RetroGamer: Developer Lookback at Sierra Online

By Craig Ritchie

Imagine the world as a two dimensional space, your only faculty for interpreting it being language. Words are fed to you in a linear fashion, and all you can respond with is more words. Now imagine you are unexpectedly thrust from this interactive fiction into a real, three dimensional world. Suddenly you have your senses. Sight, sound, touch – and all these are now at your disposal… boy, do you have a lot to discover. This is what Sierra did for gaming. The California based company made the jump from merely describing where you were, to actually putting you there and letting you experience it for yourself. Craig Ritchie investigates how the meaning of ‘LOOK’ changed from “Where am I?” to “Tell me about what I see.”

It’s a funny thing, circumstance. As the old adage goes, nothing in this life is certain except for death and taxes. And sure enough, if it weren’t for the joy of tax returns, chances are we would never have seen Sierra’s legendary Quest games. See, way back in 1979, while remotely coding an income tax program on a mainframe computer located on the other side of America, a young Ken Williams stumbled upon a file named Adventure. He ran the application, not knowing what to expect, and found himself standing at the end of a road facing the most legendary brick house in adventure gaming history. He called his wife Roberta to have a look, and after a bit of fiddling around the two were hooked. Ken’s coding took a serious back seat for the next three weeks until they had finished the game, at which time Roberta became adamant that she wanted to make her own interactive adventures. After many hours spent conceptualizing and designing literally at the kitchen table, On-Line Systems was born.

With his coding skills and her imagination, the couple set about creating what was to be the first ever graphical adventure game, Mystery House. The game sported basic monochrome line drawings to accompany the text, and the text parser allowed the player to enter simple commands of one or two words. Released in 1980 for the Apple II, Mystery House went on to sell more than 10,000 copies, an outstanding feat considering that at the time there was no established home software market to speak of.

Encouraged by Mystery House’s popularity, Ken and Roberta went on to produce a number of adventure and action titles under the banners of SierraVenture and SierraVision, and in mid-1982 changed their company’s title to Sierra On-Line – a name that would soon become synonymous with adventure gaming. At the time, their most serious competition came from an East Coast development house who had been making major bounds in the improvement of text-based adventures: Infocom. The limitations of the hardware at the time meant that while Sierra had the innovation of graphics, their games sometimes felt as though they lacked the depth of Infocom’s releases. Still, this was no reflection of Roberta’s creativity – in fact, her ideas and Ken’s programming were stretching the Apple II’s memory and capabilities as far as they could go, and still she was left with an end result that paled next to her initial designs.

The Williams knew that Sierra needed a computer system that could fully realise Roberta’s ambitious designs. Thankfully for them, and for the gaming public, that is exactly what happened.

While Sierra was finding its feet in an industry that had yet to find its own, their greatest boon came in the form of a relationship with another company looking after its own interests. IBM was devising a way to promote their new home system, the PCjr, and felt that this could best be achieved through the development of a game which would fully show off its capabilities.

And so it was that in 1983, after a reported $700,000 funding by IBM, Sierra On-Line developed a groundbreaking engine for graphical adventure games. Called AGI (quite simply, Adventure Game Interpreter), it allowed characters to move freely around the background, with prioritized horizontal ‘bands’ giving the illusion of depth (if the player were above band 3, for example, then they would appear behind any objects in band 1 or 2). As is the case with so many gaming milestones, this amazingly simple innovation proved revolutionary, and the first animated ‘3D’ adventure game was released – the legendary King’s Quest.

Never before had gamers experienced such freedom of movement or player-determined gameplay. Whereas traditional text-based adventures presented themselves to the player in the linear fashion of the written word, King’s Quest had screen after screen of graphically detailed locations in which the player could freely roam around and try different actions on different objects. The game’s vocabulary was so extensive that it was possible to do – or attempt to do – nearly anything one could imagine.

