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Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Interview With Sierra On-Line Founders Ken & Roberta Williams

In 1979 husband-and-wife team Ken & Roberta Williams founded a small company that would later become known as Sierra, and which would play an enormous role in the development of some of the most beloved video games series of all time.

With Ken overseeing business operations Roberta spent the 1980s helping create adventure game classics like King’s Quest, and by the early 90’s Sierra had become a PC gaming powerhouse on the back of hits like Police Quest, Leisure Suit Larry and Space Quest. But by the late 90’s—with their company sold under controversial circumstances—the pair walked away from games development, and aside from a few side projects have spent the next 20+ years away from the industry they’d played such a crucial role in establishing.

Until now. Earlier this year, it was announced that the pair—working together once more at a studio called Cygnus Entertainment, where Ken is Managing Partner and Roberta serves as Lead Creative Director (the couple are also co-owners)—were developing a modern remake of Colossal Cave Adventure.

That game, one of the most important ever made (it’s in the Hall of Fame!), was first released in 1976, and would go on to not just be a huge success in its own right, but would help inspire other titles like Zork and Adventure, as well as Sierra’s own Mystery House, which in 1980 became the world’s first ever graphical adventure game. It’s not a stretch, then, to say that Colossal Cave Adventure helped lay the groundwork for…the entire fields of narrative and adventuring video games as we know them.

Ken and Roberta’s take on the game leaves text input behind, however, opting to rebuild Colossal Cave Adventure in a 3D world, which can be played either on a regular PC or via a VR headset. You can see a trailer for the game below, which helpfully includes a little history lesson on the pair (and Colossal Cave Adventure) for anyone who needs to get up to speed:

Colossal Cave 3d Adventure – Reimagined by Roberta Williams

With the game due later this year—it’s currently on schedule for a Fall release on PC, Mac and Quest 2 for VR—I got the chance recently to chat with both Roberta and Ken, not just about Colossal Cave Adventure but on their past in video games, and their thoughts on how the medium has changed in the 40 years since they first started working together.

Luke Plunkett (Kotaku): As someone who grew up playing Quest For Glory and Police Quest it’s wild I’m getting to talk to you about a new video game in 2022, how long has it been exactly since you both worked on a game together?

Ken Williams: That’s a complicated question! Depending on how you look at it, Roberta and I haven’t worked on a game together since 1979! I ran the company while she shipped all of her hits, but other than occasionally being involved in decisions that affected her products, I didn’t really work directly with her.

We’ve been working together now on the Colossal Cave project for around a year and eight months. It has been a bit of a challenge for us to work so closely together. We’re each accustomed to being the final decision maker on everything we touch. We’ve mapped out territories where I make the decisions (implementation, finance, marketing) and where she makes the decisions (game design, art). Those seem like disconnected domains, but there has been plenty of overlap and strong discussion. We’re both highly opinionated people; each convinced we are never wrong.

Roberta Williams: Well, we didn’t even start working on Mystery House until the beginning of 1980. I know it was after Christmas of ‘79, so it would have been in January, at the earliest, of 1980. Mystery House shipped in May of 1980. In fact, we always said it was May 5th, and that was our anniversary. For years we had a big wonderful company party on May 5th, for eight years at least, to commemorate the anniversary of Sierra starting as a company, with the launch date of Mystery House.

After Mystery House, there was Wizard and The Princess second, and I think the last one we did together was Mission Asteroid. So that would have been 1981/1982, the last time we worked together on a game without other people.

My memory is better.

Luke: So much about game development has changed over the years, what has been the biggest surprise—and challenge—you’ve run into so far making a new game for modern hardware?

Ken: The competition is much more challenging. There are tens of thousands of great game developers. The market is larger, but building a competitive product is not easy. That said, overall, game development is infinitely easier. There are amazing game engines that give a huge head start in development and a multitude of assets that can be purchased inexpensively for a game.

The biggest surprise is how we’ve managed to assemble a large team that works closely together, all day, every day, and yet we are scattered all over the world.

Roberta: I’m not the designer, and this is not an original game. I call myself the transmuter. I am taking an old historical adventure game, arguably the first adventure computer game in existence, and bringing it into the modern era. Colossal Cave was not originally designed for VR or modern platforms. As the transmuter I have decided to think about how it will play and feel for today’s platforms. I worked to keep the original game’s feeling and design and bring it to the modern world. In honoring the original game, I tried to retain the feeling of wonder I had when I first played it. It wouldn’t have felt right to take this beautiful historic game and mess with it too much.

