Kevin: Hey, everyone. Welcome to Arcadology, a podcast focused on video game history and design. My name is Kevin, and today is part two of my interview with David Fox, formerly of Lucasfilm Games. His most recent project, Thimbleweed Park, is available now on many platforms. Let’s get into part two. You were, was it ’84 to ’92 you were with Lucasfilm Games?
David: I was there from ’82 to-
David: Well, I was at Lucasfilm ’82 to ’92, and then in 1990, I left LucasArts, we had just changed the name, to this small group within Lucasfilm which we named Rebel Arts, and we ended up, to do location-based entertainment. That was really my big interest. I had been dreaming of doing immersive types of entertainment before I got there, and every time, when I first got there, I told Peter Langston, I told Steve Arnold, “I really want to be doing immersive theme park-type stuff, interactive Disneyland.” They’d say, “Oh, that’s great, but right now we’re doing Atari 800. Maybe later.” Steve, when Steve came on, he said he actually had a big interest in that too, but knew that it was too soon.
David: In 1990, Steve asked me to become the Director of Operations instead of doing more games in order to try to create more of a structure within LucasArts. Everyone had been reporting to Steve, and we now have like 70 or 80 people, and it was impossible, so I kind of hired middle managers, really, someone who’s going to be head of the art department rather than just two or three artists. We had a lot more, someone who’s in charge of customer support, and QA, and the different groups. They reported to me, and I reported to Steve, and I think the programmers and designers all reported to me, and then I reported … I was kind of in the middle of a lot of that. He said, “If you do this for a year, then we’re going to do a location-based entertainment project that you could be a part of.” That’s pretty much what happened. I did, for a year, kind of hired the people in.
David: I hired someone who would take my role as the Director of Operations. It was Lucy Bradshaw and kind of got my role duplicated, and she’s actually someone who really wanted to do that role where I was always kind of not that interested in it. I was much more interested in doing the creative part of the game design, and then I got to do this project. The main project was called Mirage, and it was a joint venture with Hughes Simulations, Hughes aircraft division, that did professional flight simulators for all the airlines and for military. They did the tech part of it, and we did the design or the game part of it, and also the theming of the actual pod. I was in charge of the game design and basically the software. They implemented it under our direction. We did the art design, and they implemented that as much as we could.
David: At the end of a couple years, we had a really cool working prototype which was kind of a very large pod with two side-by-side seats. It had an Amiga computer as a heads-down display so you can kind of see a map of where you’re going, and I got to do my Star Wars game, finally, so I kind of took the idea of Rescue, where you’re flying through canyons, and we were allowed to put into the Star Wars universe, you were flying an X-wing, and there were TIE fighters you had to shoot. It was multiplayer, so we had other people at other stations who were flying the TIE fighters. We’re basically playing a video game on a million-dollar flight simulator system. I think it was a million-dollar Evans & Sutherland ESIG-2000 was the graphic, the image generator for this, and we’re looking out this window which has three projectors bouncing off of a collimating mirror, so instead of focusing at three, or four, five, or five feet away, you’re focusing at infinity, so you’re, looks like you’re looking out through this vast landscape that stretches out beyond.
David: There’s no motion. We didn’t do motion. All the other parts, surround sound, and music from Star Wars, and it was just a very cool experience. Then Steve Arnold left Lucasfilm to go work for Bill Gates, and there was really no one in the company who was this huge proponent of location-based entertainment. When it came down to, we’re actually looking at what it costs to produce this, they decided that it was just too expensive for anyone to buy. The rights ended up being transferred to Hughes for them to try to sell it, and our group closed down.
David: After having done this for a couple years, and the idea of going back and doing computer games on, I guess on PCs then, just seemed like the wrong way to go. I left, and was trying to do VR, back VR projects, and it was just too early. The tech was just too clunky, too expensive. Hughes ended up showing the Mirage at the IAAPA conference in 1992, which happened to be in Texas, near where they are, and I got to go and see it. It was, turned out it was just too expensive. No one, no theme parks wanted to purchase it.
Kevin: It hasn’t been until much more recently that the technology is, I guess makes it … I want to say, one of the most important things for this kind of, that kind of setup is fidelity. Right? High fidelity, because that-
Kevin: … really gets the person who is using it to buy into the environment. Now, with VR headsets becoming really affordable, it’s kind of becoming more ubiquitous to have that kind of experience, but, yeah, that was definitely bleeding-edge, so to speak-
David: Yeah, it was.
Kevin: … in the early ’90s.
David: I got cut, because I couldn’t get to do it.
Kevin: Yeah, bleeding edge, and you got cut by that edge.
