Interview: Ken & Roberta Williams on their return to game design

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 return to game design, but you can skip ahead and 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 how Colossal Cave was adapted for VR, click here

How does it feel to be back working on a new video game? Is this one more of a personal journey than older games were?

Ken: It’s fun to do. I personally love the coding, and Roberta likes the design work. She’d have more fun if it was a game of her own invention, but it’s also a fun challenge to take somebody else’s design and reinterpret it. You can think of it like when someone tried to remake Lord of the Rings from a book and turn it into a movie. You find that there’s lots of stuff that wasn’t addressed in the book that you have to invent, which is kind of fun and kind of not fun at the same time.

There’s a lot more work involved than we thought, because when we first got involved we thought it was gonna be a simple six months or ninety days to produce a game and suddenly it’s almost two years later and we’re still working. And the part of Sierra I didn’t like was the bureaucracy. Sierra got big enough that all of my time was spent managing others and no time spent on fun – and the fun part is all the coding and creativity and defining characters and dialogue. So instead of me doing any of that I’m back to managing people, and that’s kind of drudgery and hard work.

For Roberta it’s the challenge of trying to stick to the original, because we’re treating it like it’s history and we almost feel like we’ve created this museum where we’re preserving this game that had an important place in history. We’re trying not to touch any of the original dialogue, and in every creative decision Roberta’s first response is to look at the source code and see how it was done because we want all of the original maps of the game to work. At the same time we also want it to be fun, so it makes for a fun intellectual challenge to keep the game the way it was but also make it fun for modern day people to play and reinterpret it in a 3D world.

The Pirate

Anyway, the question was how does it feel, and the answer is that it’s gonna feel great when it’s over and we look back on it. Right now we’re in the trenches doing it where it’s a lot of hard work, and there are so many new skills I’ve had to learn. I spent yesterday learning Snowflake on Amazon because we’re trying to study the data coming in from players as they play it in order to see which puzzles are too hard, and which are too easy. So there’s a massive amount of data coming my direction which means I have to learn that. And then there’s Unity, which we’re using as the core development engine. It’s deceptively simple and you could be up and coding a game in Unity in a week or two if you’re any kind of programmer, but then what you discover is there’s layer after layer after layer of complexity. I’ve been using it now for about two years, and even though I’m a pretty seasoned programmer I still feel there’s parts of it that I have yet to learn and I’m learning new things every day, so from that angle I guess it’s fun.

Do you miss actively programming the games like you were doing in the 1980s?

Ken: Yeah, absolutely, I miss it. Even though I haven’t had a reason to program over the past thirty years I’ve tried to always do a little programming every day. I love it, it’s fun. I also love being involved in the promotion of the game and strategizing the marketing aspect. It feels good to be doing it again, but also….. we’ll see, the jury’s still out on whether this is our last game or the first of something new. I think it’s a reasonable shot that it’s our last game, and a reasonable shot it’s a beginning. We’ll release it, and we’ll see if people like it.

I do hate the experience of managing a large group of people though, especially in today’s environment. It’s just tough. I like the coding and I like the marketing and I like the creative aspect, but dealing with people is always a lot of work, especially when a team gets larger. If I do another game, personally I’d like it to be a one or two people project, and that’s how this project started. It started with me and a guy named Marcus Mera who were going to build the game. We actually did it and had it mostly done a year and a half ago, but Roberta looked at it said “well that’s really cute, but it looks like crap and I don’t want our name anywhere near it”. I thought about releasing it under some pseudonym so that no one would know it was us, and almost did that. I was thinking of pseudonyms, and Roberta said “No, if we’re gonna do it, then it should be done right”, and she made us throw away everything that we did and hire a big team to do things right.

