Ken and Roberta

02 Oct

There are two prototypical kinds of “computer professionals” in the world. First there are the purist hackers, who dive into the depths of circuits, operating systems, and programming languages like explorers discovering new lands; it wasn’t by chance that away from the computer Will Crowther was a caver, nor that he now spends his time deep-sea scuba diving. For the purists the reward is in the thing itself, in learning to understand and navigate this binary wonderland and maybe, just maybe, someday making (or helping to make) something really, truly new and cool. The other group is made up of the careerists. These people end up in the field for some mixture of a variety of reasons: because they need to earn a good living to support their family (no shame in that); because they’ve heard computers are cool and the next big thing (hello, Internet bubble); because they have a vision of society which requires computers as its enabler (hello, Steve Jobs); because they just want to get really, really rich (why, there’s Steve again hiding out in the corner hoping not to be noticed — hi!). One thing only binds this disparate group together: they are attracted to computers not by their intrinsic interest in the machines themselves but by externalities, by a vision of what the machines can do, whether for them or for others. The two groups often seem — and believe themselves to be — at odds with one another, but in truth they need each other. Witness the dynamic duo of Woz and Jobs that built the Apple II and got it to the masses. Or witness Ken and Roberta Williams, the power couple of 1980s adventure gaming.

Ken and Roberta married in 1972. He was just 18 at the time; she was 19. He was attending California Polytechnic Pomona University as a physics major, and failing; she was living at home and not doing much of anything. Contrary to what you might be thinking, there was no shotgun involved. He simply wanted Roberta in his life and was determined to have her there, permanently. Steven Levy writes that his words to her were simply, “We’re getting married, and that’s it.” She “didn’t fight it.” Right there you learn a lot about their two personalities.

Within a year or so of their marriage Ken, a restless, driven, somewhat aggressive young man with no real respect for or interest in higher education with its hierarchical structure and its abstract theorizing, could see he wasn’t going to make it as a physics major, much less a physicist. Roberta, meanwhile, was now pregnant. Ken needed a career, and he needed one quick.

In the early 1970s the institutional computer industry was nearing its peak, supplying mainframes and minicomputers by the thousands to businesses, universities, public and private schools, branches of government, and research installations. We’ve met several of the prominent companies already (IBM, DEC, HP), each serving their own core sectors of this huge market while competing with one another on the margins. Another was Control Data Corporation. Founded in 1957 by a group of refugees from an even earlier company, Sperry, CDC had by the early 1970s carved out a reputation for itself as a manufacturer of prestigious and expensive supercomputers of the type used for some of the most intensive scientific computing. The supercomputer market was, however, a small one, and so the bulk of CDC’s business was courtesy of its line of more plebeian mainframes that competed directly with IBM for corporate business. To carve out a place for itself against the larger company, CDC tried to stick to a “10% rule”: to make sure each of its systems was always 10% faster and 10% cheaper than the nearest equivalent IBM model. For a number of years this approach was very good to CDC, sufficiently so that the company opened a little trade school all its own to train future custodians of its systems. Armed with a $1500 student loan co-signed by a very concerned father-in-law, Ken entered Control Data Institute. In doing so he was conforming to a stereotype that remains with the computer industry to this day: the pure hackers go to universities and get computer-science degrees; the careerists go to trade schools and get certificates in something “practical.”

Indeed, the atmosphere at Control Data Institute promised nothing like the free-wheeling intellectual exploration of the computer-science labs at MIT or Berkeley. The emphasis was on pounding in the rote tasks and procedures needed to maintain and run the big, batch-processing mainframes of CDC at the banks and other large bureaucratic entities that housed them. And that suited Ken, hungry for a career in business, just fine. Where an MIT hacker might have seen intolerable drudgery, he saw money to be made. When he turned out to be pretty good at this computer stuff — even within limits to enjoy it — that just increased the earning potential.

After finishing at CDC, Ken spent the rest of the 1970s living a life that we more typically associate with the following decade, bouncing from company to company in search of ever better salaries while generally also juggling two or three independent consulting gigs on the side. With computers still mysterious, almost occult objects to most people, a fast-talking, energetic, and ambitious young man like Ken could go far with just the modicum of knowledge he had gained at CDC. As that knowledge increased and he became an ever better programmer and problem solver courtesy of the best teacher of all, experience, he seemed even more of a miracle worker, and found himself even more in demand. Ken, in other words, was becoming a pretty damn good hacker almost in spite of himself. But he always wanted more — a new hot tub, a bigger house, a nicer car, a place in the country — even as he dreamed of retiring young and bequeathing a fortune to his children. (These things would in fact happen, although not in the way Ken thought they would in the 1970s.) Ken made no apologies for his materialism. “I guess greed,” he later told Levy, “would summarize me better than anything. I always want more.”

