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Lettuce Entertain You: A Visit to Sierra On-Line

Judith Shane reports on what goes on behind the scenes at one of the leading video game producers and of the latest escapades of Leisure Suit Larry and Jolly Al.

A leader in the interactive entertainment industry, Sierra On-Line, located in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, has approximately 100 games in development at any time, and receives at least that many unsolicited game ideas per month.

Scenes from Leisure Suit Larry. © Sierra-On-Line.

I present myself at reception at the appointed time. I'm asked to sign in (name, affiliation, time in). Reception phones Al Lowe. "Send her down," he says. I am told to take the elevator to the second floor. "To your right, there is an unmarked door. Knock. Someone will let you in." What? No weapons search. Bemused but game, I proceed as directed. Two Als are waiting for me as I emerge from the elevator: Al Lowe the designer and animator Al Eufrasio. We go into Al Lowe's office.

"What is it I'm not supposed to steal." A strange expression flits across Lowe's face. "Didn't you sign a non-disclosure agreement?" Is he kidding? I can't be sure. "You see we created a language specifically for writing the games," he explains.

What they are protecting, he tells me is not the new Leisure Suit Larry game--Love For Sail--but the proprietary language for writing games and the animation and other programs they use. Proprietary super software. Including ways to handle a loop of cels, bounce a character from right to left, attach text to specific actions, and retrieve recorded sound from a 2 hour session in 10 minutes.

Scenes from Leisure Suit Larry. © Sierra-On-Line.

This translates into production efficiency. And all else being equal, if you can make them quicker, your cost is less. For example, the French language version can be completed about three days after recording. Of course, all else never is equal, but Larry's production values are extremely high, so maybe the savings translate into a better product: digitized music, deft animation and seamless software give a welcome ease of play--an aesthetic experience for the player.

"I'll be going to Europe soon to oversee the French and German versions of Love For Sail," Lowe continues. We're distributed by Coktel, the largest education and game publisher in Europe." The French and German versions feature those languages in audio. The Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian versions have foreign language text only."

Jolly Al

I ask why Sierra doesn't just license their proprietary language and software, i.e., sell it. Lowe says that he has suggested it. But, then you have to worry about people paying for it. Paranoia notwithstanding, Al Lowe looks and sounds just like you want a creator of humorous games to look. Jolly. (After all, would you trust a chef who wasn't fat?)

Jolly Al asks whether I'd like a copy of "An Interview with Lowe, Creator of Leisure Suit Larry and Designer of Love for Sail," written by Al Lowe? Sure, why not. Save me the trouble of writing this article. " No. No. In case you need additional information," he chuckles.

(You've got to admire a guy who not only writes his own games, but the fact sheets and interviews to go with them as well. Mr. Chutzpah. Here's a question and answer from Al's interview with Al.)

Q. Is it true you are the world's oldest living computer game designer?

A. (Laughs) Of course. At Least, that's what I've claimed for years. To date, no one has ever challenged me. On the other hand, it's scarcely a title to fight over, is it?

"I started programming in 1978 and within a few years was creating games for Sierra. My first full-blown animated 3D graphic adventure game for Sierra was The Black Cauldron, in 1984. In '87, the Leisure Suit Larry series began."

"So, how do you design a game anyway," I toss out.

"With a little help from my friends," Lowe throws back. "Actually with a lot of help. Team meetings are key. Anything that I threw out that got a laugh we kept. If it didn't we cut it. The byword is, 'You don't cut funny.' We decided against using live actors, for fear the live ones would both increase the sleaze and reduce the humor." An easy choice.

3D or 2D, That is the Question"Now that you've finished Leisure Suit Larry #7, what's next?"

"That's a good question. This is the first time Larry has been animated by hand. The big animation question is 3D or 2D. What'll it be? This Larry release is a test case, to see whether it can withstand the competition for 3D rendered products. A fork in the road for me. My focus is on humor, poking fun at society's mores, pretensions, etc. Properly done, Larry calls for 2D animation. Unfortunately, you generally see games animated in 3D doing better than those in 2D."

"It's hard to give 3D characters character," chimes in Al Eufrasio. "You're limited to how much information you can put into the computer, and this translates [for example] into how far you can bend a knee."

Love For Sale has more than 2D in its favor. The sound is excellent. There is an original score recorded by breathing musicians, as well as popular songs from the 70s. A player can insert both his voice and photograph into the game. And a scratch and sniff card with smells both pleasing and offensive is included in the package.

And of course there is the play. Love For Sale follows one of the most pleasing of game plans: story driven and laced with activities in a nonlinear playing structure. Interest is added to the usual point and click interface with commands you type in and pull-down menus à la Windows 95. Players with a scanner and WAV recorder can insert their face and dialogue on screen.

Love For Sail is described by Sierra as an adventure game with puzzles. OK. But its not the adventure or the puzzles which are the reason for playing the game. It's the humor. Pun-filled dialogue, off (but not too off) color bad jokes, and pie in the face slapstick. Bob Hope in the back room. It's more humor packaged as an adventure game with puzzles.

The game is simple-minded but not simple. And it's fun. Verbal interactions with characters are conducted by preselected phrases and the odd keyword typed in. Text input is not only important, but necessary to complete the game. Certain puzzles cannot be solved otherwise.

