Earlier this year, Replay Games held a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign to fund a remake of Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards with the help of the franchise’s original creator, Al Lowe. Since then, they’ve also announced a collaboration with Finnish developer Prank Entertainment to release Fester Mudd: Curse of the Gold, a delightfully retro tribute to the heyday of point-and-click adventure games that’s due out in early January.
We recently got a chance to sit down with Replay president Paul Trowe and recently appointed chief creative officer Josh Mandel to discuss Fester, Larry, and how games have changed since the days when point-and-click was king.
EGM: Josh, you’ve been in development for quite a long time. You’ve worked at several big name companies throughout the industry, most notably Sierra On-Line and Sega. What drew you to the team at Replay?
Josh Mandel: [It was] primarily because of Paul. Paul was a central figure in the games that I worked on back when I was first at Sierra, and we’ve kept in touch since then, on and off for 20 years. He is so fanatically devoted to the same things that I’m fanatically devoted to in gaming: adventure games, the Sierra legacy, all that cool stuff. He already had [Leisure Suit Larry creator Al Lowe] on board, Leslie Balfour, who I worked with extensively back in those days. It was a rare chance to go home again with people that I love and have known for a long time. We see eye to eye on what games should be. Who else would I want to work with?
Paul Trowe: It really is like one big family. It’s been nothing but a pleasure since day one. It’s almost effortless.
EGM: Point-and-click adventure games have seen a major resurgence over the past few years. I think it really kicked off with the HD remakes of the Monkey Island games that introduced that franchise to a whole new generation, and then you’ve got stuff like the Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter, and your Kickstarter with Leisure Suit Larry. What do you think it is about the point-and-click adventure game that has made it so resilient in spite of the ways that mainstream gaming has evolved over the years?
Mandel: I think it has to do a lot with story. Story started out pretty paramount with these games. We didn’t have the technological capability to do incredible graphics or even incredible sound—although that improved a lot more quickly than graphics did. We had to make up for our lack of technical pizzaz with gameplay pizzaz—with great story and fun puzzles and characters. The generation that we’re re-presenting all this to just isn’t familiar, for the most part, with what games could be like in terms of story and gameplay. We don’t feel like the current market ever discarded our flavor of gaming because they’ve never seen our flavor of gaming.
EGM: On that note, you guys recently announced that you’re collaborating with Prank Entertainment on Fester Mudd, which definitely has a retro, SCUMM-engine look to it. What drew you to the project?
Mandel: Fester Mudd was presented to me with the question, “Is this something we want to get involved with?” From the first minute I played it, I thought, “Hell yes! This is exactly the atmosphere we’re after. This appeals to the same historic audience as what we’re doing.” I could see all kinds of little tips of the hat to Sierra games—especially to Freddy Pharkas, which, of course, is very near and dear to my heart—and also to the [LucasArts] games. It had a great sense of humor. It had an interesting setting. It had an interesting story. I liked the puzzles. They were whimsical and fun, and not too difficult but not too easy. I was skeptical at first. Whenever someone sends me something I haven’t seen, I go in a little skeptical, I think, because I don’t like a lot of games these days, but Fester made me go, “Wow, this is a perfect match for us.” It’s certainly a perfect match for me.
Trowe: They pitched it to me first, and I played it, and I was blown away. I said, “OK, there’s no way in hell the guys are going to like this. Let me put it to the greenlight committee, which is basically Al, Josh, and myself.” First I sent it to Josh, and Josh said, “Oh my god, I love it.” I thought, “Maybe he’s on crack too. Let me send it to Al.” And Al loved it. It was thumbs up across the board.
The team [at Prank Entertainment] is just working so synergistically with our team here at Replay that it’s like we were born to work together. It’s really exciting. When you get something like this, it’s magic. It’s not rocket science to make a video game. The hardest part, really, is getting the people to get along and not to step on egos and toes. A lot of that went on during the tenure we had at Sierra, but here, they’re loving our feedback, we’re loving what they’re giving us, and they’re implementing stuff that we’re giving them. It’s great so far.
EGM: Josh, you mentioned that you don’t enjoy a lot of modern games. Why is that? What do you feel is missing from mainstream games these days?
Mandel: I guess I look for games that are easier to play, because I no longer have the time that I had when I was in my teens and 20s to devote to learning complex controls and deep paradigms. I don’t have the time in my life anymore to make a hobby out of a game. I need something that I can get into quickly with an emphasis on characters, because I find that characters are where games do the best job of helping me reach that suspension of disbelief. Something with humor, because I crave humor. I love to laugh. Something with an original story, and I don’t see a lot of that. I see the same stories being played over and over again. I see characters who are not very interesting. I see a grimness to a lot of games. The standard game now has either got to take place in some dystopian future where people live in misery or in a warzone. I like my game playing to be a positive experience, not an onerous one.