When the first kit computers that one could build in one’s home appeared in 1975, Ken barely noticed. There was no real money to be made in them, he believed, unlike his big, boring mainframes. When the trinity of 1977 marked the arrival of a PC you didn’t need a soldering iron to assemble, he likewise paid no attention. It was not until a couple of years later that the beginning of a real, paying market in professional business software, exemplified by pioneering applications like VisiCalc and WordStar, made Ken begin to pay attention to the little “toy” machines. When he finally bought an Apple II in January of 1980, it was for a very specific purpose.

At the time there were only two real language possibilities for Apple programmers: they could use BASIC, which was easy to learn and get started with but quickly became a nightmare when trying to structure large, complex programs; or assembly language, which gave the ultimate in precise control over the hardware but was well-nigh impenetrable for the uninitiated, tedious in the micro-management it required, and just as bereft of structure. Ken saw an opportunity for a more sophisticated high-level language, one designed to be used by serious programmers creating complex software. Specifically, he wanted to bring FORTRAN, as it happens the implementation language of the original Adventure (not that Ken likely knew this or cared), to the little Apple II. With that purpose in mind, he registered a company of his own, choosing to call it On-Line Systems, a name fairly typical of the vaguely futuristic, vaguely compound, but essentially meaningless names (Microsoft, anyone?) that were so common in the era.

And what was Roberta doing during these years? Well, she was raising the Williams’ two children and happily (at least to external observers) playing the role of housewife and homemaker. She had always been a painfully shy, passive personality who by her own admission “could hardly make a phone call.” If Ken seemed to already be living in the frenetic 1980s rather than the mellow 1970s, Roberta seemed a better match for the 1950s, the doting wife who took care of the children, made sure everyone in the family had a good breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and meekly entrusted the big decisions and the earning of a living to the man of the house. That makes what happened next doubly surprising.

Shortly before Ken bought that first Apple, and while the Williams’ second son was just eight months old, Ken happened to have a remote terminal at the house for one of his gigs. The mainframe to which it could connect had on it a copy of Adventure, which by now had been ported to a variety of other platforms beyond the PDP-10. Ken called Roberta over to have a look at what he regarded as nothing more than a curiosity. Roberta, however, was immediately transfixed. “I started playing and kept playing it. I had a baby at the time, Chris was eight months old; I totally ignored him. I didn’t want to be bothered. I didn’t want to stop and make dinner.” As Ken wondered what had become of his dutiful wife, Roberta stayed up most of the night playing, then lay awake in bed working through the puzzles in her mind. It was no doubt a relief to everyone when she finally finished the game after a month of effort.

But the respite didn’t last long. After Ken brought the Apple II into the home, it didn’t take Roberta long to learn about the works of Scott Adams. Soon she was back to obsessively playing again. But then another thought began to crowd out the conundrums of the games: what if she could make a text adventure of her own? She was turning the most inspirational corner I know, imagining herself as a creator rather than a passive consumer. Inspired mostly by Agatha Christie’s novel Ten Little Indians and the board game Clue, she began to sketch ideas for a text adventure as cozy murder mystery, a genre that the form had not yet tackled. When she was pretty far along, she took a deep breath and laid out her ideas to Ken.

The story concept was certainly innovative, but it wasn’t the sort of innovation that would immediately appeal to a guy like Ken, with little interest in game design in the abstract. He was rather interested in products he could sell, operating intuitively by a rule he would later, for better and perhaps sometimes for worse, codify and articulate regularly: “Games have to have ‘WOW-value.’ If you don’t say ‘wow’ when someone describes the game to you, or you see it from 10 feet away, there’s no reason to market the game.” At first, caught up in his FORTRAN software and his prior experience of computers only as serious tools of business, he was dismissive of Roberta’s little project. But as she persisted, and as he perhaps began to notice that companies like Adventure International were growing rapidly and making real money just like the “serious” software houses, he began to reconsider. Still, he needed something special, needed an angle to help their little game stand out from the likes of the established line of Scott Adams games.

He began to think about the Apple II, with its comparatively cavernous 48 K of RAM, its fast and reliable disk drives, and its bitmap graphics capability. What if he designed their game around the unique capabilities of that machine, instead of taking the portable lowest-common-denominator approach of Adams? And then came the brainstorm: he could use the Apple’s hi-res mode to include pictures with the text. That would certainly make their game stand out. Pretty soon FORTRAN was forgotten, and work on Mystery House (the first of a whole line of On-Line Systems “Hi-Res Adventures”) had begun in earnest. The husband-and-wife team were not that far removed from Woz and Jobs. Here, Roberta designed the thing out of her inherent fascination with the thing itself, while Ken enabled her efforts, providing the tools and support she needed to bring her vision to life and, soon enough, finding ways to sell that vision to the masses.


