Bits From my Personal Collection – Maniac Mansion, the start of something good

With the financial success of George Lucas’ 1977 Star Wars movie, Episode IV – A New Hope and fueled by sales of licensed merchandise, Lucasfilm had the financial means to venture into other areas of entertainment. In 1979 Lucas creates the Lucasfilm Computer Division which would come to include two departments, The Lucasfilm Computer Graphics Division (which eventually would become Pixar) and The Lucasfilm Computer Games Division, which was founded in May of 1982 as Lucasfilm Games.
To strengthen the new Games Division, Lucas went to sign a joint cooperation agreement with the biggest name in software entertainment, Atari, Inc. which would invest a million dollars in the division.
Though the Games Division had spun out of Lucasfilm, the game development license for the Star Wars franchise was held by Atari and Parker Brothers.
In 1982 Atari also scored two of the biggest film licenses at the time when it acquired the home game rights to Steven Spielberg and Lucasfilm’s blockbuster Raiders of the Lost Ark along with Spielberg’s E.T: The Extraterrestial for a combined $20 million. The latter ultimately resulted in a game that would become synonymous with the North American video game crash of 1983 and go over in history as one of the worst video games of all time. The same year Atari also sought out other agreements, gaining the rights to coin-op arcade games based on the Star Wars franchise, as Parker Brothers contract only covered home console cartridges.
All in all, with the major franchises licensed out, the newly established Games Division was forced to come up with original concepts. Luckily the corporate structure at Lucasfilm, led to Lucasfilm Games becoming a playground and incubator for technological and creative designed games. Lucas wanted to have a creative and independent shop but at the same time keep the Lucas-brand unsoothed if any of the franchise games were to fail.
There was a saying at Lucasfilm, don’t embarrass George and don’t lose money, other than that designers were free to endeavor into unknown territory, experimenting not only with technology but also with game design itself.

It would take almost two years before Lucasfilm Games, in May of 1984, delivered its first two games to Atari, for its 5200 and 7800 video game consoles. Ball Blazer and Rescue from Fractalus were technologically advanced and quite impressive games. Lucasfilm had not only highly technically skilled people but the Games Division also borrowed heavily from development procedures in the film-production division, including crafting models, making costumes, and writing thorough storylines. The long development phase enabled Lucasfilm Games to slowly ease into the industry while only committing a small number of resources. At the time the Games Division only counted 6 employees.
Over the next couple of years, all of Lucasfilm Games’ developed titles would be released by third-party publishers. By Atari, for its own video game consoles and by Activision, Epyx, and Electronic Arts for the personal computer market.

Lucasfilm Games’ first four titles, BallBlazer, Rescue from Fractalus, The Eidolon, and Korono’s Rift were all published by Epyx for the home computer market. Korono’s Rift was Ron Gilbert’s last conversion assignment before starting work on what would become Maniac Mansion.
Gary Winnick worked as an artist on all four titles

HMS Pegasus, Lucasfilm Games first developed military simulation title, published by Electronic Arts in 1986. The game became Lucasfilm Games’ biggest hit at the time and the first title to sell over 100.000 copies. In 1988 Electronic Arts released the unofficial sequel, Strike Fleet also developed by Lucasfilm Games

Lucasfilm Games’ first real adventure title, Labyrinth: The Computer Game published by Activision in 1986. It was based upon the fantasy film Labyrinth. The game’s production was led by designer David Fox, who for the game invented the word wheel to avoid the text parser and syntax guessing typical text-based adventure games required

It wouldn’t be until November of 1987 before Lucasfilm Games would self-publish its very first title, Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick’s graphic adventure game Maniac Mansion.

Gilbert, while a student at Eastern Oregon State College, had, together with friend Tom McFarlane, written Graphics BASIC, an extension that added over 100 new commands to the Commodore 64’s BASIC language. The software was licensed to Human Engineered Software (HESware) and sold briefly in 1984. HESware offered Gilbert a chance to come down to the San Fransisco area, join the team, and start programming action games for the Commodore 64. Gilbert left college and went to California where he only stayed with HESware for 6 months before the company, in the autumn of 1984, filed for bankruptcy and subsequently went out of business.

After the bankruptcy, Gilbert headed back to Oregon and was about to enroll back into college when Lucasfilm called, looking for a programmer to port its titles to the Commodore 64. Gilbert, while being a huge Star Wars fan, was unaware of the fact that Lucasfilm had a game division, knew that this was an opportunity not to be missed. He yet again packed his bags and went to California.

Lucasfilm only provided little oversight in the Games Division’s projects which in return led the division to be a very creative place where ideas could roam freely. In 1985 when Gilbert had completed his assignment, he and Gary Winnick, the only artist in the Games Division, began working on a comedic story based on their shared passion for horror movies and b-movies cliches. A weird idea of a dark Victorian mansion populated by a mad scientist and his crazy family and a group of teens started to form.
Lucasfilm Games relocated to the Stable House at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch while Gilbert and Winnick were still doing the groundwork, the ranch’s Main House was used as a model for the mansion along with several rooms which were replicated in the game.
While a crazy and humorous story was slowly forming, neither of the two knew exactly what kind of game they were trying to create. It wasn’t until Gilbert, on a trip home for Christmas, witnessed his eight-year-old cousin play Sierra On-Lines’ King’s Quest, that he knew the game had to be an adventure game. With a more distinct vision, Gilbert and Winnick further conceptualized their ideas and together developed a fully-fledged storyline with plots and puzzles. While they both co-wrote and co-designed the game, they worked separately as well with Winnick tackling the graphics and Gilbert the programming.

