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Dave Grossman Interview

An article by Muppet, posted on July 21. 2003.

_Muppet_ talks to Dave Grossman, designer of MI1 and MI2.

Part 1 - A Beginning

Okay, to begin with, can you give us a small introduction to the world of Dave Grossman?

Dave: The world of Dave Grossman is a small and enormously cluttered place. There are tiki statues, lots of them, and a whole lot of junk. In the center is a tremendous pile of notes jotted down on paper, beneath which archaeologists believe there is a medium-sized desk.

How'd you first get started in the world of computer programming/writing for computer games - and did this lead easily to your job at LucasArts?

Well, my mom was a computer programmer in the late seventies. She used to bring home this tremendous dial-up terminal - it was like a fifty-pound electric typewriter, with a really long roll of paper, and rubber cups in the back where you stuck the handset of your phone. I thought it was the coolest thing. And you could call up the mainframe and play games. There was a text adventure on there, and I used up an awful lot of that paper.

I guess from that point onward I wanted to do something with computers, but if you'd told me then that I'd be writing games I would have been surprised. It didn't seem like the kind of thing people do for a living. It still doesn't.

Fast forward ten years or so, I'm out of grad school about six months, looking around for some sort of job that doesn't involve building missile guidance systems, and as it happens the games division at LucasFilm is looking to hire a few people to program stuff and be sort of apprentice designers. So I interviewed and they liked me and that was that. I shudder when I think about all the other jobs I interviewed for in those six months.

Was life at LucasArts all fun and computer games or far more hard work than they let on?

We worked pretty hard, but we liked it. Most of the time it beat having a real job.

Did you only ever work on one project at a time? If so, did you have a typical daily routine or did work vary from one day to the next?

Seems to me I only ever worked on one thing at a time while I was with LucasArts. The routine varied slowly from the beginning of the project to the end. At the outset I'd be drinking a lot of coffee and playing Millipede, whereas towards the end I'd be drinking a lot of coffee and staying up all night at my desk trying to think of something funny for Captain Kate to say.

What made you decide to leave LucasArts?

That was part of a larger life-change which also involved selling my furniture, moving to another town, and riding fifteen hundred miles on a bicycle. I guess the quitting the job part was mostly because I felt like I'd be happier on my own than in a big company, and concentrating more on writing and design and less on production. Looks like I was right.

You do a fair amount of work for Humongous now: (especially writing) How did that job come about?

I have been working with them a lot, haven't I? That came about initially because Ron (Gilbert) knew my writing style and we'd always enjoyed working together, so when I told him I was going to be freelancing he started bringing me in on things. Pajama Sam in particular was really fun, and I like the people at Humongous so I've since done a number of titles with them.

Since leaving LucasArts, you seem to have turned towards writing. Do you prefer this to programming, etc. because of the increased creativity available?

I wouldn't say that exactly. I like writing because it makes me feel good. I used to enjoy programming, too, I just got a little bored with it after fifteen years. But when you're doing an interactive script there are really elements of both in there. It's neat, you get to think with both halves of your brain at the same time.

Is programming as tough as it looks?

The most difficult thing about programming is surviving on a diet of soda pop, chocolate bars, and coffee. Other than that it's pretty straightforward.


Part 2 - Deep In The Caribbean

How did you get involved with the Secret of Monkey Island and its sequel?

Ron asked us to do it - Tim and I, I mean. I guess we just seemed like we had the right temperament for it. Of course we said yes, it was the most interesting thing going on at LucasFilm at the time. Plus he promised us free candy.

Can you tell us a little bit about your work on Monkey Island 1? Were you at all worried about the genre - seeing as nobody had told a decent (and funny) pirate story in years?

I have this peculiar physical problem where if I laugh too much, I start to cough. That happened really a lot working on Monkey. We all cracked each other up pretty consistently. It never even occurred to me to worry about whether or not we were telling a good and funny story - that seemed like a given.

How would you describe what working with Ron Gilbert was like? How much influence over him in terms of story changes, character ideas and the rest did you have?

Oh, it was great working with Ron. Funny guy, great designer. Willing to listen to you. I learned a tremendous amount of stuff from him. And yes, he was always open to other people's ideas, as long as they were good ones. Youd come up with something, and if it fit with the game it would go in, and if it didn't he could always tell you why not.

Monkey Island used the very popular SCUMM engine. Was this difficult to master - at the time it must have been a relatively new design.

SCUMM was easy to use and difficult to master. It was designed for some very specific tasks, and so long as you did not color outside the lines it was fantastically easy. But there were arcane peculiarities that you would encounter at the fringes that you pretty much had to learn by experience, and it got difficult once you tried to push it past the things it was meant to do. Real math was a problem. My favorite example is the demolition derby scene from Full Throttle - it had to have collision detection and a little bit of AI, and doing those things with SCUMM was a complete nightmare.

