The titular house in Mystery House

Sierra On-Line and Mystery House - 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 subsequently purchases an Apple II computer, but Roberta isn’t very impressed with the few Scott Adams text adventures she buys for it. 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.

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.

Productivity programs by Sierra On-Line, primarily known as a computer video game company

Raise a glass, Sierra does productivity!


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 and is followed by seven sequels.


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 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. The follow up, King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder, released on floppies in 1990, gets a CD-ROM version the following year featuring characters actually speaking dialog, lip-synced with over 50 voice actors.

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.

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

With a story written by Roberta Williams, the King-dom goes 3D in the 7th and final official installment, 1998

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