Interview with Corey Cole

From The Adventure Gamer

Introduction by Joe, questions by the TAG community & editors
Lori and Corey Cole have created some of the all-time classic adventure games

As we wrap up our special “month long” coverage of the launch of Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption, we want to close out as we began: with the personalities and stories behind the games. To that end, our community and editors put together a set of interview questions which Corey has been kind enough to answer for us even while he and Lori were putting the finishing touches on their game launch. Well, the day has finally arrived and Hero-U is available for sale! Please have a look at our our review of a pre-release version and check out their game on Steam, GOG, or other places where independent games are sold.

Kickstarter success story!

You have become primarily known for doing work with your spouse, so much so that “The Coles” is the title of your Wikipedia page. Can you tell us a little about how you met and came to work together?

Wikipedia is an interesting place. During our 2012 Kickstarter campaign, someone mentioned that we should have a wikipedia page, so a few fans started one – Anyone may edit Wikipedia, although it is mostly a place for referencing existing content. If you’ve been following stories about us over the years, feel free to expand our wikipedia article. ? The one rule is no original content or opinion, only material that appears elsewhere on the web or in print.

As to how we met, that ties heavily into the second question (ref tabletop gaming). We met in the gaming area at a science fiction convention – Westercon 1979 in San Francisco. I was there on a whim with some friends from the science fiction and fantasy club at USC. Lori was visiting her aunt in San Francisco and learned about Westercon, so she and a cousin decided to attend. Both of us had gone to a few SF&F cons previously.

Lori visited the tabletop gaming area as I was about to start running a D&D game. I invited her to join the game – I needed another player, and hey, she was cute! There has always been a shortage of female tabletop gamers, possibly because socially inept male gamers tend to hit on them. Oh wait, that’s probably what I was doing. ? Anyway, that was all secondary – Lori was a great role-player and brought up the level of play at the table.

Afterwards, we spent hours talking – mostly me talking about my life; Lori was and is a great listener and I talk a lot. She returned to Arizona, and I to L.A., but we started corresponding. Eventually, she came out to visit me, and I went out to visit her. Then I got a job in San Jose (near SF), and talked her into joining me there.

I worked as a programmer and Lori got a job teaching pre-school. Meanwhile, we continued to play D&D. I ran the games for the local Mensa fantasy gaming special interest group. Lori and I edited a newsletter for the nation SIG, The Spell Book. We decided to develop our own game system, which we called Fantasy Guild. It was inspired by the Arizona D&D system, various fantasy games systems I had read or played, and things we had both read.


Meanwhile, Judges Guild published my Tower of Indomitable module for D&D and other fantasy game systems. We came up with some ideas for a D&D-like arcade game and a multiplayer fantasy game, maybe for Compuserve or Genie in that mostly pre-Internet era. Neither of those projects went beyond the concept stage.

We continued to attend science fiction conventions, where we discovered “filking” – folk singing with science fiction and fantasy themes. Through filking, we met Carolly Hauksdottir, who was doing contract art and animation for Sierra On-Line. Carolly introduced us to Ken Williams, who was looking for a role-playing game designer. As it turned out, he had a more urgent need for an Atari ST programmer, and I had recent experience with that. Ken hired me as a programmer.

A few months later, Lori and I proposed the Hero’s Quest series to Ken and Sierra management. I didn’t think an Ultima-style game – what they thought they wanted – made sense with Sierra’s tools. Instead, we proposed to bring our Fantasy Guild system to the computer and make a story-driven game closer to a Sierra adventure than an Ultima RPG. We proposed to bring tabletop role-playing to computers. Fortunately, we were too naïve to realize how difficult that would be.

Ken wasn’t too excited about me working on the game – he needed me as a systems programmer. But Roberta had set the precedent for women game designers at Sierra, and Lori could check off every box of Sierra’s nearly-impossible requirements for game designer/directors – Leadership? She had a teaching degree and had taught school. Game programmers and artists are mostly indistinguishable from grade school students.

Art direction? Lori had taken art classes in college and had (and has) talent. Writing? She had a minor in English and had written short stories, as well as edited our D&D newsletter. Role-playing games? Lots of experience as a tabletop game master. Programming? Sierra had people to do that, and Lori had a husband who could talk her through writing specs for programmers.


Ed Note: My parents wouldn’t let me play. Something about Satan. 

How did you first get introduced to tabletop role playing? Did your love of computer gaming emerge from a tabletop experience, or vice-versa?

Lori and I separately discovered Dungeons & Dragons in the mid-1970s. Lori and her younger brother were part of a gaming group that used the “Arizona D&D” rules variations. Unlike original D&D, Arizona D&D had no experience levels. Instead, players could “spend” their experience points to buy improved stats, spells, and so on.