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32 Responses to Ken and Roberta

  1. gnome

    October 2, 2011 at 5:43 pm

    An astonishing write-up. Thank you.

  2. george

    October 2, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    Seconded, I particularly enjoyed this one, nicely done.

  3. S. John Ross

    October 3, 2011 at 1:56 am

    Excellent stuff. Doesn’t make me want to like Ken much, though, boy howdy!

  4. Manolis 13 MoonEmp

    October 5, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    Hi! Been enjoying this blog since I found it from Planet If, been hooked! Btw also enjoying IF history on my Ipad :) Thanx for that too..

  5. Nathan Segerlind

    February 18, 2012 at 12:21 am

    You wrote: “In doing so he was conforming to a stereotype that remains with the computer industry to this day: the pure hackers go to universities and get computer-science degrees; the careerists go to trade schools and get certificates in something “practical.””

    I don’t think that this stereotype has been widely believed for a very long time. When I went to Carnegie Mellon for computer science in the 1990s, a huge contingent of the computer science and engineering majors were “careerists”, in the sense that they cared more about earning money or making a mark on the world rather than technology for its own sake.

    There were stories of guys who were the first in the family to go to college…. and it was their job to go out and make a ton of money in the 90s tech boom so that the later siblings could go to college too.

  6. J.P. McDevitt

    December 21, 2012 at 7:44 am

    Sierra is a topic I’d love to see addressed in a full-length book.

    • Jeff Nyman

      December 6, 2020 at 5:15 pm

      For what it’s worth, there is now a book entitled “Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings: The Rise and Fall of Sierra On-Line” written by none other than Ken Williams.

  7. Brain Breaker

    April 17, 2016 at 2:23 pm

    Hi Jimmy,

    So, here’s my “true origins of Mystery House” theory that I mentioned on the Sherlock thread.

    Okay, so don’t laugh, but… I think it was directly inspired by an episode of “Hart to Hart”!

    Yeah, so here’s the story… If there’s one thing I love more than the creaky old games of my ’70’s/’80s Gen X childhood, it’s the cheesy old TV shows of the same era. A few weeks ago, I was indulging my nostalgia with a Hart to Hart marathon, when the episode “Night Horrors” came on. I particularly enjoy the old-fashioned “haunted house” tales that were still prevalent in film and television in those days, so this particular episode was right up alley. But, as the show progressed, I was getting this certain Spidey-sense tingle going on, until it hit me all at once and I exclaimed aloud “Wait, this is just like ‘Mystery House’!”, much to the surprise of others in the room.

    Here’s the basic plot: Some “eccentric” friends of the Hart’s invite them and a bunch of other somewhat-stereotypical guests over for a dinner party at the spooky old mansion that they’ve recently moved into. The place was previously owned by a macabre old miser who supposedly still haunts the house and has hidden his stash of valuable jewels somewhere within, which no one (not even his grim old butler, who still resides there) has ever been able to find. The wacky new owners then reveal to the guests that they’ve really been invited there on a treasure hunt, and that the first party to find the jewels gets to keep them! After that, mayhem starts to ensure, as guests are killed off, disappear into musty secret passages. etc., until the jewels are found, the real killer is revealed, and a final showdown takes place in a cemetery that just happens to be in the house’s back yard.

    Sounds kind of familiar? Well, here’s the real kicker… The original airdate was January 22, 1980! Now, I’m sure I don’t have to repeat any of the standard history of the game to you of all people, so I think you know where I’m going here. Roberta stated that she came up with the novel idea of doing a murder mystery adventure, and the main inspirations were “And The There Were None/Ten Little Indians” and “Clue”. But take a closer look at those works. The Christie classic has the “people invited to mansion and getting knocked off” thing, and Clue has the “whodunit” theme and secret passages. But do either of them have any element of a treasure hunt for “valuable jewels”, a cemetery outside the house, etc.? No, they don’t. Sure, these were all hoary old tropes even by the late ’70s/early ’80s, but this particular combination of them, at this exact date…? Even the “silly but kind of grim” atmosphere that you correctly mention the game possessing is the exact way I would describe “Night Horrors”.

