In the autumn of 1982, Sunnyside Soft rented a small 10 by 10 feet booth at the San Francisco Civic Center. The second Applefest of the year was just about to open its doors to the public. The open-to-consumer show was a prime gathering for anything and everything Apple. Here software companies together with hardware suppliers would meet and show off their newest products and share their visions with the public. This was the perfect opportunity for the newly formed family and part-time operation conceived by Al Lowe and Mike MacChesney together with wifes Margareth and Ray Lynn, to showcase and market its two educational games, Dragon’s Keep and Bop-A-Bet, created in the months prior.
Al Lowe, an accomplished jazz musician, had been teaching music in public schools for well over a decade and as part of his duties with the school district, he had become somewhat involved with computers. When he came down with chickenpox and was stuck at home, he experimented with a terminal hooked up remotely to the school district’s PDP-11/70 minicomputer. In the time following, he borrowed various personal computers from the district before acquiring his first own computer, an Apple II Plus. Initially with the intent to write software that could help make his job easier but soon started experimenting with games he and his son could enjoy together.
With a background in education, Lowe decided to give the computer medium a try as an educational platform combining arcade and adventure with simple learning principles. The endeavor led to three developed titles, two of which were completed in time for the Applefest.
Lowe and his son had been playing several of On-Line Systems’ early graphic adventure titles and loved not only the gameplay but the visual fidelity as well, the latter being influential for the visual style of Lowe’s own games.
While the show experience was completely new and uncharted territory for Sunnyside Soft, On-Line Systems one of the major players in the consumer software market had been at it for the better part of two years. Ken and Roberta Williams had initially built the company upon its early graphic adventure games but had quickly managed to get a footing in the lucrative action and arcade market.
The On-Line Systems booth was filled with its large portfolio of games, most playable on displays mounted so everybody passing by wouldn’t miss it. The booth had a huge photo mural of a Yosemite National Park waterfall. Ken and a hesitant Roberta had earlier sold 20% of the company to venture capitalist Jackie Morby of TA Associates. Becoming a real corporation required a unique company name and On-Line Systems was becoming Sierra-On-Line, with the famous Yosemite landmark, the Half Dome, as its logo.
Ken Williams was a big name in software, his skills and persona were liked and respected by many. When he went on the show floor he was met with smiles, conversations, and handshakes. One handshake that November 1982 would eventually come to leave a significant mark on gaming history.
Sunnyside Soft’s small but well-visited booth had a couple of Apple II computers installed for people coming by to try out its two titles. When Ken and Roberta toured the show floor they made their way by the booth and immediately became intrigued by how graphically similar the games looked to their own and very successful Hi-Res adventure games. They introduced themselves and ended up offering to buy the rights to the entire Sunnyside Soft product line, to market and publish through Sierra On-Line.
With the plans of entering the home educational software market, Ken predicted the three titles would be a perfect fit.
Both Dragon’s Keep and Bop-A-Bet had been marketed in educational magazines and had sold for a few months, out of Al and Margaret’s home, but the chance to have one of the biggest publishers behind their products with professional packaging, marketing, distribution, and sales, was an opportunity not to be missed. While other software publishers had shown interest in the games, they agreed to partner up with Ken and Roberta, not only had they come up with the best deal but they were local too, situated at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range only about 50 miles north of Fresno.
For Lowe, this would turn out to be an encounter changing the course of his life. In the summer of 1983, he left his secure professional career behind, became a fully-fledged game designer at Sierra, and on the side built a lifelong friendship with the Williamses.
Al Lowe’s second game, Bop-A-Bet, an educational game to teach kids letter recognition and alphabetization.
This was one of two titles Sunnyside Soft brought to the Applefest in 1982.
Bop-A-Bet was re-released by Sierra On-Line in 1983.
Both of these were Al Lowe’s personally kept copies. I was fortunate enough to acquire both of them
While Sierra On-Line would struggle around the time of the North American Video Game Recession in 1983, a partnership with IBM would make the company reinvent the adventure game and herald it into the mainstream with Roberta’s hugely successful King’s Quest.
By 1984 Sierra still experienced financial issues and in the spring had to go through a massive firing round letting many of its programmers and designers, including Lowe, go.
The company still needed programmers and most went from being employees to being independently contracted. Williams and Lowe came to terms on a contract agreement based on royalties.
Lowe and a few other programmers worked perfectly into the contract model, working from home, and delivering on time but several games got either delayed or not completed at all because programmers were lacking self-discipline.