The Arizona D&D players took turns as gamemasters. Other than the wife of the group’s founder, Lori was the only “girl gamer” there, and older than most of the boys. But that didn’t matter – the games were the thing, and Lori was a popular game master and player.

Oddly, my first experience with tabletop role-playing was on a computer. I was using an online learning system called PLATO, and friends recommended a new “dungeon crawler” – it might have been Dungeon, Oubliette, or DND. I was amazed by this creative and original game, but I had no idea it was based on a tabletop game, D&D.

After graduation, I did a project in Chicago and got into a D&D group there. I was fortunate to have a couple of very creative dungeon masters who made story an important part of their games. When it came my turn to “guest DM,” I came up with the scenario that I later wrote up as Tower of Indomitable Circumstance. The players loved it, so I realized it might be publishable.


Dungeon, aka “pedit5”, roughly as it appeared on the PLATO

How do you collaborate together? After almost four decades as game designers, what do you appreciate most about your significant other’s approach to design?

Mostly we argue a lot. ? Usually Lori comes up with a game idea, and I half listen, then just have to put in my two cents worth with some silly and crazy tangent. When this doesn’t derail the conversation entirely, Lori says something like, “Well, that’s just dumb. But what if…” Then I say, “How about if…” After a bit of verbal ping-pong, this sometimes turns into a usable idea.

Lori’s main interest is the game characters. She writes almost all of the dialogue in our games. We discuss and eventually agree on the stories, which come out of the game setting and the characters. How would they interact with each other and with the player? Due to her art background, Lori sketches scenes and characters and directs the artists.

I focus more on handling interaction with the environment, text messages and puzzles. I also work with the programmers since that’s my background.

As for appreciation, I like that Lori does most of the creative work, and I get to write random silly stuff. She likes that I handle the parts she considers boring, especially paying the bills and doing administrative stuff. We slipped a couple of CPA jokes into Hero-U.


Erasmus and Fenris, hanging out in their summer cottage.

Quest for Glory is the series that you have become best known for. How much of those games were developed in your tabletop sessions?

Erasmus and Fenrus (or sometimes Fenris) came from a cartoon Lori created for our D&D newsletter, The Spell Book, along with our friend Richard Aronson. The “practice makes perfect” skill development system came from Fantasy Guild with roots in Arizona D&D. Other elements came from fairy and folk tales, much as in King’s Quest, and from random life experiences.

We were much older than the typical game designer of the time. Lord British started in high school, Roberta in her early 20’s. Lori and I were over 30 by the time we started Hero’s Quest. As a result, we had been a few places and read extensively, so we had a lot of material on which to draw.


Baba Yaga: Recurring villain and experienced chef

Was there a “series bible”? How far along did you sketch out the Hero’s adventures?

Lori gradually developed something like a “series bible” as we went along. Our first proposal called for a four-game series, but it wasn’t clear we would get past the first game, if even that. Everyone was pleasantly surprised by how well Hero’s Quest sold from the start. Sierra’s normal rule was to make a series game every two years, but Hero’s Quest got such a good reception, they had us start immediately on Hero’s Quest II (which soon became Quest for Glory II).

We later inserted an unplanned game 3, but it fit perfectly with character and plot points in the first two games. We did some early “meta planning,” such as making Baba Yaga an important character in the first game, knowing that we would bring her back later in Shadows of Darkness.


He’s interested in things. He’s not a real doctor, but he is a real brain.

How far along were you on Shadows of Darkness before Wages of War was inserted? When you returned to that game a year or so later, did you keep the same design or was it changed by adding in a new third game?

We had the basic story and characters, but none of the details. I think we even knew that Dr. Cranium would be a Dr. Brain tribute because a comedy horror game needs a mad scientist. But it would have been a very different game if we had made it immediately, mostly because I was barely involved with Quest for Glory III.

As one of Sierra’s few experts in the SCI systems code, they assigned me to convert the interpreter to the Sega Genesis CD. That took up most of the year during which Lori directed the VGA remake of Hero’s Quest, Quest for Glory I VGA, and designed and directed Quest for Glory III. I helped with the initial story, the stoner apothecary’s dialogue, and some game text at the very end of the project.

Because Quest for Glory IV was delayed a year, I was able to be much more involved in the design and writing. I had quit my programming job and became (like Lori) a full-time contract designer for Quest for Glory IV.

Given that we only had a basic outline and a few pages of design from Shadows of Darkness initially, we used all of that. But now we worked together on the detailed design and writing. Since I wasn’t doing programming, I had time to create several Dr. Brain type puzzles for Dr. Cranium, as well as write a lot of the game text.


