Thursday, June 2, 2011

Interview with Corey Cole

A man that for any serious classic adventure gaming aficionado needs no introduction, Corey Cole, co-creator of the Quest for Glory series, agreed to do an interview with me recently. Corey was a chief programmer throughout the series and co-designed the games with his wife, Lori.

How did you get started at Sierra and how was is working there?

A friend we knew through science fiction conventions did contract animation work for Sierra. She had been in a meeting in which Ken Williams said he wanted an “expert tournament-level dungeonmaster” to create a new RPG for Sierra. Carolly thought of us and arranged a phone interview with Ken. When he asked, “Why should I hire you instead of some other designer?” I mentioned that I was an experienced programmer currently working on an Atari ST project. He immediately invited me to interview... not as a game designer, but as a programmer. After I had been at Sierra about six months, they talked to Lori about designing the game.

Your game was unlike any previous Sierra adventure in that it was an adventure/rpg hybrid. Was there any trouble getting Sierra to green light that project?

Our champion was Guruka Singh Khalsa, Sierra’s first producer. He was hired based on things he had written as a fan. During a green light meeting including us and Guruka, Ken said, “I really don’t understand this game.” Guruka said something like, “It’s going to be a major hit,” and Ken left the meeting saying, “I like this game. It’s going to be a major hit.” It’s possible that Sierra might have cancelled the first game without that support; we’ll never know.

What would you say were your main influences for Quest for Glory?

The combat and skill development system was based on a paper RPG Lori and I ran (“Fantasy Guild”, unpublished). It took a lot of ideas from “Arizona D&D”, a D&D variant Lori had played in Phoenix. Computer game influences included Wizardry and maybe Rogue and Dungeonmaster (to a very small degree). My mantra was to simulate the experience of playing in a paper D&D game with an excellent dungeon master. I also talked about combining the best parts of computer RPG’s and adventure games. Since Sierra’s tools were optimized for adventure games, that made sense.

Do you play current any current rpg's? Have computer rpg's gone in a direction you expected?

I play World of Warcraft to the level of addiction. I haven’t played any recent computer RPG’s. We still get together with friends a few times a year to play AD&D 2nd edition, but I’m finding it less involving than I used to... I’ve replaced it with WoW. When people ask if we’ve thought about doing a Quest for Glory MMO, the answer is of course, “Yes,” but at this point we really feel that WoW is the MMO we would have hoped to make – It really exceeds expectations.

What do you think it would take to spark an adventure game renaissance?

Hard to say. Players are different today and much less patient. In the early CRPG days, players had to make their own maps on graph paper. Nobody would stand that today, but other aspects of adventures are almost as painful. The worst, in my mind, are puzzles that can only be solved by reading a walkthrough on the Internet. People used to buy hint books for this, but to me it’s just bad game design. So a start would be well designed, less frustrating games.

I understand that Telltale Games is doing very well with their games, so maybe there already is a renaissance. On the other hand, I can’t even solve their games without occasional Web searches. WoW has some similar issues with tough dungeon and raid encounters, but they’ve steadily made most of the quests easier and more accessible to average (and below average) players. Some people complain about this dumbing down the game, but I find it refreshing. I *like* being able to zip through a quest line and not have to spend hours searching for the right object or character to complete it. I hate “hunt the pixel” game mechanics and “try to read the designer’s mind” puzzles. We tried to fill Quest for Glory with reasonable, solvable puzzles... although I understand many players found the puzzles very difficult, so perhaps we made mistakes there too.

Would a re-imagining or sequel to the series interest you today? What would stay the same and what would you 'modernize'?

I don’t think it could get funded. What would be the business model that would attract a publisher or enough funding to make a high quality game? Certainly the graphics should be updated to modern standard... and that probably means 3D. I think we could make the combat more interesting, but at the same time I would probably reduce the amount of it. It would probably be a Web based game. I’d like to do an MMO, but that’s completely daunting, and I think that WoW and similar games have already addressed that space very well.

