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Sierra Gets Creative

Coming out of Sierra On-Line’s 1984 near-death experience, Ken Williams made a prognostication from which he would never waver: that the real future of home as well as business computing lay with the open, widely cloned hardware architecture of IBM’s computers, running Microsoft’s operating systems. He therefore established and nurtured a close relationship with Radio Shack, whose Tandy 1000 was by far the most consumer-friendly of the mid-1980s clones, and settled down to wait for the winds of the industry as a whole to start to blow his way. But that wait turned into a much longer one than he had ever anticipated. As each new Christmas approached, Ken predicted that this one must be the one where the winds would change, only to witness another holiday season dominated by the cheap and colorful Commodore 64, leaving the MS-DOS machines as relative afterthoughts.

MS-DOS was, mind you, a slowly growing afterthought, one on which Sierra was able to feed surprisingly well. Their unique relationship with Radio Shack in particular made them the envy of other publishers, allowing them as it did to sell their games almost without competition in thousands of stores nationwide. That strategic advantage among others helped Sierra to grow from $4.7 million in gross sales in the fiscal year ending on March 31, 1986, to almost $7 million the following fiscal year.

This sales history from a Sierra prospectus illustrates just how dramatically the company's customer changed almost overnight when Ken Williams made the decision to abandon what he dismissed as the "toy computers" to concentrate on the Apple II and especially MS-DOS markets.

This sales history from a Sierra prospectus illustrates just how dramatically the company’s customer base changed when Ken Williams made the decision to abandon what he dismissed as the “toy computers” to concentrate on the Apple II and especially the MS-DOS markets.

Still, such incrementalism was hardly a natural fit for Ken Williams’s personality; he was always an entrepreneur after the big gains. It was excruciating waiting for the 8-bit generation of machines to just die already. When IBM debuted their PS/2 line in 1987, Ken, seeing the new machines’ lovely MCGA and VGA graphics and user-friendly mouse support, felt a bit like Noah must have when the first drops of rain finally began to fall. Yes, the machines were ridiculously expensive as propositions for the home, but prior experience said that, given time, their technology would trickle down into more affordable price brackets. If nothing else, the PS/2 line was at long last a start.

Indeed, Ken was so encouraged by the PS/2 line that he decided to pull the trigger on a fraught decision faced by every growing young company: that of whether and when to go public. He decided that October of 1987 would be the right moment, just as Sierra’s lineup of new software for Christmas began to hit the streets. After a frenzy of preparation, all was ready — but then the very week the IPO was to take place opened with Black Monday, the largest single-day stock-market collapse since the mother of all stock-market collapses back in 1929. Sierra quietly abandoned their plans, to little notice from prospective investors who suddenly had much bigger fish to fry.

Sierra had gotten very lucky, and in more ways than one. Had Black Monday been, say, a Black Friday instead, their newly issued shares must inevitably have gotten caught in its undertow, with potentially disastrous results. But even absent those concerns, going public in 1987 was probably jumping the gun just a little, banking on an MS-DOS market that wasn’t quite there yet. This reality was abundantly demonstrated by that Christmas of 1987, the latest to defy Ken’s predictions by voting for the Commodore 64 over MS-DOS — although by this time Commodore’s evergreen was in turn being overshadowed by a new quantity from Japan called the Nintendo Entertainment System.

In fact, the Christmas of 1987 would prove the last of the 64’s strong American holiday seasons. The stars were aligning to make 1988 through 1990 the breakthrough years for both Sierra and the MS-DOS platform to which Ken was so obstinately determined to keep hitching his wagon. In the meantime, the fiscal year ending on March 31, 1988 was nothing to sneeze at in its own right: thanks largely to the new hit Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards and the perennially strong sales of all three extant King’s Quest games, gross sales topped $12 million, enough to satisfy even a greedy entrepreneur like Ken.

That year Sierra broke ground on a new office complex close to their old one in picturesque Oakhurst, California, “at the southern gate of Yosemite National Park,” as their press put it. The new building was made cheaply in comparison to the old one: 40,000 square feet of pre-fab metal that has been variously described as resembling either a warehouse or an aircraft hanger, both inside and out. It would prove a far less pleasant place to work than the lovely redwood building Sierra now abandoned, but that, it seemed, was the price of progress. (Ken claimed to have learned from a survey that his employees actually preferred a cheap building in the name of saving money in order to grow the company in more important ways, but there was considerable skepticism about the veracity of that claim among those selfsame employees.)

To accompany an IPO do-over they had tentatively planned for late in the year, Sierra would have some impressive new gaming technology as well as their impressive — or at least much bigger — new building to put on display. Back in 1986, Ken had made his first trip to Japan, where he’d been entranced by a domestic line of computers from NEC called the PC-9801 series. Although these machines were built around Intel processors and were capable of running MS-DOS, they weren’t hardware-compatible with the IBM standard, a situation that left them much more room for hardware innovation than that allowed to the American clonesters. In particular, the need to display the Japanese Kanji script had pushed their display technology far beyond that of their American counterparts. The top-of-the-line PC-9801VX, with 4096 colors, 1 MB of memory, and a 10 MHz 80286 processor, could rival the Commodore Amiga as a gaming computer. And, best of all, the Japanese accepted the NEC machines in this application; there was a thriving market in games for them. Ken saw in these Japanese machines a window on the future of the American MS-DOS machines, tangible proof of what he’d been saying already for so long about the potential of the IBM/Intel/Microsoft standard to become the dominant architecture in homes as well as businesses. Ken returned from Japan determined that Sierra must push their software forward to meet this coming hardware. Out of this epiphany was born the project to make the Sierra Creative Interpreter (SCI), the successor to the Adventure Game Interpreter (AGI) that had been used to build all of Sierra’s current lineup of adventure games.

On the surface, the specifications of the first version of SCI hardly overwhelm. The standard display resolution of the engine was doubled, from a rather horrid 160 X 200 to a more reasonable (for the era) 320 X 200, with better support being added for mice and more complex animation possibilities being baked in. Notably, the first version of SCI did not support the impressive but expensive new MCGA and VGA graphics standards; even the technically aggressive Ken Williams had to agree that it was just too soon to be worth the investment.

Under the hood, however, the changes were far more extensive than they might appear on the surface. Jeff Stephenson, Sierra’s longtime technology guru, had created AGI on IBM’s dime and IBM’s timetable, in order to implement the original King’s Quest on the ill-fated PCjr. It was a closed and thus a limited system, albeit one that had proved far more flexible and served Sierra far better and longer than anyone had anticipated at the time of its creation. Still, Stephenson envisioned SCI as something very different from its predecessor: a more open-ended, modular system that could grow alongside the hardware it targeted, supporting ever denser and more colorful displays, ever better sound, eventually entirely new technologies like CD-ROM. As indicated by its name, which dropped any specific mention of adventure games, SCI was intended to be a universal engine potentially applicable to many gaming genres. To facilitate such ambitions, Stephenson  completely rewrote the language used for programming the engine, going from a simplistically cryptic scripting language to a full-fledged modern programming language reminiscent of C++, incorporating all the latest thinking about object-oriented coding.

Forward-thinking though it was, SCI proved a hard sell to Sierra’s little cadre of game-makers, most of whom lacked the grounding in computer science enjoyed by Jeff Stephenson; they would have been perfectly happy to stick with their simple AGI scripts, thank you very much. But time would show Stephenson to have been correct in designing SCI for the future. The SCI engine, steadily evolving all the while, would last for the remainder of Sierra’s life as an independent company, the technological bedrock for dozens of games to come.

Sierra planned to release their first three SCI-based adventure games in time for Christmas 1988 and that planned-for second-chance IPO: King’s Quest IV, Leisure Suit Larry II, and Police Quest II, with Space Quest III to follow early in 1989. (This lineup says much about Ken Williams’s sequel-obsessed marketing strategy. As an annual report from the period puts it, “Sierra attempts to exploit and extend the effective market life of a successful product by creating sequels to that product and introducing them at planned intervals, thereby stimulating interest in both the sequels and the original product.”) Of this group, King’s Quest IV was always planned as the real showcase for Sierra’s evolving technology, the game for which they would really pull out all the stops — understandably so given that, despite some recent challenges from one (Leisure Suit) Larry Laffer, Roberta Williams’s series of family-friendly fairy-tale adventures remained the most popular games in the Sierra catalog. Indeed, King’s Quest IV marked the beginning of a new, more proactive stance on Sierra’s part when it came to turning the still largely bland beige world of the MS-DOS machines into the new standard for computer gaming. Simply put, with MS-DOS’s consumer uptake threatening to stall again in the wake of the high prices and poor reception of the PS/2 line, Sierra decided to get out and push.

King’s Quest IV‘s most notable shove to the industry’s backside began almost accidentally, with one of Ken’s crazy ideas. He’d decided he’d like to have a real, Hollywood-style soundtrack in this latest King’s Quest, something to emphasize Sierra’s increasingly cinematic approach to adventure gaming in general. Further, he’d love it if said soundtrack could be written by a real Hollywood composer. Never reluctant to liaison with Tinseltown — Sierra had eagerly jumped into relationships with the likes of Jim Henson and Disney during their first heyday years before — he pulled out his old Rolodex and started dialing agents. Most never bothered to return his calls, but at last one of them arranged a meeting with William Goldstein. A former Motown producer, a Grammy-nominated composer for a number of films, and an Emmy-nominated former musical director for the television series Fame, Goldstein also nurtured an interest in electronic music, having worked on several albums of same. He found the idea of writing music for a computer game immediately intriguing. He and Ken agreed that what they wanted for King’s Quest IV was not merely a few themes to loop in the background but a full-fledged musical score, arguably the first such ever to be written for a computer game. As Goldstein explained it to Ken, “the purpose of a score is to evoke emotion, not to be hummed. Sometimes the score consists only of some chord being held and slowly becoming louder in order to create a feeling of tenseness. In creating a score, the instrument(s) it is composed for can be as important as the score itself.”

And therein lay the rub. When Ken demonstrated for him the primitive bleeps and bloops an IBM clone’s speaker was capable of playing, Goldstein pronounced writing a score for that blunt instrument to be equivalent to trying to shoot flies with a shotgun. But then he had an idea. Thanks to his work in other forms of electronic music, Goldstein enjoyed a relationship with the Roland Corporation, a longstanding Japanese maker of synthesizers. Just recently, Roland had released a gadget called the MT-32, a nine-channel synthesizer that plugged into an ordinary IBM-compatible computer. Maybe, Goldstein mused, he could write his score for the MT-32.

At first blush, it seemed a very problematic proposal. The MT-32, which typically went for $550 or more, was hardly an everyday piece of kit; it was aimed at the professional or at least the very serious amateur musician, not at gamers. Yet Ken decided that, faced with a classic chicken-and-egg situation, he needed to do something to move the needle on the deplorable state of IBM-compatible sound hardware. A showpiece game, like King’s Quest IV might become, could show the market what it had been missing and generate demand that might lead to more affordable audio solutions. And so Ken set Goldstein to work on the MT-32.

At the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1988, Sierra gave a series of invitation-only audiences a sneak preview of King’s Quest IV in the form of a nearly ten-minute opening “movie” — people would soon be saying “cut scene” — enhanced by Goldstein’s score. Sierra legend has it that it moved at least one woman to tears. “I feel bad even saying it,” remarks Sierra’s marketing director (and Ken Williams’s little brother) John Williams, “but it was then that we knew we had a winner.”


Such an extreme reaction may be difficult to fathom today; even in King Quest IV‘s own time, it’s hard to imagine Amiga owners used to, say, Cinemaware games being quite so awed as this one lady apparently was. But nevertheless, King’s Quest IV and its first real soundtrack score stands as a landmark moment in the evolution of computer games. The game did indeed do much to break the chicken-and-egg conundrum afflicting MS-DOS audio. Only shortly after Roland had released the MT-32, a Canadian company called Ad Lib had released a “Personal Computer Music System” of their own at a price of just $245. It left much to be desired in comparison to the MT-32, but it was certainly worlds better than a simple beeper; Sierra duly added Ad Lib support to King’s Quest IV and all the other SCI games before they shipped. And for Space Quest III, they enlisted the services of another sort of star composer: Bob Siebenberg, drummer of the rock band Supertramp. Thanks in large degree to Sierra’s own determined intervention, in this area at least their chosen platform was becoming steadily more desirable as a game machine.

But King’s Quest IV also advanced the state of the art of adventure gaming in other, less tech-centric ways. As evidenced by its prominent subtitle The Perils of Rosella, its protagonist is female. Hard as it may seem to believe today, when more adventure games than not seem to star women, this fact made King’s Quest IV almost unique in its day; Infocom’s commercially unsuccessful but artistically brilliant interactive romance novel Plundered Hearts is just about the only point of comparison that leaps to mind. Roberta confessed to no small trepidation over the choice at the time of King’s Quest IV‘s release: “I know it will be just fine with the women and girls who play the game, but how it will go over with some of the men, I don’t know.” She also admitted to some ambivalence about her choice in purely practical terms, stemming from differing expectations that are embedded so deeply in our culture that they’re often hard to spot at all until we’re confronted with them.

