Interview: Ken & Roberta Williams on adapting Colossal Cave for VR

We’re doing a big four-part interview with Ken & Roberta Williams this week to mark the launch of their reimagining of Colossal Cave, talking about their Sierra days, the historic significance of the original game, their return to game design and how they adapted the game for VR. In this part, we’re talking about their use of VR in the game, but you can easily skip back using the links below.

To read more about Ken and Roberta’s days at Sierra, click here
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

What does a technology like virtual reality add to a storyteller’s toolbox?

Roberta: From the gamer perspective it’s going to add much more immersiveness, there’s no doubt about it. We’re paying a lot of attention to sound effects as well, and it can be quite scary. For instance, there’s a part of the cave where you’re walking along a very narrow ledge, and there’s a steep drop-off. So you’re very careful negotiating it, but there’s bats as well, flying all around you, with squeaking that gets louder as they get closer to you. It’s quite scary, and we’re had people scream when they’re in that one particular spot as it really feels as if there are bats there with you, flying around you.

From the design standpoint, it created so much more to think about. You’re not just creating a picture right in front of you, on a monitor. You don’t have to worry about someone looking all around, but now you do. Everything matters with the graphics, and you’re moving through a world with just so many little places. If we’re not careful, you could go through a rock or fall through the floor. That makes for huge complexity, and we’re not using an avatar – we’re making it first person because the original game was that way. It was always just you and what’s around you, no one else.

Vending Machine

Ken: Like Roberta said, when you’re walking along a cliff or something and worrying about falling in, that makes VR cool. The one area that I kind of worry about is that an adventure game takes a long time to play, and wearing a headset for 40 hours might be annoying. But kids seem to adjust to it much better than us older folk, so maybe it’s not a big deal. It lends itself to VR nicely because you’re in this tight controlled area, working your way through the game. It’ll be fun to see how people react. We’ve done a lot of good work on the Quest 2 to give it some of the best graphics I’ve seen as far as the use of shaders to make water ripple, lava flow and wet walls. Our guy James, who leads the technical art side, has really shown great work here.

For VR, Roberta spent almost a month working on the user interface, and when you launch the game it comes up and asks you if you want ‘comfort mode’. It was originally called Roberta’s mode because she invented her own way of controlling the game that was based on our time running a boat. We spent an awful lot of time, about six months of the year, living on a boat, taking it around the world, and Roberta had a lot of strong feelings about why VR would make people motion sick but being on a boat wouldn’t. Translated towards the game, it’s more like steering with a rudder, and we think that it’s a bit of a breakthrough in not getting people sick while they’re playing the game. It’s less disorienting, and less of a problem for your ears. Roberta worked hard on it, so we’ll see if people like it – we think they will.


Colossal Cave features VR support, but features a traditional point and click interface rather than touch controls that let players grab and use objects in the game. How did you come to this decision?

Ken: Roberta made the decision, and there were some fights with the people at Meta, as they really wanted us to do the ‘reach out and grab things with your hands’ stuff. Roberta just didn’t think it fit the game, that it felt unnatural. It wasn’t that we technically couldn’t do it, it just felt kind of gimmicky. It also ties the hands of the player a bit, with how close you have to be to things. There’s a difference between a gimmick and something that actually works and feels right, and I think when you play the game you’ll see this works and feels right. If the goal of the game was just to show off VR and sizzle, then yeah, we could do that, but that wasn’t the goal of the game. The goal was to play the game and have fun.

If we had recorded some of those early meetings with Meta, you would’ve enjoyed hearing where they said “You don’t understand, we know what Quest 2 buyers want” and Roberta said “Tough luck, because we know what gamers want”. Roberta can be quite stubborn when she wants to be. She’s opinionated and the people at Meta were opinionated, but we got through it. I think now they agree we made the right decision for this game – it feels really good when you’re playing it and that’s what counts. This’ll be one of the larger games that people have done for VR at this point too. It’s large and really complex, and as you just keep going there’s this feeling you’re getting deeper and deeper into the cave as the environment around you starts to change. With VR, it feels like you’re there.

As a fun side note, I actually found a picture of me in the final days of Sierra, about thirty years ago, wearing some 3D goggles, and we published it in a magazine and I said that I was playing one of the first VR headsets I didn’t feel like it was quite ready for prime time yet. I thought it was going to be a couple of years before the things really caught on, and now it’s thirty years later and they’re just now taking off, and even now I think they have to get them a little bit lighter.

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