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Monthly Archives: July 2019

Chief Gates Comes to Oakhurst: A Cop Drama

One day in late 1992, a trim older man with a rigid military bearing visited Sierra Online’s headquarters in Oakhurst, California. From his appearance, and from the way that Sierra’s head Ken Williams fawned over him, one might have assumed him to be just another wealthy member of the investment class, a group that Williams had been forced to spend a considerable amount of time wooing ever since he had taken his company public four years earlier. But that turned out not to be the case. As Williams began to introduce his guest to some of his employees, he described him as Sierra’s newest game designer, destined to make the fourth game in the Police Quest series. It seemed an unlikely role based on the new arrival’s appearance and age alone.

Yet ageism wasn’t sufficient to explain the effect he had on much of Sierra’s staff. Josh Mandel, a sometime stand-up comic who was now working for Sierra as a writer and designer, wanted nothing whatsoever to do with him: “I wasn’t glad he was there. I just wanted him to go away as soon as possible.” Gano Haine, who was hard at work designing the environmental-themed EcoQuest: Lost Secret of the Rainforest, reluctantly accepted the task of showing the newcomer some of Sierra’s development tools and processes. He listened politely enough, although it wasn’t clear how much he really understood. Then, much to her relief, the boss swept him away again.

The man who had prompted such discomfort and consternation was arguably the most politically polarizing figure in the United States at the time: Daryl F. Gates, the recently resigned head of the Los Angeles Police Department. Eighteen months before, four of his white police officers had brutally beaten a black man — an unarmed small-time lawbreaker named Rodney King — badly enough to break bones and teeth. A private citizen had captured the incident on videotape. One year later, after a true jury of their peers in affluent, white-bread Simi Valley had acquitted the officers despite the damning evidence of the tape, the Los Angeles Riots of 1992 had begun. Americans had watched in disbelief as the worst civil unrest since the infamously restive late 1960s played out on their television screens. The scene looked like a war zone in some less enlightened foreign country; this sort of thing just doesn’t happen here, its viewers had muttered to themselves. But it had happened. The final bill totaled 63 people killed, 2383 people injured, and more than $1 billion in property damage.

The same innocuous visage that was now to become Sierra’s newest game designer had loomed over all of the scenes of violence and destruction. Depending on whether you stood on his side of the cultural divide or the opposite one, the riots were either the living proof that “those people” would only respond to the “hard-nosed” tactics employed by Gates’s LAPD, or the inevitable outcome of decades of those same misguided tactics. The mainstream media hewed more to the latter narrative. When they weren’t showing the riots or the Rodney King tape, they played Gates’s other greatest hits constantly. There was the time he had said, in response to the out-sized numbers of black suspects who died while being apprehended in Los Angeles, that black people were more susceptible to dying in choke holds because their arteries didn’t open as fast as those of “normal people”; the time he had said that anyone who smoked a joint was a traitor against the country and ought to be “taken out and shot”; the time when he had dismissed the idea of employing homosexuals on the force by asking, “Who would want to work with one?”; the time when his officers had broken an innocent man’s nose, and he had responded to the man’s complaint by saying that he was “lucky that was all he had broken”; the time he had called the LAPD’s peers in Philadelphia “an inspiration to the nation” after they had literally launched an airborne bombing raid on a troublesome inner-city housing complex, killing six adults and five children and destroying 61 homes. As the mainstream media was reacting with shock and disgust to all of this and much more, right-wing radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh trotted out the exact same quotes, but greeted them with approbation rather than condemnation.

