Most commonly known for his hit, animated computer game series about the adventures of a hopeless lounge lizard in search of love, Al Lowe sits among a few select others as a true legend in the land of adventure gaming. Although the future of his signature character, Larry Laffer, has been unofficially proclaimed a lost cause by the gaming industry, Al still dreams of the day when he’ll be invited to introduce a new generation to the world of Leisure Suit Larry.
Just Laugh’s Managing Editor, Matthew Gatesy, recently had the opportunity to chat with the comedic genius about life, love and the pursuit of a few good laughs. Here’s how the interview went…
Shall we just dive right in then?
Sure, let’s go.
We know that you started out as a band director. How did you make your transition from being a band director to designing computer games?
I was born a small black child…Well, I had always been the closet geek. I was the guy who set up the AV equipment in high school. I was the guy who had the band equipment, the PA system, when the band went places, so I ended up being tagged. I was the guy with the tape recorder when I was in sixth grade, a reel to reel tape recorder. I was always interested in electronics and gadgets and stuff like that. When computers came along, I was fascinated by them. When I was young, it always had to do with mathematicians, computing trajectories and things. Stuff that I had no use for.
Then later, when I was in college, it focused around business stuff, and I wasn’t in business. Finally, I got out and started teaching. I guess when I first had access to a machine, I became a school administrator, I was a district music coordinator and so I was operating out of the district office. They had a Deck PDP 11-7D computer – Hot diggity! As I remember, they were really excited to get more people using the machine because, at the time, they wanted to get more memory. They had 32 users and they only had a megabyte of memory, which was divided up between them. And of course the programmers in the back room, they got double. It didn’t leave a lot of space for everybody else, but it was more than enough because nobody knew what they were doing anyway. When they found out that I was interested they said, “Well, you can use it to make your job easier.” Really, how do you do that?
What they gave me was a copy of a programmer’s editor and a program called Runoff, which allowed me to format things, but you had to look at it in all these dot commands and stuff. It was like looking at Word Perfect’s reveal code or looking at HTML, actually, that’s a better example for today. You know, looking at HTML code and trying to figure out what exactly the page would look like. So you had to run this other program called Runoff, and that was actually like the browser. And then you could actually see what the program looked like, but you couldn’t make any changes there of course. It did help and it did get me interested in machines and how I could use them to make my job easier.
So I was an early adopter of word processing. The district couldn’t even buy the word process that Deck sold because it was $8,000 and they didn’t know of anybody else who would use it. Isn’t that funny? “What would anyone need a word processor for?” Only the typing pool would use that. I also got into databases and started doing some database design and work. They were excited by that because no one ever used databases outside of the programming department.
I wrote a set of programs that would calculate the scoring for a music festival. That came about because, as a band director, I got stung several times by going to festivals where the common practice at the time was to have 5×8 cards filled out by each judge and a platoon of band parents with adding machines would add these things together and cross check their paper tape and then try to put the cards in order. And several times we got a third place trophy and we got home and found out we had earned the first place trophy. So I said, “This is the perfect solution, we should have the computer tabulate these scores.” And it was the perfect first programming job because I had never programmed anything before, but I knew exactly the output that I needed to have and I knew exactly the input because I had designed the score sheet. So all I had to do was to do the computation.
Well, it turned out it was a great thing, so I spent about a month while I was working full time developing this program. As far as I know we were the first music festival in the country, in the world, to use computerized scoring, so I was proud of that. From that, it lead to an idea that I could write games and make them educational and entertain kids, where as the typical software at the time was very boring. I wrote games because I had a son and I knew he wouldn’t play these other things, the homework stuff, but he would play games, so I wrote games that were educational. At the time, Sierra was the biggest publisher of software. Ken Williams saw the games and liked the way they looked. He offered me a contract and I became an outside contractor with them for 16 years. It all started because of my background in education.
Now, my band director in high school was, to put it nicely, kind of a complete nutcase. I assume all band directors aren’t like that right?