I have a lot of deaths in my games. My characters always die from falling or being thrown into a cauldron or something. And I always like to have them die in a funny way. It didn’t seem right; I don’t why. I guess it’s because she’s a girl, and you don’t think a girl should be treated that way. But I got used to that too, until there was one death I had to deal with last week that I was real uncomfortable with. Was it throwing her in the cauldron? I’m not sure, but it was some death that seemed particularly unfeminine, not right.

And girls die differently. I discovered lots of these things, like the way she falls, which has to be different from the way a guy falls. It’s been an experience. And I think that men will find it fun and different because it’s from a different point of view.

One could wish that Roberta’s ambivalence about killing her new female heroine at every possible juncture had led her to consider the wisdom of indulging in all that indiscriminate player-killing at all, but such was not to be. In the end, the most surprising thing about King Quest IV‘s female protagonist would be how little remarked upon it was by players. Sounding almost disappointed, Roberta a few months after the game’s release noted that “I personally have not heard much about it.” “I thought it would get a lot of attention,” she went on. “It has gotten some, but nothing really dramatic”; “very few” of the letters she received about the game had anything at all to say about the female heroine.

But then, that non-reaction could of course be taken as a sign of progress in itself. One of the worthiest aspects of Sierra’s determination to turn computer gaming into a truly mainstream form of entertainment was their conviction that doing so must entail reaching far beyond the typical teenage-boy videogame demographic. Doubtless thanks to the relative paucity of hardcore action games and military simulations in their catalog as well as to their having a woman as their star designer, Sierra was always well ahead of most of the rest of their industry when it came to the diversity of their customer base. At a time when female players of other publishers’ games seldom got out of the single digits in percentage terms, Sierra could boast that fully one in four of their players was a woman or a girl; of other 1980s computer-game publishers, only Infocom could boast remotely comparable numbers. In the case of Roberta’s King’s Quest games, the number of female players rose as high as 40 percent, while women and girls wrote more than half of Roberta’s voluminous fan mail.

Sierra’s strides seem all the more remarkable in comparison to the benighted attitudes held by many other publishers. Mediagenic’s Bruce Davis, for instance, busy as usual formulating the modern caricature of the soulless videogame executive, declared vehemently that women and girls were “not a viable market” for games because of “profound” psychological differences that would always lead them to “shun” games. (One wonders what he makes of the modern gaming scene, vast swathes of which are positively dominated by female players.) The role model that Roberta Williams in particular became for many girls interested in games and/or computers should never be overlooked or minimized. Even as of this writing, eighteen years after Roberta published her last adventure game, John Williams tells me how people of a certain age “go crazy” upon learning he’s her brother-in-law, how he still gets at least two requests per week to put people in touch with her for an autograph, how there was an odd surge for a while there of newborn girls named Rosella and Roberta.

All of this only makes it tougher to reckon with the fact that Roberta’s actual games were so consistently poor in terms of fundamental design. King’s Quest IV is a particular lowlight in her checkered career, boasting some unfair howlers as bad as anything found in her legendarily insoluble Time Zone. At one point, you have to work your way through a horrendous sequence of random-seeming actions to wind up visiting an island, something you can only do one time. On this island is a certain magic bridle you’re going to need later in the game. But, incomprehensibly, the game not only doesn’t ever hint that the bridle may be present on the island, it literally refuses to show it to you even once you arrive there. The only way to find it is to walk around the island step by step, typing “look” again and again while facing in different directions, until you discover those pixels that should by all rights have depicted the bridle but for some reason don’t. Throw in climbing sequences that send you plummeting to your death if you move one pixel too far in the wrong direction, a brutal time limit, and plenty of other potential dead ends almost as heartless as the one just described, and King’s Quest IV becomes as unfair, unfun, frustrating, and downright torturous as any adventure game I’ve ever seen. It’s so bad that, rather than being dismissable as merely a disappointing game, it seems like a fundamentally broken game, thereby raising a question of ethics. Did a player who had just paid $40 for the game not deserve a product that was in fact a soluble adventure game? Even the trade press of King’s Quest IV‘s day, when not glorying over the higher-resolution graphics and especially that incredible soundtrack, had to acknowledge that the actual game underneath it all had some problems. Scorpia, the respected voice of adventure gaming for Computer Gaming World, filled her article on the game with adjectives like “exasperating,” “irritating,” “tedious,” and “boring”, before concluding that “it’s a matter of personal taste” — about as close to an outright pan as most magazine reviewers dared get in those days.

Roberta Williams, an example of that rare species of adventure-game designers who don’t actually play adventure games, likely had little idea just how torturous an experience her games actually were. Taken as a whole, Roberta’s consistent failings as a designer seemingly must stem from that inability to place herself in her player’s shoes, and from her own seeming disinterest in improving upon her previous works in any terms but those of their surface bells and whistles. That said, however, King’s Quest IV‘s unusually extreme failings, even in terms of a Roberta Williams design, quite obviously stemmed from the frenzied circumstances of its creation as well.

I should note before detailing those circumstances that Sierra was finally by the time of King’s Quest IV beginning to change some of the processes that had spawned so many bad adventure games during the company’s earlier years. By 1988, they finally had the beginnings of a real quality-assurance process, dedicating three employees full-time to thrashing away at their games and other software. But, welcome as it was to see testing happening in any form, Sierra’s conception of same focused on the trees rather than the forest. The testers spent their time chasing outright bugs, glitches, and typos, but feedback on more holistic aspects of design wasn’t really part of their brief. In other words, they might spend a great deal of time ensuring that a given sudden death worked correctly without it ever even occurring to them to think about whether that sudden death really needed to be there at all.

In the case of King’s Quest IV, however, even that circumscribed testing process broke down due the pressure of external events. By the spring of 1988, Roberta had given her design for the game to the team of two artists and two programmers — all recent hires, more fruit of Sierra’s steady expansion — for implementation. Then, with IPO Attempt 2.0 now planned for October of that year and lots of other projects on the boil as well, nobody in management paid King’s Quest IV a whole lot more attention for quite some time, simply assuming that no news from its development team was good news and that it was coming along as expected. Al Lowe, who by the end of that summer had already finished designing and coding his Leisure Suit Larry sequel that was scheduled to ship shortly after King’s Quest IV, picks up the story from here:

King’s Quest IV was going to be the flagship product for the company when we went public. So, Ken and the money guys are busy going around the country, doing their dog-and-pony shows to Wall Street investors, saying, “This is a great company, you’re going to want to buy in, buy lots of stock. We’ve got this great product coming out that’s going to be the hit of the Christmas season.”

Finally, about the end of August, somebody said, “Has anybody looked at that game that’s supposed to be done in a month, that we’re supposed to ship in October? How’s it doing?” They went and looked at it, and the two programmers were lost. They had no clue. They had written a lot of code, but a lot of it was buggy, a lot of it didn’t take proper precautions. One of the big rules of programming is to never allow input at a time you don’t want it, but they had none of that. Everything was wide open. You could break it with a sneeze.

So, they called me and asked if I could come up that weekend — it was Labor Day weekend, Saturday — to look at the game. I did, and said, “Oh, my God, we’re in trouble.” I had a lot of stock options, and was hoping for a successful IPO myself. When I saw this, I said, “We’re in terrible shape. This isn’t going to make it.”

So, we devised a strategy over the weekend to bring every programmer in the company together on Labor Day Monday for a meeting. We said, “All hands are going to work on this title for the next month, and we’re going to finish this game in one month’s time because we’ve got to have it done by the end of September.” Do you remember the phrase from The Godfather, “We’ll go to the mattresses?” That’s what we did; we went to the mattresses. We all moved into the Sierra building. Everybody worked. They brought us food; they did our laundry; they got us hotel rooms. We basically just lived and ate and worked there, and when we needed to sleep we’d go to this hotel nearby. Then we’d get back up and do it again.

I took the lead on the project. I broke the game up into areas, and we assigned a programmer to each. As they finished their code, we had the whole company testing it. We’d distribute bug reports and talk about progress each morning. And by God, by the end of the month we had a game. It wasn’t perfect — it was a little buggy — but at least we had a game we could send out. And when we went public, it was a successful IPO.

Entertaining as this war story is, especially when told by a natural raconteur like Al Lowe, it could hardly result in anything but a bad adventure game. In a desperate flurry like this one, the first thing to fall by the wayside must be any real thoughtfulness about a game’s design or the player’s experience therein.

But despite its many design failings, King’s Quest IV did indeed deliver in spades as the discussion piece and IPO kick-starter it was intended to be. Sierra’s own promotional copy wasn’t shy about slathering on the purple prose in making the game’s case as a technical and aesthetic breakthrough. (In a first and only for Sierra, an AGI version of the game was also made for older systems, but it garnered little press interest and few sales in comparison to the “real” SCI version.)

King’s Quest IV sets a landmark in computer gaming with a new development system that transcends existing standards of computer graphics, sound, and animation. Powerfully dramatic, King’s Quest IV evokes emotion like no other computer game with unique combinations of lifelike animated personalities, beautiful landscapes, and soul-stirring music. Sierra has recreated the universe of King’s Quest to build a world that one moment will pull at your heartstrings, the next moment place terror in your heart.

Leveraging their best promotional asset, Sierra sent Roberta Williams, looking pretty, wholesome, and personable as ever, on a sort of “book tour” to software stores and media outlets across the country, signing autographs for long lines of fans everywhere she went. No one had attempted anything quite like this since the heyday of Trip Hawkins’s electronic artists/rock stars, and never as successfully as this. The proof was in the pudding: King’s Quest IV sold 100,000 copies in its first two weeks and received heaps of press coverage at a time when coverage of computer games in general was all but nonexistent in the Nintendo-obsessed mainstream media. Sales of the game may ultimately have reached as high as 500,000 copies. The IPO went off without a hitch this time on October 6, 1988: 1.4 million shares of common stock were issued at an opening price of $9 per share. Within a year, the stock would be flirting with a price of $20 per share.

In all their promotional efforts for King’s Quest IV and the rest of that first batch of SCI games, Sierra placed special emphasis on sound, the area where Ken Williams had chosen to try most aggressively to push the hardware forward. The relationship between Sierra and Roland grew so close that Thomas Beckmen, president of the latter company’s American division, joined Sierra’s board. But anyone from any of Roland’s rivals who feared that this relationship would lock them out needn’t have worried. Recognizing that even most purchasers of what they loved to describe as their “premium” products weren’t likely to splash out more than $500 on a high-end Roland synthesizer, Sierra pushed the cheaper Ad Lib alternative equally hard. In 1989, when a Singapore company called Creative Music Systems entered the fray with a cheaper knock-off of the Ad Lib design which they called the Game Blaster, Sierra took it to their bosom as well. (In the end, it was Creative who would be the big winners in the sound-card wars. Their Sound Blaster line, the successor to the Game Blaster, would become the ubiquitous standard for PC gaming through much of the 1990s.) Ken Williams went so far as to compare the latest Sierra games with the first “talkies” to invade the world of silent cinema. Given the sound that users of computers like the Amiga had been enjoying well before Sierra jumped on the bandwagon, this was perhaps a stretch, but it certainly made for good copy.

Ad Lib advertisementRoland advertisement

As part of their aggressive push to get sound cards into the machines of their customers, Sierra started selling the products of all three rival makers directly through their own catalog.

As part of their aggressive push to get sound cards into the machines of their customers, Sierra started selling the products of all three of the biggest rival makers of same directly through their own product catalogs.

Thanks to his own company’s efforts as much as those of anyone, Ken Williams was able to declare at the beginning of 1990 that during the previous year MS-DOS had become “the standard for entertainment software”; the cloudburst this latter-day Noah had been anticipating for so long had come at last. In a down year for the computer-game industry as a whole, which was suffering greatly under the Nintendo onslaught, MS-DOS and the Amiga had been the only platforms not to suffer a decline, with the former’s market share growing from 44 percent to 55 percent. Ken’s prediction that MS-DOS would go from being the majority platform to the absolutely dominant one as 1990 wore on would prove correct.

My guess is that as software publishers plan out their new year’s product schedules, versions of newer titles for machines which are in decline will either be shelved or delayed. Don’t be surprised if companies who traditionally have been strong Apple or Commodore publishers suddenly ship first on MS-DOS. Don’t be surprised if many new titles come out ONLY for MS-DOS next Christmas.

Ken’s emerging vision for Sierra saw his company as “part of the entertainment industry, not the computer industry.” An inevitable corollary to that vision, at least to Ken’s way of seeing things, was a focus on the “media” part of interactive media. In that spirit, he had hired in July of 1989 one Bill Davis, a director of more than 150 animated television commercials, for the newly created position of Sierra’s Creative Director. Davis introduced story-boarding and other new processes redolent of Hollywood, adding another largely welcome layer of systemization to Sierra’s traditionally laissez-faire approach to game development. But, tellingly, he had no experience working with games as games, and nothing much to say about the designs that lay underneath the surface of Sierra’s creations; these remained as hit-and-miss as ever.

The period between 1988 and 1998 or so — the heyday of MS-DOS gaming, before Windows 95/98 and its DirectX gaming layer changed the environment yet again — was one of enormous ferment in computer graphics and sound, when games could commercially thrive on surface sizzle alone. Ken Williams proved more adept at riding this wave than just about anyone else, hewing stolidly as ever to the ten-foot rule he’d formulated during his company’s earliest days: “If someone says WOW when they see the screen from ten feet away, you have them sold.” Sierra, like much of the rest of the industry, took all the wrong lessons from the many bad but pretty games that were so successful during this period, concluding that design could largely be left to take care of itself as long as a game looked exciting.

