Building Maniac Mansion

GDC 2011: Ron Gilbert recaps development on his original adventure gaming classic, from microwavable hamsters to architectural inspiration.


Who was there: Double Fine Productions' Ron Gilbert, designer of LucasArts' classic 1987 adventure game Maniac Mansion, was at GDC to deliver one in a series of classic game postmortems.

What they talked about: Gilbert said he started working on the game just about 25 years ago and cautioned the crowd that he would be ranting about how much better things were back in the day, when developers had pixels the size of one's head and liked it that way.

Gilbert didn't realize at first how tough it would be to have seven playable characters.
Gilbert didn't realize at first how tough it would be to have seven playable characters.

Gilbert acknowledged that Maniac Mansion has become a cult hit of sorts and showed off some of the fan creations that serve as testament to its popularity, from 256-color and full 3D remakes of the game to Purple Tentacle cosplay, needlepoint, and all manner of creative tributes. Gilbert said the game is one of his favorites as well, but not because it's great. He loves it because it's flawed, and it's those flaws that appeal to him.

At the time, Lucasfilm Games (the predecessor to LucasArts) had just moved up to George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch, which served as a sort of template for the mansion in Maniac Mansion. The Skywalker Ranch house had many of the same features seen in the game, from spiral staircases to a media room with a big-screen TV.

Originally, the characters in Maniac Mansion were intended to be children, Gilbert said, but there was concern that it would skew the game's audience too young. At the outset, it wasn't even an adventure game, Gilbert said. The developers had a lot of fun ideas and concept art but no clue as to what the gameplay was going to be. It wasn't until Gilbert saw his eight-year-old cousin play Sierra's adventure game King's Quest that Maniac Mansion fell into place.

"It was this 'eureka' moment where everything made sense," Gilbert said. "It all fell into place."

Gilbert loved the game, but he hated the text parser. The game made players type in what they wanted to do, which often wound up devolving into a guessing game as to what the designer wanted the player to do. If a player had to pick up a bush on the screen, Gilbert said it was infuriating trying to find the right combination of verbs and synonyms to achieve the desired result. Gilbert thought he should just be able to use the mouse and click on the object he wanted to interact with. And since there were relatively few actions to complete, he may as well include the verbs on the screen as well. To help facilitate that, he created the SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) Engine, which evolved into an iconic staple of LucasArts adventure games, powering hits like The Secret of Monkey Island, Sam & Max Hit the Road, and Full Throttle.

One of the defining characteristics of the game was its cast of seven different characters. Players would pick a group of three, each with their own skill sets and abilities to solve different puzzles in different ways. It was a brilliant idea he wound up regretting, as the game quickly grew absurdly complex. The developers had a gigantic flow chart map with transparent overlays that laid out which characters could solve which puzzles in which ways. The team was so proud of the map that it made it into the game and can be seen on the wall in Weird Ed's bedroom. That map was especially important, as there was no proper design document for Maniac Mansion, Gilbert said.

In addition to the logistical problems with the game's design, there were technical hurdles. Even something as simple as scrolling a game screen to depict an entire room was a daunting task for the memory-strapped computers of the time. Gilbert said he literally spent months working with assembly language trying to get a screen to scroll, something that he could just do instantly in PowerPoint today.

Originally, the game opening featured one character telling another, "Don't be a ****head!" Gilbert's boss said Lucasfilm Games didn't swear and told him to change it unless he could come up with a good reason to swear. He thought long and hard about it and decided swearing was a bit juvenile and didn't add much, so he may as well comply with the request and make something bizarre instead. The result was the insult, "Don't be a tuna head," which wound up becoming a defining reference point for the game.

Gilbert also talked about the game's scene with the hamster in the microwave and stressed that the gag was put into the game in just a few minutes, thanks to the SCUMM engine. It helped make the game development process almost improvisational. Unfortunately, that led to a lot of dead ends. If players misused items or did things out of order, the game became unwinnable. It was so easy to set things up in SCUMM that the developers weren't trying to be cruel and vindictive to the players; they just didn't realize the consequences of their tinkering. Fortunately, that was considered an acceptable gameplay mechanic in adventure games of the time, so there was little outcry over the dead ends.

The NES version of Maniac Mansion underwent a few changes at Nintendo's request.
The NES version of Maniac Mansion underwent a few changes at Nintendo's request.

Even the game's packaging caused headaches for Gilbert. He said Toys R Us was originally the largest retailer of the game, but it pulled the title off shelves when a customer complained of offensive content. However, it wasn't the microwavable hamster or any of the other content in the game that drew the complaint. The complaint was about having the word "lust" on the back of the box in a long list describing what the game's story was about.

Content was more problematic for the NES port, with Nintendo forcing Gilbert to remove things like "nudity" (the poster of a fully wrapped mummy reclining in a sexy pose). However, Gilbert's favorite edit was in the game's credits, which included attribution for the programmers of the "NES SCUMM Engine." Nintendo was upset at their system apparently being referred to as scum, so the phrasing was changed. Oddly enough, Gilbert noted, Nintendo didn't have a problem with the hamster in the microwave.

In the audience Q&A session, Gilbert talked a bit about the Lucasfilm Games mandate as delivered by Lucas himself: Stay small. Be the best. Don't lose any money. That gave the team a healthy degree of freedom to do what they wanted, Gilbert said. However, one of the things they wanted to do was impossible. Lucasfilm had sold the rights to Star Wars games to other companies, so Gilbert couldn't create titles in the iconic sci-fi universe, though he said he would have loved to.

As for the future of the adventure game genre, Gilbert pointed to Limbo, saying there are a lot of brilliant things to take from it. He also talked about advances in adventure games over the years, noting that the variety of verbs has essentially boiled down from a dozen in Maniac Mansion (Gilbert said he originally wanted about 40) to roughly one in modern games: "Use." That could easily have been done with Maniac Mansion, he said, but people would have screamed bloody murder about it. Simplifying and streamlining is important, Gilbert said, but it needs to be gradual or people will reject it.

Quote: "In short, this was a complete cluster****."--Gilbert, on the complexity of multiple endings with the seven different characters.

"I'm sorry."--Gilbert, to an audience member who cited the developer as his inspiration for getting into the game industry.

"You're making me feel bad."--Gilbert, when the next audience member said the same thing.

Takeaway: Gilbert put the moral of the story in his conclusion, saying, "If there's anything to take away from this talk, it's that we had no idea what we were doing. And that's an important lesson. Sometimes it's important to just be too stupid to know that it can't be done."

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