Tag Archives: sierra

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:


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.)


Tags: , , , ,

The Legend of Escape from Mt. Drash

The only published advert for Escape from Mt. Drash

Ultima collectors are a hardy and dedicated lot, not only authoring web sites but even huge books on their passion. An oddity called Ultima: Escape from Mt. Drash has for years been rivaled only by the original hand-assembled Akalabeth as the Holy Grail for these folks. Drash, a game for of all platforms the lowly Commodore VIC-20, trickled out of Sierra in the spring of 1983, achieved miniscule distribution and miniscule sales, then vanished from history. For some years there was reason to wonder whether it had actually been released at all, rather than only being something that came and went from a single advertisement (as shown above, from the July 1983 Compute!) and a few product catalogs. Only in 2000 was a working copy of the game finally found, “at the bottom of a cliff in British Columbia” amidst a pile of other old, unsold software apparently dumped long before by a retailer or distributor.

As befits a Holy Grail, a legend sprung up around Drash that consisted of a few known facts woven together within a tapestry of conjecture. Drash, the story went, was an attempt by Sierra to make a quick buck off the Ultima name by releasing a slapdash game to the VIC-20 market, terra incognita to Richard Garriott, without his knowledge or consent. The implication is that someone at Sierra eventually got nervous about this dubious scheme and buried the game — in some versions of the story literally, by dumping remaining copies into a landfill in a tale that echoes the (itself likely exaggerated) tale of Atari’s dumping of millions of E.T. cartridges into a New Mexico landfill that same year. It’s a glib story which seems to explain much about the game’s obscurity while also investing it with a nice dollop of the nefarious, a plus for collectors of an industry that, let’s face it, isn’t exactly rife with the sort of dark secrets and forbidden fruits that their pals who collect, say, vintage records get to enjoy. Yet it’s also a story that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, to an extent that it’s hard to understand how so many bright people could buy into it. There are two serious objections, either of which would make it highly improbable. Together they make it impossible to believe.

We should first of all take note of the author of Drash: Keith Zabalaoui. Zabalaoui was a member of what I somewhat facetiously called Garriot’s “entourage” in my previous post, one of his old high-school running buddies who hung around with him in Houston and helped from time to time with his various projects. It could only have been through Garriott that Zabalaoui came into contact with Sierra in the first place. So, the legend requires us to believe that Zabalaoui met the folks at Sierra through Garriott and sold them a game, then agreed with them to secretly release it as an illegitimate knockoff of his friend’s work. Finally, after publishing the game and receiving at least some sort of royalties he continued to keep the whole affair a secret from his buddy. That’s behavior that borders on the sociopathic. There are also some serious plotting problems to this little narrative; didn’t Richard ever say, “Hey, Keith, whatever happened to that game you were working on for Sierra?”

And then let’s look at this from the other side, from the viewpoint of Sierra. Yes, the company may have started with advertising pasted together from newspaper clippings around Ken and Roberta Williams’s kitchen table, but those days were already long gone by early 1983. Sierra was by then negotiating licensing deals with Big Media players like The Jim Henson Company and accepting millions from venture capitalists who saw them as major players in a major emerging industry. Can we really believe that such a company, which by now employed a substantial legal team, would risk their reputation by sticking someone else’s trademarked name on a game in the hopes of making a quick few (tens of?) thousands of dollars and maybe sticking it somehow to Garriott, the man who had recently jilted them? As John Williams says, “Sierra On-Line management was young but not stupid.” Ken Williams had been closely involved in the complications of securing for Garriott and Sierra legal right to the Ultima name from the now defunct California Pacific after Garriott had first agreed to sign with Sierra. To imagine that he would then just blatantly steal the trademark is… well, absurd is perhaps being kind. To imagine that the legal team the venture capitalists insisted be in place would even allow him to do so is to fail to understand how such relationships work.

So, the true story is, as these things so often go, more prosaic than the legend. Zabalaoui did visit Sierra in Garriott’s company, where he was inspired to start work on a simple maze-running action game. When he eventually showed the finished product to them, they were doubtful. It wasn’t a terrible game, but it wasn’t a great one either. And by early 1983 the huge but breathtakingly short-lived VIC-20 software market had already passed its peak and started on a downward slope that would soon turn into a veritable cliff as the ever-plunging price of the vastly more capable Commodore 64 made the older machine more and more irrelevant. And Zabalaoui’s game required more than just a VIC-20: one also needed to have the 8 K memory expansion (to boost the machine’s RAM from just 5 K to 13 K) and a cassette drive, since it was too large to be installed onto a cartridge. Most of the kids who owned VIC-20s as learning toys or game machines didn’t equip them with such luxuries. Sierra hemmed and hawed, and then made a suggestion: if they could maybe market it as an Ultima that might help… Garriott was perhaps not thrilled with Sierra at this point in time, but he was always good to his friends. When Zabalaoui came to him with Sierra’s request, Garriott agreed, likely more as a personal favor to someone who had helped him out with his own projects quite a bit in the past than anything else. Today, of course, when the industry is so much more mature and so much more sensitive to the power of branding, one in Garriott’s position would never risk tarnishing his trademark in such a way. But in 1983 both Garriott and his industry were still very young.

Even with the Ultima name, Sierra was obviously skeptical about the game’s chances, particularly as the VIC-20 software market continued to decline even as packaging was prepared and the game was sent off for duplication. They manufactured the minimum quantity required by their contract with Zabalaoui, on the order of a few thousand units, placed that one halfhearted advertisement, and watched with disinterest as the game foundered commercially. The vast majority of the production run was likely, like that first copy that was rediscovered in 2000, written off and trashed, whether by Sierra themselves or their various distributors. It’s an example of a phenomenon you see from time to time in business, where a project about which no one (with the possible exception in this case of Zabalaoui) feels terribly enthusiastic just sort of drifts to completion through inertia and the lack of anyone stepping up to kill it with a definitive “no.” In this case that led to Escape from Mt. Drash passing into history as the first of the spin-off Ultimas, games that are not part of the main sequence but nevertheless use the name. Future entries in that category would actually be some of the most impressive to bear the Ultima name; Mt. Drash, however, should most definitely not be included in that group.