That Sierra games like King’s Quest IV did manage to be so successful despite their obvious underlying problems of design had much to do with the heady, unjaded times in which they were made — times in which a new piece of “bragware” for showing off one’s new hardware to best effect was worth a substantial price of admission quite apart from its value as a playable game. It also had something to do with Sierra’s masterful fan relations. The company projected an image as friendly and welcoming as their actual games were often unfriendly and obtuse. For instance, in another idea Ken nicked from Hollywood, by 1990 Sierra was offering free daily “studio tours” of their offices, complete with a slick pre-recorded “video welcome” from Roberta Williams herself, to any fan who happened to show up; for many a young fan, a visit to Sierra became the highlight of a family vacation to Yosemite. And of course the success of the King’s Quest games in particular had more than a little to do with the image of Roberta Williams, and the fact that the games were marketed almost as edutainment wares, drawing in a young, patient, and forgiving fan base who may not have fully comprehended that a King’s Quest was, at least theoretically, a game that could be won.

Still, these factors wouldn’t be enough to counter-balance fundamental issues of design forever. Well before the end of the 1990s, both Sierra and the adventure-gaming genre with which they would always be most identified would pay a steep price for too often making design an afterthought. Players, tired of being abused, bored with the lack of innovation in adventure-game design, and no longer quite so easy to wow with audiovisual flash alone, would begin to drift away; this trickle would become a flood which left the adventure genre commercially high and dry.

But all of that was still far in the future as of 1990. For now, Sierra was at the forefront of what they believed to an emerging new form of mass entertainment, not quite a game, not quite a movie. Gross sales had risen to $21.1 million for the fiscal year ending March 31, 1989, then $29.1 million the following fiscal year. In 1990, they expanded their reach through the acquisition of Dynamix, a six-year-old Oregon-based development house with a rather odd mix of military simulations — after all, Sierra did want men as well as women to continue buying their products — and audio-visually rich if interactively problematic “interactive movies” in their portfolio. Sierra’s years in the MS-DOS wilderness were over; now that same MS-DOS represented the mainstream, soon virtually the only stream of American computer gaming. Some very, very good years lay ahead in commercial terms. And, it must be said, by no means would all of Sierra’s games be failures in terms of design; some talented and motivated designers would soon be using the company’s SCI technology to make interactive magic. So, having given poor King’s Quest IV such a hard time today, next time I’ll be kinder to a couple of other Sierra games that I really don’t like.

Nope… I love them.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of December 1988; Byte of September 1987; Sierra’s newsletters dated Spring 1988, Winter 1988, Spring 1989, Autumn 1989, Spring 1990, Summer 1990; Sierra’s 10th Anniversary promotional brochure; press releases and annual reports found in the Sierra archive at the Strong Museum of Play. Much of this article is also drawn from personal email correspondence with John Williams and Corey Cole. And, last but far from least, Ken Gagne also shared with me the full audio of an interview he conducted with Al Lowe for Juiced.GS magazine. My huge thanks to John, Corey, and Ken!)

 
 

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IBM’s New Flavor

The PS/2 lineup

IBM’s greatest triumph was inextricably linked with what by 1986 was turning into their biggest problem. Following its introduction five years before, the IBM PC had remade the face of corporate computing in its image, legitimizing personal computing in the eyes of the Fortune 500 and all those smaller companies who dreamed of someday joining their ranks. The ecosystem that surrounded the IBM PC and its successors was now worth countless billions, the greatest story of American business success of them all to play out during Ronald Reagan’s storied Morning in America.

The problem, at least as IBM and many of their worried stockholders perceived it, was that they now seemed on the verge of losing control of the very standard they had created. A combination of the decisions that had allowed the original IBM PC to become a standard in the first place — its simple, workmanlike design that utilized only off-the-shelf components; the scrupulously thorough documentation of said design; the decision to outsource the machine’s operating system to Microsoft, a third party all too willing to license the same operating system to other parties as well — had led to a thriving market in so-called “clone” machines whose combined revenues now far exceeded IBM’s personal-computer sales. IBM believed that the clonesters were lifting billions out of their pockets every year, even as they saw their own sales, which had broken record after record in the first few years following the IBM PC’s launch, beginning to show signs of stagnation.

Compaq of Houston, Texas, the most aggressive and innovative of the clonesters, had first begun to collect for themselves a reputation to rival IBM’s own with their very first product back in 1983, a portable — or, perhaps better said, “luggable” — all-in-one IBM-compatible. The Compaq Portable had forced IBM for the first time to play catch-up with a personal-computing rival, rushing to market a luggable of their own. To make matters worse, the IBM version of portable computing had proved far less practical than the Compaq, as many a reviewer wasn’t shy about pointing out.

Now, in 1986, Compaq threatened to wrangle away from IBM the mantle of technological leadership via a machine that represented a more fundamental advance than a new form factor. After hearing that IBM didn’t have any immediate plans to release a machine built around the Intel 80386, a new 32-bit processor that was sending waves of excitement rippling through the industry, Compaq decided to push ahead with a 386-based machine of their own — right now, this very year. The public launch of the Compaq Deskpro 386 on September 9, 1986 — almost exactly five years after the debut of the original IBM PC — was another watershed moment, the first time one of the clonesters had released a machine more powerful than anything in IBM’s stable. Compaq’s CEO Rod Canion, never a shrinking violet under any circumstances, outdid himself at the launch, declaring the Deskpro 386 “the third generation of the personal-computer revolution” after the Apple II and the IBM PC, thus implicitly placing his own Compaq on a par with those two storied companies.

The clone market was getting so big that there seemed a danger that the clones wouldn’t be dismissed under that selfsame moniker much longer. People in the business world were beginning to replace the phrase “IBM clone” with phrases like “the MS-DOS standard” or “the Intel standard,” giving no credit to the company that had really created that standard. As was well attested by their checkered history of antitrust investigations and allegations of unfair competitive practices, IBM had never been known as a bastion of corporate generosity. It may not be exaggerating the case to say that they felt themselves to have a moral right to the PC standard they’d created, a right that encompassed not just an acknowledgement that said standard was still the IBM standard but also the ability to continue to steer every aspect of the further development of that standard. And by all rights the right should also encompass — and this was the sticking point that really irked — their fair share of all those billions that all those other companies were making from IBM’s standard.

In addition to furnishing what they saw as ample evidence of a need for them to reassert control of their industry, this period found IBM at another, more purely technical crossroads. The imminent move from 16-bit to 32-bit computing represented by the new 80386 would have to bring with it some elaborations on IBM’s tried-and-true architecture — elaborations that would undoubtedly define the face of mainstream business computing into the 1990s. IBM saw in those elaborations a way to remedy the ongoing problem of the clonesters as well. Unknown to everyone outside the company, they were about to initiate the so-called “bus wars,” a premeditated strike aimed directly at what they saw as parasites like Compaq.

The bus in this context referred not to a mode of public transportation but rather to the system of expansion slots that allowed the innermost core of an IBM-compatible computer — little more than the processor and memory — to communicate with just about everything else that made up a full-fledged PC: floppy and hard disk drives, monitors, modems, printers, ad infinitum, from the most generalized components found in just about every office to the most specialized for the most esoteric of tasks. The original IBM PC, built around a hybrid 8-bit and 16-bit chip called the Intel 8088, had used an 8-bit bus, meaning the electronic “channel” it used to talk to all these myriad devices was just 8 bits wide. In 1984, IBM had released the PC/AT, built around the newer fully 16-bit Intel 80286, and in that machine had expanded the original bus to support 16-bit devices while remaining backward compatible with the older 8-bit standard. The result retroactively came to be known as the Industry Standard Architecture, or ISA.

Now, with the 32-bit 80386 a reality, it was time to think about revisiting the bus again, to make it support 32-bit communications. To fail to do so would be to cripple the 386, forcing it to act like a 16-bit chip every time it wanted to communicate with a peripheral; impressive as they were in many ways, the Compaq Deskpro 386 and other early 386 clones saw their performance limited by exactly this problem. Most people expected IBM to do for the 386 what they had previously done for the 286, delivering a new bus which would support 32-bit peripherals but remain compatible with older 16-bit and even 8-bit devices. Instead they delivered something they called the Micro Channel Architecture, or MCA, a complete break with the past which supported only 32-bit peripherals.

So much controversy over something barely noticeable. The four Micro Channel slots sit at the left rear of this PS/2 Model 50.

So much controversy over something barely noticeable. The four Micro Channel slots sit at the left rear of this PS/2 Model 50. Many of the components that would have been housed in expansion cards in earlier IBM systems, such as the video card and hard-drive controller, were moved onto the motherboard with the PS/2 line.

MCA debuted as a key component in a new line of personal computers in April of 1987, the most ambitious such IBM had ever or would ever introduce. The Personal System/2 lineup — better known as the PS/2 — was envisioned as exactly the next generation in personal computing that an ebullient Rod Canion had perhaps overenthusiastically declared the Compaq Deskpro 386 to represent barely six months before. IBM was determined to once again remake the computer industry in their image — and to get it right this time, avoiding the perceived mistakes that had led to the rise of the clonesters. The PS/2 lineup did encompass lower-end machines using the old 16-bit PC/AT bus, but the real point of the effort lay with the higher-end models, IBM’s first to use the 80386 and their first to use the new MCA bus architecture to take advantage of all of the 32 bits of throughput offered by that chip. IBM offered various technical justifications for the failure of MCA to support their older bus standards, but they always rang false. As the more astute industry observers quickly realized, MCA had more to do with business and marketing than it did with technology in the abstract.

IBM was attempting a delicate trick with MCA. They wanted to be able to continue to reap the enormous benefits of the business-computing standard they had birthed, with its huge constellation of compatible software that by now even more so than IBM’s reputation made an MS-DOS machine the only kind to be seriously considered by the vast majority of corporate purchasing departments. At the same time, though, they wanted to cut off the oxygen to the clonesters who were also benefiting so conspicuously from that same universal acceptance, and to reassert their role as the ultimate authorities on the direction business computing would take in the future. They believed they could accomplish all of that, in the long term at least, by threading the needle of compatibility — keeping the 386-based PS/2 lineup software-compatible with the older machines while deliberately breaking the hardware compatibility so relied on by the clonesters. In doing so, they would take the hardware to a place the clonesters couldn’t follow, thus securing for themselves all those billions the clonesters had heretofore been stealing out of their pockets.

Unlike the original IBM bus architecture, MCA was locked up inside an ironclad cage of patents, making it legally uncloneable unless one could somehow negotiate a license to do so through IBM. The patents even extended to add-on cards and other peripherals that might be compatible with MCA, meaning that absolutely anyone who wanted to make a hardware add-on for an MCA machine would have to negotiate a license and pay for the privilege. The result should be not only a lucrative new revenue stream but also complete control of business computing’s further evolution. Yes, the clonesters would be able to survive for a few more years making machines using the older 16-bit bus architecture. In the longer term, however, as personal computing inevitably transitioned into a realm of 32 bits, they would survive purely at IBM’s whim, their fate predicated on IBM’s willingness to grant them a patent license for MCA and their own willingness to pay dearly for it.

The clonesters rightly and immediately saw MCA as nothing less than an existential threat, and were thrown into a tizzy trying to figure out how to respond to it. It was the ever-quotable Rod Canion who came up with the best line of attack, drawing an analogy between MCA and the recent soft-drink marketing disaster of New Coke. (What with Pepsi alumnus John Sculley in charge over at Apple, computers and soft drinks seemed to be running oddly in parallel during this era.) Clever, pithy, and blessedly non-technical, Canion’s comparison spread like wildfire through the business press, regurgitated ad nauseam by journalists who often had little to no idea what this MCA thing that it referenced actually was. IBM never quite managed to formulate a response that didn’t sound nefariously evasive.

With the “New Coke” meme setting the tone, just about everything about the PS/2 line turned into an unexpected uphill struggle for IBM. While plenty of early reviewers dutifully toed the line, doubtless mindful that if no one ever got fired for buying IBM no one was likely to get fired for giving them a positive review either, a surprising number of the reviews were distinctly lukewarm. The complaints started and often ended with the prices. Even the low-end 16-bit PS/2 models started at a suggested list price of $2295 without monitor, while the high-end models topped out at almost $7000. Insider reports had it that IBM was enjoying profit margins of 40 percent or more, leading to rampant speculation on what the cost of entry into business-friendly personal computing might become if they really should manage to stamp out the clonesters.

The high-end models in particular struck many as a pointless waste of money given that IBM didn’t have an operating system ready to take advantage of their capabilities. The machines were all still saddled with MS-DOS, clunky and archaic and barely worthy of the name “operating system” even in the terms of 1987. In one of the more striking examples of hardware running away from software in computing history, the higher-end models shipped with 1 MB of memory, but couldn’t actually use more than 640 K of it thanks to MS-DOS’s built-in limitations. IBM promised a new, next-generation operating system called OS/2 to unlock the real potential of these next-generation machines. But OS/2, a project they had once again chosen to turn over to Microsoft, was still an unknown number of months away, with the so-called “Presentation Manager” that would add to it a Macintosh-style GUI due yet further months after that.1 And, as a final little bit of buyer discouragement, IBM planned to charge the people who had already spent many thousands on their PS/2 hardware another $800 or so for the privilege of using the eventual OS/2 to take advantage of it.

