In my Interview with Larry Ahern Part 2, with the former Lucasarts graphic and designer we discuss the failed Full Throttle follow-up, his decision (and subsequent regret) to work with Microsoft, the indie experience with Insecticide and, finally, his time at Disney.
Click here for the first part of the interview.
Following up a success
Hello again Larry! We left, last time, with you releasing The Curse of Monkey Island, which – unbeknownst to you at the time – would turn out to be the last released game you would work on, while at Lucasarts.
True, but not for lack of trying. Games were getting bigger and more complicated, the audience for adventure games was dwindling, and 3D action shooters were all the rage. Management wanted more of a blended action-adventure, so Jonathan Ackley and I pitched a new game called Vanishing Act. The game was about a travelling magician who used his magic act as a cover to stage a series of museum heists. While he was supposedly onstage locked in a safe and submerged in a tank of water (Houdini style), he would sneak out and slip into the museum next door to steal the crown jewels or something like that. It was all about a character using magic “tricks” to con people, but then ending up discovering that magic is real.
It was still very much story-focused with lots of puzzles, but we included more spatial puzzles and magical elements (you could turn into a bird and fly around, or a spider to access tight spaces). I think our ideas were fun, but we probably didn’t flesh them out enough to take advantage of all the 3D action stuff we needed to build. Management wasn’t happy with it, and Jonathan and his wife decided to leave to form a children’s game company, so the project was shelved – unfortunately, the name Vanishing Act turned out to be prophetic!
Overall, it feels to me like LucasArts was struggling in the early years of 3D graphics. That, along with the overall problem of adventure games that did not seem to find their place in 2000, led to some confusion for the studio.
I agree. With Grim Fandango, Tim and the team did a fantastic job addressing the low poly 3D art problem – the characters are supposed to be primitive calaca skeleton figures, a Day of the Dead folk art style, so it makes sense that they wouldn’t be detailed. But that kind of solution doesn’t work for every game.
And with a lot of other 3D adventure titles, it felt like things were backsliding a bit. Sacrificing character visual fidelity was worth it in an FPS, because moving through a 3D environment was so much more immersive. But slower moving games just lost some of the charm with low poly characters. In retrospect, it kind of feels like the audience needed to go off and shoot stuff for a few years and get it out of their system so they could come back and look at some story-puzzle games again with fresh eyes.
A possible Full Throttle sequel: development hell (on wheels)
After Vanishing Act, your next project was working, for a while, on the notoriously ill-fated sequel to Full Throttle.
Once we decided to shelve Vanishing Act, management asked me to come up with some new ideas for a game. I pitched like 7-8 original concepts, and they requested I also propose a Full Throttle idea. The other 7-8 ideas were lots of fun and would have made amazing games, so of course they picked the Full Throttle one. I ended up fleshing out the story, mapping out the game levels, and working with Bill Tiller to develop the visual style. I think we had something really good going. A lot of the issues I ran into on Vanishing Act taught me to think in action terms from the start, and naturally Full Throttle was already a property perfectly suited to that.
The story picked up after Ben was acquitted at trial for the murder of Ripburger. The new villain was a corrupt politician looking to rid the highways of the dangerous threat of bikers, so he tried to frame Ben as the bad guy. He manipulates the media to sell his story, and of course he has a shady past that’s part of a bigger mystery.
There were lots of action set pieces, biker stunts, brawls, and several new biker gangs, like the Leeches, who had only sidecars (no bikes) with rocket engines that shoot down the highway and attach to tanker trucks to syphon off the gasoline. And then there were the Dragons, a gang with flamethrowers outfitted to their choppers. Good times, but LucasArts was changing. Lots of people were leaving, there was a bit of a revolving door in upper management, and that created some problems getting resources (or even facetime with the powers that be). In the end, I guess you could say we had “creative differences.” I came up with something really creative, but management saw things differently.
So, to set the record straight, it was going to be amazing, it was really fun, and it was gone too soon. It was also the first attempted sequel to Full Throttle, which I just referred to as Full Throttle 2. We talked about some other potential names, but never decided on anything before I left. However, the internet (our version of the history books) seems to have decided it was called Full Throttle: Payback because that was a title Bill Tiller suggested and he happened to do a bunch of press after leaving LucasArts in the early 2000s. However, that title wouldn’t have worked because it sounds like a revenge story, and it wasn’t that. (So, internet, please adjust the history. Thanks).
The one I worked on is not to be confused with the second attempted sequel, Full Throttle: Hell on Wheels. After I left, Sean Clark apparently picked up the ball hoping to run with it the rest of the way. But first he changed the ball into something else, then he ran down the field and got tackled and never made it to the finish line either. God knows why I’m mixing football and racing metaphors here, let alone doing it in a conversation about biker games, but there you have it. In summary: making a Full Throttle sequel is apparently a doomed undertaking (probably because Tim put a curse on the IP when he left).
Full Throttle: Hell on Wheels (E3 2003 Trailer)
Leaving Lucasarts behind
What did you decide to do with your career after that?
Those were the dark years after leaving LucasArts, the whole wandering in the wilderness part of our story where our hero faces setbacks and monsters and that kind of thing. Basically, I went to work at Microsoft. That was right around the time they were coming out with the first Xbox and they were hiring a lot of talented developers and had signed on to publish Oddworld and Psychonauts. So, I thought it was going to be a good place for me to do some creative work.
I was wrong.