King’s Quest ’s runaway success saw Sierra On-Line hire developers to work on more titles using the same engine (or, rather, interpreter), resulting in some of the most popular adventure gaming franchises of all time: Space Quest, Police Quest, and of course Leisure Suit Larry.

And it seemed that Sierra could do no wrong. Simply put, for much of the eighties and early nineties the PC was the domain of the graphical adventure game. Leisure Suit Larry creator and Sierra legend Al Lowe gives us his insight into this phenomenon: “Adventure games were perfect for the eighties, especially the early eighties when you had to be a geek just to own a pc, let alone boot it up and get anything to run on it! As using DOS meant managing config.sys and autoexec.bat files, it took a puzzle solver comfortable with command lines and used to spelling correctly just to run the computer. There was no spell check back then – PC’s were totally unforgiving. All these things were perfect for our adventure games, which I guess were just perfect for the market at the time.”

As popularity spread, often by word of mouth, the freedom to explore and immerse oneself in Sierra’s extensive electronic environments touched the lives of computer gamers the world over. “Once I met this guy from Russia,” says Lowe. “He was a computer consultant over there just when the Soviet Union was breaking up. He told me how every computer he’d ever been on in Russia had a Sierra directory with a LSL sub-directory. He said he’d never looked at a hard drive that didn’t have it – it was like it was part of DOS!”

Then he laughs, and adds “I guess we only sold one copy to the whole of Russia though!”

Still, successful sales in the USA and abroad naturally led to company and employee growth. “It was pretty much any time you found somebody who was willing to work there, we grabbed them,” adds Lowe. “Ken was a big racquetball player. He met a guy at the gym playing racquetball who was a retired Californian Highway Patrol officer, and he started telling Ken stories. Ken basically said you’ve got a hell of a lot of cool stories - want to make a game? And that’s what became how Jim Walls got started on Police Quest.”

Due to their remote location in the forests of Oakhurst, California, Sierra also began outsourcing their games to programmers who would work remotely. In a forward-thinking move well ahead of the now familiar notion of the home-office, Sierra displayed a knack for locating and recruiting talent wherever it was based. “Al Lowe worked out of his home for the most part for Leisure Suit Larry,” says Dave Murray, one of the creators of Sierra’s celebrated Manhunter titles, “and Jim Walls worked on Police Quest in a guest house on Ken William’s property. The guys that did Gold Rush lived in a trailer in the Sierra parking lot!”

The Murrays, too, developed their games from home. “We flew to Sierra during the last two weeks of development so that we could interact with the play-testers, help with inserting music into the game and with conversions to Apple and other computers. We had all the support that we asked for and it was a friendly place to work.”

Sierra’s winning formula continued barely unchanged for almost half decade, and as the available hardware slowly improved, they knew that they would have to take advantage of these emerging technologies in order to stay on top of their game.

In 1988, Sierra upped the ante once more and released noteworthy sequels King’s Quest IV,Police Quest II and Leisure Suit Larry II – the first games to make use of their new engine, SCI (Seirra’s Creative Interpreter). While basic mouse control and a pop-up input box added to the functionality (AGI games saw players’ typed commands appearing at the bottom of the screen), it was the inclusion of synthesized sound and a significant improvement to the graphics (SCI doubled AGI’s horizontal resolution) that marked the major steps that Sierra had taken with their new interpreter.

“AGI was a simple game engine tailored primarily to adventure games,” explains Brian Provinciano, developer of the freely downloadable ‘make-your-own-Sierra-game’ package SCI Studio. “SCI was, on the other hand, designed to be much more complex and versatile to no specific type of game. In fact, the majority of the adventure game aspects of SCI games were written not in the engine, but in the scripts. By doing it this way, they could ensure the games ran exactly the same on all platforms. SCI was designed more as a portable virtual machine with graphical and sound capabilities rather than a simple adventure game engine. It was way ahead of it 's time – an object-oriented virtual machine years before Java.”