The PS/2 launch prompted constant comparisons with the original IBM PC launch of five and a half years before, and constantly came up wanting. IBM’s publicity campaign was lavish — as it ought to have been, given those profit margins — but unfocused and uninspired. Its centerpiece was a series of commercials involving much of the cast from M*A*S*H, playing their old sitcom characters inexplicably transported from the Korean War to a modern office. With M*A*S*H still a beloved cultural touchstone only a few years removed from its record-shattering final episode, the spots had plenty of sheer star power, but lacked even a modicum of the charm or creativity that had characterized the award-winning “Charlie Chaplin” advertisements for the original IBM PC.

Likewise, it was hard not to compare the unexpected spirit of openness that had suffused the 1981 IBM PC with the domination and control IBM so plainly intended to assert with the 1987 PS/2 launch. Apple’s iconic old “Big Brother” Macintosh advertisement, a soaring triumph of rhetoric over substance back in its day, would have fit much better to the PS/2 line than it had to the state of business computing back in 1984. Many chose to blame the change in tone on the loss of Don Estridge, the leader of the small team that had built the original IBM PC. An unusually charismatic personality and independent thinker for the famously conservative and bureaucratic IBM — enough so that he had been courted by Steve Jobs to fill the CEO role John Sculley ended up taking at Apple — Estridge had been killed in a plane crash in 1985. His stewardship over IBM’s microcomputer division had been succeeded by that of William Lowe, a much more traditional rank-and-file, buttoned-down IBM man. Whether due to this reason or some other, the shift in tone and direction from 1981 to 1987 was striking.

In the months following the PS/2 line’s release, the media narrative drifted from one of uncertain excitement to reports of the new machines’ disappointing reception in many quarters. IBM sold around 200,000 MCA-equipped PS/2s in the first six months, mostly to the biggest of big business; United Airlines alone, for example, bought 40,000 of them as part of a complete revamping of their reservations system. But far too many even within the Fortune 500 proved stubbornly, unexpectedly resistant to IBM’s unsubtle prodding to jump onto the PS/2 train. Many chose to invest in the clonesters’ cheaper 80386 offerings instead; the 16-bit bus used by those machines, while far from ideal from a purely technical standpoint, did at least have the advantage of compatibility with existing peripherals. Seventeen months after MCA’s debut, 66 percent of all business computers being sold each month were still using the old bus architecture, versus just 20 percent that used MCA. (The remainder was largely accounted for by the Macintosh.) Survey after survey reported IBM to be losing market share rather than gaining it since the arrival of the PS/2. By this point OS/2 and its “Presentation Manager” GUI were finally available, but, hampered by that high price tag, the new operating system’s uptake had also been limited at best.

And then, just when it seemed the news couldn’t get much worse for IBM, much of the industry went into unthinkable open revolt against their ongoing hegemony. On September 13, 1988, a group of the clonesters, driven as usual by Compaq and with the tacit support of Intel and Microsoft, announced the creation of a new 32-bit bus standard, to be called the Extended Industry Standard Architecture, or EISA. Unlike MCA, EISA would be compatible with older 16-bit and 8-bit peripherals. And it would manage to be so without performing notably worse than MCA, thus giving the lie to IBM’s claims that their decision to abandon bus compatibility had been motivated by technical rather than business concerns. The press promptly dubbed the budding consortium, which included virtually every manufacturer of IBM-compatible computers not named IBM, the “Gang of Nine” after the allegedly traitorous Gang of Four of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Machines using the new EISA bus entered production within a year.

This shot of an EISA card illustrates the unique two-layer connection that allowed the same sockets to work for both the older ISA standard and the newer EISA. The shorter pins correspond to the older 16-bit standard; the longer extend it to 32 bits.

This shot of an EISA card illustrates the unique two-layer connection devised by the Gang of Nine to extend the old ISA standard without requiring ridiculously long, unwieldy cards and sockets. The shorter pins correspond to the older 16-bit standard; the longer extend it to 32 bits.

In the end, EISA would prove of limited technical importance in the evolution of the Intel architecture. The new standard didn’t have much more luck than had MCA in establishing itself as the market’s default. Instead, by the time a 32-bit bus became a truly commonplace need among ordinary computer users, EISA and MCA alike were replaced by a still newer and better standard than either called the Peripheral Component Interconnect, or PCI. The bus wars of the late 1980s and very early 1990s can thus all too easily be seen as just another of the industry’s tempests in a teapot, an obscure squabble over technical esoterica of interest only to hardcore hackers.

Look a little harder at EISA, however, and we see a watershed moment in the history of the personal computer that dwarfs even the arrival of the Compaq Portable or the Deskpro 386. The Gang of Nine’s announcement brought with it a torrent of press coverage that for the first time openly questioned IBM’s continuing dominance of business-oriented computing. CNN’s Moneyline, the most-watched business report on cable television, dredged up Canion’s evergreen New Coke analogy yet again, going so far as to open its reports on the Gang of Nine’s announcement with a shot of soda bottles moving down a production line. IBM was “faced with overwhelming resistance to the flavor of ‘New Compute,'” declared the breathless report that followed; September 13, 1988, “was a day that left Big Blue looking black and blue.” An only slightly more sober Wall Street Journal article had it that the Gang of Nine “was joining forces in an audacious attempt to wrest away from IBM the power of setting the standard for how personal computers are designed, and they seem to have a chance of succeeding.” The article threw all its metaphors in a blender for the big conclusion: “For IBM, the Gang’s announcement yesterday is at best a dust storm of confusion, and, at worst, a dagger to the heart of its PC strategy.” When the Wall Street Journal threatens to turn against your big business, you know you have problems.

And, indeed, September 13, 1988, wound up representing everything the pundits and journalists said it might and more. Simply put, this was the instant that IBM finally and definitively lost control of the business-computing industry, the moment when the architecture they had created back in 1981 left the nest to go its own way. After this instant, no one would ever defer to IBM again. In January of 1989, Arlan Levitan, a columnist for the big consumer-computing magazine Compute! — like most such magazines, not particularly known for the boldness of its editorial stances — signaled the shifting conventional wisdom. His editors empowered him to launch a satirical broadside at IBM, the PS/2, MCA, and even all those who had bought into the hype, a group that very much included their own magazine.

During a Monday morning press breakfast hosted by IBM, over a thousand representatives of the computing press were shocked to hear newly hired Entry Systems Division president P.W. Herman declare that the firm’s PS/2 computer systems and its associated products were part of an elaborate psychological study undertaken at the behest of the National Institute of Mental Health. “I sure am glad the American people haven’t lost their sense of humor. It’s good to know that in these times everybody still appreciates a good joke.” According to Herman, the study was intended to quantify the limits of the operational parameters associated with Abraham Lincoln’s most famous aphorism. Said Herman, “I guess you really can’t fool all of the people all of the time. I’ll tell ya, though — the Micro Channel Architecture even had me going for a while.” All PS/2 owners will receive a letter signed by Herman and thanking them for their personal contribution toward furthering the present-day understanding of aberrant behavior. Corporate executives who committed their firms to IBM’s $800 OS/2 operating system will receive free remedial therapy in DOS reeducation centers. Those who took advantage of IBM’s trade-in policy, whereby users gave up their XTs or ATs for a PS/2, will receive their weight in PCjr computers. According to internal IBM sources, all costs associated with manufacturing and promoting PS/2s will cumulatively qualify as a tax-deductible research grant.

In terms of hardware if not software — Microsoft’s long, often damaging domination was just beginning in the latter realm — the industry was now a meritocracy, bound together only by a set of mutually if often only tacitly agreed-upon standards. That could only mean hard times for IBM, who were hardly used to competing on such a level playing field. In 1993, they posted a loss of a staggering $8 billion, the largest to that point in American business history, prompting a long, painful process of reinvention as a smaller, nimbler, dare I say it even humbler company. In 2004, in another watershed moment symbolic of many things, IBM stopped making PCs altogether, selling what was left of their personal-computer division to the Chinese computer manufacturer Lenovo in order to focus on consulting services.

The PS/2 story has rightfully gone down in business history as a classic tale of overweening arrogance that received its justified comeuppance. In attempting so aggressively to seize complete control of business computing — all of it — IBM pissed away the enviable dominance they already enjoyed. In attempting to build an empire that stood utterly alone and unchallenged, they burned the one they already had.

Yet there is another side to the PS/2 story that also deserves its due. Existing in those seemingly misbegotten machines alongside MCA and the cynicism it represented was a more positive, one might even say technically idealistic determination to advance the state of the art for this architecture that had long since become the mainstream face of computing, dwarfing in terms of the sheer money it generated any other platform.

And make no mistake: the world of the IBM compatibles was in sore need of advancement on multiple fronts. While machines like the Apple Macintosh and Commodore Amiga had opened whole new paradigms of computing — the former with its friendly GUI interface and crisp almost print-quality display, the latter with its multitasking operating system and implementation of the ideal of multimedia computing long before “multimedia” became a buzzword — the world of the clones had remained as bland as ever, a land of green or amber text-only displays, unpleasant beeps and squawks, and inscrutable command lines. For all the apparently proud users and sellers who took all this ugliness as a sign of serious businesslike intent, there were others who recognized that IBM and the clonesters had long since ceded the high ground of real, fundamental innovation in computing to rival platforms. Thankfully, some inside IBM were included in the latter group, and the results could be seen in the PS/2 machines.

Given how far the IBM-compatible world had fallen behind, it’s not surprising that many or most of the alleged innovations of the PS/2 were really a case of playing catch-up. For example, IBM finally produced their first-ever mouse for the line. They also switched over from the old, fragile 5.25-inch floppy-disk format to the newer, more robust and higher-capacity 3.5-inch format already being used by machines like the Macintosh and Amiga.

But undoubtedly the most welcome and significant of all the PS/2’s new technical developments were some desperately needed display improvements. The Video Graphics Array, or VGA, was included with the higher-end PS/2 models; lower-end models shipped with something called the Multi-Color Graphics Array (MCGA), with many but not quite all of the capabilities of VGA. After allowing their machines’ graphics capabilities to languish for years, IBM through VGA and to some extent MCGA finally brought them up to a level that compared very favorably with the Amiga. VGA and MCGA defined a palette of fully 262,144 colors, a huge leap over the 64 offered by the Enhanced Graphics Adapter (EGA), IBM’s previous best display option for their mainstream machines. The Amiga, by contrast, offered just 4096 colors, although its blitter and other custom hardware still gave it some notable advantages in the realm of fast animation.

All of these new developments marked IBM’s last great gifts to the standard they had birthed — gifts destined to long outlive the PS/2 line itself. The mouse connection IBM developed, for instance, remained a standard well beyond the millennium, with so-called “PS/2” connectors remaining common jargon, used by younger tech-heads and system builders who likely had only the vaguest idea from whence the usage derived. The VGA standard proved even longer-lived. It still survives today as the lowest-common-denominator baseline for computer displays, while ports matching the specification defined by IBM all those years ago remain on the back of every monitor and television set.

Ironically given IBM’s laser focus on using the PS/2 line to secure their dominance of business computing, its technical innovations ultimately proved most important in making the architecture viable as a proposition for the home, paving the way for the Microsoft-dominated second home-computer revolution of the 1990s. With good graphics falling into place at last thanks to VGA and the raw power of the 32-bit 80386, only two barriers remained to making PC-compatible machines realistic rivals to the likes of the Amiga as compelling home computers: decent sound to replace those atrocious beeps and squawks, and a decent price.

The first problem wouldn’t be a problem at all for very much longer. The first gaming-focused sound cards began to reach the market within a year of the PS/2 line’s debut, and by 1989 Creative Music Systems and Ad Lib both offered popular cards at street prices of $200 or less.

But the prices of home-oriented systems incorporating all of the PS/2 line’s innovations — MCA excepted — would, alas, take a little longer to fall. As late as July of 1989, when the VGA standard was already more than two years old, Computer Gaming World ran an article titled “Is VGA Worth It?” that seriously questioned whether it was indeed worth the still very considerable expense — VGA boards still cost $500 or more — to so equip a machine, especially given how few games supported VGA at that point. Nor did the 80386 find an immediate place in homes. As the 1980s turned into the 1990s, the newer chip was still a piece of pricey exotica in terms of the average consumer’s budget; the vast majority of the Intel-based PCs that were in consumers’ homes were still built around the 80286 or even the venerable old 8088.

Still, in the long run prices could only fall in such a hyper-competitive market. Given Commodore’s lackadaisical attitude toward improving the Amiga and Apple’s almost complete neglect of the consumer market in their eagerness to force the Macintosh into the offices of corporate America, the emerging standard of a 32-bit Intel-based PC with VGA graphics and a sound card came to the fore effectively unopposed. With the Internet having yet to emerge as home computing’s killer app to end all killer apps, it was games that drove this shift. In 1989, an Amiga was still the ultimate gaming computer. By 1991, it was an afterthought for American game publishers, the market being absolutely dominated by what was now starting to be called the “Wintel” standard. While game consoles and mobile devices have come and gone by the handful over the years since, in the realm of desktop- and laptop-based personal computing the heirs of the original IBM PC remain the overwhelming standard to this day. How ironic that this decades-long dominance was ensured by the PS/2, simultaneously the downfall of IBM and the savior of the inadvertently standard architecture IBM created.

