The titular house in Mystery House

Mystery House and Sierra On-Line - Getting Graphic

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Sierra On-Line 1980

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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