Instead, there was a lot of reshuffling and reorgs and stalled projects and being passed over for a creative director role on a game because a Windows programmer with more seniority wanted the job. I bounced around a few internal studios and worked on a lot of doomed projects. Technically, I got my name on 2 shipped games (Blood Wake and Flight Simulator X), but I didn’t do much on either. Probably the most interesting thing I worked on during my time there was a prototype ARG (alternate reality game) with Jordan Weisman, Elan Lee, and Sean Stewart. They had just finished The Beast, considered to be the first ARG, and were trying to evolve the genre. But for whatever reason, it didn’t get off the ground. Instead, they all went off and started 42entertainment and I stayed at Microsoft and got so bored and desperate that I thought starting my own company to make a game about mutant insects would be a great idea.
[the above art was created by Larry as part of the new animated content, as the “living world” feature of Flight Simulator X]
In the end, you and Mike Levine actually decided to do the whole indie game thing. How did that go?
We started Crackpot Entertainment with the plan to make Insecticide, an indie story-based adventure-platformer hybrid. It would have been an awesome idea for a company/game… in 2021. Unfortunately, we decided to do it in 2006, before off-the-shelf game engines and remote dev teams were really a thing. So, it was a bit of a challenge, but still a lot more fun than working on Flight Simulator 412.
Working with insects
Together with Mike, you managed to actually assemble a team with some former “stars”, as well.
Indeed, we got to work with an amazing team – some of our favourite former LucasArts people along with some new talent – and create a fun original IP. I’m proud of the work we did, but just wish we didn’t have so many budget constraints. We originally pitched the game as a PSP and PC downloadable title, planning to build both to the limitations of the PSP hardware and share assets between them. However, our new publisher Gamecock came back and said they couldn’t get distribution for a PSP title and wanted to cut the budget in half.
Since that would have killed the game, we agreed to release a Nintendo DS title instead, and found ourselves essentially building two games that really only shared a storyline. It was not ideal, but we were willing to do whatever it took to bring to the public the wise-cracking, bug-shooting, puzzle-solving game they never knew they needed (I still don’t think they know).
In the end, we shipped the two versions, then our publisher promptly went out of business and sold the rights to another company that cancelled the second part of our two-part PC downloadable (even though development was essentially finished). Luckily, I had already been moonlighting for Disney on another project, because the Insecticide budget was so tight it wouldn’t pay my bills.
The Mouse and its joys and sorrows
So, it came to pass that you actually started working with Disney, together with an old friend!
2007 was a year of big changes, since not only was I up to my eyeballs on Insecticide, but I also got the chance to work on an interactive theme park attraction for Walt Disney Imagineering. It turns out that while I had been lost in the wilderness at Microsoft, Jonathan Ackley, my design partner on The Curse of Monkey Island, had been building a career in the R&D Department at Disney and got the greenlight to build a location-based game he had prototyped. The concept was basically ‘what if we made an adventure game you play in the park’? It was mobile phone-based, and you explored and triggered special FX and animatronics throughout Epcot’s World Showcase Adventure with your phone (a phone which Disney handed out specifically for the attraction, this was the dark ages before everybody had phones).
What was the project, the one you and Jonathan worked on, about?
It was The Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure. Jonathan needed a designer to build out the missions from his proof of concept. Ironically, I was told “official” Disney writers would be doing the final scripts and I was just needed for the design. However, once I turned in my design/story document it became clear to them that they’d still need to pay me to explain it all to the Disney writers, so I ended up getting to do scriptwriting as well.
After the success of that project, I went on to spend the next seven years working freelance with about 75% of my projects coming from Imagineering (and most of them working in partnership with Jonathan). One of our project highlights was Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, a collectable card game/turned based magic battle against Disney villains played in magic portals across the park. With seven missions and a finale, we ended up creating 72 minutes of original animation and story, and I got to write for a huge range of comedic characters: from Genie and Yzma and Kronk to Hades. It was a blast, and the design and playtesting trips to Disney World weren’t so bad either.
Eventually, you became an employee at Imagineering altogether.
That’s right. After all that writing I “wasn’t supposed to do”, I got an offer to join the story development team at Imagineering. Although I had worked on a lot of projects for Disney as a freelancer, I did most of my work remotely, so it was exciting to be at the company, get a look behind the scenes, and see how they make the sausage (they make surprisingly little sausage, but a lot of churros).
I joined the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge team and spent the next 5 years working as lead writer on both Rise of the Resistance and Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run as well as various other story elements of the land, then transitioning to Avenger’s Campus where I wrote for WEB Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure. Throughout my time there my main focus was always on interactivity whether it was apps or story overlays or full-on gaming elements in E-ticket attractions and rides.
In the end, with the pandemic, you ended up also leaving Disney, but not without first actually trying your hand on the Star Wars franchise, basically like going back full circle to Lucas!
It was an amazing experience, although one of my frustrations was that it takes a long time to build a theme park ride, but the scripts are only 5-10 minutes long. As a result, there’s a lot of iterating over a long, drawn-out process and you end up working on a bunch of projects at the same time and splitting focus a bit. It was a challenge I wasn’t sure how to solve, and then the pandemic solved it for me.
Like so many others, I was furloughed then laid off and suddenly found myself working freelance again on a crazy mix of games, AR/VR, themed entertainment, and other odds and ends as I tried to figure out what to do next. As of this writing, the answer is still a mystery, but a return to video games is always on my short list. I’ve worked on some amazing projects in my career and am always looking forward to the next one.