After trying to code the game in 6502 assembly language on the Commodore 64, Gilbert decided to create a game engine that would facilitate and accommodate the game’s development process. Another Lucasfilm employee, Chip Morningstar would contribute to the base code for the engine on which Gilbert’s work would build upon.
Gilbert created a set of purpose-built tools all tied together with a scripting language that was independent (more or less) from the underlying hardware. With this approach not only would the development phase become faster and much more streamlined, but the engine could also be used for future games – and would make porting to other systems much easier.

While Gilbert had been playing text adventure games like Colossal Cave and Infocom’s outstanding fictional titles, the advancement in technology had left the adventure game genre in a mix-match now with graphics but still with an old-school text-driven interface. Both Silicon Beach Software and ICOM Simulations had utilized the Macintosh graphical user interface and mouse on their adventure titles when Gilbert and Winnick began work on Maniac Mansion, but none of them had been able to herald it into the mainstream.
Gilbert hated the text-parser and the syntax guessing that came with it. He examined the classical text-parser driven games and found that most verbs used were mere synonyms, these could be boiled down to a few that essential would encompass all actions. By choosing a verb from a list and pointing it at an item on the screen made much more sense than trying to guess what the designer had decided to call that specific item. Gilbert’s effort to create an accessible, streamlined, and enjoyable user interface would come to play a huge part in the success Lucasfilm Games would come to have with its adventure titles up through the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Besides how the player interacted with the game, Gilbert added other key innovations as scrolling screens (quite a feat at the time) and cut-scenes – all features that would become standard in adventure games to come.
Gilbert’s interpreter ended up getting its name after the project it was being developed for, Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion or simply SCUMM.

The majority of the game’s events were programmed by David Fox, another Lucasfilm Games employee. Fox was at the time between projects and ended up working with the Maniac Mansion team for the better part of six months. Together with Gilbert, Fox wrote the characters’ dialog and choreographed the action. Winnick’s concept art also inspired him to add new elements to the game – Like the hamster in the microwave oven.

Gilbert and Winnick had worked for almost two years when Maniac Mansion debuted at the 1987 Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. When it finally was released to the public, for the Apple II and Commodore 64, in October, it became Lucasfilm Games’ first published title.

The original Apple II and Commodore 64 releases of Maniac Mansion came with simpler designed logotypes on the front and a backside that that proved to be an issue with one of the biggest software retailers

After only a few months on the market, retail giant Toys “R” Us pulled Maniac Mansion from its shelves because of the word Lust, a somewhat unfortunate choice of word on the backside of the box.

The very first release of Maniac Mansion came with the word “Lust” written on the back, this was apparently a no go on a product primarily targeted at kids and teenagers. Toys “R” Us pulled the game after only a few months on the shelves

The box was reworked with a changed logotype and a new design on the backside and rereleased for the Commodore 64 in early 1988 along with the first IBM/PC version.

Both the Maniac Mansion and the Lucasfilm Games’ logotype were reworked, alongside the backside of the box.
On the left the original release from 1987. In the middle the reworked version from 1988. On the right the first IBM/PC release also from 1988

In 1989 Maniac Mansion was released for the Amiga and Atari ST, alongside a new release for the IBM/PC, now in the iconic Lucasfilm Games big box.

A version for the Nintendo Entertainment System was released in 1990, but let’s not talk about that.

In 1989 Maniac Mansion was released for the Atari ST and Amiga, alongside a new version for the IBM/PC. These 16-bit versions all featured a copy protection system requiring the user to enter symbols from a codebook included with the game. This was not present in the Commodore 64 and Apple II versions which used on-disk copy protection

Maniac Mansion became critically acclaimed and praised for its wacky characters, humorous non-linear storyline, and innovative use of the point and click interface. It was still dwarfed by the titles of Mighty Sierra On-Line in terms of commercial sale figures, nonetheless, it solidified Lucasfilm Games as a serious contender in the adventure game genre.
The complicated story with multiple characters each with their own abilities, and consequently, puzzles along with the ability to use every item on every other item led to many dead-ends, something Gilbert learned from and eliminated in future titles – Most of which would become some of the best in the genre.

The SCUMM engine was reused by Lucasfilm/LucasArts in nearly all future adventure games. The engine was improved upon with every game to embrace the technological advancements and to embody more complex dialogue trees, an interactive music system (iMUSE), 256 colors, etc…  
Following Gilbert’s departure from Lucasfilm Games (now LucasArts) in 1992, he continued to use the SCUMM framework to create the more kid-oriented adventure games now through his new company, Humongous Entertainment.

In 1993, Day of the Tentacle, the sequel to Maniac Mansion was released, led by Tim Schafer and David Grossman. The two had previously assisted Gilbert with the creation of The Secret of Monkey Island and its successor Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge.
Day of the Tentacle, despite the fact that it only managed to sell around 80.000 copies in its lifetime, is now hailed as one of the best adventure games of all time.

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