An Interview With Ron Gilbert, from PC Gamer UK, January 1999, issue #65.
With Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island 1 and 2, Ron Gilbert brought the adventure game into the '90s. Having left LucasArts to found Cavedog, he surprised us all by releasing a strategy title known as Total Annihilation. How does one man conquer two such diverse genres? We caught up with him on a recent visit to London.
With the release of the new Star Wars films and the attention that LucasArts' games division is going to get as a result, surely there's never been a better time to be part of the Lucas Empire. Why did you leave the company and do you have any regrets about doing so?
I'd been with the company for eight years. I had a great time there, and achieved a lot, and I really enjoyed working with everyone, but I felt that it was time to move on.
Sometimes I think it would be nice to still work there, yet I've never regretted leaving LucasArts. It's funny, actually, because I still talk to a lot of the people there, and there's two very different sides to that story. There are people saying that it's wonderful that they can work on some new Star Wars games, and there are people saying that they can't believe that they are working on yet another Star Wars game. I'm looking forward to seeing the Films, but I'm not bothered about not being in the middle of it all.
You were clearly pivotal to the creation and success of the first two Monkey Island adventures, and, as a result, to the success of LucasArts adventures in general. And yet you weren't even consulted on Monkey Island 3. Do you wish that you were involved in its creation, or at least in the story-line?
I spoke to the development team a lot while they made it, but we never talked about the game per se. But Monkey Island belongs to LucasArts. It's their game, not mine.
It must have been tough for the team of Monkey Island 3 to live up to your legacy, especially after such a long break since the first two, and without your help.
I guess so. The team would mention that I had made their life hell. Particularly with the ending to Monkey Island 2. They just didn't know what it meant.
Did you feel any pressure in creating Monkey lsland 2, after the enormous success of the original?
But if I was ever to do a Monkey Island 4, I would definitely feel the pressure.
With your history of adventures, and with LucasArts still releasing some excellent titles, do you envisage creating a Cavedog adventure in the future?
I would really like to do a straight adventure game. After doing Good & Evil I may find elements that really make me want to write an adventure game. I hope Grim Fandango does well and really kickstarts the genre.
When you left LucasArts to form Cavedog, started by creating children's software for sister company Humongous. Was that a comfortable departure, or merely a means keep things ticking over?
It didn't feel weird doing the Humongous stuff. Although I was working on children's software still playing games so it wasn't as if I left the industry for four years. Cavedog and Humongous are both owned by GT, so that meant that we we able to take a few risks that we may not have be able to do if we were just a small company. TA to two and a half years to make and loads of money. don't think that we could have done it without a parent company above us.
You are obviously very happy being owned a published by GT, but the general feeling of games designers is that they aren't given the support, autonomy and credit they deserve, hence the Gathering of Developers in America. Why is Cavedog so lucky, or what are GOD failing to realise is the benefit of an owner/publisher?
It's hard for me to say that Id haven't been properly rewarded for what they do. There are developers that earn millions and millions for what they do. But there are publishers that take advantage of developers as well. I think organizations like the GOD exaggerate the situation, but like any business there will be people who are taken advantage of by unscrupulous companies.
The current trend is for single developers to leave a publisher or team and set up on their own. Clearly you did the same thing. Does this benefit the Industry?
I don't think that it is generally healthy. It's good that some people can go off and do their own thing, but it does seem recently that people do one game and then leave, which means that they don't always get all of the experience that they need. If you are a programmer on a project and you think that you can go off and be a designer and the programmer and run the company, then that is likely to be a little ambitious.
It goes in waves. It's not a new situation. I've seen it happen before: teams breaking up and going it alone, and then going out of business and coming back as employees. But it does seem today that people are leaving really fast, rather than waiting three, four or five years.
But, of course, this is exactly what happened to Chris Taylor, the Producer of Total Annihilation who has now left Cavedog. Do you still talk to him?
I don't talk to him a lot, although a lot of the TA2 team still do.
Do you miss him creatively?
That's a hard question. Clayton [Kauzlaric, Co-Designer of TA and Producer of TA2] and Chris worked almost hand in hand on TA, so when Clayton started doing Kingdoms he gave everyone in the old team a part to play in the development.
Is that why Kingdoms is turning out to be quite different to TA? Simply because you don't have Taylor's influence any more?
