Originally a mixnmojo.com feature
Part 1: The Beginning...
Written by Aric Wilmunder
"You may not know his name, but you certainly know his work. Aric Wilmunder has had an influence in everything we love about LucasArts. From co-creating our favorite graphic adventure engine called SCUMM to managing the International Development Team, Aric helped to make every LucasArts title legendary while working along side some of the true gaming revolutionaries. In the beginning of his career, he started out in Atari Corporate Research as a college summer job and eventually moved into Atari Coin-Op. He soon found himself unemployed after hard financial times hit the company, but fortunately some folks at a new place called LucasFilm Games had seen a demo of his work. Aric was quickly brought in as an employee, and remained at LucasArts until 1999. Surely he has some great stories to tell from the early days at the company, so let's get started..." - Andrew "telarium" Langley
My initial project for LucasFilm Games was as an engineer on Koronis Rift. This was a project under Noah Falstein who had come over from Williams where he had worked on Sinistar. Noah had a design titled Alien Tanknology that was built on the fractal terrain system created for Behind Jaggi Lines, later retitled Rescue on Fractalus. Now here's a bit of history about the original fractal terrain engine. David Fox, one of the first members of LucasFilm Games, shared an office with Loren Carpenter. Loren was developing the fractal based "Genesis Effect", an ILM special effect shot showing a lifeless planetoid turned into a lush green planet. This same shot was first used in Star Trek: Wrath of Kahn, and later in two other Star Trek movies. As gamers, we were always in awe of the computer effects used in the movies, and one day David commented to Loren that as gamers, it would be many years before we could generate the quality of imagery that ILM was creating. Loren's reaction was that he was in awe of gamers. While he could take days to generate each frame of a movie, us gamers had a small fraction of a second in order to generate a game image. He then worked with David to see if it were possible to generate fractal terrains real-time on an Atari 800, and they succeeded with three of the first 4 LucasFilm Games being based on this technology.
About a month after my arrival, Ron Gilbert was also hired to join the Koronis team as the Commodore 64 engineer. The goal was to build one game and ship it on 2 platforms simultaneously. Ron would later become the genius behind SCUMM and during this time we first developed our styles for working with one another. One technique that I remember Ron using was during an afternoon when we had a disagreement on how to solve a particular problem. We were both very zealous about our proposed solution, and this eventually evolved into a shouting match. Ron got up shouting and left the office slamming the door loudly behind him. That shook me up a bit, since we had always worked well together. Two minutes later, Ron came back, a smile on his face saying, "OK, I got that out. Now let's solve this problem." Ron recognized that we were both approaching the problem from different directions, but we were having problems 'hearing' what the other person was saying. We sat back down and came up with a hybrid solution that incorporated the best parts of each of our approaches, and one that was better than our original proposals.
Ron and I were both contractors throughout the entire project. I found an apartment about a block from the office, and Ron found a place about an hour away. We would work furiously until 2 every morning, and I would be able to walk bleary-eyed back to my place, but Ron would head out for a long commute. I think that he saved time by eating his meals while he was driving. I remember one time while I was sitting in his old Datsun 280Z I found a small foil-wrapped packet. When I started to open it to see what was inside, Ron cried out, "Oh my God, don't open that!" When I asked why, he explained that he had left a meal in his car weeks before, but he had forgotten that it was there.
During this first year, LucasFilm Games was located in industrial San Rafael in a non-descript office park across the street from Industrial Light & Magic, George Lucas' special effects company. We were able to walk through the sets during lunch, and occasionally watch outdoor sets being built or catch effects being filmed on the giant indoor blue-screen. Occasionally there would be a casting call for extras needed for various productions and one summer Ron was an extra in The Ewoks Adventure: Battle for Endor. Ron commented about how cheap the costumes were for the extras. They looked like foil hot-dog wrappers held on with rubber bands. The lesson learned was that you put your effort up front where everyone sees it, and don't worry too much about the noise in the background.
Our first summer, Ron and I both played softball on the company's co-ed team. Games were played at Skywalker Ranch, and this was our first opportunity to see where our new offices were being built. Skywalker was a huge 6000-acre facility that contained George's private offices, Sprocket Systems (later renamed Skywalker Sound), Licensing, Legal, and LucasFilm Games. We were set up in the back of the Ranch in what is known as the Stable House, a rustic building that fit our style pretty well. All of the other buildings were decked out with oak or redwood trimmings, while ours was rough-hewn timbers throughout.
When George first built the Ranch, he started by creating a story, a fantasy really, but this helped both he and the architects to create a facility that felt as if it had a history. The original story was that a sea captain had decided to marry and settle down. He raised cattle and grapes, built the Main House and later had three daughters. He built houses for each of his daughters, and continued to expand the Main House as he became more successful. Behind the Main House, there was the Gate House, the Brook House, the Carriage House, and the Stable House. Later, guesthouses were also built near the front of the property. Connecting all of these buildings was an underground garage that could house nearly a hundred autos. This wasn't part of the fantasy, but George's goal was to make the exterior appear as un-trodden as possible. The Tech Building, that houses Skywalker Sound, was designed as if it were a grape processing plant, including a main entrance that looks as if train cars filled with grapes used to enter the building for processing. Inside, it was a technological tour-de-force, with enough facilities to allow editing of four major film features simultaneously.
