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Playing Catch Up: Zombies Ate My Neighbors' Mike Ebert

Today's Playing Catch-Up talks to Mike Ebert, LucasArts veteran and co-creator of the classic Zombies At My Neighbors, about his fascinating 20-year history in the game biz, detailing his work on games from Maniac Mansion for NES to _Tony

Alistair Wallis, Blogger

January 11, 2007

17 Min Read

Today's Playing Catch-Up, a weekly column that dares to speak to notable video game industry figures about their celebrated pasts and promising futures, speaks to Mike Ebert, lead designer on LucasArts’ celebrated topdown action title Zombies At My Neighbors. Ebert began working with computers seriously while studying computer science at the University of California in Berkeley. “This is going to make me seem like some old geezer,” he sighs. “I did two years at Berkeley as a computer science major, learning ‘C’ and trying to make some pretty sad video games just using text print outs. It was the stone age of computers; punch cards and teletypes! I got an Apple II in my 2nd year, but spent most of my time playing video games on that. The next year I dropped out of Berkeley to study illustration at the Academy of Art in San Francisco.” Starting Off At Lucasfilm After completing his course, Ebert applied worked in desktop publishing for a while, before applying for work with Lucasfilm in the latter half of the 1980s. The company had recently found success with adventure titles Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders and Maniac Mansion, and were looking to keep working within the genre. Though he admits he didn’t see the industry as a viable career choice until he received the “first paycheck from Lucasfilm”, Ebert used the days prior to his interview to practice drawing Indiana Jones with a mouse, on a friend’s Mac. “I knew how to use a mouse pretty well, since I was working in desktop publishing at the time,” he says. “So translating my drawing skills to the mouse was pretty easy. I only stopped drawing with a mouse about two years ago: I moved over to pen and tablet. I kind of lucked into the job at Lucasfilm Games. I was working towards a career drawing comic books, when a friend recommended that I check out a job opening at Lucasfilm. So I went in for an art test and got hired on the spot. I was artist number three at the company. The pay was a lot better than any comic book jobs I had gotten up to that point.” “I’m not going to lie,” he continues. “It was pretty sweet! Working at Skywalker Ranch was like being at a movie studio that was disguised as an amazing vacation resort. We were the ‘black sheep’ of Skywalker Ranch, we just didn’t fit in. My favorite memory was seeing all the game testers swarm the dining hall. They always ran to get in line first, especially on steak day! You pretty much dined on five star quality restaurant food, surrounded by George [Lucas], various Hollywood stars, and video game testers!” From Maniac to Indy Ebert’s first released work for the company was on the NES port of Maniac Mansion in 1988, for which he was credited with “actor art”. The next year, Ebert’s work was seen in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure, and in The Secret of Monkey Island the year after that. “As an artist back then, you sort of did everything: background art, character design, and animation,” he notes of his contribution to the titles. “Animation wasn’t that hard to do, most the sequences were about six to eight frames long. Pretty easy stuff. I wasn’t involved in any game design work at that time.” Despite the reputation these games have today as classics of the genre, Ebert notes that the idea of making something with lasting appeal wasn’t the main goal, and that the team had little idea of the impact that the games would have. “Everyone just wanted to make something better than Kings Quest or Space Quest from Sierra,” he muses. “There was a strong sense of competition against Sierra. I don’t know how Sierra felt about us, but in our minds they were the arch enemy. Ron Gilbert, who created Monkey Island, really drove us to make the best game possible. I learned a lot about design and organization from Ron. Even just yesterday I found myself making a dependency chart for our new game, that’s something I picked up from him.” Around this time, Ebert attempted to become more involved in the design side of things with the company, along with Kalani Streicher, who had previously worked on the point and click adventure game LOOM. The two began pitching a sci-fi adventure title, as well as building several prototypes using Lucasfilm’s in-house adventure game engine, SCUMM, but were never given the chance to develop their ideas further. “There was some politics in the company, especially since we were the ‘new guys’ trying to move up to the project leader roll,” he notes. “Some of the things we prototyped in our game, made