Zac McKracken: A Conversation with David Fox
David Fox is one of the founding members of Lucasfilm’s games division, originally called Lucasfilm Games and then LucasArts. During his tenure at Lucasfilm Games, he was responsible for seminal games such as Rescue on Fractalus, Labyrinth and Zak McKracken, and helped design classics such as Maniac Mansion and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. This interview focuses on Zak McKracken and supplements Stay Forever episode #106.
This interview was conducted by Gunnar Lott and Christian Schmidt on January 10th 2021 via VoIP call. The recording was originally published as an audio podcast on www.stayforever.de. Here’s the full audio:
The audio interview was transcribed by Stay Forever community members Brotrinde, cpt-marve and Anym, who did an outstanding job! The transcript was subsequently edited for clarity and better readability.
Stay Forever: David Fox is one of the founding members of Lucasfilm Games in 1982. He stayed with the company for ten years, working in various roles on iconic games such as Rescue on Fractalus, Maniac Mansion, Zak McKracken, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and others. Before he joined the company, he was an author of computer books and co-founder of an early computer school. After a stint at Lucasfilm Games and LucasArts, he worked as a consultant and in creative and executive roles for a number of companies, creating interactive experiences. He returned to point-and-click adventures in 2017, when he joined Ron Gilbert for Thimbleweed Park. David, welcome to the show!
David Fox: Thank you! Glad to be here.
Stay Forever: So, let us start off with you taking us back to 1982. How did you get involved with the group that would later become LucasArts?
David Fox: Well, as you mentioned, we had a computer center. It wasn’t quite a school, though we did teach programming for kids and adults, but they were just short classes that weren’t professional training. It was a non-profit, public access micro-computer center. I think we were the first micro-computer center that I am aware of. We launched it in 1977 with ten computers; the same year that Star Wars came out. And we happened to be located in the same county that George Lucas lived in, which is Marin County, just north of San Francisco. So, there were these little interweavings between us and them. I think they rented some video equipment from us once for a school event where his kids went to school.
I always had this dream of working there because I loved the film so much when it first came out. Always imagined I would love to be a part of that company and find any way I could to get as close as I could to being in the movie or in that universe.
I was on my second book, which was “Computer Animation Primer”. It was going to be a split book between looking at state-of-the-art computer animation and also doing computer animation on your home Atari 800 computer. During the research part of that, I reached out to the Lucasfilm Computer Division, which was nearby. They were very magnanimous. They offered to have me come down. I talked to a bunch of their people, I hung out with them at the next SIGGRAPH computer graphics show, and I also got to meet Loren Carpenter, who was the person who created the fly-by animation in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the Genesis planet terraforming sequence. We hung out for a while, speculating on future technology: Will there ever be home computers that have 24 bit color, and what they would cost? A lot of that information went into the book.
A year later – this would be in 1982 –, I was done with my manuscript, and one of our members at the Computer Center who happen to work at Industrial Light & Magic mentioned that he heard a new Games Group was being started at Lucasfilm, inside the Computer Division. Since I had already had contacts there and already talked to the Head of the Computer Division when I came to meet with them, it was an easy phone call to ask to interview for the job. Apparently this was early enough that just a few days before, they had hired Peter Langston, who was going to be the manager of the group. He hadn’t even come on board yet. Ed Catmull [Head of Lucasfilm’s Computer Division and later co-founder of Pixar] promised me that I would get to talk with him once he was there. So I got an early interview. I showed him the manuscript for the book.
Another coincidence: Atari provided Lucasfilm with a million dollars as seed money to start the new Computer Games Group, using Atari computers. So the fact that my book was on the Atari, the fact that I was local, that I already knew some people there, that I was super enthusiastic about working for the company, the timing, it all was just perfect. I ended up getting hired three months later and was the third person in what became Lucasfilm Games. So Peter first, and Rob Poor came over from the Computer Division because he preferred trying his hand on games instead of what he was working on, which was I think laser printing of film. That was it. September 1st, 1982 was my first day.
Because we were pretty early, our space where they were going to put us in at the complex wasn’t quite ready yet. So for the first three months I was sharing an office with Loren Carpenter, the person that I had met a year earlier. That led to the creation of Rescue on Fractalus, because I asked him early on whether he thought it might be possible to create a game on an 8-bit computer using fractals, a fly-through game. He thought about it and eventually came up with the solution of how to do it. So that’s how I got to the company.
Stay Forever: You mentioned that your book on animation was focused on the Atari 800. I guess that in your computer center, you basically had access to most of the home computers of that era. And I assume you were familiar with most, if not all of them. What drew you towards the Atari in particular?
David Fox: That’s a good question. Yes, we had maybe four or five Apple IIs. We ended up having a lot more Ataris. Because we were non-profit, we got a few grants to help to do outreach to schools. Atari also gave us computers, I think they donated a bunch of Atari 400s and 800s. After a few years we ended up with about 40 computers in all. By then the majority of them were Atari.
I just like that computer. I met Chris Crawford, who wrote “De Re Atari”; he came and gave a talk at our computer center to a computer club. And he had written this great book that gave you the inner workings of the system. You could see how much more powerful it was than the Apple II for graphics at that point. I thought there is a lot more you could do with it than you could on Apple II. That’s what I wanted to focus on.
I think also its trajectory; you could see the Apple II seemed to be fading, and the Atari was rising at that point. By the time the book came out it already reached its peak and was on its way down. The Commodore 64 was the next computer that was coming up. If I had waited a year, I probably would have done a Commodore 64 book. But that wasn’t the case.
Stay Forever: Was the Marin Computer Center a way to earn a livelihood? Or was it a hobby project?
David Fox: It was definitely our livelihood project. My wife was and is an educator. When we decided to do it, she had been teaching at a pre-school and running a pre-school. She had just left that place and we were looking at the next thing to do.
