Designer Threads feat. Ron Gilbert - 6/30/06

Legendary game designer Ron Gilbert speaks with GameSpot's Executive Editor Greg Kasavin about the secret of Monkey Island, the Commodore 64, why you shouldn't get into the games business, and much more.

Following is an excerpt of the conversation with Ron Gilbert. Listen to the podcast for much more and check out Ron Gilbert's Web site at www.grumpygamer.com.


Game designer Ron Gilbert joined us in our studio. He's worked on many classic LucasArts games, well-regarded children's titles, and more.

Greg Kasavin: So, what are the main things that you think have changed in game development since when you were getting started working on Maniac Mansion, Secret of Monkey Island and stuff like that? How is it different now?

Ron Gilbert: Well, I think it's bigger, and I think that's probably the biggest change that's happened. It's just a much bigger industry. There's a lot more money at stake and as soon as you start spending millions of dollars to make something, it's a lot harder to just kind of go off with a small team and make something and see if it's interesting or not because you have a lot of money on the line. You have marketing departments. You have PR departments. You have all these people now because it's an event, in a way, and so I think that makes it a lot harder to just kind of rush out and do different things. You know, success is 90 percent failure and if you can't have the opportunity to fail, you're just not going to be able to do interesting things. I think that is one of the problems that the games business has now--there is just no room for that failure, to try new things.

GK: Well, but the failure happens anyway, doesn't it?

RG: It happens, but they're not good failures. You know, it's like you can look at any--

GK: ...They're not experiments.

RG: ...any kind of song, music, movie, anything, and you can go, "Yeah, that's really bad, but--." Right? And you can pull all these really good things out of it and go, "You know, I can use these in mine." Or "I know they're going to do it better the next time." But I think you have a lot of failures in games that are just failures because nobody tried, nobody cared. It was all about marketing. It was--you know, those aren't the right reasons to fail.


Gilbert was producer on the memorable 1997 real-time strategy game, Total Annihilation. His colleague, Chris Taylor, is now working on a game that's considered its spiritual successor.

GK: Right. But despite all this, you're still at it, right?

RG: You know, nobody's going to hire me to do anything else, so I've got--I'm stuck in this business.[laughs]

GK: Oh, well, but are you saying it's just a job?

RG: No, no. No, it's not a job at all. I mean, if I just wanted a job, I would go do something else. But I think it's fun. I mean, I've been in this business almost since its inception, and I enjoy it at some levels, frustrating as it can be. I don't want to do anything else. I like to do this.

GK: Just got to get some of the obstacles out of the way, huh?

RG: Yes. You know, it's pushing through. It's trying to find publishers that are willing to take a risk on different types of games, smaller budget games. So far, that's not really the mindset that they have, but I keep pushing forward.

GK: Do you think the circumstances are such that some of these guys who have been really risk averse are going to have to start taking more risks, just because you can't just put out another World War II-themed first person shooter and hope that's going to be a huge success anymore, right? It seems like people's demands are changing somewhat.

RG: Oh, I think they have to change. Will they change? I don't know, but they have to change. I mean, if this really is going to be a creative force on par with, you know, movies and music and a lot of other art forms, it has to change. It has to become a multi-tiered business, where you have the blockbusters at the top that are making a lot of money, and then you have all these other tiers of games that are being professionally produced by the publishers, being sold to people. When you get that kind of tiered system, it's a great system to have because you can bring in people at the bottom. You can spend a little bit of money getting their project made. You can help develop talent there. You can get new ideas. You can breed studios. There are all these things you do in that system, but we don't have that. We just have maybe the top two layers of that system. We don't have any of that other stuff underneath it, and that has to change in this business.


Ron Gilbert worked on many children's games, but to him, they were more than just games for kids. Maybe that's why they turned out to be good.

GK: Right. But you think others see it this way as well, right?

RG: I think a lot of people see it like this.

GK: So, what's going to happen? Someone could mobilize an army and make this work, or--?

RG: I think one of two things will happen. I think that either the whole business will collapse at some point just because it's so top heavy that it just cannot sustain itself and, you know, it'll be reborn in a different way or somebody will just do that and will win really big, and everybody will copy it. I mean, it's not going to...you could take somebody like Electronic Arts going, "You know, we're going to start another brand. It's going to be a whole separate brand, and we're going to fund lower budget projects and, you know, we're going to get these more independent developers, and we're going to give them the support, we're going to give them the money so the craftsmanship is up there." And all it's going to take is for them to win at that, and everybody else would do it. Everybody will see the advantages, but somebody has got to do it first.

