I mean, if we weren’t already massive fans of LucasArts we definitely would be now! The legend that is Noah Falstein joined Adrian for a quick Q&A and it’s certainly an eye-opener! Enough said, now enjoy…
**And once you’re done here, why not check out our April podcast where Adrian waxes lyrical about the amazing Fate of Atlantis**
Noah, thank you for giving us the opportunity to pick your brain! Your career is long and distinguished but how did you enter the video game industry in the first place and what was your first game you ever worked on?
I’ll have to start with my education as it was critical to both those questions. I went to Hampshire College from 1975 to Jan 1980 (including a semester off, getting practical experience in professional programming). Hampshire was – and still is – an experimental college and let me work on computer games as a way of both learning to code and showing off my growing knowledge of physics and astronomy (fields I thought I would focus on when I began there). My big senior project was a game about mining the Asteroid Belt, called Koronis Strike. It used a video terminal that was new to the college in 1978 – they only had one, the other terminals all printed out on paper, and were connected by acoustical modems to a computer at UMass Amherst, about 10 miles up the road.
One of my teachers had been working the previous summer at Milton Bradley, and when I graduated he suggested I apply there. Their success with Simon (an early electronic game that is still being sold today) prompted them to build an Advanced Research division, to look into video and computer games, and I began work there a week after my graduation.
So the first games I worked on were my own at college, and in 2.5 years at Milton Bradley I worked on about 10 projects, every one of which were cancelled before publication (the company couldn’t make the transition to digital games). So the first game I worked on that actually was played by the public was Sinistar, an arcade game from Williams Electronics. I was the co-designer and project leader on that, and wrote most of the AI code.
You were one of the earliest members of Lucasfilm Games. What was it like working for this iconic company and how do you look back at your time there?
Overall it was a great experience, on many levels. I got to work with some amazing people, many of whom are still close friends. I spent four years working at Skywalker Ranch, one of the loveliest places I’ve ever seen. I was one of the handful of people cleared to use the observatory George Lucas had built to house a telescope a Star Wars fan, a professional astronomer, had made for him. I got to lead design sessions with both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas on my version of The Dig. And I learned a huge amount about game design and storytelling. There were some low points too, it wasn’t all wonderful, but the good far outweighs the bad.
You worked on numerous Lucasfilm Games and LucasArts titles. What game are you most proud of and why?
I’d like to answer that in a different way – I think one of my biggest contributions to LucasArts was the people I hired there. I brought in Ron Gilbert to do C64 programming for my Koronis Rift game, and he in turn hired some amazing people like Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman. I brought Larry Holland in to help with my PHM Pegasus game, and continued to collaborate with him on our WW2 flight simulator line (Battlehawks 1942, Their Finest Hour, Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe) and Larry also made the X-Wing, Tie Fighter, and other Star Wars games there. And I ran into Brian Moriarty at a lecture and convinced him to come out, and shared an office with him as he made Loom. I think my influence in bringing great people to the company was one of my proudest accomplishments.
Can’t argue with that! Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis was one of my favourite games when growing up. How does it feel that you were the director of one of the world’s most respected adventure titles?
You’d have to ask Hal Barwood! I was a co-designer with Hal, and had a lot of influence on the game, but he was the project leader. Nevertheless, I’m very proud of my work on that game, it was the one people most often remember that I worked on, and was the best selling adventure game the company ever made too. I think it was one of the best crafted games I had the privilege of working on.
What was it like working with Hal and do you think your teamwork was the main driver for the success of Atlantis?
I really enjoyed working with Hal and learned a great deal. His knowledge of film making, writing, and a dozen other subjects is amazingly deep, and I love the way his mind works. We also collaborated years later on an adventure game based on the spy Mata Hari, but did not have a lot of control over how that game was made. I think there were many factors behind the success of Fate of Atlantis, but Hal and I each worked on other Indiana Jones games (I co-led Last Crusade, he led and designed Infernal Machine) and Fate of Atlantis was by a large margin the most successful by both critical and financial measurements, so I think we probably did have a chemistry that worked.
The three pathway system adds a lot of replay to the game. How did this original concept come about and how proud are you that you tried something so original in an adventure title?
I had been a co-project leader on our Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade adventure game with Ron Gilbert and David Fox, and had been instrumental in adding alternate playstyles to that game. When I was working with Hal on FoA, I suggested the multiple pathway idea as a way to broaden the audience, since people liked Indiana Jones for different reasons. We tried to do something fresh in every game we made at LucasArts, and the chance to work on an original Indiana Jones title that came out under the LucasArts brand was a marvelous opportunity and felt like a big responsibility, I’m glad that it was a very successful element of the game. Practically every review (and the reviews were pretty much all very positive) cited it as one of their favorite features.
