David Fox / Lucasfilm Games
Added on December 28th, 2013 (4679 views)
Hello and welcome, David! Please tell the readers a bit about yourself and what you're up to right now.
I'm David Fox, I'm 62, and I've been married to my wife Annie for 39 years. We have two grown-up kids, both writers, and we live in the San Francisco Bay Area. When I'm not playing on a computer or iPad, Annie and I enjoy hiking with our dog Josie, eating great food, and going to see plays and films.
How did you start working with computers in the first place?
I had my first encounter with a computer back when I was in 8th grade. I checked out a library book that gave instructions on how to build a simple computer, and I took on the project for a school science fair. This was back in 1964, so the computer could only add and subtract. The display was a bunch of lights on top, and you entered numbers with a dial from an old telephone. I had to build my own circuit boards, and the final result kind of worked, sometimes. But it was impressive enough to get me some kind of prize.
I also got to take a programming class at the local Junior College while I was still in high school. But that was pretty frustrating, having to type my code onto paper tape, then hand it over to the computer operator to run the next day. Debugging my code was a two-day cycle for each mistake!
I actually knew what I would be doing in the future, though, when I went on a field trip with my college class to Stanford Research Institute in 1972. There, I got to see (and play) an early Space Wars game on a CRT. This was far better than trying to make lights flash or get an answer printed on a teletype machine. But it took me a few more years to figure out how to jump into the area of computer games.
What were your favourite games at that time?
Hah. There were no computer games that I had access to at that time. But a few years later, when my wife Annie and I decided to open the Marin Computer Center – the first non-profit public-access microcomputer centre – I actually got a lot of hands-on playing time. Someone loaned me a portable teletype device, and a local high school gave me free online access to their mainframe via the teletype's 300 baud modem. I got to play Adventure, Hunt the Wumpus, Star Trek and lots of other early games. I learned how to program in BASIC (which was what many of these games were written in) and was able to make fixes/improvements to some of these games.
A year later, in 1977, we opened our doors at MCC and had ten of our own Processor Technology Sol-20 microcomputers. These all had CRTs, and the games on them were much better. To get sound, you placed an AM radio near the computer because on some of the games, the CPU created radio interference in the form of beeps and buzzes.
Kids and adults would rent time on our computers for $1.50/hour, and we taught programming classes and hosted field trips and birthday parties. Soon, we had some Apple IIs, Atari 800s, a TRS-80 and a Commodore PET.
That kind of centre at the dawn of microcomputers? Very impressive! How did people react to computers back then? How good was people's understanding of what the machines could do?
Most people seemed pretty fascinated by them. Kids tended to take to them more easily than adults, who probably had their heads filled with 1950s science fiction films in which huge computers take over the world. Sometimes, we'd see the kids on the computers with their parents hovering behind, watching and giving suggestions. But often we'd see them working together.
Because of preconceived notions, I'd say the adults were more likely to expect a lot more out of them. Think of what you can do now with an iPhone and all the apps available. That wasn't the case then. There were very few programs out there, so using a microcomputer often meant learning how to program or at least copying programs from a book.
The BASIC programming language we used for our Sol-20s had an edit command, so you could go into a line and change the text. One woman who was taking a class from us complained that her computer was broken. She had entered the word "Edit" on the first line of the program, saved it to tape, and the following week when she returned, didn't understand why it didn't do what she told it to. She expected it to follow her instructions and Edit its program, fixing the bugs.
Was getting into the games business something you wanted to do at an early stage?
There was no computer games business when I was growing up, but I did love going to the arcade to play any kind of games they had then (none were computer-based, most were mechanical).
What was the very first game you worked on?
I started by doing conversions of published games from one platform to another. We then got royalties for these conversions from the publishers. I think the first ones might have been some of the Adventure International games.
My first totally home-grown game was for Sesame Place (run by the people behind Sesame Street), and it was called Mix and Match Muppets. It was on the Apple II, and you got to combine parts of the bodies of several Muppets and mix them up into a new one. It was a very short game, but it was for their centre, so that was what they wanted.
What about Star Wars Hodge?
Yes, we absolutely had that one. I was definitely a Star Wars fan!
How did you get in touch with Adventure International?
