The titular house in Mystery House

The titular house in Mystery House

Mystery House and Sierra On-Line - Getting Graphic

Sierra On-Line 1980

Let there be graphics

Plain text doesn’t placate computer adventure gamers for long.

In 1979, Roberta Williams is a housewife with two kids, living in Simi Valley, California. Her husband Ken is a programmer at Informatics, working on large mainframe computers. One evening, working at home on a terminal hooked up to the computer at work, Ken fires up 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 decides to write 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 an Agatha Christie-like mystery, 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.

Despite the rudimentary artwork, Mystery House is a sensation when released in 1980. Priced at US$24.95, the Williams sell 11,000 copies of the game inside the first year, grossing nearly 300,000 dollars for the new company they have created to sell it: On-Line Systems.

Ad for IBM PCjr, featuring King's Quest, a computer adventure game by Sierra, 1984

King’s Quest featured in PCjr “Fun and Games” ad, 1984


On a Quest

Moving up north to Coarsegold, California in 1982, the couple change their company name to Sierra On-Line and produce 20 more games for the Apple II, including further “Hi-Res” adventures Mission Asteroid, Wizard and the Princess and Ulysses and the Golden Fleece. Feedback rolls in from the likes of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who extolls the benefits of entertainment programs for the increasingly popular home computer. 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 results are outputted in astounding 16-colour CGA psuedo-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.

With a team of six programmers and artists and a development cost of $700,000, King’s Quest is released in 1984, 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 eight sequels.

Computer adventure game by On-Line Systems, 1982

Early Sierra graphic adventure, 1982


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. They approach Ken Williams with the idea of creating a humorous science-fiction adventure game. Unconvinced of the commercial viability of the project, Williams says no. But they go ahead and develop a four room game around the premise during their spare time, and when Williams sees the demo he gives Murphy and Crow the okay to procede. Released that year, Space Quest is another huge hit for Sierra, and it spawns six follow-ups. Packed full of SF references on everything from Douglas Adams’ book series The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy to actual alien crash sites, the series follows the exploits of space janitor Roger Wilco, and his uncanny ability to stumble into, and then unravel, the galaxy domination plans of arch-villian Vorhaul Sludge (who makes his first physical appearance in the second instalment). Space Quest 7 is announced, complete with a trailer, for 1998, but it is eventually cancelled by Sierra. Incensed by Sierra’s abandonment of one of computer gaming’s most beloved characters, fans create the Save Space Quest 7 webpage to attempt to gain Wilco a reprieve.


Shady Characters

1987 sees release of the controversial Leisure Suit Larry, 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. Of course, many sequels ensue.

With Larry and other additions to the Quest series of games including Police Quest, created by real-life LAPD detective Jim Walls, 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 eshew the verb-noun command parser for a slick point-and-click user interface. While Sierra succeeds in revamping their games to take advantage of this new technique, they lose their near-monopoly on the graphic adventure market.

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



Heading into the 90′s, Ken Williams’ thoughts turn to his aging grandmother. Looking to provide her with activities and games she can access without leaving home, he devises 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). Launched in 1991 as The Sierra Network, the visionary system quickly expands beyond seniors and parlour games, with arial dogfighting game Red Baron, turn-based RPG The Shadow of Yserbius,, and a Leisure Suit Larry-themed casino area called Larry Land soon added. Its quickly expanding scope 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

Roberta Williams sheds her squeaky-clean fairy-tale image with the extremely dark Phantasmagoria, a point-and-click CD-ROM horror adventure game released in 1995 to great success.  It is followed by the less successful Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh the next year, made without Williams’ involvement.  Ken and Roberta leave the company in 1996 after its sale to CUC International.  After a byzantine series of mergers, splits and acquisitions, Sierra ends up acquired by video game giant Activision in 2008, who then shutter the company and put an end to Sierra’s original adventures. What they intend to do with the Sierra catalog of IP remains to be discovered. logo_stop


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