Leisure Time with Al Lowe

   Al Lowe is perhaps one of the most well-known game designers in the industry--and, it is often joked, the oldest. He is best known for his design efforts on the Leisure Suit Larry series. These games, [in]famous for its sexual innuendoes and off-color humor, chronicle the misadventures of Larry Laffer, all-around swinging guy, as he goes about his never-ending search for love. Along with Larry, Mr. Lowe has also worked in some capacity on a number of Sierra's "Quest games" and has done successful side projects including Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist and Torin's Passage, a game aimed at a slightly younger crowd. Be sure to check out the official website for his latest release, Leisure Suit Larry 7: Love for Sail, at Sierra On-Line. Verbosity recently got a chance to talk with Mr. Lowe about computer gaming and just life in general. Here's what he had to say...

Verbosity: You've been in the software business for a relatively long time. How did you get involved with game design and how did you hook up with Sierra?

Al Lowe: I was born a poor black child in Gumbo, Missouri....wait. Maybe I shouldn't start THAT far back!

    I wrote some of the very first "edutainment" products; games that were games first, and educational second, in the pre-Apple IIe days. Ken and Roberta Williams saw them at the last Applefest show. Since I was strongly influenced by Roberta's games (my son & I were big fans), my games looked a lot like hers. So, of course, they liked them! Great marketing scheme, eh? Anyway, Ken bought the rights to my first 3 little education games, and we've been together ever since.

V: Throughout your earlier years, your work was centered along Sierra's children's games. What prompted the move over to the Leisure Suit Larry series and a somewhat...different direction?
AL: Actually, I worked as lead programmer on Roberta's King's Quest III first and that made me realize there were many more adults buying computer games than any specific age of children.

    I also felt the market was ready for a game with a sense of humor. At the time, there was almost NO humor in any game (there still isn't much, is there?). The "adult" side of me just slipped in too. I've always made about the same jokes, it's just now I have Larry to be the permanent butt of them.

V: Speaking of Larry, would you be willing to share his secret origin with us? How did the little guy spring to mind? Any interesting anecdotes about his creation?
Vrooom... AL: In 1981, Sierra published its only text-only game, an adventure game named Softporn. You may have seen it; we included it on the Larry Collection CD-ROM. It was a huge hit. At a time when Apple had only shipped 100,000 Apple II's, Sierra had sold 25,000 copies of Softporn. And since everyone I knew had a pirated copy, you can pretty much figure it had about 100% penetration (so to speak).

    We discussed doing a 3-D graphic adventure version of this old game; I said I'd take it home and play it. I was appalled. I went back to Ken and said, "This game is so out of date, anybody who plays it would have to wear a leisure suit." It got a big laugh, and we decided to follow through: do a game about a loser who thinks he's really with it but who really is out of it, who wants to be a ladies' man but never will be, naive, a little dumb, but still likable.

    When it shipped, Larry 1 had the worst first month's sales of any title Sierra ever sold! So I mentally "wrote it off" and went on to other projects (ie, programming Police Quest I and King's Quest IV. Fortunately, every month Larry's sales doubled, until after 8 months, it was in the top 10. In fact, I'm very proud of a national top 10 best-sellers list that shows three games I programmed in the top 10 at the same time. I think that might still be a record!

V: Your Leisure Suit Larry games have a reputation as being somewhat "off-color." Do you receive a great deal of negative feedback about the nature of the series? Has there ever been a joke or scene that Sierra totally refused to let you include?
Roll 'em, Larry! AL: We received a few letters after Larry 1 came out, but nothing much since...possibly three per game. On the other hand, I've received hundreds of letters from people who had great fun playing the games and encouraging me to write another. I think the free market seems to handle these things quite well. People who don't want to see the kinds of situations Larry gets in don't spend 50 bucks to be offended. Thank God lots of highly intelligent people DO!

    I don't think I've ever been censored, per se, but we've "discussed" a few things that could be considered "over the line" and I've agreed they were and should be "improved." Usually that means coming up with something funnier instead of dirtier.

