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The Broomcloset Interviews Mark Crowe

Without a doubt, designer Mark Crowe's name is synonymous with Sierra's classic Space Quest series. As half of the legendary Two Guys from Andromeda design team with Scott Murphy, Mark was responsible for co-creating the series and guiding interstellar sanitation engineer Roger Wilco through his first four adventures. Mark later moved to Sierra's Dynamix division to continue the series with Space Quest 5, as well as designing such games as Metaltech: Earthsiege. Mark is currently at Pipeworks Software, working on a new game for Microsoft's upcoming Xbox console. The Virtual Broomcloset recently had a chance to speak with Mark on a variety of topics ranging from the Space Quest series to the present state of adventure gaming. Here's what the Guy from Andromeda had to say...

Mark Crowe
Mark Crowe,
Guy from Andromeda
    Decaffeinated Jedi: First things first: what are you up to these days? Are you still involved in the gaming industry?

    Mark Crowe: Yes, I am. I'm working with a talented bunch of young turks at a new startup called Pipeworks Software here in Eugene, Oregon. You may have heard of us, we're the house that developed the Xbox demos for its unveiling last year. Check us out!

    I'm currently designing a game for the much anticipated Xbox. Unfortunately, I can't say what it is, but all will be revealed in good time. And, no, it's not a "Wacky Space Adventure." But, it's very exciting to be developing for a new platform.

    Jess: Delving back into the past, what cosmic twists of fate originally landed you on Sierra's doorstep? How did you come to team up with fellow Guy from Andromeda Scott Murphy?

    Mark: Well, for that, I'll have to fire up the Wayback Machine. Sherman! Set the dial to 1982!

    Zzzt! Zzt! Zzt! Whrrrrrr!

    Ah! There I am, slogging away as a graphic artist at a product label printing company in Fresno California. My wife's parents (who were living in Oakhurst) had read an article in the local paper about a computer software company called Sierra On-line Systems which had set up shop in town. My wife and I dreamed of someday being able to live in the mountains. So, I took a chance and contacted them to see if they were in need of graphic artists. And, as it turned out, they were! To make a long story short. I "wowed 'em" with my portfolio and was hired the next day. Remember, this was the Apple II days, folks. I had never even seen a computer before. This was a brave new world for your humble Andromedan. It was two years later that I made the transition from simple graphic artist to computer graphic artist.

    My first game projects were working with Roberta Williams and Al Lowe in creating backgrounds for two Disney adventures: Mickey in Space and Winnie the Pooh. Then, I moved on to Art Director for The Black Cauldron. It was very excting for me as an artist and animation buff to be working so closely with Disney. It was while working on the Black Cauldron that I started thinking about creating my own game. But, I knew I couldn't do it alone. That's when I approached Scott. He was an up-and-coming programmer who was already thinking along similar lines. We both were big sci-fi fans with a twisted sense of humor. (Ok, Scott's brain stem had a couple more twists in it.) Neither of us were into the whole D&D castles and dragons stuff and, up until that time, noone had done a sci-fi graphic adventure game (well, let's not forget Roberta's epic Time Zone).

    We were kind of a covert op until we had something to show Ken. With our visuals and verbal descriptions of the game we sold Ken on the concept. I think the rest is well-rutted Space Quest lore. That's how Scott and I teamed up. It was fate, pure and simple.

Mark from SQ3
In real life, Mark
is less pixelated.
    Jess: What were some of your major influences in creating the Space Quest series?
    Mark: There are the obvious ones--the Star Wars films, 2001, Planet of the Apes, Trek. Hey, they were easy targets for lampoonery (is that a word?) We got away with a lot on the first 2 games before the lawyers started saying "Hey! You can't do that! We'll get sued!" That's when it started not being as much fun (IMO). But, as Ken once so bluntly told us "If you guys don't mind paying lawyers' fees, you can put whatever you want in your game"--'nuff said.

    But back to your question--we drew a lot of inspiration from different sources like Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker's Guide), Gary Larson (Farside), and B.Kliban.

    Jess: Can you describe what a typical day of Two Guys collaboration was like? How would you characterize the division of labor in terms of design?
Day 1

    Scene: Scott and Mark cooped-up together in a small office, brainstorming Roger's next side-splitting predicament (or was that "head-splitting"?)

    Scott (reclined comfortably behind his desk throwing pencils into the acoustical tiles overhead): "So... what should this next game be about?"