Scenes from Leisure Suit Larry. © Sierra-On-Line.

The Adult in Adult Entertainment

If any one company and product might serve as a touchstone for the evolution of the interactive entertainment industry, it is Sierra On-Line and its Leisure Suit Larry series. First in the category of "adult only" software in 1987, Leisure Suit Larry is renown for the California bill of the same name which, had it passed, would have prohibited adult-themed computer games. The bill died in committee and Larry has happily bumbled and "gauched" all the way to the current title.

When the Leisure Suit Larry series is described as adult entertainment, this is not a neutral description of pornography. More like lawyer speak for: you-can't-sue-us-we-told-you-its-not-for-12-year-olds. I wonder who the adult is in "adult entertainment."

Al Lowe says that the kind of adults they are designing for are those who enjoy brain teasers and logic puzzles. When asked the age of the intended player, he said,

"Well, I don't have any problems with a 17 year old playing the game. On the other hand, I don't think its appropriate for my 13 year old daughter."

At this point, Lowe turns me over to the animators and my tour of the back rooms at Sierra continues in the office of Jason Zayas, head animator. Jason, Al Eufrasio, and William O'Brien comprise the in-house animation team and are all graduates of the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art. Self-named for the founder, the three year school opened in 1976, is primarily for cartoonists, and teaches a Warner Bros. (squash and stretch) technique of animation.

"Say what? The animation was done in Croatia? Whose idea was that? " I ask.

"Well, it wasn't ours," Jason says. "We work with two animation studios: L.A. West in Eugene, Oregon and Animotion in Syracuse, New York. "We drew all the key frames and they helped with the inbetweening, coloring and computer transference.

"Each studio received about one-half the work.

"And," he continued," L.A. West farmed out some of their work to a studio in Croatia."

"That could provide interesting difficulties, unless your artists were American culture junkies. Humor is cultural specific more often than not. What problems did you have?"

"Overseas animators don't always get the jokes," Jason allowed. " For example, when Leisure Suit Larry did a Homer Simpson reaction, the animators saw a sneeze. This was impossible to explain."

"How did you handle these shall we call them failures to communicate?"

"One of three ways: We'd send it back, if there was time, redo it ourselves if there wasn't, or simply finagle the cels to make it work. "

Scenes from Leisure Suit Larry. © Sierra-On-Line.

Part Engineers, Part Artists

Jason, Al and Bill finagle well. Part engineers, part artists and general masterminds, they lay out storyboards from the script if they have time. They don't always have the time and substitute key frames in lieu of storyboards. They scan in the hand drawing and use software to enhance the colors. The backgrounds are scanned and computer colored. The animators work hand-in-hand with programmers. "The programmers are our cameramen," Jason said. "And we have to give them the blueprints."

The animators are also creative cheats. Bounded by the constraints of time on the one hand and the limitations of technology (eight frames per second) on the other, the animators tap dance to all sorts of tunes to make the movement more fluid.

"One way we make limited animation look full, "Jason revealed," is by pasting parts of bodies on the background to free up sufficient memory to better animate the rest. We also break up the cels so that not all parts of the characters are moving at the same time."

"What is the advantage?" I ask. Al explains that when you break up a cel, it increases your chances that the sequence will move smoothly on slower computers.

"Do you change the animation for foreign language releases?

They answer no and to my surprise add that they don't always hear the dialogue before they animate the English version. Recording dialogue for the game generally starts in the middle of production. The animators work from the script or sometimes just the mood of a scene. The mouth and eye movements are drawn separate from the bodies. And an audio program (another piece of proprietary software) syncs the mouth positions to the dialogue.

Al comments that, "We use eight mouth movements in generic mouth positions and expressions, happy or sad eyebrows and so on. Basically, what we are doing is Japanese style animation: generic talkers. Sometimes it matches up to the audio, sometimes it doesn't. You have to lay out the animation, guess how it's going to act out, and then cleanup afterwards. Change the tone by selecting a different mouth position, for example. It's easy.&quot

But is it an easy sell? How the Larry series evolves 2D, 3D, or at all, depends not only on how well the current title sells, but likely on how well all the current Sierra titles sell. CUC International recently acquired Sierra the largest in-house developer of entertainment and education software in the US--emphasis on entertainment. At the same time CUC also purchased Davidson & Associates, a busy publisher of education and entertainment software--emphasis on education.

What does this mean? Well, for one thing, the labels may lose their integrity. Stay Tooned, an interactive cartoon game alternative to Saturday morning in front of the tube is being released under the Sierra label. The game was created by Funnybone, which was acquired by Davidson & Associates not too long ago.

CUC is a monster retail and membership services megacompany. Whether the Internet succeeds primarily as an avenue of commerce or entertainment, CUC is covering its bets. Walter A. Forbes, chairman and CEO states that, "Davidson' and Sierra On-Line's development expertise will enable us to build one of the most compelling sites in the interactive world . . . . We believe we will create one of the most dynamic and all-encompassing consumer-services sites on the Internet." Not too all encompassing, please, Mr. Forbes. Interactive games on the Internet may be a major piece of the future, but not the whole future. Not everyone wants to see Larry promoting Shoppers Advantage.

Judith Shane is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor.

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