Scott Murphy

Posted by Cris Skelton, Philip Jong.
First posted on 10 November 2006. Last updated on 02 August 2009.
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Scott Murphy
Scott Murphy, renowned co-creator of Space Quest, appears now shockingly without his trademark long hair and only partially sporting his trademark beard. He said, "They come and they go. Fortunately, I still possess enough to have the choice and it's still less gray than my BVD's."

The following article contains strong language. Viewer discretion is advised.
Scott Murphy is a man who needs no introduction. For 15 years, he stood on the forefront of the adventure gaming revolution at one of the biggest names in PC entertainment. It was deep inside the lair of Sierra On-Line that Murphy and his crony Mark Crowe—known to the world as the Two Guys from Andromeda—created Space Quest, an adventure game franchise that has proven itself to be among the most enduring series the genre has to offer. Exactly 20 years, 6 games, and 3 collections later, fans of Space Quest are still playing these and other games of his creation on their antiquated computers or with fan made emulators, all the while reminiscing about the rough and tumble days of gaming dominated by the graphic adventure.

Talk to almost every adventure game fan and there is a memory about Space Quest. A quick search will reveal a laundry list of fan sites and fan games based on Space Quest that have sprung up over the years. Countless numbers of fans count Space Quest among their all-time favorite game series, and the recent release of a new Space Quest compilation is expected to attract even more adventure games fans that now have the chance to relive the magic that is the wit and humor of the Two Guys from Andromeda.

Since his departure from Sierra On-Line, it has been nearly impossible to find out what has become of Murphy. He has repeatedly declined or ignored media requests for interviews—a reluctance which, Murphy confesses, stems from Attention Deficit Disorder (seriously). He said,

"It's embarrassing to not be able to hold a thought for any length of time, hence the rambling nature of my responses."

Still, there are those who continue to seek him out. His email address—freely accessible through his neglected website—receives a steady flow of messages inquiring about him, and if the sender is lucky, they may receive a response. However, until now all requests for interviews have gone denied. When asked what made this time any different than all the rest, he said,

"It just occurred to me a few weeks back that it's the twentieth anniversary of the release of the first Space Quest and that I should put aside any bitterness I have in favor of the enjoyment had in making the games, not to mention the appreciation to this day still expressed by the occasional fan that seeks me out to let me know of theirs."

Thus, I am able to present here the candid, unfiltered views of 'Scott Murphy' to his fans (and even non-fans) to digest however they see fit. These are raw, unabashed, unedited ideas, and if you are not careful you will surely be stunned. A word of warning is warranted—there is a fair amount of cursing as well as some tough love. If you have any history of heart conditions or are pregnant you may not wish to read further. In the end, though, there is a great deal to be learned from life at the foot of this genius. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I have enjoyed asking the questions. Also, be sure to check out our exclusive, never before seen online, photo of the man himself!

Okay, enough smarm already! Let's interview!

For those just tuning in, tell us a little bit about how you got started in the game development business and how you got started up at Sierra.

I didn't start out to make computer games my life's work. When I was in high school there was no such thing as a computer game, with the exception of Tic Tac Toe on a mainframe and Pong arcade games at bowling alleys. It happened by accident. Oakhurst at the time was a very seasonal location, relying on people coming through on their way to Yosemite from whom we would eke out a living. I was raising a family and had found an actual year-round job cooking at a local dinner house. My wife had lost her job at another restaurant when the guy running the place – allegedly (oh, he did it) – burned the place down one bored evening. I had a friend named Doug Oldfield there who I'd met through my then wife. (A piece of important trivia; Doug is one of the funniest people I've ever met, much less worked with. He is the actual creator of Astro Chicken and Ms. Astro Chicken, not to mention The Fun Seekers Guide to Eastern Madera County, "Grrr, let's talk real estate!" which was the first piece of game coding he ever did while learning the in-house language. He was the original unofficial Third Guy from Andromeda, and I don't think he ever got enough credit.)

After the fire, Doug sought out work and got a job at a fledgling company called On-Line Systems copying disks on state-of-the-art Apple ][+ computers. At the time, Ken [Williams] was a very generous guy and would allow employees to take computers home on the weekends. Doug invited me over and showed me a few monochrome games they were selling at the time. That's when I saw my first adventure game and became very intrigued. It was a game called Softporn by Chuck Benton, which eventually became Leisure Suit Larry 1 by Al "It doesn't matter what you say about me, just spell my name right on the check" Lowe. At the time, Space Invaders was the ultimate in computer entertainment technology. That game got very boring really fast, and I hate how it ate all my quarters. I also got tired of just shooting at things although that would change later when I contemplated a sideline as a sniper of corporate management types, but that's another story I'd rather not get into at this time so quit asking me about it, OK?

