David Gray

Gray Design Associates

Posted by Jenny Hanlon, Philip Jong.
First posted on 23 July 2011. Last updated on 10 September 2013.
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David Gray
David Gray is an indie game developer and the creator of Hugo's House of Horrors.
David Gray
David Gray
David Gray

The original Hugo's House of Horrors and the accompanying sequels have long been a much loved staple of many adventure gamers' childhood. Created by David Gray (or David P. Gray), the classic trilogy still enjoys a loyal fan base to this day, decades after the games' initial releases. Once working as a programmer writing air traffic control software, Gray has also seen his career take on a new and more rewarding direction as an independent game developer. Nowadays, Gray makes a fulltime living making puzzle games but still finds time to interact with legions of devoted Hugo fans via his own website forum and other fan sites.

We are privileged to have an opportunity to interview David Gray of Gray Design Associates. In the interview, Gray speaks to us on the development history of the Hugo series, the trials and tribulations of marketing his own games, and how a chance meeting with a gynecologist and his love of Hammer House of Horror have once served as inspirations for him to become a game developer.

Check out our exclusive gallery of previously unpublished concept drawings from Hugo's House of Horrors sent to us by Gray himself!

What was the history of Gray Design Associates as a game development company? To what extent was the company founded with an intent to compete against Sierra On-Line or Lucasfilm Games?

Gray Design Associates started out in 1988 as a backup plan in case my day job (writing air traffic control software at Raytheon, Massachusetts) folded. There was no intent to compete with any game company; in fact my first two products were business oriented (one was called Touch Type Tutor the other was OCR software bundled with hand scanners). I basically needed to be more in control of my destiny and working for a large company wasn't doing it for me. So I looked around for a 'plan B'.

A chance encounter with a gynecologist at a party in 1989 was a eureka moment. He told me how he had written a program in Basic on his PC and was selling it around the world. I immediately thought to myself: I can do that!

Who or what inspired you to become a game designer?

I started designing games pretty much as soon as I got my fist job (writing software for underwater weapons for the UK Ministry of Defence). The vector graphics system was just too perfect for writing an Asteroids clone. My manager thankfully turned a blind eye and considered it a good student exercise. I was also privileged to play the original Colossal Cave and Dungeon text adventure games, which played a formative role later.

My first PC game, Hugo's House of Horrors, was written in late 1989 and released on 1/1/90. Its inspirations included the Captain Comic game by Michael Denio (because it was the first shareware game I had seen with large animated sprites) and Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards (because it had a credit list a mile long and I thought I could do something similar all by myself).

Why does the Hugo series hold such a special place in the hearts of legions of classic adventure gamers? How much of a surprise to you is it that the Hugo series continues to have such a large fan following decades later?

That's a good question, seeing as it was a very short game with many flaws, rudimentary graphics and very little plot. I have given this some thought and I have come up with a two-part answer. The first is that I had an absolute blast writing it and I think that must somehow come across when you play it. The second part is that the game initially had vast distribution as shareware and, being entirely family-friendly, meant that a lot of very young children got to play it along with their parents and so it made a nice, lasting impression. One of the most popular comments on Hugo's facebook page is "OMG this game was such a part of my childhood, I loved it!"

Why is there a resurging commercial interest in classic adventure games in recent years, as seen in the success of digital distributors such as Good Old Games and DotEmu that are reselling classic adventure games?

I guess it's a trip down memory lane for people who want to play their oldest memories again. A lot of older games don't work on modern systems but thanks to ScummVM and DOSBox they can live again, and on platforms they were never originally designed for. With their lower resource requirements, a lot of the older games work great on mobile devices. It's also true that the adventure game genre all but died out. The modern so-called adventure games found on casual game sites and the Mac App Store are mostly hidden object games or abstract puzzle games wrapped around a pseudo-plot.

What are your favorite adventure games of all time? Why?

No surprises here, obviously Leisure Suit Larry, which directly inspired me to write the first Hugo game, followed by Monkey Island for its humor and Myst for its beauty.

Many fans had compared Hugo's House of Horrors to Lucasfilm Games' Maniac Mansion. To what extent was Hugo's House of Horrors inspired by Maniac Mansion (that was published years earlier)? In hindsight, how fair or unfair was this comparison?

I'm pleased you asked this question, it's nice to have a chance to answer it comprehensively for the first time.

I see that the Wikipedia entries indeed show that the games share a virtually identical plot premise: young hero goes into old haunted house to rescue girlfriend captured by evil scientist - both feature tongue-in-cheek humor. Unbelievable as it may seem, when I wrote Hugo's House of Horrors in 1989 I was completely unaware of Maniac Mansion and to this day have never played it. Why? So I can truthfully say I've never played it! The truth is that Hugo's House of Horrors was actually inspired after playing the original Sierra game Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards and as far as game mechanics and look, Hugo should have more in common with that game. Even the name Hugo came from finding a name beginning with H so that the program could be HHH.EXE to mimic the LLL.EXE of Leisure Suit Larry. Larry also happens to have the tongue-in-cheek humor, which appeals to me.