All of which begs the question of what the hell Gates was doing at Sierra Online, of all places. While they were like most for-profit corporations in avoiding overly overt political statements, Sierra hardly seemed a bastion of reactionary sentiment or what the right wing liked to call “family values.” Just after founding Sierra in 1980, Ken and Roberta Williams had pulled up stakes in Los Angeles and moved to rural Oakhurst more out of some vague hippie dream of getting back to the land than for any sound business reason. As was known by anyone who’d read Steven Levy’s all-too-revealing book Hackers, or seen a topless Roberta on the cover of a game called Softporn, Sierra back in those days had been a nexus of everything the law-and-order contingent despised: casual sex and hard drinking, a fair amount of toking and even the occasional bit of snorting. (Poor Richard Garriott of Ultima fame, who arrived in this den of iniquity from a conservative neighborhood of Houston inhabited almost exclusively by straight-arrow astronauts like his dad, ran screaming from it all after just a few months; decades later, he still sounds slightly traumatized when he talks about his sojourn in California.)

It was true that a near-death experience in the mid-1980s and an IPO in 1988 had done much to change life at Sierra since those wild and woolly early days. Ken Williams now wore suits and kept his hair neatly trimmed. He no longer slammed down shots of tequila with his employees to celebrate the close of business on a Friday, nor made it his personal mission to get his nerdier charges laid; nor did he and Roberta still host bathing-suit-optional hot-tub parties at their house. But when it came to the important questions, Williams’s social politics still seemed diametrically opposed to the likes to Daryl Gates. For example, at a time when even the mainstream media still tended to dismiss concerns about the environment as obsessions of the Loony Left, he’d enthusiastically approved Gano Haines’s idea for a series of educational adventure games to teach children about just those issues. When a 15-year-old who already had the world all figured out wrote in to ask how Sierra could “give in to the doom-and-gloomers and whacko commie liberal environmentalists” who believed that “we can destroy a huge, God-created world like this,” Ken’s brother John Williams — Sierra’s marketing head — offered an unapologetic and cogent response: “As long as we get letters like this, we’ll keep making games like EcoQuest.”

So, what gave? Really, what was Daryl Gates doing here? And how had this figure that some of Ken Williams’s employees could barely stand to look at become connected with Police Quest, a slightly goofy and very erratic series of games, but basically a harmless one prior to this point? To understand how all of these trajectories came to meet that day in Oakhurst, we need to trace each back to its point of origin.


Daryl F. Gates

Perhaps the kindest thing we can say about Daryl Gates is that he was, like the young black men he and his officers killed, beat, and imprisoned by the thousands, a product of his environment. He was, the sufficiently committed apologist might say, merely a product of the institutional culture in which he was immersed throughout his adult life. Seen in this light, his greatest sin was his inability to rise above his circumstances, a failing which hardly sets him apart from the masses. One can only wish he had been able to extend to the aforementioned black men the same benefit of the doubt which other charitable souls might be willing to give to him.

Long before he himself became the head of the LAPD, Gates was the hand-picked protege of William Parker, the man who has gone down in history as the architect of the legacy Gates would eventually inherit. At the time Parker took control of it in 1950, the LAPD was widely regarded as the most corrupt single police force in the country, its officers for sale to absolutely anyone who could pay their price; they went so far as to shake down ordinary motorists for bribes at simple traffic stops. To his credit, Parker put a stop to all that. But to his great demerit, he replaced rank corruption on the individual level with an us-against-them form of esprit de corps — the “them” here being the people of color who were pouring into Los Angeles in ever greater numbers. Much of Parker’s approach was seemingly born of his experience of combat during World War II. He became the first but by no means the last LAPD chief to make comparisons between his police force and an army at war, without ever considering whether the metaphor was really appropriate.