Well, I think if you stay long enough – I got out after 10 years. Yeah, I think that’s probably pretty accurate. I had some rules in my band. The band had an attitude that was pretty much like mine. We were kinda loose, but when we had to perform, when we had to have discipline, we had it. We were good at sight-reading–I made them learn how to read and by that I don’t mean English. I mean the language of halftime shows and stuff. Remember, this was all before computers designed halftime shows. In fact, that was one of the main reasons I got interested in computers, because I wanted to design a halftime show with it, but by the time I got around to doing that somebody had else already done it. Now I don’t know of a band director that doesn’t use a computer. I had the idea in 1977. Trouble was, the hardware wasn’t up to it at that point.I think all band directors are strange. The rule in my band was if you could make me laugh, you could crack the line, but if you put out a joke and it bombed, then you got in trouble. So you had to have confidence in your humor. I had some guys that pretty regularly cracked me up, so they could get away with it. And pretty much it was the kinds that determined it, if they laughed… So we had a good time, but we also had a pretty good band program. That was part of the problem. I got to be 35 years old and I had reached all of the goals I had set for myself in college. I thought, “What the hell am I going to do?” I had 20-30 years before I would retire, what kind of advancement could I do? Then I got hooked on computers and suddenly it was obvious.
What was it like to work on what was basically the dream team of computer game design, along with Roberta and Ken Williams and Scott Murphy and that group?
We didn’t know we were the dream team. We thought we didn’t know anything and we were just kinda struggling to figure it out. We thought all the other companies had these brilliant guys who had backgrounds in computer science and knew lots of ways of coding things and had all the secrets and all the stuff figured out. Hell, we didn’t know everyone was scuffling and faking it and making it up as they went along just as we were.I think my background in music was a big reason that our games looked and felt different than a lot of others, because we didn’t have the background as programmers. I was a teacher. Roberta was a big movie buff and a big reader, she was never trained in writing or directing or anything, but she was certainly self-trained. And Scott was just a crazy guy with a great sense of humor. So our stuff didn’t come out looking like it had been done by programmers. At first I thought it was a disadvantages. Later, I looked at it like there were a lot of guys who could program, but I could be creative.
And my team never missed a goal. I think in the 27 products I did one was late, and that was because I didn’t have a say so in when that goal was. They said, “You’ll have this ready by then.” And I said, “No we won’t.” They didn’t listen and they were wrong. I also think there’s also a lot to be said for being a jazz musician and being able to improvise, because when you stand up in front of a crowd you have to give it your best shot and do what you can do right now. To a great extent, I think game design is that same thing. You’ll see guys, who know who they are, that spend years and years going back and forth over the same product, trying to get this tweaked just right and that tweaked. And finally by the time it comes out, it’s anticlimactic, it’s outdated, it’s old. And people say, “Well, this was a good game 2 or 3 years ago, but now…” I think that’s a big part of it. I think Freddie Farkas had 1,000 lines of dialogue. You don’t have time to sit there and spend an hour on each one. You have come up with a snappy comeback or something that has a laugh in it or at least some spark of creativity. And you have to do it right now, and I think the background I had falls into that.
Do you ever talk to the Williams’ or Murphy anymore?
I just spent a week with the Williams at their beautiful beach home in Mexico – went down there and played golf with Ken and Roberta and my wife. Scott, I talk to every month, I suppose. I’ve lost track of Mark Crowe. I don’t know where he is right now. I followed him at Dynamix, but when they went under I lost him. I don’t know what happened to him. So I see a lot of the guys.
How did your friends and family, most notably your wife, react when you were creating the Larry series?
Well, she didn’t know, really, what I did. She was never very interested in computers or in games, so she really had no idea what was going on. I showed her the original design for Leisure Suit Larry, which was Chuck Benton’s game SoftPorn – that was the design. That was the “document.” We didn’t have a design document. We kinda looked at that old game and we said, well, here’s a bunch of puzzles, let’s use those puzzles and locations and see if we can make it a better game. So, when we were working on it, I showed her. I said, “This is so bad, I have to make fun of it.” SoftPorn was a totally serious game about a guy trying to get laid. There was no central character, there was no anything. No text. No persona. No graphics, of course. So my wife added, “Don’t embarrass us too much.” I don’t think I did. I think the box always promised more excitement that I actually had nerve enough to put in it. I always felt if I crossed the line and it becomes pornography then that’s not funny anymore…I was gonna say I’ve never seen funny pornography, but Bimbo Cheerleaders in Outer Space was actually pretty damn funny.
You must have a ton of people asking about Leisure Suit Larry 8 and what the status is on it. What do you want to say on the future of Larry?
I’d say that the future looks very dim. Let me start at the beginning. The work that I did for Sierra was work for hire, which is three funny words that when put together become this legal harassment that means, essentially, that the company kept all the rights and I kept none. I got a royalty on sales and I continued to get a royalty on sales and as long as they continue to put out a new collection out every few years, I may continue to get a few bucks here and then, but for the most part my money came from the sales of the product and they retained the rights. The characters in essence are treated the same was as Superman or Batman or any of those other kind of characters that have been created by writers and end up being own by the publisher. That’s the way it is with Sierra. Sierra owns the rights to all the characters I created. And at this point they seem to have no desire to do anything with them. Although, I have heard rumors they have started a King’s Quest game and they have started at least talking about a Space Quest. I don’t know how accurate those stories are because I don’t have any good connections there anymore.