I’m not the first one to reveal the true story of Escape from Mt. Drash. John Williams has occasionally tried to correct the record in the past via comments to other blog posts and the like that repeated the legend. Recently it has begun to seem that word is finally getting out. Blogger Pix had the opportunity to interact with Garriott personally last year, and asked him directly about the Mt. Drash legend. Garriott at last confirmed to him that he had known about the game and duly authorized its release.

So why should I take up the cause now? Well, there are still plenty of online sources that repeat the legend. I’d thus like to add this blog’s weight — to whatever extent it has weight — to the true story. This I partly do as a favor to John Williams, who has gifted me (and you) with so many memories and insights on the early days of Sierra and the industry as a whole. John is, understandably enough, annoyed at the persistence of this falsehood, as it directly impinges the honor of Sierra and by extension himself.

More generally — and yes, I know I rant about this more than I should — this can serve as a lesson to people who consider themselves historians in this field to be a bit more rigorous, and not to substitute easy assumptions for research. I won’t get into the original source of the false legend here, only say that I’m disappointed that it was repeated for so long without ever being seriously questioned. When you are thinking of saying something that directly accuses people of unethical dealings you really need to be sure of your facts and careful with your words. Frankly, that’s a lesson that Richard Garriott himself could learn; despite my admiration for his vision and persistence as a gaming pioneer, I find his glib dismissal of the folks at California Pacific and Sierra who launched his career as dishonest, “stupid bozoos,” and “heavy drug users” to be unconscionable. It’s a lesson his fans should also take to heart.

If you do have one of those websites that repeats the legend of Escape from Mt. Drash… hey, it happens. I’ve made a hash of things myself once or twice in public. But maybe think about taking a moment to make a correction? I’m sure that at the very least John Williams and the others who built Sierra would appreciate it.


Tags: , ,

Origin Systems

Early days in the garage at Origin. Top row, from left: Ken Arnold, Mike Ward, Laurie Thatcher, James Van Artsdalen, Helen Garriott, John Van Artsdalen. Bottom row: Richard Garriott, Robert Garriott, Chuck Bueche.

Early days in the garage at Origin. Top row, from left: Ken Arnold, Mike Ward, Laurie Thatcher, James Van Artsdalen, Helen Garriott, John Van Artsdalen. Bottom row: Richard Garriott, Robert Garriott, Chuck Bueche.

When we last checked in with Richard Garriott, he had just released Ultima II under the imprint of Sierra Online. Despite all of the pain and tension of its extended development process and the manifold design flaws that resulted from that, Ultima II proved to be a hit, selling over 50,000 copies within the first year or so and eventually approaching sales of 100,000. Contemporary reviews were uniformly stellar. In contrast to Ultima II‘s modern reputation as the black sheep of the Ultima family, reviewers of the era seemed so entranced by the scope and vision of the game, so much grander than anything else out there, that they were willing to overlook all of the useless spinning gears that didn’t connect with anything else and the many things that just didn’t make sense even by the generous standards of CRPG storytelling. Only one review that I’ve seen takes note of Ultima II‘s strangely disconnected design elements at all, James A. McPherson’s piece for Computer Gaming World. Even he bends over backwards to put the best possible interpretation on it:

My only thought as I finished the game was that very little of this enormous work was really being utilized as being required to finish the game. It was almost as if this was only a small initial quest to give you the lay of the land and that additional scenarios would be released, each one using more of the game until the “Ultimate” quest was finished.

No “additional scenarios” would have a chance to appear even if Garriott or someone at Sierra had read this review and thought it a good idea. As McPherson wrote those words Garriott’s relationship with Sierra was falling to pieces.

As I described in my earlier article, the relationship had been full of tension for months before the release of Ultima II. Big, blustery Ken Williams of Sierra took pretty good care of his people and was beloved by most of them for it, but he never let it be forgot that he considered them his people; he always made it clear who was ultimately in charge. Richard Garriott, younger and quieter than Ken though he may have been, had just as strong a will. He just wasn’t going to be the junior partner in anything. In fact, he even had a small entourage of his own, some of his old running buddies from high school who assisted with his projects in various ways. Most prominent amongst this group were Ken Arnold, Keith Zabalaoui, and Chuck Bueche (immortalized as “Chuckles the Jester” in many an Ultima), the latter two of whom also spent time in Oakhurst at the Sierra offices. Throw in a serious culture clash between the free-spirited California lifestyle of Sierra and the conservatism of Garriott’s suburban Texas upbringing and a final blow-up was probably inevitable. It came just weeks after Ultima II‘s release.

Through much of 1982 Sierra was essentially a two-platform shop. Most of their games were developed on the Apple II, and then those that were successful would be ported to the Atari 8-bit line. (A minority, such as the works of Atari stalwart John Harris, went in the opposite direction.) Accordingly, immediately upon signing Garriott Sierra had not only re-released Ultima I, whose rights they recovered from the now defunct California Pacific as part of the deal, but also funded a port of that game to the Atari machines. Ultima II‘s Atari port was done by prior agreement by Chuck Bueche for a piece of Garriott’s generous royalties. By this time, however, it was becoming clear that Sierra would need to support more than just these two platforms if they wished to remain a major player in the exploding software industry. They therefore funded an additional port of Ultima II, without Garriott’s direct oversight, to the IBM PC. (Another unsupervised port, to the Commodore 64, would follow later in 1983.) The contract he had signed not only allowed Sierra to choose where and when to port Ultima II, but also allowed them to pay Garriott a considerably lower royalty for ports with which he and his entourage were not involved. Effectively he would be paid as the designer only, not as the designer and the programmer. Garriott, who had apparently overlooked this aspect of the contract, felt like he was being swindled even though Sierra remained well within the letter of the law. You can choose to see all of this as you like, as Ken Williams slyly manipulating contract law to put one over on his naive young signee or as a simple failure of due diligence on Garriott’s part.

Regardless, Garriott had consciously or subconsciously been looking for a reason to split with Sierra for some time. Now he had a suitable grievance. Luckily, he had been wise enough to retain the right to the Ultima name. Even Ultima I and II were given exclusively to Sierra only for a few years before reverting back to their creator. There was thus nothing stopping him from continuing the Ultima series elsewhere.