EGM: At the moment, both of your games are up on Valve’s Greenlight service, which allows users to vote on what games they’d like to see offered for sale through Steam. Recently, Valve generated a bit of controversy by saying that everyone who’s a first-time publisher or developer has to go through Greenlight now. What’s your take on that as a studio who’s had firsthand experience with the Greenlight process.
Trowe: I compare the Steam Greenlight situation to the Apple App Store versus the [Google Play for] Android. You can put anything up on the Android marketplace, including porn, as long as there’s no malware on it. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. I do think they’re making us jump through more hurdles than we actually need to go through in order to get it up on Steam, but they’re starting to close off those walls to make a walled garden, just like the App Store. But again, even with the App Store, 10,000 apps a day that launch is just a ridiculous amount. There has to be some type of gating factor that determines what will sell and what is not worth the time that they’re investing in hosting these games on a server, which is actually costing them money and [potentially] not generating any revenue. I understand it, I just wish we didn’t have to cross so many hurdles.
EGM: On a somewhat related topic, you guys recently had a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund your Leisure Suit Larry remake. What are your thoughts on the crowdfunding trend that we’ve seen so many developers taking part in recently? Do you think this is the future of how games will be financed?
Mandel: For my part, I would say that it’s a mixed blessing. I think it will always be a viable alternative for game developers, but I have my doubts that it will ever become the major route through which development happens. It’s been, in some regards, a very freeing experience and a very positive one. At the same time, what I’ve come to feel is that instead of being responsible to a publisher, we’re now responsible to 10,000 publishers.
There are days when you read criticism because a lot of people, once they contribute, they feel open—as they should—to critiquing what they see. Sometimes they don’t like it, and sometimes the reason they don’t like it is because they don’t understand the process. When you deal with a regular publisher, you don’t usually have to explain the process, but we do have to explain the process sometimes with our Kickstarter audience. I forget that sometimes. I would say there are advantages and disadvantages, and I don’t see it becoming a major factor for me [as a creator], because it’s a lot more complicated and a lot more work than going through a regular publisher, even though it frees you up, perhaps, creatively.
Trowe: We have a very concrete design and methodology for creating the game, and it’s difficult to say no to some people on Kickstarter, because they make a valid point. “Oh, it would be better if you did it this way or better if you did it that way.” Some of them, it’s very, very true, but sometimes you’re past the point of no return or sometimes you’re using a technology that doesn’t support [that feature]. It’s frustrating, because we want to please everybody, but we can’t. Sometimes, the few people that we don’t please because we’re just not able to get very vocal. We don’t mind that. It’s just when the attacks get personal—that’s what we mind.
EGM: One of the other problems that crops up with Kickstarter is that people will say, “Oh, you set a deadline that was too soon, and then you had to delay it.” As a developer who’s delayed the release of your Kickstarter project, do you think that’s a fair criticism? Should people be more pessimistic with when their release date is going to be?
Mandel: I agree that people should be pessimistic about release dates. On the other hand, I don’t think that’s a criticism that’s fair to level at our [Leisure Suit Larry] project, because as soon as we hit our stretch goals and it became clear that we were going to have to add more material to the game, we publicized it immediately. It was the first week of May, right when the Kickstarter was coming to a close. Paul [wrote an update] saying, “We’re going to add more material, so there’s no way we can make October. We could maybe make the holiday season, but we’d rather give it the time that it needs to make sure all the new stuff is perfectly integrated and polished, so we’re talking the first quarter of 2013.” He said that back at the very, very beginning of the project, and that hasn’t changed.
Trowe: And we still get a lot of flack over that.
EGM: So the game is still on track for an early 2013 launch?
EGM: What’s your reaction to some of the backlash we’ve seen against established industry personalities like Peter Molyneaux who are trying to use Kickstarter to fund their new projects? There have been accusations that some larger developers are simply using the service to cash in on the latest trend. Do you think that’s a valid criticism? Should Kickstarter be something that’s only for indies?
Mandel: I think they’re putting up an arbitrary set of rules that they think should apply to Kickstarter for no apparent reason. I think Kickstarter should be open to everyone, because there are many different reasons to want to go through Kickstarter as opposed to going through other means, as there are people who want to start projects. Saying that it should be reserved for indies? I don’t think that’s how Kickstarter was conceived. If it was conceived that way, then they would have made it that way.
EGM: One final question for Josh: You were the first person ever to voice King Graham in the classic King’s Quest series. Is there any chance you’ll be lending your golden pipes to Replay’s upcoming projects?
Mandel: I would love to. We don’t have any specific plans for me to do so, but if Replay said they wanted my voice, who would I be to say no and disappoint my legion of fan?