Douglas Herring

Posted by Chris Warren, Philip Jong.
First posted on 23 November 2010. Last updated on 23 November 2010.
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Douglas Herring
A photo dated 1989 shows Douglas Herring working at Sierra On-Line.
Douglas Herring
The Colonel's Bequest is among the many classic adventure games for which Douglas Herring is credited as an animator.

Douglas Herring, a self-taught artist and lover of fantasy fiction, has led the design and development of some of the most memorable adventure games in history. From Sierra On-Line to Microsoft Game Studios, Legend Entertainment to Electronic Arts, his portfolio of work has made a major impact on many beloved classic adventure game series, such as Space Quest, King's Quest, and Quest for Glory (to name but a few).

Now retired, Herring continues with his imaginative passions, delving into the world of fantasy helmet creation, photography, and other artistic projects. We are extremely privileged to have an opportunity to interview Herring about his past works and his current interests. In the interview, Herring speaks about his long career in the video game industry, his passion for art, his fascination with fantasy helmets, and his opinion on the future of adventure games, all the while giving us an insider perspective on directing some of the most notable adventure game projects to date.

Check out our rare photos of Herring taken during his tenure at Sierra On-Line!

Before you joined Sierra On-Line, what prior training did you have as an artist? What early life experiences inspired you to become an artist?

Prior to working at Sierra On-Line I was the Art Director at PBS station KIXE in Redding California for six years. And I had done free-lance work as an illustrator since I was in high school. Something I continue to do even now. I have had little formal training as an artist, just have always drawn. Illustration and comics were my favored topics in those days. My first computer was an Atari ST and it was my demo disk, done in Degas Elite on the Atari, that cemented my job at Sierra. My lifelong interests in science fiction and fantasy served me well I think.

What was the general atmosphere at Sierra On-Line during its early days when you worked there? How had it changed by the time you left the company? With whom did you most enjoy working there?

Sierra had just moved its offices into the big new metal building that brought all aspects of what they did into one place. There were a lot of new hires and company seemed to be looking forward.

What were some of the growing pains, both of the company itself and of the personnel working there, that you witnessed during your days at Sierra On-Line?

Well, just an observation, but Sierra was growing, as was the computer game market in general, and there was a lot of pressure to remain number one. Some of the decisions and directions the company went in during those times were not always the best. Again, that is my opinion.

Of all the adventure games that you worked on, which game was your favorite? Why? Which of your own games were you ever able to play to completion after they were released?

My favorite adventure game from that era was Space Quest I. I was the director on the VGA upgrade for that one. Mark Crow and Scott Murphy had done a wonderfully fun job with the original and it was a great honor to be allowed to re-draw and add to their work. I hope I did justice to it, for a number of reasons, that is by far my favorite Sierra game.

How does it feel having fans pay tribute to your old work by releasing fan remakes of your games, such as Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire from AGD Interactive?

It is very cool indeed! It still amazes me when I run into longtime fans of those games. Even more amazing, I occasionally encounter new fans of those old "classics", and I am grateful there are still people out there playing them and keeping them alive.

Beyond video games, you have experimented with many other different media as an artist, from photography to sculpture to even costume design. What attracts you about these other media? What is your fascination with "fantasy helmets"?

I have always been, as I just mentioned, a lover of science fiction and fantasy. My art has always called to visualizing people, places, and things that don't exist in the "real" world. I have a decent respect for realism, I just prefer to combine that with larger than life subjects.

For a time, you worked as a freelance artist for several game developers and publishers, including Legend Entertainment and Tsunami. How tough were those transitional years for you, both professionally and personally?

Tough? They were fine. They had their ups and downs, but then, so did working with the big guys in house, such as Sierra and Microsoft. In the end it all comes down to the people you are working with, and there have been some great ones, in both the freelance and in-house development situations. Legend Entertainment, which I did "Shannara" for, were just a great group of people. Easily my most enjoyable experience as a freelancer, the developer was on the east coast and it all went very, very smoothly.

How did the atmosphere at Microsoft Game Studios differ from that at Sierra On-Line? To what extent did the maturity of the game industry affect, both positively and negatively, how games were developed?

That is a difficult question to answer. My impression is that by the time I had started working at Microsoft, Sierra had turned into a very similar work environment, at least that is the impression friends still working there gave me. There is definitely a point where the powers-that-be lose sight of both what they are trying to do, which is make great marketable games; and the best way to do that, which is build great teams and empower them. The more corporate a company becomes the more employees become mere ciphers in the minds of management; and the ability to judge, hire, and encourage the right kind of creative people just gets lost in the shuffle. I can elaborate in detail, but the high concept is very true.

You had managed a lot of teams for many game projects over the years. What were some of the most challenging projects that you had managed? How did you ever prevent yourself from becoming burnt-out?

There are, obviously, a lot of different types of challenges in game development. In my early years, the challenge was to find and hire the right talent for the job. During the Sierra years, we always had an existing engine and the tools we needed to build our games. The system folks at Sierra were great and with every new game we pushed the envelope, but we did those upgrades at the start of the project and could quickly get into production. At Microsoft, in a total programmer-centric environment, the tools were rarely if ever locked down early. In those later years I would repeat over and over that you are still in pre-production until your tools are locked down and was generally ignored. Yet that mistake of not locking down the tools as much as possible as early as possible was a constant thing at Microsoft and it bit them in the ass so often, real internal game development was coming to an end there, which was a genuine shame because they had some very talented people there and tons of potential. They simply did not understand that the process for making games is not the same as the one they had used for decades on productivity software. A genuine shame.

The quest for talented artists was also always ongoing, and changed a lot. At the same time, more talented people were being raised in a genre-rich environment. It remains a wonderful thing to behold and occasionally help nurture.

Whose work do you personally admire and respect in terms of game art? Why?

In terms of individual art? Or company or game specific look and feel? It is hard these days to single out individual game artists, save the occasional concept designer that gets a credit for their work. Right now there are some really amazing things being done. Game art goes in cycles, and I have considered the obsession with "dark CG realism" to be a low point, and I hope we are seeing an up-cycle with more larger than life subjects, such as Aion and Dragon Age and the like. In my own crazy way, I hope Avatar will give the games industry a kick in the pants, not in the area of 3D games though that will happen, but in more larger than life sense of wonder subjects. My impression was when I first saw the Avatar trailer was that Blizzard and Bungie had made a movie together, which still holds up from a high visual concept point of view.

I can talk all day about artists I admire, past and present, it is just difficult to narrow such a ramble to game-specific artists.

Some critics have argued that adventure games have now fallen to a niche commercial market. To what extent do you believe that established game publishers today are still interested in supporting traditional adventure game projects developed by dedicated and passionate indie developers? Alternatively, to what extent do you believe self-publishing through online distribution is the future for indie adventure games?

Adventure games have had a rough road over the decades. I think Sierra's obsession with "interactive movies" really hurt the classic adventure game, and that genre has yet to re-gain its momentum.

Is there a new future for adventure games? Does self-publishing and the like have potential? I like to think so. Phone app games and all the myriad of other outlets for fun modest games have really opened doors for small publishers again. I actually have high hope that such directions could really bring back some fun for fun's sake games. And I am starting to see it happen...

You are more or less retired since 2004. What do you do nowadays to keep yourself busy? What may make you consider lending your artistic talent, experience, and advice to a passionate indie adventure game project?

You sucker-punched me with that previous question. Yes, I do see potential in the small publisher model. I could see myself getting involved in the right project.

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