appearances in later SCUMM games.” The duo did receive a credit for “Contributions to Design” on 1991’s Star Wars game for the NES, though Ebert laughs that he wasn’t actually aware of the acknowledgment. “I didn’t even know I was listed on that game! I probably just sat in some meeting and offered suggestions,” he says. “Star Wars was a disaster of a project at Lucasfilm, just about anything that could go wrong did.” The Empire Strikes NES Finally, Streicher and Ebert were offered the chance to lead the development of a sequel to LOOM, but this was cancelled after the original title failed to sell as well as expected. However, despite the problems with the project, Star Wars was selling, and the opportunity to design the Empire Strikes Back game was waiting to be taken up. “Most people in the company didn’t want to go near the NES projects because of all the problems,” Ebert notes. “When there was an opening to design the Empire NES game, I jumped all over that opportunity.” Ebert and Streicher used the chance to fix the mistakes made during the development of Star Wars, and outsourced part of the game to Sculptured Software, Inc. “Outsourcing is what made that project work,” he comments. “A lot of things went wrong with Star Wars, so Kalani and I wanted a fresh start with Empire. We found an existing unpublished sci-fi game that Scupltured Software had created. We took the game engine, and designed Empire around it. Lucasfilm handled the design, art and level construction, while Sculptured did the programming. It worked extremely well on a tight time schedule because the engine, dev tools and key programmer were in place to begin with.” “We all loved The Empire Strikes Back, and wanted to do great job,” he adds. “The real pressure we felt though was to get the game done fast and efficiently, especially since most of the earlier NES games were development disasters.” The game was released in 1992, and received positive reviews, with many praising its emphasis on exploration and partially non-linear progression. The same year, Ebert also contributed art to another Indiana Jones title - The Fate of Atlantis - and was credited as a playtester on Toys For Bob’s Star Control II. “The game development community around Marin was pretty small back then, and just about everyone knew someone at each company,” Ebert explains of the acknowledgement. “I met Paul Reiche of Toys For Bob through friends and used every opportunity to see what Paul was working on, and test some of his games.” Zombies Prototyped My Project! Ebert’s next project evolved out of a bitmap graphics engine “that could be controlled by pretty simple ‘C’ code” built by programmer Ed Kilham, who Ebert was sharing an office with. “I knew some ‘C’, so during my free times I started making all sorts of strange graphics demos and games,” he says. “One of the demos was a side-scrolling save-the-people-from-the-monsters demo that would later evolve into Zombies Ate My Neighbors.” Amongst the changes made was a difference in perspective – from side to 3/4 top down, inspired by Ebert’s love of Robotron and Smash TV, which he describes as two of his “favorite arcade games of all time”. The basic gameplay was that of a top-down shooter, with the protagonists of the game using various weaponry to defeat schlock horror staples like mummies, zombies and vampires and rescue their neighbors. Ebert notes that he feels the most important element of the title’s design was its concept of resource management: “use as few weapons [as possible] early on so that later you have plenty of weapons to defeat the harder levels,” he explains. “The aspect of keeping the neighbors alive, made for interesting twists in strategies,” he continues. “The more neighbors you keep alive the longer it takes to save them on each level, also the more resources you use to save them. You can keep fewer neighbors alive, have less to save, use less resources, but then you risk losing the game if your total drops to zero.” “Our other goal was to try to present 20 very different feeling levels at the start of the game. I figured if the player had 20 levels of fairly distinctive game play, we’d get them hooked. Only after those 20 levels were done would we start to duplicate level concepts. This worked out pretty well. I ended building and doing the art for all 56 levels of the game. I shuffled the order of the levels around a lot during development.” Wandering Around LucasArts, In-Game Amongst the various levels in the game were a number of hidden levels, including the infamous “credits level”, Monsters Among Us, which set the player loose in the LucasArts offices; allowing them to talk to various members of the development team to find out their role in the title. Also in the level were a number of surprise cameos, including Day of the Tentacle’s purple tentacle, Sam & Max designer Steve Purcell dressed as Indiana Jones, and the company’s owner. “I