Lifetime Achievement Award: Al Lowe
On May 24th, 1999, I posted my only Applelinks review of an Al Lowe game, Leisure Suite Larry 7: Love for Sail. I was perhaps a bit harsh on the game, but I'll file that under the, "You don't know what you've got until it's gone" adage. Unfortunately, Larry 7 was the last adventure Al Lowe would bring our way, and we've been suffering ever since.
Leisure Suit Larry, Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist, Torin's Passage, The Black Cauldron...Al Lowe created not only some of the greatest computer games of their time, but he gave us legendary characters as well. Long after J.C. Denton, Guybrush Threepwood and all those Myst brothers have faded from memory, there will still be Larry Laffer buying "libbed lubbers" from the corner store.
When Al was selected as the recipient of the Second Annual Moofie Lifetime Achievement Award, I was worried that I might not be able to track him down. Certainly he'd retired to some tropical island somewhere and was spilling fruity beverages all over himself as he chased the buxom beauties down the beach. Or perhaps he'd retreated to his living room where he sat in his underwear all day, eating buckets of cold chicken, watching repeats of the Family Feud and caring who wins.
I was wrong on both counts. Al Lowe is living in Washington, playing golf, working on his website, telling jokes and answering e-mails from fans who want to interview him for fake award shows on the internet.
The thing about speaking with Al Lowe is that, after about three minutes, the interview settles into a casual conversation. Perhaps it's because I've played so many of his games, but he quickly came across as the neighbor who's always the first to be invited to the BBQs (and, if the food's good, probably the last to leave). My seven pre-set questions turned into two half-hour phone conversations, which has now become an eight page interview. But as fans of his games know, the more material you get from Al, the better. So sit back and enjoy the voyage as Al reveals the history of Larry, the inner workings of Sierra, the policies of retailers without a sense of humor, and much more.
Kirk: First of all, I want to congratulate you on winning the Second Annual Lifetime Achievement Award for the Applelinks Moofie Awards.
Al: Well, it's nice to know that your standards are low.
Kirk: [Laughs] And since you're only the second, we have a lot of room to go up, too. I think that actually is why we chose you.
Al: [Laughs] Yeah. Plus, I'm cheap and easily available.
Kirk: And that's the best kind of cheap there is. You mentioned in our e-mails that you had developed most of your games on the Macintosh. When did you start using the Mac, and do you still?
Al: 1984 through 1995. I didn't get the very first one--the 28K Mac--because we had some of them around Sierra doing early development work and everyone knew they didn't have enough memory to do anything. So I held off until the "Fat Mac" came out with a whopping 512K. I mean, who would ever need more memory than that?
Kirk: Yeah, I think we all had that question at one point.
Al: Exactly. So I started with that, and I moved up to a Plus, and I moved up to an SE and I moved up to an SE 30 and...gosh, what else? I had a Duo-Dock and a couple of Quadras along the way. Always, I ran my own business--my home, my personal, my business things--on the Macintosh. And I actually designed games and did all the preparation for the games on the Mac, and then handed it over to the PC guys to program and create the background screens and animations and so forth. Now, that's not to say I wasn't also using a PC at that time.
Al: Because I had to. But it is odd, isn't it, that the design of one of the biggest selling PC games always came out of a Macintosh?
Kirk: Yeah, and when many of Sierra's game quit coming out on the Mac, the Larry games still did, so is that part of it? Because it was developed on the Mac, it was just easier to make the port?
Al: That was a part of it. Part of it also was that a lot of the Sierra designers wanted to be the bleeding edge, but because they worked for the company and were salaried employees, they could afford to do that. I couldn't, because until my games shipped, I didn't eat. And you know how I get along with food! So, I was never...well, I shouldn't say never, since I was a salaried employee for a year back in 1983. But I got fired, and...
Kirk: Wait, you were fired in '83?