Parker was such a cold fish that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who served as an LAPD officer during his tenure as chief, would later claim to have modeled the personality of the emotionless alien Spock on him. And yet, living as he did in the epicenter of the entertainment industry — albeit mostly patrolling the parts of Los Angeles that were never shown by Hollywood — Parker was surprisingly adept at manipulating the media to his advantage. Indeed, he became one of those hidden players who sometimes shape media narratives without anyone ever quite realizing that they’re doing so. He served as a consultant for the television show Dragnet, the first popular police drama, which all but placed a halo above the heads of the officers of the LAPD. The many shows that followed it cemented a pernicious cliché of the “ideal” cop that can still be seen, more than half a century later, on American television screens every evening: the cop as tough crusader who has to knock a few heads sometimes and bend or break the rules to get around the pansy lawyers, but who does it all for a noble cause, guided by an infallible moral compass that demands that he protect the “good people” of his city from the irredeemably bad ones by whatever means are necessary. Certainly Daryl Gates would later benefit greatly from this image; it’s not hard to believe that even Ken Williams, who fancied himself something of a savvy tough guy in his own right, was a little in awe of it when he tapped Gates to make a computer game.

But this wasn’t the only one of Chief Parker’s innovations that would come to the service of the man he liked to describe as the son he’d never had. Taking advantage of a city government desperate to see a cleaned-up LAPD, Parker drove home policies that made the city’s police force a veritable fiefdom unto itself, its chief effectively impossible to fire. The city council could only do so “for cause” — i.e., some explicit failure on the chief’s part. This sounded fair enough — until one realized that the chief got to write his own evaluation every year. Naturally, Parker and his successors got an “excellent” score every time, and thus the LAPD remained for decades virtually impervious to the wishes of the politicians and public it allegedly served.

The Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts burns, 1965.

As Parker’s tenure wore on, tension spiraled in the black areas of Los Angeles, the inevitable response to an utterly unaccountable LAPD’s ever more brutal approach to policing. It finally erupted in August of 1965 in the form of the Watts Riots, the great prelude to the riots of 1992: 34 deaths, $40 million in property damage in contemporary dollars. For Daryl Gates, who watched it all take place by Parker’s side, the Watts Riots became a formative crucible. “We had no idea how to deal with this,” he would later write. “We were constantly ducking bottles, rocks, knives, and Molotov cocktails. It was random chaos. We did not know how to handle guerrilla warfare.” Rather than asking himself how it had come to this in the first place and how such chaos might be prevented in the future, he asked how the LAPD could be prepared to go toe to toe with future rioters in what amounted to open warfare on city streets.

Chief Parker died the following year, but Gates’s star remained on the ascendant even without his patron. He came up with the idea of a hardcore elite force for dealing with full-on-combat situations, a sort of SEAL team of police. Of course, the new force would need an acronym that sounded every bit as cool as its Navy inspiration. He proposed SWAT, for “Special Weapons Attack Teams.” When his boss balked at such overtly militaristic language, he said that it could stand for “Special Weapons and Tactics” instead. “That’s fine,” said his boss.

Gates and his SWAT team had their national coming-out party on December 6, 1969, when they launched an unprovoked attack upon a hideout of the Black Panthers, a well-armed militia composed of black nationalists which had been formed as a response to earlier police brutality. Logistically and practically, the raid was a bit of a fiasco. The attackers got discombobulated by an inaccurate map of the building and very nearly got themselves hemmed into a cul de sac and massacred. (“Oh, God, we were lucky,” said one of them later.) What was supposed to have been a blitzkrieg-style raid devolved into a long stalemate. The standoff was broken only when Gates managed to requisition a grenade launcher from the Marines at nearby Camp Pendleton and started lobbing explosives into the building; this finally prompted the Panthers to surrender. By some miracle, no one on either side got killed, but the Panthers were acquitted in court of most charges on the basis of self-defense.

Yet the practical ineffectuality of the operation mattered not at all to the political narrative that came to be attached to it. The conservative white Americans whom President Nixon loved to call “the silent majority” — recoiling from the sex, drugs, and rock and roll of the hippie era, genuinely scared by the street violence of the last several years — applauded Gates’s determination to “get tough” with “those people.” For the first time, the names of Daryl Gates and his brainchild of SWAT entered the public discourse beyond Los Angeles.

