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The Sierra story

Started by Sir Perceval of Daventry, September 04, 2011, 01:34:04 PM

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Sir Perceval of Daventry

I wrote a lot of the later parts; Petter Holmberg wrote much of the early parts. Originally, it was on Wikipedia, but Wikipedia's editors redacted it for being too long and took out a lot of the info. It's even longer than this page had it:


The history of Sierra Entertainment started back in 1979 in the California home of Ken and Roberta Williams.
At the time, Ken was working as a contract programmer for IBM, developing an income tax program on a mainframe computer 3,000 miles away from L.A. One night he found a program labeled Adventure on the mainframe. Curious of what it could be, he downloaded it and it turned out to be a copy of Colossal Caves. It was the first true "interactive fiction" computer game and Ken became fascinated with it.
Roberta was not very interested in computers at the time, but Ken showed her the game on a terminal he had brought home from work. Roberta, who had been a big fairy tale and adventure fiction lover ever since her childhood, was instantly hooked in this new breed of storytelling and played her way through Colossal Cave with great enthusiasm.

For Christmas 1979, Ken bought a $2,000 Apple II microcomputer with a whopping (for its day) 64k of memory, a 140k floppy disk drive and a monochrome monitor. He was planning to use it to develop a FORTRAN compiler for Apple computers.
At the time, a company called Adventure International developed text adventure games for the Apple II. Roberta played their games, but even though she liked them, she was not entirely content with the adventure games that existed at the time. She realized that this medium had the possibilities to do even more than presenting text descriptions on the screen. Since modern computers could display graphics, instead of telling the player "You are standing in front of a house" a picture of the house could be displayed on the screen. The games could use better plots too, making them even more interesting to play.

Mystery House

Roberta sat down in front of the kitchen table and started to write down her ideas. Three weeks later she presented to Ken the script of a computer game called Mystery House, an idea she had developed during the previous days, in between watching the kids (D.J. was seven at the time and Chris was only one year old) and doing other everyday household stuff. The game would revolve around a murder mystery, where you as the player would be trapped overnight in an old house together with seven other people, one of whom would be a killer. But who? The house would also contain a hidden treasure that the player had to find. (Inspiration was taken from the famous Agatha Christie story And Then There Were None and the parlor game Clue.) At first, Ken was not very excited about her idea, but eventually Roberta caught his attention, especially when she said she wanted the game to contain pictures instead of just text.

Roberta managed to talk Ken into helping her develop the game in the evenings after work. Ken figured out a way to fit the amount of graphics she wanted into the very limited memory of their Apple II computer and created the tools needed to draw it, as there still were no drawing programs available on the market. They bought a crude graphics tablet with a mechanic arm that could transfer a drawing on paper to a computer image. Ken also programmed the logic code needed in the game. Roberta worked on the text and the graphics and told Ken how to put it all together to make it the game she wanted. She did the quality assurance of the game herself.

They worked on it for about three months and in May 5, 1980, Mystery House was finally ready for shipment. They placed a small ad in Micro Magazine, made copies of the game themselves and packaged them in small square folders, sealed inside Ziploc bags. The box art was designed by Roberta's mother Nova, who was a good oil painter. The games were then distributed to the only four software stores available in Los Angeles County at the time by Ken and Roberta personally. It cost $24.95 and was distributed under Ken's company name On-Line systems.

With their first computer game done, Ken and Roberta started to make plans for the future. They thought that if they could just write games popular enough to earn them about $40,000 a year, they could move out of Los Angeles in a few years and live in a "log cabin in the woods", working together at home, making computer games and raising their children in a peaceful and beautiful environment close to nature instead of the big and busy city of L.A. They had no idea that this humble dream would be a heavy understatement to what was actually going to happen to them in the following years.

Mystery House was an instant hit. The graphics, although consisting only of crude line drawings, monochrome and motionless, was something previously unseen in a computer adventure game, and people loved it. The orders were pouring in and so was the money. By August 1980, Mystery House had already sold enough copies to enable Ken and Roberta to move out of L.A. They bought a house in Coarsegold, a small gold mining town in the Sierra Nevada foothills just south of Yosemite National Park, where Roberta's parents John and Nova owned an apple orchard.