I was looking at a long-term goal of working in location-based entertainment and was imagining interactive Disney Lands and places where all the attractions were totally immersive and totally interactive. I thought that would be something that would be coming soon, maybe ten years away. I was totally off in my prediction. But I knew that I didn’t have the training to be able to be there when that happened.
So okay, let’s do something with computers. I didn’t want to do an arcade because that just didn’t match our interest and our areas of expertise. And so the computer center became the focus.
We never sold computers. It was really an educational place. And since it was non-profit, after we left, all the assets stayed with the center. So this really was a passion of mine to learn about this and learn about games and learn about programming.
In retrospect, it looked like a perfect stepping stone for the Lucasfilm Games job. Not only being in the right place at the right time, but having the right book on the right topic and having already met the right people. It’s like everything was just perfectly lined up for me to get that job.
Stay Forever: You said you interviewed for a job at the new games group. What was the job you interviewed for?
David Fox: I think it was Game Designer/Programmer. I didn’t care! (laughs) Whatever it was, I wanted it. I kept on pinging Peter [Langston] to find out what was going on, because it was taking a long time and I got a really good sense that I was going to get it. But they were slow in getting everything geared up. So I don’t know how many other people he was considering. David Levine got hired about a month after me, so he was early on also.
Peter was specifically looking for people who were not a part of the large companies doing game development. He wanted a group of people who could re-invent the process of creating games, bring it more into the computer science arena as opposed to coming from the other direction. It was a great idea.
I think we were able to use some of the Computer Divisions’ high-end tools, like an Evans & Sutherland vector graphics computer which could visualize Rescue on Fractalus and how it looked like. Much easier to bring that up than it was to get it running on the Atari.
Stay Forever: Did you write code?
David Fox: Yes, I did write code. In fact when I joined the crew we weren’t going to write our games in BASIC, so I had to learn 6502 [assembler code for the 6502 microprocessor used e.g. in the Atari 400/800 and C64], and I learned it on the job. We had a guy who came on board to create a high-end cross-assembler, so we actually were working in a UNIX environment on a VAX-750 computer via a terminal. We would write our code in that, and then it was connected via an extra serial port to the Atari 800. So we would write the code, it would compile and then download it to the Atari, and then we’d check to see whether it worked. That turnaround was probably a lot faster than what it would have been if we had done it on the Atari itself. In fact I could use an advanced text editor, Emacs, to do a lot of my work there, and the fact that we had this pretty powerful cross-assembler helped. But I guess it didn’t take me that long.
The truth is, the type of code I was doing was a lot more of the glue in the game, so the gameplay elements, the intro sequences, the cockpit. All the heavy-duty lifting was really done by Loren Carpenter for the fractal engine, and by Charlie Kellner, who did all the flight dynamics and the character animation, the cel animation, the sound routines and a lot of the more complex computer science-y stuff. So I just got to do the fun stuff and tried to glue it all together so it felt right as a game.
I think it was about six months in the project when I was asking Peter something about the game, and he says, „Well, you should decide that, you’re the project leader!“ And I was like: „Oh! Okay.“ I had never considered that. This is one of the first two projects we were doing, and the terminology „Project leader“ hadn’t been applied to it. I just didn’t even consider that I was in charge of this game, it just seemed like a team effort. And I said, „Okay, alright, I’m the project leader and the designer, so I guess I have control.“
Stay Forever: So this was more like a designer/producer role in modern terms? Producer was not a fixed role then, I think?
David Fox: We had no producers. For most of the time I was there, a project leader was generally the designer, producer and one of the programmers of the game. Then as we got bigger, we eventually brought in producers, and we brought in some games where the designer was not one of the programmers. For the eight years I was at Lucasfilm Games, that’s the way it was. The last two years I was at the company, I was doing location-based entertainment projects, so during the eight years I was doing games for the home, that was the way we set it up.
Stay Forever: You contributed to many of the early Lucasfilm games in one capacity or other. Could you walk us through and give us a few examples of the games and what you did on that specific game?
David Fox: Well, there weren’t that many, so I could go through all of them. (laughs) So Rescue on Fractalus: project leader, designer and one of the coders. And playtester! We didn’t even have outside playtesters at that point, so we had to do a lot of playtesting.
Then Labyrinth, I was the designer and project leader on that one, and Charlie Kellner was the technical lead. That was really our first graphic adventure game that we did, based on the Jim Henson movie.
Then on Maniac Mansion, Ron Gilbert asked me to come on board for a couple of months to try out this new scripting language he had created. He thought that we could get the whole game completed in a couple of months, and I was on for at least six months, as it turned out. I was the first official SCUMM scripter. The game was pretty much designed ahead of time, but not finely designed. So they would know the names of the rooms and characters and essentially the plot points, things that were supposed to happen, but all the scripting and dialogue and interactions were things that we did as we went. They weren’t planned out ahead of time in very much detail.
Then I took that same system, what I learned from Maniac Mansion, and did Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders and then Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. On that one I was co-leading with Ron Gilbert and Noah Falstein, which is unusual to have three designer project leaders on a single project with a really tight schedule. We thought that would be the way to get it out by the time the movie released. I also was scripter on that one. So designer, project leader, scripter. And that was pretty much the last.
I have a credit as a producer on a game called Pipe Dream, but around that time, I became the Director of Operations for a year and stopped working on games within Lucasfilm, which by that point had become LucasArts. My job then was to hire more programmers, more SCUMM scripters – we called them „Scummlets“ – Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman were in that group. And adding a second level of management that we didn’t have before, because we had grown from a group of 15 when we got to Skywalker Ranch to, by this point, around 65 or 70. Everyone had been reporting to Steve Arnold, our manager at the time. So I became the intermediate manager and set up infrastructure by hiring different Heads of different departments and just made it easier to handle organization.
Stay Forever: You mentioned Labyrinth. From a German point of view in particular, Lucasfilm Games in the 80s and 90s is considered an adventure games company first and foremost. However, it didn’t start like that, your first games were primarily action games. How did that switch come about, and why did it consolidate around adventure games?