(Sources: the books Big Blues: The Unmaking of IBM by Paul Carroll, Open: How Compaq Ended IBM’s PC Domination and Helped Invent Modern Computing by Rod Canion, and Hard Drive: Bill Gates and Making of the Microsoft Empire by James Wallace and Jim Erickson; Byte of June 1987, July 1987, August 1987, and December 1987; Compute! of June 1988, January 1989, and March 1989; Computer Gaming World of July 1989 and September 1989; Wall Street Journal of September 14 1988; the episodes of The Computer Chronicles titled “Intel 386 — The Fast Lane,” “IBM Personal System/2,” and “Bus Wars.”)


  1. The full story of OS/2 and the Presentation Manager and their relationship to Microsoft Windows and even Apple’s MacOS is a complex yet fascinating one, but also one best reserved for a future article where I can give it its proper due. 

 
 

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The Unmaking and Remaking of Sierra On-Line

King's Quest

What happened for Ken and Roberta Williams in less than three years would have gone to anyone’s head. As the 1980s dawned, their lives were utterly ordinary. Ken was a business programmer putting in long hours every day in Los Angeles, Roberta his pretty, quiet, vaguely dissatisfied stay-at-home wife. Six months later she was a published game designer (to the extent that description meant anything in 1980), and the couple was sitting at their kitchen table opening the mail in disbelief as orders poured in for their little homemade adventure game. A year later, Ken was head of a burgeoning software house in their dream setting, nestled in the heart of the California Redwoods, and Roberta was his star designer. A year after that, they and the company they had built were software superstars. Glossy magazines and television shows begged for access and interviews; entertainment moguls flew them to New York to wine and dine them at 21 Club; venture capitalists lined up to offer money and advice, telling them they were at the forefront of the next big thing in media; big corporations offered to buy their whole operation, with starting offers of $20 million or more. Big franchises approached to talk about licensing deals: Jim Henson Associates, Disney, the Family Circus comic strip. For Ken, two of whose greatest heroes were Jim Henson and Walt Disney, such offers were flabbergasting. Late in 1982 IBM, by at least some measures the biggest, most powerful company in the world, humbly came knocking at the Williams’ door to ask if they’d be willing to work with them to develop software for their new home computer.

Yes, it would have gone to anyone’s head. Ken said yes to just about everyone, with the exception only of the outright buyout offers; he was having far too much fun to entertain them. The pundits, advisers, and investors that surrounded Ken were all telling him that the new low-cost home computers were the wave of the future, destined to replace the old Atari VCS game console and its competitors in the hearts and minds of consumers. This was the new gravy train, and the key to riding it was to get lots and lots of product out there to feed customers hungry for games for their new Commodore VIC-20s, Texas Instruments 99/4As, and Coleco Adams. Don’t stress too much about any given title, they said; just get lots of them out there. Simpler games were actually better, because then you could port them more quickly from platform to platform and pack them onto cartridges for all those ultra-low-end users without even a cassette drive. Ken, with these words ringing in his ears, dutifully made plans to push out 100 separate products in 1983 alone. He amassed a fleet of programmers to churn out action games which could be easily ported from platform to platform. Sierra spelled out this new approach in their “strategy outline” for 1983:

We believe the home-computer market to be so explosive that “title saturation” is impossible. The number of new machines competing for the Apple/Atari segment in 1983 will create a perpetually new market hungry for winning 1982 titles. We will exploit this opportunity.

Mr. Cool advertisement VIC-20 advertisements

Housing his growing fleet of salaried, workaday programmers — Ken had decided that dealing with artistically-tempered programmers like John Harris of Jawbreaker fame just wasn’t worth the trouble, that programming really shouldn’t be considered a creative endeavor at all — was soon becoming a problem. Growing technical, clerical, marketing, and warehouse staffs were also pushing the company’s total head count rapidly toward 100. Thus when the developer who owned Sierra’s office facilities offered to build a brand new building to house the company, a lovely place which perfectly suited the company’s image (if not, increasingly, its reality) as a clan of computer artisans living in the woods, Ken happily acquiesced, accepting rent in the vicinity of $25,000 per month.

The Sierra "redwood" building, custom-built for them in 1982

The Sierra “redwood” building, custom-built for them in 1982

The new offices weren’t the only building contract Ken signed around this time. Figuring that if they were going to be entertainment moguls they needed to live the part, Ken and Roberta hired an architect to design a sprawling 10,000 square-foot, $800,000 house — huge money in this rural area — on the Fresno River, complete with racquetball and volleyball courts, full-length wet bar, and a mini-arcade with all the latest games.

But by the time Ken and Roberta moved on Labor Day weekend, 1983, the fantasy of their lavish housewarming party, which included a professional comedy troupe brought in from San Francisco for the occasion, was undercut by some slowly dawning realities. Sierra’s first big partnership with Big Media, on the Dark Crystal game, had been a major artistic and commercial disappointment, done in by the tired old Hi Res Adventure engine that powered it and a rote design by a Roberta Williams who seemed determined not to grow past what she had done for Mystery House. Their one real hit of the year, meanwhile, had not been any of the titles from Ken’s new programmers, but rather John Harris’s loving, officially licensed port of the arcade game Frogger, a port done so well that some said it surpassed its inspiration. Alas, Frogger was the last game Harris did for Sierra; he had left some time before, having signed on with Synapse Software, whom he considered more quality-oriented. It was already beginning to dawn at that party that they might actually make less this year than they had the last even as the new building and growing staff had increased their expenses enormously. Soon after, things really started to go south.

Much of the software that Sierra was now producing was on cartridges, which were both more expensive to produce than disks or tapes and took much longer to duplicate. With much of the industry following Sierra’s plan of churning out new games practically by the dozen, production capacity at the relatively limited number of facilities capable of making cartridges was at a premium. Sierra was forced to place huge orders in June or July for the games they hoped to be selling huge numbers of come Christmas. But a funny thing happened during the six months in between: the market for the VIC-20, the TI 99/4A, and the Coleco Adam, the machines for which most of these cartridges were produced, collapsed. Jack Tramiel, you see, had won the Home Computer Wars of 1983 by then, driving TI right out of the market. In the process, he had just about killed his own VIC-20 as well; the price of the vastly more desirable and capable Commodore 64 had dropped so low that there was little point in buying a VIC-20 instead. As for the Adam… well, it never had a chance; by the time it arrived the war was largely over and the victor already determined. The Commodore 64 rocketed out of that Christmas the new center of the gaming universe, a position it would hold for the next several years. Yet all Sierra had to sell Commodore 64 owners were a few simple games ported from the VIC-20. And they had tens of thousands of cartridges, millions of dollars of inventory which they couldn’t move for ten cents on the dollar, sitting in warehouses. Meanwhile their shiny licensing deals were also turning out to be of little benefit to the bottom line. Sierra felt that they were doing all the work on these and all the profits — what little there sometimes were — were going to the licensees. As 1984 ground on, it became clear that the company was in the most dire of straits, unable to even make their mortgage payments on their fancy new office building.

The only thing to do was to start cutting. In a matter of days the company shed the extra skin it had built up, going from 100 employees to an absolutely essential core of about 20. A desperate Ken went to Sierra’s landlord and offered him a 10% share in the company if he would just forgive them the rent for a few months, while they got back on their feet. Figuring that 10% of a dead company was worth less than the rent he might be able to get out of them now, he said no thanks. In the end Ken was able to negotiate only to give back some of the building for other tenants. He and Roberta and their closest associates paid some of the remaining rent for a while using second mortgages and personal credit cards. It looked like this dream they had been living was about to end less than four years after it had begun, that soon they might end up right back where they had started in the suburbs of Los Angeles. They might have packed it in but for one remaining hope: that contract they had signed with IBM back in the halcyon days.

Sierra’s relationship with IBM actually went back even further than that contract. IBM first partnered with Sierra during the run-up to the original IBM PC’s launch in 1981, when they hired them to port The Wizard and the Princess, one of the biggest Apple II titles of that year, to their new machine. Sierra first experienced the legendary IBM secrecy then. Prototypes would arrive in X-ray-resistant lead chests sealed with solder, and were expected to be stored and used in windowless rooms that were to be kept locked at all times. Despite being a relatively minor part of the PC’s launch, Sierra, and Ken in particular, got on well with IBM. For all the party-hearty persona Ken could put on (as well described in Hackers and elsewhere on this blog), he had spent his previous life working for big technology companies like IBM. He understood how they worked, knew what it meant to shake down a new computer system and find the bugs and flaws while also obeying the rules of corporate hierarchy. IBM likely found him a refreshing change from both the un-technical MBAs and the technically masterful but socially unsophisticated hackers that were most of his peers. At any rate, they came back to Sierra soon after initiating the PCjr project.

IBM flew Ken and Jeff Stephenson, the man who was quickly assuming Ken’s role as hacker in chief at Sierra as Ken got more and more absorbed with the business side, out to their offices in Boca Raton, Florida. After the NDAs and other legal niceties that were part and parcel of dealing with IBM, they explained what the PCjr was to be and asked them to pitch some software that might make a good fit. Ken and Jeff made a number of proposals that were accepted, including HomeWord, an easy-to-use, casual word processor with an early graphical user interface of sorts which Ken and Jeff were already working on; it would wind up IBM’s official word processor for the PCjr. But the most important proposal, the biggest in the history of Sierra On-Line and one which would change adventure gaming forever, was made up on the fly, drawn up on the back of a napkin during a pause in the proceedings.

Sierra was still known most of all for their Hi Res Adventure line of illustrated adventure games. Unsurprisingly, IBM very much wanted something along those lines for the PCjr. But they had some specific requests for changes from Sierra’s traditional approach, which if nothing else proved that not everyone at IBM was as blissfully ignorant of gaming as legend would have it. They asked for a game that could be replayable, that would be more dynamic and complex in its world modeling, sort of like Ultima and Wizardry (adventures and CRPGs were not yet clearly defined separate genres at this point). They specifically asked that puzzles have multiple solutions, that there be many different possible paths through the game.

Ken and Jeff sensed that they really wanted Sierra to push themselves, to get beyond the tried-and-true Hi Res Adventure model. And with good reason: as the sales for The Dark Crystal were about to show, Sierra desperately needed to raise their game if they wanted to keep their hand in adventures at all. Next to the games that Infocom was putting out, the Hi Res Adventure games were painfully primitive. Yet how should they try to compete? Most other publishers, witnessing Infocom’s success with pure text, were beginning to shift their emphasis back to the parsers and the writing, de-emphasizing their pictures or removing them entirely. Infocom, in others words, was replacing Sierra as the model to be emulated. Ken instinctively sensed that this was not the right bandwagon for Sierra to leap aboard, much as they respected the technical accomplishment in Infocom’s games. They were movie people rather than book people; as Ken later said, Sierra had a “mass-market” sensibility which contrasted with Infocom’s “cerebral” approach. Rather than try to ape Infocom like other publishers, why not zig while everyone else zagged, double down on graphics while de-emphasizing text? Besides, one of the main selling features of the PCjr was to be its bright 16-color graphics. Shouldn’t its showcase adventure take advantage of them?

King's Quest

When IBM joined them again in the conference room, Ken and Jeff made their pitch for a new type of adventure game. Most of the screen would be given over to the graphics, like in the Hi Res Adventures, but the interactivity would now also extend to this part of the display. The player’s avatar would be visible onscreen, with the player able to move him around within each room using a joystick or the arrow keys. The player would still have to type non-movement commands, but now positioning within each room would play an important role: you would have to move right up next to that old tree stump to peer inside, walk up to the kindly forest elf to talk to him, etc. Some text would still have to remain to explain some of what happened, but much of the experience would be entirely visual, more movie than book. Action sequences requiring precise timing and coordination could be introduced. The system also promised to introduce the kind of dynamism that IBM desired in other ways. Other characters and creatures could wander the world, to be dodged, fought, or befriended. What we would today call emergent behavior might arise: the player might hide behind a handy tree when the wicked witch suddenly popped onto the scene. It would be a showstopper, conforming to Ken’s ten-foot rule for software marketing while also introducing whole new tactical layers that had never been seen in adventure games before. IBM signed on happily.

The reaction in Oakhurst was not quite so enthusiastic. Some felt that Ken and Jeff had promised IBM the moon, that this was simply a leap too far. Perhaps remembering Sierra’s last two adventure games, both of which had gone through long, painful development cycles for little commercial reward, they pointedly suggested that Ken go back to IBM and explain that Sierra had bitten off more than they could chew, cut the proposal down dramatically to something more realistically achievable, and try to get IBM to accept it. Ken, realizing that any such action would destroy his credibility with IBM forever, absolutely refused. He pointed out that they had 128 K of memory to work with for this project, a huge figure in comparison to the 48 K they’d had for the Hi Res Adventure games. He found a critical ally in Roberta, the person who would have to actually design for the system. She simply asked questions until she felt she understood the system and what it would and would not be capable of, digested IBM’s desires for a more dynamic game than was her previous wont, then went to work. Eventually the grumbling mostly ceased and the rest of the staff followed her example.