    So, to sum it all up: It’s January of 1980. Ken has just brought home an Apple II, and Roberta is continuing her adventure addiction with the recently ported Scott Adams games. She catches this episode on the tube one chilly winter night (and from what I’ve read of her personality over the years “Hart to Hart” seems like just the kind of thing she would have been into), and an idea starts to form in her head… The rest, as they say, is history. Except that she probably didn’t want that history to include “I took most of the plot from a Spelling/Goldberg production”, so she kind of sweeps that bit under the rug and calls back the good old Christie/Clue source material that was clearly the inspiration of the TV episode to begin with instead.

    I thought it was just a silly notion at first, but it kept nagging at me (both this game and TV show are deeply ingrained in my childhood psyche), so I re-watched the episode, re-played the game, and then compared everything against the original Christie/Clue sources. The end result is that I’m pretty convinced this is all true, despite how goofy it must sound. So, there you go. Check out the episode one day if you get the chance (it’s on the Season 1 DVD set, and is a lot of fun), and give it some thought.

    Whew, that ended up being a bit lengthy… Sorry about that!

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 17, 2016 at 2:45 pm

      That is interesting. It becomes still more amusing when one considers that the Williams took the whole lifestyle depicted in Hart to Hart to heart, so to speak. They conducted a lot of Sierra’s early business from a hot tub, which immediately brings to mind the iconic opening credits of Hart to Hart, with the starring couple enjoying champagne in the bath together (very risque at the time!). Consider the Softporn cover art…

      All very circumstantial, but certainly interesting and amusing. One could make a counterargument that the jewels are present in Mystery House because it was commonly believed at the time that all adventure games should ultimately be treasure hunts. That’s just what you *did* in them. The Scott Adams engine, for instance, had its treasure-hunt logic hard-coded into the interpreter. But yeah… interesting. I’ll have to try to track down that episode of a show I haven’t seen in about 30 years.

      • Brain Breaker

        April 17, 2016 at 4:01 pm

        Yeah, there’s no doubt that this is all just circumstantial evidence, and I also considered that the whole “adventure = treasure hunt” thinking back then was the strongest argument for it all being just a big coincidence. But there were just too many other little things about it that kept nagging at me, so I finally decided to throw the idea out there.

        Interestingly, one of the only early home computer adventures that I can think of to NOT really feature a treasure hunt was probably the most similar to Mystery House, in some ways. Which would be Radio Shack’s “Haunted House” for the TRS-80, which from my recollection (it’s been a while since I last played it) was more of a straight escape mission from the dangers of the house, with the items strictly acting to help you escape and avoid getting killed, rather than as treasures. It also would have directly preceded Mystery House (probably released in the second half of ’79) and been one of the most commercially available and visible early adventures out there, being carried at all the local Radio Shack stores, and having more professionally printed color packaging than was usual at the time, etc.

        Oh, and speaking of the good old Trash-80, that reminds me… I’ve also had the idea for a while that there’s a very slight chance that one particular TRS-80 title may have actually slightly predated Mystery House as the first illustrated adventure. It was Teri Li’s “Atlantean Odyssey”. The history is very murky on this one, but Teri was quite visible in the early adventure scene, and his other games all originate in the ’78/’79 period. The code (including graphics) was published circa early ’81 in the famous “Captain 80” adventure book, but the game itself (both in its earliest text-only incarnation and then with added graphics) must have predated that publication, perhaps by quite a bit.

        Who really knows with that one, it’s just that I’ve tended to notice over the years that (despite being an Apple II kid back then) the TRS-80 scene kind of predated the Apple one by just a bit, and had lots of early innovations that are now sort of lost in the mists of time. It reminds me a little of the Fairchild Channel F on the console end of things. They were both a bit ahead of their times but ultimately too primitive, and had already been obscured under the shadow of Apple/Atari when the histories started being written…

        • Jimmy Maher

          April 18, 2016 at 7:30 am

          Yes, I tried to point out on the blog how vital and important the TRS-80 was during the earliest days of consumer software, when the Apple II — the platform that’s so often credited with being the be-all end-all of the PC revolution — was an expensive, poorly distributed oddity in comparison to the TRS-80s found at every Radio Shack. That began to shift only about the time of Mystery House and especially The Wizard and the Princess.

  8. tedder

    December 24, 2017 at 4:34 pm

    “(hello, Steve Job);”. .. should be Jobs, of course. Unless this is the Bible story.

    • Jimmy Maher

      December 27, 2017 at 10:38 am

      :) Thanks!

  9. Tim Locke

    February 25, 2018 at 1:40 pm

    Microsoft is essentially meaningless?

    I thought it meant micro-computer software.