Agree or disagree with Ron's views? Got comments or feedback about the format of Designer Threads? Suggestions for future guests? Let us know!

GK: Yes. Well, here's hoping. On a separate subject, your games are known for their humor. Why do you think so few games are funny...?

RG: Well, you know, comedy's hard. It really is. I think it's one of those things that it's very...it's very tough to do comedy. I think there's a lot of issues that make comedy particularly hard in games. In some ways, comedy is all about timing, and in games you've turned the timing over to the player. So, it is very, very difficult to do kind of that timing- and pacing-oriented comedy in games.


Ron Gilbert's holding out on revealing what "The Secret" of Monkey Island is in the off chance he gets a shot at working on another game in the series.

GK: Unless it's in like a noninteractive cutscene or something like that?

RG: Yes, and those I don't think are particularly funny either because, you know, I don't play games to watch a movie. I play games to play a game, so if I'm going to have humor, it needs to come very quick in very short little bursts. You know, I think you can put a lot of slap stick humor and stuff in games but doing that kind of more-sophisticated humor, I think, is just very hard. Honestly, I think the real problem is that game developers just aren't that funny. And I really think it's that simple.

GK: Yes. Well, they're good at explosions.

RG: Yes, they are--and then there's some people, like Tim Schafer, who's a genius at that kind of comedy stuff... But there's Tim Schafer.

GK: Indeed.

RG: Who else? Hmm. There's Tim Schafer...you know, there just aren't a lot of people that are working in this business that I think are really kind of that intrinsically funny and understand comedy.

GK: Right. You worked with Tim Schafer for a while, right?

RG: Yes, I hired Tim Schafer at LucasArts.

GK: Nice. I'm sure he owes you for that.

RG: Oh, I keep reminding him of that, but he seems to forget.[laughs]

GK: What was it like working with a guy like that?

RG: Oh, it was great. You know, we hired Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman. I hired them both at the same time, and they were both on Monkey Island and they're both just incredibly funny people but in very different ways. Dave Grossman is very kind of a dry, sarcastic humor, where Tim's is just a little more in your face, which was great having them work on the same project because I could really kind of assign them to different characters in the game and different scenes depending on kind of how I wanted the comedy for that thing to work. But they were great. They were great to work with.

GK: Chris Taylor is a funny guy in real life too, isn't he? The guy who is credited for kind of being the creative force behind Total Annihilation.

RG: Yes, Chris is a very funny guy and then he does serious RTS games. You know, he seems to have absolutely no interest in taking his humor and applying it to games, which always kind of confused me with him.

GK: Well, whatever works, right? As long as people like the games?

RG: Yes, if you love what you're doing, then great.

GK: Have you seen much on Supreme Commander, the game he's working on right now?

RG: No. I've actually seen nothing at all on it.


Along with Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean ride, the novel On Stranger Times helped influence the Monkey Island series.

GK: It looks cool. I mean, everyone seems to recognize the roots of it, whoever played Total Annihilation back in the day. Some concepts, I guess, don't go out of style. We're talking about all these games from way back when--what's it like to be best known for works that happened a while ago, frankly?

RG: You know, I think it's great that people, like you were saying before, that people still play that stuff, that people are still playing Monkey Island. They're still into Monkey Island. There are still Monkey Island Web sites that are still being updated on a daily basis. I think it's really great to have created something or worked on something that even to this day people are still interested in and still very fixated on. It's great to have done that.

GK: Do you intend to top that? It's going to be hard to live up to something like that again?

RG: No, I very much want to top it. I mean, I'm currently working on a game that's kind of a combination of an RPG and an adventure game, taking the elements of those two things that I enjoy the most. I'm designing that and out pitching it to publishers right now, which is, you know, it's a very hard pitch. I think our game really will bring a lot of those things that people just loved about those games to something a little more current. So, yes, I definitely want to try to top all that stuff.

GK: And speaking of Monkey Island, did you ever plan on revealing what exactly the secret is?

RG: I had definitely planned on doing that in the third game, yes. There's no question about that, but, you know, and then when Jonathan and Larry made Monkey Island III, which is a great game...I think they did a fabulous job on that. They didn't know what the secret was. I told nobody. So, you know, they weren't really able to kind of reveal that, but I would love to make another Monkey Island game. If I could make another one...I have this whole story mapped out in my head for how I want to tie it all together with the other two games, kind of bring it all back to the original thing, and that would just be a dream of mine.

GK: So, you want to hold on to the secret just in case?