Sierra On-Line would come to an agreement with The Walt Disney Company to develop educational games based on different Disney characters. Disney, at the time, didn’t have its own developers and with Sierra On-Line’s earlier and successful graphic adventures, the company was a great fit to realize some of the many beloved Disney characters. Lowe’s background in music and experience with educational games made him a perfect choice to work on the new endeavors.
Sierra’s venture with The Walt Disney Company resulted in three educational titles published in 1984 (bottom row). The titles were later released in 1986 (top row).
Al Lowe was involved in all three titles, designing Winnie the Pooh and Donald Duck’s Playground and writing the music for Roberta William’s Mickey’s Space Adventure
Disney, impressed with Lowe’s educational adventure Troll’s Tale, the one game from the Sunnyside Soft days that didn’t make it to the Applefest but was released by Sierra in 1983 and 1984, asked him to design an intuitive kids’ adventure game based on its 1985 movie The Black Cauldron.
Artist Mark Crowe, who later would come to work with Lowe on his first Leisure Suit Larry title, created the graphics. The Black Cauldron was released in 1986 and became the last title in the joint venture between Disney and Sierra. Following the departure, The Walt Disney Company, in 1988, incorporated Walt Disney Computer Software, Inc. as a subsidiary. Primarily to have third-party developers design games based on the company’s existing portfolio.
The Black Cauldron, released for nearly every major platform in 1986 and 1987, was the last title in the joint venture between Sierra and Disney
Back in 1981, Williams had at a trade show, met Chuck Benton who was promoting and selling his Softporn Adventure. A text-only adventure game with an adult-oriented theme, created initially as an exercise to learn Applesoft BASIC and to see if the computer could be a means to creating a database program. While On-Line Systems was known for its graphic adventures, Williams was intrigued by the game and picked it up to publish it under the On-Line Systems label. The move proved successful, not only would Softporn sell an estimated 50.000 copies, temporarily doubling the company’s sales but also receive prominent coverage in Time Magazine’s first column on computer entertainment, Software for the Masses. Despite the unusual and more adult-oriented content, the coverage spawned great market exposure. Time Magazine even published the famous cover photo, showing an Apple II computer and a waiter delivering Champagne to three naked women, one of which being Roberta Williams.
Friends who tried Benton’s adult-oriented text adventure enjoyed it and encouraged him to try and publish it.
Under the company name, Blue Sky Software, Benton sold around 100 copies.
Softporn was released by On-Line Systems for the Apple II (Left) and the Atari 8-bit (Right).
Chris Iden who did the Atari port, was, for a decade, one of the technological forces within Sierra and helped author its adventure game development systems. Iden left Sierra in 1991, like designer Jim Walls, for newly formed Tsunami Media
When Sierra On-Line was coming to a licensing agreement with Disney a few years later, Softporn Adventure was dropped from the company’s portfolio. Now years later the Disney deal was history and with the majority of titles being all family-friendly fantasy, another themed game made sense. At the time Infocom’s Leather Goddess of Phobos, a humorous and somewhat naughty text-only adventure game, was having great success, without too much commotion despite its more mature content. Williams and Lowe agreed that an updated version of Softporn Adventure, utilizing the company’s now-proven and successful Adventure Game Interpreter (AGI), was a possibility. Lowe, after completing King’s Quest III went home and replayed Softporn. The game, even for its own time, was rudimentary and with very little depth. It had no protagonist, little or no plot, and of course no graphics. Lowe reported back to Williams that the game was so far past its due date, with the famous remark, it could as well have been wearing a ’70s leisure suit, something that stuck and became an integral part of the game and later on in the franchise as a whole.
The basic structure of Softporn, its puzzles, characters, and locations were all solid but the text needed to go. The only way to update the game was essential to parodies on it. Lowe was known as the good humor guy at Sierra, always cracking jokes, and while he never had written a comedy before this proved a perfect chance to put some of his fun and prankster personality into a game.
With the notion that games not only should be fun but funny as well, Lowe went to work and stripped all text, rewrote the whole thing with wacky and (some explicit) humor, not only to make fun of the lifestyle portrayed but also of the player personified with the main character, placed in as many embarrassing situations as possible.
Lowe crafted a middle-aged ill-polyester-dressed virgin nerd par excellence protagonist partially based on guys he had seen hustling women when he was a musician playing gigs at clubs in the ’70s.
With the main storyline in place, Lowe created a list of animations, scenes, and characters needed for all the puzzles to work and for the unfolding of the story. Artist Mark Crowe, who was working full time on his and Scott Murphy’s Space Quest, helped for four weeks, during evenings and weekends, to create all the detailed artwork. To this Lowe created various humorous interactions, alongside clue-giving messages. Crowe also tipped in and helped with puzzle design and humoristic features.