In terms of programming and design, how did Monkey Island 2 differ from its original? Did changes in technology make the game-making process more difficult?

The main differences from Monkey 1 to Monkey 2 were about the art - we started doing 256 colors and we were scanning stuff instead of drawing it all right on the computer. I think we also started using iMuse for the music at that point, but it was still very simple. None of that really affected the programming or design all that much from my point of view, and in those terms the two games were pretty similar. The big leap was from Monkey 2 to Day of the Tentacle, when games started talking. If you're going to record actors saying all the lines then you have to design and write the whole thing thing up front and lock that door fairly early, whereas with the Monkey games we were still designing puzzles halfway through and we wrote dialog right up until the last minute. It sounds simple, but actually it was a major shift in the way we worked. Also, writing dialog that is meant to be heard is very different from writing dialog that is meant to be read.

How much input did you have on the story for Monkey Island 2? And just who devised THAT ending...?

I had a little less input on that one because I came in partway through and some of it had already been established (I'd taken a little side journey to work on an early version of The Dig with Noah Falstein). I'm not sure who should take the heat for the ending - somebody must have mistakenly switched the coffee beans for decaf or something. Suffice it to say that we were all aware that it was pretty bizarre, and we did it anyway.

When Monkey Island 2 came around, was it easier to make knowing what the public had liked in the original and catering to that taste?

Not really. I mean, we knew we were headed in a good direction, but we had believed that to begin with, and knowing it for sure didn't make it any easier to do it again. In some ways knowing what people liked made it harder - we'd gotten great reactions to the insult swordfighting, for example, so we tried really hard to do something similar, but ultimately we couldnt come up with anything that satisfied us.

Doing a sequel is actually kind of tough when you get right down to it, because people have this paradoxical expectation that it will be just like the first one, but also completely fresh and original and with all new jokes.

You designed some of the puzzles on both games: can you give us a little insight into the puzzle-making process? How do you devise the often intricate methods used to get just one object?

Puzzle creation uses the same kind of voodoo approach as making up a story. The way it gets intricate is basically by subdivision. You take a situation and imagine what sorts of crazy obstacles might get in the way, then think of creative solutions for getting around the obstacles. Then, if it seems like it should be more complex, you take your solution and invent some obstacles for IT, and so on.

I'm sorry, I suppose that's not much in the way of 'insight into the puzzle-making process', but to really get that sort of thing across would take at least a whole book. Check back with me when I've written it...

Can you share any jokes or unused ideas that for some reason (deadlines, etc.) never made it into the Monkey Island games?

I remember one day in particular, midway through Monkey 1, where Ron and Tim and I and I think maybe Steve, too, were all cracking up for about an hour over this idea we had that we were going to put in a ship that was crewed entirely by chimpanzees. 'Crew of chimps', we kept saying, and then we'd crack up. I think there was more to it than that, too, like the point was that Monkey Island didn't actually have any monkeys on it until YOU brought them there, and even then they were actually chimps and not monkeys. 'Crew of chimps', ha ha ha.

Eventually Noah Falstein wandered in to see what the hubbub was about, and we told him. He chuckled a little, and then advised us to think about it again the next day and see if it was still as funny. We did, and it wasn't, so we didn't use it. To this day I use the phrase 'crew of chimps' whenever I am confronted by anything which seems like it's probably not as funny as we think it is at the moment.

Have you played Curse of Monkey Island? If so, what did you think? What would you have done differently?

Yes, I played it, and I liked it. It was really fun for me to have the experience of playing a Monkey game I hadn't written. I thought they captured the feel and the humor of the original quite well. And that Murray character was a riot! I would have liked more of an ending, but my understanding is that Larry and Jonathan didn't wind up with a whole lot of choice about that.


Part 3 - Other Games

I liked Maniac Mansion. So it was great to see Day of Tentacle (DOTT). What inspired the sequel?

Well, Tim and I liked Maniac Mansion, too. So we did a sequel. It was also somewhat inspired by old Chuck Jones cartoons, as you can probably tell by playing it.

You were a project leader on DOTT. How did you get that job? How much pressure was on you now, being in charge of the whole team?

I suppose I got the job by asking for it. I'd more or less been an apprentice up to that point, so it was the next logical step. And yes, it was a lot of pressure, but at least I'd been through the game-making process a couple of times, so I sort of knew what to expect.

Can you give us some insight into the creative process on DOTT; ie: how the plot, characters, script, etc. all came together?