Yes. It's nice because it gives us the chance to take the idea in a new direction. There are definitely some elements in Kingdoms that I don't think Chris would have gone along with.
What were your emotions when Chris said he was going to leave? Do you have to temper disappointment or frustration because you can see a bit of yourself in Chris' wanting to go in a new direction?
I wasn't upset at Chris for leaving. It wouldn't be right for me to be upset when I had done the same thing at LucasArts. The only difference is that I stayed at LucasArts for eight years.
Has the cost of producing a game - the time it takes and the size of a team - surprised you since starting your own company?
Not really, because I even saw that several years ago at LucasArts. What surprises me is how much more expensive they become over time. Each year a game costs hundreds of thousands more dollars to create, which means that you have to start selling more copies. What worries me is the consumer's demand for really great graphics and hundreds of hours of gameplay, which means that if a company can't sell enough copies to support this, we're going to get into a very tricky situation. What I hope is that the number of people buying games also increases in proportion to the extra money we're spending. Then everything will be okay.
Despite a history of creating adventures, your first game for Cavedog was real-time strategy. Which do you prefer?
Hmm... I think that I prefer designing adventure games, but I tend to play real-time strategy games.
Most people outside of Cavedog must have been surprised by the runaway success of Total Annihilafion. Had you predicted the success of TA from within Cavedog?
There's no denying that we knew we had a good game. It had taken two and a half years to make, and yet we still enjoyed playing it. And feedback during previews had been very positive. But we could still only dream that it would be quite so well received.
How much game design do you do now?
With Good & Evil I'm doing it all. With Kingdoms I'm not doing a whole lot. I trust my team with what they are doing, although Clayton and I meet up at least once a day and talk through stuff.
So you don't get caught up in endless planning meetings then?
No. I don't do meetings. I hate meetings. I like to give the designers autonomy. I don't like to interfere. I like to challenge their assumptions, rather than tell them what to do. If they still want to stick to their idea after I've challenged it, then that's up to them.
Have you thought about creating games for the consoles?
We don't really have any console expertise at Cavedog. Plus, you are really at the mercy of Sony at Nintendo when you're creating console games. I don't think that console software is something we would enjoy making.
How about the supposed simplicity in cross-developing for the Dreamcast and PC?
I don't think the Dreamcast carries enough RAM to port a PC game to it. Next year you might have games relying on 64Mb of RAM and the Dreamcast just can't do that. But that's definitely a platform that we're keeping an eye on. It might prove to be the easiest way into console development.
You concentrate on creating believable characters and worlds in your games, and have often likened game design to book writing and film creation. Have you ever considered putting your own opinions on life into your games, using them as a forum to make a point?
Absolutely so. I think that those people who say they don't, really do. They just don't realise they are doing it. Storytelling, whether it's a book or film or game, forms analogies with us or with people we know. Putting that stuff in makes the game world richer as it gives us something to identify with. The point when people criticise is when you really try to cram the message down people's throats. If it's done really subtly, then it can prove to be very powerful.
In that vein, the title 'Good & Evil' suggests a morality aspect in the game.
I don't know if I would call it 'morality', but the game is divided up into quests, although you don't have to play them in any particular order. In each of these quests the story is related to good versus evil. There are the classic stories of good guys going after bad guys, plus there's one story of two religions, with each thinking that the other is bad. The story is about whether both religions are good or both are evil, while the game's surrounding story ties all of these elements together.
Tiberian Sun and Kingdoms may end up with the same release date. Is Command & Conquer 2 a help or hindrance to selling Total Annihilation: Kingdoms?
It would be better if they didn't come out at the same time, but I'm not overly worried about it. They are really two different genres: fantasy and war. They really do have different audiences, although there may be a lot of crossover. There were people who didn't like Warcraft but loved C&C. Although it is a challenge to go up against such a huge name, we think we have our own audience. The biggest advantage was that Blizzard didn't bring out another Warcraft.
As a storyteller, do you do a George Lucas and seem to make it up as you go along, or is it all carefully planned from the start?
Well, I know what happens at the beginning of Good & Evil, and I know what the end is. Now I've just got to figure out what happens in the middle.Good & Evil was never completed. Ron Gilbert currently runs Hulabee Entertainment.
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