If Sierra contacted you and asked you to make another Larry game, would you be interested?
Well, I would if the conditions were correct – to be correct would mean that I would have control over the product. At least as much control as I used to have. And have a budget that was befitting a class A title. And a reasonable time schedule. And a certain royalty rate and so forth, so there’s a lot of little things. So if they said, “Do you want to do another game?” My immediate answer would be hell yes! Let’s go for it! Let’s start tomorrow. In fact, I already have a design waiting! So, my response would be immediately yes and let’s talk about the details later. I have no desire to do a game for little or no money or a game where they screw up the characters or do stupid things with them. They’ve already done a couple of those. The pinball game was kinda lame, but then I screwed things up myself with the Laffer Utilities package. That was my own fault. That was about three years too early. If I had brought that out about the time that After Dark was popular I think it would have been completely different. So my answer is absolutely maybe.
What advice would you offer to someone who wants to get into game design as a career?
Don’t! Nobody goes into game design as a game designer. I don’t know anyone who said, “I want to be a game designer when I grow up.” Everybody I know who is in the business was a band director or a housewife or a writer or a programmer or an artist. Nobody that I know was trained as a game designer. I would say it’s a bad field to break into with no experience in any other aspect of game design. With that said, if you’re a good programmer and have the creativity that it also takes to be a game designer, get a job as a programmer and work your way up. I just don’t know anybody who actually studied game design. I know there are schools. I’m not trying to be too flippant here. There are schools that say they’ll teach you to be a game designer. I’d like to see a list of their graduates who have gained a job in game design.
Now it seems like the games that were made ten or fifteen years ago are usually more fun to play than a lot of the games that are coming out today. What do you think that the games today are doing wrong or what could game designers be doing differently to make their games better?
Well, that’s a broad question and I can only answer it in broad strokes, but let me put it in a positive spin: I think one of the reasons that the games that feature a designer above the title are successful is because they reflect the peculiarity, the sensibility and the personality of that person. I think the games that are designed by committees are almost always disappointing because they don’t have a unified point of view, they don’t have a consistent approach, they don’t have this and that and the other thing, but primarily they’ve just been filtered and filtered and filtered so much that they all end up being a Ford Taurus, right? That’s the kind of game you get when you design by committee and I think that the reason that Sid Meier is a famous name and that Lord British is a famous name and, you know, Roberta Williams is because like it or not, their personality is in that box. If you like Larry, you’re gonna like Al Lowe! I’m not saying that I am Larry because God knows I’m not, at least I hope I’m not, but my personality is in there.Actually, you know the character that I imitate the most? The narrator – yeah, you know, I’m the guy who always has the last laugh, I have some smart-ass response, I am the all-knowing, omnipotent, all-seeing – yeah, that’s me! But yeah, I think that the games that have a personality have it because there’s one person in charge, who has the vision for the project, who has the responsibility and is given the ability and the means to make the product reflect his personal vision of what the game should be, and frankly, I didn’t realize until I got a website how many people were affected by my games. You know, it’s one thing to get a royalty statement and a spreadsheet that says this game sold this many copies this month and you look at that and go, “Well, that’s good – 20,000 copies – that’s good.”
When I got a website, I started getting thousands of letters that said, “You know, I’ve spent so many hours that I enjoyed, or that I played with my brother and the two of us, well, we were too young, but we sure liked getting into the game!” and suddenly it all became so much more human and I guess I know that the game sold millions of copies and I know that for every copy we sold, at least another one or two were pirated, so I know millions of people have played these games, but somehow it was all just kind of numbers and academic until I actually started hearing from people and I’ll tell you, I so appreciate it when people stop by my website and send me e-mail. It’s just been a real pleasure.
Going back to our previous question a little, are there any aspects of those ‘classic games’ that you would like to see brought back or reintroduced in today’s market?
Actually, hang on to that question for a second, but let me go back and finish; I had another thought that I was going to put on, but I couldn’t fit it in right. On the games with the designer’s name above the title, I think the analogy there is that the movie where the director and the screen writer are the main persons who have that vision of the film – they have one strong vision that carries through it and I think that’s why you see Woody Allen movies or Steven Spielberg movies – his films have a certain reminisce or personality to them because of who he is and I think that’s the key.Now, what should the games do nowadays?
