David Fox: The Real Zak McKracken
McKracken is just a game, but it has a totally positive yet anarchic message: anything is possible!
This pretty much sums up the game's creator, David Fox. But David isn't the real star of the game: all but one of the playable characters are girls. And the girls are all based on real people.
The real Annie Larris
Annie's real world job is discovering and sharing modern wisdom: check out her newest books!
One of the girls on Mars, Leslie, was then Matthew Kane's girlfriend. She was also a major play tester, listed in the credits. And there's more! Leslie writes:
"I lived in San Francisco at that time.... on MARS Street right off of 17th. In fact, it was just called Mars. I used to dye my hair a different color practically every week."
So that's why the girls went to Mars - it's where Leslie lived in real life! And she used to live in England and has a photo of herself at Stonehenge. And of course she lived in San Francisco. And now lives in Mexico. As she says, "Trippy. It's as if I've lived a parallel life through Zak M."
But what about changing her hair color practically every week? In the game, every time you put on Leslie's helmet and take it off, her hair is a different color. (Though not in the 256 color version, I guess the people who converted the game thought it was just a bug.) And what else do we know about Leslie in the game? Well she's the brave one (not afraid of heights in the oxygen room, and not afraid of the broom alien), so I asked the real Leslie about that. She replied:
"I don't know if I was brave so much as.... curious about what would happen if I just....did...THIS! Because of that attribute, some people referred to me as a "free spirit". Others labeled it as "reckless". Lately, my friends and my family have been calling me brave (and a few other party poopers calling me reckless) because I was attacked and mugged 3 weeks ago at night about a block from my house. I'm pretty little and so I'm sure the guy who saw me walking alone at night with my purse swinging along thought he'd hit the jackpot. Easy Street! He came along side of me, said hello, and then knocked me down on the sidewalk and yanked my purse off of me. It made me mad being knocked hard like that. I jumped up and hurled all 105 pounds of myself at him and tackled him off the sidewalk and into the cobblestone street (ouch). I knocked him on his sad arse so hard that my wallet fell out of my purse and into the street, where I was able to grab it, jump up and run home. My dad is still making jokes that this "ladrón" ended up shrieking for the police himself to protect him from this tiny demon.
And so if I came across an actual broom alien, I am certain that I would not be afraid of it. In fact, it would probably become my best friend :)"
So it's official! Leslie is real. How cool is that? Now I'm going to have to track down "Melissa" and see if she still has that boom box and special camper van...
|This is David Fox,
who created Zak McKracken, back in the 1980s.
Note the famous Zak nose glasses!
this is David and Annie in 2010.
From a recent interview:
[It's in Portuguese, but some parts are translated below. I've changed the order of questions, to focus on Zak-related themes.]
"Zak McKracken And The Alien Mindbenders is a game from the 80s and it's much more complex, creative and fun than most games today.
"Maniac Mansion got a sequel... If Zak McKracken had the same chance, or the chance of being remade, what would you like to see changed in it? What you didn't want changed?
A. Better art? I'd love to hear Zak's voice too! Just wackier, more fun. Did you check out this Zak fan site? http://www.zaksite.co.uk/ Current news there on all the fan-created sequels.
"How [did] the creative process at LucasArts work? Do you have creative freedom?
Back then we did have creative freedom -- lots of it... Almost total freedom. Now, it looks like the types of games are being dictated from above -- that's why pretty much all of them are based on the Star Wars series and all graphic adventure development has been stopped.
Does a game designer play his own games after they hit the shelves?
A. I can't answer for others... In my case, I never played my graphic adventures afterwards since I knew them so well, and I was probably sick of the game by then (after having to play it all the way through countless times during debugging). In the case of skill games, like Pipe Dream (which I was a producer on, not a designer), yes -- that one was fun to play occasionally.
When you look back, how you see the game evolution, in a designer view. Is it easier than 10 or 20 years ago or is it more difficult?
[That's] hard for me to answer since I haven't been involved in any large-scale game projects for years. Clearly, one trend is to games with bigger and bigger budgets, better graphics, higher production values. But when I spoke at a couple of conferences in Europe last year (The Gathering and Assembly), most people I talked with complained of the quality of the gaming experience compared to the older games. The current games might *look* much better, but they may not be as much fun. So, because of the big budgets, big productions, it's harder to produce games now than in the 80s (where we had teams of 5-10 people).
