Adventure games took off because Ron Gilbert couldn’t make Star Wars titles
Ron Gilbert gives credit (blame?) to two things in his youth that made him create video games: His father brought home a TI-59 Calculator, the hardware that inspired him to learn coding. And then he watched Star Wars. This was a kid who didn’t draw pictures, who didn’t write stories, and suddenly he was making games about Star Wars on a calculator.
He later learned how to be a game designer by taking graph paper to the local arcade to copy sprite design, and to take notes on the successful games, before making his own versions and adding bits of story or experimenting with new game play ideas. Iterating on existing ideas allowed him to become a game designer, he told a capacity crowd at PAX Aus.
Gilbert’s early career was a series of ups and downs. He left college to join a company and make Commodore 64 games, a move his father, who was the president of the University, approved of due to the high salary. That company went bankrupt.
When he was about to go back to school, he got a call from a certain company called Lusasfilm, asking him if he wanted to interview for a job making video games. He got the job, but there was a catch.
“All of us were huge Star Wars fans, and here we were, working for Lucasfilm, for George Lucas, with Industrial Light and Magic right across the street, and we couldn’t make Star Wars games,” he explained. The license for the games had been sold to other companies before Lucasfilm had a game group, so there was no way an internal part of the company could tackle that property.
“Had we been able to make Star Wars games, I’m sure that’s all we would have made. Not being able to make those games creatively freed us in ways I don’t think we understood at the time. Without that freedom, there would be no Maniac Mansion, or Grim Fandango, or Monkey Island, or Loom,” Gilbert stated. “Constraints or limitations can sometimes be a driving force to innovation and creating inspiration.”
“When your brain can’t do what it wants, it has this amazing capacity to figure out something else, and often something better,” he continued. “We should always embrace limitations and figure out ways for them to become a strength.”
So he got to work at the company of his dreams, but was denied work in the world that originally inspired him. That limitation ended up being very good for the adventure game genre. “To this day, I’m so thankful that we were not allowed to make Star Wars games,” Gilbert said.