I’d actually see more point to doing a new Castle of Dr. Brain, probably for handhelds or Web based. I tried to push a project like that to Sierra, but management didn’t think a “brain game” would do well on consoles. That’s been disproved; the question is whether there is still room for such a game. I think there is. Of course, a Quest for Glory remake targeted at modern consoles could be a great idea also. I think there is a vast untapped market out there of people who want more intelligent games and less death and destruction. The question is whether there is a good way to find that audience and get them to try the game so they might buy it.

Fighter, magic user or thief?

I’m a Magic User by nature, but I also think the Thief game play is really fun and interesting. We didn’t do as much with Warriors as we might have – They were basically designed for people who wanted more straightforward game play. I like the way WoW has essentially given “spells” to Warriors, so they have as many options as other classes. In WoW, I play everything; my two main characters currently are a Night Elf Druid – I mostly play as a bear “tank” and occasionally as a healer – and an Undead Magic User. At level 80, I had a vast stable of characters of every role and most classes. No Warlock or Hunter, mostly because they seemed a little redundant with my Mage.

Which game of the series are you most happy with?

QG2, followed closely by QG4. Despite the occasional game crashing bugs (mostly caused by a memory leak we never fixed), my favorite is Quest for Glory 2: Trial By Fire. I think the setting was unique, the puzzles were good, and the storyline really carries through. The city mazes accomplished what we wanted – making the cities feel large and complex – but were too frustrating for players. The combat system works fairly well, with a good mix of simplicity and tactics.

Quest for Glory 3: Wages of War (or “Seekers of the Lost City”, since we had a copyright problem with the original name) probably has the best story line and most original setting. It’s a little light on puzzles. QG4: Shadows of Darkness was very buggy out the door, but most of the major bugs were fixed for the CD version. The voice acting on it (with John Rhys-Davies as the narrator) is fantastic. We also pulled off the atmosphere very well in that one. Young Frankenstein was an inspiration for the mixture of Gothic horror and comedy.

QG1: So You Want to Be a Hero (originally “Hero’s Quest”) gets an honorable mention for originality, as it set up the series and was the first real RPG / Adventure Game hybrid. Finally, QG5: Dragon Fire is the most epic game in the series. The artwork is gorgeous and the scope of the game – area to explore, quests, and story – is huge, yet I think very consistent and enjoyable. That’s hard to pull off with “huge”. And of course there is Chance Thomas’s fabulous sound track. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel the voice acting was up to par; some of the performances are too cartoony and over the top.

Actually music deserves its own mention, as we got fantastic compositions for all of the games – Mark Seibert developed a memorable theme for the first game. Mark also directed the music for Castle of Dr. Brain, which I think is amazing. Chris Braymen, Aubrey Hodges, and Rudy Helm also contributed some wonderful music to the series. Lori still likes to listen to Aubrey’s tracks while doing artwork, and we all had Chris’s QG2 harem theme on continuous loop for quite a while, especially while finalizing the design on QG2.

What is your name? What is your favourite colour? What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow? Were you or Lori the Monty Python fan?

I sometimes post as Erasmus, but there’s a lot of competition for that name. Zartan is another one I use sometimes; it’s just a gaming handle I used to use for early BBS roleplaying. Lori uses Fenrus (I think even in the games, we sometimes called him Fenrus and sometimes Fenris). Purple, of course. Or royal blue. Lori’s is teal/aquamarine. As for the swallow, I’d need a lot more data on species, size, and environmental conditions. Otherwise, the best I could give you would be a rough average (which I’d look up on the Web). Yes. I was the Firesign Theater fan.

Quest for Glory is an undeniable cult classic. Have you had any encounters with over enthusiastic (or scary) fans?

No. Sometimes they demand a bit much. We’re either slow with such responses, or never get to them. But in general, our fans are fantastic. They appreciate our work, and let us know about it (which feels really good), without demanding too much of our time. Of course, we voluntarily sink a huge number of hours every week into, which is sort of our interactive follow-up to the games, but has morphed into a more serious site on being a real-life hero and living a successful and productive life.