But where? He certainly had no shortage of suitors, among them Trip Hawkins, who pitched hard for Garriott to become one of his electronic artists. Still, Richard wasn’t sure that he wanted to get in bed with yet another publisher at all. He talked it over with his business adviser, his older brother Robert, who in the best over-educated tradition of the Garriott family was just finishing his second Master’s degree at MIT with the thesis “Cross Elasticity Demand for Computer Games.” Robert proposed that they start their own publisher, with him managing the business side and Richard and his buddy Chuck Bueche the technical and creative. And so Origin Systems was born. It would be a little while before they came up with their brilliant slogan — “We Create Worlds” — but just the company name itself was pretty great. It probably owed something to the Origins Games Fair, one of the two most prominent North American conventions for tabletop gamers of all types. Richard, who had played Dungeons and Dragons obsessively in high school and at university in Austin had become an intimate of Steve Jackson Games, had deep roots in that culture. Richard, Robert, their father Owen, and Chuck Bueche all put up money — with the lion’s share naturally coming from the relatively flush Richard — to become the founders of a new games publisher.

Everything about the young (literally; look at their picture above!) Origin Systems was bizarre, even by startup standards. They set up shop in Richard’s personal playhouse, a space above the Garriott family’s three-car garage which had once served as an art studio for his mother but had been commandeered by Richard and his friends years before for their D&D games. It was a big room scattered with desks, chairs, and even cots. Here Richard and his friends set up their various computers. A little cubbyhole at one end served as Robert’s business office. Robert himself was still officially living in Massachusetts with his wife, who had quite a career of her own going as a manager at Bell Labs and thus couldn’t move. Robert, however, was a pilot with a little Cessna at his disposal. He spent three weeks of each month in Houston, then flew back to spend the last with his wife in Massachusetts.

Together Chuck Bueche and Richard worked feverishly on the games that would become Origin Systems’s first two products. Chuck’s was an action game called Caverns of Callisto; Richard’s was of course the big one upon which they were all depending to get Origin properly off the ground, Ultima III.

Given its flagship status, Garriott felt compelled to try to remedy some of the shortcomings of his earlier games. In particular, he was obviously eying the Wizardry series; for all of the Ultima series’s stellar reviews and sales, the first two Wizardry games had garnered even better and more of both. Much of what’s new in Ultima III is there in the name of addressing his series’s real or perceived failings in comparison with Wizardry. Thus he replaced the single adventurer of the early games with a full party which the player must manage; added a new strategic combat screen to make fights more interesting; added a full magic system with 32 separate spells to cast to replace the simplistic system (which the player could easily and safely ignore entirely) of his previous games; added many new class and race options from which to build characters; made some effort to bring some Wizardry-style rigorousness to the loosy-goosy rules of play that marked his earlier games.

Notably, however, Ultima III is also the first Garriott design that doesn’t simply try to pile on more stuff than the game before. Whether because he knew that, what with his family and friends all counting on him, this game needed to be both good and finished quickly or just because he was maturing as a designer, with Ultima III he for the first time showed an ability to edit. Garriott was never going to be a minimalist, but Ultima III is nevertheless only some 60% of the geographical size of Ultima II, the only example of the series shrinking between installments prior to everything going off the rails many years later with Ultima VIII. Also gone entirely is the weird sub-game of space travel, as well as — for the most part — the painful stabs at humor. Yet it’s safe to say that Ultima III will take the average player much longer to finish, because instead of leaving huge swathes of game — entire planets! — dangling uselessly in the wind Garriott this time wove everything together with an intricate quest structure that gives a reason to explore all those dungeons. In fact, there’s a reason to visit every significant area in the game.

Viewed from the vantage point of today, Ultima III is perched on a slightly uncomfortable border, right between the simple early Ultimas that predate it and the deeper, richer works that make up the heart of Ultima‘s (and Richard Garriott’s) legacy today. I don’t know if any other game in the series sparks as much diversity of opinion. To some it’s just a long, boring grind, while a small but notable minority actually name it as their favorite in the entire series. Personally, I can appreciate its advances but take issue with many aspects of its design, which strike me as cruel and rather exhausting. My favorite of the early Ultimas, the one that strikes me as most playable today, remains Ultima I. But I’ll talk about Ultima III at much greater length in a future post. For now let’s just note that it gave CRPG players of 1983 exactly what they wanted — a big, convoluted, epic experience that pushed the technology even further than had the previous game — without the bugs and other issues that had plagued Ultima II.

Having dropped out of even a part-time university schedule and now largely living right there in that garage loft, Richard wrote Ultima III quickly, almost inconceivably so given its technical advancements. It was done in about six months, barely one-third the time invested into Ultima II and considerably less time than it would take many a player to finish it. As usual, the game itself was essentially a one-man effort, but as it came together he recruited family and friends to help with numerous ancillary matters. Ken Arnold, his old buddy from the ComputerLand days, wrote and programmed a lovely soundtrack for the game, playable by those who had purchased one of the new Mockingboard sound cards for their Apple II. A huge advance over the bleeps and farts of the previous games, it was the first of three Arnold-composed soundtracks that have become a core part of Ultima nostalgia for a generation of players, especially once ported to the Commodore 64, where they sounded even better on the magnificent SID chip.

Ultima III

But most of the outside effort went into the package. Origin may have literally been a garage startup, but Richard was determined that their products should not look the part. He wanted to outdo Sierra’s efforts for Ultima II; he succeeded handily. Denis Loubet, whom Richard had met back when he did the original cover art for the California Pacific Akalabeth, now drew a striking demon for the Ultima III cover which might not have had anything obviously to do with the contents of the disks but sure looked cool. (Maybe too cool; lots of overzealous Christian parents would take one look and start sending Garriott letters accusing him of Satanism.) Loubet also provided pictures for the manuals, as did Richard’s mother Helen, who drew up another mysterious cloth map complete with arcane runes along the borders; such maps were about to become another of the series’s trademarks. And did you notice I said “manuals”? That wasn’t a typo. Ultima III included three: a main game manual along with two more booklets containing elaborate faux-medieval descriptions and illustrations for each wizard and cleric spell. Said faux-medieval writing is a bit more tolerable this time because Richard, no wordsmith, didn’t write it himself. The spell descriptions were done by Margaret Weigers, a local friend, while Roe R. Adams III, who was quickly parlaying his reputation as the king of adventure-game players into a career in game development (he would soon sign on to design Wizardry IV for Sir-Tech), doused the main manual in copious quantities of suitably purple prose (yet another Ultima trademark).