Kalb offers some excellent Kalbi. 

Of all the characters in Quest for Glory, who are your favorites? Is there a character you most identify with?

Lori and I might be the role-models Fenris and Erasmus. I’ve always enjoyed playing Wizards, and Lori likes to deflate my ego from time to time, a highly necessary task. But Lori actually identifies more with Katrina. I might say she’s more like Erana; Lori loves gardening and is passionate about helping people.

Contrary to popular opinion, I’m nothing like Salim. I have no interest in drugs (or alcohol), and I don’t have his personality. I might be closer to Keapon Laffin crossed with the Dervish in Quest for Glory II. (Although the Dervish – at least visually – was probably based on our Sufi producer, Guruka Singh Khalsa.)

Lori’s favorite character is Kalb, the canine meat seller in Quest for Glory III. She loves dogs in general. Mine might be Arne the Aardvark, also from QfG III, although I could probably give you a different answer every time you ask the question. ?


It is a pretty cool effect! Maybe not worth $50k..

In the 90s, you had the opportunity to create a game in the Shannara universe. What was it like building a game in someone else’s sandbox? Were there constraints set by Mr. Brooks on the type of game you could build?

That was a Valuable Learning Experience. Bob Bates “interviewed” us by having us submit ten game proposals for potential adventure games. We had a few of them we really liked and were excited about making. Instead, he told us that Legend was in the process of signing a license deal with a New York Times bestselling author. That turned out to be Terry Brooks.

The thing is, Lori and I had both read Sword of Shannara in college and weren’t very excited about it. I felt that the first third of the book read like a retelling of Lord of the Rings, and the rest of the novel was merely ok fantasy. Of course, Brooks became a far better and more original writer in his later books.

So we weren’t initially thrilled – we were assigned to make a game based on a book that wasn’t our favorite, instead of one of the awesome ideas we had presented to Legend. But as we reread the first book, then read the second Shannara book, we started coming up with ideas for a story set between the two books, and then we became much more excited about the game.

The other restriction was that the game had to be entirely serious. That chafed, and especially so when Bob later assigned Josh Mandel to write miscellaneous object handling text for the game, and Josh got carte blanche to write funny material. So all of the dialogue, puzzles, and main storyline are serious and dramatic, while a fair amount of the random object messages are comedic.

We hired several ex-Sierra people to work with us on the game and set up an office in Oakhurst. Our art director, Doug Herring, had lots of artist contacts and was able to outsource many of the background paintings. Bob Heitman, who had been my boss at Sierra, programmed the map and combat (“RPG lite”).

The worst mistake I made was answering Bob Bates’ question about, “What would you do if you had $50,000 extra?” We decided that it would be cool to get 3D animation of the pages of Brona’s book turning. It turned out that money wasn’t the real cost of that; it was time. That in turn made the game miss its Christmas window, lose out on end caps in stores, and probably a lot of sales. Ripple effects can be devastating; we never managed to make a second game with Legend.


I want one! 

Can you tell us a bit about School of Heroes, your project from the 2000s? How did that inform Hero-U?

In 2002, I took a job in L.A. developing an online poker game. A fan from there contacted Lori about collaborating on a young adult novel loosely based on Quest for Glory I. They wrote the book, but after getting rejected once, it’s been sitting on our shelf ever since. The fan, Mishell Baker, is now a successful author and has young children, so hasn’t had time to come back to How to Be a Hero.

But Mishell also set up a web site to promote the as-yet-unpublished book, Lori took it over, but did not have access to the source scripts, so we later made our own version as That website still exists, but has been inactive since we started work on Hero-U in 2012.

The idea of the school was that “students” took an entrance exam inspired by the fortune teller in Ultima IV. We scored the answers similarly to a Myers-Briggs personality assessment, and used them to assign each student as a Wizard, Warrior, Paladin, or Rogue. We had a series of assignments at each “level.” Player answers were sent to Lori, who role-played each of the professors and responded with advice on how to be a real-life fantasy hero. Each class had a theme – Paladins needed to help someone, Wizards to discover something, and so on.

We also had a forum on which some of the students did freeform roleplaying. One of the stories there involved the kidnapping of a student by a local thieves’ guild that didn’t like that the school had a rogue class. Eventually, the student was rescued, but the incident led to closing down the rogue class. This is the genesis of the Hero-U concept that, “There is no Rogue class at Hero-U. There are only the Disbarred Bards.”

All of the Hero-U professors are based on School for Heroes teachers. Meeps – which we later renamed to Kwirks – were a major presence in the forum stories. One particularly was “The Evil Meep,” who has not yet made an appearance in Hero-U, but will likely feature in a future game.