After about three months Lowe had rewritten and programmed his humoristic take on Softporn Adventure.
This was Lowe’s first go at a text-parser-driven adventure game. All his earlier titles had been using a simplified interaction method and he was somewhat afraid that he might have missed things when players typed in words that didn’t necessarily make sense. In the spring of 1987, the game was beta-tested for Lowe to track what players would type in and where in the game, for him to create responses, usually funny remarks that made sense in the context.
After two months of testing and refinement, development was reaching its final stages. It was clear that using the word porn in the title was probably a bad idea, while the controversy of using the word back in 1981 surely had been good for sales, it had also come with its own sets of complications.
John Williams, Ken’s younger brother and marketing director at Sierra had come up with the name Leisure Suit Larry, which would become Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards.
The Lounge Lizards was the name of a ’70s eclectic jazz group but also a term used for a well-dressed man who would frequent establishments in which the rich gather with the intention of seducing a wealthy woman with his flattery and deceptive charm, none of which Larry possessed.
Larry was in dire need of a last name, up until now he had been using one of Lowe’s friends’ names but another name was needed. With nearly every word in the decided title starting with an L, Lowe pulled out the L volume of Encyclopedia Britannica, the first name that came to his attention was Arthur Laffer, a member of the Reagan Administration Economic Policy Advisory Board.
With the beta testing out of the way and a name in place. Larry Laffer and his efforts conquering the hearts and pants of the opposite sex all while trying to reinvent himself as the cool guy, during one night in the city of Lost Wages was complete and released in June of 1987.
Al Lowe’s Leisure Suit Larry was released in the summer of 1987 for IBM/PC and most other major platforms.
Sierra, uncertain of how the game would be received alongside cutbacks on advertising in general, led, marketing-wise, to a silent release.
The game’s pink box, also designed by Mark Crowe, helped set it apart on the shelves.
Word by mouth and coverage in magazines resulted in the game becoming the company’s second-best-selling title of the time.
On the left, Al Lowe’s personal copy, for the Apple II, which I acquired some years back. On the right, the 16-color EGA version for the IBM/PC, and on the bottom, the 1991 256 VGA release in the original pink box, only sold very briefly before it was released in a redesigned box
Lowe was talented, in multiple fields, and his role at Sierra had always been considerably diverse. Spending 16 years as an educator alongside being a high school band teacher, he had an exceptional ability to communicate, something that, alongside the beta-testing manifested in Leisure Suit Larry being one of the best games of the time employing a text-parser-driven interface.
Having played professional jazz since the age of 13 and earlier written the music for the company’s Disney titles, alongside all of the music for Roberta’s King’s Quest II, it was only natural Lowe would write the game’s main theme, a swinging jazzy arrangement. The main theme score would become one of adventure gaming’s most recognizable.
Unsure of how Leisure Suit Larry would be received with its content deemed offensive by some, management chose to release it without any publicity or advertising budget. At the time of release the company was facing some minor financial issues and had cut back on advertising and instead relied more heavily on PR. While the content, with adult situations, somewhat vulgar language, and sexual insinuation, surely was daringly explicit for a game at the time, it wasn’t much different from what was shown at the movies or on evening television, the only difference being that games were mainly perceived to be kids entertainment. Many of the bigger computer chain stores refused to sell the game, finding the adult content inappropriate resulting in first-month sales numbers lower than any new Sierra product launch in years with only 4.000 sold copies. Despite the controversy, Marketing managed to garner some major coverage in many of the popular gaming magazines at the time which helped spread the word.
With Lowe working as a contractor and agreeing to develop the game on spec, meaning without payment against a higher royalty, that year’s Christmas initially looked a little bleak with him earning $2-3 for every sold copy. But word-of-mouth quickly spread and by year’s end, the game had become not only a critical success but commercial as well. It would conquer the hearts of gamers everywhere and retailers learned that the game wasn’t malicious or predatory but humoristic in a dirty yet innocent way and was indeed safe to sell.
Sales every month doubled and by the end of the year, the game had sold over 250,000 copies, becoming the company’s second best-selling title at the time only surpassed by King’s Quest III.
In total, the title would go on to sell over 300.000 copies and spawn one of Sierra’s longest-running series.
The famous quiz with age-specific questions, to prove you were not a kid, led to many brute-force attempts to access the game. Ken Williams, vary of bad publicity, wanted to be sure that anyone playing Leisure Suit Larry was at least screened and insisted on the quiz.