Where was I? Oh yeah. Anyway, I loved the adventure game. I had an evening job I hated and I kept going to Sierra and bugging them until they let me come to work for them as a dealer returns person. I kept learning things, became a support representative for games and then for business products, then I ended up managing the support department, blah, blah, blah. Ultimately, Ken was hard-up for product when the company almost went down the crapper. Mark and I had been cooped up together working on The Black Cauldron for the Disney movie by the same name. I'd conned Ken into letting me learn how to program adventure games in my off time, which meant being at his house from 5:00pm to 3:00am usually. There was a puzzle in the game where you had to acquire some gruel. I was rather tired one VERY early morning, and to amuse myself I installed a response message that said something like, "Mmmm, this tastes like freshly roasted mule shit, just like mom used to make." When I saw something I wrote actually displayed on the screen, I was totally f'ing hooked. What I didn't know was that they were going to send that version of the game down to Disney for their perusal of our progress. They saw that message and pretty much shit themselves. Amazingly, I didn't get fired and Mark and I eventually came up with our space comedy idea and convinced Ken to let us develop it. The rest is weird history.

You've been absent from the gaming industry as far as anyone knows since being laid off by Sierra in 1999's infamous "Chainsaw Monday". What have you been doing for food and living and keeping yourself occupied and stuff since then?

I didn't actually lose my job on Chainsaw Monday. I was dumped a month and a half previous to that. I was a symbol of things to come, or go, as the case turned out to be. I was pretty much a one trick pony, with that trick being adventure games, and since I was in school before the era of microcomputers, I had no formal education in computer science and companies then wanted people with diplomas which I did not have. I was entirely self-taught and only have a high school diploma, and from a shitty high school at that.

Anyway, since that time was basically the death of the adventure game no jobs in that vein were to be had, so I had to resort to doing regular work like "normal" people. Besides, I was a total burn-out by then. I'll never fit into that "normal" category, but I can do a relatively good impression of one, but eventually they find me out. I've had pretty boring jobs in office settings and the like. I am currently living in the southeast, to where my mom and now-deceased step dad decided to retire. Actually, it's one of a couple of welcome mats for hurricanes once they've entered the Gulf of Mexico. I really miss earthquakes now. I was in the northwest when Hurricane Ivan struck this area in the summer of 2004. My mom needed some help with taking care of her house as well as dealing with some health issues and that's where I am now, in an area called 'The Redneck Riviera', and of course I mean that in only the nicest possible way. (Shyeah, right.)

It's been 20 years since the release of the very first Space Quest game and 10 years since the release of the last one. What is your reaction to the cult following that manages to still exist after such a long time?

I have honestly been stunned by it all, not to mention unbelievably gratified. It's a form of wealth to which mass quantities of buckazoids can not compare. (However, if anyone DOES want to express their appreciation in that manner I will be glad to forward them my address.)

When we did the games the World Wide Web was in its infancy. There was no email per se. All you really had were things like text-based CompuServe bulletin boards which I didn't know jack shit about at the time since I didn't own a modem, and fans could only get in touch with me via snail mail, which I might note I wasn't very good at responding to either. By the way, this is a good time to apologize once again to all those kind souls that took the time out of their lives to write and express their feelings about the games and to whom I might never have responded to.

Seriously, years since the publishing of the last few games I still get a slow but steady trickle of email from those who seek me out, who played the games when they were kids and some who now, somewhat to my dismay, tell me they play them with their kids. (Like I really need to be reminded of how friggin' old I am!) Some have even accused the games of inspiring them to go to school and acquire gainful employment. I'm reluctant to take the blame for that. On the upside, I get to realize that many have actually managed to get away from the keyboard to get laid, for which I applaud them.

Actually, I am, as I said, stunned not to mention overwhelmed by the appreciation and love they've shown over these many years. I honestly can't put in to words how much this has meant to me. The fun we had making the games and royalties made way back then mean not nearly as much as what I've gotten back from the fans and all the new friends I've made so many places around the world. I truly do love to hear from them. The proliferation of Space Quest-related websites totally blew me away and a few diehard sites out there still make me feel great.

Chainsaw Monday obviously left a bitter taste in your mouth (not to mention the mouths of the other 149 people who were laid off that day, the fans of the Sierra series, and anybody else who cared to look it up). So many years later, are you still bitter about the situation or is it water under the bridge now?