In May of 1974, the same names made the news in a big way again when the SWAT team was called in to subdue the Symbionese Liberation Army, a radical militia with a virtually incomprehensible political philosophy, who had recently kidnapped and apparently converted to their cause the wealthy heiress Patty Hearst. After much lobbying on Gates’s part, his team got the green light to mount a full frontal assault on the group’s hideout. Gates and his officers continued to relish military comparisons. “Here in the heart of Los Angeles was a war zone,” he later wrote. “It was like something out of a World War II movie, where you’re taking the city from the enemy, house by house.” More than 9000 rounds of ammunition were fired by the two sides. But by now, the SWAT officers did appear to be getting better at their craft. Eight members of the militia were killed — albeit two of them unarmed women attempting to surrender — and the police officers received nary a scratch. Hearst herself proved not to be inside the hideout, but was arrested shortly after the battle.

The Patty Hearst saga marked the last gasp of a militant left wing in the United States; the hippies of the 1960s were settling down to become the Me Generation of the 1970s. Yet even as the streets were growing less turbulent, increasingly militaristic rhetoric was being applied to what had heretofore been thought of as civil society. In 1971, Nixon had declared a “war on drugs,” thus changing the tone of the discourse around policing and criminal justice markedly. Gates and SWAT were the perfect mascots for the new era. The year after the Symbionese shootout, ABC debuted a hit television series called simply S.W.A.T. Its theme song topped the charts; there were S.W.A.T. lunch boxes, action figures, board games, and jigsaw puzzles. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to be like Daryl Gates and the LAPD — not least their fellow police officers in other cities: by July of 1975, there were 500 other SWAT teams in the United States. Gates embraced his new role of “America’s cop” with enthusiasm.

In light of his celebrity status in a city which worships celebrity, it was now inevitable that Gates would become the head of the LAPD just as soon as the post opened up. He took over in 1978; this gave him an even more powerful nationwide bully pulpit. In 1983, he applied some of his clout to the founding of a program called DARE in partnership with public schools around the country. The name stood for “Drug Abuse Resistance Education”; Gates really did have a knack for snappy acronyms. His heart was perhaps in the right place, but later studies, conducted only after the spending of hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars, would prove the program’s strident rhetoric and almost militaristic indoctrination techniques to be ineffective.

Meanwhile, in his day job as chief of police, Gates fostered an ever more toxic culture that viewed the streets as battlegrounds, that viewed an ass beating as the just reward of any black man who failed to treat a police officer with fawning subservience. In 1984, the Summer Olympics came to Los Angeles, and Gates used the occasion to convince the city council to let him buy armored personnel carriers — veritable tanks for the city streets — in the interest of “crowd control.” When the Olympics were over, he held onto them for the purpose of executing “no-knock” search warrants on suspected drug dens. During the first of these, conducted with great fanfare before an invited press in February of 1985, Gates himself rode along as an APC literally drove through the front door of a house after giving the occupants no warning whatsoever. Inside they found two shocked women and three children, with no substance more illicit than the bowls of ice cream they’d been eating. To top it all off, the driver lost control of the vehicle on a patch of ice whilst everyone was sheepishly leaving the scene, taking out a parked car.

Clearly Gates’s competence still tended not to entirely live up to his rhetoric, a discrepancy the Los Angeles Riots would eventually highlight all too plainly. But in the meantime, Gates was unapologetic about the spirit behind the raid: “It frightened even the hardcore pushers to imagine that at any moment a device was going to put a big hole in their place of business, and in would march SWAT, scattering flash-bangs and scaring the hell out of everyone.” This scene would indeed be played out many times over the remaining years of Gates’s chiefdom. But then along came Rodney King of all people to inadvertently bring about his downfall.

