Maniac Mansion Design Notes

Jul 16, 2014

While cleaning out my storage unit in Seattle, I came across a treasure trove of original documents and backup disks from the early days of Lucasfilm Games and Humongous Entertainment. I hadn't been to the unit in over 10 years and had no idea what was waiting for me.

Here is the first batch... get ready for a week of retro... Grumpy Gamer style...

First up...

A early mock-up of the Maniac Mansion UI. Gary had done a lot of art long before we had a running game, hence the near finished screen without the verbs.

A map of the mansion right after Gary and I did a big pass at cutting the design down.  Disk space was a bigger concern than production time. We had 320K. That's right. K.

Gary and I were trying to make sense of the mansion and how the puzzles flowed together. It wouldn't be until Monkey Island that the "puzzle dependency chart" would solve most of our adventure game design issues.

More design flow and ideas. The entire concept of getting characters to like you never really made it into the final game. Bobby, Joey and Greg would grow up and become Dave, Syd, Wendy, Bernard, etc..

A really early brainstorm of puzzle ideas. NASA O-ring was probably "too soon" and twenty-five years later the dumb waiter would finally make it into The Cave.

I'm still amazed Gary and I didn't get fired.

One of the things I always liked about LucasArts adventure games was that you could never get stuck in a dead end (I remember not being able to finish Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy because at the very end, Marvin asked me for the only tool out of 17 that I had failed to pick up before the door locked behind me).

Presumably diagrams like the ones above helped you avoid this sort of thing. But did you use any formal techniques, or tricks to make sure the player couldn't get stuck?

One that I've noticed is to use an object that will be crucial in Chapter 3 to hide the key for getting out of Chapter 1. Any others?

Ron Gilbert
Maniac Mansion was full of deadends and crappy puzzles. The "no deadends" philosophy evolved after (and maybe because of) Maniac Mansion.

It was the Puzzle Dependency Chart that finally allowed us to avoid those issues, as well realizing it was just "bad game design".

Hi Ron,
I have always been meaning to ask you since you never commented on this bug in any of the speeches you've given about Maniac Mansion in recent years.
I remember that in the C64 Version you were able to actually walk up the plant even while it was small if you were clicking just the right spot on the hatch. You just couldn't exit the room. Similarly you could walk "up" the garage door while it was closed by just clicking on it enough. Do you remember this bug and/or what caused it?

I love those design notes. They're a fantastic insight.

Thanks, Ron.

Imagine an urban version of Monkey Island 2 where you have to travel to four American cities and collect map pieces.  When the fragments are combined, they list the directions to one of Ron's storage units.  Resting on the floor is an envelope that contains the design document revealing The Secret of Monkey Island...also a fragment.  The credits roll and the game copies a file to your Desktop.

Only when enough copies of the game are sold and completed, can the Internet finally piece these files together.  Some copies of the game produce duplicate pieces just in case someone neglects to share.

Four years pass and the final piece has finally been collected.  The news breaks the Internet for two days.  When the servers come back online a single message is blinking across millions of monitors around the world:  "Be sure to drink your Grog."

The glitch with the plant was the only reason I was ever able to win the game! I was never able to get the plant to grow with the radioactive water + soda.

@Rosstin: You must remember that wrong. You cannot actually go through the hatch while the plant is small.

Hello Mr.Gilbert. I am a big fan of his work since I was a kid and played on my Commodore Amiga this great Maniac Mansion.
I am currently preparing a program about this game for my spanish youtube channel and I wonder if you could work out some questions about the game:
  When did you exactly start working on the concept of MM with Gary? I have understood you started at Lucasfilm Games in October 1985 with a three months to make the Koronis Rift conversion to Atari 800. Do you think it was around february or march 1986?
When you started with MM you guys already went to The Stable House at the Skywalker ranch or continued on Computer Division Building in San Rafael?
Did MM development and Labyrinth: the computer game development happened at once?
Why do you think Steve Arnold trusted you and Winnick to create your own project being newcomers?
Did you participate in the 1989 enhanced ports of MM? Do you know why they changed the color of the skin of the Edison family?
Thank you very much for your time, I hope I have not bothered you with so many questions. Thanks again for sharing this incredible design notes.

Mike McP
These are awesome.  Thanks for sharing!

Disco? Ed hates you if you don't dance?!

Bobbi Sox
Just what the hell were you supposed to videotape Weird Ed doing? And did it involve the hamster?

mm_design_2_thumb.jpg Love that! It's a bit like how I felt when I first saw the Star Control 2 source code. I was like - oh so this is why this game is so great, they obsessed over making the game great and beautiful rather that then code clean and readable!
I'm currently working on some C# code and I pretty much abandonded all OO-principles and patterns, doing it all C-style. Now that it's getting "ready" I'm using the Extract Method refactoring and adding few objects where needed to get things bit more clean. I feel that doing things stricly OO-style all the way tends to interfere too much when doing bottom up feature design in the code. But that's just me.