This big step up in terms of technology is what set Sierra ahead of the competition. “I used to think we were up on them in terms of technology,” says Lowe, speaking in particular on the other graphical adventure gaming stalwart of the time, Lucasarts. “In our games you could roam around freely. While they only had pre-calculated path s ing determining where a character could go, we had freedom. I thought that their writing was better and that some of their stuff was really clever, but I also thought we were more balanced between technology and writing.”

Later incarnations of SCI saw the elimination of typing altogether as Sierra embraced a more Lucasarts-esque method of icon driven mouse input, entering the VGA era with the 1990 release of King’s Quest V, Sierra’s first 256-colour game. Although developers such as Origin were already stretching PC hardware to the limits to show off just what was possible, Sierra seemed specifically focused on using new hardware – particularly the storage capacity of CD-ROMs – to develop ways to further engross players into their game worlds. Creating ever-more detailed and colourful environments, rich musical scores, and even professionally voiced speech were all par for the course in Sierra’s own quest for greater player immersion.

“At the time we didn’t know we were doing anything earth-shattering,” admits Lowe. “We were primarily making games we wanted to play. We enjoyed it, and it really wasn’t until I built a website and started getting emails from fans that I realised how many people played those games and enjoyed them. Sure, I got spreadsheets every month of how many copies had been sold. But that’s a number on a line in a box, you know? I never put together the fact that every one of those copies was somebody trying to solve those puzzles we created. Once I retired and started allowe.com I got tens of thousands of emails. I answered every one of them, not only from people who had a lot of fun but also really touching ones from people who said I’d changed their life because through playing Larry they then got into programming. Only then I realised that we were in a special place at a special time, and that was due to our isolation. It was partly due to the fact that it wasn’t down the street from another game company, where we could go down there to solve problems and ask them how they do things. No, we were just kind of a pioneers out in the forest . and We didn’t have a have clue what influence we had.”

Sierra’s great success would continue through to the mid - nineties with a slew of well received sequels as well as some hugely popular VGA remakes of their original AGI adventures. In 1994, business was booming and Sierra’s head office was moved from its sleepy roots in Oakhurst, California to the hustle and bustle of Bellevue, Washington. On top of this, Sierra had been publishing titles from Japanese developer Game Arts since the late eighties (most noteably Thexder and Silpheed) as well as acquired Jeff Tunnel l’s Dynamix, an excellent development house responsible for such hits as Red Baron, Rise of the Dragon and The Incredible Machine. It was all growth, growth, growth.

Sierra’s story was truly a classic tale, from a young couple’s dream in the late seventies to a multi-million dollar success story a decade and a half later. But the sad truth was that the dream scenario would soon come to an end as Sierra’s continuing expansion and market prominence attracted the big moneyed men and the chaos that invariably follows once motivation switches from creativity to greed.

Sierra’s demise began in 1996 when the company was purchased by CUC International, thus taking its first steps into the corporate world. Ken Williams had to relinquish executive control over his 17 year project, and things went downhill soon after. Entire divisions were stripped of staff or shut down altogether, resulting in hundreds of employees being laid off as the new management focused solely on impressing shareholders. There appeared to be little to no concern about the games (or the human beings) that had gotten Sierra there in the first place. It was a terrible time, a horrific dream-turned-nightmare as Williams could do nothing but watch as Sierra was slowly stripped of any hint of its former glory.

Big business was in full swing, mergers and acquisitions were happening all over the place, and it was not long before CUC International added the ultimate insult to the already catastrophic injuries: they were responsible for one of the largest cases of accounting fraud in American history. Stock values plummeted, high level executives were tried and imprisoned, and even more employees lost their jobs. Sierra – and its hundreds of employees – was hopelessly caught up in the middle.

