Let there be graphics
Straight text doesn’t placate computer adventure gamers for long. In 1980, On-Line Systems is founded by Ken and Roberta Williams. Operating out of their house in Los Angeles, their first game is Mystery House on 48K diskette for the Apple II, 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. The vaunted graphics in Mystery House are rough outlines created by Roberta on a tablet using metal rods to shape the images. Despite these issues, the game is a sensation. Priced at US$24.95, the Williams sell 11,000 copies inside the first year, grossing nearly 300,000 dollars for the new company.
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, the PCjr. Using a provided prototype system, Roberta designs the next evolution of the graphical adventure, allowing the player’s onscreen alter-ego to walk around the landscape in astounding 16-colour CGA psuedo-3D graphics. With a team of six programmers and a development cost of $700,000, King’s Quest is released in 1984. Players control Sir Graham , who is charged by King Edward to search the kingdom of Daventry for three treasures. While the PCjr tanks in spectacular fashion, with IBM eventually shutting down production of the computer in April of 1985, Sierra has a major hit on their hands. Ported to more popular systems, King’s Quest sells over 2.7 million copies, and is followed by eight sequels.
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.
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.
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.
Sources (inert links are kept for historical purposes)
Hackers – Heroes of the Computer Revolution, by Steven Levy – www.stevenlevy.com/index.php/other-books/hackers
Roger Wilco’s Virtual Broomcloset – www.wiw.org/~jess/roger.html
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
The Artful Gamer, Sierra’s “The ImagiNation Network Revived!” by Chris Lepine – www.artfulgamer.com/sierras-the-imagination-network-revived/”
Adventure Classic Gaming, Ken Williams Interview by Philip Jong, Mar. 28 2006 – www.adventureclassicgaming.com/index.php/site/interviews/197/
External Links (click to open)
Click here to sift through the ashes of Sierra
Online version of Softporn Adventure, inspiration for Liesure Suit Larry
Disney acquired Lucasfilm and shuttered video game division LucasArts in 2013, here is what’s left.