David Fox: Good question. Well, Labyrinth was an opportunity, it wasn’t us saying „Hey, we should make a game based on that.“ Because Lucasfilm was the producer of the film, they came to us and asked us whether we might be interested in doing a game based on it. We looked at some video and thought, „This feels much more like an adventure, let’s try doing an adventure game.“
Obviously, we didn’t invent the genre, there’s text adventures before that. In fact one of the things I did at the Marin Computer Center was work with Scott Adams of Adventure International. I had offered to port his text adventures, which were designed for the TRS-80 RadioShack computer, over to the Apple II. That was my first introduction, really, to doing a port of a game and looking at code and looking at text adventures.
So I personally loved adventure games, the logic and the feeling of being immersed in something. That was very close to my future dream of location-based entertainment, like a long-form immersion experience. Adventure games were probably the closest that you could get back at that point, where you could actually for hours and hours be in a world that someone created, have it be constantly changing and the story being told. So that seemed like a great fit.
From there, Ron really wanted to do Maniac Mansion. I think he was also looking at a format.
Obviously we were looking at Sierra On-Line’s popularity and the kind of games they were doing, and we tried to figure out what we could do that would be different and more approachable than what they were doing. It just evolved from there.
Clearly that wasn’t the only stuff we were doing. We had some other games that were running at the same time that were simulations, either fight or boat or whatever simulators. And those were also super-popular, just that there wasn’t a lot of cross-fertilization between those two, other than I guess maybe Noah Falstein, who worked on both ends. He was doing both simulator stuff and also adventures games.
It makes sense, in retrospect: We’re a film company, we tell stories. Creating an adventure game is as close as we can get to being in a movie. That was the way I like to think about it.
Stay Forever: Let’s move on to Zak McKracken. How was the team for Zak McKracken set up? How many people in which roles?
David Fox: It was a pretty small team. It started with me; I had an idea for the kind of game I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to include a lot of new-agey “woo woo” stuff – psychic stuff and alien stuff and everything. [Lucasfilm Games general manager] Steve Arnold had a friend who lived up in the Seattle area named David Spangler who was pretty much an expert on all of this stuff. He was a spiritualist and he wrote a bunch of books. He’s a pretty fun guy, actually. So Steve flew me up there and I spent a couple of days with David brainstorming about everything that we could shoehorn into a game. He mentioned a bunch of the locations that we ended up using and some of the ideas, and I brought all that back down and took several months to turn it into a design document that went through the entire game.
I knew that I was going to use SCUMM again. I knew that it had to be expanded in some ways to do the things I wanted to do. I worked with Ron on that, and he did the upgrades to the system to give me the capability that I needed. The biggest change probably was taking a lot of the user interface – which was hard-coded in Maniac Mansion – and creating it with the scripts themselves to make it much more customizable. So I was able to switch up on the verbs rather than being stuck with the same verbs. I could do different ones, I could turn them on or off, I could swap out completely new verbs if I wanted to, which we did. Like when you’re mind-melding with various creatures, we give you a different set of verbs that would be much more limited, but would be appropriate for that creature.
And also pseudo-rooms – we were developing this for the Commodore 64, and disk space was still a premium. I wanted to do a bunch of mazes in this game – probably went overboard, based on feedback –, but the idea was that we could have rooms that would draw on the same art and just turn objects on and off and connect them differently, and they’d be treated like a room, but they just borrow the same art, so the storage on disk would not be increased. You got a lot more space this way.
I just wanted this to feel expansive. After spending all those months stuck in a mansion, you wanted to break out. So I ended up making it global and also up to Mars, so you got a lot more places. And I’ve heard from people that they had this feeling like they really were exploring the world. I think someone said they became a geographer or something based on their experience in the game; they just liked being able to explore and be out and see different parts of the world they had never seen before.
I realized pretty soon that I just wasn’t going to be able to script this myself. So I invited Matthew Alan Kane to pop over and join me. He was already working for Lucasfilm Learning, a sister group that did educational stuff. We knew each other, I liked him, and he was looking for something else to do. He was great. We had a similar sense of humor. We basically broke up the game into sections, where he would take certain rooms and I would take certain rooms. He also did our music. He was a musician. And that was the team for that part.
As far as the art went, we had a couple of artists, I think; Gary Winnick, Martin ‚Bucky‘ Cameron. It’s a little confusing because there were so many versions that we ended up doing pretty close to each other, for Commodore 64, then doing the PC version, and other ones where we brought in artists to help redo the art. I think Mark Ferrari worked on some of that later on, but by the time we got to those versions I was pretty much off that project and onto something else, so I wasn’t directly involved with most of that.
And I think that was it. I mentioned Ron. And it might have been Chris Grigg who did some of the sound effects for us. I believe that’s the team.
We actually did have a test department by then made of a couple of testers. So there were play testers involved, for a change. I still remember the look on our lead tester, Judith [Lucero], who would pop into my room with this sadistic grin on her face because she had found a really crazy bug. And I knew what that meant, that look. I think I still get dreams about that. (laughs)
Stay Forever: I’m trying to understand how project initiation worked at Lucasfilm Games in that era. So you were working on Maniac Mansion, that product shipped, and then what? Did your manager, Steve Arnold, come to you and say: “We need a new adventure game now! We’ve invested so much time and money into that engine – create something!” Or did you get to choose?
David Fox: Mostly the designer would come up and choose. On Maniac Mansion, I actually left the project before it shipped, after six months. I was there a lot longer than I thought I would be and I really wanted to get onto my next game, which would be this [Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders].
Basically, the designer would write up a concept deck, two or three pages, distribute it to the other designers and to the management – the management being Steve Arnold – and get feedback. You get an up or down vote or feedback, and then you get launched. I don’t remember anything about budgeting. Our teams were so small, it wasn’t like, “We going to put millions of dollars into this”. The games budgets were, I don’t know, 150.000 USD, in that range, at the time. We would just get the green light and start doing it. Sometimes we had the freedom to play with ideas or designs for months before we came up with something that we might want to do next. At least at that point it was pretty open.