We would often review games for the magazine Creative Computing, so we'd ask various publishers to send us samples of their games so we could do the reviews. I guess that's how we first connected. When I saw that their games were only available for the TRS-80, because that was the computer Scott Adams owned, I suggested that we could do conversions for him. He was happy for us to give it a shot.
Tell us about how you got the job at Lucasfilm Games Division. Did you submit work samples or did someone recommend you?
In 1981, a year before Lucasfilm Games Group was started, I was working on my book Computer Animation Primer, which featured animation tutorials for the Atari 800 (http://www.atariarchives.org/cap). The first half of the book had an overview of the state of the art of computer graphics and animation, and I was able to hang out with some of the brilliant members of the Lucasfilm Computer Division, including Loren Carpenter whom I later worked with on Rescue on Fractalus!. I got to include photos from their then current work on Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan (http://www.atariarchives.org/cap/showpage.php?page=color2 and http://www.atariarchives.org/cap/showpage.php?page=color3).
Loren's work with fractals on his film Vol Libre can be seen at http://www.atariarchives.org/cap/showpage.php?page=color8. We actually printed dozens of his frames in the corner of the book's pages, so you could view them in motion as a flip book.
Their ground-breaking experimental work can also be seen here: http://www.atariarchives.org/cap/showpage.php?page=color10.
Then in June 1982, about the time I finished the first draft of my book, one of our MCC members told me that Lucasfilm was starting up a games group. I immediately contacted Ed Catmull, head of the Computer Division (which the games group was initially part of). He told me they had just hired Peter Langston to head the group, and I set up a meeting with Peter as soon as he started working there. I brought him my manuscript as a sample of my work, which I'm sure helped since we were going to start by working on Atari computers/game systems. I was hired a few months later as the third member of the team.
What was the most exciting thing about working on the book?
That's easy – being able to contact, and visit, all the great computer animation companies of the era. All of them were happy to provide sample images or footage for us to use in the book. I felt like a kid in a toy store!
Were you located at Skywalker Ranch?
Skywalker Ranch was still under construction when I joined Lucasfilm in 1982. Once it was complete, we did get to work there for four years (1985-1989).
Where on the ranch were you located? I imagine it was hard not to go into the Computer Division and see what they were doing.
Actually, the Computer Division was never located on the ranch. We were in the Stable House. The entire ranch was designed with a backstory in mind, with each building appearing to be converted from its original use into modern-day offices. The old winery had been converted to Skywalker Sound, complete with its huge sound stage, and our building used to be the stables. It was more rustic than the rest and was laid out like it could have been stables. We always felt that was a good match for our crazy energy!
Did you bump into any movie stars, and did anyone try out your games?
We'd see stars there, yes, often visiting directors while they were completing work on their films, working on the sound stage or in the editing suites. The etiquette, though, was to pretend you hadn't noticed them. We knew they were there on business, so no-one ran up to them asking for autographs. It just wasn't done.
I think the only time I almost literally ran into a star, with my mouth hanging open, was soon after I'd started working at Lucasfilm. I had to go to the fan club office for some reason, I think to get a poster. I saw a very short woman there with a cigarette. She looked really familiar, but I couldn't place her. She noticed me staring and just walked up to me, held out her hand and said: "Hi, I'm Carrie." OMG! It was Carrie Fisher a.k.a. Princess Leia!!! My hand shot out to shake hers, and I said: "Hi, I'm David." She grinned, and I quickly finished my business and left, still somewhat shaken.
Other than George, the only other 'star' who we knew played our games was Steven Spielberg. He was a great fan of computer games and made sure he got copies of most of ours. We also got to talk to him and George before starting on the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade graphic adventure game.
Sampling ate raster time and memory, but was there ever talk of using movie stars as voiceovers for the games?
During the time I was at LucasArts, we didn't do any talkies. The computers either didn't have enough power or didn't have the storage space for the sound files, so that didn't happen until the early-to-mid 1990s.
How much input did you get from George Lucas?
Only really for Rescue on Fractalus! which was the first game I did. I gave him a demo while it was still in alpha. The gameplay was there, but it wasn't finished. He gave me some great suggestions, including the one that led to adding the Jaggi monster to the game. He wanted there to be more tension and suggested that the pilot you were trying to rescue could sometimes actually be a monster in disguise. Great idea!
I think the Jaggi monster scared a lot of people when it popped up in front of the windshield for the first time! Did you work with other departments at Lucasfilm?
For the first two games (Rescue and Ballblazer), we got to work with ILM. They created the box art and manual for us. I even got to be in the photo shoots along with the rest of the team. I'm on the cover of the box and appear inside the manual as a pilot.
Later, when I was working on location-based entertainment projects, I got to pull sounds from the Lucasfilm Star Wars sound effects library to be digitised. All very fun.
What was it like working at Lucasfilm? Describe the atmosphere.
Our charter (at first) was to stay small, do great things and not lose money. We were given lots of leeway to do experimental work and push the envelope. We were all greatly inspired by the Star Wars films and felt a huge responsibility to create games that would live up to the company's reputation for quality, attention to detail and real, visceral and immersive experiences.
As a small, tight-knit group, we all participated in the interview process when hiring additional team members, and we all participated in brainstorming sessions and test-playing each other's games. We were in a very enviable situation compared to most of the other games companies. We were given the time to experiment, to find our own way, and we knew we had plenty of backing, both financially and creatively, so the pressure to be instantly profitable wasn't there.
I imagine that must have been a dream scenario for the group as a whole, though I read that Bob Doris thought the Games Division was slow and unfocused. Is there any truth in that?
Some truth, probably. That's why Steve Arnold was brought in, to help transition us from research-and-development mode to production mode.
Who worked there with you?
Early employees included Peter Langston (our leader), David Levine, Gary Winnick, Charlie Kellner and Noah Falstein. We were joined later by Douglas Crockford, Aric Wilmunder, Ron Gilbert, Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer, and Steve Arnold came over from Atari to be our General Manager. By the time we moved to the ranch, I think we had about 15 members.
Disney bought LucasArts and then closed the studio in April 2013. What was your reaction to that when you heard about it?
I was surprised at how emotional I felt. Very sad! Not just for all the employees that lost their jobs (I knew several of them), but for the absolute end of an era. There was always this hope that LucasArts would bring in another president that cared about the old classic adventure titles and would relaunch them. Or at least begin development on great new titles that didn't have the Star Wars stamp on them. When Disney closed down the studio, all that ended.
How did you get started with the C64?
After I was at Lucasfilm Games, it became clear that the Atari 800 was rapidly losing ground to the C64, so we began to do conversions to the C64. At first, these were done for us by third-party developers. Then, we began making our own C64 games. I believe the first one I worked on that was originally for the C64 was Labyrinth.
The C64 version of Rescue on Fractalus! was written by Softalent, but you are also credited in the game. Were your concept, code, graphics and/or documentation implemented on the C64, or did Softalent port them from another machine? Or are the credits wrong?
We provided them with the Atari source code from the completed game and made sure they duplicated the gameplay from the original. The game is the same, but it runs a bit slower than on the Atari because the C64 had a slower CPU clock. I helped manage this conversion, along with conversions to all the other platforms it appeared on, but the Atari version was the best.
How was the concept for Rescue on Fractalus! developed? How much was designed beforehand and how much was made up as you went along?
I knew I wanted to do a first-person flying game, inspired by the scenes from Star Wars featuring Luke flying his X-Wing. I was lucky enough to have Loren as my office mate for the first few months I was there. I asked him whether it might be possible to make fractals work on an Atari. At first, he thought it wouldn't be possible, but then he started thinking about it. When he brought in a working demo he had programmed after playing around with an Atari for a few days, we knew we had a game.
I then wrote up a series of design docs laying out the gameplay. Peter Langston also created a simulation of the game on an Evans and Sutherland graphics computer that we could play in real time in wireframe mode. That helped us test out some ideas. The game did evolve a bit, based on what we could and couldn't do. And then there were George's suggestions...
Who was Softalent?
Softalent was actually a single programmer who we hired as an outside contractor to do the conversion. Possibly named Jack Thornton – sorry, it's been a long time.
Who worked on Labyrinth with you? All I know is that Russell Lieblich did the music.
I'm not sure who Russell is. He's not credited on the actual game that I have, and he didn't work for LucasArts. Other team members included Charlie Kellner (technical director and lead programmer), Kevin Furry (programmer), Gary Winnick (character animation and background art), Ken Macklin (character animation), James St. Louis (background art) and David M. Martin Jr. (music and C64 sound). Then there's the group that met in London to brainstorm for a week on the design. Besides me, there was Douglas Adams (of Hitchhiker's Guide fame), Christopher Cerf (known for his Sesame Street work), Noah Falstein, Charlie Kellner, Steve Arnold and Brenda Laurel (from Activision).
How close to the original movie plot did you have to be? Did you expand on certain parts, and did you have to sign off any new ideas with Henson Associates (the copyright holders)?
I don't recall any requirement to stick to the script, but we all felt obligated to do so. We did have a crazy text adventure intro to the game (Douglas' idea), it was analogous to the black-and-white opening in the Wizard of Oz film, before Dorothy arrives in Oz. For us, it was all text until you, the player, enter the world of the film and find yourself in the graphical environment of the Labyrinth. I guess that was also inspired by the film's opening, which is set in our universe, before Sarah (a young Jennifer Connelly) gets transported to the Labyrinth.
Do you agree that one of the hardest parts of doing a game based on a movie is to make the game fair for all game players, even those who haven't seen the movie?
Yes, I do! You don't want to assume the person has seen the film. Though with the Star Wars games, and our Indiana Jones games, I think that would be a pretty safe assumption. Even more importantly, you don't want to just rehash the film inside a game. It has to offer a new experience that's unique for both those who have and have not seen the film.
Looking at the graphics and the in-game action, it almost seems like this game inspired the creation of Maniac Mansion. Do you agree?
Labyrinth definitely came before Maniac Mansion, and I'm sure Ron had seen it before he started working on MM. However, I suspect Ron's only inspiration was to come up with a better user interface, which I think he did.
What parts of the programming process do you like most: the very first exciting lines of code, the day-to-day programming in which you can see the game slowly but surely develop, or the final touches in which you may be re-writing routines to save memory and/or raster time? And why?
The best part for me is the first time I actually get to play a part of the game. It's very exciting to explore a world you've created. The hardest part for me is probably the first lines of code. It can be hard to know where to begin, and overwhelming because there's soooo much left to do! By the time we get to the end of a project, endlessly test-playing the same sections of the game over and over again, I just want it to end.
Tell us about the setup you used when programming. Did you use a development kit of some sort?
This changed over the years. For Atari development, we coded on a Vax-750 minicomputer using a home-grown 6502 cross-assembler written in LISP. Code was sent from the Vax to an Atari via a serial port. A few years later, the Vax was replaced with personal Sun workstations, again with serial connections over to the Atari. When we started on C64s, we had the same environment but would then write to the C64's disk drive from the Suns. When we started developing Maniac Mansion, we used SCUMM instead of a cross-assembler.
The Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion (SCUMM) is the well-known game engine first used in Maniac Mansion. What can you tell us about its features?
SCUMM gave us the ability to multitask and write our code at a much higher level. We could direct the characters on the screen using near-English sentences. These "scripts" were in many ways very much like movie scripts. We told our actors where to walk, what to do, which way to face and what to say. We could even trigger events based on timing or proximity (for example, make another character say something when your character got close).
The compiler we used converted these readable scripts into P-code (pseudo-code) which was interpreted by the SCUMM engine on the C64. A good overview of SCUMM can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SCUMM.
How did you work with the engine?
We'd write our scripts in a text editor (eMacs at first) and then run Make to compile it and download it to the target platform.
What platform was it first programmed on? Were you involved in developing/improving it?
The compiler was first developed to run under UNIX on our Sun workstations. I believe it was programmed in C. We would then write a lot of the user interface code directly in SCUMM.
Later, when our target computers became more powerful, everything moved over to PCs running DOS, including a great real-time debugging environment on a second monitor.
I didn't do any of the programming of the compiler, interpreter or support utilities, but I was very involved in debugging it and requesting various features that made coding the games a lot easier.
What specifically did you program in Maniac Mansion?