What with Ken having a company to run, the heavy lifting of turning the proposal into a game engine largely fell to Jeff Stephenson. Just like the Hi Res Adventure engine, this one was designed to be reusable and extendible from the start. It was initially known as the Game Adaptation Language, or GAL. Ken, however, loathed the cutsiness of that acronym, and it was eventually renamed to the Adventure Game Interpreter, or AGI. (I’ll refer to the system as AGI from here on for the sake of consistency.) Soon the trucks bearing the familiar lead-lined crates began arriving in Oakhurst again, and development began in earnest on both the engine and the game it would run. The team chosen for the task consisted of Roberta and about half a dozen programmers and artists. The PCjr projects as a whole, which included the adventure game, HomeWord, and several others pieces of software, were given a top-secret code-name: Project Siesta. Still, it’s hard to keep anything a secret in a small town like Oakhurst. Word quickly spread around town: “The big fucking company is in town again.”

Some of the process of developing the first AGI game, eventually to be named King’s Quest, was not that far removed from the days of Hi Res Adventure. The artists still drew each scene on paper using colored pencils. These drawings were then traced using a graphics tablet connected to a computer, where they were stored using the vector-graphics techniques Ken had developed back in the days of Mystery House and The Wizard and the Princess. (When playing King’s Quest on older, slower hardware you can see each new room being drawn in line by line. Fascinatingly, what you are actually seeing there are the motions of the stylus being guided by the person who first traced the image all those years ago. Early King’s Quest versions let you see the process more clearly via an undocumented “slow draw” mode that can be activated by pressing Control-V.) Thanks to this evergreen technique, the image of each room occupies only .5 to 2.5 K. The same data also tells the interpreter where Sir Grahame, the game’s protagonist, can and cannot walk. Boundaries, such as the castle walls you see in the screenshot above, were traced with a special flag activated and incorporated right into the image itself.

Perhaps the trickiest problem that Jeff Stephenson had to wrestle with stems from the fact that we view each room in the game from a parallel perspective. Thus the game needs to account for the z-axis in addition to the x- and y-axes to maintain the illusion of depth. Each object in each room is therefore given something Jeff called its “priority,” essentially its position on the Z-axis. An object’s priority can range from 1 to 15, and increases as it gets closer to the “back” of the room. In drawing a scene, the interpreter draws objects of lower priority after those of higher priority. Say that a tree is positioned on the screen at priority 9. If Graham moves vertically, “deeper” into the screen, to, say, priority 11, then moves horizontally “behind” the tree, the tree will conceal him as expected. Up to four moving characters can be in a single room, the interpreter constantly adjusting the onscreen image to account for their movements.

King's Quest

The game logic is described using a simple scripting language which is once again descended from the system Ken had developed for the Hi Res Adventure line. Let’s take a look one small piece of the scene shown above. In addition to our alter ego Grahame, it shows a goat — “object” number 14 — who wanders back and forth in his corral, which in turn spans two rooms, numbers 10 and 11; the room shown above, the leftmost, is room 10. The goat continues to wander unless and until he is tempted to join Grahame by a scrumptious-looking carrot. Here’s how the goat’s logic in room 10 is described in AGI:

IF HAS-GOAT 0 AND OBJHIT-EDGE 14 AND EDGE-OBJ-HIT 1 AND GOAT-GONE 0 AND SHOW-CARROT 0 THEN ASSIGN GOAT-ROOM 11, ERASE 10

So, and without getting too lost in the weeds here, if we do not “have” the goat and are not showing him the carrot, and the goat has hit the edge of the screen in his wanderings, remove (“erase”) him from room 10 and put him in room 11. Room 10 alone has 180 such lines of script to describe all of its interactive possibilities. Like most software, an AGI game is more complex than it looks. This is true from the standpoint of both the engine programmers and the scripters. In the context of its time, AGI is nothing less than a stunning technological tour de force — one which, like all the best software, looks easy.

The technical virtuosity on display here made it rather easy for reviewers of the time to lose sight of the actual game it enabled, a painfully common phenomenon in the field of videogames. Indeed, I was anticipating reviewing King’s Quest more as a piece of technology than an adventure game, particularly given that I frankly don’t think very highly of Roberta’s work on the Hi Res Adventure line. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by her work here. King’s Quest‘s plot is almost as basic as that of the original Adventure: the kingdom of Daventry is in some sort of vaguely defined trouble, and the aging King Edward needs you, the brave knight Sir Grahame, to find three magic items that can save it. Since he conveniently has no heirs, do that and “the throne will be yours.” King’s Quest is another treasure hunt, nothing more or less.

Still, and making allowances for the newness of the technology, Roberta does a pretty good job with it. Many of the characters and situations you encounter as you roam Daventry are drawn, and not without a certain charm, from classic fairy tales: Hansel and Gretel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rumpelstiltskin. The latter is at the core of the one howlingly awful puzzle in the game, which starts out dodgy and just keeps layering on the complications until it’s well-nigh impossible.

King's Quest

(For the record: you meet an old gnome-looking sort of fellow who gives you three chances to guess his name. If you’re familiar with your Brothers Grimm, you might divine that he’s Rumpelstiltskin given the fairy-tale characters everywhere else in the game. But, no, “That is very close but not quite right.” Okay, you do have a note you found elsewhere which says, “Sometimes it is wise to think backwards.” So, “nikstlitslepmur.” No — “You have the right idea, but your thinking is just a little bit off.” It turns out you have to write the name using a backwards alphabet.)

But even here the IBM design brief saves Roberta from her worst instincts. There is, thank God, an alternate way to proceed without solving this puzzle, even if it does cost you some points. And most of the other puzzles are… not that bad, actually. Some are even pretty clever. That may sound like damning with faint praise, but given some of the absurdities of Time Zone it’s nevertheless praise indeed. There are a huge number of ways to go through King’s Quest, what with all of the alternate solutions on offer, and the game feels consciously designed in a holistic sense in a way that no previous Roberta Williams game did.

King’s Quest also makes use of most of the new possibilities afforded by the AGI system. There are enemies to be dodged and eventually dispatched — the witch out of Hansel and Gretel is particularly harrowing — and tricky action sequences to be navigated. King’s Quest is mostly a competent, enjoyable game even when divorced from its place in history as the first use of the revolutionary technology that powers it. It’s also reasonably solvable, at least if you aren’t too fixated on getting the maximum possible points. Realistically, it needed to be no more than a technological proof of concept to be a bestseller, but it manages to be considerably more than that. It acquits itself very well overall as the herald of a new paradigm for adventure gaming.

As development continued and Sierra’s financial position began to look more precarious, stress began to mount. Ken’s wish to just find average and uncreative but reliable programmers was perhaps amplified more than ever by some of the characters he ended up having to assign to the King’s Quest project. Whether because of its location near the old hippie meccas of northern California or just something in the water, Sierra always seemed to be filled with eccentrics despite Ken’s best efforts to run a more buttoned-down operation. One fellow was particularly noted for his acid consumption and his fascination with Fozzy Bear, and looked freakish enough that (in John Williams’s words) “when he went into a restaurant, everyone looked at him.” Another, similarly “off” programmer acted like a cross between a mad scientist and Zaphod Beeblebrox of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame. Near the end of the project one developer, angry at the long hours he had been working, held a critical piece of code ransom until Sierra paid him for dozens of hours of overtime to which he felt entitled. They agreed to pay, got the code, and promptly reneged, citing a clause in American contract law which says that a contract is null and void if one of the parties signs under duress.

When IBM officially unveiled the PCjr and its horrid Chiclet keyboard in November of 1983, Sierra was as surprised as anyone. For all their involvement in the machine’s development, they never had access to a real production model. Ken had to go down to ComputerLand and buy his own, just like everyone else, when the PCjr shipped at last in March of 1984. His first machine didn’t remain in his possession for very long. He went to the movies on his way home, leaving it in his car, only to find it stolen when he returned. That must have seemed like a bad omen coming to fruition as it became more and more clear that the PCjr, seemingly Sierra’s last hope, was flopping in the marketplace.

King's Quest

And that must have seemed a double shame because — and I know I may seem to be belaboring the point, but I can hardly emphasize this enough — King’s Quest was amazing in its time. Even magazines devoted to other platforms felt compelled to talk about it; it was just that revolutionary. King’s Quest, marketed under IBM’s official imprint with cover art apparently drawn by someone who had never seen the game, did sell pretty well by the standards of IBM PCjr software, but there just weren’t enough PCjrs being sold to save Sierra. Similarly, a version for the PCjr’s bigger brother, the IBM PC, sold well by the standards of games for that platform, but the entertainment market for such a business-computing stalwart wasn’t up to much. Although the AGI system had been designed to be portable, it had also been designed to run in 128 K of memory. This locked it out of the typical unexpanded Apple IIe (64 K) and the biggest gaming platform in the country, the Commodore 64. Sierra had exactly the right game on exactly the wrong platform. It seemed Ken had backed the wrong horse, a final bad decision that looked to have doomed his company. The situation just got more and more desperate. John Williams, Sierra’s marketing director, recalls placing media buys around this time with no idea how he was going to pay for them when the invoices came due: “This is either going to help, in which case we can deal with the cost of these and maybe negotiate payment on it — or it won’t work and we’ll be gone” anyway.

Two new machines played a big role in saving Sierra. Just a month after the PCjr finally shipped to stores, Apple announced and shipped the fourth incarnation of the Apple II, the IIc. We’ll talk a bit more about it in a future article, but for now suffice to say that the IIc was designed to be a semi-portable, closed appliance computer, in contrast to the hacker’s laboratories that had been previous Apple II models. Most critically for our purposes today, the IIc shipped with 128 K of memory. Its commercial performance would ultimately be rather lukewarm, but it did prompt many users of the older IIe model to upgrade to (at least) 128 K to match its capabilities. In time there were enough 128 K Apple IIs to justify porting the AGI interpreter to the platform.

But it was the Tandy 1000 that really saved Sierra in the most immediate sense, that gave that critical mass of 128 K Apple II users time to amass. It was introduced just as 1984, the most difficult year in Sierra’s history, was winding down. In many ways it was what the PCjr should have been, with the same graphics and sound capabilities and IBM PC compatibility in a smarter, more usable and expandable package. And it was sold in Radio Shack stores all over the country. In some areas the local Radio Shack was the only place within 200 miles to buy a computer. Sierra smartly developed a strong relationship with Radio Shack in the wake of the Tandy 1000’s announcement. Few other software publishers bothered, meaning that King’s Quest and other Sierra games stood almost alone on the shelves in many of these captive markets. The Tandy 1000, combined with the slowly increasing user base of expanded Apple IIs, gave King’s Quest the opportunity to slowly pull Sierra back from the edge of the abyss, particularly since much of the game’s $850,000 development cost had been funded by IBM. It would take time, but by the end of 1985, with King’s Quest II now already out and doing very well, the company was paying off debts and beginning to grow again.

Ken, Roberta, John, Jeff, and their closest associates had, much to their credit, stuck to their guns and not made the perfectly reasonable decision to pack it in. But they had also, as Ken well realized, gotten very, very lucky. Without the Tandy 1000 and few other lucky breaks, Sierra could easily have gone the way of Adventure International, Muse, and other big software houses who were flying high in 1982 and dead in 1985. As he recently said, it had all been “fun and games” for the first few years. Now he understood how quickly things could go bad with a few wrong decisions, understood what a fragile entity Sierra really was. Most of all, he never wanted to go through another year like 1984 again. The Ken Williams that emerged from that period was, like his company, changed. From now on he would do a remarkable job of balancing ambition with caution. This capacity to change and learn from his mistakes, much rarer than it seems it ought to be, was perhaps ultimately the most important quality he brought to Sierra. He reoriented his company to stop chasing fast bucks and to focus on a smaller number of quality titles for a modest number of proven platforms, and accumulated a stable of designers, programmers, and artists whom he treated with respect. They in turn did good, occasionally great work for him. Sierra Mark II, leaner, humbler, and wiser, was off and running.

(My huge thanks once again go to John Williams for contributing so many of his memories to this article. Hackers by Steven Levy was also invaluable for what I believe will be the last time at last, as we’ve now moved beyond the period it covers. An article in the February 1985 Compute! breaks down the AGI system in unusual detail for a contemporary source. If you want to know more about its technical side, it’s been documented in exhaustive detail since. If you just would like to play King’s Quest, it’s available in a pack with King’s Quest II and III at Good Old Games.)

 

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Popcorn and Peanuts

IBM PCjr

By the time the IBM PC was a year old in late 1982, it was clear that the machine was a huge success. IBM had sold some 150,000 PCs during that first year, and demand continued to increase almost exponentially. As the PC blew right through sales forecast after sales forecast, IBM scrambled desperately just to meet demand. An interview with Don Estridge, head of IBM’s Entry Systems Division that was responsible for the PC, in the November 1983 Byte describes the chaos of those heady first couple of years:

Each quarter, IBM asks everyone who is selling the PC for a projection of purchases for two periods: the next quarter and the three quarters following it. In October 1982, for example, the division asked customers how many systems they expected to buy for the period from January through March 1983. Then IBM asked these customers what they expected to buy for April through December 1983.

When customers returned in January of this year [1983], ostensibly to talk about their system needs for April 1983 and beyond, they wanted to talk about January through March all over again. They doubled their orders for that first quarter.

“Then the same darn thing happened again in March, when we were talking about July through September. We can only handle so many factors of two,” Estridge says. “We’ve upped our production rate three times this year; production is very high. We’re extremely pleased that we can build a quality product at that rate, but it’s not enough. If the demand keeps on going at these rates,” Estridge warns, “at some point there won’t be any more parts.”

