Josh Mandel

Posted by Philip Jong.
First posted on 24 April 2006. Last updated on 13 December 2009.
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Josh Mandel
Josh Mandel, "The Third Guy From Andromeda", is a multitalented and vocal game designer.
Josh Mandel
Josh Mandel
Josh Mandel

For more information, visit Home Page #117: The Mandels.

To adventure game fans, Josh Mandel is more than just an accomplished actor, comedian, and author who has a passion for fine culinary cuisine. He is also the designer and writer of such classic adventure games as Space Quest, Callahan's Crosstime Saloon, and Freddy Pharkas, Frontier Pharmacist. He has been called "The Third Guy From Andromeda" for his work in Space Quest and has worked in numerous other games projects from developers such as Sierra On-Line and Legend Entertainment. Born in 1958, Mandel has had a remarkable but controversial career in the game industry and continues to be an active voice in the gaming community. Today, he is enjoying a family life with wife Laura since 2001 and daughter Natalie since 2005. We are privileged to have this exclusive interview with the multitalented and vocal game designer. In the interview, Mandel speaks of his past with Sierra On-Line, his work on Space Quest, his experience with other developers and publishers, his current view of adventure games, and what holds for him in the future.

Check out our exclusive new photos of Mandel!

Before you joined Sierra On-Line in 1990, you worked as an actor and a comedian. How satisfied were you with your career up to that time? What gaming, programming, and designing experiences did you have prior to joining Sierra On-Line?

My partner and I had largely stopped touring and performing about four years before I went to Sierra. I still did a fair amount of acting nights and weekends, but to keep a roof over my head, for my "day job," I went into advertising.

From a career and financial standpoint, advertising was very good to me. I racked up a lot of awards, but then again, in advertising, they give you awards for wiping your nose on paper and calling it a script. It's their way of making themselves feel better about what they do. But I rarely got any sense of accomplishment out of the work. When advertising is used to communicate real news about a service or product, it may actually be doing good for people. But today's advertising is increasingly "image advertising," which is what clients use when they don't have anything of substance to say about their product. It's pure deception. I kicked myself every time I had to contribute to that noise. The chance to be able to work on games – which I saw as a far more worthwhile endeavor than most advertising – was too big an opportunity to pass up.

Prior to being hired by Sierra, I'd been writing game articles, reviews and walkthrus for years, mostly for CompuServe's "The Electronic Gamer" online magazine (where I was a SysOp in the Gamers and Game Vendor forums), for Videogames & Computer Entertainment, which was the closest thing to a thinking person's videogame magazine, and for Re:Quests, MENSA's roleplaying game magazine. On the basis of the reviews, both Sierra and Infocom allowed me to be a betatester, and that, I think, is what led Sierra to offer me a job.

It was a chance encounter that you met Ken Williams who subsequently recruited you. What was the circumstance that led to your decision to join the company full time? You had previously worked part time for Sierra On-Line as a beta tester, but what surprised you most about the company and your coworkers when you started working there full time?

Well, he didn't actually recruit me for the company. That was Guruka Singh Khalsa, who, for years, was Sierra's sole Producer. (As it turns out, through an astonishing "small world" story, Guruka and I had actually met, and our fathers had been friends, when he was a teenager and I was a little kid. Neither of us remembered the other from that at all – but that's another story.) I'd met Guruka on the Gamers Forum on CompuServe, and he's the one I'd asked about betatesting. After testing for a couple of years, he offered me a job as his junior producer. It is true, though, that I did meet Ken in the parking lot on the way into the building for my interview, and he knew who I was and why I was there.

What Ken did do, however, is tap me for a design position about 8 months after I got to Sierra. For the Christmas party the first year I was there, my partner and I did a show, and I don't think anyone at Sierra expected it to be as polished and funny as it was. Ken came up to me after the show and said, "Hey, you're an entertaining kinda guy, you could design games." That was the unexpected break I'd been waiting for.

What surprised me most about the company was the atmosphere at the place. I had never worked at a company where every single person was so deeply involved in the creative process. The artwork being created (at that time, primarily for KQ5 and SQ4) was breathtaking, and the programmers, artists, composers, and producers were all working with such a spirit of cooperation to create so many ways to delight people all over the world. There were, of course, the usual office politics, scandals, fights, dumb corporate stuff, and frustrations. But overall, it felt as close to a dream factory as I could've hoped for. And the setting – Yosemite – was breathtaking.