RG: Yes. You know, I should probably write it down and give it to my lawyer to reveal on my death. I keep saying that, but then I think, "God, do I really want that?" Because you know, some crazed fan is going to figure, "Well, you know, I know how to get the secret. I know exactly."

GK: ...Rub him out. See, I've already thought of it, so that could be the premise of the next Hitman game or something like that. Hitman in real life. Anyway, you've probably seen Pirates of the Caribbean and stuff like that? I've heard before that that was--that the ride was kind of a spiritual inspiration for that series or what have you. Is that true?

RG: Yes. There were really two things that really inspired me for that game. One was the ride, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the other was a book that I read called On Stranger Tides, and I think those two things kind of coming together were really the genesis behind that whole idea. Yes.

GK: Do you like the movie?

RG: I love the movie, yes. The movie was great. I went into the theatre just expecting to hate it. I'd just go, "Oh, my God, this is going to be horrible. It's going to be the same old crappy stuff." But, you know, they just nailed it. They nailed just every piece of that. If there was a Monkey Island movie, I'd want it to look like that.

GK: Yes. Surprises do happen. That movie did seem to have just about everything going against it. A Disney movie based on a ride, so--.

RG: But, you know, the Haunted House movie came out at the exact same time, and where's that?

GK: I saw that on a plane... I've seen worse, but hey. Eddie Murphy went on to do donkey voices, so...

Speaking of movies, what's the last movie you watched? Do you watch a lot of movies?

RG: Yes, I watch a lot of movies. The last movie I saw was actually last night--was A Prairie Home Companion.

GK: Well, I can't say I've seen that one. Any good?

RG: I liked it, actually. It's--Robert Altman did it, and I really, I'm a big fan of Robert Altman movies, so I kind of enjoyed it.

GK: Yes. If you want to talk comic timing or at least good dialogue.

RG: Yes, he's got a great dialogue. It's also one of the things that I love about Woody Allen movies, is just the dialogue. It's just fabulous to just kind of go listen to it all.

GK: Can you think of many games that actually had good dialogue in them from your perspective?

RG: Well, you know, not if it wasn't done by Tim. Tim's games always have really great dialogue in them but most of the time it's just--it's like, you know, fingers down the chalkboard.

GK: Why do you think that is?


Hey, not every game with great dialogue was written by Tim Schafer. Take Dreamfall by Ragnar Tornquist, for example.

RG: I think it's because the writers don't really understand the interactive medium, and I think what happens is a lot of game companies will go hire, you know, Hollywood writers to write their stuff, and these people are very good at writing scenes and they kind of understand that but they don't understand the process of interactive writing. They don't understand how you kind of turn the whole story inside out when you're doing that. So, what they tend to do is they tend to write cutscenes for you, but they don't really flow together very well. So, you know, it's just...it's just not that interesting.

GK: You've probably seen how there's all this now college curriculum around gaming because, you know, there's a lot of money in the business and people want to get into it in a more formal way. Do you have high hopes for that stuff, or do you think they're not teaching practical material there?

RG: I do have high hopes for that. I think that kind of stuff is absolutely critical to this business. You need to have really good curriculum, much like film school that people can go to. They can produce interesting things. They can learn the craftsmanship. They can learn the creative piece of the business and be able to come out and do stuff. I think it's absolutely critical. I really support that stuff. But I don't know that they're doing all the right things yet. I mean, it's so very, very early, you know, a lot of it...they're still attached to the computer science programs.

GK: Right. Right.

RG: You know, they need to get divorced from that. I mean, this--the game design stuff needs to be in the same groups that are doing the theatre and the writing and the film making. It is not computer science.

GK: Maybe much like with what you talked about where, you know, it's going to take some blockbuster kind of Indie game from a spin-off brand. Maybe all it takes is some relatively well known game designer emerging out of a college curriculum like that to set it ablaze.

RG: Yes, I know. I think that's true. I mean, film schools have been around for a long time, and you suddenly started to get these people, these...George Lucas came out of film school and Scorsese and all these people. That's when you kind of started to really realize, "Oh, the film school." It's not a trade school, and I think we need to have that happen at some point in our future.

GK: Right. So, these days you're working on the game project you mentioned...is that taking up most of your time?

RG: You know, it doesn't take up a lot of time. A lot of it is just calling up publishers and trying to make contacts and talking to people and trying to push the idea through, which is a pretty uphill battle for what I'm trying to do, since it's not...doesn't really fit into that mainstream game mold. I've been doing some work with casual games, which is also a very interesting alley off the mainstream game development stuff. That's very, very, very fascinating. It's interesting to work on games that are very small teams again, where it's just, you know, one programmer and a couple of artists or a couple of programmers. I think that stuff is interesting.