Yeah, that day sucked incredibly hard, but like I said, I'd been laid off for about a month and a half. The former workers that were my friends at Sierra were the ones who suffered the most. My only bitterness about that particular chapter was in regard to the impact that had on their lives. At that time I was doing alright. I didn't realize how much pressure I'd really been under and what a truly flaming ass pain dealing with Sierra management had become. I mean, I knew it was bad but until I was gone I really, really didn't know how much I'd gotten used to. That made my leaving, regardless of how it happened, a total blessing in disguise. I realized I'd needed to leave a long time before that. For me, it was water under the bridge a long time ago. I know that my comrades in arms have long ago moved on and are doing well but I'll never forget how roughly their lives were impacted despite the blood, sweat and tears they gave to what had become a truly ungrateful company.

The bitterness I posses is at what Sierra and Ken Williams had become as they became more and more successful, and how the Space Quest 6 abortion came about after broken promises and the just plain fucking over I got from the people I'd worked so incredibly hard for. The more successful each game became, the worse they treated us and the less they wanted to pay us. I'm not talking about us demanding more money like some sort of prima donnas. They seemed like they were actually penalizing us for being successful for them. They didn't want to pay us as much, which wasn't a lot anyway, as they had for each of the previous games. We'd done well for them despite the fact that they spent virtually no money advertising the games, especially when you look at how much they hyped the King's Quests. I'm quite proud of how we sold despite that.

On Space Quest 2, I worked fourteen months and had only TWO days off during that period, but that wasn't good enough for them. I got called in and chewed out after that one and SQ3 for taking too long to get them shipped. SQ4 showed how dark we'd become as a result. SQ's 5 and 6 were abysmal in my opinion and I've felt some guilt about 6, even though I inherited a game primarily designed by someone else based around that person's game design around a lame joke on a title of another company's game series, which was about as stupid an idea as I've ever heard of. What a nightmare that was, but that's another story for another time, like maybe after the sweet angel of death comes to take me away. And I didn't even work on SQ5, so comments on "Roger Beamish" might be a little unfair, even though I didn't know it was even being made until I accidentally saw a beta version that had been sent down from Dynamix to one of the Oakhurst producers.

Believe me when I tell you that you truly did not want to see what Space Quest 7 would have been. Please realize that this in absolutely no way reflects on the team that had been assigned to Space Quests 6 and 7. Leslie Balfour will forever have my gratitude for helping carry me in those final months. She's awesome and I hope she realizes I was never kidding when I expressed it to her. (She might say otherwise about me, but still....)

Everyone on the SQ6 team, with the exception of one programmer who will go unnamed at least for now, worked their asses off and I am grateful to them for hanging in there under some really fucked up circumstances. I am truly proud of them and their contributions. I want to give a special shout-out to William R. Shockley, Esq. for his hard work, which included covering for one dead-ass assigned to the team, not to mention the contributions he made above and beyond his job description. And I mean these things regardless of what others might think of him. <gr>

Vivendi Universal (Sierra's current parent company) has just repackaged and released a compilation of the Space Quest series (as well as the King's Quest series, the Police Quest series, and the Leisure Suit Larry series) bundled with the fan-made emulator DOSBox and advertising these games as "XP Compatible". What's your take on these new compilations? Did you know they existed? Are you getting any sort of residual or royalty for these releases?

I didn't have a clue it was being put together until a fan told me about them a couple of months ago. Vivendi Universal doesn't give a crap about the makers of the games. It's just property to them. I just paid for and got a copy from Amazon a couple of weeks ago but haven't had time to look at it. One thing I don't like about the compilation is that the original SQ1 isn't on it. Instead, they included the remade version, which I think sucks donkeys. Most of the "new" art was outsourced to Korea. It has the basic game flavor in it but the "upgraded" art and interface sucks.

I loved the old parser interface because I felt I could have a lot more fun with the player, including insulting them based on their input. I liked to surprise them when they thought that they'd typed something in they didn't think there would be a response to other than a canned, "I don't understand." And, no, I don't get any royalties, but I am glad the games are out there for those who've been asking me where they can get copies. The compilation runs for little less than $20 US which I think is a pretty decent deal.

As you may or may not know, many fans post-Chainsaw Monday have taken it upon themselves to create new adventure games in lieu of their old favorites that have been abandoned by the copyright holders. Some of these games are original works and many are remakes, sequels, or "lost chapters" to existing series. Space Quest itself has a very large number of these projects to its name, including completed projects such as "The Lost Chapter" and "Replicated" as well as a fan Space Quest 7 that even boasts a story partially conceptualized by Associate from Andromeda Josh Mandel. What do you think of these fan endeavors? Have you had a chance (or a desire) to look at some of the ones in production or play any of the completed ones?