We had started more like an R&D group, a research group. In fact the first two games we did – Rescue on Fractalus and Ballblazer – were intended as throw-away games. Experimental games where you just see whether we could come up with something interesting and if we could go into production. But there was no pressure to get this out by a certain time. Very different than any other company I know of, because our major source of funding wasn’t coming from the games we were going to produce initially. That shifted at some point, obviously, but in the beginning we were like a small experimental group within this larger company that was making a lot of money from its films. So that pressure to either succeed or lose your job or lose the company never really felt like an issue during the time I was there. We had that kind of freedom.
On the other hand, there was the pressure that I think we all felt, especially early on, that we had to produce games that were going to be as popular and innovative as the Star Wars movies were at the time. That was a huge amount of pressure for us to live up to. And the expectations that maybe the fans would have. That’s pretty much why the first two games were considered possible throw-away games, because that would take some of the pressure away, that we didn’t have to have a hit the very first go that we were doing.
I’m sure it changed as the budgets got bigger. In the 90s, the game designs ended up being these thick binders with storyboards and all the scripts written out and way more information. The budgets were going way up because the art was getting much more detailed and expansive. But when I was there, that really wasn’t an issue, because the art was all either Commodore 64 or PC. Even Last Crusade was originally an EGA graphics format game, so there wasn’t a huge amount of art resources put into it compared to the later games with lots of animation and everything.
Stay Forever: Were you even taken seriously? Because even if you had a hit, everything you did was so small compared to the film business, wasn’t it?
David Fox: Yes, I think that’s right. We’d have these annual company meetings, and I think George referred to us as the “Lost Patrol” or something. He knew that at some point games would get bigger and bigger and the level of quality of the graphics and imagery would match film production. So he figured: “Okay, let’s nurse it while we can. I don’t want them really to lose money, but they don’t have to have huge hits at the time.”
Within the Computer Division, we were doing games with six colors, and they’re doing high-end computer graphics with 24-bit colors and alpha channels and all the anti-aliasing. In fact, anti-aliasing was a new technology they had just come up with in order to get the stair-stepping out of lines on a raster display. One of the in-jokes we had for Rescue on Fractalus was calling it “Behind Jaggi lines”. The name of the monster was the “Jaggi”, which was directly from the dreaded “jaggies” in computer graphics. So I just turned them into a monster. The screen had a couple of super-jagged struts for the windshield; so you’re actually playing the game both behind the Jaggi enemy lines and also behind the jaggy lines of the screen. They thought that was too esoteric. They didn’t think that would be a good name, so that got canned. That was my favorite name though.
So I don’t think they took us seriously for a long time. They weren’t nasty to us, but we weren’t doing “serious” computer graphics, we weren’t doing “real” computer graphics. We were just the toy group, kind of, doing these little fun toys.
Also, during the time I was there we weren’t allowed to do anything in the Star Wars universe. I had visualized my first game as a Star Wars first-person flight game. When I found out pretty much withing a day after I got there that all the licenses of Star Wars had already been sold and committed to other companies for the foreseeable future, it was pretty big blow. Here I am at the Star Wars company, and I can’t do anything in the Star Wars universe! It took another eight years before I was able to do anything within Star Wars, and that’s the location-based entertainment project we did.
In retrospect it was really, really good that we weren’t able to, because it let us push our own creativity, come up with original stories and not to be tied into George’s baby. I believe he would have been way more hands-on with us if we had been doing Star Wars stuff. We probably wouldn’t have had the freedom to do what we were doing without him there looking over our shoulders all the time. So that gave us a lot of room to grow and find our own voice.
Stay Forever: When you sat down to write the concept for the game that would become Zak McKracken, was it clear to you from the beginning that you would be using the SCUMM engine?
David Fox: Yes, that was clear before I even went to start brainstorming or started doing the concept document. I saw the potential of using that system, and I learned it pretty well after working on that game [Maniac Mansion] for that period. Given the few things I wanted to do differently, Ron was open to that, and each game that used it ended up getting expanded features and adapted to different systems. How long was that [SCUMM] in production, for at least another ten years maybe? I don’t know, it just kept on being used a lot.
Recently when I worked with Ron on Thimbleweed Park, obviously we didn’t used SCUMM, but the language and the environment were very familiar to me and very similar to the way you would think about coding a SCUMM game. You could definitely see the roots. It took the good things from that and added a bunch more stuff.
Stay Forever: How were decisions made about the game in your little group? Was this a team effort?
David Fox: There was the brainstorming with David Spangler, then my design document, and I took the larger design document and distributed it among the designers. Ron Gilbert in particular felt that it wasn’t funny enough. I mean, it was funny from the beginning, but it wasn’t as twisted as Maniac Mansion was. We ended up doing a brainstorming meeting with all of the designers and some of the leads in the group. That came up with the idea that changed the guy’s name; originally it was “Jason”. I think it was called „Ancient Aliens“ or „Jason and the Ancient Aliens“. That shifted to Zak. We actually used a Marin County phone book to look for names and found “Zak” at one place and “McKracken” somewhere else. We changed his job from a mainstream media reporter to a tabloid reporter, which meant we could get much wackier with everything, to shift it into much weirder territory. And that was the tone we pretty much kept throughout the game. So that was pretty fun.
And then for the game itself, it was probably mostly between just me and Matthew. During playtests, you get feedback of things that people didn’t understand or things that people were having trouble with. We’d go back and make those adjustments. But as far as gameplay, we’d come up with all the puzzles. We would describe the room to the artists, what we needed there; they’d come back with a room, and we’d see stuff in the room which maybe we hadn’t thought of, and we would try to incorporate that and make it more interactive. So, it’s definitely a group effort in that way.