Yeah, are there any aspects of the classic games that you’d like to see brought back?
Well, I’ll tell you, I’m amazed that with comedies being so big on television and in movies, that there is no humor, to speak of, in computer games. That just amazes me that in the world, there wasn’t a lot – Scott (Murphy) and I, and Monkey Island, and a few others, Steve Morenski, but nowadays everything is so dry and so serious…
I tend to agree with you, too! So what are you doing with your time nowadays, now that you’re not designing computer games anymore?
I play golf, badly! Let’s see, well I spend more time with my family – with my kids and with my wife. I read a lot, which I never used to have time for. I watch a lot of films; I’m a big convert to NetFlix – I don’t know if you know about NetFlix.com, but they’re a wonderful source for DVDs and you never have to worry about when to return them, so I spend a lot of time with that.
So what was the last good movie that you saw?
Well, let’s see… Instead of saying it that way, let me recommend some that I think your readers might enjoy. This is not a comedy, but there is a wonderful movie called Timecode – it was done by the same director that did Leaving Las Vegas, and I wanted to try something new and he’s a musician – maybe that’s why I’m sympathetic to him, but what he did was take four video cameras and put in a two-hour reel tape and start them all rolling at the same time on four different subjects in the area and tell all the stories in quarter screen, so he split the screen into four pieces and you actually watch four images simultaneously and it’s wonderful. It sounds weird, but sometimes they’re in the same room and you get the same situation, only from four different points of view; other times you see two conversations that are going on at the same time, sometimes somebody is traveling, but the whole movie is told in real time – it’s about an hour and forty minutes in LA one summer afternoon, and it’s an amazing film. There’s not a lot of ground-breaking new movies, but this certainly was one of them. While it’s not the final answer as to how to tell simultaneous stories, I think it’s certainly a great start in that direction and a way of helping with more interaction in typical films. Anyways, rent the movieTimecode – you have not seen anything like it, and especially get the DVD because they tell you how they made it.
Now we know that you’re on the Internet with NetFlix and your website and whatnot, but what do you mostly use the Internet for?
Mostly, I would say the e-mail – answering the e-mail from my site and from friends and those people. Next I would say for current events, particularly in the tech field; I’ve used it for keeping track of various stocks. Site that I go to a lot – I’m into scuba diving, so I like to look for bargain trips and dive locations. I’m a model railroader, so I do a lot of reading on websites about those things.
Do you have any favorite websites that you would recommend people check out?
Well, NetFlix actually has changed my life, seriously. I don’t know how many hours a week, I used to go to the video store and waste time standing there trying to figure out what to buy because all the good stuff was gone and now I just visit their new website – I go out to the mailbox and yesterday two movies showed up and I know that they’re two that I want. I’ve just resigned myself – I have a home theater as well, a THX-quality theater – so I’ve resigned myself to seeing movies six months after I see the advertisements. It takes a little practice, but you can convince yourself that no, you don’t have to go to a theater and stick to the floor and listen to someone talking on their cell phone and people talking back at the screen, so I think we’ve seen probably one movie in a theater this year and to me, that was one that we’ll rent next year, so I guess NetFlix would be one great site.
I use Google constantly and I keep the Internet history as a folder on my taskbar and that’s an easy way to get anywhere. If I go click on that link, I’m just pulling up one day – there’s gotta be thirty websites listed here, not pages but just different sites, and the next day twenty-five, so I guess I get around!
If you could live anywhere, where would you choose to live?
Oh, some place that’s cold and rainy, gray and overcast!
Sounds like the weather outside for me right now!
Yeah, you know I asked myself that question flying home from Mexico, so it’s funny that you bring that up… I still have hopes that I’ll get the chance to tell another game and create another product, but if that’s not the case then there’s really not much reason for me to be living nearby. I don’t know, but I think someplace warm and sunny, where the diving is decent – as long as I enjoy myself!
How’s the progress on your book coming along?
Oh, don’t be nasty… You know, it’s kind of fallen through the cracks. I have just a gigantic folder on my hard drive full of material and I keep slapping more and more of it up on my website and as I do, I format it – I clean it up, fix the grammar and all the spelling errors, I fix the punch line so that the punch is actually at the end of the sentence instead of at the beginning or the middle, like a lot of people have done. So I do all of that work and I keep thinking that I should just slap this into a book someplace and sell it – that’s about the stage it’s at. I’ve got a lot of the work done, but I haven’t really gone through and put it together and done it, but I don’t know. It’s one of those things I think that if I made it a priority, I could probably do it in a few months, but so far there’s just been lots more fun things to do in life and I just don’t have the time.