The Ranch was where SCUMM was first built, but its origins actually went back a number of years. Ron started his career by writing a program called Graphics Basic for HES, Human Engineering Software. Ron's program was written for the C-64 and was an extension of the BASIC programming language cartridge. Ron had reverse-engineered the cartridge and found that he could add new commands to the language. He then proceeded to add a number of graphics capabilities to BASIC allowing entry level programmers to exploit the capabilities of the machine. This was where Ron first learned of the power of 'interpreted languages' and this became the core of the SCUMM engine.
There are two main families of computer languages, Compiled and Interpreted. Compiled languages are languages that when written are converted into the op-codes or specific commands that are executed by a given processor. Codes compiled for an IBM machine will only work on that machine, and not on an Apple Mac. Interpreted languages are processed and then turned into a series of codes that instead of the machine executing each instruction, a program is written that reads each instruction, and then decides what each instruction is intended to do. While this method is slower than compiled languages, these 'Scripts' can be run on a wide variety of machines, and are often much more robust, since if they misbehave, your program can catch the problem, where other programs might crash the computer.
Now that you've had your computer lesson for today, the first thing that Ron needed was a game design to drive the technological development. Ron's first effort was titled I Was a Teenage Lobot. This design was inspired by one of the segments in the original Heavy Metal movie. In the movie, a guy is being tried on a rather peculiar space station. Instead, in Lobots, you had already been tried, found guilty, and punished. The judge's reaction being, "If you weren't guilty, you wouldn't be here!" In this future, robots had been tested, and they just didn't have the computer power to work successfully. Scientists had found that if you took the 'Grey Matter' from lobotomized humans and placed it into a regular robot, you could get pretty good servants. In your case, your brain had been removed from your body and placed into a 'shoe-bot', but they hadn't bothered to lobotomize you beforehand. Your carcass was still around, and your goal was to locate your body and get your brain rejoined with it before your body was turned into dog meat. The good news was that you had a friend out there somewhere; otherwise your brains would have been scrambled. The bad news was that you were a shoe-bot, restricted to only certain parts of the station.
This project was classic Ron at his best. Unfortunately, something came up, and the design was shelved. A short time later, Ron teamed up with Gary Winnick and the design for Maniac Mansion began.
Part 2: The Birth of SCUMM...
Written by Aric Wilmunder
Maniac Mansion was nothing short of a brilliant accomplishment, not just the design, but technologically as well. The design came together very quickly, with most of the characters as they appeared in the game. The story was straight forward, but the addition of player selection at the beginning as well as multiple endings really opened up the player's imagination. Funny thing was that the differences between the characters were quite small. Only Michael F. Stop could use the photography room, and only Wendy could retype the Meteor's memoirs. Bernard couldn't use the weight machine, but other than that, any character could solve most of the puzzles. A significant development was having multiple characters in different places moving the story forward. Remembering which of the characters was in which part of the house became part of the game play. Forgetting that Dave was in the entryway and having another character ring the doorbell would cause Dave to get caught by one of the household's odd inhabitants as they traveled from their room to answer the front door. The entire mansion became an almost realistic location as you learned the layouts, hidden back doors, and got to know the inhabitants.
Another significant accomplishment was that not only was the game created in just slightly over a year's time, much of the technology had to be created from the ground up as well. Ron did re-use as many pieces of technology as were available at the time. He and I had ported a cel-based animation tool that was converted to support sprites on the Commodore 64. Chip Morningstar, one of the most talented programmers I have worked with, created the SCUMM language in just a few short weeks. With only some minor syntax changes, the core language remained unchanged for nearly a decade. Another first for Maniac Mansion was that not only was the entire game written in SCUMM, but the credits, the opening movie, and the closing were scripted as well.
I don't actually recall who first called the language SCUMM. It is an acronym for Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion. For the longest time, we called the program that ran the scripts SCUMM, but we realized the error and renamed the game engine SPUTM, for Scumm Presentation Utility (tm). This set the trend for the naming convention used for all of the game tools created by the team.
Another first was the use of non-interactive scenes, allowing the player to see the activity in other locations in the game, while their main character stayed in one place. Ron didn't know what to call these and went to Steve Arnold, then president of LucasFilm Games. Ron compared it to the between-level clips in Ms. Pacman and asked Steve what the filmmaking term was for scenes that cut-away from the main story. Steve pondered this and told Ron that these are called 'Cutscenes.' This was the moment when the term was coined, and the script command 'cutscene' was added to the SCUMM language as a command to indicate that control was being temporarily taken away from the player.