As far as the question about the plot, I can remember the sequence of events that led me to it. The plot for Hugo's House of Horrors started out with the haunted house image I had purchased and decided to use as the basis for the game's opening screen, in combination with my love of Hammer House of Horror. My thought process was then: Ok, we're in the present day, I have a young hero called Hugo, why would he need to enter this creepy old house? The answer was that his girlfriend was missing after a baby-sitting assignment at the house. Ok, good, now I needed a suitable baddie so what better than a Hammer movie style mad scientist, and let's call him Dr. Hamerstein in homage. That progression of ideas was so clichéd it materialized virtually instantly, as I recall. Two people can come up with the same idea and Maniac Mansion honestly played no part whatsoever in the Hugo Trilogy. Just another of life's coincidences! It may even be a candidate for synchronicity as Hugo has now ended up inside Scumm (the ScummVM team recently collaborated with me to incorporate the Hugo engine into ScummVM), the very heart of Maniac Mansion!

Despite the fact that the Hugo series proved popular across a wide demographic of gamers, who was the original target audience for the series?

I think the target audience was just me! I was very naïve and just wanted to write something I'd enjoy and have fun with. I wouldn't have known what the word demographic meant then! Basically it was for anyone who liked puzzles and had an IBM PC I suppose. I thought it would be appealing because it had large friendly characters and there was nothing like it (in shareware) at the time. I deliberately made the game as immediately accessible as possible. I hate sitting through instructions. There was deliberately no opening verbiage, plot outline or instructions on what to do. You were just there, outside a house. A bit like the opening of dungeon text adventure, how did it go? "You are in front of a big white house..." something like that. I figured if someone could not open the pumpkin to get through the front door then they wouldn't like the rest of the game. Actually I hadn't counted on half of America not being able to spell pumpkin...

Aside from you, who else contributed to the development of the Hugo series? How much work did it take to update the DOS version to the Windows version?

Hugo III, Jungle of Doom! featured the artwork of Gary Sirois who was recommended by a mutual friend and lived in a neighboring town. I was very pleased with his artwork and it enabled me to concentrate on the software development. By this time the game had also gone into retail, I was getting a lot of customers and my wife Christine also quit her job and joined the company to handle the administration side of things.

The port to Windows was very simple as I had already ported my sequel Nitemare-3D (which I believe has the distinction of being the very first Windows FPS game, released in 1994, pre Windows 95.) I have on my to-do list to port both Hugo and Nitemare to Windows 64-bit, Mac, IOS and Android.

The Hugo series was originally distributed as both shareware and commercial retail software. How were the overall shareware sales compared to retail distribution? What were the marketing challenges you faced when the series was first released?

The revenue from shareware exceeded the retail royalties by about 6:1.

It sounds amazing but I initially did no marketing at all but just uploaded it to, I think, two CompuServe forums. I was lucky in that the game was pretty much unique (ok, given the previous discussion, let's say it was unique in the world of shareware) and just took off like wildfire. It was then picked up by literally dozens of shareware distributors who sold it in mail order catalogs and packaged it onto floppy diskettes for sale in stores. Later I was approached by a few vendors who sold it as "low cost retail" for a small royalty and no mention of shareware. Then, in 1992, someone put me in touch with Paul Jacobsen who ran a retail publishing company called Sofsource. The game was put exclusively in retail stores with them and therefore most of the game's retail income came from Sofsource.

How had the indie game development scene changed over the years compared to the times when you were developing the Hugo series?

Obviously expectations and budgets for cutting edge games are now sky high, but I think it's still possible for a small team to be successful as we now have a golden age for casual games and mobile apps. In fact, it's probably too easy to create a simple game now, with virtually no barrier to entry, which unfortunately means there's a lot of low quality apps around.

How active are you now as a game developer? What do you do nowadays to making a living? What current game projects are you working on? How likely is it that there will be another Hugo sequel?

I have continued to enjoy a fulltime living making puzzle games since then, but not adventure games. After Nitemare-3D I decided I hated the idea of spending so long on a game that would enter a chart like a music video, have a moment of glory and then drop out forever. So I tried to think of a game what would have broad appeal and greater longevity. The answer I came up with was a jigsaw game. Jigsaws Galore is now on version 7, has just celebrated its 15th birthday and goes from strength to strength.

I get asked to do a Hugo sequel quite often. I have always said no, there's no point. But the retro market is currently strong and the game is still selling, especially now that ScummVM officially supports it. I have even seen "new" retro games developed and it seems quite a lot of people think lo-res can be cool if done tastefully. If I did do another one I would need to hook up with the right kind of artist. There's no way I would go anywhere near a paint program myself again!

What advice can you offer to your fans considering a career in independent game publishing?

If you want to make money, then right now I would probably advise looking at the casual game market. The games selling well right now are time-management, match-three and hidden object games wrapped around an interesting story line. They are neither demanding to program nor play and are aimed squarely at a certain demographic. Also remember that writing the core of a game is a very small part of what you need to do. It takes a lot of time and dedication to turn a playable game into a releasable product that will compete well with others. Similarly, know that development is just one small part of what you must do to maintain a successful company. There are so many other roles to fulfill, such as marketing, networking, support, accounting, administration, not all of which are quite as enjoyable. You can license your game through a distributor but that brings a whole new set of problems and a certain loss of control so it's probably best to do a combination of both.

If you are after fun, then just do what pleases you and enjoy yourself. The more you enjoy it, the more it will show in the final result.

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