What’s in your CD player right now?
Well, probably jazz for sure, but I’m not sure I know the answer! I’ve been listening to a great jazz guitar player named Joe Tabb, that nobody will have ever heard of, so you’ll have to go to CDNow to look up Joe Tabb to find out about him. I’ve got Art Pepper, alto-saxophone player who’s a big band – I just bought a box of his music.
There’s a website I go to, Mosaic Records. I’m addicted! They have amazing, fantastic collections of totally complete works by particular artists. For example, they have cancelled CD sets of Charlie Parker’s alto-saxophone solos, recorded illegally by some guy on a wire-recorder and later he got a wax machine and started cutting the actual discs. He just used them to practice with, like a guy with a pocket cassette recorder, but back in the late 40’s that was invading, so these guys bought all these wires and tapes and records from his wife in his will and put them out so a few people like me bought ‘em! So there’s some pretty epithetic jazz sites with complete collections, but they are the best.
Now, knowing that you’re a huge fan of jazz, I was wondering if I was in the area any time soon, where could I go to hear Al Lowe performing?
Well, I play with a band every Thursday night, but we don’t particularly care to go out and play in public, so we rarely perform publicly. What we do is get together and sight-read music and play music for our own enjoyment. All of us are at the point in our lives where we don’t need the money and we don’t need somebody telling us to play In the Mood or something for the seven-thousandth time, so instead we just get together and play the kind of music that we want to play, and if anybody cares to listen, that’s fine!
Do bits of the Larry theme ever find their way into your jam sessions?
Only if I’m too drunk!
Actually, the Larry theme is a great story. This isn’t exactly one of your questions, but I wrote that piece of music one evening. I came home from Sierra and they said, “You know, when do you think the game’s going to be ready?” And I told them in a couple of weeks, I guess. They asked if I had any music for it, a theme song, and so I thought I guess I’d better slap something together! So in the car on the way home, I heard on National Public Radio that it was Irving Berlin’s 99th Birthday and his first big hit was Alexander’s Ragtime Band, which was in 1912 or something and they played it and I started thinking about how all computer games either have this grand-bizarre, John Williams Star Wars movie or probably techno-music, some kind of techno-rock stuff that’s kind of different, and I said this is a weird character – I should do some kind of music that’s unique, that’s not the same as everybody else, and so I heard this Alexander’s Ragtime Band and I thought maybe I could do something with that…
So I went home and sat down at the piano and wrote the theme song before dinner – it took me about twenty minutes, thirty minutes I guess. I mean, it didn’t have to be much – there was only one channel for the speaker, except on the PC Junior and the Commodore 64, I guess there were three channels, so there wasn’t a whole lot to do. Anyways, so I wrote this little song and it was kind of bouncy and different, and I never thought anything of it, just literally a throw-away, but the cool thing has been over the ten years of that project to hear all of the different composers take that theme that I wrote and do something with it because every one of the games has had a different composer and every one of them has taken that song and made it their own, I mean changed it completely and made it into all those different styles. It’s fun to hear the changes that that song has endured…
What do you want for Christmas?
Well, world peace, I suppose. The head of Osama Bin Laden! That wouldn’t date the article too much, would it? Let’s see – theoretically, I have everything that I need. You know, I’m at the point where I don’t really need any material things, so actually I think my straight answer would be what I’d like is to spend time with my family and friends and that’s exactly what I’m going to be doing, so I know I’m going to get my wish!
But there damn well better still be something under the tree!
Just one last question: since we’re getting close to the end of the year, what are some of Al Lowe’s New Years resolutions?
Oh, it would be to lose the weight that I didn’t lose the last forty years! Yeah, it’s pretty simple – I can just pretty much go back and get last year’s copy and change the date!
Just Laugh magazine would like to thank Al for generously giving his time for this interview! It certainly was a pleasure to take a look into the mind that changed so many of our pre-pubescent lives…
We’d also like to encourage all of our readers to visit Al’s personal website for more funny stuff than you can shake a stick at! In addition to the most complete Leisure Suit Larry reference you’ll ever find that doesn’t violate copyright laws, we should also point out Al’s very own daily joke mailing list, the CyberJoke 3000!
(He personally guarantees that it’ll make you smile or DOUBLE your money back!)