The Secret of Creating Monkey Island - An Interview With Ron Gilbert, excerpt from LucasFilm Adventurer vol. 1, number 1, Fall 1990.
Q. Whatever possessed you to create a game about pirates, anyway?
A. I'd wanted to do a pirate game for a long time. You see, one of my favorite rides in Disneyland is Pirates of the Caribbean. You get on a little boat and it takes you through a pirate adventure, climaxing in a cannon fight between two big pirate ships. Your boat keeps you moving through the adventure, but I've always wished I could get off and wander around, learn more about the characters, and find a way onto those pirate ships.
So with The Secret of Monkey Island(TM) I wanted to create a game that had the same flavor, but where you could step off the boat and enter that whole storybook world. The pirates on Monkey Island aren't like real pirates, who were slimy and vicious, the terrorists of the 17th century. These are swashbuckling fun-loving pirates, like the ones in the adventure stories everyone grows up with.
Q. Once you had the idea, where did you go from there?
A. I started designing Monkey Island about two and a half years ago. But I was only the way through the design when Indianna Jones and the Last Crusade(R) came up. That had to be done quickly, so we had to put Monkey Island on hold for a while. That's why it took so long to complete.
The first thing I do when I'm designing a game is sit down and write a short story. I wrote a lot of four- or five-page stories, lots of different plots.
Then I'd read each story and ask myself, is that interesting? Does that make sense? And I'd say, 'well, no.' So I'd throw it out and write another.
I kept writing these stories and showing them to people around the office, until I hit upon something that was really intriguing. I had put some ghosts into one of the stories, and that seemed to catch everyone's interest.
I'm not sure why there's such a close connection between pirates and ghosts, and so many stories about ghost ships and ghost pirates. In all the reading I did, I never found out where all that began. Still, when I put in the ghost pirate LeChuck, that's when everything started to come together for me. Because now I had a good, strong antagonist.
Q. You mention doing some reading. Why?
A. I read a lot of novels and reference books, more for the flavor of the period than for accuracy. This isn't a historically accurate game. In fact, you'll see when you play that there are a lot of anachronisms, like the vending machine at Stan's used ship yard. They're there to add humor to the game of course, but they also have a secret, deeper relevance to the story -- but I'm keeping that secret for the sequel.
Q. A sequel? Really?
A. Yeah, but don't tell anyone yet.
Q. Okay, I'll just edit that line out of the interview before it's printed. So you've got your story, and your ghost pirate. Then what?
A. The next step was to take the story and break it up into a step-by-step outline of what the player has to do. You have to pick up some things, you have to get a ship, you have to find Monkey Island, and so on. I ended up with a four-page list of forty or fifty key points.
Then I started writing puzzles around each of those points. Each point might have as many as three or four puzzles that need to be solved.
At the same time, I looked for ways to make the story nonlinear, to give players a choice of which puzzle to solve next. If you have a lot of bottlenecks, you're going to increase the chance that players will become frustrated with your game. Because they're sitting in one room trying to get through one door, and there's nothing else to do in the game until they get through that door. If you can give them other things they can do while they're trying to get throught the door, they can put that puzzle aside for a while and do other stuff. Maybe they'll even see something along the way that'll help them figure out the puzzle.
Q. Can you give us an example of this from the game?
A. One of the things I did to make the story less linear was to add the three trials at the start of the game. You have to prove yourself as a pirate by completing these three tests, and you can do them in any order that you want. That was done on purpose, so that you don't have to finish trial one before you can try trial two. I think it's good design technique to have things as nonlinear as possible, but it does make the storytelling ten times as hard.
The game went through a lot of changes in the design process. The three trials are one example; I added them late in the design stage. Another change was that I decided to introduce a lot of the characters in a way that wasn't directly related to the main plot. These are the people you'll eventually need for your ship's crew. But I wanted you to meet them as incidental characters while you're completing the trials. They aren't important at that point. Then when you're presented with the problem of finding a crew, you think, wow, I've already met these people, and now you can go back and really interact with them.
Q. When you've finished the design, you're ready to start programming, right?
A. Wrong. After the design is finished, then comes the horrible task of budgeting and scheduling, which is no fun whatsoever. You plan out when each room is going to get drawn, when each character is going to get programmed, how much is it going to cost. This can last a couple of weeks.
A computer game used to be done by one person working for maybe a year, and it would cost thirty or forty thousand dollars. Now we're doing these huge games that teams of specialists work on together, and they're starting to cost huge amounts of money. Within a few years it'll cost a million dollars to put together a game. When you're dealing with that much money you have to plan out every detail.
Our team for Monkey Island included programmers Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman. They not only did the programming but they wrote about two-thirds of the dialog in the game, too. And Steve Purcell and Mark Ferrari did the great artwork.
Q. Once the budgets and schedules are done, you can begin programming at last. But Monkey Island is an enormous, complex game. Where do you start?
A. Our first goal was to get a crude version of the game together as fast as we could. That means a lot of the animation was missing, the rooms were just sketched in , the puzzles were wired in as quickly as possible.
It took about three months to get a primitive version of Monkey Island that was playable from beginning to end. It was like having a rough cut of a movie. We could identify a lot of weak spots -- we cut out a whole bunch of the game at one point because it just didn't flow well, and we added stuff where the game wasn't interesting enough.
Q. For example?
A. Before you can recruit one character named Meathook, he demands that you prove your bravery. You had to accomplish three things. But it slowed down the flow of the game too much, so we cut out two of them. For our story, one was enough. We added some things, too. We realised that once you got to Monkey Island, the game became kind of slow. The reason was simply that there weren't a lot of people on Monkey Island to interact with -- logically enough, since it's supposed to be a deserted island. So we added a shipwrecked character on the island, and that gives you somebody to talk with. And as you piece together the story of what's been happening on Monkey Island, you discover that he's a very important part of that story.
So that crude first version of the game actually saved us time. If instead we'd worked each part up to perfection as we went along, we'd have wasted a lot of time on things like that that would eventually be thrown out, and it would have taken twice as long to produce the game.
Q. But Monkey Island is on the shelves at last.
A. I'm glad it's done. It's been two and a half years and a lot of hard work, but a lot of fun, too. We hope everyone has a great time playing it.