don’t think we were actually supposed to put George Lucas in the game,” muses Ebert, “but we did, and just didn’t tell anyone. It was so easy to make levels for Z.A.M.N. that one day for fun, I just made the floor plan of our offices. The credit level then grew out of that. Originally it was a little more gory, but Nintendo didn’t like severed heads in the game.” “In the end the design worked very pretty well,” Ebert says. “We managed to get just about everything into that game that we could squeeze onto the cartridge. Looking back I wish we hadn’t hidden the flamethrower so well. Most people don’t even know there is one in the game. I wish we had more focus testing on the product too. Most of all I wish Lucasfilm had published the game themselves. The publishing deal Lucas had with Konami earned us very little royalties.” The game was released on SNES and Genesis in 1993 to rave reviews. “I think it’s the best reviewed game I’ve ever worked on,” Ebert notes. “The project went so smoothly we were green lighted for Metal Warriors almost immediately. I’d like to see a DS or Wii downloadable version of Z.A.M.N, but last time someone talked to LucasArts about it, they were like ‘We made that game?’” Send Them Some Letters People Metal Warriors, co-designed by Ebert and programmer Dean Sharpe, was released in April 1995. A fast paced side-scrolling mech shooter, the game arrived too late in the SNES’ lifetime to receive much attention, though Ebert is nonetheless proud of what was achieved. “That game was a lot of fun to make,” he says. “Harrison Fong designed some great looking mechs and Dean Sharpe did an amazing job with the controls, especially the Spider Mech. Everything went very smooth on that project. We used the Z.A.M.N. engine and I remember we went through test with less than 500 bugs.” “There was a time when Nintendo was talking about publishing the title themselves, if we made a few changes,” he recalls. “I really liked having Nintendo review our game and offer us a list of changes to make. Their ideas were really good! But, the PlayStation shipped, that year, the SNES market vanished, and the Nintendo deal fell through. We were glad just to get the game in the stores.” The change to CD based media didn’t change the way Ebert worked much though, he notes. “The bigger change wasn’t the format, but switching to 3D art and level layout,” he says. Starting Up Big Ape Ebert founded his own studio, Big Ape Productions, with Sharpe shortly after Metal Warriors’ release, and adds that the duo felt “pretty confident we could learn anything we needed to know” about working on the 32-bit console. Big Ape moved into office space shared with Paul Reiche’s Toys For Bob, and developed Herc’s Adventures and Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace for LucasArts in 1997 and 1999 respectively, before Ebert decided to cut ties with the publisher. “Some of it was politics,” he notes. “[Former LucasArts general manager] Kelly Flock was really the guy that let us do Z.A.M.N. and Metal Warriors. He gave us a lot of ability to work on our own, but still within LucasArts. We just worked fast and efficiently, avoiding any politics within the company. After Kelly left things were a little strange in management, there was more politics. It just seemed like a good time to try going on our own.” In 2001, Big Ape released Simpsons Wrestling for PlayStation through Activision, following which Ebert made the decision to leave the company. “I don’t want to go too much into the whole Big Ape experience,” he says hesitantly. “I could write a short book about things we did wrong. The key thing I learned was that when your company starts to grow, you need someone with business experience involved in the daily operation of the company. You might get by when you are a small development group, but increased size, brings increased problems.” After resigning from Big Ape, Ebert estimates that it took Reiche “about two hours” to offer him a design job at Toys For Bob. Ebert’s first job for the company was 2003’s Disney Extreme Skate Adventure. The Toys For Bob Experience “To me the license title is actually the greatest challenge in game design!” Ebert says. “In theory you should be able to make a licensed based title that is as fun, and sells as well as even the most successful original title. The licensed title is sort of the improv of game design. You get some random un-expected subject matter, you improvise and make a fun game out of the subject. If I give you the subject matter, ‘Peanut Butter and Bread’ you as a designer should be able to make an amazing game out of that subject matter.” “You may just need to work at the design a little more than, say, with a World War II shooter,” he continues. “You can’t always fall back on well tested paradigms with something like ‘Peanut Butter and Bread’; your subject matter won’t allow it. This is what excites me about license