’ll be sure to fix that in the next version."

"It seems they’re to be delivered to your home address."


So a few weeks later I've got my team of testers. We're playing and breaking. Playing and breaking. Nothing’s better then being on a project from the beginning. You get all the "cool" bugs. Examples: Bug #57: Guybrush's head is on backwards. Bug #84: Guybrush’s head is on forward, but now his body is on backwards.

You see, our roles are sort of the opposite of the developers. They are trying to build this incredible game...and we go through with our wrecking balls and try to bring it down.

Another cool part of being a tester is that we get to suggest ideas to make the game better! Of course there are a few times where the two sides tend to disagree on a subject. That's when the negotiation process begins. Like the time I made a suggestion to Larry Ahern, the other project leader on Curse.

"Larry, we in test think you should be able to feed the bubble-gum to the chickens of Puerto Pollo."

"Never! You can’t push me around this time, Mr. Lead Tester!"

"Do it, or I’ll make you write your own DirectX troubleshooting guide."

"Feed gum to the chickens...good idea."

But, at least for me, the most interesting part of the testing process is trying to see if you can make a project leader/programmer go insane before the end of the project. Well here's the status on the key people so far:

Jonathan Ackley: Almost there. One more well timed disk swapping bug and I’ve got him.

Larry Ahern: Just waiting until we get the last cutscenes. Then I’ll tell him that they all have this one teensy-weensy little white pixel flashing on and off in the lower left hand corner.

Chris Purvis: Ahh, the ex-tester turned programmer. No need to make him insane. Just being a tester causes insanity.

Chuck Jordan: Implementer of the new Save/Load screen. Between that and sharing an office with Chris, I'd say he's 80% of the way there.

Well, I’m off to go join my fellow testers on a nerf strike against a different project team. Oh wait, I just saw Jonathan go by and he seemed kind of happy. I better go tell him about this nasty bug where……

Monkey Diary: The Last Installment by Jonathan Ackley

It is the last days of The Curse of Monkey Island. Even now, in the dark cellars of the building, burning goddesses Wendy Kaplan and Kellie Walker etch the final tracks of our game onto disk. And as I watch the last monkey on the LucasArts payroll leave the building (his name is Edgar and he fixed us tropical drinks for the duration of the project) I cannot help but reminisce about the last two years on the project.

It seems only yesterday that my co-project leader Larry Ahern and I slipped a half a cup of ground espresso beans into of programmer Chris Purvis’ Jolt cola. In my mind I can still see the poignant sight of young Chris in the parking lot slamming into cars, trying to claw out his own eyes. Yes. When I am older, I will remember these as the good old days.

And I can remember when animator Anson Jew drew a scene of our villain LeChuck that was so scary, when I played it in our office, Larry’s pet lovebird "Chirpy" had a heart-attack and dropped stone-cold dead on the floor of his cage. Oh, I had a good laugh at that one. I laughed and laughed. I think Larry thought it was funny too, but just didn’t want to let on.

There were some tough times, too. I remember when our sound editors, Khris Brown, Coya Elliot and Cindy Wong had edited all the 8,357 lines of dialog in the game flawlessly and in record time. Offhandedly, I stated that the game might need 10,000 to 15,000 more lines just to give it that little, extra, added "umph."

Later that week I had the quiet time I needed to reflect on that idea. I took the advice of my intensive-care-unit nurse, Mildred Cornhoople, and wisely decided to stay with the original number of dialog lines.

I’ve loved working on The Curse of Monkey Island , but after working on a pirate game fer...uh...for two years...I be glad’m glad to say that I...I...AAAAAARGH! I still be the same scurvy dog what’s I were at the beginnin’ o’ this voyage! And now I be meanin’ ta KILL YOU ALL!...Aaargh! And what be more, I plans ta...Eh? What be ye doin’? GET THEE YER FILTHY HANDS OFFER ME! NO! LEMME GO! I’M A MIGHTY PIRATE! DO YE HEAR! A MIGHTY PIRATE!...AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!


Jonathan Ackley is resting comfortably at the Happydale Home for Deranged Project Leaders. Feel free to send cards, but please take care not to mention treasure maps, flintlock pistols or ill-gotten-swag.