Mystery House was the first computer adventure game to have graphics, and as such is considered a classic game and a landmark achievement in computer gaming history. It sold about 15,000 copies and earned $167,000, an unprecedented number for the time. Ken and Roberta who had not anticipated this huge popularity of the game would constantly get telephone calls day and night by people who wanted to buy the game. They realized that suddenly 30–40,000 people had become aware of their home phone number. After about 6 months they moved to the small mountain town of Oakhurst, seven miles north of Coarsegold. Chaos lasted for about three more months in their new home until they rented an office, located on top of a print shop. Their first employee was John Williams, Ken's brother, and the early On-Line systems staff consisted mostly of friends and relatives of the couple.

Other games
Other adventure games released in this period were Wizard and the Princess, Time Zone, which spanned six double-sided disks and held the record for being the largest computer game ever made for about seven years, and The Dark Crystal, a game based on Muppets creator Jim Henson's movie The Dark Crystal.
Next to the adventure games, Sierra On-Line also released a number of very successful arcade games on license, such as Frogger and Jawbreaker. These games were sold under the SierraVision label. A few non-entertainment software products, such as the HomeWord Speller word processor were also released. Ken was working hard during this initial period of the company to gain understanding of the digital entertainment industry so he could lead the company in the right direction. His opinion of computer games had changed dramatically. Hundreds of letters from all over the country had told Ken and Roberta that the games they were making were important to people. Even Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, whom Ken admired, sent them a letter and told them what a delight it was to see their games run on the Apple II.

In the early 80s, a large number of companies fought to become the leaders in the new and very attractive market of home computing. Venture capitalists had seized some control of Sierra On-Line after lending Sierra On-Line money for the development of early games. They wanted the company to turn their attention towards cartridge-based computers, and invested lots of venture capital on the development of software for systems such as the Atari VCS, Coleco Adam and VIC-20. These investments did not pan out, and in mid-1984 Sierra On-Line was on the brink of bankruptcy. Stuck with piles of cartridges for millions of dollars that no one wanted to buy, the history of Sierra On-Line nearly ended.

King's Quest
Around a year before the disaster, Sierra On-Line had been contacted by IBM to create a showcase game for their new PCjr. IBM would fund the entire development of the game, pay royalties for it and advertise for the game on TV. They wanted a ground-breaking game. It was a great opportunity, but also a big risk for Sierra On-Line. Ken and Roberta accepted and started right away on the project.

In the spirit of Wizard and the Princess, Roberta created a story based on classic fairy-tale elements where a knight would have to save a kingdom in distress by recovering three lost treasures. Her game concept included animated color graphics, a pseudo 3D-perspective where you could see the main character on the screen and be able to control his movements with the arrow keys on the keyboard, a much more competent text parser that would understand advanced commands from the player and music playing in the background through the PCjr sound hardware. The character would be able to move in front of or between objects on the screen, his graphics covering or being covered by these objects accordingly. The game was going to look and feel just like an animated cartoon that the player could control. A game like this had never been made before, and some people didn't believe it was possible to turn Roberta's concept into a game.

In order to bring together all of the graphics, text, and logic code for Roberta's new game, Sierra On-Line needed new programming tools. A complete adventure game development system, called AGI (short for Adventure Game Interpreter), was developed. All of the text, graphics, sound, and game logic would be designed to run through this interpreter. It would be easy to write other games for the same interpreter in the same way, and if Sierra On-Line wanted to port AGI games to other systems, they only needed an AGI interpreter for the new system that would run the games. Few changes to the game data were needed.
In the summer of 1984, King's Quest was released. King's Quest was successful on the IBM PCjr (nicknamed "peanut") and helped keep the company alive, However the PCjr itself was not well received. It was very incompatible with the standard IBM PC, and its "chiclet" keyboard was not working very well and could not be called user-friendly. The introduction of the PCjr was also overshadowed by the release of the Apple Macintosh at about the same time. The PCjr was doomed for failure, and it spelled a new disaster for Sierra On-Line.

Coincidence saved the company, as the Tandy Corporation introduced the Tandy 1000 in 1985, just a few weeks after IBM finally stopped production of the PCjr. It was compatible with the PCjr (although not marketed as such because of its bad reputation), it was compatible with MS-DOS and it was a life-saver for Sierra On-Line since you could play King's Quest on it. As lots of people started buying the Tandy 1000, which quickly became the leader of the home computer market, lots of people started buying King's Quest as well. Sierra On-Line started earning money again and was soon back on track.
The second half of the 80s was a time of great growth and success for Sierra On-Line.