Hum... well from the get-go we knew we were doing a sequel to Maniac Mansion. And somebody suggested a time-travel thing, I think it might have even been Ron. Then we tried to think up time periods that might be fun, and work some puzzles into them while coming up with an interesting story - those things tend to get done together, it works better that way. We spent weeks in a conference room, just tossing out ideas and laughing our fool heads off. The time periods that seemed to be working out best were the ones we ultimately kept. In the beginning we were going to have six player characters, like the original Maniac, so we came up with a bunch of Bernard's college cronies but then eventually whittled them down to just Hoagie and Laverne. There was also 'Chester', an artiste who survives in modified form as Red Edison's twin sons, 'Moonglow', who fell by the wayside, and a couple of others that I can't even remember now.

So once you had your plot in place, what was the process of designing, making and then completing DOTT?

Everybody worked really hard for about a year and a half, and then one night, while we were all sleeping, elves crept into the building and built the game for us.

DOTT was made into a 'talkie' for the CD-ROM version. Did you have the final word on who was cast to do the voices? Were you happy with the results?

Yes we did, and yes, we were. Bernard was by far the toughest part to cast. I'm proud to say that Richard Sanders was my suggestion.

After it was released, was there anything about DOTT that you wanted to add or change? (Hindsight is a wonderful thing, so I'm told!)

Probably, but whatever it was I've managed to forget about it by now. Memory loss is an even more wonderful thing than hindsight.

Seriously, I was pretty happy with it, and I still think its my favorite of the games I've done.

Ever wanted to make Maniac Mansion 3?

I can't remember having had any particular leanings one way or the other, except for right after DOTT was finished, at which point burned-out little me never wanted to look at a tentacle again.

What other games did you work on whilst at LucasArts and have worked on after you'd left?

Well, I suppose I should stick to things that have been published. I think the only one I haven't mentioned from LucasArts would be Full Throttle - I helped out with the dialog on that briefly. A few of my lines are probably still in there.

I've written seven graphic adventures since leaving LucasArts, five for kids and two for grown-ups, but so far only four of those have been released - all three of the Pajama Sam adventure games, as well as a Freddi Fish title called 'The Case of the Hogfish Rustlers of Briny Gulch'. There's another one allegedly coming later this year.

I also had some limited involvement with a few non-adventurey things: 'Total Annihilation', and its sequel 'The Core Contingency'. 'Imagynasium', a kind of exploratory art program that was eventually released by Sundance for Kids. And I wrote some children's books, too: 'Pajama Sam: Mission to the Moon'; 'Freddi Fish: The Big Froople Match'; and 'Freddi Fish: The Missing Letters Mystery'. I think that's about it (tune in again next week) - I've consulted on some other titles but didn't get involved with them in any sort of interesting creative way.


Part 4 - The Future

DOTT and the Monkey Island series regularly feature in a lot of top 10/20 lists for computer games. When you were making the games did you realise how special they would be?

You can't ever tell how people are going to react - you just make a game, you try to make it as good as you can, and you hope people like it. Or at least that they don't throw you in jail or crush you with big rocks. I gotta say, though, that whenever someone lists any of those games among their favorites after all this time, that makes me feel pretty good. Not like we cured cancer or anything, but at least we entertained people and seem to have left a lasting impression.

People often clasp their heads in horror and scream "The adventure genre's dead!" Do you believe the genre has really become less popular or finished with?

The genre has become less popular with companies that make computer games, largely because adventure games are really expensive to put together and even the successful ones don't make nearly as much profit as other kinds of games. The exception appears to be with outfits that make software aimed at kids under 10 - more of these companies seem to be interested in making adventure games than ever before.

And meanwhile, as competition gets fiercer in other game genres and publishers are looking for ways to distinguish their products, many seem to be becoming more interested in storytelling. Perhaps because of this some of the more compelling aspects of adventures will begin infecting other types of games. Like a virus. But a good one. Also, the Web is beginning to offer some interesting possibilities for story games.

I don't know, keep your eyes peeled, they're not dead yet.

Are you going to play Escape from Monkey Island when it comes out? Any thought on it from what we've seen so far?

Sure, I'll play it. How could I not? But I can't offer any opinions based on what I've seen so far because I haven't really seen anything.

What are your future plans - do you see yourself returning to programming and writing full time? Or just concentrating on the writing aspect?

I'm the sort of person who tends to have a lot of irons in a lot of fires all the time. I have a separate pile of paper in my office for each current project, and at last count there were ten of them spread around the room. Don't tell the fire inspector.

Some of those piles are about writing, some are about game design, and some are about other things entirely. Number one priority this week is the publication of a book of my goofy poems. My online Poem of the Week project is about to enter its sixth year, and I imagine that will continue to be part of the picture. There are also a couple of games, as usual, and I'm looking into doing some cool Web stuff, too. Beyond that I can't say definitely which things will get done and where it will all lead - the general plan for the future is simply this: do things that are interesting, challenging, and fun. There appears to be no shortage.

Any ambitions left unfulfilled?

Only a few thousand. But I'll get to them if I live long enough.

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