David: Yeah. It’s cool now. I mean, I’m so, super interested in this stuff. I haven’t … I got to work on a project in the early 2000s for about a year called Xulu Entertainment. It’s spelled with an X, X-U-L-U, where they were doing, it’s a very similar thing, but with off-the-shelf tech instead of high-end stuff. They’re using graphics cards from PCs, and they actually did have some motion simulators. They ended up running out of money, I guess, and got closed down. Then I did get to do a, design a overlay game with my wife, Annie, at Tokyo DisneySea, with Disney Parks. In its final form, it’s much more of a, like a scavenger hunt style game with a map, but it was really fun to work in a real theme park and do something which used the environment to do an interactive game.
David: More recently, just getting to go and try out The Void in Orlando and it’s multiple other places now, where it was, again, it’s a Star Wars game, and it’s in VR, but the big difference is that, unlike in most VR experiences, if you reach out and touch something in the environment, you’re just touching air, or your bedroom wall, or whatever, but here, you’re touching, when you reach out for a doorway, there’s a doorway there. There, if you see a chair, you try to reach and sit down in the chair, there’s a chair.
David: They do a great job of matching the physical space and the virtual space together so that you very soon trust that when you see something, you can actually touch it, and that’s the way it should be. I mean, it’s like, “Well, yeah, of course. This is how it should really be in a game.” Of course, you’re not tethered. You can walk where you want to. I recommend that as a must-try experience for anyone who can.
David: They have locations on Las Vegas, and New York, and Orlando, and Anaheim, and Glendale, and I think they’re opening new ones in both, multiple places. I think that’s what we’re going to see first before a lot of people get it for their homes. You have to have a fast enough computer and spend the hundreds of dollars for the headset, and the tech is changing really fast. I think most people are going to experience it in a location-based entertainment setting, as opposed to in their bedroom or something.
David: I know there’s another company called, I think it’s called Periscape, so it is, that is doing virtual reality stations at JFK Airport, and they’re going to be putting it in other airports, too. You’re basically, walk up to the station, and you can play a game for, I don’t know, whether it’s something, maybe in the dollar-a-minute range. Other people can watch, and you have a place to put your belongings in a little locker, so people don’t grab your stuff while you’re in VR. I think mostly, they’re doing off-the-shelf games, but games, still, that most people don’t have any exposure to, just because they don’t have the equipment. I think we’re going to see more of that come up first.
Kevin: Yeah. No, I totally agree. There’s also kind of a lack of content. There’s not a ton of developers creating things for VR, at least not as many as standard software or standard games. Occasionally, a big triple-A studio, Bethesda, for example, they’ll create Skyrim or Doom in virtual reality. Those are one-offs. It’s not a common thing yet, but yeah, I totally agree that it’s going to be more installation-based until people are used to the concept, and then you’ll see it spread.
David: Yeah, and I think you’re going to end up with, most companies doing games are going to lose money on those games, so unless you have really deep pockets, or you can just do it as a, almost a throwaway game-
Kevin: Yeah, no, it-
David: … because [crosstalk 00:09:58] I don’t think you’re going to make your money back yet.
Kevin: Yeah. Yeah. You have Electronic Arts, and Activision, and those giant companies that’d be like, “Yeah, we’ll just do it just to do it.” Electric Eggplant that is something you co-founded with your wife, correct?
Kevin: What does the company do?
David: Well, it’s really mostly the two of us, and then we bring on other people as we need to for projects, but we’ve, combination of published books, and we’ve done consulting and for games, and for VR, and more recently, around the time the iPad came out, I decide, “Okay, it’s time to get back into doing production,” so I kind of dove in and took some of my wife’s books, which were graphic-novel-style books, and did kind of a comic reader, comic book reader for that platform. Then did a, we published a Rube Goldberg game called Rube Works. For those who don’t know Rube Goldberg, he’s the famous cartoonist from the last century who’s known mostly for his crazy contraptions, Rube Goldberg machines, chain reaction machines.
David: Went through the website for rubegoldberg.com and ended up talking to his granddaughter, Jennifer, Jennifer George, and I got the rights to take his original cartoons and turn them into a game. Unity Technology funded the game, and it was going to be under their new Unity Games label. Then, when they decide they don’t want to do that, we got the rights back, but the game’s out on Steam, and on iOS and Android. I think that’s about the time I heard Ron and Gary were doing another, doing this Kickstarter for Thimbleweed Park. I wasn’t involved in the design. I got to look at their Kickstarter pages and gave feedback, and then once they actually blew through their original goal, they knew I was interested, and they asked me if I was interested in coming on and being a programmer or scripter. I was.