(Posted on: September 04, 2011, 03:25:55 PM)

King's Quest II
In May 1985, Sierra On-Line released King's Quest II: Romancing the Throne, . It used the AGI system developed for King's Quest: Quest for the Crown. 1985 was also the year when Sierra On-Line moved out of their rented offices to the Sierra Professional Building, built for their company. The structure would eventually grow to a whole complex of buildings in the following ten years as the company expanded.

In 1986, Sierra On-Line teamed up with Disney and released three adventure games aimed at younger children, called Mickey's Space Adventure, The Black Cauldron and Winnie the Pooh in the Hundred Acre Wood.

Space Quest
While working hard on finishing The Black Cauldron, programmers Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy discovered that they had a mutual sense of humor and began to plan for an adventure game of their own. It was going to take place in outer space and it would be filled with crazy humor and an incredibly nerdy main character called Roger Wilco, a space janitor who fell asleep at work and ended up having to save the galaxy from an alien race known as the Sariens. They knew that Ken Williams wasn't very interested in space themes, so they put together four sample rooms for Roger to walk around in using the AGI system in their spare time before they actually showed their ideas to Ken. Their simple demonstration impressed him enough to allow them to start working on the full game. It was named Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter. The game, released in October 1986, was an instant success and would get many sequels in the following years. The series has earned cult status today with a big community of fans all over the world. The Space Quest series is full of warped humor and classic adventure game moments.

King's Quest III
In the same month as Space Quest was released, Sierra On-Line and Roberta Williams also released King's Quest III: To Heir Is Human. It spanned five double-sided disks and was thus their second biggest game ever, beaten only by Time Zone in size. It was much bigger and much harder than the previous King's Quest games.

Trip to Japan, Thexder
1986 Ken Williams made his first business trip to Japan. His intentions with the trip were to set up methods of selling Sierra software there. He traveled there with the impression that he could teach the Japanese a thing or two about computer gaming and perhaps sell a few products to them. What he found there was a total surprise. The Japanese computer gaming industry was not at all behind the American. Nintendo, a company few people in America had even heard about yet, had already sold their Famicom console to over 4 million Japanese homes, and games like Super Mario Bros. were well known in the whole country.

The games themselves were outstanding for the day, with stereo soundtracks and incredible graphics. Ken soon realized that it was the Japanese that could teach him, not vice versa. Instead of selling several games, Ken arranged for Sierra to acquire the rights to port and publish the platform shooter Thexder in the U.S. from Game Arts, the Japanese publisher. Thexder was a phenomenal success when it reached the shelves just before Christmas 1986. It became Sierra's bestselling game in 1987 and cooperation with Japanese publishers continued throughout the late 80s.

Competition from Lucasfilm Games
This was also the year when Lucasfilm Games released their first adventure game, Maniac Mansion. It used an interpreter called SCUMM, similar in concept to AGI.

Leisure Suit Larry
Al Lowe, who had been working at Sierra On-Line for many years, most recently as lead programmer for King's Quest III, was asked by Ken Williams to write a modern version of Chuck Benton's Softporn Adventure from 1981, the only pure text adventure that the company had ever released.
Al Lowe scrapped the original game material almost totally and came up with a main character called Larry Laffer, a nerdy loser in his forties who had lived with his mother until just recently. With a receding hairline and a 1970's leisure suit in white polyester, earning him the nickname Leisure Suit Larry, this hero comes to the city of Lost Wages hoping to lose his virginity. The game had funny answers for almost every single thing the player could think of writing.

Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards was a great hit (although not instantly), and it even won the Software Publishers Association's "Best Adventure Game" award of 1987. A long series of Leisure Suit Larry games would follow in the coming years and become the second best selling game series of Sierra On-Line after King's Quest. Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards may have been the most pirated game of the late 80s. Sierra On-Line claims to have sold more hint books than copies of the game itself.[citation needed]

Police Quest
1987 also saw the start of yet another successful Sierra On-Line adventure game series. Produced by Jim Walls, ex-Officer of the California Highway Patrol, Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel put players in the shoes of Sonny Bonds, a veteran police officer who had to track down and capture a very dangerous drug dealer known as the Death Angel. Jim had no previous experience in computer game development. He met Ken Williams during a leave from service after getting involved in a shootout. Ken asked him if he wanted to use his experiences as a police officer to write an adventure game for Sierra On-Line. He accepted, happy to do something else after his traumatic incident. The result was a great success.