King was a rather-slow-witted janitor and sometime petty criminal with a bumbling reputation on the street. He’d recently done a year in prison after attempting to rob a convenience store with a tire iron; over the course of the crime, the owner of the store had somehow wound up disarming him, beating him over the head with his own weapon, and chasing him off the premises. He was still on parole for that conviction on the evening of March 3, 1991, when he was spotted by two LAPD officers speeding down the freeway. King had been drinking, and so, seeing their patrol car’s flashing lights in his rear-view mirror, he decided to make a run for it. He led what turned into a whole caravan of police cars on a merry chase until he found himself hopelessly hemmed in on a side street. The unarmed man then climbed out of his car and lay face down on the ground, as instructed. But then he stood up and tried to make a break for it on foot, despite being completely surrounded. Four of the 31 officers on the scene now proceeded to knock him down and beat him badly enough with their batons and boots to fracture his face and break one of his ankles. Their colleagues simply stood and watched at a distance.

Had not a plumber named George Holliday owned an apartment looking down on that section of street, the incident would doubtless have gone down in the LAPD’s logs as just another example of a black man “resisting arrest” and getting regrettably injured in the process. But Holliday was there, standing on his balcony — and he had a camcorder to record it all. When he sent his videotape to a local television station, its images of the officers taking big two-handed swings against King’s helpless body with their batons ignited a national firestorm. The local prosecutor had little choice but to bring the four officers up on charges.


The tactics of Daryl Gates now came under widespread negative scrutiny for the first time. Although he claimed to support the prosecution of the officers involved, he was nevertheless blamed for fostering the culture that had led to this incident, as well as the many others like it that had gone un-filmed. At long last, reporters started asking the black residents of Los Angeles directly about their experiences with the LAPD. A typical LAPD arrest, said one of them, “basically consisted of three or four cops handcuffing a person, and just literally beating him, often until unconscious… punching, beating, kicking.” A hastily assembled city commission produced pages and pages of descriptions of a police force run amok. “It is apparent,” the final report read, “that too many LAPD patrol officers view citizens with resentment and hostility.” In response, Gates promised to retire “soon.” Yet, as month after month went by and he showed no sign of fulfilling his promise, many began to suspect that he still had hopes of weathering the storm.

At any rate, he was still there on April 29, 1992. That was the day his four cops were acquitted in Simi Valley, a place LAPD officers referred to as “cop heaven”; huge numbers of them lived there. Within two hours after the verdict was announced, the Los Angeles Riots began in apocalyptic fashion, as a mob of black men pulled a white truck driver out of his cab and all but tore him limb from limb, all under the watchful eye of a helicopter that was hovering overhead and filming the carnage.

Tellingly, Gates happened to be speaking to an adoring audience of white patrons in the wealthy suburb of Brentwood at the very instant the riots began. As the violence continued, this foremost advocate of militaristic policing seemed bizarrely paralyzed. South Los Angeles burned, and the LAPD did virtually nothing about it. The most charitable explanation had it that Gates, spooked by the press coverage of the previous year, was terrified of how white police officers subduing black rioters would play on television. A less charitable one, hewed to by many black and liberal commentators, had it that Gates had decided that these parts of the city just weren’t worth saving — had decided to just let the rioters have their fun and burn it all down. But the problem, of course, was that in the meantime many innocent people of all colors were being killed and wounded and seeing their property go up in smoke. Finally, the mayor called in the National Guard to quell the rioting while Gates continued to sit on his hands.

Asked afterward how the LAPD — the very birthplace of SWAT — had allowed things to get so out of hand, Gates blamed it on a subordinate: “We had a lieutenant down there who just didn’t seem to know what to do, and he let us down.” Not only was this absurd, but it was hard to label as anything other than moral cowardice. It was especially rich coming from a man who had always preached an esprit de corps based on loyalty and honor. The situation was now truly untenable for him. Incompetence, cowardice, racism, brutality… whichever charge or charges you chose to apply, the man had to go. Gates resigned, for real this time, on June 28, 1992.