What was your first "official" assignment after joining Sierra On-Line full time? What were some of the challenges you faced with your earlier projects while you were learning the ropes? Up until Space Quest 4: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers, which game project had been most memorable for you?

My first assignment was to finish a project that had languished for at least a year before I got there: KQ1 SCI. I never learned the history of the project, or why it had taken so long. I know that Ellen Guon had worked on it for some time, but she was no longer at the company and it was years before I met her (and I forgot to ask her what had gone on with KQ1). My job was primarily to produce it, but since I was anxious to get involved creatively, I asked Guruka and Roberta if it would be okay if I rewrote the text. The original text was, I thought, not very colorful and didn't illuminate the graphics. Roberta gave me permission to go ahead and rewrite to my heart's content, as long as I passed the changes to her for approval. That's what I did, along with making one or two changes to the puzzles (again, always with her permission), such as the infamous Rumplestiltskin puzzle.

The hardest task I had, initially, was developing a relationship with Game Arts in Japan. Sierra had just signed a reciprocal agreement with them, and we had to “localize" Thexder II: Firehawk (and later Zeliard) for the American market. Thus, I had to learn a bit about Japanese business customs, translations, and the ins and outs of making foreign games comprehensible for an American audience.

Your involvement in the development of Space Quest 6: The Spinal Frontier had been turbulent, and you ultimately left the project and Sierra On-Line before the game was completed. What was the final "straw" that led to this most difficult decision? What were the reactions of your coworkers at Sierra On-line when they first learned of your departure, particularly from Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe (The Two Guys from Andromeda)?

At that point in Sierra's history, the suits were filing in and taking control. And these people had no prior experience in the gaming industry at all, no particular love of games, no respect for the history of the company. They were ambitious and I suspect their thought was, "We're going to show these hicks how to run a really profitable company."

My decision to depart had nothing to do with SQ6. Rather, it was about the way the new order was doing business companywide. For instance, they decided to replace the SQ6 producer with someone from Marketing who was totally unqualified for the position (but who was bored with his job), while other people in the Game Development division who had been training for producer positions for years were going to be completely shut out.

As for the "final straw," I was going to make the change from employee to contract designer, and move to Seattle along with all the other designers. One of the stipulations in the contract was that Mark Hood and I would be working together in Seattle on my next game, Mark as Producer and me as Designer. Just a few days later, Mark saw me in the hall and said, "Did you know that they reassigned me to something else?" I said, "They can't do that, it's in my contract." He said, "Well, they did." I went down to speak to the suit I'd worked out the contract with, and said, "You've broken the contract and the ink isn't even dry on the paper." "That's business," he shrugged. I submitted my resignation the next morning.

Scott knew how unhappy I was with the way things were going there; if anything, he was far more unhappy than I was, but he'd been there longer and I don't think anything surprised him any more. Mark Crowe had been at Dynamix for a long time when I left Sierra, and I'm not sure I ever discussed my leaving with him.

Many fans were upset with Sierra On-Line that you had not been fairly credited for your work in Space Quest 6: The Spinal Frontier. The box cover of the game only credited Murphy as the author, though the game documentation inside acknowledged both you and Murphy as the game designers. In retrospect, why did you think Sierra On-Line had done this? Over the years, had there been any exchange between you and Murphy or between you and Sierra On-Line concerning this oversight? How bitter were you about this experience?

I wasn't very surprised. Sierra had a longstanding policy – long before I got there - of removing from a game's publicity and/or credits the names of anyone who didn't actually work at the company when the game was finished. And I wasn't bitter because I understood that this would probably happen back when I decided to leave.

Murphy had previously admitted that when he overtook the lead development role from you on Space Quest 6: The Spinal Frontier, he did not understand many of the intricacies you had written in the game's puzzles and story. Seeing the final product, what aspects of the game were you most disappointed (such as the ending)? What elements of your original vision (such as puzzle, story) had been cut out or changed in the final product?

I was unhappy with some of the puzzles I'd designed, and I think if I'd stuck with the project, I would've had a chance to fine-tune them. Even if there hadn't been time to fine-tune them, there'd definitely have been the opportunity to ensure that the hints helped steer the player through them.