    Mark (browses the latest edition of Starlog): "Uh... I dunno! What do you think it should be about?"

    Scott: "I dunno. Let's go get some beer and pizza."

    Fast-forward to...

Day 30

    Scott (reclined comfortably behind his desk--counts the pencil holes in the acoustical tiles overhead): "Any ideas?"

    Mark (conducting research): "Man! This Gary Larson guy is one twisted m---!"

    Scott: "Hey, I got an idea! No, wait... we did that in the last game."

    Mark: "Pizza?"

    Scott: "I'll drive!"

    I think you see where I'm going with this.

    Jess: When did you first realize that you and Scott had something special in Roger Wilco and the Space Quest series?
    Mark: It wasn't until we began receiving letters from SQ fans from all over the world. That's when it really hit home. It was like, "Whoa!" (in my best Keanu Reeves impression). Real people are out there playing our games... AND LIKING THEM. Let's make more! All kidding aside--it was the fan connection that opened our eyes to what we had (and what inspired us to continue).

    I see that look on your face. Am I THAT transparent? Ok, ok...It was ALL ABOUT THE MONEY!! (sob!)

    Warm and Fuzzy Memory Alert! One kid sent me this nifty Space Quest pencil holder that he made in shop class. Said he was going to grow up to become a game designer (they all say that). He's grown now and probably making his own games. I wonder if he needs a personal assistant. I still have the pencil holder. Priceless!

    Jess: Can you share with us any behind-the-scenes, heretofore-unrevealed tidbits of Space Quest trivia?
    Mark: Hmmm! One fond memory that always brings a smile to my face is the studio shoot for the Latex Babes of Estros animations. As I recall, there was an unusual number of volunteer "gaffers" working in the studio that day. I also recall there were many, many takes to get all the animations right. I'm sure you've already heard that story.
    Jess: Through the years, the Space Quest series' habit of attracting lawsuits has become somewhat legendary. Do you recall any gags that supposedly went "over the line" and didn't make it into the games for this reason?
    Mark: The most famous one , of course, was "Droids-R-Us" Toys-R-Us didn't take kindly to that, and, as a result, we had to change it to "Droids-B-Us". Amazingly enough, Lucasfilm never made a stink about the use of "Droids" (or any of the other SW references). I thought that showed real class. Like we were a threat to his business. Bwa! ha! ha! ha!

    Man! I'm really straining here to recall gags that had to be dropped. I'll have to come back to this one.

    OK, I'm back. I do seem to recall that Monolith Burger almost didn't happen. The golden M (which was the whole point of the gag) almost had to be changed for fear of drawing the Wrath of Ronald. (That's Ronald McDonald, to all you happymeal munchers). After a couple of go arounds, we managed to calm legal's fears.

SQ5 Screenshot
Roger wishes that he had
studied harder in SQ5.
    Jess: Beyond the obvious aesthetic and technological differences, what do you see as some of the aspects of Space Quest 5 that make it stand out from the rest of the series?
    Mark: I was never a big Trek fan (I can hear the gasps), so we intentionally stayed clear of satirizing it up to SQ4. When it came time to begin SQ5, the ol' well was getting mighty dry. ST Next Generation had a HUGE following, so it made sense to stick a skewer in it and throw it on the barby. Dave Selle, my assistant designer, was well versed in all things Trekkie. So, I leaned pretty heavily on him for material that the mass Trek audience would appreciate.

    I think the other major departure was the look. I really wanted Roger Wilco to have a more polished, stylized look than we were capable of achieving in the previous games. I felt pretty strongly that if the Space Quest series was to have any legs we would have to step up production quality to match the likes of LucasArts products. That was what we tried to do with it--good or bad. The old days of drawing and painting the backgrounds myself were clearly behind me, and I had to give up a certain amount of control over the art to more talented individuals. Personally, I loved the new look.

    Jess: At the time you were working on Space Quest 5, had you given any general thought to where you might want to take Roger's story in a follow-up sequel? If so, would you be willing to share a little with us?

    Mark: At the time, no. I had pretty much decided that SQ5 would be my last. I was ready to try my hand at developing other types of products which is what I've been doing the last 10 years. But having done that now, I have given considerable thought to reviving SQ or perhaps a new SQ-esque title. Scott and I actually talked about the possibility of teaming up again (about a year ago) as a result of the net campaign to revive SQ. But, unfortunately, we never moved forward with plans to do so. The harsh reality of it is that adventure games aren't where it's at (right now), which makes it a major hard-sell to a publisher. Sad, but true. I do believe that will change, though.