Yet he didn’t go away quietly. Gates appears to have modeled his post-public-service media strategy to a large extent on that of Oliver North, a locus of controversy for his role in President Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal who had parlayed his dubious celebrity into the role of hero to the American right. Gates too gave a series of angry, unrepentant interviews, touted a recently published autobiography, and even went North one better when he won his own radio show which played in close proximity to that of Rush Limbaugh. And then, when Ken Williams came knocking, he welcomed that attention as well.

But why would Williams choose to cast his lot with such a controversial figure, one whose background and bearing were so different from his own? To begin to understand that, we need to look back to the origins of the adventure-game oddity known as Police Quest.


Ken Williams, it would seem, had always had a fascination with the boys in blue. One day in 1985, when he learned from his hairdresser that her husband was a California Highway Patrol officer on administrative leave for post-traumatic stress, his interest was piqued. He invited the cop in question, one Jim Walls, over to his house to play some racquetball and drink some beer. Before the evening was over, he had started asking his guest whether he’d be interested in designing a game for Sierra. Walls had barely ever used a computer, and had certainly never played an adventure game on one, so he had only the vaguest idea what his new drinking buddy was talking about. But the only alternative, as he would later put it, was to “sit around and think” about the recent shootout that had nearly gotten him killed, so he agreed to give it a go.

The game which finally emerged from that conversation more than two years later shows the best and the worst of Sierra. On the one hand, it pushed a medium that was usually content to wallow in the same few fictional genres in a genuinely new direction. In a pair of articles he wrote for Computer Gaming World magazine, John Williams positioned Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel at the forefront of a new wave of “adult” software able to appeal to a whole new audience, noting how it evoked Joseph Wambaugh rather than J.R.R. Tolkien, Hill Street Blues rather than Star Wars. Conceptually, it was indeed a welcome antidote to a bad case of tunnel vision afflicting the entire computer-games industry.

In practical terms, however, it was somewhat less inspiring. The continual sin of Ken Williams and Sierra throughout the company’s existence was their failure to provide welcome fresh voices like that of Jim Walls with the support network that might have allowed them to make good games out of their well of experiences. Left to fend for himself, Walls, being the law-and-order kind of guy he was, devised the most pedantic adventure game of all time, one which played like an interactive adaptation of a police-academy procedure manual — so much so, in fact, that a number of police academies around the country would soon claim to be employing it as a training tool. The approach is simplicity itself: in every situation, if you do exactly what the rules of police procedure that are exhaustively described in the game’s documentation tell you to do, you get to live and go on to the next scene. If you don’t, you die. It may have worked as an adjunct to a police-academy course, but it’s less compelling as a piece of pure entertainment.

Although it’s an atypical Sierra adventure game in many respects, this first Police Quest nonetheless opens with what I’ve always considered to be the most indelibly Sierra moment of all. The manual has carefully explained — you did read it, right? — that you must walk all the way around your patrol car to check the tires and lights and so forth every time you’re about to drive somewhere. And sure enough, if you fail to do so before you get into your car for the first time, a tire blows out and you die as soon as you drive away. But if you do examine your vehicle, you find no evidence of a damaged tire, and you never have to deal with any blow-out once you start driving. The mask has fallen away to reveal what we always suspected: that the game actively wants to kill you, and is scheming constantly for a way to do so. There’s not even any pretension left of fidelity to a simulated world — just pure, naked malice. Robb Sherwin once memorably said that “Zork hates its player.” Well, Zork‘s got nothing on Police Quest.

Nevertheless, Police Quest struck a modest chord with Sierra’s fan base. While it didn’t become as big a hit as Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards, John Williams’s other touted 1987 embodiment of a new wave of “adult” games, it sold well enough to mark the starting point of another of the long series that were the foundation of Sierra’s marketing strategy. Jim Walls designed two sequels over the next four years, improving at least somewhat at his craft in the process. (In between them, he also came up with Code-Name: Iceman, a rather confused attempt at a Tom Clancy-style techno-thriller that was a bridge too far even for most of Sierra’s loyal fans.)