While Leisure Suit Larry was basically structured upon Softporn Adventure, a simple and very short experience, Lowe filled the game with humorous content. This complete play-through only shows a small percentage of everything, a large part of the experience was exploring and interacting with every object, person, and location.
Artist Mark Crowe created the artwork for a stunning night out in the city, accompanied by Al Lowe’s swinging main theme
While Lowe’s Leisure Suit Larry helped spawn and herald games with more adult-oriented content, the initial controversy also spawned the introduction of the Leisure Suit Larry bill, by the California State Legislature, to prohibit adult-oriented content in computer games. Fortunately, the legislation died in committee, thanks to the careful and persistent effort of the software industry.
Leisure Suit Larry became one of the most pirated software titles of the time, everyone with a computer had to have this title, for some reason. The piracy became so widespread that pirated copies of the game became a way to spread computer viruses. In late 1988, the New Accountant and the Financial Times reported that multiple banks and trading houses in Europe were hit with a virus that destroyed data after bored traders tried loading up pirated copies of the game. Sierra eventually had to respond to complaints that, No, official copies of the game were not going to destroy your computer and potentially bring down the global banking system.
With Leisure Suit Larry’s commercially slow start in the market and with Jim Walls’ first Police Quest running behind, Lowe took over the programming and helped with the writing to complete it for the 1987 Christmas sales.
By 1988 technology had advanced to a place where higher-end machines could deliver higher-resolution full-screen graphics, much more detailed animations, and movie-like music scores. The AGI framework, initially developed for the first King’s Quest in 1983, was becoming more obsolete by the day. This resulted in Sierra developing and completing the first iteration of its object-oriented Sierra Creative Interpreter (SCI0) in the spring of 1988.
When Roberta Williams’ King’s Quest IV, the first game to be developed in SCI0, debuted as an invitation-only preview at the Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1988 the reaction from the audience was overwhelming. Using much more detailed graphics, animation, sound, and music, the experience was unlike anything earlier and touched the audience on a deeper emotional level.
While afraid to leave potential customers with lower-end machines behind, Sierra simultaneously released an AGI version alongside the SCI. It turned out that a big part of the market was, like Sierra, very much at the forefront of technology and the SCI version of King’s Quest IV became a massive success, leading to Sierra’s other big adventure franchises, including the upcoming and second title in the Leisure Suit Larry series, switching to the new framework.
When Lowe had completed programming on Walls’ Police Quest, along with some serious rewriting to make it playable by people without a police background, he yet again turned to Larry Laffer. Now, with the huge success of the first title and with Softporn Adventure’s influence out of the way, Lowe could finally write his very own game without being influenced by outside parties, nonetheless, the adult-oriented content and Lowe’s trademark raunchiness were all toned down due to the criticisms of the first title.
The story continues the plot from the first but is much larger in scope. With Larry losing his virginity in the first game he was now ready to go look for real love. A myriad of bizarre events takes Larry from winning the lottery to being featured on an ’80s dating show, chased by KGB agents, to fighting a supervillain in a volcanic lair on an exotic island before finally finding true love. The story was more elaborate with an emphasis to provide a cinematographic experience with often long-cut scenes. Overall the story had an extremely linear plot progression and without any real exploration made it a quite different experience than its predecessor.
The Linear story progression came not only from Lowe wanting more plot development but also from the game being structured in stages to fit on multiple floppies, without the need for constant disk swapping. This resulted in dead ends when you forgot important items in earlier stages as the only way to go back was to restore an earlier saved game but this was an issue with many of Sierra’s adventure games and players knew to save early and to save often.
In late October of 1988, the game was released as Leisure Suit Larry (2) Goes Looking for Love (In Several Wrong Places). While receiving mostly highly positive reviews, fans of the first game were disappointed with the dialed-down dirtiness.
Leisure Suit Larry (2) Goes Looking for Love (In Several Wrong Places) was released in 1988 for the IBM/PC, Commodore Amiga, and Atari ST
Leisure Suit Larry 2 went on to sell over 250.000 copies and solidified the Leisure Suit Larry franchise as one of the most successful in the adventure game genre in the late ’80s.
Leisure Suit Larry (2); Goes Looking for Love (In Several Wrong Places), released in 1988. Using the first iteration of the SCI framework allowed for full-screen 16-color EGA graphics, mouse for navigation, and sound card support, for sounds and music.
The switch to SCI0 surely looked and sounded great but the realistic visual style didn’t really fit the game or its personality
The age-specific quiz was dropped for a Filth Meter that could be adjusted during gameplay.