The game lacked feedback, including hints. I'm a feedback junkie, as you can tell when you play the rooms I did manage to work on before leaving (like the Turboshaft, or Boot Liquors). As far as I'm concerned, the two greatest satisfactions I get when playing a game are the satisfaction I get when I solve a puzzle, and the satisfaction I get out of exploration: looking at things, trying to use things on other things in the environment. Currently, we can only experience games visually and aurally; the other three senses are shut out. Feedback helps fill in these blanks, cast new light on the game world and make up for the things we can't experience directly. When there's no feedback, the game world feels dead to me. On that count, it's very easy to tell what parts of the game I did and what parts I didn't. Stellar's insides, for example, were ripe for exploratory feedback, and it had almost none. That, and the fact that nobody put HINTS to the puzzles into the game, are what bothered me the most.

Speaking of hints, one of the inventory items cut was a comic book CD in Nigel's room that was fully readable and had all the hints to the Datacorder puzzle. From a writing and design standpoint, it was fully finished, and I know that Barry Smith had started the artwork. I don't understand why it was cut. But the comic book content was something I'd worked on for months, and it was something that I was uncharacteristically proud of...I think it would've been one of the greatest parody sequences in the SQ series. So not only was I very upset not to see it in the game, but the fact that they had to put the Datacorder hints in the manual, leading player to think it was meant to be copy protection, disturbed me greatly.

The ending was another disappointment. I know that Scott didn't like my original concept, which was a Planet of the Apes riff with a statue of Leisure Suit Larry. So, when I left, I'd been working on ideas for new endings that we both liked. The ending in the final product was a total surprise to me, and not my idea of what an SQ ending should be. Maybe the budget ran out.

The development of Space Quest VII: Return to Roman Numerals had started as early as 1997 but was eventually canceled by Sierra On-Line years later. Had you been in any way contacted or involved in this attempt to revive the franchise? If you had the opportunity to develop the sequel, what would the new Space Quest be like and how would it be tied to the previous games in the series?

I wasn't connected with the aborted SQ7 at all, nor was I asked to be. I actually have a lot of ideas for another SQ, some of which I used in writing the story for the fangame. Other ideas, I'm holding onto since people keep popping up with ways to approach Vivendi with a true sequel, and I wouldn't want to tip my hand just in case one of them actually pans out.

In addition to Sierra On-Line, you had worked for a number of other developers, including Legend Entertainment, Take Two Interactive, and Sega. How different were your experiences at these companies compared with your experience at Sierra On-Line? You relationship with Take Two Interactive had not been mutually satisfactory. When was the most difficult time for you at Take Two Interactive and what was the fallout of this relationship in the end?

Legend was another intensely creative place to work, although since the artists and composers weren't in-house, you didn't get the same visceral excitement just from walking down the hallways and seeing gorgeous art and hearing experimental snippets of music. I think the Legend people had the highest standards for design in the industry, and it shows in their products. It was only through Legend that I had dealings with Take Two (though I very rarely had to deal with them directly). It seemed to me that people at Take Two at the time were, by far, the most cynical I'd ever worked with. It takes true disdain for both games and customers to publish Callahan's Crosstime Saloon while advertising it as a Western because nobody at the company has bothered to play it – or even ASK what it's about – before publishing it. They just looked at the name.

Considering all the game designers, writers, and authors with whom you had collaborated, with whom were your top 3 most memorable experiences (both good and bad)?

Oy. The whole Freddy Pharkas project was an amazing experience: working with Al, going sky-diving with most of the FPFP team, working through the night with the programmers, and then, at the end of the project, going down to the warehouse and watching the game roll off the assembly line. Running through the finished Callahan's with Spider Robinson was a trip-and-a-half. And my worst experience: realizing that Take Two had duplicated and shipped a beta version of Callahan's instead of the final version.

What was the single most elaborate puzzle you designed into your adventure games? Which of your puzzles did you receive the most feedback from fans? What was the funniest gag or parody you wrote in your games?

The most elaborate puzzle was probably the Datacorder puzzle in SQ6, which is also the puzzle that garnered the most feedback – read that as HEAT – from fans. And that dismayed me, not because I was particularly enamored of the puzzle, but because it was a comparatively easy puzzle of the sort that would've been perfectly acceptable ten years earlier had it been in an Infocom game. In the days of text adventures, players were completely comfortable with puzzles that required them to sit down for five minutes with a pencil and a sheet of paper and work out a bit of logic. Once the parser disappeared and point-and-click became the standard, it seems the majority of players also lost interest in puzzles that couldn't be solved immediately, on-screen, through trial-and-error.

Funniest gag or parody? They're all my babies and I love them all equally, even the stupid ones that I wish I'd never come up with. Isn't that the right answer?