We never had anyone come in and say: “You’ve got to change this in the game”. It was pretty much my game, and if Matthew had a suggestion, I’d listen to it and either would accept it or not, depending on whether I felt it matched. It felt pretty open, in that anyone could make a suggestion, and we would hear it and see whether it was right. Often when you do a game you know something’s not quite right someplace, and you’re hoping no one will notice. And once you start getting feedback, you hear one or two people say the same thing that you’ve been thinking about in the back of your mind hoping that no one would notice, and then you obviously have to go in there and make the change and fix it so that it works better.
One of the best parts about working there [at Lucasfilm Games] was the feeling of collaborative environment. People would be free to give ideas and people were free to listen to them or not listen to them. And we all would hear other people’s feedback and then go off to incorporate what we thought we needed to. That was great. I really miss that. I assumed that was the way all companies ran. Other jobs I had after that, it was a rude awakening when I realized: No, that was really unique in that environment. Working on Thimbleweed Park decades later was so fun because it recaptured that whole collaborative environment.
Stay Forever: You mentioned that somebody came to your office. Were you organized in offices or were you sitting by department, or did you have an open space?
David Fox: Over the time I was there, we were in four different locations. Probably the longest period was at the Skywalker Ranch. When George built Skywalker Ranch, he built it with a story in mind. It was supposed to look like it had been there for 150 years or something. There was this old sea captain who built that mansion, and then he added on a winery … so each building had a back story, and the architecture and the way it looked would match that. In fact, the main house looked like it had a couple different architectural styles, as if there had been additions added on over the decades back in the 1800s, when of course the whole thing had just been built.
So we were off in the Stable House, which was supposed to be where the horses were. The walls were a rough wood, painted white – it felt much more rustic than most of the rest of the place, and we thought that was appropriate to put the game designers in the stables. It was a center courtyard, two-story building, and offices were around the perimeter. There were two central rooms that were common spaces; each had a fireplace that was pretty much always in use during the winter, which is really cozy. Each one had a small kitchen, and then we had offices.
Being there early, I got to choose which office I wanted. It was a pretty small one-person office, but I did have a couch in there and I had a view out the window to a stream that would be running with water during the winter. And I could see wildlife, I remember seeing a bobcat out my window once. It was really out in the countryside, very rustic.
Rather than pick up the phone and call another person, we’d generally walk over to their office and ask if they could talk. We would spend a lot of time at lunch going over stuff and asking questions if you got stuck, giving feedback to each other’s games over lunch.
I think we had one room which we called the “art pit”; more like an open space larger room with maybe five or six desks in it. I think mostly designers, project leaders were more likely to get their own room or maybe share with one other person.
That was a great place, and I loved working there. Then we outgrew it after four years, and we had to move back to a more industrial area where we had a much larger space.
Stay Forever: When you look at game design these days or at games production, it’s very formalized. But you describe it as very informal. Did you have production stand-ups or Kanban-board type things, or was it mainly improv?
David Fox: It was a mix, I think. For Maniac Mansion we had a whiteboard, and a lot of the stuff was on that. We were using Micro Planner, a Mac-based production planning software. But we weren’t using it for production planning, we were using it for the flowcharts, so that we could see dependency charts of how puzzles related to other puzzles – in order to do this puzzle, you have to do this, this and this. You can map it out in that program and get a big printout on paper, paste them all together and get an overview of how the game worked. So we would use those, and eventually you just keep the game in your head as you move on. You just remember everything.
At least for those games I worked on during the 80s, we did not have milestones or deadlines or deliverables or any of that. It felt much more open. I know that changed later on, especially as we got producers in to make sure you were on target for the ship dates and all that. But for the early games, you just figured, “Okay, this is going to take about this much time”, and you were usually given the freedom to do that.
Stay Forever: As Zak McKracken is the game after Maniac Mansion and uses the same technology and is in many ways a similar game, how did Maniac Mansion influence the design of Zak McKracken? Did you have lessons you learned or things you saw in Maniac Mansion you wanted to avoid?
David Fox: Yes! The biggest thing was: I didn’t want to have selectable characters. I wanted to be able to switch characters, but I didn’t want to let the player decide which characters were going to be in the game. In Maniac Mansion, you choose at the very beginning who two of the kids are that are going to be playing the game with the main kid, Dave. Which meant that you had all these additional combinations of possibilities, and that’s probably what made the game take a lot longer to create and produce, having to make sure that the game was winnable no matter what your combination of characters were. In Zak that was easy, it was much more straight-line.
So rather than having the game be replayable multiple times, I wanted to put everything into a more sequential game, so that it felt larger. It felt like a larger world, because you pretty much played every room and every scene in the game to get through it. There weren’t a lot of alternative options that we had. I wanted to have everything be visible on the screen, so people really felt the vastness of the game.
So the main thing was really to make sure that I chose what the characters were going to be in the game, and the player didn’t get to.
Stay Forever: You mentioned that at the core of the game’s narrative are ideas borrowed from New Age, so ideas that come from esoteric themes or fringe theories such as ancient astronauts. Why is that?
David Fox: I grew up as a kid devouring science-fiction, H.G. Wells and Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov. I liked the genre, I liked the whole idea of weird things happening in the past, the psychic phenomena stuff. I always thought that was so cool.
I had a friend when I was young whose parents let him buy as many comic books as he wanted to. So whenever I’d sleep over at his house, I would go through comic books, and the idea of superpowers and abilities just seemed really cool.
So it was just taking everything that I was passionate about and trying to squeeze it into a single game and still make it feel cohesive.
I think the whole tabloid construct was a perfect way to do that, because nothing was too crazy or too wild to add in there. The crazier it is, the better it felt like it was a tabloid story. So I could just take all those tabloid stories we’ve heard or the ones we might think had never been printed and all the conspiracy theories we could think of – the fun ones, not the terrible ones –, and just throw them all in there. The whole thing with Elvis and the stuff with aliens in disguise.