The casual games business, from a business standpoint, is also very fascinating to see how that's all evolving, and is that going to go anywhere beyond, you know, just kind of these soccer mom games? Is that going to somehow come around and merge with the hard-core gaming or, you know, even better, is it going to create this whole different type of gamer out there? That stuff is interesting to see.

GK: Yes, Microsoft was talking about that Xbox Live Anywhere stuff where you might have all this stuff interacting one day where you've got your kind of lighter, portable version of your game on your handset and then your progress transfers over to your console--stuff like that.

RG: Right.

Listen to the podcast for the complete interview!

Agree or disagree with Ron's views? Got comments or feedback about the format of Designer Threads? Suggestions for future guests? Let us know!

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Discussion

129 comments
AdMordem
AdMordem

I really do wanna see the games indusrtry hit the multitiered system Ron cites that music and film are in.... bravo to MS for getting on to the idiots devleopment kit for the 360

wytefang
wytefang

Love Ron but tired of hearing all the doom and gloom. I doubt we're looking at any kind of industry 'crash' any time soon, if ever. There are tons of great games coming out all the time, especially on the PC at least, if nowhere else.

dee_nicki
dee_nicki

Yeah, Ron's pretty much the bomb. He's right to complain about the state of the gaming industry, I've lost interest myself in the last couple years. MI4Life!

cann0n2o
cann0n2o

Can we have more of these!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Humorguy_basic
Humorguy_basic

I'm with Gilbert. But I don't think EA or anybody will do the third and fourth tiers needed, so I do think the market will collapse, and I think that will be in the 2007/8 season, so we are practically there.

SoulSlayer_
SoulSlayer_

I was hoping this would be a regular thing... Guess not?

LucasJodoKast
LucasJodoKast

i first played Monkey Island 1 on my Amiga 500 when i was about 8 i got all 4 on PC now days and they are by far the best games ever, thank you Ron for Moneky Island its a true masterpeice PS my sis and me still load up the older ones every now and again and its still so funny

LucasJodoKast
LucasJodoKast

i first played Monkey Island 1 on my Amiga 500 when i was about 8 i got all 4 on PC now days and they are by far the best games ever, thank you Ron for Moneky Island its a true masterpeice PS my sis and me still load up the older ones every now and again and its still so funny

zmaster200x
zmaster200x

i love this stuff.. i want more... sam houser, tim schafer, sid meier, will wright, al lowe, gary brubaker, sean clark.. these all would be fantastic to listen to i think.. or at least i would like listening to their views...

Alphabat
Alphabat

I had a good time listening to that interesting and intelligent conversation. I hope gamespot continues to do these in the future!

Nigredo666
Nigredo666

Great feature. A++ would do business again!!!!!1111

ecklof
ecklof

Great job, Keep up the great work!

soadnick947
soadnick947

Totally awesome podcast!!! PLEASE keep them going!!! :D

norabbitnofun
norabbitnofun

I very much agree with the tendency in the gaming industry to flash the eye and forget about the experience. Plus I am a great believer that new-gen consoles could only rock and boast about being taking you deep into near-reality worlds if they had as an interface... not a control pad - no way! So yep - enjoyed listening to this, it brings so much more humanity to the bits & octets & megabytes of programs that are the games out there! When is the next one coming out?

SundarOct131088
SundarOct131088

Nice interview. I'm surprised he didn't talk about GTA games having well written storylines, dialogues and some interesting humor.

vectorcorpsys
vectorcorpsys

I think it was an amazing podcast about games. Pay that Greg Kasavin more money! The interview was cool.

Auricom_Pilot
Auricom_Pilot

I'd just like to chime in and say that I really enjoyed the podcast. Greg did a good job asking some intelligent and interesting questions, and it was great listening to Ron's comments on the game industry in general. Put that sound studio to use and make me some more!

K1LLSWITCH
K1LLSWITCH

I'm sorry, but that was one boring podcast.

wiljas
wiljas

I only read the inteview so I am sure I missed some things. But I agree that alot of current games are not written well. The storys don't always flow togeather like they should, and alot of these story writers put you in cut scenes to push along the story. they need to put it into more of a gameplay situation. the GTA series is one of these that had so much potential but sometimes lacked in the story. especially with the most recent San Andreas. I was not interested in the story at all. I would like to see more of a proper storyline and cohearant dialog. not something thrown in to lead you to the next cut scene.