You had previously expressed your concern on the over commercialization of the game industry. Notwithstanding the poor commercial interest in adventure games in recent years, would Space Quest have existed at all in today's environment for a game developer? Aside from rising development cost and larger team size, what were the most dramatic changes you had witnessed in the game development process since the days of Infocom?

I think Space Quest could exist quite nicely as a third-person action/adventure. I have yet to see a good comedic game in this format, it's a niche waiting to be filled.

The most dramatic change in the game development process, specifically in the area of design, I'd say, has to do with genres. In the days of Infocom, you could find a pure adventure game, a pure RPG, a pure strategy game. The one thing you found only rarely was a pure action game, because the hardware wasn't up to it. Now, it has become almost an imperative to be "cross-genre" as publishers try to hedge their bets and appeal to as many demographic groups as possible. They tout this as "richer" gameplay, which is doublespeak for, "We're putting every conceivable game mechanic into the game, and if you're lucky, at least a couple elements will really be done right."

Technology had greatly influenced how games were developed. During your career as a game designer, what technological advancement was most influential in how adventure games were developed? What was the most hyped technology that subsequently failed for adventure games?

As I've been a freelance designer for the last six years, I've gotten farther away from the technical end of things because I'm no longer in the same room as the programmer and artists…they're frequently half a continent away. A word processor was, and is still, my basic tool. If I had to choose one other technological tool that affects my day-to-day work and which has changed greatly since I began this kind of work, it would have to be the Web. As a research tool, it's a resource that was barely imaginable twenty years ago.

There's little technology aimed at adventure game development, so there's little technology that's been hyped and subsequently failed. But for all the hype about how online multiplayer games were going to revolutionize the industry, I don't think they've done anything at all for adventure games. I still find multiplayer games to be a miserable way to tell a story.

You had been involved with Tierra Entertainment (which later changed its name to Anonymous Game Developers Interactive) in remaking King's Quest. In what capacity were you involved with this project? How satisfied were you of the remake? How much do you believe such grassroots movement can help to ultimately resurrect the adventure genre?

I really wasn't involved with the development of the games; they just approached me to voice Graham, which I was happy to do. And they wanted it just like the Graham in KQ5, which is, to my mind, some of the worst voicework I've ever done – though I was very specifically directed to do it that way. So I find it rather amusing that I'm occasionally asked to repeat that work, warts and all.

The remakes are very impressive. But they don't help to resurrect the adventure genre. As it is, adventure game "purists" are accused of living in the past. Putting years of work into remaking old games just reinforces that notion. While I think the remakes are great, I've always encouraged the AGD folks to concentrate on original games, which I think would not only do a better job of showcasing their talents, but which would do more for the adventure genre overall. In that regard, original fangames such as the Fangame-Formerly-Known-As-KQIX do much more to show publishers that there's an active market for adventures.

What are you doing these days, aside from work? What are your current work projects (particularly games)?

My wife and I have a beautiful newborn daughter, Natalie, who consumes just about every waking, non-working moment these days. But I'm still keeping my hand in cooking – last year, I spent a week at the Culinary Institute of America's "boot camp," and I'm going back there in a few weeks for another course. I'm also still studying, performing, and teaching magic, mentalism, and memory systems. Until Natalie was born, I was doing a fair amount of acting for a local professional theatre, but it'll be a long time before I'll be able to spend that much time away from home again.

My current major project is actually a World War II sim that I probably shouldn't say anything else about. I've also just completed Trivial Pursuit for Kids DVD for Hasbro, my second Trivial Pursuit project for them.

What can we look forward in you over the next few years? Under what circumstances will you consider returning to design adventure games?

I don't consider myself "away" from designing adventure games. I designed an educational adventure in 2003 (with Rich Powell and Karin Nestor, both of whom are former Sierra artists), "The Adventures of D.M. Dinwiddie," While it's really a series of very brief adventures that teach basic first aid for children, hey, the gameplay is almost all adventure-style, it's definitely comedic. At the moment, a very well-established developer and I are talking about doing a demo aimed at reviving one of my favorite, long-dormant game series. The developer is quite serious, and it's a series I did a great deal of work on, so I'm finding this very exciting, even if it is a shot in the dark.

Thank you so much for this interview. We all look forward to hear more about you and your career in the future!

No, thank YOU! And by the way, given the state of adventure games today, charity contributions to adventure game designers are considered tax-deductible. Just thought I'd mention.

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