    • Jeff Nyman

      November 2, 2019 at 6:42 pm

      Yeah, I found that comment a bit odd as well. The word “Microsoft” has long been known as a portmanteau of “microcomputer” and “software”. Supposedly it was Paul Allen that made that association. But of all the companies that truly did have some odd names, Microsoft isn’t one of them.

  10. Roi

    July 6, 2019 at 1:45 pm

    In the last sentence “inherit” should be “inherent”.

    • Jimmy Maher

      July 7, 2019 at 9:30 am


  11. Will Moczarski

    August 5, 2019 at 8:19 pm

    at MIT or Berkley -> should be Berkeley

    • Jimmy Maher

      August 6, 2019 at 2:51 pm


  12. Leo Vellés

    March 5, 2021 at 12:13 pm

    “Indeed, the atmosphere at CDI promised nothing like the free-wheeling intellectual exploration of the computer-science labs at MIT or Berkeley.”
    Shouldn’t that be CDC instead of CDI?

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 9, 2021 at 8:35 am

      Yes. Thanks!

    • Daniel Saner

      July 23, 2022 at 9:59 am

      I read this sentence post-correction, and was actually just about to make the opposite suggestion :D

      As I read it, it doesn’t refer to the atmosphere at CDC, the company, in general, but their trade school “Control Data Institute”, CDI, in particular. After all, it’s put in direct contrast with the science departments at MIT and Berkeley.

      • Jimmy Maher

        July 24, 2022 at 9:56 am

        Yes, you’ve got it right. Reading back through those paragraphs, I think the confusion arose from using the acronym CDI only one time. So, I just wrote it out again. Thanks!

  13. B.D.

    May 13, 2021 at 4:29 pm

    Minor typo: “hungry for career” -> “hungry for a career”

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 14, 2021 at 6:19 am


  14. Jeff Nyman

    November 1, 2021 at 6:03 pm

    He simply wanted Roberta in his life and was determined to have her there, permanently. Steven Levy writes that his words to her were simply, “We’re getting married, and that’s it.” She “didn’t fight it.” Right there you learn a lot about their two personalities.

    This account seems to differ quite markedly from the one Ken Williams gives, which is as follows:

    “When we first met, Roberta assumed that I was older than her. I was in college and had a car; all the trappings of someone who had achieved the ripe old age of nineteen or even twenty. However, I was only seventeen. Later, when Roberta found my true age it devastated her and almost broke us up.”

    “When my friend who had been dating Roberta moved on to his next pursuit I asked for Roberta’s phone number. When I called her she had no recollection of our ever having met. It took my best sales skills just to keep her on the phone. Once she remembered who I was, she was unimpressed.”

    “It took a few dates to sell Roberta on the idea of marriage but closing a sale is what I do best.”

    The “She didn’t fight it” bit was Steven Levy’s addition to the story, and one which is not actually attributed to a quote. So if you just take Levy’s account you actually don’t “learn a lot about their two personalities” at all. Rather there is quite a bit of nuance that Levy just didn’t bother to report.

    • Jeff Nyman

      November 1, 2021 at 6:12 pm

      I should note that in the more recent book “Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings”, Ken Williams does in fact say:

      “A couple weeks and a handful of dates later, I informed Roberta that we were to be married. She thought I was insane or joking, but that’s only because she didn’t know me. That was about to change.”

      So clearly the Levy account is accurate to a point but the “she didn’t fight it” — which this article uses to surmise some aspect of her personality — is belied a bit by the next part of the account, which had also previously by Ken Williams:

      “Her dad became my strongest ally, and saw in me a chance to rescue his errant daughter. He pushed Roberta from his end, and threw roadblocks in the way of other suitors.”

      Hardly sounds like the wilting flower that is implied by “she didn’t fight it.”

      • Jeff Nyman

        November 1, 2021 at 6:14 pm

        Part of my above statement should read: “… which had also previously been recounted by Ken Williams:”

  15. Jeff Nyman

    November 1, 2021 at 6:09 pm

    “Within a year or so of their marriage Ken, a restless, driven, somewhat aggressive young man with no real respect for or interest in higher education with its hierarchical structure and its abstract theorizing,…”

    Is this accurate? Ken Williams, in his own words, says:

    “It was impossible for me to maintain multiple jobs and go to school full-time. In addition to running a crew that was selling papers door to door, and making pizzas at a local takeout place, I was working weekend nights cleaning up the mess left behind by cars at the local drive-in movie theater. This involved shoveling up dirty diapers, popcorn, and other items too gross to mention.”

    “I had no choice but to quit school and seek a higher-paying full-time job.”

    “I had no choice” doesn’t necessarily sound like someone who is railing against the system. Ken Williams is also quoted as saying:

    “I had fond memories of my time in college spent learning about computers.”


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