Interview: Ken & Roberta Williams on the Sierra days

This week, a classic from the earliest days of videogaming returns when Cygnus Entertainment releases Colossal Cave, a 3D adventure game based on the text adventure originally released by Will Crowther and Don Woods as Adventure. This reimagining, 45 years after the original, is extra noteworthy because Ken and Roberta Williams are behind the project. The legendary Sierra On-Line co-founders and pioneers of the modern adventure game genre return with a fresh take on the game that originally inspired Roberta (and others) to embark on a game design career, and we had the fortune of sitting down with them for a lengthy chat. We talked about the Sierra days, about why Colossal Cave is such a special game in history and about their return to game development. We’re publishing this in a four (!) part interview series to celebrate the launch of the game, kicking off with a look back at the Sierra days.

  • To read more about Colossal Cave as a source of inspiration, click here
  • To read more about Ken and Roberta’s return to game design, click here
  • To read more about how Colossal Cave was adapted for VR, click here

Going way back in time to the early Sierra On-Line days, how did a video game company that was founded over 40 years ago include “On-Line” in its company name?

Ken: Oh, that’s straightforward. When I started as a programmer, I was always enamoured with the idea of connecting people over networks. I worked on big IBM mainframes, systems with hundreds of terminals scattered around the country. I worked in Los Angeles, consulting with companies like McDonnell Douglas and Bekins Moving & Storage, which had lots of these terminals and different offices around the country. I was kind of the specialist in on-line systems, and my original name for Sierra was also On-Line Systems.

But then when we became Sierra I searched for the name and there was already a company named On-Line Systems, so we became Sierra On-Line instead. Looking back you’ll notice that we had our own Sierra Network years before the internet, and I always loved the idea of massively multiplayer games. Back then we were playing chess and flying flight simulators on 300 baud modems, and if you ever look back at the old commercials for the Sierra network you’ll see that it was at least three years before anyone had ever heard of the internet outside of colleges. We had 10,000 subscribers, flying with planes and dogfighting, so we were doing fun stuff. I even got the original patent on doing avatars in games, so a lot of the things we did was because of the word On-Line in our name and my background as a believer in On-Line Games.

You can also bet that if I keep doing games, then somewhere in my future we’ll do something massively multiplayer or something that breaks new ground in connecting people. I don’t know what that is yet and at this point I want to focus on getting this game done and into the market first. The release is close, and it’s just that nightmare of getting every single bug out, and with thirteen languages and a lot of voiceovers there’s been a lot of content to manage in these last few weeks.

Bear

How did the process of storytelling and narrative development change in the video games industry during your time at Sierra, a time that started in the era of text adventures and ended with FMV and 3D visuals?

Roberta: I can only speak for myself, as we had other designers who worked on adventure games as well, and they had their point of view. I could definitely see myself getting better and better about adding story. If you look at my very first games, Mystery House and then Wizard and the Princess, there was only a minute bit of story, it was really more the idea that you were put in this strange circumstance. Here you are, you go into this house, and all of a sudden there’s these other people with you and the only thing you know is to go look for some treasure and then get out of the house. That was kind of it.

As I went on, I realized the power of storytelling and added more and more of it, and probably the pinnacle of that would have been Phantasmagoria. That was definitely a story all the way through, so for me it was an evolving thing, as I learned and evolved in how I wanted to approach design.

Sierra’s games also pioneered the ways in which people interact with games – what do you personally see as some of the biggest steps forward, looking back at that era?

Roberta: You have to remember that my expertise is in adventure games. I never designed an RPG or any other type of game, and over time I found myself simplifying how to play these games. I came to have a belief that people shouldn’t have to work too hard to try to figure out an interface to play the game. I just wanted them to get right into it and make it fairly easy to just begin playing. I was the one that took adventure games from text parsers and added graphics to it with Mystery House. Terrible graphics, but that was the best you could do at the time. We had to invent it ourselves with the Apple 2 computer and we did it, although we kept the text interface and parser that was inspired by Colossal Cave.

Bats

For a while we kept advancing the parser, and at some point we made it that you could enter a full sentence rather than just a two word command like ‘go north’. But being in both the text/parser world and the graphics world, I began to see that people seemed to be more enamoured by the graphics and not so much by figuring out what to type in. Back in those days, a lot of people weren’t even that good at typing into a keyboard, so that’s when I said that we need to get away from the parser, to just get rid of it. Instead of trying to make it better, let’s just get rid of it, so that’s when I came up with the idea of point and click with a mouse and using icons.

I think originally it was five icons to perform all actions, but then I had to figure out how to play these games in a simplified way even though I was adding more and more story and puzzle elements to them. It was very controversial and shook up the adventure game design industry, and a lot of our very loyal fans were not happy about it. Sierra was a relatively big company and our marketing and sales team did not like it, so everyone was going to Ken and telling him “Don’t let her do that, we’ve got a good thing going here” and “That’s not going to work, the fans are complaining”. He asked me if I really wanted to do this, and I said that yes, I really believe this is the right way to go, I believe that we’re beginning to become a very niche type of company with our adventure game for people who love typing stuff into the game. Most people are not like that, and if we want to grow the market we have to simplify. I stuck to my guns, and it turns out it was not all that controversial in the marketplace. It grew adventure games, because now more people were willing to play them.

How does the way of working at Cygnus, a small team, compare to the early Sierra days?

Ken: You know, I was younger in the Sierra days, I was 23 or something like that. In those days, Sierra was all young kids who were 18 and 19 and we felt like pirates and renegades who were doing something fun and entertaining no one had ever done before. Every night there were wild parties, and it was more of a frat house type of environment. It’s a different world and a different time now, this is more like the Sierra towards the end where the average person on our team is about early to mid-thirties. It’s because budgets are big, the problems are more complex and the competition is tougher, so I sought out people who are more experienced pros. And unless they hide it well from me, there are no wild parties. There are a lot of people who are serious professionals and are hoping for careers in the game business that are taking this super serious and working absolutely hard.

It’s nice that it’s a small team and that I’m close to the team. Sierra had 1000 people, and most of my work was done riding on airplanes. There are elements of this that are way better in that I can talk constantly to all programmers and artists. I can talk to a programmer on-line and have them share their screen to help them debug and that’s a pretty cool feeling, to be able to do that.

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