How do you see the piracy and the emulation scene in today's market? What about the fan remake of old games?
Piracy sucks. We had our first two games pirated before they even hit the market. That totally devastated sales of them. But emulation is very cool. It keeps the old games alive, possibly forever. I was actually able to get Zak up and running on my cell phone! And I also really appreciate the fan remakes/sequels. Very cool.
David Fox videos:
If you have a broadband connection, watch David Fox talk about Zak (and other topics) at the Gathering in 2004: http://www.gathering.org/tg04_files/webtv/TG04_WebTV_Seminar_DavidFox_(Without_Product_Videos).asf
Panel discussion: ftp://ftp.edome.net/events/assembly04/vod/Assembly_Seminars_3_1.avi
The information on this page is mainly from the following interviews:. Some URLs may be no longer active, so try the Wayback machine.
http://www.dadgum.com/halcyon/BOOK/FOX.HTM , and
Some URLS are no longer active. If you know of any other dates, or I got something wrong, please contact me.
How was Zak McKracken created? (Quotes from DF, taken from all of the above interviews.)
The time frame:
"Maniac took longer because Ron first had to develop the system software. Zak used the next generation of SCUMM, so there wasn't as much engineering needed there. I think it took about 9 months from concept to completion. Not much in today's 2-3 year game development cycles!"
"Zak had two scripters, plus Ron helping out with SCUMM system improvements as needed. We had 2-3 artists, and Matthew Kane (the other scripter) also did music and sound effects. Add to this a crew of play testers, and you have the teams. And we’d do it all in under a year... Today’s games can have teams of 30-60 people!"
"We each had Sun Microcomputers where the tools were again under UNIX (including the first implementation of the SCUMM system for our graphic adventures), and downloaded to Commodore 64s. Then, after we began focusing on PCs, all our tools were ported to the PCs themselves."
"I knew I wanted to do something that had a lot of "New Age" concepts in it. So I spent a few days with David Spangler, a noted expert and author in this area. He lived in Seattle, so Mt. Ranier was one of the obvious locations in the game. We also came up with a lot of the other basic concepts. ... We decided we wanted to put every concept we could think of into the game - every spiritual or psychic mystery currently being explored. ... I then went back to California and worked out the game structure. But it was much more of a serious game at first. Too serious, in fact. So we kept everything in the original design, but changed Zak's character and job. As a reporter for a sleazy newspaper, everything else in the game took a major 90 degree shift into bizarre territory, and the opportunities for humor became wide open."
"I set out to make the game feel much broader than Maniac Mansion - after all, I had spent months stuck in that mansion programming the game. I wanted to see the world, and take the audience along with me :-) "
"The initial story definitely had comedy elements in it, just not as much as the final concept. I was really buried in the initial design when Ron Gilbert (creator of Maniac Mansion) suggest we have a brainstorming meeting to go over the Zak design. He felt the game had a lot of potential, but "wasn't all there" yet.In that session, all of the Lucasfilm designers, our fearless leader Steve Arnold, and I came up with the idea of Zak being a reporter for a sleazy tabloid-type newspaper, chose his name (pulling names from a Marin County phone book), [edit: before this meeting, Zak's name was going to be Jason!] and came up with the far more wacky direction for the humor.It was a great session, and simply by altering a few things, put the game into a totally new light. Interestingly, when I went back and looked at my original notes, everything that ended up in the game was still there... it just all had a much more outrageous twist to it."
The music: (Zak featured the most extensive music and audio library of any product of its time, according to the LucasArts site and the fond memories of users)
"Matthew [Kane] wrote some software to let him actually use the Commodore 64 as a synthesizer connected to a keyboard (probably using MIDI).He was able to create custom "patches" for the different instruments and sounds, and hear the entire piece in final form as he created it. The fun part was using the music as part of Zak's opening nightmare cut scene.We worked hard to synchronize the two... Matt changed the music and I changed the "choreography" so they both worked well together."
Scripting for the SCUMM engine:
"Ron Gilbert created SCUMM, as well as all the tools we needed to build the game. SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) was really a programming language. It used high-level commands to make things happen, and it was a set up so you could have multiple scripts running at the same time. For example, one script might make the clock on the wall tick-tock. Another might keep track of the time for a specific event to happen. Another to make a character walk across the room and pick up an object. It’s been a while, but I think a typical statement might have been something like
WALK ACTOR(ZAK) TO OBJECT(CREDIT-CARD)
SAY(ZAK)"Wow, a credit card with a two-headed squirrel on the front!"