Mixed up Mother Goose
Roberta, resisting the pressure from the company and the fans to make a King's Quest IV right after King's Quest III, decided this year to write an educational game aimed specifically at younger kids. The result, Mixed-Up Mother Goose, received great acclaim from the industry.

Manhunter: New York
In 1988, Dave, Barry and DeeDee Murry designed an original adventure game called Manhunter: New York. Using location pictures of famous city landmarks for realism, they set the story in a dark future where alien eyeballs had invaded the earth, turning humans into slaves. The player starts out safely as a spy for the aliens, but has the option to risk everything and turn against them when the time is ready. Manhunter: New York was the first adventure game created by Sierra that was not parser-based, but used an interface similar to the later point-and-click adventures.

Gold Rush!
Brothers Doug MacNeill and Ken MacNeill, who had previously worked on such games as King's Quest, developed Gold Rush!, an educational adventure game about the California Gold Rush. The player starts off in Brooklyn and must take one of three journeys to arrive in California and find a fortune in gold. Gold Rush! is one of the more complicated and final games using the AGI system.

1988 would be the last year when Sierra On-Line used only the AGI system in their adventure games. In order to keep up with the technological evolution of computers and computer games, they developed a new interpreter called SCI. Although still pretty similar to AGI in many ways, it had lots of improvements.
First of all, the graphic capabilities were now improved, as standard 320×200 EGA graphics was introduced. It doubled the resolution of the old AGI system, enabling much more detailed graphics. The old vector graphic techniques for background pictures used to save disk/memory space in the AGI games was brought along to the new interpreter, but now offered some improvements as well.

The AGI system used dithering of pixels to approximate the original 160×200 16-color graphics when it ran on a computer capable only of showing 320×200 4-color CGA graphics. Now this idea was brought along to the 320×200 16-color EGA-supporting SCI, allowing game artists to mix all 16 colors with each other in patterns to create even better looking graphics.

The SCI system also introduced mouse support, though both keyboard and joystick control were still supported as well. An improved menu system enhanced the look and feel of a game, and whenever the user pressed a character key, a command window automatically popped up, freezing the game until the user had finished the command, unlike the AGI system that always displayed a command prompt at the bottom of the screen and never froze up the game when you typed in a command. So now the user could write commands without hurry even when the character on screen was in immediate danger, a very convenient feature. The SCI system also showed the current score and the name of the game at the top of the screen at all times.

The SCI system furthermore improved scripting technology by supporting object-oriented scripting code. Similar to C++ or Java programming, game programmers could now write script classes for basic handling of things like moving creatures in the game and then re-use that code, adding/modifying only the parts separating different creatures.

But the most revolutionary thing about SCI was that it introduced support for extended sound hardware on the PC. Other popular computer platforms such as the Atari and the Amiga already had good sound, but the PC still only had the dreaded single-voice PC Speaker that was not really intended for music at all, although bravely used by Sierra On-Line and other computer game developers nonetheless. When the first professional sound devices compatible with the PC hardware, such as the AdLib and the Roland MT-32, were introduced, very few people believed in them. But Ken Williams foresaw what others had not realized: This technology would become big one day! He worked hard to make sure that the company would promote these cards and make people buy them.
All in all, over $400,000 was spent on developing the technical improvements in SCI.

King's Quest IV
In September of 1988, the first SCI game was released: King's Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella. It made full use of the superior SCI system. For the first time ever, people with the right hardware could hear real soundcard music in a game on their PCs. It was a stunning experience that, combined with Sierra's aggressive marketing efforts made people rush out to buy PC sound hardware, thus launching the soundcard boom that has made it a standard component in today's PCs. In October 1988, the company took a major step by going public, thus becoming Sierra On-Line Inc. Allowing public shareholders to buy Sierra stock gave the company working capital to develop new products and technologies. The use of a female heroine was a point of much controversy at the time the game was brought out.

(Posted on: September 04, 2011, 03:27:05 PM)

The SCI system became the base for many adventure games produced by Sierra On-Line after 1988. It was used for development of both Police Quest II and Leisure Suit Larry II, and in early 1989 for Space Quest III.
Roberta took another pause from the King's Quest series in 1989 to write The Colonel's Bequest: A Laura Bow Mystery, a game taking place in the 20s and with a story not completely unlike the one of Mystery House.
In 1989, yet another successful Sierra On-Line game series was born with the release of Quest for Glory I: So You Want to be a Hero, written by Lori Ann Cole. This was not entirely an adventure game, as role-playing was also present. It was the first Adventure/RPG hybrid ever made. The game was originally called Hero's Quest, but this resulted in copyright problems as people could confuse it with the well known Milton Bradley board game HeroQuest, so Sierra On-Line had to change the name.