Kevin: Do you talk to Ron, Gary frequently, or how long had it been since you had communication with them?
David: Oh, we talked to them off and on. Both Ron and Noah Falstein helped me with the design of Rube Works, brought them in a couple times for brainstorming days, and take them out to lunch, that was pretty much the deal. When Ron was doing some iOS games, I would playtest the games while he kind of stared at me without saying anything and watched me struggle. We’ve had kind of this sharing off and on over the years. Noah, also, has been a friend. He lives near me, so he’s probably the one I’ve been in touch with the most. Yeah, there’s several people who I get to interact with.
David: It wasn’t, definitely wasn’t out of the blue when they decided to do this, and so I was really encouraging. I thought they should go for it when we actually decided, “Okay, yes, we have enough money to bring on some other people,” so myself, Mark Ferrari, who’s also great artist who worked on Monkey Island, and I think did some other graphic adventures. I think he might have … I don’t know if he did anything for Zak. I don’t think he did. He might have worked on the 256-color version a little bit. I was definitely nervous, because I didn’t know whether we’d still have whatever magic we had back them. I remember the very first brainstorming session we did down in Santa Cruz, which is where Gary lives, and got in this room, and we started doing it, and it kind of felt a little awkward for like five minutes, and then everything just clicked, and we just, we were doing it.
David: It was probably the most fun project I’ve had since my days at Lucas, and whenever I think about being at Lucasfilm, I remember the collaboration, and the camaraderie, and brainstorming sessions, and hopping into someone’s office and giving them, getting some help on the spur of the moment. This was very much like that. The difference was, the offices were virtual. We used Slack instead of walking over to someone’s office, because we all worked at home. We’d use Slack for voice meetings, and for contacting each other for stuff, and that worked. It worked really well.
David: For brainstorming, it didn’t work as well, because we’d, you know what, [inaudible 00:14:13] use whiteboards, and so early in the game, we had, I think, three, maybe, brainstorming sessions where we did that in person, but the rest, it was just, was really good, and we had an international team. One of our animators, Octavi, is in Spain. Our main tester was in England, Robert, and we had one who was, she, Czech, Czech Republic, I think. Kind of people in pretty much all time zones. That, it was great. It was really, it was great fun.
Kevin: I had this memory of the point-and-click adventures from the … I played them pretty exhaustively my early years, and I want to say, from the age of like five to, really, through Grim Fandango, which, I think, was, a lot of people consider to be one of the last great ones of that era to come out. I remember being a little nervous when I fired up Thimbleweed Park and I was like, “Is this going to trigger that same emotion, that I think I was having back then?” It did, and I thought you guys did a tremendous job designing it through … It’s almost like it was designed through the rose-tinted glasses of looking back on those games. I think it communicated well the feelings for the people who had played it back then, and for newer players who were just coming on board.
Kevin: I mean, I thought it was a tremendous success. One of the things that I thought of, after playing through the game and playing the ending, and I don’t want to spoil the specifics of the ending, the way the game ends, it felt like a little bit of a swansong for the point-and-click genre. It was almost like closing the book on, being like, “All right, well, this is it. This is kind of this, the genre, this UI, this style, here’s a nice bookend to it.” Was that accurate, or is that just something that-
David: I think there might be something there. I don’t think we ever said, “Okay, this is the last graphic adventure we’re ever going to do, so let’s make it like that.” I think, maybe, in my mind at least, thinking that, “This may be the last one, so let’s put everything we can into this, all the references, all the Easter eggs, so that … ”
David: Of course, since this was a Kickstarter, and the people who backed it were people who wanted exactly that kind of game, we were doing a huge amount of fan service and trying to give them exactly what they wanted. To the detriment of the game, possibly, because I remember when the reviews first started coming out from people who weren’t backers, a lot of people were … There was this universal, not universal, but common theme that it was too self-referential, or too many Easter eggs, too many in-jokes. That’s when we did a revision with the checkbox-
Kevin: Oh, turn off the in-jokes.
David: … to turn off, yeah, turn off annoying in-jokes. We set it to off by default, because we figure, “Okay, people who were willing to do it, they’d hear about it, they’d go back, and they’d turn it back on,” but for most people who, at this point, most people who bought the game probably didn’t know as much about our old games as the people who were the backers were. A few other things like that, so we actually did several revisions, and added, also, for people who were more casual gamers, I think we added the easy mode, where we essentially cut out a bunch of parts of the game, made the puzzle self, pre-solved, and we also added the hint line interface, so you could call up this phone number in the game to get incremental hints without really spoiling stuff.