This made it easy to see what was supposed to be happening."
The day to day work:
"Well, the fun part was coming up with wickedly funny ideas and sharing them with each other. The not so fun part was working 16 hours a day, then having to drive home from the Ranch [Skywalker ranch, then the HQ for LucasArts] at midnight on windy country roads filled with suicidal raccoons and deer. After 7 months of that, with 2 more to go, it wasn't a lot of fun. Even being at the Ranch didn't help!"
The best part:
"The brainstorming sessions were probably my favorite memories of being at LucasArts. We’d fill the room with 4-8 designers, and one person would lead the discussion. Any idea was airplay, and we’d often get off onto pretty funny tangents (many of which we knew couldn’t be used, but were fun to think about). I don’t have any specific memories - just the strong sense of the creative energy in the room."
The budget... .
In 2007, Matthew Kane revealed a couple of other interesting details to Marvel of Zak2.org. The budget for Zak was around $100,000 - which may sound a lot, but it includes a team of world class programmers, plus artists and other professionals, plus overheads, global marketing and distribution, etc. And remember that the technology was then experimental and cutting edge: relative to ts peers it was more advanced than most games being created today. So the budget was relatively modest.
..and the pressure to be difficult
Because of the modest budget, a small game was not expected to make huge profits on its own. So there was pressure to make the game harder. First, so the game lasted longer (100 hours game play was seen as better value than 20 hours game play). Second, because LucasArts wanted to make money selling books with the solution! Back in those days, before the Internet, there was big money to be made from solution books. Games were expensive to manufacture, but books were cheap. A high profit book was essential to the business plan, so the people in charge wanted the game to be difficult!
Looking back (and looking forward)
Of all games you've worked on, what is your favorite?
"Easy question... Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders. .Of the all the graphic adventures I worked on, it was the only one where I had complete control of the plot, story, jokes, and everything that went in it. So it was the most rewarding experience, and I think it most reflects my creative energy, personality, sense of humor, and even personal philosophy."
Is there anything you would do different if you were making Zak again?
"Hah! No, NO LABYRINTHS!! That was the one thing I wish we hadn't have done so much of. But considering how much space we had on the floppy disk (wasn't Zak two sides of a C64 disk - about a total of 320KB?), that was the most space-efficient way to prolong game play. At least we didn't keep killing you off! [Unlike a certain classic games company whose name began with S - ed.]"
What do you think of fan projects?
"I really love that people still appreciate the games... It would bother me if LucasArts were still trying to sell the games and people downloaded them instead of buying them. But I don't think the games are still on the market. I had a pretty bad experience with pirated software on my first game, Rescue on Fractalus! A mostly completed version of that game as well as Ballblazer was given to Atari for market testing. Within a week, both games were on all the pirate bulletin boards! Pretty discouraging! [But regarding Zak,] I love it! I’ve seen some of the art for the Zak sequels, and it tickles me to see how people have kept the characters."
Would you ever create another game?
"I might go back to game design/development under the right circumstances. It would have to be a very special project, something that could actually make a difference in people's lives -- what was the last game you played that affected you deeply in an emotional or spiritual way? That actually changed your life, that made you think deeply about who you are and what you're doing here on the planet? If the answer is "never", then why? If you've had that kind of experience, then I'd love to hear about the game that you were playing! I am still very interested in using entertainment to change people's lives for the better, to empower them, help them be the best they can be... all that "New Age" stuff. If anyone knows of any company doing this, let me know!"
Beyond the game, into the real world:
So the sixty four thousand dollar question: What did the real Annie do after Zak? Well after inspiring my all-time favorite game, she worthwhile things. They don't just spend their time making more games, they do (and David) went about doing excellent and stuff that really matters. Check out these links:
http://www.ElectricEggplant.com — David's home page
Maybe I am easily impressed, but I find all this deeply impressive.
Photos from around the time Zak was made
At The Gathering, 2005
David, Annie and Josie (a.k.a..hypno-dog) from 2010
"Look into my eyes..."
More David Fox pics. O.K., maybe this is a bit over the top, but David is one of my heroes. (I also worship at the feet of Michael Faraday and Henry George, but that's enough about me.) You need all these pics so you recognize him if you ever meet him in the street, then you can bow before him and do a Wayne's World chant of "We're Not Worthy! We're Not Worthy!" :)