Let me rephrase that. Given the complexity of the game it's clean and readable but there's so much hardcoded things that it was just overwhelming and modding certain things that appear simple on surface without more complete understanding would just break it.

It's somewhat ironic, that the game that taught me the word "weird", and from which I learned so much english (this game doubled as an excellent english teaching tool, because you saw an object visually, and then the game would tell you what it was called, when you clicked it) -- actually has that word misspelled in the notes.

It's spelled "wierd" there. Et tu, Ron Gilbert?

The Commodore 64 version of Maniac Mansion is still the best computer or video game that I have ever played - maybe not so much in the gameplay department (there's too much running back and forth), but as something with the perfect, 1980s, autumny, starry-night, mansiony atmosphere that just can't be compared to anything else. Even the sound effects are, although simplistic-sounding, balm to the soul, and I used to be amazed at their authenticity as a kid.

The only problem with Maniac Mansion, in my opinion, was that it never had a 'true sequel' in the sense that there would be 'more of the same'. When I 'won the game', I realized it was over - and I wanted more. But Maniac Mansion is one serving only - there's no more of the same.

Day of the Tentacle was a wonderful, atmospheric, beautiful, funny and great game (with inspiring musics, too), but it wasn't really 'more of Maniac Mansion' as much as it was 'a computerized, interactive cartoon that can't be taken seriously'. I really didn't like its 'graphics style' - the graphics were beautiful in their own way, but why did every single wall have to be CURVED instead of straight, for example? It was like everything was distorted, and shapes and proportions didn't suddenly matter anymore.

And its SCUMM engine had regressed - suddenly, it wasn't possible for the players or the characters to SPEAK without halting the game completely. Speaking and walking didn't seem possible in DOTT, but in Maniac Mansion, you can read the sign in the beginning, while Dave's or Razor's mouth moves, -while-walking-around-. Try that in DOTT..

Those notes are so far away from what the game actually ended up being (thank goodness), it's very interesting to see.

I think Maniac Mansion isn't completely 'full' of dead-ends - I can't even think of that many that I have encountered. There are so many ways of achieving the same goal (getting rid of Purple Tentacle, for example), that it's almost hard to get stuck.

Of course you can get your character(s) killed, and that will obviously hinder the process, or can stop it completely. But real dead-ends? I'd like to know about them. Usually, the whole mansion is visitable, and there aren't rooms that you can't return to, except near the end. I guess there is a dead-end, if you don't have the Card Key with you before entering the laboratory.

And if you misplace the quarter dollar, you probably can't get it back - or can you? If you don't take the Yellow Key, you can't put the meteor in the trunk of the car.

But I wouldn't say it is -full- of them. Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders(tm) is way more guilty of those things.

By the way, it's not "320K", it's "320 k". An uppercase "K" means "Kelvin", a lowercase is needed to signify "kilos" (though if we want to be strict about it, an uppercase B is also needed, because otherwise, it's just "kilos", not "kilobytes"). So, the correct way would be "320 kB".

Perhaps one day (or an autumny night), there will be a 'true sequel' to this glorious, unique, atmospheric, most mansionic adventure I have ever played and enjoyed.

I wish more adventure games had realized that jungles and such are boring, and mansions are interesting and exciting, and would happen in mansions. This game really made me interested in mansions, and has made it a delight to watch old movies and such, where Maniac Mansion-like mansions are featured.

Nowadays people choose to make 'boring' stuff instead of 'exciting and interesting' things for some reason. Everything is either grey and boring, or just mundane and not that interesting. Mansions and starry autumny nights are interesting, walking in some city is mundane, and using a ship to get to a jungle island is boring (no offense to The Secret of Monkey Island or its only sequel).

I was so disappointed to arrive at the Mansion in 'The Secret of Monkey Island', just to have ONE room that you can visit inside, and not have any more of that mansion magic. Oh well, at least the night was starry, until Guybrush started captaining a ship - then it just became a mundane daytime game for most part.

For me, the most exciting thing was to stand in front of a new door, wondering (another word that I learned from Maniac Mansion) what the room behind that door might contain... and then enter that door and witness the glorious beauty and excitement that the room invariably always offered!

That kind of sense of exploration and excitement just didn't exist in any other game. I always wondered what the room upstairs of the stairs that are out of order might look like. Incredibly frustrating that you can't go up there or fix the stairs. And incredibly inspiring to the imagination..

No game (or movie) has ever teased and amped my imagination as much as Maniac Mansion did back in the eighties.

And the more recent efforts to milk the name have been pathetic at best, atrocious insults at worst. Maniac Mansion Mania just plain sucks. How dare they tarnish the name like that? They should've called it something else.

By the way, the C64 fonts on this site do not scale properly. There is another font that does it much better (or it could be that the font size, try "C64 TrueType V1.0/Style", from this site: