The titular house in Mystery House

Mystery House and Sierra On-Line - Getting Graphic

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Sierra On-Line 1980

Let There Be Graphics

Roberta and Ken Williams, founds of computer video game company On-Line Systems, later to be called Sierra

1981 image of Roberta and Ken Williams, founders of On-Line Systems, later known as Sierra

 

The plain text canvas of early computer adventures isn’t the summit of the rising video game industry. In 1979, Roberta Williams is a housewife with two kids, living in Simi Valley, California. Her husband Ken is a programmer at Informatics in Los Angeles, working on large mainframe computers. One evening, working at home on a terminal hooked up to the computer at work, Ken fires up Microsoft’s version of Crowther and Woods’ Adventure aka Colossal Cave game and shows it to Roberta. She is instantly hooked, obsessively playing the game to its conclusion. Ken purchases an Apple II computer in 1980, with the intention of creating a FORTRAN compiler for the machine and selling it to Apple. But Roberta isn’t very impressed with the few Scott Adams text adventures she buys for the home computer. Looking for a real challenge, she writes her own adventure game, and she and Ken decide to try something completely new by adding graphics to it. Mystery House, on 48K diskette for the Apple II, becomes the first computer adventure game to combine text with graphics. In a tale inspired by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, as well as Parker Brothers’ mystery board game Clue, the player must roam a house finding treasure and avoiding the deadly fates of the other occupants. User input is a limited verb-noun parser with a vocabulary of a paltry 300-400 words… well below the over 600-word library available in Infocom adventure games like Zork. However, Mystery House does contain 70 images, rough outlines created by Roberta on a VersaWriter tablet using a metal arm with an electronic eye at the tip. With this arm, an image drawn on paper can be traced, and Ken writes a program to convert the drawings into plotting commands that the computer will execute, drawing the illustrations without having to take up too much memory space. He also invents a special language to create the game, for use only in making graphic adventure games, called the Sierra Creative Interpreter. SCI takes the same route as competitor Infocom’s ZIL; it is a platform-agnostic language that can be easily adapted to any computer.

They launch their new company, On-Line Systems, along with Mystery House and two other programs called Skeetshoot and Trapshoot, with an ad in the pages of the May 1980 issue of Micro magazine. Despite the rudimentary artwork, the couple consider their products “interactive films”, and while this might seen a grandiose description,  Mystery House IS a sensation upon release. Priced at $24.95, the Williams sell 11,000 copies of the game inside the first year, grossing nearly 300,000 dollars for the new company. It is a small step towards one of Ken Williams’ goal for his nascent company: to be bigger than Activision.

Snap of Mystery House, a graphic adventure game by On-Line Systems 1980

The sketchy graphics of Mystery House

 On a Quest

That same year, looking for more bucolic surroundings to raise their two young boys, the Williams family pick up stakes and move from the LA area to Coarsegold, CA.; a brief 40 minute or so ride north from there and you’re into Yosemite National Park. They produce 20 more games for the Apple II, including further “Hi-Res” adventures Mission Asteroid, based on SF novel Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.  The first colour adventure game, Wizard and the Princess comes from Roberta’s love of fairy tales, and is considered the start of her vaunted King’s Quest series (see below).  Following up is Ulysses and the Golden Fleece, taken from Greek mythology. Produced by Roberta over a span of six months, Sierra also releases Time Zone in 1982, sporting over 1300 colour images and packed onto both sides of an astounding six floppies. Referred to in ad copy as a “micro-epic”, the game is a response to the feeling of disappointment Roberta always experiences at having a well-made adventure game come to an end: the length of Time Zone ensures that players won’t get that feeling of finality any time soon. That same year, the company name is changed to Sierra On-Line. They also post revenue of around $10 million, placing them as a top-tier independent game publisher.

 

Feedback on the Williams’ work rolls in from the likes of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who extolls the benefits of entertainment programs like those from Sierra for the increasingly popular home computer. To ease the process of programming the company’s contributions to the gaming landscape, two graphics utilities, called Paddle Graphics and Tablet Graphics, are developed to automate the illustrations in the games. In 1983, IBM asks Sierra to produce a game to show off the graphical capabilities of a new computer they are skewing towards the gaming market, then known only by its codename: Peanut. So feared is the idea of IBM entering the low-end computer market, that Apple’s stock price is halved overnight just on the rumour of such a machine. Using a provided prototype system, Roberta designs the next evolution of the graphical adventure. With Williams writing the story, artists then illustrate the scenes which are traced on a Calcomp Graphics Tablet. The result is an animated adventure game with astounding 16-colour CGA pseudo-3D graphics, allowing the player’s onscreen alter-ego to walk in and around 80 different locations. The process is actually similar to that of the original Mystery House: the tablet merely gives the computer the instructions of what to draw, which it does in real-time as the player moves to different “rooms” in the game. The computer takes about four seconds to draw and colour each scene, although the drawing process itself is strangely compelling to behold: it’s like watching a small child with extraordinarily fast fingers completing a fantasy-themed colouring book.

 

Sierra puts their hands into productivity applications as well as games, with word processor Screenwriter and Screenwriter II in 1982, and personal filing system The General Manager in 1983. In 1984, the company officially drops the “On-Line” from their name, now known simply as Sierra. With a team of seven programmers and artists and a development cost of $700,000, King’s Quest is released this year, initially for what is now known as the IBM PCjr. Players control Sir Graham, who is charged by King Edward to search the kingdom of Daventry for three treasures. The PCjr ends up tanking in spectacular fashion, felled mostly because of its atrocious keyboard: wireless, but with rubber chiclet-style keys that make using it a chore. An update to the computer in the later part of 1984 fixes the keyboard problem, but the damage has been done. IBM only manages to move about 300,000 units all told, and mercifully puts Jr to sleep by ending production in April of 1985. Sierra, on the other hand, has a major hit on their hands. Ported to more popular systems like the Apple II family and the IBM PC, King’s Quest sells over 2.7 million copies. It receives a subtitle, Quest for the Crown, when it undergoes a VGA graphical remake in 1990. The subtitle puts it in line with the seven sequels that follow it.

 

The first such sequel is 1985’s King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne, starting a habit in the series of play-on-words subtitles, this one referencing the popular 1984 adventure film Romancing the Stone. The game is designed by Roberta Williams, with a story by Annette Childs. It finds Graham, now King of Daventry, questing to find and rescue (and bethrothe) a beautiful maiden from the far-off kingdom of Kolyma, secreted away by the jealous crone Hagatha. To enter the enchanted realm where the prisoner is kept, King Graham must scour the land for three magic keys.

Taking a darker turn, with a focus on magic, is King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human, released in 1986. With another story by Annette Childs, soon-to-be Leisure Suit Larry creator Al Lowe (see below) cuts his teeth in programming the game designed by Williams. The plot concerns Gwydion, slave to an evil magician who must escape before his 18th birthday or meet the awful fates of the previous slaves. Along the way Gwydion must also uncover the nature of his heritage, and via this truth rescue Princess Rosella. King’s Quest III also serves as a pretty good typing tutor: players must gather the ingredients for some pretty complex magical spells, then consult the game manual and type in multiple instructions for creating them, in full, utilizing the text parser. This process also serves as copy-protection for the game.

1988 sees the release of King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella, the subtitle a play on the name of the famous 1914 movie serial The Perils of Pauline. The Plot in this one puts Princess Rosella, introduced in the previous game, on a series of quests to retrieve a magical fruit that will save her dying father, King Graham. There are around 95 rooms or scenes for the gamer to adventure across, over a 24hr narrative within the game with a day and night cycle, and multiple endings possible depending on player actions. Over 11 man years are poured into the game’s development by a team consisting of over 13 members including programmers, artists and other creatives. King’s Quest IV features a number of developmental advances for the series. Professional composer William Goldstein (tv show Fame, Shelly Long vehicle Hello Again) provides forty minutes of scored music for the game, which supports stereo music cards for PCs including Adlib and the Roland MT-32, the latter offering 32-voice capability. King’s Quest IV also gives gamers twice the graphic resolution of the former games, with advanced animations taking advantage of higher-end x86 processors and graphically adroit computers like the Commodore Amiga.

Aside from all the technical mumbo jumbo is the simple fact that in this adventure, the hero is female, a rarity for games of the time. Sierra game designers use the placeholder name Ego to refer to their main characters while developing games; designer Roberta Williams has a hard time grappling with the idea that the “Ego” in this game is a woman. Body language and character movement suddenly becomes a larger issue, and Williams also has to come to terms with the act of killing a female character in the myriad ways typical in a Sierra adventure.

 

The follow up, King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder, released on floppies in 1990, is in development for 10 months. It gets a CD-ROM version the following year featuring characters actually speaking dialog, lip-synced with over 50 voice actors. If one yearns to hear what creator Roberta Williams sounds like, pay special attention to Amanda in the Bake Shop. One can also hear Bill Davis, Sierra’s Vice President of Creative Development, as the hermit on the beach.

 

When the time to make the sixth KIng’s Quest game rolls around in 1991, Roberta Williams begins feeling confined by cranking out games in the popular series, so she steps back a bit by bringing in Jane Jenson, co-designer of EcoQuest for the company, as co-designer of the project. Bill Skirvin, who had served as Art Director for the previous King’s Quest games, shares directing duties with Williams on what becomes King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow in 1992.

The fully 3D King’s Quest: Mask of Eternity  is released in 1998, with Roberta Williams designing the game. While it is the last official entry in the series, it also constitutes a first: it is the only King’s Quest game not featuring King Graham or any of his family as the main protagonists. While Graham makes an appearance in the game, it is focused on the struggle of knight Connor in restoring Graham and the people of Daventry after they are all turned to stone.

Ad for computer video game King's Quest, by Sierra and Roberta Williams

Designed by Roberta Williams, the King-dom goes 3D in the 7th and final official installment, 1998

Greetings From Andromeda

In 1986, early Sierra employees Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe, aka The Two Guys from Andromeda, are coming off a rough assignment, working on Sierra’s adventure game adaptation of the Disney film The Black Cauldron. Crowe had started years previous in the Sierra art department; Murphy worked his way up through support, finally get his chance to code with Cauldron. After finishing up the Disney adaptation, they combine their mutual offbeat humour and interest in science-fiction into an idea for a space-based adventure. They approach Ken Williams with the idea of creating a humorous science-fiction adventure game titled Star Quest, but he is unconvinced of the commercial viability of the project and says no. But they go ahead and develop a four-room demo around the premise during their spare time, with Crowe doing the graphics and Murphy coding. When the duo present Williams with the demo, he gives the two guys the okay to proceed.

Retitled as Space Quest, it is packed full of SF references on everything from Douglas Adams’ book series The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy to Roswellian alien crash sites.  As the “hero” of the piece, the Space Quest series follows the exploits of space janitor Roger Wilco. This cosmic custodial engineer has an uncanny ability to stumble into, and then unravel, the galaxy domination plans of arch-villain Sludge Vohaul (who makes his first physical appearance in the second installment). The first two games, Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter, and Space Quest II: Vohaul’s Revenge, are written using Sierra’s  proprietary game creation language AGI or Adventure Game Interpreter. 

 

Released in 1986, the first installment of Space Quest is another huge hit for Sierra, and it spawns five follow-ups. Starting with Space Quest III: The Pirates of Pestulon, the language SCI or Sierra Creative Interpreter is used for programming the games. It is an object-oriented language that allows for various classes of things in the game that can be created and used by the programmer, with varying attributes depending usually on their interactivity with user actions. The switch in engines from AGI to SCI causes a delay in the release of the game, from 1988 to March of 1989. This incarnation also features music from Supertramp drummer Bob Siebenberg, who lands the job by literally answering a Sierra want ad in the local Sierra Star newspaper. Siebenberg composes the soundtrack in his home studio while viewing videotaped scenes of the computer game in a process similar to film scoring. Roger also teleports into pulp paper media with The Adventures of Roger Wilcoa 3-part comic book series from Adventure Comics, an imprint of Malibu Graphics.

As Scott Murphy tells it, things steadily go sour between the creators and Sierra management as the Space Quest series progresses, culminating in the difficult development of 5 and 6, the former of which Murphy isn’t much involved in. Less and less money is being paid to the creators for each installment, even in the face of greater and greater success. The killing blow is when Crowe leaves Oakhurst for the Dynamix division, leaving his former partner in the lurch.   In spite of the difficulties, Space Quest 7 is announced, complete with a trailer, for 1998, but it is eventually canceled by Sierra. Incensed by Sierra’s abandonment of one of computer gaming’s most beloved characters, fans create the Save Space Quest 7 webpage in a vain attempt to gain Wilco a reprieve.

 

Cover for Softporn Adventure, a computer game by On-Line systems

They’re soaking in it, on the cover of Softporn Adventure: L to R: Diane Siegal, On-Line production manager, Susan Davis, bookkeeper, Roberta Williams, author of Mystery House, 1981

 

Shady Characters

1987 sees the release of the controversial Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards, by Al Lowe. Based on a 1982 text-only adventure game called Softporn by Chuck Benson (Gary Thompson later develops his own improved version of the program), the goal of the game is to get the sleazy title character into bed with three different women. The game is a particular hit with bored male office workers, and it introduces the “Boss” key, which instantly clears the screen of any evidence of the game in case the manager walks by. Unauthorized copies of the  game are responsible for their own blanking of data… a virus added to bootleg copies of the software deposits a ticking time bomb onto office computers, which after a certain number of plays or within a certain timeframe will delete all the data it finds on any hard-drives connected. Attacks by this virus on the systems of bored bank employees or financial trading houses create headlines around the world.

Sierra also has to contend with magazines refusing to accept advertising for Leisure Suit Larry while letters of outrage poured into the offices and some resistance from stores in the Southern U.S. to selling it. Despite the notoriety, many Larry sequels naturally ensue, including Leisure Suit Larry 5: Passionate Patti Does a Little Undercover Work, where horndog gamers get a look at things from the other side as they flip back and forth between the two titular characters. Heh heh heh. I said “tit”. Larry gets his suit refurbished during Sierra’s mass updating of their original adventures in 1991 with a remake of the original game, with updated 256 colour graphics, expanded interactivity, point & click interface and a musical score from in-house composer Chris Braymen.

Poster for Leisure Suit Larry, a computer video game by Sierra

Oh, the puns, the puns! Please leave me Al Lowe-n!

 

 

On a more straight and narrow path of law and order is Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel, created by Jim Walls. After 15 years as a “Chippie” on the California Highway Patrol, in January of 1986 Walls finds himself staring down the bore of a .357 magnum after a high-speed chase with a driver of a stolen vehicle, and while walking away from the incident, lingering complications from the case and post traumatic stress disorder lead him to retire early from the force . When Ken Williams reaches out to ask Walls if he’d like to relate his experiences as a cop in a police procedural for Sierra, he jumps in to the computer adventure game market.  While Walls designs the game, he is completely clueless about the vagaries of computer game development, so Larry creator Al Lowe helps sheppard the product from concept to finished game. Also helping out is Sierra programmer and graphics artist Greg Rowland, who had worked on The Dark Crystal and King’s Quest. Art is also provided by Jerry Moore, a prolific artist at Sierra. The game is a reality-based departure for Sierra, but so popular that it spawns another long string of sequels for the company. The verisimilitude of the police procedural work is of such a calibre in Police Quest that the program is used by various forces as supplemental training, including the Allegan Police Department of Allegan, Michigan.

When Police Quest gets its VGA makeover in 1992, digitized footage of real actors is added, along with a VGA graphic update, SCI point & click interface, three times as much dialog and a stereo soundtrack with moody music to accompany the various scenes.

Quest for Glory is the other entry in the Quest line at Sierra, the hallmark of which is that they are an interesting amalgam of a graphic adventure and an RPG game. Developed by husband and wife team Corey and Lori Cole, they are initially released under the name Hero’s Quest.  Unfortunately, Sierra fails to copyright the title, and board game maker Milton Bradley manages to produce a game and copyright the title HeroQuest. Thus does Sierra have to change the name of the game and its sequel. When the original undergoes the obligatory graphical and interface updating in 1992, digitized stop-motion plasticine figures are used to upgrade the monsters and some characters in the game.

More copyright woes come to Sierra when it is forced to change the name of the magazine it publishes to promote its wares, The Sierra News Magazine. This at the request of long-time environmental organization The Sierra Club, publishers of Sierra Magazine. Hence, the magazine is retitled InterAction, which also puts it more in line with founder Ken Williams’ desire to increase interactivity and immersion in his games.

Snap of Maniac Mansion, a computer graphic adventure game by Lucasfilm 1987

Game changer: Maniac Mansion introduces the point and click interface, released in 1987 by Lucasfilm

Sierra retains its lock on the graphic adventure market until challenged by George Lucas’ Lucasfilm computer games division (later re-named LucasArts), with the 1987 release of their first in-house produced game, the graphic adventure Maniac Mansion. Along with their Monkey Island series and the Indiana Jones graphic adventures, LucasArts adventure games eschew the verb-noun text command parser for a slick point-and-click user interface.

Roberta Williams succeeds in revamping the Sierra Adventure Game Interface to add an icon-driven control scheme to later Sierra games, as well as encouraging game developers at the company to rethink their game design in the absence of the typing parser. Sierra continues to push its technology even further than that, however. Heading into the 90’s, for games like Police Quest 3, Space Quest IV and Quest for Glory III utilize motion-capture techniques to digitize live actors into the games. Pulling from their pool of 400 employees means that the acting isn’t quite Oscar calibre, but it does lend some verisimilitude to how their digital avatars move in game. Shot against a blue screen in studio, Sierra’s proprietary Movie 256 program digitizes the footage of the actors at 16 frames aka cels at a time, amounting to five seconds of screen time. These fragments are then strung together, edited by Sierra artists and placed into the game on hand-drawn backgrounds. Ken Williams can also consider progress in his initial goal to build a company bigger than Activision: that company declares bankruptcy in 1991.

The Dagger of Amon Ra, a computer video game by Sierra

Williams didn’t design this sequel; she was creative consultant on it. 1992

 

The Laura Bow mysteries are more entries into the Sierra parthenon from Roberta Williams. The first in the series, released in 1989, is originally given the title Murder in the Southern Quarter, before following in the company tradition of putting Quest in the names of its games with The Colonel’s Bequest. The plot is set in 1925 and concerns itself with the exploits of recent college graduate Laura Bow, who takes her name and appearance in the game from famed movie starlet Clara Bow. Invited to a New Orleans plantation to witness the reading of the will of Colonel Dijon, Bow must unravel the nature of a series of murders that start occuring there. This makes it a kind of remake of Mystery House, along with more than a little bit of the board game Clue. A text parser game, The Colonel’s Bequest sees a revamp to a point & click interface a VGA graphical update in 1993. It is followed by Roberta Williams’ Laura Bow and the Dagger of Amon Ra in 1992, but despite the title Williams only serves as Creative Consultant: the script and puzzles are written by Bruce Balfour, who co-directs the project with Bill Davis. Even though she has stepped back from the project a bit, Williams ensures that the sequel retains its consistency with the first game, and that the portrayal of the eponymous Laura Bow stays true to the character.

JUMP: Video playlist of Sierra adventure games

A screenshot from The ImagiNation Network Revival, an emulated version of Sierra's online service 1991

The ImagiNation Network Revival

 

Online Sierra

Sierra isn’t a neophyte to online communities; they had developed an extremely popular 24-hour Bulletin Board System (BBS) in 1988, boasting over 25,000 active users and fielding an average of 6,000 calls per week. The system allows users from the across the world to dial-in via their phones and gives free access to participate in discussion forums dedicated to the company’s games and offering tech support, as well as download demos and DLC to Sierra games and other goodies. Back when he was telecommuting into mainframe computers from the comfort of his home, Ken Williams envisioned the idea of creating an online community to service house-bound seniors. His thoughts turn to his own grandmother, and he embarks on his own personal quest with the following mission statement:

What if I could invent something which would allow my grandma to pick up a card game, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, without leaving home, at a cost she could afford?

 

His pet project at Sierra initially takes shape as The Constant Companion. It is to be an online service for seniors that would provide games like bridge and backgammon, accessible any time they like through phone lines via an easy to understand graphical user interface (GUI). After a 1000-user beta test of the system in the Los Angeles area in 1990, the service is officially launched nationally in 1991, as a part of The Sierra Network (TSN). While the first 50 subscribers are indeed seniors, the visionary system quickly expands beyond the elderly and parlour games, with aerial dogfighting game Red Baron joining the online stable in early 1992. This WWI combat game is later joined by turn-based RPG The Shadow of Yserbius. Charges for the system are initially on a per-hour basis, with an hourly fee on weekdays of $2.00 per hour between the hours of 6pm to 6am, or $7 an hour during daytime hours (6am to 6pm). Weekend rates run you 2 bucks per hour, starting from 6pm on Friday to 6am Monday. A minimum charge stands at $4.95 no matter how long you remain on the system. TSN moves to a flat pricing system in certain cities in 1992, charging $11.95 a month initially for 30 hours of usage, which is eventually upped to unlimited time.  Premium features are extra, of course.

Growing up Ken Williams had considered Walt Disney one of his heroes, and he takes his chance to follow in Disney’s footsteps with TSN, creating Disney-like virtual theme parks on the system in 1992 with Leisure Suit Larry-themed adult LarryLand and more kid-friendly SierraLand. It’s promised that at the latter you can do things like play on an 18-hole mini-golf course, dump some virtual quarters into the game cabinets at Wilco’s Arcade, challenge players to a round of paintball, communicate visually with other members across an ‘electronic chalkboard’, among other activities. At the former, try your luck in the casino, catch some laffs at the local comedy club or soak with some “friends” in the hotel jacuzzi. This quickly expanding scope and the costs to support it  causes Williams to sell half of the system to AT&T, who rename it The ImagiNation Network (INN). AT&T ends up muscling Sierra out completely amid a morass of bureaucracy, opting to develop their own games for the service, whereby membership starts to dwindle.  AT&T ends up selling INN to America On-Line, who shutter the system in 1996.

 

A Dark End

Sierra corporate is moved to Bellevue, WA in 1994 in order to eliminate the hardship of trying to attract high-quality talent to the wilds of Oakhurst. In 1995, Roberta Williams sheds her squeaky-clean fairy-tale image with the extremely dark Phantasmagoria, a point-and-click CD-ROM gothic horror adventure game released to great success. Williams had conceived of a horror adventure game back as far as mid-1991, when it had the title Scary Tales. Preparing for the subject matter, Williams dives into the world of horror, both literary and cinematic, studying the genre closely. Phantasmagoria is followed by the less successful Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh the next year, made without Williams’ involvement.

There is an onslaught of acquisitions, sales and mergers over the greater part of the 90’s, the ins and outs of which is worthy of its own, particularly complex adventure game. Sierra picks up Dynamix in 1990, as well as SubLogic, Impressions Games and Papyrus… all in 1995. Ken and Roberta leave the company in 1996 after its sale to Comp-U-Card International (CUC), a subscription mail-order and online shopping company looking to expand into entertainment software. CUC pays $1.8 billion in stock for Sierra and another software company, Davidson & Associates, makers of incredibly popular educational software Math Blaster!. This purchase price is about 90% over the current trading value of Sierra. Control of the company is then given to Davidson, which starts dismantling Sierra.

A merger of CUC and hospitality industry company HFS creates Cendant Corporation in 1997. Shortly following this merger, a wide ranging accounting scandal within CUC sends stocks tumbling, wiping out the equity of many current and former Sierra employees, including Ken Williams himself. Cendant subsequently sells their entire software division for $1 billion to Havas, a French advertising and PR firm, in 1998.

On what is referred to as “Chainsaw Monday”, February 22 1999, 150 people are axed from the company as Havas finally closes down the Oakhurst facility after 20 years as the heart of Sierra.

 

The end of the 90’s sees the market turn away from graphic adventures and fully embracing first-person shooters, and Sierra follows it by publishing products like Half-Life from Valve in 1998. There is less and less room for employees tied to the adventure game development system. On what is referred to as “Chainsaw Monday”, February 22 1999, 150 people are axed from the company as Havas finally closes down the Oakhurst facility after 20 years as the heart of Sierra. Space Quest co-creator Scott Murphy’s job isn’t affected by it though; he had already been laid off a month or so earlier.

Havas is gobbled up by media conglomerate Vivendi Universal in 2000, who then merge their interactive software division with video game giant Activision in 2008.  Activision, seen as a metric of success by Ken Williams at the beginnings of Sierra, shutters the company and puts an end to its adventurings. The brand is eventually revived in 2014, focusing on publishing indie products on Sony’s PSN, Valve’s Steam computer game distribution system, and Microsoft’s Xbox Live service.

As for the Two Guys From Andromeda… watch this spacelogo_stop

Ad for Softporn, an adult aventure video game by Sierra On-line

Ad for On-line’s ‘Softporn”, 1981

 

Ad for Sierra computer video games, 1983

An ad for Sierra On-Line’s varied wares, 1983

 


Sources (Click to view; inert links are kept for historical purposes)



DeMaria, Rusel. “Industry News & Views.” Computer Play, Nov. 1988, p. 6. Roberta Williams is working with another author to create a mystery game called Murder in the Southern Quarter which will be set in New Orleans.
Scott, Jason. “Apple Manual: King’s Quest – Box Cover.” Internet Archive, 11 Dec. 2013, archive.org/details/kings_quest_-_box_cover. Box art for King’s Quest: Quest for the Crown
Sierra. The Sierra Network Service Agreement. The Sierra Network Service Agreement, Sierra.
Williams, Ken. “A View From the Inside: The Interactive Film Industry Is a Virtual Reality.” InterAction, 1991, pp. 4–6.
…my wife and I began a little company making what we referred to as “interactive films”.

“Roberta Williams on the New King Quest.” The Sierra Newsletter, 1988, pp. 15–21.
Reprint of a Questbusters article. Williams: The Perils of Rosella, for lack of anything better. It was sort of based on The Perils of Pauline.

Grimsley, Nancy. “Space Quest III: The Men Who Created the Game” The Sierra Newsletter, 1989, pp. 3–25.
We just give him a video tape of the scene…

McKenna, Marti. “Ladies and Lounge Lizards: Al Lowe.” Sierra News Magazine, Apr. 1990, pp. 8–9, 32–33. Image of Al Lowe leaning on chair, image of Al Lowe in filmstrip, image of Al Lowe outdoors.
“Behind the Disk: Jim Walls – Police Quest Designer.” Sierra Newsletter, 1987, p. 4. While the design of Police Quest is Jim’s, he didn’t get much into the programming…
Softalk, “Tradetalk”, pg. 5, Sep 1980. “On-Line Systems has relocated from the hectic environs of the Los Angeles suburb of Simi to the more contemplative surroundings of Coarsegold, California, just outside of Yosemite Park.” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Softalk collection, Oct 25 2015. 
Williams, Ken. “The Inside View.” InterAction, 1992, p. 10. I remember back in 1980 I started telling people…I wanted to build a company bigger than Activision… Activision filed bankruptcy last year….
Johnson, Sgt. Harry. “Product Spotlight: Police Quest – Review of a Patrol Simulation.” Law and Order, Oct. 1988. As reprinted in The Sierra Newsletter, Spring 1989, pgs. 5,8 It seems that other officers had observed him working on the simulation and had gotten caught up in the action. They demanded turns of their own.
Image of Roberta and Ken Williams together, as well as other information, from ROM, “Interview: Roberta Williams” by Peter Ellison, pgs. 8-9, Oct 1983. “…after that she [Roberta Williams] created the first computer adventure game with color, ‘The Wizard and the Princess'” ‘Time Zone’ has more than 1300 full-color computer-generated images compacted onto 12 disk sides.” “Q: …you came out with the massive program, ‘Time Zone’. What caused you to write such a huge game?   A: It was because in those days I played a lot of adventure games and I was always disappointed when they ended.” “Q: How long did it take you to complete ‘Time Zone’?  A: It took about six months.” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, ROM Magazine v1i8, Sep 27 2015. 
Image of Roberta Williams in 1984 from Electronic Fun With Computers and Games, “Gamemakers: Hi Res Sierra”, interview by Phil Wiswell, pgs. 30-33, Mar 1984. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, EFWCG collection, Sep 10, 2015.
Letter from Sierra founder Ken Williams to Sierra employees laid off during ‘Chainsaw Monday’
Softalk, “Tradetalk”, pg. 50, Nov 1981. “The ad, in case you missed it in Time and Softalk, shows a hot tub with three taken women in it, discreetly submerged in water. The models and Roberta Williams (co-author of the Mystery Adventures and On-Line president Ken Williams’s wife). Susan Davis, On-Line bookkeeper, and Diane Siegal, production manager.” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Softalk collection, Oct 28 2015.
McKenna, Bridget. “Jim Walls Q & A.” Sierra-Dynamix News Magazine, 1991, pp. 10–12.
Images of Jim Walls in blue shirt

Gear, Tommy. “Backtalk.” Softtalk Jan. 1984: 122-24. Softalk V4n05 Jan 1984. Internet Archive. Web. 25 Feb. 2016. Back in 1979, Ken Williams was developing a Fortran compiler for the Apple II and Roberta Williams was just discovering the original Adventure from Microsoft.;Sierra On-Line posted revenues of Approximately $10 million in 1982, making it one of the largest independent publishers of home computer software.Hackers – Heroes of the Computer Revolution, by Steven Levy – www.stevenlevy.com/index.php/other-books/hackers
Antony30bc. “Space Quest Collection.” The Cover Project, www.thecoverproject.net/view.php?game_id=6164. Back and front box art for Space Quest Collection by Vivendi Universal, 2006
Jonathan, Dennis. “The New Sierra BBS.” Sierra Newsletter, 1988, p. 13. With the installation of Sierra’s new Bulletin Board System…
“King’s Quest V Multimedia! Compact Discs in Daventry.” Sierra-Dynamix News Magazine, 1991, p. 40.
With the talents of over 50 voice actors, Daventry will seem as real as the world outside your door….

Williams, Ken. “President’s Corner: Top Secret.” The Sierra News Magazine, 1991, p. 28.
In October of 1990 we announced a top secret R & D project at Sierra. What we announced, which is that we have a test going with 1,000 users in the Los Angeles area of a new multiplayer gaming technology…

“Sierra On-Line, 1981-2004.” PC Today Feb. 2005: 106. PC Today Volume 3 Issue 2. Internet Archive. Web. 13 Mar. 2016. Between 1990 and 1998, Sierra acquired Dynamic (1990)…SubLogic (1995), Impressions Games (1995), Papyrus (1995)…; In 1994 Sierra moved its headquarters to Bellevue Wash….;In 1996 it was purchased by Cendant…
Antic, “Roberta’s Bequest” by Tom Byron, pgs. 22 – 26, Mar 1990
Williams, Ken. “The Inside View: An Ongoing Issue: Icon Interfaces.” InterAction, 1992.
Compute!, “Inside King’s Quest” by Donald B.Trivette, pgs. 136-139, Feb 1985
Magpie, Johnnie. “Rumor Mill: Hero’s Quest – Quest for Glory – Which is it?” InterAction, 1991, pp. 4–6.
For those that don’t know the background, Sierra had to change the name of the series to Quest for Glory when the original name of Her’s Quest turned out to be the trademark for a board game by Milton Bradley.

“Trade Talk: Subtle Progress Shines Through Vaporware Fog at Summer CES.” Softtalk July 1984: 88-95. Softalk V4n11 Jul 1984. Internet Archive. Web. 01 Mar. 2016. Sierra, which has officially dropped On-Line from its name….
Williams, Ken. “The Inside View.” InterAction, 1992, p. 6.
Magpie, Johnnie. “Rumor Mill.” Sierra-Dynamix News Magazine, 1991, p. 62.
In the next year, her time will be divided between two new projects. One is tentatively called “Scary Tales,” obviously a horror game.

Smithe, Nancy. “The next Voice You Hear…” InterAction, 1992, pp. 46–47. Bill Davis, Vice President of Creative Development for Sierra, voiced the hermit on the beach in King’s Quest V, and Roberta Williams herself is the voice of Amanda in the Bake Shop.
Roger Wilco’s Virtual Broomcloset – www.wiw.org/~jess/roger.html
Ahoy!, “Can the 64 Crack the Peanut?” by Steve Springer, pgs. 39-41, 90, Jan 1984

Leisure Suit Larry poster with REALLY ATROCIOUS Al Lowe pun from the pages of Sierra-Dynamix News Magazine, Summer 1991
1981 image of Roberta and Ken Williams, as well as other information from Softalk, “Exec On-Line Systems” by Allan Tommervik, pgs. 4-6, Feb 1981. ” Roberta takes her foundation from literature. Mystery House was based on Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (And Then There Were None) and the board game Clue; Wizard and the Princess was based on traditional fairy tales; and Mission: Asteroid was based on Lucifer’s Hamer by Larry Nevin and Jerry Pournelle.” Paddle Graphics and Tablet Graphics, On-line’s two graphic utilities, were devised for use in programming the mysteries in twenty-one hi-res colors.” “Both (Roberta and Ken Williams) desired a less urban environment in which to raise their two boys…” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Softalk collection, Oct 26 2015.
“Excerpts from an Interview with Ken Williams On The Sierra Network.” InterAction, 1992, pp. 56–57. Walt Disney was my hero. The original mission statement for TSN, was: What if I could invent something….
New York magazine, “Star Tech: Safe at Home?” by Phoebe Hoban, pgs. 16-20, April 29 1985
The Human Element – Stage Select – www.stageselect.com/News/NewsViewer.aspx?newsid=140
“King’s Quest V Multimedia! Compact Discs in Daventry.” Sierra-Dynamix News Magazine, 1991, p. 40.
With the talents of over 50 voice actors, Daventry will seem as real as the world outside your door….

Green, Kirk. “From Supertramp to Space Quest III: An Interview with Bob Siebenberg.” The Sierra Newsletter, 1989, pp. 3–8.
Image of Bob Siebenberg

The Artful Gamer, Sierra’s “The ImagiNation Network Revived!” by Chris Lepine – www.artfulgamer.com/sierras-the-imagination-network-revived/”
Magpie, Johnnie. “Rumor Mill: More Trouble” InterAction, 1991, pp. 4–6.
It turns out that our old magazine name The Sierra News Magazine got us into trouble with none other than our envirnmental friends at The Sierra Club.

Adventure Classic Gaming, Ken Williams Interview by Philip Jong, Mar. 28 2006 – www.adventureclassicgaming.com/index.php/site/interviews/197/
Compute!, “Readers Feedback: Fate of the PCjr” by the Editors of Compute!, pg.8, Aug1985
Shannon, Lorelei. “Lights! Camera! Interaction!.” InterAction, 1991, pp. 46–47. Image of Sierra motion-capture studio. …and a piece of proprietary software created by Sierra called Movie 256 turns the video feed into individual cels.

Attributions for King’s Quest boxes: III – TRS-80 Color Computer Archive http://www.colorcomputerarchive.com/coco/Documents/Manuals/Games/ ;IV – eBay https://www.ebay.ca/itm/Kings-Quest-IV-4-Perils-of-Rosella-Apple-II-Sierra-CIB-1989-Complete-in-Box-/401699055697 ;II, V, VI – Mobygames https://www.mobygames.com/game/kings-quest-vi-heir-today-gone-tomorrow/cover-art/gameCoverId,15893/
Kings Quest
Williams, John. “In Praise of One.” Sierra-Dynamix News Magazine, 1991, pp. 16-19.
…a programmer named Scott Murphy and this partner, artist Mark Crowe, went to Ken Williams with their own design for “Star Quest,” a silly, off-the-wall sci-fi parody. The name was later changed to Space Quest… While Jim had the story for Police Quest under his gun belt months before he even started working at Sierra, he had absolutely zero experience in the development of computer games, so Al Lowe helped pull the project together to get this first game out the door. Some magazines refused to advertise the game [Leisure Suit Larry 1]. We received some pretty strong letters of protest, and for a while we were worried that we might never get a computer store south of the Mason-Dixon line to carry the game.

Busch, Kurt. “A Game Designer Designs the Future.” InterAction, 1992, pp. 40–42. 1992 image of Roberta Williams. In 1980, Ken Williams scraped together every penny he could find and bought an early Apple II computer. His idea was to create a FORTRAN compiler for Apple Computers. King’s Quest V took 10 months to create. Roberta forged the framework of the mystery, working as Creative Consultant for the second Laura Bow Mystery. Writing and puzzle designs were handled by Bruce Balfour. “I’ve spent a lot of time studying horror, reading horror, watching horror.”

External Links (Click to view)



Click here to sift through the ashes of Sierra
Online version of Softporn Adventure, inspiration for Liesure Suit Larry
“The All New Police Quest I: Real Life Revisited.” InterAction, 1992, p. 21. Characters are video captured live actors. There is approximately three times as much text in the new Police Quest as there was in the original. Police Quest now sports a new, exciting stereo soundtrack. Every situation you’ll encounter has it’s own theme music.
Disney acquired Lucasfilm and shuttered video game division LucasArts in 2013, here is what’s left.

 

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