Maniac Mansion never was a monster hit by industry standards, but as a marketing person at Activision first said, "It has Legs!". Maniac continued to sell solid numbers for 4-5 years. The first version shipped for the C-64 in 1987, and the last version shipped as a sub-game in Day of the Tentacle on the Macintosh, over 10 years later. Over the years, Maniac Mansion was ported to the Apple ][, Atari ST, Amiga, IBM PC, Nintendo 8-Bit, FM-Towns, and Apple Macintosh. Unlike so many other games where porting the game typically destroyed much of the game play, the gaming experience on each of these versions was kept at a high standard with graphics and sounds enhanced to take full advantage of each platform. The scripts beneath the game were left almost completely intact.
The second project to use SCUMM was Zak McKraken and the Alien Mindbenders. This off-the-wall story of a tabloid writer discovering Elvis living among space aliens actually started out as a serious piece of science fiction. What started out in the original design as a Sino-American scientific expedition to Mars ended up in the game as two Harvard co-eds having a vision and then traveling to Mars in their converted VW bus. The puzzles were equally twisted, and since one of the co-designers was a musician, it featured the most extensive music and audio library of any product at that time. I know, since I had to manage the product for the Amiga computer. One morning I asked the programmer what was causing the delays, and I found that he had spent his entire morning dropping water balloons into his bathtub. He had moved all of his audio recording equipment into the bathroom in order to get 'just the right' sound for one of the effects.
Zak was another milestone for SCUMM. The original game, while scripted, had a number of 'hard-coded' features specifically designed only for Maniac Mansion. During the development of Zak, every one of the game-specific features was removed, and generic scripting commands were added in their place. This changed the system from a code-base just for one game, to a game engine that would allow multiple teams to use the same system to build very different products.
Ron then set out on another design, this one tentatively titled, Space Party Aliens. For the life of me, I can't recall what the story was, but Ron had worked on the designs for the alien characters and was preparing to enter production. At this point, events forced SPA to hit the circular bin.
In 1988, we were approached by George and asked to develop a title based on the upcoming Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. An initial design was put forward where the player would play a game, and at a certain point, they were told to open the accompanying book to a particular page, and follow the story along from there. After months of design work, this approach was rejected and a new course was chosen. Both Ron Gilbert and David Fox were pulled from their projects and placed on the now critical-path Indy. There was also a hard deadline of about 7 months to ship, since it had to release in time with the movie.
By this point, the C64 had been abandoned, and the IBM PC became our primary target platform. Until this point, the SCUMM compiler only ran on a SUN workstation and we used a homegrown system to transfer the data files onto other machines. During Indy, the entire development system was converted to run on a PC. For the first time, you could pack up a PC and all of the software and develop SCUMM games wherever you wanted to. In order to do this, we had to convert the Cel Animation tool from the SUN workstation to a new tool that ran on the PC. After a few months, the new tool BYLE was created to do this job. We needed a tool to work on the fonts, and with not too much effort, we created SPIT. Editing the rooms in the game, selecting valid 'walk' areas and selecting doors that could open and close, and other items in the game soon was the work of FLEM. We had long given up trying to create acronyms, but we tried to stay with the 'body fluid' theme.
At one point we needed a sound tool and we were running out of gross fluids. Chip's wife had a baby and we remembered him telling us about the evil black tar-like substance that babies had in their digestive tract when they are born. For the first few days this stuff moves through their bowels until they start digesting milk. Sort of a packing-material for newborns. We went to Chip and asked him what it was called, and he wasn't sure, but he said that it was smegma. We named the sound tool SMEGMA. About 3 months later, we hired a programmer who nearly choked when we mentioned the name. Turned out that the black material in babies was actually called Muconium and that smegma is a rather foul-smelling cheese-like substance that collects around men's genitalia. After some debate, a few weeks later, we decided to rename the utility.
In 1989, we hired Brian Moriarty, the creator of a number of text-based adventures for Infocom. This time, SCUMM was really put to the test as Brian began working on the game LOOM, and Ron began work on The Secret of Monkey Island. These games had vastly different styles, and yet they were being built simultaneously using the same tools and nearly identical game engines.
Ron and Brian's development styles were also quite different. Brian was used to being the master of an entire engine, with no need of support from others. He was the programmer, and writer, with no need for artists, since no art was used. Ron had always worked best collaboratively, and it was at this point that the first 'Scummlets' were hired. This group of 4 scripters was hired not just for their technical prowess, but also more importantly for their ability to combine dialog writing, puzzle creation, animation management, and a host of other talents together into one person. The first Scummlets were Dave Grossman, Tim Schaefer, Jenny Sward, and Ron Baldwin. I remember Tim's resume the most, since it was written like a cartoon accompanied with really bad drawings of what Tim's life would be like if he was hired to work for LucasFilm. Fortunately, the writing was far better than his art, and his humor is still unsurpassed today
Before being thrown onto a project, Ron ran SCUMM U. where for a full month, the new scripters were given daily instruction in the use of the SCUMM language. At the end of the training, they were each given access to all of the existing game assets and had to build a mini-game using the system. They were then required to test each other's games, and fix the bugs that others found in theirs. This was when we really got a chance to watch as each game developed as an extension of the scripter's personality.