We had the pleasure to meet up with industry legend David Fox this year at Gamescom. If you’ve played some of the classic adventure games like Maniac Mansion, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure then your gaming experience has already been influenced by his work.
David talked to us about his past projects and how game design evolved in over 40 years’ time that he has been part of this industry, how he came about to create educational software and write children’s books, and what tips he can offer young professionals starting out in the games industry today.
Read on or watch the video to see what we found out!
Articy: David, for the very few people that are not familiar with your work, can you briefly introduce yourself?
David: I am David Fox and I’ve been in the game industry for over 40 years. Most of the games people know me for were from when I was at LucasFilm games which became Lucasarts and I was employee number 3 in LucasFilm Games, it started in 1982 and soon after it became an organization. The games I did while I was there were “Rescue on Fractalus”, I was the project leader on “Labyrinth” which was based on a movie, then I came on as SCUMM scripter on “Maniac Mansion”, I was the project leader and designer on “Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders”, I was designer and coder on “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure”, produced a version of Pipe Dream and then I was the Director of Operations there for about a year and worked on a location based entertainment project called “Mirage” at Lucas. More recently I published a game called “Rube works” which is based on Rube Goldberg’s cartoons and chain reaction machines and the most recent was “Thimbleweed Park” with Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, friends from LucasArts, which was a graphic adventure game and a kickstarter project which came out in 2017.
Articy: I’m sure there must have been many but can you recall your fondest memory from the time you spent at LucasArts?
David: Most were times when I was working on a small team with other people. Zack McKraken was probably my favorite game because it was my game, my universe, my idea and I didn’t have to ask someone else whether I could do this – I just could do it. From the other graphic adventures I worked on 2 of them were based on movies so the story and the characters were set and I had to work within that universe, Maniac Mansion and Thimbleweed Park were Gary Winnick and Ron Gilbert’s idea and concept so I was working in their universe – still a lot of fun, but not as freeing as being able to do my own. But you know I guess it was just the brainstorming sessions, walking around the ranch, taking a bike ride roundabout, having one of many lunches there, taking my friends there and giving them a tour there at lunch, multiple times, screenings, there were these great wrap parties after a big film production was done which we were always exciting to see the movie and then go to the wrap parties, even if we didn’t work on the film we were invited so it was a good 10 years that I was there, it’s a good company.
Articy: This year is the 30th anniversary of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure” a game you worked on, at the time this game was considered to be the most innovative LucAsart Adventure Game. What did you do differently there?
David: Well the first issue we had a problem to solve: we figured that the majority of the people who would play the game had already seen the movie so there were a lot of spoilers in the movie so they weren’t going to be surprised of what the plot was going to be. On the other hand there might be some people who didn’t and I actually met some people on the strip who said “I was too young to see the movie so I played the game first and didn’t see the movie until years later”. So we had to balance between the two, we couldn’t let the movie be a spoiler we had to come up with tasks that were fitting within the universe, we could expand it and couldn’t have the exact same tasks that were in the movie. For example there was one task where Indy had to figure out how to get into the catacombs from Venice, and in the movie he had to find a section where he had a big X on the ground and that would have been too easy ‘cuz people who had seen the movie would know where to go. So we created a grid of 3 by 3 with roman numerals on it and that would change based on which game you were playing so it would be random and you might have go into 1 or 9 and each section was different so you had to work it out using the grail diary that we packaged with the game which had hints and information and you had to use that to figure it out. The other big challenge was that time was very limited, we started the project in around December and the movie would come out I think in June and I think we missed it by a couple of months but we had to get it out pretty close to the launch date so we had 3 senior designers on the game at the same time, myself, Ron Gilbert and Noah Falstein. We knew how to work together, we were very efficient, we knew we had to do at least one or two action sequences because it was an Indy movie and the other adventure games we did before didn’t have that so we had to figure out how to do that and make sure it fit within the feeling of the movie.
Articy: So looking back at how design was done 30 years ago, do you feel the field has progressed in the meantime a lot or there are still aspects we might have lost track of along the lines?