As July of 1983 faded into August the game was already largely finished and the various hardcopy pieces were beginning to come in from the printers. Showing that he could challenge even Ken Williams in the charisma department when we wanted to, Richard convinced Mary Fenton and Jeff Hillhouse, two Sierra employees he’d met during his time in Oakhurst, to come join Origin. Fenton would become Origin’s first customer-service person; Hillhouse, who had learned how the industry worked at Sierra, would handle logistics and distribution. When he made contact with distributors and announced Ultima III, everyone was astonished when initial orders totaled no less than 10,000 units. Richard and Robert now kicked their long-suffering parents’ vehicles out of their own garage to make room for a big shrink-wrap machine — their biggest capital investment yet — and a workbench of computers to use for disk duplication. By now Origin had rented a tiny office in Houston to serve as the front that they presented to the world, but the real heart of the company remained there in the garage. For several months evenings in front of the television at the Garriott household would be spent folding together lurid demon-painted boxes.

Origin Systems's first advertisement, for their first two products

Origin Systems’s first advertisement, for their first two products

Ultima III began shipping in late August for the Apple II. Versions for the Atari 8-bit line and the Commodore 64 soon followed. Both ports were done by Chuck Beuche, whose role as a creative and technical force with Origin during these early days was almost as significant as Richard’s. The game was a huge hit across all platforms; Ultima III became the first Ultima to top 100,000 units in sales, a mark that all of the following titles would surpass with ease. Indeed, this moment marks the point where Ultima pulled ahead of the Wizardry series once and for all to become simply the premiere CRPG series of its era. Despite the occasional worthy competitor like the Bard’s Tale series, it would not be really, seriously challenged in that position until the arrival of the officially licensed D&D games that SSI would start releasing at the end of the decade. Happily, Ultima and Richard Garriott would prove worthy of their status; the next Ultima in particular would be downright inspiring.

But for now we still have some business for 1983 and Ultima III. I want to take a closer look at the game, which planted the seeds of much that would follow. First, however, we’ll take a little detour to set the record straight about another one of those persistent myths that dog fan histories of Ultima.

(Richard Garriott’s career has of course been very well documented. The two most in-depth histories are The Official Book of Ultima and Dungeons and Dreamers, even if a distinct whiff of hagiography makes both rather insufferable at times. And of course he’s all over contemporary magazines, not to mention the modern Internet. A particular gem of an article for students of this period in his career is in the November/December 1983 Softline. That’s where I found the wonderful picture at the beginning of this article.)


Tags: , , ,

Summer Camp is Over

It’s difficult to exaggerate just what a phenomenon Atari and their VCS console were in the United States of the very early 1980s. The raw figures are astounding; nothing else I’ve written about on this blog holds a candle to Atari’s mainstream cultural impact. By the beginning of 1982 the rest of the business of their parent company, the longstanding media conglomerate Warner Communications, looked almost trivial in comparison. Atari reaped six times as much profit as Warner’s entire music division; five times as much as the film division. By the middle of the year 17 percent of American households owned a videogame console, up from 9 percent at the same time of the previous year. Atari all but owned this exploding market, to the tune of an 80 percent share. The company’s very name had become synonymous for videogames, like Kleenex is for tissue. People didn’t ask whether you played videogames; they asked whether you played Atari. As the company ramped up for the big Christmas season with their home version of the huge arcade hit Pac-Man as well as a licensed adaptation of the blockbuster movie of the year, E.T., they confidently predicted sales increases of 50 percent over the previous Christmas. But then, on December 7, they shocked the business world by revising those estimates radically downward, to perhaps a 10 or 15 percent increase. Granted, plenty of businesses would still love to have growth like that, but the fact remained that Atari for the first time had underperformed. Change was in the air, and everyone could sense it.

Those who had been watching closely and thoughtfully could feel the winds of change already the previous summer, when Atari’s infamously substandard version of Pac-Man sold in massive numbers, but not quite as massive numbers as the company and their boosters had predicted; when sales on the Mattel Intellivision and the brand new ColecoVision soared, presumably at the expense of Atari’s aged VCS; when Commodore continued to aggressively market their low-cost home computers as a better alternative to a games console, and continued to be rewarded with huge sales. The big question became what form the post-VCS future of gaming would take, assuming it didn’t just fade away like the Hula Hoop fad to which videogames were so often compared. There were two broad schools of thought, who would each prove to be right and wrong in their own ways. Some thought that the so-called “second generation” consoles, like the ColecoVision, would pick up Atari’s slack and the console videogame industry would continue as strong as ever. Others, however, looked to the PC industry, which VisiCalc and the IBM PC had legitimized even as Commodore was proving that people would buy computers for the home in huge numbers if the price was right. The VIC-20 may have been only modestly more capable than the Atari VCS, but as a proof of concept of sorts it certainly got people’s attention. With prices dropping and new, much more capable machines on the horizon, many analysts cast their lot with the home computer as the real fruition of the craze that the Atari VCS had started. Full-fledged computers could offer so much better, richer experiences than the consoles thanks to their larger memories, their ability to display text, their keyboards, their disk-based storage. The newest computers had much better graphics and sound than their console counterparts to boot. And of course you could do more than play games with a computer, like write letters or help Junior learn BASIC as a leg-up for a Computer World soon to come.