I was the primary SCUMM Scriptor during the early months. While Ron was finalising and improving the development environment, I would take Gary Winnick's art, set up the objects that would animate and/or change, define the areas on the screen where the actors could walk (so-called walk boxes) and then wire up the rooms, i.e. define what happens when you click on each object, etc. I also wrote a lot of the interactive scenes (so-called cut-scenes). As development moved forward and the SCUMM environment became more stable, Ron wrote a lot of the scripting and dialogue. Then, after about six months, Ron took over completely as I went on to my next project, and he finished the scripting and debugging.
Was there a lot of planning involved before you started programming a game or was it something that emerged along the way? I imagine there must have been some planning, especially as there were three programmers on the game.
On Maniac Mansion, there were just two programmers on the actual game code, namely Ron and myself. A lot of the game's flow had been designed, but not the actual dialogue. As we moved deeper into the game, we found areas that hadn't been addressed in the initial design.
Carl Mey is also credited as a programmer on it. Did he focus more on for example writing graphic tools?
He did the Apple II conversion of the game.
Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick designed the game, but how much of their work was done before you started programming?
Ron and Gary had flowcharted the entire game on a whiteboard. Gary had a complete list of rooms that he had to draw, along with the items that had to be in these rooms. He then filled in the rest of the background with other things that he thought would look good there but which weren't a part of the game.
I then got to take Gary's art and choose which of these background objects that weren't really a part of the gameplay I would "wire in". That's how "Chuck the Plant" became a feature in this game – it was just sitting there in the background, and I was on a naming frenzy. It soon ended up making a cameo appearance in most of the other SCUMM games we created.
A little of the dialogue was mapped out. Ron and Gary set the style, and I matched it with the writing I did. I also had a lot of freedom to create things that weren't in the original design but seemed like great additions. I came up with the hamster-in-the-microwave bit and surprised Ron with it in a demo. :-)
What was the most challenging thing to program in the game?
The biggest challenge was the fact that there were multiple characters you could select from at the beginning of the game, and we wanted you to be able to complete the game with any combination (though with different solutions). That's what took so long to complete, and I think Ron had to do most of that work after I left the project. The other challenging part was working with a development environment that was constantly in flux and not knowing if the bugs were mine or SCUMM's.
How long did it take to finish the game from first idea to final product?
I think it was two to three years in all, including the idea and design stages, Ron creating the development environment and tools, and then coding the actual game.
Were there ideas that you weren't able to fit into Maniac Mansion that ended up in Zak instead?
No, I don't think so. We started with a clean slate.
As you mentioned, you were a tight-knit group. That's exactly the feeling I get when I play your games – that these games were all made with a lot of love, thought and a big dollop of humour. In Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, for instance, the name alone tells you you're in for a fun gaming experience. What's the story behind that name?
All of the Lucasfilm Games designers met for a review of the game. Ron felt the game wasn't funny enough in my design doc. We came up with a few twists that took it to a new level, including changing the main character from a regular reporter to one who works for a tabloid newspaper. The name of the character came out of a public phone book, and the Alien Mindbenders came out of my description of what they do to you. We kept brainstorming it until these words came up. It was a pretty collaborative experience.
Released only a year after Maniac Mansion, I guess you were pretty busy when working on Zak. What do you think are the main features of the game?
Zak took about nine to ten months from inception to completion, so much faster than Maniac, and mostly because we already had the SCUMM engine in place. After spending six months working on MM and most of that stuck inside a single building (the Mansion), I wanted a game that covered much more territory, so Zak has multiple places across the entire Earth, including aeroplanes and underwater in Atlantis, and even includes stops on an alien spaceship and Mars.
I liked the MM invention of switching between different characters but didn't want the added complexity (which MM has) of having to choose which characters, from a larger set, to have in the game. Other features included a changeable user interface (depending on who or what you were controlling), the ability to mind-link with animals, teleporting around the planets and meeting so many wacky characters.
"We should have gone to Ft. Lauderdale for Spring Break like everyone else." The comedy is all over this game. Who wrote the script?
Matthew Kane and I split up the locations in the game, and we both wrote the script. I no longer remember which of us wrote which parts, particularly as after a while, we were so in tune with each other that we were thinking the same thoughts and had pretty much synchronised our senses of humour for the game.
