Sierra On-Line – A tale of a couple and their company, abridged

by expack3

Way, way back at the dawning of the 1980’s, there wasn’t much in the way of computer gaming as we know it. Much of what you really had was, at best, stuff like this:

Oooh…I found some gold in that chest! (Beneath Apple Manor for the Apple II, 1980)

Kinda bland, right? If you wanted to play an adventure game, it got even worse:

If you played this when it was originally released, I salute you – you are truly an old-school gamer! (Zork: The Great Underground Empire for the Apple II, 1980)

Yup. No graphics, just text. Of course, you could take care of that with your imagination, but why settle for just text when you could get graphics in your other games?

Thankfully, there were Ken and Roberta Williams.

(Left) Ken Williams, (Right) Roberta Williams

You see, Roberta, an artist and writer, wanted to make an adventure game. Lacking any programming knowledge, she turned to her programmer husband, Ken. Together, they formed On-Line Systems and created the very first graphical adventure game: Hi-Res Adventure #1: Mystery House for the Apple II.

Nice house. Is the tree imported? (Hi-Res Adventure #1: Mystery House for the Apple II, 1980)

Thankfully, this wasn’t the only game they made. Far from it, in fact! After making this game, they made 6 more like it, changed their company’s name to Sierra On-Line, hired a staff, and made other games, like the arcade-style game Oil’s Well:

Looks like the oil industry took a cue from Dig-Dug. (Oil’s Well for the IBM PC, 1983)

Then in 1987 came King’s Quest, a new, groundbreaking adventure game fresh from the mind of Roberta Williams.

Behold the 16-color glory! (King’s Quest for MS-DOS, 1987)

Not only did it have 16 glorious colors thanks to the game’s support of EGA (Enhanced Graphics Array), unlike most of their competitors, who were still using 4-color CGA (Color Graphics Array), you could move your main character, King Graham, in true 3D space – meaning that unlike competing adventure games, you could actually go both in front of and behind most objects. Heck, you could even find and pick up items hidden behind objects! Thanks to the game’s popularity, as well as the rising popularity of the graphical adventure game, King’s Quest would end up becoming both the driving force behind and the showcase of Sierra’s push for technological superiority over its competitors. To list some of their achievements:

  • King’s Quest IV, the first game to use a sound card for music – namely, the Roland MT-32 Multi-Timbre Sound Module.
  • King’s Quest V, the first exclusively cursor-driven adventure game.
  • King’s Quest VII, the first adventure game to boast a budget of 500,000 USD (US Dollars).

Once the 1990’s hit, adventure games took off like crazy. Well, not “2  million copies sold per game” kind of crazy (more like 250,000 copies sold per game), but still crazy for the time. Sierra On-Line was at the forefront, with other competitors, like LucasArts, in hot pursuit. Unfortunately, it was not to last.

By the mid 1990’s, the diminishing returns on adventure games caused by the rising costs of making such games, coupled with the decline of the traditional adventure game genre which Sierra represented thanks to the rise of first-person shooters like DOOM and Duke Nukem 3D, meant actually making an adventure game was a risky venture, even for Sierra On-Line, with only those projects guaranteed to make a profit being given the “OK” to be created. Eventually, the costs caught up with the company, causing the Williams to sell Sierra On-Line to Comp-U-Card (CUC) International, a technology-driven retail and membership services company, in 1996. Even under new management, the company continued to loose money on adventure games, even where popular franchises like King’s Quest, Quest for Glory, and (ugh) Leisure Suit Larry were concerned. Thus, Sierra eventually stopped making adventure games, and started making and publishing first-person shooters (among other games).

Still, their legacy lives on in modern adventure games like Broken Age, Deponia, and Time, Gentlemen!. They don’t sell as well as they did back in the early-to-mid 1990’s back when adventure games were at their peak, but they’re still made, and people, both old and new, still enjoy them.

Who’d have imagined that a series which started with a crudely-drawn adventurer in a cap would eventually lead to something as gorgeous and polished as this? (Deponia for Windows, 2012)

“…But what of Ken and Roberta” you may ask? They’re fine, healthy, happy, and sailing the world on their private sailboat.

Not exactly my idea of a fairytale ending, but whatever – it’s a happy ending for the Williams! (Ken and Roberta Williams, pictured L-R, with their dog.)

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