No offense to those who have worked so hard in the spirit of the games, but I am really not interested in checking them out. The reason is that I have a vision of what Space Quest is and was and I really don't want to have that messed with in any way. However, I truly do appreciate their spirit and efforts. I consider it quite a compliment that they would work so hard and expend so much time and energy. I hope this is understood in the proper spirit.

Do you feel you accomplished what you set out to accomplish with the Space Quest series? If the rights ever reverted back to you through some magical twist of fate, would you be interested in teaming back up with Mark Crowe and the gang for another go-around?

Overall, I feel pretty good about how the games came out. When Mark and I started the games we decided that we wanted to make games WE would want to play, and I think we did that for the most part. Would I want to work with Mark again? No, I don't think so. As I learned the hard way, Mark was not a very good partner in the long run. When he decided to go to Sierra's Dynamix division, he didn't have the decency to tell me he was leaving until we were headed to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show. The only reason he told me then was that I was inevitably going to see him talking with Dynamix management personnel about the move while we were out there. I lost a lot of respect for him, and then lost more when I learned some other things about him a couple of years later from people I am not at liberty to name who made me understand that he had loyalty to only himself. I was really bummed to learn what he was really like, or what he'd become.

When we worked on the games together and did interviews I would compliment him to the media about how great he was at what he could do with a few pixels, that he was the best in the business, but never in my memory did ever say a single good thing about what I did, and I spent a hell of a lot more time on the games than he did, not to mention the VAST majority of the writing. I was very disillusioned with him for that.

Looking back, what would you have liked to have included in Space Quest but were not able to? What do you think you would include in a Space Quest 7 if you were to make one today?

What I really would have liked to do was to keep the original parser interface. I think it made the games so much more deep. There's a back-story in my head that I would have liked to have gotten in. I talked about it with Leslie Balfour when we were going through the motions on the ill-fated SQ7. It's going to stay in my head, though, because without it being in the game, it would sound stupid, and not in a good way.

Here's a little tidbit about how the parser interface went away and how management worked us. One day when we're literally halfway through SQ4, Mark and I were called into Ken's office. We were asked what we thought about using the (dumbass) point-and-click interface that they were using, in I guess it was King's Quest 5 then, and what we thought about putting it in SQ4. We said we wanted to keep the parser. Ken and Bill Davis asked us to talk about it together and then tell them what we wanted to do the next day. After the meeting, Mark and I agreed without hesitation as we walked out Ken's office door that there was absolutely no way we wanted the point-and-click. The next day when we came in, Bill Davis tracked Mark down and asked him what we'd decided. Mark told him that we'd decided to keep the parser, to which Bill instantly replied something to the effect of, "But you can't do that. Ken has already decided that you have to use the point-and-click!" Apparently they figured they had a fifty percent chance that we would make the decision and wouldn't realize that they'd already made the decision for us. That kind of mentality was another straw on the pile of last ones.

I feel it only fair that I should note that, having said that and some other things in this interview I want to point out that I have some good memories with Roberta, mainly because I didn't have to work for her. She was the only person I knew in the early days that understood what the pressure was like to pull a game out of one's ass on demand. We had some really good talks and she was quite supportive. She even took time out to do a cameo in a little video that Leslie Balfour and I put together for inclusion in the first Space Quest Collection, for which I was grateful. She was the only one I could talk to about certain feelings involved in the creative process of adventure game design. That mattered a lot to me and I consider her a friend to this day as oddly, based on certain things I have said here, I do Ken. Away from work Ken was a completely different person and we enjoyed some good times together not to mention some fun and very interesting parties. There were times when we had to blow off some steam from the pressure that we were all under in our various roles. If any of this is taken in, say, not a good way by them or anyone else I mention, then the only thing that comes to mind is one of my favorite song lyrics by Don Henley, "Sometimes you get the best light from a burning bridge."

Jane Jensen has recently announced her return to adventure game development with her production of "Gray Matter", being developed by Tonuzaba and published by Anaconda. Have you had any desire to return to the gaming industry since you left it? If so, what do you think you would do?

I've never given it a thought since I know that world has come and gone. Adventure games have cult status. Companies don't have interest in the kind of money cult work might bring.

As for Jane, I really like her a lot. I have a great deal of respect for her. She's incredibly talented and I wish her the best if that is actually still happening. I hope she is successful because it may mean that there's a change brewing, but I'm not holding my breath (although I should, given what I ate last night). I truly enjoyed sharing an office with her. She's great at what she does and she's a true writer. She can totally design a game before a piece of artwork or code has been produced, and that's what's necessary to get a project green-lighted and financed. Me, I'm the kind of designer that likes to come up with a game idea, setting, feel, main character and a beginning and end point, and then fill in the middle as I go. Seat-of–the-pants design, if you will. (In fact, I insist that you call it that because I like my seat.) It served me well. That's what we did with 1-4 for the most part.

