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Ron Gilbert shares original Maniac Mansion design document

Legendary game designer Ron Gilbert has posted the original design document for Maniac Mansion, his seminal 1987 point-and-click adventure game that kicked off LucasArts’ golden age of adventure gaming.

Gilbert created the 14-page spec with artist Gary Winnick to articulate their ideas and build interest among their colleagues at LucasArts (at the time Lucasfilm Games). It’s a refreshing and fascinating look back at an earlier era in game development when creativity ran a bit more rampant without the limitations of huge budgets and focus-tested precedent.

There was no official pitch process or “green lighting” at Lucasfilm Games. The main purpose of this document would have been to pass around to the other members of the games group and get feedback and build excitement. I don’t remember a point where the game was “OK’d”. It felt that Gary and I just started working on it and assumed we could. It was just the two of us for a long time, so it’s not like we were using up company resources. Eventually David Fox would come on to help with SCUMM scripting.

Three people. The way games were meant to be made.

The SCUMM engine would go on to be the backbone of LucasArts’ most beloved adventure games, such as The Curse of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, and Full Throttle. Gilbert outlines the engine’s basic operations in the document, dividing the screen between a picture of the action, a list of verbs, and an inventory.

The ideas laid out there would set important precedents not just for graphic adventure games, but the syntax of how we interact with games as a whole. The fact that he uses quotation marks around the word “clicking” when he describes using a mouse to select one of the characters on screen speaks to how wide and undefined the field was for ways that people could interact with games.

maniac mansion design

Simplistic as some of it may seem, it is also striking how little has changed in the nearly three decades since Gilbert wrote this design. The game’s interlocking system of puzzles, each with multiple solutions based on the particular combination of characters you choose to bring, leading to different endings based on who you brought and what transpired would sound right at home in contemporary games. In fact, it sounds more or less like what The Cave was trying to do. Moreover, the freewheeling process he describes feels very akin to the ethos of the current indie games renaissance.

The whole document is available on Gilbert’s blog. It’s quick and edifying read for the nostalgic, the curious, or anyone interested in the design process. He also posted a few pages of early design notes for The Curse of Monkey Island earlier this year, if you want more insight.