Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude Designer Diary #1

Design director Tom Smith discusses how basketball, Mad Libs, and other sources helped inspire the development team at High Voltage Software.


Graphical adventure games traditionally place you in a colorful world in which you must solve puzzles to advance the story and eventually complete the game. Sierra's Leisure Suit Larry series took this idea but made it much, much bawdier. Publisher Vivendi Universal Games and developer High Voltage Software are now working on the next Leisure Suit Larry game for the PC and consoles. In this designer diary, High Voltage design director Tom Smith discusses the creative process.

New Larry, New Game

By Tom Smith
Design Director, High Voltage Software

Larry gains confidence by impressing people on campus.
Larry gains confidence by impressing people on campus.

It's every red-blooded American game designer's dream to come up with a design for a Leisure Suit Larry game. Not only is it a classic game that is ripe for a comeback, considering Larry's ribald roots, but it's also a great excuse to surf the Internet for "source material," which I did. But a few days later, I realized I should probably write something, too.

It may come as a bit of a surprise to hear that the original idea for the new Leisure Suit Larry was pretty much a knockoff of The Sims. You would buy stuff, build relationships with other characters using simple menu choices, and take little jobs to earn more money--all done with a low-class, cheesy style to make fun of the nice posh pads people tend to build in The Sims. You would buy couches that smell like beer from the local fraternity, decorate with '70s disco equipment, and head to the Good Hard Luck casino. Oh, and there was a full create-a-character instead of a Larry, with Larry Laffer showing up occasionally as a support character. Weird, huh?

Somehow, the folks from Sierra were interested in this. They paid High Voltage big bucks for a few months of initial development. And by big bucks I mean more than two pizzas' worth. As we started working on a playable prototype, we realized that this early version of the game wasn't worth it. The Sims is fun, but it's not Larry. The most important thing to a Larry game is the funny. Sure, we could do little silly things with different locations and environments, but the really funny would have to come from compelling characters and situations and finely honed dialogue. We wanted more jokes. The game we started with had some of this, but it wasn't the focus. We wanted to focus on the funniest part and build everything from there.

But how do you do a game about jokes? While hitting on chicks? That's not remotely like shooting people, so the game industry doesn't give us lots of examples to borrow from. We really wanted to make the funny parts central to the gameplay. We'd seen plenty of games where you play a little bit of game, then watch a funny cutscene, and then play some more not-funny game. We wanted the fun and the funny to be all mushed together. The closest thing we could think of was the conversation options you see in some role-playing games. Picking an option from a dialog tree does give some feeling of control, but it's not fun. We wanted more.

Steering the conversation the right way will boost Larry's confidence.
Steering the conversation the right way will boost Larry's confidence.

Inspiration often comes from weird sources. In this case, it was Mad Libs, the PlayStation game PaRappa the Rapper, and basketball games. Thinking about Mad Libs made us realize that it could be really funny to have Larry say things based on player input, substituting words or phrases with random things if the player did something wrong. Our work on the console game NBA Inside Drive gave us the technology to mix different sound files together and make them sound smooth. And PaRappa gave us an idea for how to control this newfangled conversation game. So we got to prototyping that.

A hastily written script, an even hastier voice recording session, and a few weeks of hasty programming later, we had a working version of our great new idea. And it stank. It didn't sound good--whenever we substituted in a word, it would make a clear jump. It didn't play well--Simon Says didn't give enough of a feeling of control. And it didn't make sense--using random substitution meant that some phrases would come out totally garbled and meaningless. But even with all these problems, there was enough potential there to make us want to keep trying.

Grand Theft Larry

So we locked the project leads up in a room and didn't let them out until they came up with a solution. After lots of back-and-forth brainstorming, we decided that the real problems were just control and writing. If we wrote each line so the substitutions would occur at natural break points when the speaker paused, it would sound fine. And if we wrote three options for each line instead of substituting individual words, we could make sure each one made sense. And we trashed the whole rhythm game thing and started over with a steering control. The player guides a little icon through a linear progression of other icons--some good, some bad. This gave the player something concrete to do and allowed us to fill dead time with obstacles to avoid, which can produce humorous results. Using the framework we'd already set up, we were able to prototype this version quickly, and we saw that it was good. Whew.

In this minigame, Larry hands out fliers to his fellow students.
In this minigame, Larry hands out fliers to his fellow students.

While we were working on the conversation prototype, we were also thinking through the rest of the game. And we quickly realized that we didn't really want a clone of The Sims. Creating your own character is good for some games, but Larry games are really about Larry. Early in our predesign phase, we decided to ditch the create-a-character and stick with Larry as the main character. Meanwhile, we were also thinking through exactly how to fill 30 or so hours with buying stuff and picking simple options from preset lists. The best parts of The Sims were the parts that we didn't really want to do--complex social simulations, insanely diverse and flexible object interactions, and giving the player absolute godlike control of everything--not only because these things are really hard, but also because they're not very funny, and not very Larry. The stuff that makes The Sims fun would not make Larry fun.

So if we weren't going to do The Sims, what were we going to do? We knew we wanted this funky new conversation thing, but we also knew that it alone would not make a complete game. And we knew we wanted Larry to be able to wander around a dynamic world full of hot chicks, but even this needed some central activity for the player to do. We needed more.

Starting fresh, we went back to the source--Larry. What would Larry do? We knew hitting on chicks was key, but how does the player succeed or fail at doing this? We brainstormed cool things to do as Larry--playing quarters, bouncing on a trampoline, playing casino card games, getting chased by jealous rivals, and so on. No one activity stood out as robust enough to build a whole game around, but as we talked about it, we realized that each of these activities is simple enough that we could include a whole bunch of them in the game and not totally wreck our schedule.

And thus, Magna Cum Laude was born--a game based on wandering around a world filled to the brim with cool stuff, and playing a variety of different minigames (the conversation game especially) to get the attention of the ladies. Somewhere along the line, we also switched to Larry's nephew and came up with the whole college thing. But this here "diary" thing is already running long, so I won't go into details on how we got those. Just trust that lots of clever things happened, and lots of surfing the Internet for "source material" was involved.

Uma is the host of Swingles, the reality dating show on campus.
Uma is the host of Swingles, the reality dating show on campus.

I know this thing is running long, but I have to tell the story of the greatest meeting ever. Very early on, we knew that one of the biggest questions on this project was just how much we could get away with--we weren't sure how much naughty stuff Sierra would allow. So one of our first meetings with Sierra was specifically set up to determine the limits of offensiveness for this game.

To prepare, I got to write up a 10-page document listing every potentially offensive thing we could think of. The document included everything from different kinds of nudity to obscene gestures, among other things. Here's an actual conversation among our designers: Designer 1: "What if a girl wants a cigarette?" Designer 2: "I don't want to show smoking in the game." Designer 3: "What if it's marijuana instead?" Designer 2: "Oh. That's different." We expected chaos and uproar from this, but thankfully, Sierra surprised us by being as perverted as we are. They agreed to everything we could think of, and more. In fact, based on what we have right now, I'm quite positive this will be the most offensive game ever. What red-blooded American game designer wouldn't be proud of that?

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