V: Just out of curiosity, should we expect to see Passionate Patti or Freddy Pharkas anytime in the near future?
AL: Only in games they've already been in. I doubt Patti will return to haunt Larry again. I'm sure there will be no sequel to Freddy Pharkas, even though the game has sold well into six figures.
V: In 1995, you made somewhat of a return to the genre of children's gaming with Torin's Passage. This was often touted as a "King's Quest game that isn't set in Daventry." How do you feel about this description?
AL: I'm proud of it! When Ken Williams and I discussed the type of game we wanted to do, the quick description was a "King's Quest-style game with more humor. When the first review hit and the headline read, "The Game That Would Be KQ8." I was really pleased. I think many people misunderstood Torin's Passage, however. It was designed for a parent to share with a child, because I wanted a game that Megan (my then 11-year-old daughter) and I could play together. I got the idea when I took her to see the movie Mrs. Doubtfire. I noticed there were times when the kids in the audience laughed, and other times when the adults laughed. "Why are there no computer games like that?" I thought. I think if you play the game with a child you'll see the same thing happen with Torin -- both the adult and the child will laugh, just not at the same times!
V: A few years back, Sierra hyped a game by the name of Capitol Punishment that you were working on. Suddenly, it disappeared. What was the nature of its removal from the product schedule? How was along was it in production before being cancelled?
AL: It got far enough along for me to realize it was a better premise than game! There were some clever ideas in it, but at the time, it was a new game engine that ran beautiful with a test-size set of data. But when we actually loaded in enough characters, objects, graphics, sounds, etc to make a game...it bogged down terribly. Of course, with today's Pentium-requirements it would run just fine. Hey! Maybe...just maybe.... <G>
V: Of all the games you've worked on, what is the one you're proudest of?
AL: Easy: Leisure Suit Larry 7: Love For Sail! (Warning! Hype alert!!) Seriously, it's everything I think an adventure game should be...because everything I think a game should be, we put it in! I think the "no walking around" map eliminates an old boring aspect of adventures. I think the "pop up, context sensitive menu" interface gave me lots of flexibility in design (if I came up with a funny line for some object, it was trivial just to add a new action to its verb list). The minimal typing lets you get all those familiar old put downs you've missed in the years since our "type 'til you bleed" games. The ship makes a rich environment for game play. The animation is the greatest ever. The backgrounds are an interesting mix of cartoon, wacky textures and 3-D rendering. The voices are the funniest we've ever had in a Sierra game. And no crappy MIDI sound card synthesizers here! The lounge music and that authentic 70s soundtrack is real music by real musicians, and it streams smoothly from the CD. The Scratch 'n' Sniff card is silly, but used just enough to make it important. Even the cursors are "Larry-esque!"
Land, ho! V: What's your all-time favorite computer game?
AL: (See previous answer.) Seriously, I must admit it's not a computer game at all, it's Mario 64. I think it's a wonderful mixture of fun and puzzles. Yeah, I know there's no babes, but....
V: What can the public expect from you in the way of upcoming projects?
AL: I have several proposals under discussion right now, but I think it's fair to say you probably won't see another adventure game like the other games I've done. We're working on some things that will feel familiar to Larry fans, but will not be "just another Larry game." And that's about all I can say right now!
V: What's the one thing about Al Lowe that would shock everyone who has ever played one of his games?
AL: Assuming such a person still COULD be shocked, I'd guess it's probably this: I'm not Larry, and I'm nothing like him! I've been happily married for 28 years to a wonderful (and obviously) understanding woman, I never hang out in bars, never pick up women, rarely trip over my own feet, etc. However, if you had the chance to spend some time with me, I think it would feel pretty much like playing my games. I'm really the games' narrator, laughing AT Larry, commenting on his foibles, giving him all the answers.

[back to verbosity]

Thanks to Al Lowe for conducting this e-mail interview with Jess Morrissette.
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