The IBM PC wasn’t just a commercial success; it was a transformative landmark for the PC industry as a whole. The vast majority were purchased not by the hackers, hobbyists, and early adopters who had heretofore driven the PC industry, but rather by the mainstream of corporate America, conservative businesses who were as nonplussed by its relatively high price as they were soothed by the legitimizing imprimatur of IBM. Both were taken as signs that the IBM PC was a serious machine, qualitatively different from the scruffy likes of Commodore, Atari, Radio Shack, and even Apple. Big Business placed huge orders that could reach into the multi-millions at a single pop. Merrill Lynch, for instance, went overnight from being dismissive of computerized trading to ordering a machine for the desk of every single broker in the company — 12,000 computers. Such was the power and mystique of IBM, the number-one company in the world in after-tax profits, a company whose gross sales exceeded the budget of the state of California.

And all of that was starting to happen even before the IBM PC got its killer app, the second such to hit the PC industry as a whole: Lotus 1-2-3. Introduced in January of 1983, 1-2-3 was, like the first killer app VisiCalc, a spreadsheet program. But 1-2-3 was clearly better in just about every possible way, to the extent that it made VisiCalc a has-been virtually overnight. Mitch Kapor, head of Lotus, had made the decision to throw in his lot entirely with relative newcomer IBM, not bothering to make a version of 1-2-3 for the Apple II or the CP/M machines or anything other than the IBM PC running Microsoft’s MS-DOS. Just as the Apple II had gotten a huge boost from being the first machine to run VisiCalc, that first clearly useful piece of PC software for the everyday businessperson, the IBM PC soared on the back of Lotus 1-2-3. For CP/M and the vendors still supporting it with hardware and software, meanwhile, Kapor’s decision marked the definitive beginning of the end. By 1985 CP/M would effectively be a dead operating system. Businesspeople simply had no use for a computer that couldn’t run 1-2-3.

An interesting and too little remarked aspect of the transformation wrought by the IBM PC is that IBM themselves never planned it or saw it coming. They themselves, in what amounted to a rare display of corporate humility, underestimated the impact that the IBM name would have on the industry. Instead of arrogantly going their own way and defining their own standards, which had always been their wont with their bigger computer systems, with the PC they made an apparently sincere effort to fit into the existing ecosystem. They even dutifully tried to license and adopt CP/M as their standard operating system until losing faith in Gary Kildall and Digital Research and going with Microsoft’s CP/M lookalike MS-DOS. A quick glance at a sales brochure for the original IBM PC reveals a plethora of features that had little relevance to the workaday world of business computing: an optional color graphics card (not a great one, but notable for existing at all); sound (ditto); a joystick interface card; a BASIC environment built into ROM, which would could be used in lieu of a disk-based operating system; a cassette-drive port; the possibility of connecting the machine to an ordinary television in lieu of a monitor; and the possibility of buying it configured with as little as 16 K of memory. Far from being a honed weapon for business-computing domination, the IBM PC was designed to be generalized and flexible, adaptable to many different roles in the same way as, say, the Apple II. When Big Business jumped all over it, it seems to have surprised IBM as much as anyone.

Which is of course not to say that they were complaining about it when it happened. As it became clear how the IBM PC was perceived and where it fit, IBM initiated development of a next model that excised many of the aforementioned phantom limbs while giving business users more of what they had liked about the original. The PC/XT, introduced in March of 1983, came with a still slightly exotic (and expensive) 10 MB hard drive as standard equipment, and was an all-around bigger, beefier contraption with eight expansion slots rather than five, more standard memory, and a larger power supply to fuel it all. Another model in development, code-named “Popcorn” and due to be introduced early in 1984, was a portable — today we would say (at best) “luggable” — version for the businessperson on the road. Having served Big Business’s computing needs for years with their larger machines, IBM was in their element here as well, at least once they figured out what was happening and where their machines fit.

And yet, despite all of this success, the failure of the PC to really make a dent in other areas did rankle a bit. While the IBM PC had created a whole new market category for microcomputers, said category wasn’t the only new one. Shortly before the PC arrived, Commodore had introduced the VIC-20, an inexpensive machine pushed not as a tool for hackers or hobbyists but as a friendly machine to be used in the home by casual users for education, light productivity applications, and of course entertainment. The VIC-20 was a huge success, redefining Commodore’s corporate image forever (both for better and for worse in the long run), and opening the category of the “home computer” as a mass-market phenomenon. This in turn brought the venture capitalists and the would-be computer-entertainment moguls, not to mention a torrent of competitors and the Home Computer Wars of 1983. Suddenly the base of hackers and early adopters who had both built and been the customers of the microcomputer industry prior to 1982 or so were a minor factor, almost irrelevant, as everyone raced either upward to the business PC (where the big winner was of course IBM) or downward to the home computer (where the big winner was Commodore). Only Apple was left perched, not entirely comfortably, somewhere in the middle; the Apple II intersected the high end of the home-computer sector along with the low end of the business market, while also remaining the computer of choice in schools and a great favorite of the hackers who had built the industry.

The home-computer market was both much more price sensitive and much more crowded than the business market, and thus couldn’t hope to match the business market in sheer moneymaking potential. Commodore sold many more machines than even IBM in 1983, but didn’t make more than a fraction as much from the effort despite edging out Apple in total earnings for what would turn out to be the last time in their history. (This disparity in earning potential explains why Apple was so desperate to find a way to fully penetrate the business market with the Apple III, the Lisa, and finally the Macintosh.) Given this reality, it may seem odd that IBM concerned themselves with home computers at all. I believe we can point to a couple of factors here. First of all, home computers were simply an opportunity — perhaps not as big or juicy an opportunity as business computers, but who said a huge company like IBM couldn’t own both markets? All of the pundits were predicting that the home-computer market was only going to continue to grow, that in just a few years a computer would be as much a fixture in every home as a television and a stereo. That led directly to what we might call the public-relations motivation. If at all possible, all of those kids who would be growing up with computers in their homes should grow up with IBM computers. That way they would be inculcated into “the IBM way,” would be comfortable with IBM technology when they grew up and entered the business world, would seek it out when they got still older and were placed in charge of purchasing at their companies. One hand, as they say, would wash the other, realizing the goal of making IBM as synonymous with little computers as they were with the big ones.

This, then, was the reasoning that led to the machine code-named “Peanut,” IBM’s dedicated home computer. Development was well underway by the time of the PC/XT’s launch, and the project’s existence was, intentionally or unintentionally, something of an open secret with the press throughout 1983. The specter of IBM’s eventual arrival loomed over the chaos of the Home Computer Wars, over annual reports and long-term planning throughout the industry. Why shouldn’t the Peanut come to dominate the low end, said the conventional wisdom, just as its bigger siblings did the high end? Apple and Commodore and everyone else breathed a sigh of relief when the rumor mill revealed that Peanut, originally scheduled to appear just in time for Christmas, had been pushed back to early in the following year. At least they would get one more Christmas sales season — one which would actually turn out to be the biggest of all for some time to come, although they certainly didn’t know that — free of the IBM juggernaut. Then, in November of 1983, the Peanut was officially announced at last and prototypes shown to the press, in the hopes, some suspected, of making some of those would-be Christmas buyers hold off until they could have an IBM the following year. Journalists weren’t quite sure what to write about the machine they flocked to see at a special reception inside IBM’s Manhattan headquarters.

Much about the Peanut, now officially named the PCjr, was about what everyone had expected (feared?). While definitely, as its name would imply, a scaled-back version of IBM’s business machines, its available configurations of 64 K or 128 K of memory and 16-bit processor made it more than competitive with the Commodore 64 or Apple II in terms of sheer horsepower. It could boot to BASIC or, if you bought the optional floppy drive, MS-DOS, in which mode it could run a subset of IBM PC software that wasn’t too memory hungry. It offered 16-color graphics that were comparable to the Commodore 64 in some ways, although it lacked that machine’s sprites. It also had a pretty good three-voice sound chip, although, once again, not quite the equal of the Commodore 64’s SID. On the flip side, it could, like the newer Apple II models, display 80 columns of text compared to the 64’s 40, a feature that made it much more suitable than the 64 for word processing and other productive tasks. And it had one feature that really was ahead of its time: a wireless keyboard that let you kick back or sit wherever you wanted when you played the games that IBM hoped would soon be flooding the market. All in all, it all looked like a pretty reasonable effort, with the fit and finish and utility of the Apple II and most if not all of the audiovisual panache of the Commodore 64. It even had two — two! — cartridge ports for easy gaming. Coupled with the reputation and marketing resources of IBM, it looked like a very dangerous machine. And then you tried to actually type on the thing.

The PCjr's infamous original "Chiclet" keyboard

The PCjr’s infamous original “Chiclet” keyboard

IBM, you see, had gone with a rubber “Chiclet” keyboard, like that of a cheap calculator — or the sub-$200 Radio Shack Color Computer. Its presence was all but incomprehensible. Contrary to what Apple zealots then and now might prefer to believe, IBM was not normally oblivious to ergonomics or aesthetics. While their machines were not sexy, they were generally functional and comfortable over many hours of use, and always had that reassuring feeling of “IBM quality.” IBM put considerable thought and research into what they called “human factors” when putting together the original PC. Indeed, they maintained in Boca Raton an entire laboratory devoted to ergonomics.

He [Estridge] points out that various human-factors considerations are reflected in the overall PC design that he says make the machine comfortable to use. The keyboard can be tilted, for example, to assume a flat-surface angle or a tilted-up angle. Estridge says both are standard angles that make users feel comfortable.

He also cites studies of eye-pupil dilation that influenced the PC’s design. He says these studies have shown that there’s a direct relationship between pupil dilation and fatigue; the more a user’s pupil dilates, the more fatigued he may become.

“If you can cut down on contrast changes as people use the equipment, you reduce the likelihood of frequent pupil dilation.”

How has this principle been applied to the IBM PC? Estridge explains it this way: “Imagine that the center of the machine is a high-contrast area and the outside of the machine — the background — is a low-contrast area. The machine has grades of contrast as you move from the screen outward. Its highest contrast is on the display tube. Immediately around the tube is a lower-contrast border, and then the cabinet curls round to form an even lower-contrast frame.

“The eye then progresses from seeing dark gray to light gray to medium white, and, beyond that, essentially a noise background. As the eye moves across those boundaries, it doesn’t experience much contrast change, and the viewer doesn’t get tired.”

Much about the PCjr has that same sense of attention to detail and quality. The cartridges, for example, have a foam lining that lets them slide gently but snugly into place with a feel that is, as one YouTube commentator puts it, “awesome.” IBM also added special tabs to the keyboard to lock an overlay into place. Their idea was that many — most? — PCjr programs would ship with one of these little cardboard cheat sheets that explained the purpose of every key on the keyboard, right above the key itself.

And yet, inexplicably, there were those dead rubber keys that seemed to invalidate all positive impressions and make the PCjr feel like a toy. Typing on the machine was, as one journalist put it, “a hateful experience.”

The other obvious concern was the price. The 64 K model with cassette drive would cost you almost $700; the far more useful and desirable 128 K model with floppy-disk drive $1250. Everyone agreed that IBM could likely get a surcharge for their name, but would their reputation stretch that far considering that a Commodore 64 with disk drive would set you back less than $500 with a bit of shopping around?

Even as they questioned the keyboard, the press’s answer to this question was an almost universal “yes.” Such was the mystique of the IBM name that they seemed to have a hard time even conceiving of the PCjr as anything but a spectacular success. Compute!, the biggest, fastest growing, and arguably most influential magazine catering to the home-computer market, was so confident that they prepared the first three issues of their second platform-specific spin-off magazine (after one for the Commodore VIC-20 and 64) before the PCjr itself was even available for purchase. Two other new magazines were also in the offing; Spinnaker, reigning kings of educational software, had a warehouse full of cartridges; Sierra On-Line had games and productivity software of their own ready to go; publishers scrambled to sign authors to write shelves full of PCjr books. When IBM kicked off the PCjr’s advertising campaign with another of their award-winning “Charlie Chaplin” television spots during Super Bowl XVIII, it attracted at least as much attention amongst the low-end crowd as Apple’s now famous 1984 advertisement for the new Macintosh which aired a few commercial breaks later. The conventional wisdom held that the PCjr couldn’t help but succeed, and few had the fortitude to buck it. Only the sober-minded Byte sounded an ominous note of caution: “Should the PCjr fail to attract a market, a lot of folks will be crushed by the resulting fall.”

A couple of months after the Super Bowl, PCjrs started shipping at last. And then… crickets. Stores that had pre-ordered dozens of units in anticipation of mad rushes and shortages watched them languish on the shelves. IBM couldn’t seem to escape their reputation as the makers of tools for big business. It turned out that many of the most interested customers were not computer neophytes looking to take the plunge for the first time, but rather businesspeople looking for something compatible with the machine on their desk at work, only smaller and cheaper, something they could use to get a bit of work done at home. They kicked the tires, but once they touched the horrid keyboard and learned that much business software — including, critically, Lotus 1-2-3 — wouldn’t run on this cut-down edition of the PC, their interest quickly faded. As for everyone else… well, they seemed perfectly happy to buy Apples and Commodores, both of which ran a hell of a lot more and better games. Compute!‘s new PCjr magazine was gone after just half a dozen issues.