An increasing appreciation of the potential of home computers and computer games by the likes of Wall Street meant big changes for the pioneers I’ve been writing about on this blog. Although most of the signs of these changes would not be readily visible to consumers until the following year, 1982 was the year that Big Capital started flowing into the computer-game (as opposed to the console-centric videogame) industry. Slick new companies like Electronic Arts were founded, and old-media corporations started commissioning software divisions. The old guard of pioneers would have to adapt to the new professionalism or die, a test many — like The Software Exchange, Adventure International, California Pacific, Muse, and Edu-Ware, among dozens of others — would fail. The minority that survived — like On-Line Systems (about to be rechristened Sierra On-Line), Brøderbund, Automated Simulations (about to be rechristened Epyx), Penguin, and Infocom — did so by giving their scruffy hacker bona fides a shave and a haircut, hiring accountants and MBAs and PR firms (thus the name changes), and generally starting to behave like real companies. Thanks to John Williams, who once again was generous enough to share his memories with me, I can write about how this process worked within On-Line Systems in some detail. The story of their transformative 1982, the year that summer camp ended, begins with a venture-capital firm.

TA Associates was founded in 1968 as one of the first of the new breed of VC firms. From the beginning, they were also one of the most savvy, often seeing huge returns on their investments while building a reputation for investing in emerging technologies like recombinant DNA and gene splicing at just the right moment. They were one of the first VC firms to develop an interest in the young PC industry, thanks largely to Jacqueline Morby, a hungry associate who came to TA (and to a career in business) only at age 40 in 1978, after raising her children. While many of her peers rushed to invest in hardware manufacturers like industry darling Apple, Morby stepped back and decided that software was where the action was really going to be. It’s perhaps difficult today to fully appreciate what a brave decision that was. Software was still an uncertain, vaguely (at best) understood idea among businesspeople at the time, as opposed to the concrete world of hardware. “Because it was something you couldn’t see, you couldn’t touch, you couldn’t hold,” she later said to InfoWorld, “it was a frightening thing to many investors.” For her first big software investment, in 1980, Morby backed what would ultimately prove to be the wrong horse: she invested in Digital Research, makers of CP/M, rather than Microsoft. Her record after that, however, would be much better, as she and TA maintained a reputation throughout the 1980s as one of (if not the) major players in software VC. She described her approach in a recent interview:

If you talk to enough entrepreneurs, you quickly figure out which of their ventures are the most promising. First, I would consider the year they were formed. If a company was three years old and employed 100 people, that meant something was going right. Then, after researching what their products did, I’d call them — cold. In those days, nobody called on the presidents of companies to say, “Hi, I’m an investor and I’m interested in you. Might I come out to visit and introduce myself?” But most of the companies said, “Come on out. There’s no harm in talking.” My calling companies led to many, many investments throughout the years.

When you look at the potential of a company, the most important questions to consider are, “How big is its market and how fast is it growing?” If the market is only $100 million, it’s not worth investing. The company can’t get very big. Many engineers never ask these questions. They just like the toys that they’re inventing. So you find lots of companies that are going to grow to $5 million or so in sales, but never more, because the market for their products is not big enough.

By 1982, Morby, now a partner with TA thanks to her earlier software success, had become interested in investing in an entertainment-software company. If computer games were indeed to succeed console games once people grew tired of the limitations of the Atari VCS and its peers, the potential market was going to be absolutely huge. After kicking tires around the industry, including at Brøderbund, she settled on On-Line Systems as just the company for her — unique enough to stand out with its scenic location and California attitude but eager to embrace the latest technologies, crank out hits, and generally take things to the next level.

When someone offers you millions of dollars virtually out of the blue, you’re likely to think that this is all too good to be true. And indeed, venture capital is always a two-edged sword, as many entrepreneurs have learned to their chagrin. TA’s money would come only with a host of strings attached: TA themselves would receive a 24 percent stake in On-Line Systems; Morby and some of her colleagues would sit on the board and have a significant say in the company’s strategic direction. Most of all, everyone would have to clean up their act and start acting like professionals, starting with the man at the top. Steven Levy described Ken Williams in his natural habitat in Hackers:

Ken’s new office was just about buried in junk. One new employee later reported that on first seeing the room, he assumed that someone had neglected to take out a huge, grungy pile of trash. Then he saw Ken at work, and understood. The twenty-eight-year-old executive, wearing his usual faded blue Apple Computer T-shirt and weather-beaten jeans with a hole in the knee, would sit behind the desk and carry on a conversation with employees or people on the phone while going through papers. The T-shirt would ride over Ken’s protruding belly, which was experiencing growth almost as dramatic as his company’s sales figures. Proceeding at lightning pace, he would glance at important contracts and casually throw them in the pile. Authors and suppliers would be on the phone constantly, wondering what had happened to their contracts. Major projects were in motion at On-Line for which contracts hadn’t been signed at all. No one seemed to know which programmer was doing what; in one case two programmers in different parts of the country were working on identical game conversions. Master disks, some without backups, some of them top secret IBM disks, were piled on the floor of Ken’s house, where one of his kids might pick it up or his dog piss on it. No, Ken Williams was not a detail person.

If Ken was not detail-oriented, he did possess a more valuable and unusual trait: the ability to see his own weaknesses. He therefore acceded wholeheartedly to TA’s demands that he hire a squad of polished young managers with suits, resumes, and business degrees. He even let TA field most of the candidates. He hired as president Dick Sunderland, a fellow he had worked for before the birth of On-Line, where he had been loathed by the hackers under him as too pedantic, too predictable, too controlling, too boring. To Ken (and TA) this sounded like just the sober medicine On-Line would need to compete in the changing industry.

Which is not to say that all of this new professionalism didn’t also come with its attendant dangers. John Williams states frankly today that “some of those new managers came in with the idea that they would run the business after they pushed Ken to the side or out.” (It wasn’t clear to the Williams whether they came up with that idea on their own or TA subtly conveyed it to them during the hiring process.) Ken also clashed constantly with his own hire Sunderland; the latter would be gone again within a year. He was walking a difficult line, trying to instill the structure his company needed to grow and compete and be generally taken seriously by the business community without entirely losing his original vision of a bunch of software artisans creating together in the woods. As org charts started getting stapled to walls, file cabinets started turning up locked, and executive secretaries started appearing as gatekeepers outside the Williams’ offices, many of the old guard saw that vision as already dying. Some of them left. Needless to say, Ken no longer looked for their replacements in the local liquor store.