I think the whole bit with the flight attendant on the airplane came out of a couple of bad experiences with nasty flight attendants on flights, so I felt like I was getting my revenge. I’m probably not the only person who had it because a lot of people seemed to like that part of the game. This is obviously before terrorist attacks, so you could feel free to blow something up in a microwave oven without getting killed on the airplane by a security guard.
But that was just fun. I got to create the universe that I would’ve liked to have read in terms of a book or a movie.
Stay Forever: Did you have an affinity towards New Age ideas?
David Fox: Yeah. In fact I probably was doing stuff like that. There were times, like when I was in college and soon after, where I was doing personal growth stuff that was in that arena. And I was actually doing counselling with people, and there was “woo woo” stuff in that sometimes.
The last thing I wanted to do was to proselytize or make it seem like I’m forcing ideas. So the fact that the whole thing was tongue-in-cheek and kind of a parody and exaggerated meant that I could go there without worrying that I was going to offend people. Although there were people who got offended. There’s that letter that we got from a guy who was a minister, I guess, who was accusing us of creating a game that was full of witchcraft and devil worship and all these terrible things. But from my point of view, it was all just fun – it had a guru who could float!
Stay Forever: One aspect of New Age, as I understand it, is spirituality. Are you a spiritual person?
David Fox: Yeah, kind of. I’m not religious. I believe in karma, I feel like that’s a real thing. I think we’ve been here before, I think the whole thing of past lives and reincarnation, there’s a truth to that. But it’s not something which I think about very much, it’s just part of my reality and my view of the world. I think that we’re here to learn lessons, that there probably is some greater force somewhere. I don’t picture some god looking down at us, controlling our lives; that doesn’t match my reality at all. I don’t go to any religious practices, never really did.
Stay Forever: I’ve seen other people’s recollections about the early days of Lucasfilm Games, and in these recollections, I’ve seen you described as an idealist. What made you an idealist back then?
David Fox: Mmh. I don’t know. It might be tied to this background and seeing people as inherently good. In college, I was going for an engineering major and quickly realized that wasn’t for me, and I switched to humanistic psychology. So I was already looking at people and what made them tick, and what made myself tick, and where motivations came from, and all that was really interesting. So the idea that people could actually grow and change and learn and be better, that optimistic viewpoint, I guess, comes from that.
I was fortunate to find a life partner relatively early, someone who shares a lot of the same beliefs and points of view, so we reinforce it with each other. We’ve been together for 47 years at this point.
Stay Forever: Congratulations!
David Fox: Thanks. And yes, I think this is part of the way that I am.
Stay Forever: Did this influence Zak McKracken in any way?
David Fox: Yes, I’m sure. That was probably why I threw everything in there. The concept of karma – there’s a bit where if you kill the squirrel early on, then there’s a slight consequence later on –, that whole thing was again done tongue-in-cheek, but with underlying seriousness, that there is some truth there. Clearly I wasn’t just reading stuff about this and throwing it in there just to do it, I was putting it in there because of the passion that I have for that whole area.
I like the idea that people got exposed to those ideas in a way which was fun and playful and not heavy-handed and dogmatic. It becomes part of people’s past experience, having gone through this game and actually thinking in this universe that includes all these new-agey things.
Stay Forever: We already touched upon the characters of the game. How was the cast chosen?
David Fox: I don’t remember. The character Annie is named after my wife. There’s probably some inspiration I took from her in terms of her intelligence and her wisdom, really. The other two characters, the two co-eds, are both named after the girlfriends at the time of Ron Gilbert and Matthew Kane. So we got their names in there.
Stay Forever: Only the names or also the personality?
David Fox: No, the names, I don’t think there’s any personality. The only gag was with Leslie’s hair: If you took her helmet off in the game, her hair would be a different color each time. That was an in-joke, because the Leslie who was Matthew’s girlfriend would often dye her hair and come in each week and it would be a different color. So we played with that. She ended up playtesting on the game too, which was fun, so she got to playtest her character. I don’t really think that most of the rest were based on real people, just characters that we came up with.
Stay Forever: Let’s talk about the gameplay. Did you have a formal design goal, did you envision what kind of game experience this would be?
David Fox: I think the only parameters I was imagining were 30 or 40 hours of gameplay and that it would be funny. Zak would have his headlines that he spat off in different parts of the game, where he would throw out a headline based on something weird that’s happening. I don’t think I said „This game has to be this, this and this“, it was just: „Here’s the universe, I want to put this in, and how am I going to pull all these elements together and make them fit in a cohesive story?“
Stay Forever: Did you want to make a hard game or an easy game?
David Fox: I was thinking it would be equivalent to Maniac Mansion in terms of difficulty. It might be harder in that there’s more stuff you probably have to get through. There are things which feel rooted in reality – that you have to go to the airport and have to buy tickets, things which I would not do now in a game because they become tedious. But I think in some way that probably helped root it more in reality.
The whole bit with the bus driver and having to pay, to give him a cash card – that’s the area in that game which was forever giving us issues. There would always be these bugs that would show up because I was trying to make it feel like a real thing. Do you have enough money on your cash card? If there’s someone with you, are they supposed to be on the bus also? What if one of you has enough money and the other one doesn’t, can one pay for the other? All these things made it way more complex, and by the end of the project, I’m sure this was the most convoluted display of spaghetti code that I had in the game, and that’s why it kept on breaking.
I think I learned something from that: If it’s not going to add to the gameplay, then simplify it. And also, don’t do things which are tedious in real life – why would you want to do them in a game as well?
Stay Forever: Since you mentioned the word „tedious“ – why so many mazes?
David Fox: It felt like you had to have a maze. I wanted to make it harder to get to some place. So you got to the location, but then you had to go through something to find it. I wanted you to feel like you were in a large space and you had to work your way through. I’d say there are people who love the mazes, but most people get tired of them.
