Interviews - Jonatan Ackley
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Jonathan Ackley

Jonathan Ackley together with his wife Casey Ackley

Let's start with the most common question: Did you always wanted to become a game designer or did you want to become something different?

Funny story, actually. My parents hated computer games. Really, really hated them. But they wanted to get me a computer because they knew computer skills were going to be useful someday. So they made me promise that if they bought me a computer, I could only play games I wrote myself. So I wrote hundreds of games in BASIC on my ATARI 400 and 1200XL.

I, of course, was the only person who would ever play those games, so I didn't think it would be something I could make a living at. So when I went to college at UC Santa Cruz, I decided to major in theater arts/film production. That's why it's been quite natural for me to be making cinematic adventure games.

(Actually the first computer my parents got me was a Timex Sinclair with powerful 1k memory, a chicklet keyboard and a 5k memory expander module that didn't sit properly in the back slot of the computer. That was returned the same day.)

What was the very first game you ever played?

Pong, probably. All those old arcade games. On my computer, the first game I ever played was the old text game "Adventure" and then "The Count" by designer Scott Adams, one of my real heroes.

What are your favorite games besides Monkey Island?

Gotta say "Heroes of Might and Magic II." I love that game. Norm Koger's "Age of Rifles" is a lot of fun. I think "TIE FIGHTER" is brilliant as well.

How did you end up at LucasArts?

After graduating college I went to Los Angeles to make films. The first film I worked on was a really wretched low-budget film starring Eric Estrada. (He has the whitest teeth I've ever seen in my life!) I was about to rent an apartment down there when I heard about an entry level job at ILM. I thought, maybe I'd get into film through the special effects route. I wound up organizing tape libraries and doing a tiny bit of rotoscoping. From there I got a job working with Casey at the old LucasArts Learning division where I gathered images from museums for a CD-ROM they were doing. They were behind in the programming and asked me if I could help out. After that I was brought over to LucasArts Games to help finish up "Day of the Tentacle." That's the whole sordid story.

How is it to work with 'creative masterminds' like Michael Land?

It's great. In terms of music, I don't think the game feels alive until you add it. You work for so long on a game without any music, then when it finally arrives, it gives the game cohesion.

What do you like most about designing games?

Designing is the most fun part of the project. You sit around thinking up jokes and bizarre situations. It's the time of the project when anything is possible.

After the script of a game is finished, what happens next?

People design adventure games in different ways. I think that some of the best ideas come up as you program. You've got to make sure that all your puzzles are designed and the overall plot and characters are in place, but writing the interactive script takes place over the course of making the game.

How do you come up with the endless list of funny jokes in a game?

Write as much as you can and then hire funny programmers who can write along with you.

Do you separate home from work or do many of the ideas come to you when you are at home?

It's important to keep work and home separate. When I'm at home I try not to think about work.

Do ever get tired of a game if you have been working on it for several years?

Yes. Especially in the tuning stage when the changes are so minor. It's important to polish the game until it shines, but it takes forever.

Is it difficult for the music, graphic and programming teams to co-operate?

Any time you have people collaborating on a work of art, people are going to have disagreements. But deep down the team knows that each person is doing his best for the product.

Do you have time to visit fan sites to see what the fans think of your creations?

Yes, I do. Most of the sites are very professional. It's fun to see what people think, good and bad. As Larry Ahern once said to me, "You know you've made it when someone compares a computer game you've made to the American involvement in the Vietnam War."

Have you ever come across a website or a cd that had an illegal copy of a game you made? If so, how did that make you feel?

I never have, but it would probably irk me.

Has it always been your plan to start your own company?

As you get older and more experienced, you want to shoulder more responsibilities. Starting a company is exciting, because you get to set the direction, take the risks and build something that wasn't there before.

What made you decide that now was a good time to start your own company?

Casey and I are still young, and that's the time to take chances.

How did you come up with the name Stargazy Studios?

Casey has a wonderful children's book called "The Mousehole Cat." One of the characters in the book bakes a crazy fish entrée called a "stargazy pie." We thought "Stargazy" was catchy and captured the whimsical feel of the games we want to create.

What is the hardest part of starting a new company?

The hours are long but we're having so much fun it would be hard to complain.

What kind of games will you be making at Stargazy? Any chance you will make another adventure?

We'd like to make games with broad appeal. Games that families and hard-core gamers will love. (Translation for "broad appeal": Games where people don't explode under a hail of machine-gun fire.)

Any games in production that you want to share some about?

Sorry. Nothing we can talk about yet.

Can you tell us anything about the future plans for Stargazy Studios?

Stargazy Studios wants to break new ground by tackling subject matter that hasn't been tried before. We always want to bring a fresh and innovative approach to the design of our games.

Do you think the adventure genre is dying or what is the future for that genre?

Dying implies that it will be gone forever. There was a time when adventure games were the most popular games in the industry. Although that is not the case any longer, there is still a loyal market. They love adventures and can make that genre profitable for the developer who knows how to make them.

What is your favorite scene from the Monkey Island games?

In "The Secret of Monkey Island" I loved the fight scene between Guybrush and Shinetop. In "LeChuck's Revenge" I loved the "Bone-dance" sequence.
In "The Curse of Monkey Island" I like the interactive musical number and any scene with Murray.

What's the secret of CMI's success?

The talent of the team who built it.

Who makes up all the Easter eggs? Were they put in later in the design process or were they already planned in the original script?

Those wily programmers slip in the Easter eggs.

Are there any Easter eggs in CMI that the world doesn't know about? (Perhaps some not mentioned in the official guide.)

Aye! But the treasure be buried deep! Nary a mortal man might find it!

Why did you use wooden nickels instead of pieces o' eight ?

Because pieces o' eight are actually useful.

Why is Guybrush so afraid of porcelain?

Isn't everyone?

Has The Devil Chicken ever hunted your offices...?

Larry and I thought we were being so clever designing a tropical island covered with chickens. Then Casey and I went on vacation to Kauai. Hurricane Iniki had blown through and destroyed all the chicken coops, so the island was covered with feral chickens. Apparently nature has a sense of humor.

Anything else you would like to say?

Thanks for the all the good questions.

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