Ken proved amazingly adept at taking the good advice his new managers had to offer while remaining firmly in charge. After a while, most accepted that he wasn’t going anywhere and rewarded him with a grudging respect. Much of their advice involved the face that On-Line presented to the outer world. For a long time now everyone had agreed that the name “On-Line Systems,” chosen by Ken back when he had envisioned a systems software company selling a version of FORTRAN for microcomputers, was pretty awful — “generic as could be and dull as dishwater” in John Williams’s words. They decided on the new name of “Sierra On-Line.” The former part conveyed the unique (and carefully cultivated) aura of backwoods artisans that still clung to the company even in these more businesslike days, while the latter served as a bridge to the past as well as providing an appropriate high-tech flourish (in those times “On-Line” still sounded high-tech). They had a snazzy logo featuring a scenic mountain backdrop drawn up, and revised and slicked-up their packaging. The old Hi-Res Adventure line was now SierraVenture; the action games SierraVision.

Sierra hired Barbara Hendra, a prominent New York PR person, to work further on their image. Surprisingly, the erstwhile retiring housewife Roberta was a big force behind this move; her success as a game designer had revealed an unexpected competitive streak and a flair for business of her own. Hendra nagged Roberta and especially Ken — he of the faded, paunch-revealing tee-shirt and the holy jeans — about their dress and mannerisms, teaching them how to interact with the movers and shakers in business and media. She arranged a string of phone interviews and in-person visits from inside and outside the trade press, including a major segment on the prime-time news program NBC Magazine. Ken was good with these junkets, but Roberta — pretty, chic, and charming — was the real star, Sierra’s PR ace in the hole, the antithesis of the nerds so many people still associated with computer games. When someone like Roberta said that computer games were going to be the mass-market entertainment of the future, it somehow sounded more believable than it did coming from a guy like Ken.

In the midst of all this, another windfall all but fell into Sierra’s lap. Christopher Cerf, a longtime associate of The Children’s Television Workshop of Sesame Street fame, approached them with some vague ideas about expanding CTW into software. From there discussions moved in the direction of a new movie being developed by another CTW stalwart: Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. For Ken, who had been frantically reading up on entertainment and media in order to keep up with the changes happening around his company, the idea of working with Henson was nothing short of flabbergasting, and not just because the Muppets were near the apogee of their popularity on the heels of two hit movies, a long-running television series, and a classic Christmas special with John Denver. John Williams:

Ken developed a kind of worship for two men as he began to study up on entertainment. One was Walt Disney and the second was Jim Henson. Both were men who were enablers — not known as much for their own artistry so much as their ability to bring artists and business together to make really big things happen — and that was what Ken strived for. Walt was already gone of course, but Henson was still alive.

Ken Williams (right) hobnobbing with Jim Henson

Ken Williams (right) hobnobbing with Jim Henson

The almost-completed movie was called The Dark Crystal. In the works on and off for five years, it marked a major departure for Henson and his associates. Although populated with the expected cast of puppets and costumed figures (and not a single recognizable human), there were no Muppets to be found in it. It was rather a serious — even dark — fantasy tale set in a richly organic landscape of the fantastic conceived by Henson’s creative partner on the project, designer and illustrator Brian Froud. In an early example of convergence culture, Henson and friends were eager to expand the world of the movie beyond the screen. They already planned a glossy hardcover book, a board and a card game, and a traveling art exhibit. Now an adventure game, to be designed by Roberta, sounded like a good idea. Such a major media partnership was a first for computer-game publisher, although Atari had been doing licensed games for some time now for the VCS. Anyone looking for a sign that computer games were hitting the big time needed look no farther.

The Dark Crystal

For the Williams, the changes that the venture capitalists had brought were nothing compared to this. Suddenly they were swept into the Hollywood/Manhattan media maelstrom, moving in circles so rarified they’d barely realized they existed outside of their televisions. John Williams again:

I remember this time very well. Let me put it in a very personal perspective. I’m like 22 or 23. A guy who grew up in Wheaton, Illinois (which is just down the street from absolutely nowhere) and currently living in a town of like 5000 people 50 miles from the nearest traffic light. Now imagine this young wet-behind-the-ears punk walking through the subways and streets of Manhattan with Jim Henson, getting interviewed on WNBC talk radio while wearing his first real tailored suit. Eating at “21” with Chris Cerf, and taking limos to meet with publishing companies on Times Square. That was me – and I was just along for the ride. For Ken and Roberta, it was on a whole other level.

Much of the Williams’ vision for computerized entertainment, of games as the next great storytelling medium to compete with Hollywood, was forged during this period. If they had ever doubted their own vision for Sierra, hobnobbing with the media elite convinced them that this stuff was going to get huge. Years before the technology would become practical, they started toying with the idea of hiring voice actors and considering how Screen Actors Guild contracts would translate to computer games.

But for here and now there was still The Dark Crystal, in the form of both movie and game. Both end up a bit underwhelming as actual works when set against what they represent to Sierra and the computer-game industry.

The movie is in some ways an extraordinary achievement, a living alien world built from Styrofoam, animatronics, and puppets. It’s at its most compelling when the camera simply lingers over the landscape and its strange inhabitants. Unfortunately, having created this world, Henson and company don’t seem quite sure what to do with it. The story is an unengaging quest narrative which pits an impossibly, blandly good “chosen one,” the Gelfling Gen, against the impossibly evil race of the Skeksis. It’s all rather painfully derivative of The Lord of the Rings: two small protagonists carry an object of great power into danger, with even a Gollum stand-in to dog their steps. Nor do the endless melodramatic voiceovers or the hammy voice acting do the film any favors. It’s a mystery to whom this film, too dark and disturbing for children and too hokey and simplistic for adults and with none of the wit and joy that marked Henson’s Muppets, was meant to really appeal. There have been attempts in recent years to cast the movie, a relative commercial disappointment in its time, as a misunderstood masterpiece. I’m not buying it. The Dark Crystal is no Blade Runner.