vidextreme
vidextreme

Well said Mr Gilbert. I wish though, he can be part of another MI instalment. He's right about current games designed to be just like techdemos and not really games developed to last. Its very similar to movies nowadays. Yeah, movies/games have spectacular special FX, but when you sum it all up, its just an empty story destined to be forgotten in a few months. And yes, its different now a days. because now a days, its all about the money, no more passion and art in it.

comthitnuong
comthitnuong

this is a pretty good idea with the podcast stuff

Liquid-86
Liquid-86

I hope that independent games find a way to get out there to peoples houses, whether it be internet or aliens. “Reservoir Dogs” was an independent film yet its one of the best of the 90s. So independent games need to find an outlet that will allows them to swim to the top of the big deep ocean of games and not be drowned by the pockets of companies that only care about making money. Someone needs to stand up and say “Screw profit, lets take a risk”

gabi67
gabi67

I just want to thank Ron Gilbert for making the Monkey Island series. Thank you very much Ron! Im glad to hear you're interview,and i agree with what you said about games nowadays. Maybe you could do something about that. Monkey Island V?!

kmwamala
kmwamala

Another job well done, successful interview.

suprsolider
suprsolider

megamike15 megamike15 I started monkey island with 3. I want to play 1 and 2 but can't find them. --- Then you obviously didn't look hard enough. They aren't hard to find at all. Check adandonware sites, you'll find them and the old Sierra games. That is how I got my copies

dokzero5
dokzero5

Great Podcasts with interessting content. Good atmosphere. Keep them coming :)

Artemis_D
Artemis_D

Mr. Gilbert is my new hero. I agree 100% with everything he had to say. For a long time, I thought I was the only sensible gamer on the planet, but I'm completely relieved to find out that I'm not the only one that feels the way I do about the current state of the gaming industry. Bless you, Ron Gilbert. We need more people like him in the industry.

imapetert
imapetert

A lot of comments here, so I dunno if this will be read... I just want to say, excellent feature here! I really enjoyed listening to this and I look forward to the next installment. I have now subscribed to the pod cast via iTunes. Good job Greg!

irishrpgfan
irishrpgfan

That was wonderful. Greg is really good at interviewing; I sat and listened to it hoping it was longer. As was already said, I thought the volume was a little low. I had my headphones up to full volume, and I pushing them against my ears to hear it at a decent volume. As was also already said, you should try to get Roberta Williams to appear. I'd love to hear about what she thinks about The Silver Lining and the VGA remakes of some of her early King's Quest games.

Zygfryd
Zygfryd

Ron is a great guy and all, but he should reveal "the secret" already. It's been over a decade, for crying out loud! Besides... let' s face it - he won't do another MI game.

weemies
weemies

Absolutely fantastic podcast. It's great to hear such articulated, reasonable thoughts about the gaming industry, and it's current sorry state. I only knew Ron Gilbert as the name behind the first two Monkey Island games, which were excellent, but now after hearing this podcast I love this guy.

vaejas
vaejas

Features AND the web graphics just keep getting better. ;)

Morningstar79
Morningstar79

Nicely done! Love the fact that you have an in-depth discussion and not just focus on the newest game(s). Also Monkey Island RULES!

strangelove47
strangelove47

That was a great interview - kudos to Gamespot. Ron's Monkey Island 3 is now my most wanted game. I wonder if it will see the light of day?

ulrikz
ulrikz

Nice and awesome podcast, hope this will be a returning feature :)

Lovegreen
Lovegreen

I'm SO subscribing to this :-)

ThieveryCo
ThieveryCo

Really good interview... keep on posting this feature...

cheung31
cheung31

GameSpot, great stuff with this new feature. Possibly compress it on a lower birtrate and frequency next time, as it is only a voice interview. The file is pretty large for an interview. Can't wait for more!! Love listening to what the creators of these fabulous games we love, have to say. When Ron discusses how gaming will soon be fixated on just the hardcore, I tend to disagree. Just take a look at what Nintendo's doing with the Wiimote. They are definitely taking the challenge of making for a more intuitive and interactive control scheme instead. of L1,2,3, 2 analogs, abxy etc etc.

Darkkain
Darkkain

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

Darkkain
Darkkain

WOW! Seriously. I am so impressed by this idea. I am going to tell my friends at work about this feature. You really hit it on what your subscribers are looking for from Gamespot. Please keep delivering more innovative content like this. Thank you.

Darkkain
Darkkain

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

aniljoy
aniljoy

Amazing piece of info.I never knew this much about the gaming industry.U duys should try and put out more interviews!!!!!

cosmic315
cosmic315

What is the name of the game on the first page last picture?

carbogo
carbogo

Greg you hit everything I could have hoped for.... Thanks