Kevin: Which is-
David: [inaudible 00:18:29].
Kevin: … yeah, in itself, kind of a reference to the old Lucasarts hint line.
David: Right. Exactly, without having to pay, what, a dollar a minute or something. I think all that just helped for the, helped broaden the interest in the game for the people who weren’t just huge fans of the old games.
Kevin: Right, right. Of course, the most important option that you guys had the menu was the toilet paper setting.
David: Right. Yeah. I think that was, where’d that come from? Mark Ferrari do the bathroom, and he had the toilet paper, in my mind, backwards. I never do it that way. I think we had a screenshot of that room, and there’s this huge, mostly tongue-in-cheek, uproar on social media that we were, “That’s the wrong way to do the toilet.”
Kevin: I remember-
David: “How could you do that?”
Kevin: … seeing … I remember, I happened to be on Twitter at the time, and there’s just like, was like, “Wait. What?”
David: Yeah, and so we went with it and just, we were, we kind of helped turn it into this huge kind of fake uproar. Then I think, I don’t know, it was me, or one of us suggested having an option to reverse it, and so we had Mark redo the art, and had the option where you could turn it the other way. Of course, it wasn’t just the bathroom. It was all toilet paper rolls in the entire game we switched. I mean, people started showing on Twitter, I’ve seen this dozens of times where people would find the original patent drawing, the guy who invented toilet paper rolls. It would show that in the drawing, the paper’s over, so it’s away from, it’s just away from the wall. I did learn that in the case of if you have a cat and you should do it facing the wall, because when the cat starts pawing down on the roll, it just winds it. It doesn’t unroll it. It’s the cat setting over the normal people setting.
Kevin: Right. That’s funny.
David: I think we did a bunch of polls. I think it’s 25% use it backwards, in my mind, and 75% have it over, in the over mode. It’s pretty funny.
Kevin: Final question, kind of the future, so to speak. Thimbleweed Park was kind of a getting the band back together one last time type of game, it felt. I don’t know how true that is, given that you guys do converse on a regular basis. Do you have plans, or would you want to work with Ron going forward? I know he’s toying with some RPG idea that I’ve been casually following, as he posts updates on his blog, but would you like to try to recapture that magic one more time, or …
David: Yeah. I don’t know whether, if we were to do this again, whether would it be another 1990s-style point-and-click game. I would absolutely work with Ron and Gary again on a project that was, if I found the project interesting, I’d say absolutely, because it was such a, for two and a half years, it was having a really good time. I mean, it’s hard work, but it was the kind of hard work where you think back and say, “Wow. That was, I’m really happy I did that, and I’m proud of what we turned out.” Yeah, pretty much almost any project … I’m actually doing some work with Gary right now on a prototype, something he’s playing with, so kind of reconnected with them, and I would do it in a heartbeat if it was a fun game, a fun thing to do.
David: If it was, there are probably some game ideas I probably wouldn’t be that interested in, but if it was story-based, for sure. I mean, the idea of eventually doing a VR graphic adventure game would be really fun. Yeah, I’m open. If I think about where my emotional poise, the immersive stuff is still really strong, it would be a hard decision if I was given, say, “Okay, let’s do another story point-and-click-style game, or an immersive theme park experience.” That’d be really tough choice. I might go for the immersive experience. It’s just because I haven’t done that yet, and I’m not sure how many chances I’ll have to do that. No regrets at all for doing the game, and lots of warm feelings, still.
David: I think that was universal in the project. I mean, everyone in the project still, you still have our Skype channel … Our Slack channel open. We still share stuff on it, and I still feel connected to some people who I’ve never met in person who are across the other end of the, who are in the UK or parts of the EU, and hope to meet them someday.
Kevin: One of the interesting side notes is Jenn Sandercock, who worked with you on the game, just had her own Kickstarter. Was it Edible Games, or …
David: Uh-huh (affirmative).
Kevin: What … Across the threshold, so it’s pretty neat to see the momentum of people who worked on the project continuing forward.
David: Yeah. I’m really happy that she got the Kickstarter to go through. Yeah, and I’m, obviously, I’m a backer.
Kevin: Right. Obviously.
David: At a high level, and can’t wait to taste it and find out. My wife and I both, especially my wife, is a baker, but I do some of it too, so this is a good match for us, so I’m looking forward to playing games that we can eat the pieces afterwards.
Kevin: That’s awesome. Well, David, thank you so much for being on the show.
David: You’re very welcome.
Kevin: Thanks for joining. I’ll be back in two weeks with a brand new episode. Until then, follow us on Twitter @arcadology. Take care, everyone.