The game is similarly difficult to recommend. Like The Hobbit, The Dark Crystal‘s quest narrative maps unusually well to an adventure game, but Roberta showed none of the technical ambition that Veronika Megler displayed in making a game of her source material. The Dark Crystal suffers from the same technical and design flaws that mark all of the Hi-Res Adventure line: absurd puzzles, bad parser, barely-there world model, you’ve heard the litany before from me. In the midst of the problems, however, there are more nods toward story than we’re used to seeing in our old-school adventure games, even if they sometimes smack more of the necessities born of doing a movie adaptation than a genuine striving to advance the medium. Early on we get by far the longest chunk of expository text to make it into any of the Hi-Res Adventure line.

The Dark Crystal

Unusually, the game is played in the third person, with you guiding the actions of the movie’s hero Jen and, later, both Jen and his eventual sidekick/tentative love interest, Kira. The duality of this is just odd; you never quite know who will respond to your commands. The third-person perspective extends to the graphics, which show Jen and Kira as part of each scene.

The Dark Crystal

As Carl Muckenhaupt mentions in his (highly recommended) posts about the game, it’s tempting to see the graphics as a transitional step between the first-person perspective of Roberta’s earlier Hi-Res Adventure games and the fully animated adventure games that she would make next — games that would have you guiding your onscreen avatar about an animated world in real-time. It’s also very possible that working with the fleshed-out story and world of someone else inspired Roberta to push her own future original works further in the direction of real storytelling. Notably, before The Dark Crystal none of her games bothered to define their protagonists or even give them names; after it, all of them did.

Whatever influence it had on Roberta’s design approach, the fact remains that she seemed less passionate about The Dark Crystal itself than she had been about her previous games. With the licensing deal having been finalized as the movie was all but ready for release, The Dark Crystal was what John Williams euphemistically calls a “compressed timeline” game. Roberta spent only a month or so on the design while dealing with all of the distractions of her new life in the spotlight, then turned the whole thing over to Sierra’s team of in-house programmers and artists. It all feels a bit rote. John:

The simple truth is that the whole of the Dark Crystal project was, in the end, a business decision and not really driven by our developers or our creative people. I think that’s really why this is one of the least cared about and least remembered products in the Sierra stable. Look back at that game and there’s really none of Roberta ‘s imagination in there – and the programmers, artists, etc., involved were basically mimicking someone else’s work and creating someone else’s vision. The lack of passion shows.

The player must not so much do what seems correct for the characters in any given situation as try to recreate the events of the film. If she succeeds, she’s rewarded with… exactly what she already saw in the movie.

The Dark Crystal The Dark Crystal

Adapting a linear story to an interactive medium is much more difficult than it seems. This is certainly one of the least satisfying ways to approach it. The one nod toward the dynamism that marks The Hobbit are a couple of minions sent by the Skeksis to hunt you down: an intelligent bat and a Garthim, a giant, armored, crab-like creature with fearsome pincers. If you are spotted in the open by the bat, you have a limited amount of time to get under cover — trees, a cave, or the like — before a Garthim comes to do you in. That’s kind of impressive given the aging game engine, and it does help with the mimesis that so many of the game’s other elements actively work against. But alas, it’s just not enough.

Even with the rushed development schedule, the game didn’t arrive in stores until more than a month after the movie’s December 7, 1982, premiere. After, in other words, the big Christmas buying season. That, along with the movie’s lukewarm critical reception and somewhat disappointing performance at the box office, likely contributed to The Dark Crystal not becoming the hit that Sierra had expected. Its sales were disappointing enough to sour Sierra on similar licensing deals for years to come. Ken developed a new motto: “I don’t play hits, I make them.”

Of course, it also would have been unwise to blame The Dark Crystal‘s underperformance entirely on timing or on its being tied to the fate of the movie. The old Hi-Res Adventure engine, which had been so amazing in the heyday of The Wizard and the Princess, was getting creaky with age, and had long since gone past the point of diminishing commercial returns; not only The Dark Crystal but also its immediate predecessor, the epic Time Zone, had failed to meet sales expectations. This seventh Hi-Res Adventure would therefore be the last. Clearly it was time to try something new if Sierra intended to keep their hand in adventure games. That something would prove to be as revolutionary a step as had been Mystery House. The Dark Crystal, meanwhile, sneaked away into history largely unloved and unremembered, one of the first of a long industry tradition of underwhelming, uninspired movie cash-ins. The fact that computer games had reached a stage where such cash-ins could exist is ultimately the most important thing about it.

If you’d like to try The Dark Crystal for yourself despite my criticisms, here’s the Apple II disk images and the manual.

(As always, thanks to John Williams for his invaluable memories and insights on these days of yore. In addition to the links embedded in the text, Steven Levy’s Hackers and the old Atari history Zap! were also wonderful sources. Speaking of Atari histories: I look forward to diving into Marty Goldberg and Curt Vendel’s new one.)


Posted by on December 12, 2012 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


Tags: ,

Playing Ultima II, Part 2

Despite allegedly taking place mostly on our Earth and sometimes even in (basically) our time, very little about Ultima II has much in common with the world that we know. One of the more interesting exceptions is the town of New San Antonio, which is right where you’d expect to find it in 1990. Oh, there are still unanswered questions; it wouldn’t be Ultima II without them. For instance, why is it called New San Antonio? Still, the town hosts an airport where we can steal the second coolest vehicle in the game: an airplane, an obvious nod to the San Antonio of our own world, which hosts two major Air Force bases. Having grown up in Houston and attended university in Austin, Richard Garriott would have been very familiar with San Antonio’s personality. One of the bases, Lackland, houses a huge training center that has earned it, and by extension San Antonio, the nickname of “Gateway to the Air Force.” Wandering the River Walk and other tourist areas around the time of one of the various graduation ceremonies is like strolling through a Norman Rockwell painting — a sea of earnest, clean-cut young men and women in uniform accompanied by proud, doting parents and siblings.