Al: Well, yeah. There was an earlier Black Friday before the more recent Black Monday. There was a Black Friday back in 1984, when the company had spent a lot of effort, money and time developing games for the Atari 2600; the same Christmas that everyone else and his brother also developed games for the Atari 2600 and the same Christmas when kids decided, "We're tired of the Atari 2600." [Laughs] So, that spring there were Atari cartridges filling up landfills all along the west coast. I think Sierra actually ended up getting rid of theirs rather than burying them. They found someone who would buy them at a dollar a piece, but it's hard to make money when you pay seven dollars to manufacture a cartridge that you have to sell for a dollar...
Al: ...besides the cost of developing the game. So, obviously, that was hard on the company. There was one Friday morning when the company had 120 employees (it had grown from 20, by the way, in a year) and they found out that the money didn't come through. It was just like the dot.com businesses, really, very close to what's happened in the last year or two. So, that one Friday morning we went from 120 employees to 40. And [Sierra president] Ken Williams called me into his office and he said, "If I carry you on the books as an employee, you're an expense; you cost the company money. But if you're an outside contractor and you're developing games on your own and I'm giving you advances, I can write off the same money and it becomes a prepaid asset. So it looks much better on paper if you would work on the outside."
Al: So, I said, "Makes sense to me. Well, what kind of contracts did you want me to do?" Well, he rattled off three projects and we talked about what size advances would come from each of those. I added it up quickly in my head and I was going to make double the money to do the same work. And I said, "Okay, this sounds good to me. Um, have I just been fired?" And he said, "Yeah." And I said, "Okay, thanks!"
Al: And for the next fifteen years we worked under that same relationship. I was an outside contractor. At first, I took some advances but I eventually got to the point where he would trade me advance money for a percentage. The time that he was most desperate was about 1987 when the company again ran short of money, so he offered me a tremendous piece of the action on the first Leisure Suit Larry game. And I, like a fool, said, "Yeah, sure, okay, fine, I don't need the money. I'm okay, I can make it," you know.
Al: And I'd take the money from the royalties when they come. Well, you know, the joke was on me because because the first month that Larry shipped, it was the worst selling game in the history of the company.
Al: Really. It shipped 2,000 copies at a time when Sierra sold at least 20,000 of everything. And good games were selling 100,000! And...yeah, 2,000 copies! I thought, "Well, I just blew six months of my life." So I dove in to tackle another project, Police Quest I, -
Al: - which had gone into hard times. I went as lead programmer and bailed them out; cleaned up the code and helped clean up Jim Walls' grammar, English, and other details. We ended up shipping that game in time for Christmas. Well, each month, as Larry sold, word of mouth spread. Now, Sierra never advertised the game; never spent a cent on advertising, nor on marketing, they just put it on the shelf. At the time, Radio Shack was a third of our business, and they had a very staunch Southern Baptist as president, John Roach.
Al: So they didn't even show the game to the Radio Shack guys because we knew they would reject it out of hand.
Al: All of that business was gone. But it turned out to be a godsend because, as word of mouth spread, the game had this viral marketing campaign, with people telling each other about it. And, since it was unavailable at Radio Shack, we sold the copies at a decent price where we could actually make a profit--whereas when we sold games at Radio Shack we almost gave them away. There was no margin.
Al: So, the company made a lot of money. And I made a lot of money because the game sold for a fair price. It turned out that each month's sales doubled, and it did that for about a year. In fact, I have a picture on my wall with a copy of Soft-Sell's List from July of '88 because it had Police Quest I and Leisure Suit Larry I and King's Quest III--all of which I was lead programmer on--in the Top 10 in the same week, and I think that's the only time a programmer has had that happen [Laughs]. I'm really proud of that. Anyway, the game didn't have a big push in the stores and just kind of sat there for a year, growing and growing and growing, eventually selling well over a million copies.
Continue to Part 2, in which Al talks about programming and flunked-out freshmen.