Early 2D concept art for Hero-U.

Hero-U marks a return to your roots as game developers. What about this new game are you most proud of?

The most exciting thing is that we’ve managed to finish it! We now realize we were coddled by Sierra and Legend. We had their development tools to work with, adequate budgets, and a team of full-time developers to make the game. Trying to make a game with a sub-minimum budget, putting together our own team of developers all around the world, and rolling our own development tools was much more than we should have taken on.

We are proud that we made a great, commercial-quality game instead of taking shortcuts to release it sooner. Those extra years of handling all the above logistics, as well as managing Kickstarter backers, gave us – Lori in particular – time to craft a very sophisticated game. Hero-U has a timeline that runs through the entire game, with many events occurring whether or not the player chooses to get involved. There is a large amount of dialogue possible with every character, and it changes as events in the game proceed.

Each of our Sierra games (except for Quest for Glory V) was developed in a single year. We never had the luxury of enriching and expanding them the way we’ve been able to do with Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption.

Of course, there are compromises as well. We originally tried to make a mostly-2D game, but we couldn’t get the background art to look good enough, and we couldn’t find enough strong 2D animators to make the game work. Eventually we were forced into 3D, which turned out to be a blessing in many ways. Scenes are far larger than in a Sierra game, giving us room for a lot of detail and interaction that we couldn’t have in those games.

We also had to compromise on animation and the film rule of, “Show, don’t tell!” Eventually we managed to contract with Al Eufrasio, a former Sierra animator, to greatly increase the amount of animation in the game. But equally importantly, we came up with the idea of illustrating important scenes with “vignettes” – still, full-screen images that help tell the story. Think of them as full-page illustrations in a children’s book. They add a lot of life and depth to Hero-U.

In the end, it took us 5-1/2 years, but we’ve managed to make a game that turns all of those compromises into pluses. And we have a game plan that will take us well past most people’s retirement age to keep telling stories in game form.


Like this but with more bit depth. 

You’ve mentioned a sequel involving a school of wizardry. (I haven’t played the game yet so I do not know how that links in with the current game.) Can you give us any hints for how you envision this series continuing?

One of the biggest differences between Quest for Glory and Hero-U is that players took on the role of a generic, named only by the player, Hero in Quest for Glory. Players also choose whether to be a Fighter, Magic User, or Thief.

In each Hero-U game, you will play a specific character in a single character (and University) class. In Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption, you play Shawn O’Conner, a Rogue whom you have the opportunity to “redeem” throughout the course of the game. This is an important distinction from Quest for Glory, as it allows Lori to “put words in the character’s mouth” in a particular “voice.” In Quest for Glory, you never heard the Hero’s words, only the response to them.

The “choose your own Hero” approach worked great in Quest for Glory – it gave players a lot of “agency” and a feeling of control and uniqueness for their characters. But it came at a cost to storytelling, if you believe as Lori does (and most screenwriters do) that characters make the story.

Shawn O’Conner is in that sense more like Guybrush Threepwood than “the Hero.” And I think most of us will agree that Secret of Monkey Island was a very well-written game. Having a central named hero with a defined personality helped make that possible.

The next major game in the series will be Hero-U: Wizard’s Way. Nona Pareil will be your character, a female Wizard with a mysterious past that will be gradually revealed over the course of the game. Because Nona is a Wizard, she will spend most of her time in different parts of the University, including outdoors, and she will have a different skill set and challenges than Shawn has in the first game.

I say, “next major game,” because first we’re going to make a much smaller, experimental game with a different feel from Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption and Hero-U: Wizard’s Way. On the development side, this will be a technology experiment to see if we should use the standardized Ink scripting language rather than our custom Composer for future games.

For players, it will be a totally different game experience, more of a casual menu-driven game than a walk-around adventure game. Our working title is Summer Daze at Hero-U, and we think it will be a lot of fun. It will also hopefully be less draining on us, the development team, and fans waiting for the next game to come out.

After Wizard’s Way (which will likely be several years in the future, hopefully more like 2-3 years than Rogue to Redemption’s 5-6), we will continue to cover all of the traditional – and some not-so-traditional – fantasy character classes in future games. The third game is a female Warrior, then a male Paladin. Game 5 could go several ways, either one of the less traditional classes (Bard, Scientist, or Chef), or the return of one or more of the previous characters. We might also insert other more casual games in between the main series games.

A little arithmetic suggests that Lori and I might be 80 or 90 by the time we wrap the series. And why not? We were considered too old to be in the game industry when we started at Sierra in our 30’s. 60 is the new 30.


Big AND Nordic!

Thus far, no Gloriana games have taken place in polar regions? Would the world of Hero-U have room for such a game, perhaps with Icelandic or Nordic mythology?

Currently all of the Hero-U games are planned to take place in or near Hero University in Sardonia. If someone develops an affordable longevity potion, maybe we’ll have time to try some different settings. At one point Lori and I talked about being an “exchange student” to Aegyptus or another remote location, but I don’t think we’re going to do that.

At least Hero’s Quest gave you Brauggi. And the world tree in Quest for Glory III might remotely be considered to be related to Yggdrasil. In the meantime, you can play Heroine’s Quest for an icy environment. I own it, but haven’t played it; I hear it’s a great game. It’s also free! Maybe our games could be free if we didn’t need to eat, pay bills, and spend a $ million or so on contract developers to make a game. I can envision a society where that could work, but we aren’t in it.

Can adventure games be rejuvenated? Could we ever see the return of a “big box” game like in the heyday?

Are they really on life support? I used to think that, and that first-person shooters had completely taken over all gaming space, but that’s clearly an exaggeration. There have been some excellent adventure games released in the last ten years, with many more to come. Other games such as RPGs have inherited many adventure game storytelling and other techniques. Lori and I have been hooked on World of Warcraft for the last 15 or 16 years, which doesn’t leave us much time to play anything else.

The “big box” era relied on a few major games coming out each year. Now there are thousands, and it can be difficult to discover the ones you’ll like. The strength of the Sierra / LucasArts era was that you knew what you would get if you bought a game from either company. Today there is a lot more variety and levels of quality.

Even on a personal level, “big box” is problematic. Where would you keep hundreds or thousands of game boxes? How would stores find enough space to stock them all? (Ok, Amazon.) There are plenty of great games being made today, but most people don’t want them to come in big boxes.


I want a board game version of this.

What advice can you give aspiring game designers that want to explore their creativity?

Write. Don’t get hung up on creating fancy graphics or puzzles to support your writing. Write some more. Then think about interactivity – Graph some possible paths through the story, and give the player meaningful choices.

Despair over the tens, then hundreds, then thousands of ways that allows the branches to go. Then think about ways to combine them or give the illusion of vast branchiness when you can really only allow a few major branches.

Puzzles – play with them on paper or cardboard cutouts. Use pieces from board games or toys – we got a set of toy plastic gears to work out one interface that we ended up abandoning. We made a cardboard prototype for the Poobah game, but only managed to get in a couple of playtesting sessions with it.

Run your stories and puzzles by your friends. Listen to the feedback and don’t argue. Think about which suggestions you want to take, and try to incorporate them to improve your story and puzzles. Be true to the needs of your characters and story, but don’t let your ego get in the way. Listen, don’t argue.

Once you have something that feels like it’s shaping up into a game, try building it in an interactive fiction system – something like Inform, TADS, AGS, Ink, or Visionaire. Make an all-text game and play through it many times. When you think it’s pretty good, ask your friends to play it. They’ll find thousands of things your game doesn’t handle that they think it should. Pay attention, and try to add the most important interactions.

If you have some art talent, try adding some illustrations. Or use public domain or Creative Commons CC0 clipart to help bring your game to life. Add some sound effects, maybe music. If you start having as much fun playing your own creation as writing it, maybe you’re on your way to making a successful indie game.

A fine looking guitar!

For a final bonus question: my five-year old wants to know if you have any guitars. (He doesn’t know anything about adventure games.)

I own a Guild D40 SB (Sunburst design). I used to own a Gibson Les Paul Deluxe (not the Custom) goldtop, but rarely played it, so I sold it. Sometimes I miss it. I rarely play the Guild, but I’ve had it since college. Lori owns two accordions and two autoharps (both Oscar Schmidt). She never plays them these days. But we both sing in a local choral group (I’m a baritone, usually sing bass these days, but I can handle tenor; Lori is a soprano.)

A very special Thank You to Corey Cole for sharing these fantastic answers and stories with us. We have been fortunate over the years to have the support and encouragement (and juicy historic tidbits!) of many of the designers that we have profiled, but none perhaps more than him. If you are new to the site, you can read our coverage of each of Lori and Corey’s games up to our current point in the blog, as well as our special review of a pre-release version of Hero-U:

Hero-U is available today on Steam and GOG. “The Coles” would greatly appreciate it if players were to post reviews, screenshots, and other community content on those sites once the game has been launched. Both the Steam andGOG versions of Hero-U are DRM-free and both offer Achievements if played online. For more information on the game you can also visit the Hero-U web site.

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