How did the design evolve during development? Was it fairly solid even before the programming started, or were there a lot of changes as the game progressed?
I spent several months on the design before starting any coding. I was able to enter the entire gameflow into a project planning software to look for roadblocks that would prevent a player from being able to complete the game. But as with Maniac, none of the actual dialogue was written ahead of time, nor were all the intricacies of some of the puzzles worked out completely.
There weren't many (or indeed any) major changes to the design as we implemented it. Additional rooms and scenes may have been added to fill some gaps we hadn't foreseen, but nothing that totally changed the game.
You are credited for design, programming and directing. Zak is a huge game with a wide variety of gameplay, graphics and sound. How did you direct a massive project like this?
I'm amazed I was ultimately able to keep it all in my head at once! The charts helped, and Matthew was a huge help. I knew after working on Maniac that the task would be too big for one person, so having him to bounce ideas off and to take on so much of the scripting was an absolute necessity.
Did you start on a similar game after Zak? If so, tell us all about it, or if not – what happened?
The next game I worked on after Zak was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure. We were on a very tight schedule, so there were three co-designers, namely myself, Ron and Noah. Ron and I did most of the scripting.
I recently read that you've designed and produced a new game called Rube Works, is that true? This must be the first game you've worked on since Cadillacs and Dinosaurs in 1995!?
Yes, Rube Works: The Official Rube Goldberg Invention Game was released in November 2013. While I've worked on other games since Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, they were all for other companies, and some of these never were published. In fact, Rube Works is the first game I designed and produced/project led since Zak McKracken in 1988, and maybe Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989 (though with that one I shared design/producer credit with Ron Gilbert and Noah Falstein)!
Tell us about the game.
Rube Goldberg was a famous Pulitzer Prize-winning American cartoonist (and author, song writer, script writer, engineer, and adjective in the dictionary) from the 20th Century. He's most well known now for his chain reaction machine cartoons, made popular in countless YouTube videos, where you generally have a very simple task that's been made enormously complicated.
I wanted to do a physics puzzler in the Rube Goldberg style, and while researching other games in this genre, I was surprised that all said "Rube Goldberg-like". None were actually official Rube Goldberg games. I found the Rube Goldberg website, run by his heirs, sent an email, and after a surprising call from Rube's granddaughter, was quickly able to secure the rights to his cartoons to be used in games.
We took some of Rube's best cartoons, recreated them in a 3D environment, and then removed most of the objects in the scene and placed them in your toolbox (inventory, for graphic adventure players). We give lots of hints to help you figure out how to use all the crazy objects and animals in the scene to complete the task at hand. If you complete it by using all the objects, you earn three golden prunes and get to see the original Rube Goldberg cartoon the level is based on. But there are other ways to complete too, for a lower score and fewer golden prunes.
I designed the game, with some early help from ex-LucasArts friends Noah Falstein and Ron Gilbert, as well as Rube Goldberg Machine celebrities Joseph Herscher and Zach Umperovitch. I hired Kalani Games to do the art and engineering, which is run by another ex-LucasArts friend, Kalani Streicher. And ex-LucasArts friend Julian Kwasneski did the sound effects. The game is published by Unity Games and is available for iOS and Android. Visit rubeworks.com for more about the game.
Has this whetted your appetite to do more games? Any plans of working with Ron, Tim, Noah and the other guys on another game?
I am definitely more open to doing other games now, and yes, I'd love to work with the old gang again on a project. I'm still pretty focused on Rube Works and supporting the game, but will see what comes next.
We have reached the end of this interview. Many thanks for doing this David, it really means a lot. Do you have any parting comments with which to leave a final impression on our readers? Feel free to greet anyone you know.
I want to thank everyone who still remembers the old Lucasfilm Games and all our C64 games from 30 years ago, and for those new fans now discovering them on C64 emulators. It's exciting to realize that they will be remembered for a few more years!
And going forward, I'd love to meet some of you at various conferences around the world. Just let me know if you're interested in having me give a LucasArts retrospective, or talk about Rube Works. In the meantime, you can find me on Twitter: @DavidBFox, @ElectrcEggplant, @RubeWorks.
back to the list of available interviews