The biggest problems we had weren’t with fans, but with people who complained about things that weren’t really in the games. For example, a Wiccan complained about the stereotypical portrayal of witches in Baba Yaga. Of course, she isn’t a witch, but an Ogress, and she’s lifted straight from Russian fairy tales, on which we based her appearance, the chicken-footed hut, and the laser-eyed skulls (ok, that might have been a *slight* variation) on the fence. Another complaint came from a woman who felt we were anti-Jewish because the villain used a six-pointed star for his rituals. She didn’t bother to read up on the Seal of Solomon or the other research on which we based that.

The one that really floored us was the complaint about the black people in the opening scene of QG3 using poor English usage and strong accents. We based Uhura’s accent on a Jamaican co-worker from my first job in Vancouver. We wanted people to have strong personalities, so we did that with memorable accents. Stereotyping? Maybe, but that’s what you have to do in the limited conditions of a game or film. But what really got us was that we were the first people to come out with a game with strong black role models, and that really made use of an East African setting... but instead of being applauded, we were criticized for the way we did it. That woman should have been our champion, not our critic! Uhura, of course, was inspired by Star Trek, but particularly by a Star Trek filk song with the words, “My name in Swahili means ‘freedom’.”

Do you have any funny/interesting development stories?

Well, we had a lot of fun with some of the incidental jokes and cameos. Many of them were contributed by team members rather than scripted by Lori or me. “Silly Clowns Mode” in QG2 was there because Brian Hughes commented that a lot of business applications had non-functional menu items intended for later expansions. The original idea was to have a menu item that did absolutely nothing, but at some point we decided to use it by changing the silliness level of parts of the game. Brian also collaborated with Kenn Nishiuye to create the Saurus Repair shop at a dead end in the alleyways. We really wanted to keep it in the game, but had to cut it when we exceeded our disk space budget. That scene was revived by AGDI in their fan-developed QG2 VGA remake. I loved producing the voice recording for QG4. All of the actors were terrific to work with, especially John Rhys-Davies even after he discovered he had about five times as much material to record as he’d anticipated when he signed the contract. (He renegotiated and got some additional money, but it was still pretty small considering his stature, talent, and the amount of work he had to do.) One of the best moments was trying to decide on voices for Hans, Franz, and Ivan. Two of the actors wanted to “do Jack Nicholson”, and I decided that their versions were just far enough apart to use them both. They also adlibbed some very funny lines, as you can tell if you compare the screen text with the voices in their scenes. The best parts of development were when we really got everyone on the team pulling together to make something work great. Those became harder as the teams got larger, and spread out throughout the building, in the later games.

When you look back at your time building the Quest for Glory series do you think of that period fondly or is developing games more stressful than the uninitiated might realize?

Yes. It was an amazing opportunity for us, and it was a *lot* of work. We pulled many 60-hour and longer weeks during all of the games. QG5 was by far the worst in amount of unpaid overtime and sheer number of months spent in crunch mode, but I think we came out with a very good game that might have been weaker without the extra work. QG4 was frustrating, because the team was really burned out by the end of the project and it Sierra shipped it months too early. It needed much more QA, bug fix, and tuning time. Fortunately, Sierra management recognized the problem. While we were working on recording voices for the CD version, they assigned one of the programmers full-time to fixing bugs. That he spent almost a year at that, and the game still has a few serious flaws, is a testament to how much work remained undone before the first release.

Lori’s “favorite” anecdote about the stress of working on Quest for Glory was when Sierra installed a security system to get into each section of the building. One day she showed up at work and spent about five minutes trying to remember her access code to get in. Finally someone (breaking company rules) opened the door and let her in. This was during QG2 development, and we wrote some of the stress and paranoia of the time into the game script (including using anagrams of several of the managers as villains – Ad Avis, Khaveen, and al Skurva). It’s not that they were bad people, but the challenge of mixing a very creative process with trying to run a profitable business caused some very stressful moments.

Thanks for your time.

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