Never known for giving up easily on a product, IBM bowed to the criticisms at last in the summer of 1984 and replaced the Chiclet keyboard with a proper model. In one of those moves that made IBM IBM, they offered one of the new keyboards to every single person who had already bought a PCjr. (Skeptics couldn’t help but note that, while generous, this policy wasn’t really all that expensive, since IBM had sold so few of the things in the first place.) They offered a new memory expansion that could take the machine to 256 K and, combined with the new keyboard, make it a practical possibility for the businessperson looking for a cheaper, simpler home version of her office PC. They even convinced Lotus to make a version of 1-2-3 that could run in 128 K on the PCjr. It seemed that IBM was now listening to what their potential customers said they wanted from the PCjr rather than dictating who was allowed to buy the machine and how they were allowed to use it.

A PCjr in a typical home-office configuration

Best of all, IBM started slashing the price. By the 1984 Christmas season you could buy the 128 K PCjr with floppy drive and monitor for $750. It was now very competitive with its most obvious point of comparison, the Apple II line; Consumer Reports pronounced it a “slightly better” buy than the new Apple IIc in their November issue. And — and this is the part of the PCjr story that always seems to go forgotten in articles that pronounce it “one of the biggest flops in the history of computing” or “the Edsel of the computer industry” — it actually started to sell pretty well, and had a pretty good Christmas. As the new year dawned the PCjr seemed to be gaining momentum and carving a niche for itself, even if it wasn’t quite the niche that IBM had anticipated.

IBM PCjr

It was therefore doubly surprising when IBM suddenly pulled the plug in March, cancelling the whole line with no ceremony or concrete explanation other than saying their expectations had been “overly optimistic.” It was a very un-IBM-like move from a company normally known and feared for their steady, Borg-like inexorability, their willingness to methodically iterate through failure after failure until they got a thing right — a luxury allowed them by their enormous corporate resources but denied to most of their competitors. With the Christmas sales over and the PCjr now pushing past $1000 again for a basic system, sales had once again begun to flatline. IBM apparently realized that they couldn’t make a profit on the PCjr by selling it at the only prices the market would bear. They decided the home-computer market wasn’t worth the trouble after all, not when their new $5000-plus PC/AT was again selling beyond expectations to their bread-and-butter customers in Big Business.

In an important sense, however, the PCjr didn’t die with IBM’s cancellation announcement. Radio Shack, uncertain as ever exactly what to do with their fading line of TRS-80 computers, decided in 1984 that the thing to do was to effectively give up on the Trash 80 and hitch their wagon to the IBM train. In November they released the Tandy 1000, a rather nice, robust reimagining — saying simply “clone” may be too unkind — of the PCjr that had the same graphics and sound capabilities. It became popular enough that the Tandy 1000, together with the not inconsiderable installed base of “real” PCjrs, prompted some publishers to build improved graphics and sounds into their games for these computers, thus offering some relief to an MS-DOS world that would otherwise remain a depressingly ugly place to play games for several more years.

The PCjr, then, while certainly a failure in any big-picture reckoning, wasn’t quite the hopeless case it’s so often portrayed to be. This is borne out by the sales figures, which ended up in the vicinity of 325,000 units between March 1984 and March 1985, with another 100,000 or so likely being sold during the post-cancellation fire sale. (To put those figures in perspective, consider that the admittedly much more expensive Apple Macintosh sold 275,000 units during its first year.) That said, the PCjr is significant as the first moment that IBM, who had looked infallible and inexorable from the moment they first deigned to enter the microcomputer game, got their nose bloodied. True, their ego suffered more than their bottom line; the huge profits they were continuing to rake in from their business machines dwarfed what they might have made from the PCjr even had it been a raging success. If they were going to fail somewhere, this was the place to do it. Still, this failure was a warning, or, if you like, a sign that things wouldn’t always be as easy as they had been thus far.

I’m no MBA, but the business lessons we can take away from the PCjr story seem fairly obvious. IBM ignored reasonable concerns raised when their product was still at the prototype stage, then tried to dictate to their customers rather than listen to their needs once the PCjr was on the market. They also arrogantly assumed that they could ignore their competition, that their name and reputation alone would ensure success — in other words, they took exactly the opposite approach to the one they had taken with the original IBM PC. They did, to their credit, change course eventually, but by then it was, at least in the apparent view of some powerful people in management, not worth the trouble to see the turnaround through.

Yet there is also one more element that shouldn’t go unremarked here: that of timing. Had the PCjr been introduced early in 1983 rather than 1984 its story may have been very different. While 1983 was a year of unrestrained growth and unrestrained optimism for the potential of the new home-computer industry, 1984 was a much more uncertain year, a year of failures and half-successes and uncertainty and no small amount of blowback after the ebullient promises made the previous year. The PCjr was only one part of the story of that important year. I’ll get to the rest soon. But first we have to talk about one last enduring legacy of the PCjr. We’ll do next time.

(Byte dedicated its November 1983 issue to IBM and the PC line, and explored the PCjr in depth in the March 1984 issue. Computer Entertainment published a great postmortem of the PCjr in the July 1985 issue. Also very useful were the books Hard Drive, West of Eden, and Apple Confidential. The great pictures I’ve used here are from that July 1985 Computer Entertainment.)

 

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The IBM PC, Part 4

IBM officially announced the IBM PC on August 12, 1981, at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. With 16 K of RAM and a single floppy drive, the machine had a suggested price of $1565; loaded, it could reach $6000. Those prices got you Microsoft BASIC for free, hosted in ROM. MS-DOS, sold under IBM’s license as PC-DOS, would cost you $40, while UCSD Pascal would cost you over $500. IBM also announced that CP/M-86 would be available — at some point. In the end, it would be over six months before Digital would finally deliver CP/M-86. When they did, IBM dutifully put it in their catalog, but at a price of some $240. Kildall, who remained convinced until his death that MS-DOS was a rip-off of CP/M and from time to time claimed to be able to prove it via this secretly imbedded message or that odd API attribute, believed that IBM deliberately priced CP/M six times higher than MS-DOS in order to make sure no one actually bought it, thus honoring the letter of their agreement but not the spirit. IBM, for its part, simply claimed that Digital had demanded such high licensing fees that they had no choice. Of the four operating paradigms, three of them — CP/M, Microsoft BASIC, and UCSD Pascal — ended up being used so seldom that few today even remember they were options in the first place. MS-DOS, of course, went on to conquer the world.

The hardware, meanwhile, is best described as stolid and, well, kind of boring. For all of its unusual (by IBM standards) development process, the final product really wasn’t far removed from what people had come to expect from IBM. There was no great creative flair about its design, but, from its keyboard that clunked satisfyingly every time you pressed a key to its big, substantial-looking case with lots of metal inside, it looked and operated like a tool you could rely on. And that wasn’t just a surface impression. Whatever else you could say about it, the IBM PC was built to last. Perhaps its most overlooked innovation is its use of memory with an extra parity bit to automatically detect failures. It was the first mass-market microcomputer to be so equipped, giving protection from rare but notoriously difficult to trace memory errors that could cause all sorts of unpredictable behavior on other early PCs. RAM parity isn’t really the sort of thing that inflames the passions of hackers, but for a businessperson looking for a machine to entrust with her livelihood, it’s exactly the sort of thing that made IBM IBM. They made you feel safe.

Indeed, and even if its lack of design imagination would just confirm hackers’ prejudices, for plenty of businesspeople uncertain about all these scruffy upstart companies the IBM PC’s arrival legitimized the microcomputer as a serious tool for a serious purpose. Middle managers rushed to buy them, because no one ever got fired for buying an IBM — even if no one was ever all that excited about buying one either. IBM sold some 13,500 PCs in the last couple of months of 1981 alone, and the numbers just soared from there.

With IBM in the PC game at last — machines actually started shipping ahead of schedule, in October — those who had been there all along were left to wonder what it all meant. Radio Shack’s John Roach had the most unfortunate response: “I don’t think it’s that significant.” Another Radio Shack executive was only slightly less dismissive: “There definitely is a new kid on the block, but there is nothing that IBM has presented that would blow the industry away.” Apple, then as now much better at this public-relations stuff than just about anyone else, took a full-page advertisement in the Wall Street Journal saying, “Welcome IBM. Seriously.” Like so much Apple advertising, it’s quite a masterful piece of rhetoric, managing to sound gracious while at the same time making it clear that a) IBM is the latecomer and b) Apple intend to treat them as peers, nothing more.

Years later it would be clear that the arrival of the IBM PC was the third great milestone in PC history, following the first microcomputer kits in 1975 and the trinity of 1977. It also marked the end of the first era of Microsoft’s history, as a scrappy but respected purveyor of BASICs, other programming languages, and applications software (in that order). In the wake of the IBM PC’s launch, Microsoft quite quickly cut their ties to the older, more hacker-ish communities in which they had grown up to hitch their wagon firmly to the IBM and MS-DOS business-computing train. Plenty of aesthetic, technical, and legal ugliness waited for them down those tracks, but so did hundreds and hundreds of billions.

The other players in this little history I’m just completing had more mixed fates. Seattle Computer Products straggled on for a few more years, but finally went under in 1985. Rod Brock did, however, still have one thing of immense value. You’ll remember that Brock had sold 86-DOS to Microsoft outright, but had received an exclusive license to it in return. With his company failing, he decided to cash out by selling that license on the open market to the highest bidder. Microsoft, faced with seeing a huge vendor like Radio Shack, Compaq, or even IBM themselves suddenly able to sell MS-DOS-equipped machines without paying Microsoft anything, decided retroactively that the license was non-transferrable. The whole thing devolved into a complicated legal battle, one of the first of many for Microsoft. In the end Brock did not sell his license, but he did receive a settlement check for $925,000 to walk away and leave well enough alone.

Of course, the man that history has immortalized as the really big loser in all this is Gary Kildall. That, however, is very much a matter of degree and interpretation. Digital Research lost their position at the head of business computing, but continued for years as a viable and intermittently profitable vendor of software and niche operating systems. Kildall also became a household name to at least the nerdier end of the television demographic as the mild-mannered, slightly rumpled co-host of PBS’s Computer Chronicles series. Novell finally bought Digital in 1991, allowing Kildall to retire a millionaire. For a loser, he did pretty well for himself in the end. Kildall, always more interested in technology than in business, was never cut out to be Bill Gates anyway. Gates may have won, but one suspects that Kildall had a lot more fun.

Although the IBM PC marked the end (and beginning) of an era, eras are things that are more obvious in retrospect than in the moment. In the immediate aftermath of the launch, things didn’t really change all that much for happy Apple, Commodore, Atari, and Radio Shack users. IBM throughout the development process had imagined the IBM PC as a machine adaptable for virtually any purpose, including going toe to toe with those companies’ offerings — thus the BASIC in ROM, the cassette option, and even an insistence that it should be possible to hook one up to a television. They even made a deal to sell it through that bastion of mainstream Americana, Sears. Still, the machine was quite expensive in even its most basic configurations, and it lacked the base of casual software (particularly games) and the dedicated users of those competitors. Nor were its graphics and sound capabilities, if perhaps surprising for existing at all, particularly tempting, especially when a new machine called the Commodore 64 came down the pipe in 1982. So, while the business community flocked to the IBM and MS-DOS in remarkably short order, the world of home, hobbyist, and educational computing would remain fairly divorced from that of the IBM PC for quite some time to come. MS-DOS would win out in the end here as well, but that would take more than a decade instead of mere months, allowing space for some of the most vibrant and fun computing cultures ever to grow and thrive. Thus, just as with its predecessor CP/M, I’ll likely have less occasion to talk about the MS-DOS world than its industry success might suggest — at least until about 1990, should we get that far.

Of course, to get to 1990 we really have to get out of 1981, don’t we? I’ve just go one more subject to cover, and then we’ll do that at last.

(Usually when I write about something in this blog I’m digging for every scrap of information to try to piece together a history I can have confidence in. In the case of this topic, though, I had mountains of material at my disposal; the birth of the IBM PC and particularly the downfall of Kildall and CP/M must be one of the most commonly told tales in computing history. As such, the hardest thing became trying to separate the, shall we say, “folk histories” from the more rigorously researched sources. Some quick but by no means exhaustive notes on sources:

Of the many mainstream books that profile Gates and/or Microsoft, I was most impressed with Hard Drive by James Wallace (in spite of the cheesy title), and used it most extensively of all.

The very first issue of PC Magazine gives a great picture of the IBM PC’s earliest months, when no one was certain of the uses to which it would eventually be put, and also features a great interview with a Bill Gates on the verge of becoming, well, Bill Gates.

David J. Bradley wrote a great memoir of Project Chess for Byte‘s September 1990 issue, and another that admittedly goes over much of the same ground in the IEEE Computer of August 2011.

Tim Paterson wrote articles about the development of MS-DOS for the March 1983 Softalk for the IBM PC and the June 1983 Byte.

Accidental Empires and its television companion Triumph of the Nerds are fun and give decent overviews, but don’t really drill much beyond easy stereotypes, and by focusing almost exclusively on Apple, Microsoft, and IBM miss about 85% of what was interesting about computing in the 1980s. Kind of like this series of posts, come to think of it, but, hey, this is just one topic in a blog, right?)

 

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