Al Lowe also made the third episode of the Leisure Suit Larry series in 1989, a game that ended up in the back lot of Sierra On-Line itself.
The last game to be made in the AGI system was Manhunter 2: San Francisco in 1989. After that, Sierra solely used the superior SCI system for all their adventure games. The Manhunter series did not become successful enough for more sequels to get done.
In the same year, Sierra's sister-company Infocom, who only made old-style text adventure games was shut down. People did not buy enough text adventures anymore, as Sierra On-Line and others created more graphical adventure games.

1989 marked another major development that would change the look and feel of graphic adventure games forever. Aware of the new VGA video cards, capable of 256 colors and the CD-ROM delivery system on the horizon, Ken and Roberta realized they had an opportunity to raise the bar on computer gaming for everyone. While making a few phone calls to check out the possibilities of hiring some professional animators, they came across a director/designer named Bill Davis, who was working in animated television commercials for studio Kurtz & Friends. Sierra hired Bill Davis as their first VP of Development/Creative Director. Bill Davis oversaw the development of a new VGA version of Roberta's Mixed-Up Mother Goose, an early CD-Rom title on the Fujitsu's FM Townes machine.

In 1990, Sierra introduced SCI version 1 (the previous version being called SCI 0) with King's Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder. It had hand-painted background scenes, scanned in 256-colors, and scrapped the old text parser interface for a totally icon-based system where you could interact with the game solely using the mouse. King's Quest V was the first Sierra On-Line game ever to sell more than 500,000 copies and was the biggest selling game of all time for the next five years. It won several awards as well, such as the Best Adventure Game of the Year from both the Software Publishers Association and Computer Gaming World Magazine.

A new version of Mixed-Up Mother Goose was also released this year. After two years in development, it was released on CD-ROM and had digitized speech instead of text. It was the first true multimedia adventure game to be released on CD-ROM. Developing was not an easy process. The speed of CD-ROM drives at the time made it impossible to find speech data on the disk without a noticeable delay whenever a character in the game was going to say something. Synchronizing the lips of the characters to the sound was also impossible. Of course, few people had CD-ROM players at the time, but the ones who did got to experience something truly amazing. It won the Software Publishers Association's 1990 Best Early Education Award. Ken Williams was in fact one of the nominees for the Lifetime Achievement Award at the same ceremony, but he lost it to Steve Wozniak, the legendary co-founder of Apple Computer. "I can't imagine a better guy to lose to than Steve. He's always been one of my major inspirations in this business." said Ken. (A quote from Sierra News Magazine.)
In 1990, to celebrate the company's tenth anniversary, Sierra On-Line decided to make new, enhanced versions of the first games in their five most popular game franchises: King's Quest, Space Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, Police Quest and Quest for Glory, using the new SCI system. As Roberta Williams had begun work on the next King's Quest game, newly hired game designer Josh Mandel was assigned to the project of remaking the first King's Quest game. Roberta kept an eye on the project, but Josh still had pretty free hands in designing the game.

The releases of the SCI versions of Sierra's older games in 1990–91 did not have financial success.
In 1990, after a deep discussion with Bill Gates, Ken Williams decided to change Sierra's corporate strategy: From now on, Sierra would be 1/3 Perennial Series (such as King's Quest, Space Quest, etc.) 1/3 Educational titles and 1/3 Productivity software. In order to meet this goal, Sierra would have to begin purchasing other companies in order to create a more diverse product line.

Acquisition of Dynamix
Later that year, the still growing Sierra On-Line made their first big acquisition of another computer game company: Dynamix, founded by Jeff Tunnell and Damon Slye in 1984. Dynamix had hit upon hard times and was at the verge of bankruptcy at the time of acquisition yet Ken Williams saw the profitability possibilities of the company and in doing so saved it from closure. In the following years, the company released a number of successful adventure games, like Rise of the Dragon, Heart of China and The Adventures of Willy Beamish. They also designed successful games in other genres, such as the flight simulator Red Baron, the RPG classic, Betrayal at Krondor, the Front Page Sports series and the puzzle game The Incredible Machine.