Hey, when's that SQ movie coming out? Somebody out there was writing a script. Oh yeah... it did... Galaxy Quest. I forgot. >o)

    Jess: Were you surprised when you heard that Sierra had decided to cancel the Space Quest 7 project that Scott and Leslie Balfour were developing?
    Mark: Actually, I was surprised when I heard Sierra was even going to do an SQ7. I knew SQ5 and 6 didn't meet sales expectations, and I assumed that would be the end of it based on the declining interest in the genre. But, yes, I was sad to learn that SQ7 got shut down because I knew Scott and Leslie were putting their heart and souls into it.
SQ4 Screenshot
Roger bumps into
an old friend in SQ4.
    Jess: In your expert opinion, what's the best game in the Space Quest series?

    Mark: That's an easy one. I've always considered SQ4 our masterpiece product. It was also the most difficult birth. As Scott would say, "That baby came out sideways!" Scott was unavailable during the inital conceptual stage, so I tackled the story and puzzle conceptual design. The whole Sequel Police/time-travel-through-sequels was a major brain fart that came after several weeks of staring idea-less at a blank storyboard. I thought everyone was going to think I'd completely lost it when I pitched the story idea of Roger time tripping through his own sequels. The ideas flowed after that breakthrough. Once Scott came back onboard, he helped flesh out the story, headed-up the programming, and added his trademark brand of acidic wit to the script--the seasoning. SQ4 was also my first opportunity to work with the multi-talented Josh Mandel. Josh is the GagMaster! Gag as in "joke," not "choke." It would be a kick to colaborate with him on a project someday.

    The stress and long hours toward the end of development contributed to a bout with meningitis that landed me in the hospital and off work for 2 weeks. Meanwhile, Scott manned the helm and kept things rolling along. SQ4 was the first SQ to use painted/scanned backgrounds and video captured animation. It was all ground-breaking stuff for Sierra, and there were many hurdles. The cherry on top was the addition of Gary Owens' narration. I considered it a real privilege to have been able to work with this showbiz legend. Sitting with Mr. Owens in a recording studio, listening to him perform Scott's dialog (and busting up over his lines)--I was in awe! SQ4 is the most memorable of the series (IMO).

    Whew! That's more than you wanted to know. Sorry! I was on a roll. I just wanted to share why SQ4 was so memorable to me.

    Jess: Speaking of favorites, would you care to share your favorite game of all time? Any particular designers of which you're a fan?
    Mark: Favorite game: Half-Life. I'm still impressed with how Valve introduced the movie-like storyline into an action shooter. It inspires me today.

    Favorite Designers: Ron Gilbert--my kids love everything that comes out of Humongous. Tim Schafer--Grim Fandango is a amazingly original and beautifully executed game. I'm even more impressed that Tim was even able to get the concept green-lighted.

    Jess: In recent years, numerous sources have reported the "death" of the adventure gaming genre. Do you agree with this prognosis? What will it take to bring adventure games back to their prior stature in the industry?
    Mark: We're already seeing the re-emergence of adventure gaming in a 3D format. But it's still a shoot-'em-up world out there. I think people are slowly tiring of it though and will demand more substance, plot, and nonviolent alternatives. I can even see the return of the parser based adventure game. Perhaps in voice-recognition form. Heck, it's probably already here, and I just don't know about it yet.
    Jess: Now, tell the truth: do you ever get the urge to give the old pig snout and mohawk one more go-around?
    Mark: My snout is always rolling around in the dark recesses of my desk drawer. No, I don't wear it (mainly cuz it stinks), but I always laugh when I stumble across it while rummaging for a paperclip. If you meant, do I get the urge to suit-up as a "guy from Andromeda" and spin a new adventure for Roger Wilco? Sure! But then I always come to my senses. (Ha!)
    Jess: Thank you very much for your time! Any parting words for the legions of SQ fans out there?
    Mark: Thank you, Jess! It's amazing to me that anyone even cares about these silly games that Scott and I created. I'd like to take this opportunity to say a huge "Thanks!" to all of you who played our games and hold fond memories of the experience. I know we've let you down by not resurrecting Space Quest, and for that I'm truly sorry. But, please know that a Space Quest ember still glows. And, by Grabthar's hammer, I will avenge... uh, sorry! Wrong Quest.

Mark Crowe's Signature

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Roger Wilco and related materials are © Sierra On-Line.
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