I’ve spent a lot of time already pointing out the cognitive dissonance and design failures that dog Ultima II. Never fear, I’ll get back to doing more of that in a moment. But the airplane affords an opportunity to note what Ultima II, and the Ultima series in general, do so right. As nonsensical as its world is, it consistently entices us to explore it, to find out what lies behind this locked door or at the bottom of that dungeon. Most of the time — actually, always in the case of the dungeon — the answer is “nothing.” But we find something really neat just often enough that our sense of wonder never entirely deserts us. In this case we come upon an actual, functioning airplane. Nothing in the manual or anywhere else has prepared us for this, but here it is. We look to our reference chart of one-key commands to see what seems to fit best, experiment a bit, and we’re off into the wild blue yonder. The airplane is kind of hard to control, and we can only land on grass, but we can fly through time doors to range over any of the time zones in the game, even buzz the monsters that guard Minax’s lair in the heart of the Time of Legends. We made this crazy, undocumented discovery for ourselves, so we own the experience fully. When we take flight for the first time, it’s kind of magic.

That feeling can be hard for modern players, who have every detail about every aspect of the game at their fingertips thanks to a myriad of FAQs, Wikis, and walkthroughs, to capture. Yet it’s at the heart of what made the Ultima games so entrancing in their day. Games like Wizardry gave us a more rigorous strategic challenge, but Ultima gave us a world to explore. This likely goes a long way toward reconciling the rave reviews Ultima II received upon its release (not to mention the fond memories some of you have expressed in the comments) with the contemporary consensus of bloggers, reviewers, and FAQ-writers who revisit the game today, who generally hold it a boring, poorly designed misfire and by far the worst of the 1980s Ultimas. I don’t so much want to disagree with the latter sentiment as I want to also remember that even here in their worst incarnation there was just something special about the Ultima games. They speak to a different part of our nature than most CRPGs — I’m tempted to say a better part. The joy of exploration and discovery can make us overlook much of the weirdness of not only the world and the story but also of the core game systems, some of which (like the need to buy hit points as you would food) I’ve mentioned, but many others of which (like the fact that earning experience points and leveling up confer absolutely no benefits other than bragging rights, or that the gold and experience you earn from monsters has no relation to their strength) I haven’t.

What could be cooler than an airplane, you ask? The answer, of course, is a spaceship. We find a few in the one town in 2111, Pirate’s Harbor, located approximately where we might expect Moscow to be. (Apparently the Soviet Union won World War III.) We steal one and we’re off into space, in what must already be the hundredth videogame tribute to Star Wars‘s warp-drive sequences.

It’s possible to visit all nine planets of the solar system. (In 1982 Pluto was still considered a full-fledged planet.) As with Earth itself, however, Ultima II‘s version of the solar system doesn’t have much in common with reality as we know it. Here Mercury’s terrain consists of “water and swamp”; Jupiter of “water and grass”; Uranus of “forest and grass.” Owen Garriott, Richard’s scientist/astronaut father, must have been outraged. The rest of us can marvel instead that not one of these planets contains anything to make it worth visiting. Indeed, Ultima II can feel like a box of spinning gears that often don’t connect to anything else. In addition to the planets, there are the similarly pointless dungeons, which waste a new dungeon-delving engine that marks as big an advance over Ultima I‘s dungeons as Ultima II‘s town engine is over Ultima I‘s generic towns. For some reasons spells only work in the (pointless) dungeons, meaning that there’s absolutely no reason to make one’s character a cleric or wizard, unless one feels like playing a hugely underpowered fighter. In space again, it’s actually possible — albeit pointless — to dive and climb and turn our spaceship, implying that Garriott originally intended to include a space-combat section like that of Ultima I but never got around to it. Thus, while Ultima II is an impressive machine, it feels like a half-assembled one. A couple of those meta-textual dialogs that are everywhere perhaps offers a clue why: “Isn’t Ultima II finished yet?” asks Howie the Pest; “Tomorrow — for sure!” says Richard Garriott. The only possible riposte to this complaint is that a contemporary player wouldn’t know that planets, dungeons, and so much else were superfluous. She’d presumably explore them thoroughly and get much the same thrill she’d get if her explorations were actually, you know, necessary. I’ll let you decide whether that arguments works for you, or whether Ultima II plays a rather cheap game of bait and switch.

In addition to all the unconnected bits and bobs, there are also problems with pieces that are important. The most famous of the glitches is the ship-duplication bug. We can make a new ship by boarding an existing enemy ship and sailing one square away; we’re left with a ship under our control and the original enemy, which we can continue to board again and again to crank out an endless supply of ships. It can be so much fun to make bridges of ships between islands and continents that it’s almost tempting to label this error a feature, one more of those juicy moments of discovery that make the Ultima games so unique. Other bugs, though, such as certain squares on the map where we simply cannot land a blow against a monster, are more annoying. And there’s one bug that is truly unforgivable. Flying into space requires a certain strength score. There is only one place in the game where we can raise our statistics: the clerk at the Hotel California (don’t ask!) in New San Antonio will sometimes randomly raise one when bribed appropriately. In the original release of the game, however, he will never raise our strength, thus making the game unwinnable for anyone who didn’t choose a fighter as her character class and put a lot of extra points into strength. Sierra did release a patch that at least corrected this problem — one of the first patches ever released for a game.

But, you might be asking, why should not being able to go into space make the game unwinnable if there’s nothing there to find anyway? Well, there actually is one thing we need there, but not on any of the familiar planets. Sifting through all of the jokes and non-sequiturs spouted by characters in the towns has revealed hints that a tenth planet, “Planet X,” exists. There we can pick up a blessing from one Father Antos, which in turn will let us buy a ring from a fellow back in New San Antonio on Earth. All we actually need to beat the Ultima II endgame is: the blessing; the ring; a special sword (“Enilno” — “On-Line” backward; the meta-textual fun just never stops!) that we also can buy in New San Antonio; and of course a character with good enough equipment and statistics to survive the final battle with Minax. She’s tricky, constantly teleporting from one end of her lair to the other, but in the end we finish her.

Like so much else in the game, the final message doesn’t really make sense. The optimistic reviewer for Computer Gaming World took it to suggest that Sierra might release new scenario disks to utilize some of those uselessly spinning gears. But that was not to be. Instead Ultima II is seen in its best light as a sort of technology demonstration, or a preview of the possibilities held out by Garriott’s approach to the CRPG. A better tighter, finished design, combined with another slate of technology upgrades, would let him do the job right next time.


Posted by on October 17, 2012 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


Tags: , ,