The other way wouldn’t have been bad, I think. I thought it was a perfectly good and playable game, but graphically it was horrible, the sound was terrible and the voices were robot text. It was fun though, as it was just a little two person project. When you’re not doing something professionally and you’re not trying to make money on it and not trying to please everybody, it can be a lot of fun. The problem is that because it’s Roberta and because it’s me, there’s this expectation we’re going to do something of really good quality, and that’s hard to do. But we did it – but boy, would I jump back into it? We’ll see. In a way, this is a different game because most people who do a game of this scale did it with the hope of making money, and I would be thrilled if we come anywhere near breaking even. This was two years of our life dedicated to doing something because it seemed like a fun thing to do because we love games and we love making them. Money’s always nice, but we’re not about money at this point in our lives, we’re about having fun and doing fun stuff. Sierra sold for enough that we could retire and live happily ever after, and this is an unusual game in that it was built with no commercial intent beyond the fact that it’d be nice if it did have commercial success. But it was really done just because we wanted to do something great, and because Covid had us sidelined from boating and trapped at home, so there was nothing else to do.

If we get good reviews and it doesn’t sell I’ll be happier than if the game sells but we get bad reviews. We really care that people like it, so it’s just a matter of seeing the game succeed and people loving it as we realize Roberta’s vision for Colossal Cave. That’s always the theme with me, I want the designer to have their game their way. At Sierra that was always the biggest challenge, because when you put 50 people on a project, all 50 are wannabe game designers. I was always about trying to protect the vision of the designer, even on this project. Roberta’s compulsive and wants every sound effect, every piece of music and every animation to be her way, and trying to reign in everybody on the project to help them understand that their goal is to implement her vision, whether they like it or not, is a full time job. Luckily we have a great time, although the video game environment is different these days.

Soft Room

I faced a little of this at Sierra toward the end, where suddenly tech workers were insisting we had a basketball court and a free coke machine and a popcorn machine. There are times when I think some tech workers can be spoiled, and we got lucky in finding people that are there really to work and succeed. Some of it is because of the Sierra connection, but we’re able to be pretty picky about who we hire. I think everybody on the project wanted to be associated with a good game, and the people that are on this project have taken really good care of Roberta and I and have worked really hard and really long. It’s really important to us that they succeed in their careers, so that’s top of mind for us right now – how do we make sure this looks really good on their resume, because they’re really good people who have done good stuff for us. We’ve got a pretty serious team, and anything bad I’ve ever had to say about modern tech workers, certainly I can’t say about this team. Most of them are working for less money than they might have been able to make otherwise, and because Cygnus is tiny I don’t have all the benefit programs that many companies have. They’re working because they want to succeed as game developers, and hope they’ll be associated with a project that does really well, and I hope they will.

You’ve always pioneered technological innovation in video games. Now that the industry has matured so much, where do you see the biggest innovations coming from?

Ken: Hopefully from me and whatever I do next. This is our first game after thirty years out of the business, and I always believe in a crawl-walk-run strategy where this is us getting our foot in the door. And as you know my first love is always multiplayer, and linking people together for shared experiences. Because it’s been done a lot now you could say there’s not a lot of pioneering left to be done there, except for I think there is. So you can bet that whatever I do next will start with the idea of bringing people together for some shared experience, but what that is I don’t know yet. We’ve been working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for almost two years. So ask me that a month after we release the game and hopefully I’ll know – for now the focus is on getting a good and bug-free experience out there.

And bug-free is tough. I was just talking to everybody about imagining that it’s the day after we ship, and we suddenly have 50,000 people out there all playing the game at the same time. Let’s talk about what we do if somebody finds a bug and the game’s uncompletable. Let’s make sure that that first experience is positive, and we have to deal with Nintendo, Sony and Xbox, and figure out where an Xbox player goes to get help. For somebody who’s been producing games for 20 years that’s obvious, but I haven’t produced games in a long time. I’d say the Sierra BBS, except that doesn’t exist anymore and people don’t do bulletin boards anymore. A lot of this is learning for me, and when the team says Discord, I’m wondering if a Nintendo or Quest player will go there, and so the team’s guiding me through this.

Luckily the team is younger than me, and they’re all ex-gamers or current gamers. One of the smartest things I did was hire our QA team, which is partially speedrunners, and those guys just know how to poke at the edges of a game. One of them has a Twitch channel with 100,000 followers and we have a good QA team, although we’ll find out if they’re really any good the day after we ship this product and look at how much customer support we have.

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