David: Well there is stuff that we learned, prominently when you are engineering something, I think you always underestimate how much time it would take unless you’ve done the exact same type of game before, anytime you add new tech and new ideas it’s really really hard to predict how long it’s going to take. So you can learn by talking to other people, but it’s hard to learn from someone else’s experience, most likely you would have to do it yourself and fail and then adjust. In Thimbleweed Park I felt Ron was very masterful at being a project leader for the game and he wanted to get a working version of the game out really fast so we did what we call wireframe art – it was really really rough, blocky versions of the rooms that we could throw together really fast and have a walkable version where you could go through the entire game and then pull back and say “ok which of these were not necessary” and he said we would have to cut out at least 10 to 15% of what we have here before we go into real art with these rooms. And that was difficult, but really good because we saw that there were rooms that added nothing to gameplay, didn’t really move the story forward and we just tossed them and then went back and did them for real. And once you put money into the room it’s much harder to let go of it cuz you’re like “ow we put 3 weeks of the artist time into this and it looks gorgeous” and you become attached to it, so it was really good to do really rough versions of that. Otherwise it worked pretty well and he was pushing a lot to make sure we were on time and didn’t drift too far off from the original. That’s a lot like game design when you’re creeping in size, getting larger and larger cuz you keep on adding new features, something would happen and you say “wow that’s a really great idea, let’s put that in, let’s put that in” and he had to play the role of the gatekeeper and he would say “that IS a good idea, I’ll put it over here and if we have time I’d do it but let’s push it” so we were all able to collaboratively able to suggest ideas and if it was really easy to do, then it could go in, but if it was a major implementation we would have to check and see if we can squeeze it in. Overall I feel like it was one of the smoothest game experiences for a team that I worked on and I attribute that mostly to Ron’s decades of experience, but also to the fact that all of us working on the team were also very experienced in doing this plus the fact that a lot of the core members of the team had worked together before so we already knew each other we trusted each other. When someone said “yah I don’t think that’s a really good idea” people wouldn’t push it through, they would listen and come up with ways to adjust.
Articy: Tell us more about your recent work. What inspired you to do games for children and books for children?
David: Well probably my wife, Annie is an educator and she got her degree in early childhood education , a masters degree and she was an accredited teacher but she didn’t like the restrictions of being a classroom teacher so very early we went off in a different direction. She was also doing game design in the 90’s for kids and she designed and co-designed first 3 humongous entertainment games: “Putt-Putt joins the parade”, “Putt-Putt goes to the moon” and “Fatty Bear’s birthday supplies” and then she did a bunch of other games for companies like Electronic Arts and other publishers, based on books like Madeline books and Mr. Potato Head game. So she’s a writer primarily, but she’s also a designer so when we started doing our own content, it would mostly be around books that she was writing either children’s books or books for middle school kids say 9 to 14 year old kids, books for younger kids and that was a great opportunity for me to learn how to do projects for IOS or iPad by taking some of her content and then adapting it and it gave me access to essentially free art and a quick way to get something completed without having to go through that whole production part. And we still collaborate, we had a really good time 12 years ago doing a project for Disney, design several overlay games for theme parks where you actually go inside the theme park and have a game you can play within certain areas of the park. And one of those at Tokyo DisneySea is still active and it’s kind of a treasure hunt style project called “the Leonardo Challenge”, but most of the time we would work on separate project and go “I want to show you this, what do you think”.
Articy: If you were to give one single piece of advice to someone who’s just now starting a career in the gaming industry, what would that be?
David: Know what your strengths are, find a small group of people who compliment those strengths and do lots of projects ‘cuz the only way to really gain the experience is by doing it. If you just go to the class and I think most schools that teach game design or game development know that, so they would set up people in teams to do that, but you don’t have to go to a college university or even a highschool with those programs, you can do it on your own if you have friends you could do it and go the indie route. Most of what you do is going to be not very good, but you have to go through and do it so you can get the feel of it, how to work with a team ,how to do a give and take, recognize what each person’s strength is and listen to their feedback. So if I’m primarily a designer and maybe a programmer, maybe I’m not the strongest programmer, maybe I’ll bring in another programmer, if I’m not an artist I could do block stuff but I want a really good artist so bring in someone who can do that, maybe bring in someone who can do music and sound effects. And you can do it with a small team. In the old days we had to do a little bit of everything, but now there’s so many people interested in this that you should be able to find really talented people and I see on Twitter, I see artwork and listen to music of people who are just starting out and it’s amazing, I love it. And those are the people you should grab and it could be a virtual team obviously, on Thimbleweed Park for example we used Slack to communicate with each other, none of us were in the same city, multiple people were in other countries and having a place where all the ideas could stay and we could pick up the threads of what was happening by reading the different channels we had setup, it worked really well. We had a writer in London, a playtester in London, another playtester in Czech Republic I think, people on the west coast, people were all over the place so you don’t need to do it with your friends in your town, it’s easy now to collaborate across the whole world.