It surely adds a lot of replayability to an already awesome game. Do you have a personal favourite pathway and if you could go back in time and add in a fourth pathway, what would it be?
The intention wasn’t primarily replayability, although a certain type of player, “the completist” was definitely a target for us – the IQ Point system that I’d come up with earlier was actually as important as the multiple paths for that aspect of the game. Instead, the main idea of the pathways was to make the game adapt to the preferences of the player. When Westwood Studios made their Blade Runner game in 1997, Louis Castle told me Fate of Atlantis had been a major influence for them that way.
I liked all three paths, but am proudest of the Team path because it brought a record number of women players into the game, letting them control Sophia as a character before female lead characters were common in games. I don’t think adding additional paths would have been a good idea, as each new pathway meant that we had to do more work that only a fraction of the players would see, and that was a process of diminishing returns.
The long awaited sequel to Atlantis; Indiana Jones and the Iron Phoenix was cancelled due to pressure from Germany. Can you explain to our readers exactly why the game never saw the light of day and do you have any regrets about this particular game not being released?
I had left LucasArts long before that game was even discussed, much less worked on. I don’t think it was really meant as a sequel, Hal’s “Infernal Machine” game came much closer in that respect.
A number of LucasArts games have been remastered. Do you have any idea whether Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis will receive the special edition treatment and is this something you would like to see happen?
The current Disney owners of Lucasfilm haven’t shown much interest in that, but fans have, and I’d guess that eventually it will happen, the technology to do it keeps getting cheaper and more accessible.
Moving on to something a little different then, what was your exact role when working for 3DO and why do you think the console never achieved the success it deserved?
I was the original production department, all by myself! For my first six months there I reported directly to Trip (Hawkins), the CEO, and tried to figure out what the games would look like. I helped put together some of the original demos for the system and built up the internal team that made several of the launch titles. But the system was never really powerful enough to do what Trip envisioned – his original idea was for a game machine much more like what the first Xbox turned out to be, and his vision for it being made by multiple manufacturers instead of one company making the game console and selling it at a reduced price at first turned out to be a mistake. It was released at a shockingly high price point, and the following year Sony put out the first PlayStation and was able to both undercut and outperform the 3DO. I think if Trip had taken a more conventional approach and been able to make the console cheaper (and make it up by getting a cut of all the software as Sony, Microsoft, Sega and Nintendo did) it would have done better.
Fair point! If you could work on a sequel to a previous game you worked on, what would it be and why?
Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe in VR. I’d love to have the chance to crew a B-17 bomber as a multiplayer VR game where you could have different people in the roles of the pilot, gunners, navigator, etc. and still others flying fighters.
Can you explain to our readers how you founded The Inspiracy and how the company works in the video game industry?
It’s my consultancy, primarily a way for me to work on a wide variety of games as a freelance designer/producer. I had thought I might build it into a larger company with other employees, but found out when I was chairman of the IGDA for one year in 1997 that I really don’t like being responsible for other peoples’ paychecks.
Are there any games you started work on but never managed to release, and if so, which one do you believe would have been a big success?
I’ve worked on many games that were never released. One game that I’m confident would have been successful was King of the Hill, an Atari VCS (2600) game that I designed and got about halfway through programming while at Milton Bradley. If we’d released it, it would have been one of the first half-dozen games released for the VCS by a company other than Atari (in 1981), and virtually ALL of the games released in that time were very successful. It was a 4-player game using the game paddles, inspired by the Atari game Warlords. The theme was 4 kids fighting to be on top of a hill using snowballs to knock each other off. Even now looking back I think it was a sound design, and I’m pretty critical about my early work. Milton Bradley decided not to publish VCS games, as I heard it because they were worried that the Atari console was a fad about to burn out.
I also had a proposal in for a SCUMM game at LucasArts called The Star Cage that I think would have been a fun one, it was tabled so I could work on The Dig, which had some similarities.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m currently on the advisory board for Akili Interactive Labs, and consulting for them on their games. They have recently completed a large, multi-center, randomized controlled study that showed their ADHD game is as effective as treatment and are trying for full FDA clearance to be able to prescribe the game on the same grounds as pharmaceuticals. I’m also working on some other health game projects.
We’ve really enjoyed having you here Noah but one final question before you shoot off, if you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?
I’d probably just hang out at The Scumm Bar on Melee Island and see who dropped by. But I wouldn’t drink the Grog they serve, have you heard about the ingredients in that stuff?