In 1998 Sierra was sold to Vivendi, and by now nearly all of the original creative teams were either fired, dissolved or had already moved on to better things. The new Sierra later released a few more sequels to their popular franchises, but fans generally agreed that these games were rushed jobs which showed little passion on behalf of the developers. By this time, the industry’s attention had shifted to consoles and 3D gaming, and with a marked decrease in both the quality and quantity of Sierra’s titles, fans had to face the reality that the adventure game’s Golden Age was over.

Things just got worse over the following months with endless layoffs and division closures, culminating on 22 February 1999, a day that would come to be referred to as ‘Chainsaw Monday’: Sierra’s executive management made the radical decision to close the original studios in Oakhurst.

Over 250 employees lost their jobs, people’s lives were thrown into shambles, and Sierra’s soul was truly lost in a maelstrom of corporate disarray. Things couldn’t get worse, and the next few years were nothing more than a string of layoffs and closures until, in 2004, the last bastion of the old Sierra fell with the closure of the Bellevue offices. Sierra, in all but name, had died.

“Vivendi owns the word Sierra and the brand and all the assets of the company,” says a noticeably more somber Lowe, “but as for the employees, they have all scattered to the winds. With software companies, it’s all about the intellectual properly, the creative ownership – the intelligence. When you take away all those people, all you’ve got is the word ‘Sierra’ and the words ‘Leisure Suit Larry’. [Magna Cum Laude] wasn’t a good game. You can try making it into good a game, but it won’t work - not even if you try your hardest, not even if you spend millions of dollars. Magna Cum Laude proved that. That’s because all the original people are gone. The company went into a death spiral when everybody left. With the accounting irregularities, then the selling of the name, it was just a terrible mess. As for a real company of people answering phones by saying ‘Hi, we are Sierra,’ that stopped on August 27th 2004.”

Fast forward now to the present day. The Sierra we knew and loved is little more than a memory, immortalized by the numerous fan-sites that dot the web: projects such as DosBox which let us play these classics on today’s machines; Dedicated programmers have developed software studios that enabl e s anyone to make their own AGI or SCI games; There are a handful of completed homebrew games available for free download, and a good number of these show great dedication and talent; Some serious effort has been put into excellent, professional quality remakes (see boxout). Each of these labours of love stands testament to the phenomenal impact that Sierra’s games have had on their fans.

“I think people ultimately want to tell good stories in a format that is interactive,” says Eric Fullerton, maintainer of AGI Studio. “I do believe it is partly for nostalgic reasons that people choose AGI to create their games. The other part is knowing that your creative work is being enjoyed and is – or can be – someone's inspiration. I think people that have played classic Sierra games and really gotten into them have always had ideas in the back of their minds about their spin on a certain game, or their idea of a new kind of hero. Offering something like AGI Studio to someone like that is a dream come true”. And the great thing is that a number of them are actually rather good. “I've played a lot of AGI games and tested quite a few,” says Fullerton, “and I'll say my top favorites are Space Quest: The Lost Chapter, Time Quest, V: The Graphic Adventure and URI Quest. These are all really wonderfully polished games and they truly belong in the Sierra family.”

Sierra has touched lives, possibly more so than any other games developer, and it is the soul of the original company, from the early days around the kitchen table to the last true adventures of the mid 90’s, which fans choose to remember. Sierra’s impact on the world of gaming, and in fact it ’s entire legacy, can best be summed up by Ken Williams himself in an extract from a letter written to former employees after the extensive layoffs that came about after ‘Chainsaw Monday’:

“I console myself in the following way, and perhaps it will help you to cope with what has occurred. Let's imagine that a stranger had walked up to any of us, on the street, in 1979, and said: "Would you like to move to one of the greatest cities on earth? While you are there, you can play a key role in creating a company that just about everyone will know and respect. Your grandchildren will be amazed when they learn that you once worked there. You will be the envy of your peers, because they will know that your team created the largest collection of hits ever to come from one company. There will even be years when you will have played a role in over half the products on the industry’s top ten lists! You will be surrounded by incredibly intelligent, hard working people, who will work 20+ hours per day when it takes it to get the job done. And, you will have more fun than you ever thought possible. There's only one catch though. This will only last for twenty years." Even knowing it wouldn't last forever I would have followed that stranger anywhere. I'm disappointed that it didn't last forever, but, a 20 year ride on the greatest roller coaster on Earth beats the heck out of life in the slow lane any day. Life may never be the same, but it also isn't over, and we all have some great memories we shall never forget.”