It’s a great game with an elegant design. If someone likes a challenge, wants to be challenged, and enjoys something different, I think they will love our game if they are willing to try it.

Luke: Many of your previous games had a very “hands-on” feel to them, making the player methodically complete tasks, or follow strict orders. What’s it like developing a game that almost literally allows the player to go hands-on (via VR) instead?

Ken: The truth about VR is that it wasn’t initially in the plan. Marcus, who started the project with me, and handled the art, convinced me to target VR. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in VR; I just thought it was a bigger challenge than we could handle. Colossal Cave is Roberta’s and my first project in a very long time. Many projects fall apart or are never finished because they bit off more than they could chew. The bar is high for any game that Roberta and I do because our old fans have high expectations, and we do not want to disappoint. We also need to deliver amazing quality, or the game will not be worth playing. That’s a lot of pressure. I worried that VR would be a step too far, and we couldn’t do it. But, to the team’s credit, we’ve not only done it but also done some very cool innovations that I think will surprise and delight players.

We are remaking a game designed nearly 50 years ago and are trying to respect the original design. The Colossal Cave adventure game created a genre that has survived to this day, and the game is still recognized because it was an awesome design. There are design elements in it that make me wish I could go back in time and insist that every game designer at Sierra study this game. Our challenge has been keeping the original game’s soul but translating it to modern technology. It’s like adapting a book to a movie, but not completely. Movies tend to be abridged versions of books. We are capturing 100% of the original text game but completely reinventing it and expanding on it without changing it. That will make a lot more sense when you play the game.

Luke: While you’ve been away from the industry, how closely did you follow it, if at all? Do you see any appreciation or legacy for your own works in the games of today, or hear from developers about your influence on their works?

Ken: I have followed the industry over the years. However, we managed to get a second 15 minutes of fame as world cruisers, which required our full attention. We compare ourselves to Rip Van Winkle. It’s like we awakened nearly 30 years later to a very different world. That said, besides the industry being bigger, less has changed than one might imagine, and we’re excited to be back.

Roberta: I have been following the industry to a certain extent. I see the appreciation for my games all the time and have for years. It has amazed me how much appreciation there is. In fact, I’m surprised how it has continued. I noticed even more so in the last 4 to 5 years, especially with the pandemic. As the pandemic and lockdowns started, the attention that Ken and I were getting about our old games increased. Part of it could be driven by Ken’s release of his book. I’m sure that had something to do with it, but I have always received a lot of calls and requests for interviews. I’ve been known for my reputation of turning them down. That is related to when Ken and I sold the company. Ken’s book explains my hesitancy about doing interviews and being hard to get. You know, a little coy. I have been coming around more in the last 4 or 5 years to being eager to do interviews again. I’m not exactly sure why, but there has been a new interest. I do want to say that I have been appreciative, humbled, honored, and kind of sorry that I haven’t been as responsive for too long.

Luke: Has returning to games development rekindled any of your old passion for the field? Would you consider working on more games after this? Perhaps even sequels or conversions of your classics?

Ken: We’re waiting to see how people like this game before deciding what comes next. We’re also paying attention to what happens with the Activision-Microsoft merger. If that deal comes together, it is possible that Microsoft will feel differently about the old Sierra series than Activision did. If Roberta could do King’s Quest 9 or another Laura Bow game, that could be very interesting. Personally, I was always in love with multiplayer games. Remember The Sierra Network? But like I said, we’re deliberately not thinking that far ahead. We have a game to ship, and it HAS to be a winner. We’re working HARD on this game.

Roberta: For some reason, in the last couple of years, I have been showing more interest in Sierra On-Line and my old games, and I’ve been curious about why the interest in our games is ongoing. Whatever kept me from wanting to be a part of the industry had changed. After Ken wrote his book, he needed a new project. It was January/February of 2021, and we were sitting out on our terrace in the desert of California having coffee. He mentioned that he needed a new project. I remember thinking about that for some time. I went to bed later that night, and suddenly I was lying there in bed, and that conversation popped into my head. I kept thinking about it, and for some reason, my mind returned to Colossal Cave. I thought to myself that it would be an interesting project for Ken. I knew he had been looking at Unity and programming for the past month. He was looking at creating a game as a project, and then I thought of Colossal Cave. I said, “Have you thought about maybe doing Colossal Cave and bringing that to graphics?” “I know you’re studying Unity, and it can be 3D and an adventure game.” I saw his eyes flash with interest. A few hours later, Ken talked to Don Woods, and we got his blessing.

