By John Sonmez September 29, 2014

What Ever Happened to the Founders of Sierra Online?

Some of the fondest memories of my childhood involve playing adventure games like Space Quest, Kings Quest and Quest for Glory.

Sq5_boxart

I remember spending countless hours reloading from save spots and trying to figure out a puzzle. I remember that exciting feeling of anticipation when the Sierra logo flashed onto the screen as my 486 was loading up an adventure game.

It was a golden age of computer gaming that we'll probably never see again.

In a bit of a fit of nostalgia, I decided to do a bit of searching on Sierra Online. I was curious to find out what happened to the company and what happened the founders, Ken and Roberta Williams.

What happened to Sierra Online

But, first let's talk about what happened to Sierra Online. Why did they stop pumping out awesome adventure games?

Sierra Online started out when Ken Williams, a programmer at IBM, got an Apple II computer and his wife, Roberta, who was playing text adventure games, realized that adventure games would be a lot better if there were some graphics included with them.

Roberta realized the Apple II was more than capable of displaying graphics for a text adventure game, so she embarked on a quest to make her own text adventure game, complete with some static graphics.

Ken helped Roberta put together her first game, Mystery House, during the evenings while holding down a job at IBM.

Mystery_House_-_Apple_II_render_emulation_-_2

The game turned out to be quite successful, selling over 15,000 copies and making about $167,000. Not a bad start.

From there things really started to take off. Ken and Roberta were directly involved in creating most of the early Sierra games. They got a big opportunity when IBM basically hired them to create the first King's Quest game, offering to fund the entire game, advertise for it and pay them royalties. Not a bad deal.

King's Quest was very successful and as part of creating the game, which involved color graphics and sound, the Adventure Game Interpreter system was born, which was used to create many more Sierra adventure games.

From there many of the popular game series like Space Quest, Police Quest, Leisure Suit Larry and Quest for Glory were born. Ken and Roberta hired different programmers and designers to work on most of these games.

Eventually though, all good things must come to an end. In 1996, CUC International made an offer of about $1.5 billion dollars to purchase Sierra Online. Yeah, that's right, I would have sold for that price as well. So you can't really blame Ken or Roberta.

But, from that point forward, things seemed to really fall apart. Once Ken and Roberta left, Sierra just wasn't Sierra anymore. More games were produced, but the great Adventure game era was over. The Gabriel Knight series did do pretty well and in 1998 Sierra did publish Half-life (although Valve created it.)

If you are interested in all the details, you can find most of them at the Wikipedia page, but I think what happened to Ken and Roberta is a bit more interesting.

What happened to Ken and Roberta

My first clue was the letter that Ken had posted on SierraGamers.com which was written in 2003.

In the letter Ken talks about how he and Roberta created and owned Sierra from 1979 through 1996. When they sold the company, they decided to retire, dividing their time between Mexico (Cabo San Lucas,) Seattle and France.

Family-photo

Once of the things I found fascinating though, is that Ken said that:

Most of my days are spent playing golf, and other than this website I haven't thought about Sierra or computer games for a long time.

I was shocked to think that perhaps I spend more time thinking about Sierra games than Ken does. Somehow in my head, I couldn't imagine that the creators of Sierra Online would not be involved in video games in some way. The idea just seemed too foreign to me. This really got me curious.

In the letter Ken goes on to talk a bit more about Sierra's history and how it is all of our history. He mentions that Sierra just happened to be coming along at the right time in history as computers were really starting to take hold in society. He also says that he doesn't really have the talent, or intention to write a book on that history.

Looking through the site was a strange experience. The letter is, of course, 10 years old at this point and the site is visibly dated. There were a few new messages on the forum though and the list of Sierra games with some pictures of the game boxes was very interesting. There were definitely a few titles in there I had forgotten about and that I didn't even realize were produced by Sierra.

Heading over to the FAQ section of the site, I found a link to Ken's personal blog. Being the nosy person that I am, I had to check it out.

Sailing the world!

It turns out Ken and Roberta have been sailing the world. They sailed across the Atlantic in 2004 and the Pacific in 2009. Ken, also created a new company that helps you create your own websites called “TalkSpot.” (Although, looking at the blog from the website, I saw the latest entry was from January of 2014, so I'm not sure how alive the company is.)

sushi-run

Looking through Ken's blog, I could see that they were still sailing around the world having adventures. That is a long time to be sailing. I was amazed to see the intricate blog posts detailing all parts of the adventures they were having, including getting their place in Cabo San Lucas wrecked by the category 4 hurricane that just went through there.

It was fascinating to read Ken's blog posts detailing their sailing adventures. It was interesting to see how two people who must have dedicated their lives to programming and computer games were now so far and disconnected from it. It's weird; I think most of us live the same kind of life and are involved in the same kinds of things for most of our lives. To think about how someone's life could be so completely different from what it was and how a person's focus could be so dramatically changed, fascinates me.

Will I always be a programmer? Will I, at some point, not even have anything to do with software development? I don't know, but it is interesting to think about it.

And the thing is, you can really tell he cares about what he is doing now by the detail of his posts and all the images he includes with them.

Not only that, but Ken did write some books, only they were about sailing!

ken-boosI don't know about you, but it just is kind of odd and magical to think that the creator of Sierra Online, one of the people responsible for some of the best computer games I played as a kid, is writing books about sailing; living a life completely different than what I would expect.

Oh, and if you are curious what kind of boat they sail, it is a Nordhaven 62. A reasonably priced Yacht that goes for somewhere between $1 – $2 million dollars, used. (As far as I can tell, although I'm not really much of a Yacht shopper.)

If you are interested, take a look at his blog posts, really interesting stuff.

What about the rest of the Sierra crew?

I was also a bit curious to find out what happened to some of the other people involved with Sierra. I was able to track down two designers / programmers who are still in the industry with some resurrected games that are / have come out.

Al Lowe

Al was mainly responsible for creating Leisure Suit Larry. I've actually never played any of the games in the franchise–I was too young at the time and my parents weren't budging on that one.

It turns out, a new Leisure Suit Larry game was actually Kickstarted and shipped–I'll have to check it out.

larry-suit

Al now has a comedy site, which is pretty interesting.

Two Guys From Andromeda

But what about those two guys behind the Space Quest series? Space Quest was definitely my favorite of the Sierra properties.

Mark Crow and Scott Murphy, better known as the two guys from Andromeda actually started a Kickstarter to create a new Space Quest-like franchise, SpaceVenture.

spaceventureUnfortunately, looking at their site, I don't see many recent updates, but I am hopeful the game will actually be released. They even went as far as to start a podcast about the upcoming game.

The future of Sierra

There is some good news for the future though. It appears Sierra is making somewhat of a comeback. At the very least they are going to resurrect the King's Quest franchise.

kingsquest

If you go the sierra.com, you'll find a new intro trailer and some information about upcoming games, including King's Quest.

How awesome would it be if all those old Sierra games continued on or there was a true revival in good adventure games? Maybe it wouldn't be the same as it was back then, but I'm hopeful.

Well, that's it for my trip down memory lane. A bit of a different blog post, this one, but I thought many of you who also played Sierra games would find it interesting.

If you liked this post, I invite you to join over 5,000 other software developers who have joined the Simple Programmer community.

 

 

About the author

John Sonmez

John Sonmez is the founder of Simple Programmer and a life coach for software developers. He is the best selling author of the book "Soft Skills: The Software Developer's Life Manual."