Thanks to Al Lowe, Dave Murray, Brian Provinciano and Eric Fullerton for their input and contributions to this story. The full transcript of Ken William’s letter can be read at Josh Lulewicz and Jukke Eronen’s excellent www.vintage-sierra.com .

Frustrating depths

One of the most trying aspects of the old Quest games was that the player could often find themselves lacking a particular item that was no longer accessible. You definitely didn’t want to find yourself aboard the ship in Gold Rush! without having bought any citrus fruit, for example, or you would soon find yourself suffering from an unavoidable bout of scurvy… While frustrating on the one hand, what this also meant is that Sierra’s games were given more depth and considerably longer completion times as players explored every inch of every screen for less obvious items, knowing that rushing through anything could lead to in impasse hours down the line. This additional exploration factor inevitably lead to the player reading more dialogue boxes, interacting with more of the scenery, and hence having the experience of a larger and more engaging world.

What’s in the box?

While today’s PC and video games may have near uniformity in terms of packaging and contents (read: one DVD and a simple manual), back in the eighties and nineties it was standard fare to include all manner of books, maps and other paraphernalia in the box. Sierra, being no exception, produced some very memorable packages throughout the years. The gaming experience was thus significantly enhanced through all of these extras by offering back story for additional depth, helping the player along via tips and clues, or simply acting as copy protection (King’s Quest 3, for example, was impossible to finish without knowing the spells in the manual). Some items, such as the cut-out masks in Space Quest 3 or the pencil and notebook in The Colonel’s Bequest have become collector’s essentials.


The King’s Quest series has also seen a number of very impressive fan-made remakes. King’s Quest I, II and III have all been released with VGA graphics as well as digital music and speech. AGDI have added to the originals by taking the liberty of tweaking the games by including new puzzles, a deeper plot and more back-story to the characters. King’s Quest I and II can be downloaded from www.agdinteractive.com and King’s Quest III from www.infamous-adventures.com. AGDI’s site also offers a preview of their current work in progress: a VGA remake of Quest for Glory II.

Massively multiplayer?

Clever Sierra fans have also made use of the interweb for what could be called an AGIMMORPG. Thankfully, though, it’s not, and “Good Old Adventures” rolls of the tongue somewhat better than an acronym longer than the average English word. Users select a character from Sierra’s various AGI games and can then interact with like-minded individuals in a variety of different game worlds. Now you really can chat up that bird in Lefty’s Bar, or see just how well (or poorly…) Roger Wilco would have fared in Daventry. Perhaps not the most popular thing on the internet, but it does highlight the enduring popularity of Sierra’s masterpieces.

Al Lowe on serious fans:

“The craziest fan mail I ever got was a parcel about two by three feet wide and an inch thick. I opened it up and it contained dozens of pieces of cardboard cut-outs. This guy had coloured each one in with crayons to create the characters he wanted in the game. He had written up a whole storyline and had big pieces of coloured cardboard making up the background for each screen. You then had to move these people around according to the story. That was probably the weirdest thing I’ve ever received.”

Influencing audio

Not to be overlooked is the impact that Sierra has made on home computer audio. A dedicated proponent of emerging sound technologies, Sierra made use of each generation of digital audio card as they came along, gradually improving their games’ scores with the advancing hardware. Ad-Lib, SoundBlaster and Roland have all undeniably sold a great, great deal more sound cards thanks to players who wanted a fuller, more engrossing traipse through the worlds of the Sierra master crafters.

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