We don’t have the rights to any of the sequels or old Sierra On-Line products. When we sold our company, we sold the rights to our games. Right now, Activision owns all of the rights. That doesn’t mean that Ken and I couldn’t go to Activision to say that I would like to work on a new Kings Quest or Laura Bow mystery. We probably could make a deal with them and do that, but I think of my previous games. Most games I have worked on have been of my design, and I’ve been able to do it the way I wanted and to make the decisions myself. I was able to keep the game very much in my vision. I like it that way. I like having the freedom and the authorization to be able to do that. The couple of times I had created a game for somebody else was for Disney and The Jim Henson Company. The games, The Black Cauldron and The Dark Crystal, were great, and they turned out fine, but I felt a little constrained. If I had to go to Activision to make another game, it would feel similar to those experiences. As to creating a new original game of my design, my answer is it depends on how well Colossal Cave sells.

Luke: What’s the thing that impresses you most about modern video games? And conversely is there anything about modern games you find frustrating?

Ken: I’m not a game designer, so I tend to focus on the technology, the marketing, and the economic side of things with gaming. I am highly impressed by the capabilities of VR in modern games and how it truly feels fully immersive once you put on a headset.

Another thing I find interesting on the business side is the evolution of subscription-based business models. Sierra pioneered the idea of a subscription-based online games network. So it is impressive to see each major company’s interpretation of a subscription-based service model (GamePass, PS Plus Premium, Nintendo Switch Online).

Roberta: I think the graphics are the biggest thing going for games today. The graphics have just gotten leaps and bounds better, of course. That is very impressive to me, as well as the music, sound effects, the speed of the systems, and being able to run them. So all that, all the wiz-bang and all the beauty are wonderful.

As to what I don’t like, it just seems to me that I don’t see a lot of originality anymore. It seems that there are a lot of the same games. They just make the same kind of game but bigger and more complex. I don’t see as much originality, but I could be wrong. I don’t watch walkthroughs or Twitch streams. So my answer could be completely off base. I played Colossal Cave way back at the beginning, which got me started in this business. I loved it, and I gravitated to adventure games. That’s been my go-to ever since. I’ll look at other games and go, “Oh, that looks nice, that looks great,” and I understand a good game when I see one. Ken and I, basically together, decided which games we wanted to publish. Even though something may not be my game, I knew it was good.

Luke: Have you spoken with the game’s original creator William Crowther about your project?

Ken: Nope. I would love to. I tried to reach him but couldn’t. I did speak with Don Woods. Don was polite and encouraging but also seemed kind of burnt out on people talking to him about the game. I think that when we spoke, he didn’t really think I’d deliver on building a product. I do hope that he and Will Crowther will play this game someday. Roberta and I owe our success to them, and a large reason for doing this game is to honor them. We are treating the game with the utmost respect and want our version of the game to bring another fifty years of life to their creation.

Roberta: No, Ken nor I have talked to Will Crowther. Ken spoke to Don Woods. I asked Ken, “Did Don Woods even know who you were or who I was?” He said, “You know he didn’t seem like he knew or even cared.” Ken got the impression that he had gone on to other things and probably didn’t even know why we had such an interest in Colossal Cave. I could be wrong on that. I think it would be fun if somebody in the media could try to get a hold of them. Ask them why your game has had such endurance and longevity and has maintained such an interest among people after all these years. There are 180 iterations of Colossal Cave that different people have done in different ways. I still think that having somebody talk to them and ask them about their game, what they think of it now, and what they think of us doing what we’re doing with it would be interesting.

Luke: You could argue that VR is still a bit niche in terms of the overall PC gaming market; have you designed CCA with the ability to also play it on a regular PC, or do you hope this spurs some folks to adopt a headset?

Ken: We’re building the game for both PC and VR, as well as for other platforms that we aren’t ready to talk about yet. It depends on the day you ask me which version of the game I think is better. When I’m working on the PC version, I love it, but then when I put on the headset and enter the cave, I am totally blown away. It’s tough to go back to the PC version for a day, and then I love the PC version again. Both are turning out far better than I ever would have expected.

Roberta: Well, both! We did not start designing it specifically for Quest 2 or virtual reality with a headset. Ken started on this game before me. I gave him the idea, but at the beginning, I didn’t want to be too much of a part of it. I would say, “Oh, I’ll look over your shoulder and make a few suggestions.” However, I changed my mind, jumped in, and joined the project.

It was initially going to be developed for the PC audience as a 3D game, but not with the headset. Now we’re working to put it on as many platforms as possible. It’s going to be out there, we hope, in many ways, on many platforms.

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