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Interview with David Fox

David Fox, one of the mainstays of the LucasArts adventure games, can be considered responsible for what's the particular style of those games. We could chat with him about the genre and his experience at Skywalker Ranch, as you're about to read.

# By Paco García |

Interview with David Fox

There’s always room for improvement. I’d say a perfect interface would be one that you’re not at all aware of. It vanishes into the background as you enjoy playing the game.

AyC: Although it is almost forgotten today, Labyrinth, based upon the film by Jim Henson, was the embryo of latter adventures. You lead its development as well as that of Maniac Mansion’s together with Ron Gilbert. We all know of the importance of this latter in adventure gaming history, but to what extent did Labyrinth influence Maniac Mansion?

DF:That’s a good question. Ron didn’t work on Labyrinth, and I didn’t work on the initial designs of Maniac Mansion. There’s very little (if any) code in MM that started in Labyrinth. So maybe the influence was building a better interface, and breaking out from a constrained universe. Ron spent a lot of time thinking about how to make playing an adventure game easier. He gets most of the credit for the evolution here.

AyC: The now famous SCUMM system is still for many people an actual mystery. Even years after being left by its own creators, there are petitions for the code to be freely released. It is no doubt a venerated system for all those enthusiasts (like me) that are so lazy that cannot play if it is not with a mouse. However, what was this system like from the point of view of a programmer? I mean, at that moment a program to create pattern-biased games was only within the reach of big enterprises like Lucasfilm, but we reckon that games were not simply mass-produced. How did SCUMM work, and how difficult was it to handle its scripting methods? What was the basic process to getting, for instance, Zak to walk towards his table and get his credit card?

DF:Ron Gilbert created SCUMM, as well as all the tools we needed to build the game. SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) was really a programming language. It used high-level commands to make things happen, and it was a set up so you could have multiple scripts running at the same time. For example, one script might make the clock on the wall tick-tock. Another might keep track of the time for a specific event to happen. Another to make a character walk across the room and pick up an object. It’s been a while, but I think a typical statement might have been something like




SAY(ZAK)"Wow, a credit card with a two-headed squirrel on the front!"

This made it easy to see what was supposed to be happening.

AyC: You leaded projects in a time in which 16 colours were the latest innovation. This has, no doubt, its advantages and disadvantages: back then you didn’t need expert modellers, animators, texturer makers or, to sum up, as big a crew as today. You did not either have to program an entire game, since the SCUMM system made part of the job. What kind of staff did you need to create a game in the golden age of LucasArts?

DF:Well, we never thought being limited to 16 colours was an advantage. We always wanted an unlimited palette. I think a lot of time was spent in figuring out how to make a scene look good with those limited colour palettes.<br /> <br /> But, yes, we could complete a game with a much smaller team. Maniac Mansion had two programmers (Ron doing the SCUMM system plus some scripting, and me doing the rest of the scripting), primarily one artist (though there may have been others helping some), and someone for sound and music. Zak had two scriptors, plus Ron helping out with SCUMM system improvements as needed. We had 2-3 artists, and Matthew Kane (the other scriptor) also did music and sound effects. Add to this a crew of playtesters, and you have the teams. And we’d do it all in under a year (well, MM might have taken longer because of the lead time Ron did on design and tool building). Today’s games can have teams of 30-60 people!

AyC: Technological limitations in those years made story-telling also a very complicated task, in the sense that sometimes you could not extend the narration methods up to the point you would desire. First adventure games, yet having a solid and really funny plot source, were also ‘lighter’ than text adventures. When you were writing scripts or designing Maniac Mansion and Zak McKracken, did you say to yourself "Shame I cannot put this..." or "I would really like this made it into the game, but..." at any time? If so, what kinds of things were you not able to do?

DF: We were really limited on animation... those computers had 64K of RAM, remember. And the floppy disks had maybe 160K per side. And we could only display 40 characters of text on a line. So, using two lines, we had to write in 80 character sentences. Remember, no digitized voice then!

AyC: Although Maniac Mansion was the first of a long series of excellent adventure games, his story, yet with very amusing points, had also very cliché moments, very usual at that time. Zak McKracken, on the other hand, has the same humour but also a more interesting and original story. Where did you get the ideas for creating such a script?

DF:I really wanted to do a game that dealt with a lot of "New Age" ideas. I actually spent time with David Spangler, a well-known author who dealt with spiritual awareness. We decided we wanted to put every concept we could think of into the game - every spiritual or psychic mystery currently being explored. But it wasn’t until a month or so later that we figured out how to tie it all together by making Zak a reporter for a sleazy tabloid. That added an edge to the game, and unified the comedy, setting the style for the entire game.

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