I personally did not like playing with them. (laughs) I always had a map so I could figure out how to get there or how to use shortcuts to jump to the end of it, so I didn’t have to go through the tedious part. That’s one thing I would change now. In games of the time it was probably okay and it made the game feel more expansive. It gave you a lot more hours of gameplay without increasing graphics assets.
The jungle mazes were always really more of a gag, because they weren’t mappable. You just have to keep going forwards a couple of entryways and you make your way through. If you backtrack, then you get lost for a bit.
So I think it was something of the times that felt right. Maybe it was having played the original text adventure game with all of its mazes; that kind of became a standard thing that you put into games.
Stay Forever: I’ve read an anecdote that Zak McKracken was originally supposed to be a little bit easier, but during production you were nudged towards making it harder so that Lucasfilm Games could sell more hint books.
David Fox: No, I don’t think that was ever the case. Same thing for any of the games we’ve done. I don’t think we had any push either way on whether we should make them easier or harder.
But this was before the era of the internet, so you couldn’t just pop online and look up a hint. So we had a hint line which charged people money per minute, I think, for going through the telephone tree looking for hints. So that may have turned out to be a profit center for the company, but that wasn’t the intent. (laughs)
Stay Forever: I’d like to come back briefly to the question of humor, because you already explained that Zak McKracken was a humorous game and was always supposed to be such. If I look at the entire line-up of LucasArts adventure games, many of the are humorous, are comedy adventure games. Do you have an explanation as to why that is?
David Fox: When I was hiring people for our new batch of SCUMM programmers in 1989, I was specifically looking for people with senses of humor, who could write and tell stories as much as they could program. To me that was actually a more difficult skill to obtain than it would be to program. We could teach them how to code the SCUMM system, but we couldn’t teach them how to be funny. So that was pretty important, that was part of the culture of the company.
I think there was always a fun-loving element to the people we hired. At least for a lot of the 80s, any lead who was hired would go through these group interview sessions, or they’d go and talk to pretty much all the other leads, and people would give feedback and thumbs up or down whether they felt they would fit.
Loom and The Dig may not fit into that category at all. I never actually played The Dig, so I can’t speak for that.
Stay Forever: It’s not very funny.
David Fox: Yes, and Loom was not intended to be funny. There’s some smiles in there, but it wasn’t a comedy game. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, we did want to make it funny, but not as a comedy. I think we tried to match the tone of the films, where you have a mix of adventure plus some levity to make it funnier. Some jokes probably went more in that direction. But of the games I worked on, that’s probably the least humorous. How would you categorize Fate of Atlantis, probably similar?
Stay Forever: Yes – lighthearted, but not a comedy adventure.
David Fox: Yes, I think that matches with the Indiana Jones films.
Stay Forever: Speaking of sense of humor: You were the one who created the infamous “hamster in the microwave” option in the Maniac Mansion. And in Zak McKracken, players can shred the goldfish, Sushi, and kill the two-headed squirrel. David, what do you have against animals?
David Fox: (laughs) It was giving the player an in-joke, because neither of those are part of the puzzle-solving. It just felt like it’d be a fun bit. I’m actually pretty nice to animals.
Stay Forever: [giggles] Glad to hear.
David Fox: I sure hope that no one’s gotten any ideas from those games and actually did it in real life after doing that in a game! Maybe I let them do it in a game so you don’t have to do it in real life. But, yeah, the hamster bit was just … I mean, we had a hamster [in Maniac Mansion] and you could pick it up, and we had a microwave, and it just seemed like: “Oh!” We got this flash of sick joke insight, and I wired that up behind Ron’s back. I didn’t tell him I was going to do it. I did ask Gary Winnick for the splat image on the microwave oven door and then wired it up and called Ron in and said: “Here, sit down, try this!” He didn’t know what was going to happen. He laughed. So it stayed in the game because it was funny.
We were looking for things that weren’t part of the gameplay that you could try, and you get a result that would match. I think part of what made the games really fun is that for someone who had the same moment of inspiration, that sick moment that I did, and they try it and actually find out that it works, it’s something that they’ll probably never forget. Because the game anticipated what they might do.
I think if you had some radioactive water and you put in the microwave, that would result in the kid dying, with radioactive steam pouring out, and you inhale it and the kid would die. It felt like you had to have a consequence if they tried it, so you had to put that in there. Maybe there’s a sick streak in me, in a comedy sense, but not in a real-life sense. We have fish. They’re very safe. (laughs)
Stay Forever: How successful was the game, both in how it was viewed internally and in raw numbers?
David Fox: I don’t think I knew what the numbers were. I think it did well. All or our games did much better in Europe than they did in the United States, proportionally. Zak, more than any other game, seems to have a huge following in Germany. I always wondered about that, whether the humor just matched or what part of it made it so appealing there. All the fan-created games were from Germany or Austria. So that was fun.
In the United States, Sierra On-Line had such a huge lead. They were doing games for years before we did. So they had a huge following, and whenever they did a game, they would sell way more – ten times as many copies in the United States than we could with any of our games. But the fact that they were using a text parser probably made them a lot more difficult to translate and to localize. And because we had the fixed verbs, and you didn’t have all the different combinations you might do otherwise; that made it easier to localize them and do a really good job, because you’re really just localizing the text that’s spoken, as opposed to the whole user interface. And I don’t think they had a presence in Europe. So the fact that we jumped there, I think we filled the niche that they filled in the United States. That might have made it more popular.
It never had a sequel inside the company. That might have been partly because I wasn’t there to do a sequel, I had already left by then. And maybe it just didn’t have the same level of popularity inside the company than it did outside. It’s one of those things that seems more like those films that bomb when they first come out, and they become huge hits afterwards. Labyrinth actually falls into that category, it didn’t have much of a following at the time, but afterwards people really liked it. Zak might fall into that.
So I think it did okay. It wasn’t a huge success in terms of massive sales, as far as I know. I’m sure Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade did way better just because of the name recognition. But I think Maniac Mansion was also in that same category. It didn’t have a huge following at the time. But then there was a sequel, so that bumped up the original game a lot more. I think the first ones that really did a lot better were probably the Monkey Island ones.