In this day and age, structured budget and total design from start to finish are required before a dollar will be allocated, and still, you can't count on it working out to the end. The fun has been sucked out of it. Call me old-school, but that's how I view it. I don't think I'm at liberty to divulge any details about a recent adventure game project a friend was involved in developing, but they did quite a lot of work on it, months and months of work, and then the financing disappeared. All that work down the drain. I couldn't subject myself to that. I care too much about what I was doing to be able to handle that. It would be devastating. I wouldn't be able to endure that without telling someone in Al Qaeda that the financiers of the project had insisted the developers include disparaging images of the prophet Mohammed. But that's just me.

No adventure game interview would be complete without asking the clichéd question of the times. What's your opinion on the state of adventure gaming today? Do you ever find the time to play new games or have you taken yourself out of that circle?
For me, simulators are the only things of interest at this time. Oh, I'll break out Doom or Castle Wolfenstein on the occasion when I really feel the urge to kill something that won't cause me to be incarcerated. Call me old fashioned or old school or whatever. I loved parsed adventure games. They made me use my little grey cells and not just my thumb joint cartilage. I can't imagine anything holding a candle to the first two Monkey Islands by Ron Gilbert, or The Prisoner written for – now I'm really showing my age – the Apple ][+ by the awesome David Mullich.

The Monkey Islands were so funny they made me soil myself, but they weren't as good once Ron left. I was so depressed while working on SQ4 that I used to tuck myself away in my cubicle and play MI2 on company time when I was supposed to be working on SQ4. I can't believe my boss didn't wonder why I was actually in a good mood occasionally during that period. (Ron even put in a poke at the stock Sierra character death sequence that made me spit up my gruel. It was funny and well deserved. However, I like to think of the Space Quest death sequences as an art form, so I really feel he was making fun of Roberta, etc.)

The Prisoner, it rocked my mind. It was the first game I ever finished without any clues and I've never felt that same sense of game play accomplishment since, no matter what I've played. The only disappointment I had with that game was once the realization set in that it was over. I was steeped in great works light years beyond what's available out there now. No one has shown me that they have even an inkling of understanding or ability to create works on par with those. I know I sound like an old fogy but I really don't give a rat's ass. That stuff was pure genius. Perhaps it would be kind of dated now, but still, nothing I see now has the impact of what those games had then in their time.

Is there any advice you can offer to those people sitting at home trying to develop a homebrew adventure game?

Make something YOU'D want to play. Listen to constructive criticism, but ultimately, stay true to your vision while at the same time checking your ego at the development door, and never ever believe that your code or design can't necessarily reek. I worked with unnamed people who thought otherwise and saw what a huge mistake that is. I KNOW I made most of the mistakes that can be made and learned all that the hard way. I'm just grateful the fans and critics were so forgiving. What served me the best was staying true to my vision and realizing that, although I was making a game I'd want to play, I was actually making something for others who would actually be plunking down their hard-earned buckazoids.

Give them something that will make them puke from the enjoyment. Or not. As Dennis Miller once said when he was still funny, "But that's just my opinion, I could be wrong."

Thanks, Scott, for giving me the chance to grill you.

Okay, now wipe the drool off the keyboard, the interview is over!

That was intense, huh? Truth be told, my mind is still exploding from the insanity. Simply stated, he is an undisputed heavyweight champion of genius in the game industry. Other famed designers may have come and gone, but Murphy's legacy shall always make him an icon who stands with the best of them as pioneers of the adventure game genre.

I will leave, though, with one last quote from Murphy. He insisted this be made known by whatever means possible.

"Make another question if necessary. Whatever you deem necessary to make it work."

Well, if my young life has taught me anything, what works the best is the straight truth. Take it away, Scott.

"It just occurred to me while rereading this before I hit the Send key, and then thinking about jobs I've had since the SQ years.

I don't believe there is a job out there that won't prove to be a disappointment to me since I've already had the best one in the world, regardless of how bad and how hard it was at times, and how many personal sacrifices I ended up making. And I'm not trying to generate any sympathy by saying this. Everything pales by comparison when you've done something that has proven to be enjoyable and gratifying to other people. When people write you from so many places on the earth to tell you they liked something you did, and that what you did took them away from their problems and/or toils in the real world and made them laugh, if for even a just a few minutes, well, it just doesn't get any better than that. Not one bit.

I want fans to know this, and that I truly love them."

Well, Scott, I think they have figured it out.

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