titles!” Ebert worked as senior designer on another licensed title, Madagascar, in 2005, which saw him trying to figure out the “most fun thing about being a zoo animal”. “You didn’t have guns or chainsaws, but still there were fun things you could do,” he muses. “It took a while to figure what those things were, but eventually we got it. The guilty pleasure that comes from causing mischief on unsuspecting humans; that was a direction we could go with the design that kept it true to the subject matter, but was still fun. The penguins outsmarting the sailors, the lion scaring off little children, hippos knocking over cars and people on the streets of Manhattan: all these things worked to make an entertaining experience.” “It’s not always the subject matter though of the game that makes for a good or bad work experience,” he adds of working with licences. “It’s the company that’s around the production. I think no matter what the subject matter of the game, I’d have a lot of fun working on it with the people at Toys For Bob. This is going to sound like a sale pitch, but there are pretty much three things that make it a great place to work: People, Tools, and Atmosphere.” Ebert notes that a large number of the staff at the company are people he has known for much of his career; people who have previously worked with LucasArts and Big Ape, or other companies in the same area. “After 10 years working with a fellow designer, you typically mesh pretty well as a team,” he says. “The atmosphere is very small dev group feel to it. Everyone here is very ‘hands on’. Even upper management understands most every aspect of the game, or has worked on some part of the game. Most everyone has checked their egos at the door, and we typically don’t hire people that won’t fit into the friendly atmosphere of the place.” “Tool development at Toys For Bob is a top priority,” he continues. “We’ve got a powerful scripting and authoring tool set that allows the designers to build essentially anything they want. You could if you wanted create a flight simulator for one level of a game, a race game on another, and a dungeon crawler on another, all with the same tool set. We did a little of this on Madagascar; the penguin level was all custom built, sharing very little from the other game levels. We’re readying a new upgraded version of the tools for our next project. The tool set is the best I’ve seen in 17 years of making games, and I’ve used a lot of tool sets!” Downhill Jam, The Future... More recently, the company released Tony Hawk Downhill Jam for the Wii – a console that Ebert describes as “a lot of fun to develop on”. “I think there’s probably some very cool game ideas still waiting to be discovered for the Wii,” he muses. “But, unless you are doing a Wii exclusive, it’s going to be hard to really get the full potential out of that controller. Our next project is cross platform, so it’s going to be a challenge to make sure that the Wii, Xbox 360 and PS3 all control equally as well.” Ebert worked as co-lead designer for the game, though notes that 80% of his work is “actual ‘hands on’ 3D work and scripting”. The title also gave him a chance to work on character design; submitting ten characters to a pool of “hundreds” brainstormed by the development team – two of which made their way into the game. He comments that he saw the chance to submit designs as a way to satisfy a “creative urge”; something he says licensed games don’t always do. “When I get that urge, I do artwork instead,” Ebert explains. “I still draw and work on a comic book idea in my spare time. I keep a running thread over at conceptart.org of my personal art work.” Amongst this work is a comic book, which represents a return to the medium for Ebert – he mentions that he had “a few published comic books a long time ago”, though laughs that he is unhappy with the standard of his work at the time, and never shows them “to anyone”. “Comics take a lot of work; the deadlines for getting them finished are usually very tight,” he says. “I hate sacrificing the quality of the comic, just to meet deadlines. For now I’ll keep it something I do on the side. I’ve got the whole story arc planned out, I just need to start drawing it. I set a goal of getting the first chapter (12-16 pages) finished by the end of 2007. Will see if I make it! I’ll show it around then and see what the response is like. I may just post it online for free. Not sure yet.” Before then, Ebert has a new project to work on at Toys For Bob; although he is currently unable to say much about it. “It’s a licensed title,” he hints, “but if I can figure out a good design for a “Peanut Butter and Bread” mini game, it’s going in as a secret level!”

About the Author(s)

Alistair Wallis


Alistair Wallis is an Australian based freelance journalist, and games industry enthusiast. He is a regular contributor to Gamasutra.

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