The fact that all these games are available now – you can download them from Steam or from GOG – means that they have a life that will go on forever, which is kind of fun. We never thought anyone would know our games after the first two or three years after they came out. We figured the computers that we built them for would be gone, and people would just stop playing them. I just didn’t think about the fact that computers were going to keep on getting more and more powerful, so that you could do emulators – or emulators of emulators of emulators if you wanted to – and have them have a life that would go on forever.
I actually had no idea that was happening until I went to a demo scene conference in Norway in, I think, 2004, and someone showed me Zak McKracken running on a Nokia phone at the time. I think it was a C64 emulator that had been ported over to Nokia, and then you were able to play the game on it. That made me realize, “Okay, that’s why people seem to know our games!”, because these were mostly young people there, and they weren’t even around when the games came out. So I guess they’ll be there forever.
Stay Forever: They will. How much of an issue was software piracy for you back then?
David Fox: We had a really bad experience with the first two games, with Rescue on Fractalus and Ballblazer. We gave Atari demo versions of the games during beta on floppy disks. We didn’t do anything to serialize them. And we ended up finding out that within a week, they had been distributed in all the BBSes [Bulletin Board Systems] around the country. Someone somewhere took the disk images and put them on the bulletin boards, and people were downloading them and playing them. There was no copy protection in the games at the time. And since we didn’t serialize them, we couldn’t really prove who did the release. And then all these things happened where the games came out much later than we had planned, which meant that by then a lot of people had already played them. So that was a pretty major thing. It’s possible that because of that, more people knew the name of the company Lucasfilm Games than would have otherwise, because there was so much wide distribution.
For our later games, I know everything was pirated and cracked. I don’t know how much of an issue that was for us. I think we expected it, we knew that no matter what we put in there, someone would find a way to crack it. In fact, cracking it was probably more fun for them than playing the games. That became a game within the game. So maybe because I had the early experience of how much of a betrayal that felt like with our first games, for the other ones kind of was expecting it.
We still did stuff to try to prevent it and got more and more sophisticated ourselves. But it was like a nuclear arms race. Everyone kept on increasing their ability to take out the copy protection and work around it.
Stay Forever: Zak McKracken has often been lauded as one of the best adventures ever made. And it has stayed with you for your whole life, you’ve been in touch with it ever since as the game was available on ever new platforms. In hindsight, how do you feel about this being such a big part of your life?
David Fox: Well, it’s probably not that much in my consciousness now. Partly because at the time we really didn’t have any direct feedback with any of the game players of the games. I had no sense of how people were being affected by it. It really wasn’t until social media and some trips we made recently to Europe, where fans of the game could see me and seek me out, that I actually started getting a sense of how popular it was.
Of the games I made it’s probably the one that I felt the most passion for, that’s closest to my own personal likes and dislikes in terms of what goes in the game, and also probably the one that I had the most creative control over. Other than Rescue on Fractalus, every other game I worked on there [at Lucasfilm Games] was really either someone else’s game, or it was a licensed product based on a movie. So it’s unique in that it was a story that I actually created myself. I didn’t really do any after that. Thimbleweed Park, that’s a story that was created by Ron and Gary that I came in on after it was created. I had a lot that I got to contribute to it, but I was still contributing to someone else’s universe. This is very different.
Stay Forever: We had an interview with Noah Falstein, and when he was talking about Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, he mentioned in passing what you were doing on the game and what Ron was doing on the game, and he said that you gravitated towards the art side and that you were the liaison for the artist. So I wondered: Is that something that you’re interested in? Are you an artistic person?
David Fox: Hmm, I don’t think I would characterize myself that. I might have interacted with them more than he did because he wasn’t doing any of the actual rooms. He was doing more of the dialogues. Ron and I split up all the rooms between each other and each took different sections of the game. The primary thing I was doing was coding. Just like with the other games, you describe the room to the artist, the artist would give you back what you want, and you might have a couple of go-arounds or back-and-forths.
The fact that we had production stills from the movie meant that we could do something based on the original photographs that were taken during production. Or we go back to the library at the ranch and talk to the librarian: “Say, what were the reference books that you gave to the people who did the movie for this scene?”, for the castle for example; and we would get some of the same reference material. So more than our other games, because it was reusing a lot of existing environments, it didn’t have to be quite as original. But we obviously had to redo them to match the needs for the game.
So to answer your original question: I definitely don’t consider myself an artist. I have painted a little bit as a hobby. But it’s probably not something which I see myself as being a part of. I feel like I’m more of a “world builder”, in a sense. Someday I would love to learn how to do really advanced 3D graphic modelling. But who knows if I ever get the chance to do that.
Stay Forever: What does your wife Annie think of Zak McKracken?
David Fox: Ah, well, I think she feels honored that she’s in it. She was blown away when we went to Italy two years ago for that anniversary, where people were coming up to her and asking for her autograph. We were in a car with someone, getting a ride with one of the fans, and they said: “I can’t believe that Annie Larris is in my car!” Annie Larris was her maiden name. So she was getting this level of celebrity because the game character was based on her. It’s kind of funny. But she likes the game, she likes the concept, she’s definitely in tune with a lot of the things that went into it.
She had some issues with the FM Towns box cover art. The original one that we saw had Annie depicted as wearing a mini skirt or really short shorts. Very sexual. And she just objected. So they switched the art and gave her jeans. But it’s still a very suggestive, bizarre pose. It doesn’t match the character at all, the way that she should be depicted. But we couldn’t get them to shift it. I guess they were doing it for the Japanese audience, and that was just what they were going to go with. She did end up on a playing card for that game, which is kind of fun.
Stay Forever: Thank you so much, David, for taking the time and answering all of our questions.
David Fox: It was very fun. You guys asked some questions I had never been asked before. Thank you!