A Boss key was implemented which instantly could replace the game screen with something more appropriate if your boss, parents, or wife were to come by
Lowe wasn’t gonna rest on his laurels and went on, in January 1989, to create the third and what was supposed to be the final Leisure Suit Larry game. To complete his trilogy, Lowe wanted Larry to finally find real true love and settle down. Lowe listened to fans of the series and decided to return to the more adult-oriented content. The artistic style was redialled just a tad, from the more realistic and somewhat unfitting approach of the second title.
By the late ’80s, the competition was getting stiffer. George Lucas’ Games Division was on the march and its approach to adventure games was unique, intuitive, and player-friendly. Lucasfilm Games had, in 1987 released Maniac Mansion, a graphic point-and-click adventure game with multiple playable characters. The title would come to play a huge influence on many graphic adventures to come, and its point-and-click interface become a standard feature in the genre.
To develop Leisure Suit Larry further, Lowe set himself up with a challenge, for the player to be able to switch roles mid-game, a first at Sierra. In the first part, players would play as Larry, and in the last part as Passionate Patty, the somewhat female counterpart to Larry Laffer.
The story continued on from the second title with a few years passed. Larry, happily living with his exotic wife Kalalau, or so he thought. In the playable intro, we would soon learn that he not only was being dumped by his wife, for an Amazonian Harley-riding lesbian cannibal slot-machine repair woman but also fired from his job. The game leaves behind the linear story progression from the second title and, to much fanfare, brings back many of the beloved elements from the first title.
While Lowe had primarily been developing the first two titles from his Fresno home, with higher ambitions and a more complex game now needed for a larger team and Williams decided to open up a small office in Fresno. Here Lowe along with fellow programmer Carlos Escobar, artist Bill Skirvin, who also had been working on graphics for the second title, and quality assurance lead Robin Bradley could develop the game without having to do the cumbersome commute to and from Oakhurst.
Lowe had composed the music for the two earlier titles but now being fully occupied with the story, game design, and programming of a more complex game led to composer Mike Dana writing the enjoyable and fitting soundtrack. Dana had previously composed jingles for national ad campaigns and would after completing his work at Sierra become the Director of Jazz Studies at Fresno City College for the better part of the next three decades.
Leisure Suit Larry III: Passionate Patti in Pursuit of the Pulsating Pectorals was released for the IBM/PC, Atari ST, and Amiga in 1989
The third installment in the series, in my opinion, the best of the first three titles. Mike Dana’s accompanied and continuous soundtrack sounded great and gave the game an exotic ambiance.
The game felt more like the original than what the second title had offered and the visual style was more fitting.
The age-specific quiz returned, your ability to answer the questions, determined at which dirty level you would be able to play.
Leisure Suit Larry III would like its predecessors, become a commercial hit and received critical acclaim. when the ’80s turned into the ’90s Lowe’s Larry trilogy had sold over three-quarters of a million copies, pretty good for a game, initially deemed too dirty for gaming.
Following, Lowe and his family moved into a new house, in Fresno, deservedly called Casa de Larry, a tribute to his Leisure Suit Larry games which had helped pay for it.
While all my copies are sealed I had the opportunity to borrow my brother’s open copies to show the content. Unfortunately, Lefty’s Napkin is missing from the first game box
Good companions were always handy when trying to complete any Sierra adventure.
Ralph Rogers The official Book of Leisure Suit Larry, written with help from Al Lowe, is a great and humorous insight into the games.
Mostly written as a conversation between Lowe and Larry, it provides stories, development insights, and hints making the most of the games
In the next part, we’ll look at how Lowe successfully managed to continue the story of what was otherwise considered a completed trilogy.
The switch to SCI1 with the release of King’s Quest V would herald a new era for Sierra On-Line with point-and-click and 256 color graphics, getting in position to tackle the ever-growing demands of the consumer market and the competition. The battle was on, ultimately resulting in the golden age of adventure games. Here we would not only come to see multiple new installments in the Leisure Suit Larry series but a remake of the original as well. Lowe’s tongue-in-cheek humor would evolve alongside Larry’s character, evolving from an enthusiastic ignorant, and innocent nerd to what could be considered somewhat of a pervert… but that’s all to come.
Sources: Allow.com, Wikipedia, The Sierra Adventure by Shawn Mills, MEL Magazine, Retrogamer, IGN, Ralph Roberts, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy…
3 thoughts on “Leisure Suit Larry, Al Lowe’s gaming legacy, Part 1”
Great blog post, man.. I so adore the Larry series, man, remember I was only 14 or something when playing the first LL1… but I was hooked…
Thanks a lot. I was a bit younger but just as intrigued:)