But shortly after completing Police Quest 3: The Kindred, Walls left Sierra along with a number of other employees to join Tsunami Media, a new company formed right there in Oakhurst by Edmond Heinbockel, himself a former chief financial officer for Sierra. With Walls gone, but his Police Quest franchise still selling well enough to make another entry financially viable, the door was wide open — as Ken Williams saw it, anyway — for one Daryl F. Gates.


Daryl Gates (right) with Tammy Dargan, the real designer of the game that bears his name.

Williams began his courtship of the most controversial man in the United States by the old-fashioned expedient of writing him a letter. Gates, who claimed never even to have used a computer, much less played a game on one, was initially confused about what exactly Williams wanted from him. Presuming Williams was just one of his admirers, he sent a letter back asking for some free games for some youngsters who lived across the street from him. Williams obliged in calculated fashion, with the three extant Police Quest games. From that initial overture, he progressed to buttering Gates up over the telephone.

As the relationship moved toward the payoff stage, some of his employees tried desperately to dissuade him from getting Sierra into bed with such a figure. “I thought it’s one thing to seek controversy, but another thing to really divide people,” remembers Josh Mandel. Mandel showed his boss a New York Times article about Gates’s checkered history, only to be told that “our players don’t read the New York Times.” He suggested that Sierra court Joseph Wambaugh instead, another former LAPD officer whose novels presented a relatively more nuanced picture of crime and punishment in the City of Angels than did Gates’s incendiary rhetoric; Wambaugh was even a name whom John Williams had explicitly mentioned in the context of the first Police Quest game five years before. But that line of attack was also hopeless; Ken Williams wanted a true mass-media celebrity, not a mere author who hid behind his books. So, Gates made his uncomfortable visit to Oakhurst and the contract was signed. Police Quest would henceforward be known as Daryl F. Gates’ Police Quest. Naturally, the setting of the series would now become Los Angeles; the fictional town of Lytton, the more bucolic setting of the previous three games in the series, was to be abandoned along with almost everything else previously established by Jim Walls.

Inside the company, a stubborn core of dissenters took to calling the game Rodney King’s Quest. Corey Cole, co-designer of the Quest for Glory series, remembers himself and many others being “horrified” at the prospect of even working in the vicinity of Gates: “As far as we were concerned, his name was mud and tainted everything it touched.” As a designer, Corey felt most of all for Jim Walls. He believed Ken Williams was “robbing Walls of his creation”: “It would be like putting Donald Trump’s name on a new Quest for Glory in today’s terms.”

Nevertheless, as the boss’s pet project, Gates’s game went inexorably forward. It was to be given the full multimedia treatment, including voice acting and the extensive use of digitized scenes and actors on the screen in the place of hand-drawn graphics. Indeed, this would become the first Sierra game that could be called a full-blown full-motion-video adventure, placing it at the vanguard of the industry’s hottest new trend.

Of course, there had never been any real expectation that Gates would roll up his sleeves and design a computer game in the way that Jim Walls had; celebrity did have its privileges, after all. Daryl F. Gates’ Police Quest: Open Season thus wound up in the hands of Tammy Dargan, a Sierra producer who, based on an earlier job she’d had with the tabloid television show America’s Most Wanted, now got the chance to try her hand at design. Corey Cole ironically remembers her as one of the most stereotypically liberal of all Sierra’s employees: “She strenuously objected to the use of [the word] ‘native’ in Quest for Glory III, and globally changed it to ‘indigenous.’ We thought that ‘the indigenous flora’ was a rather awkward construction, so we changed some of those back. But she was also a professional and did the jobs assigned to her.”

In this case, doing so would entail writing the script for a game about the mean streets of Los Angeles essentially alone, then sending it to Gates via post for “suggestions.” The latter did become at least somewhat more engaged when the time came for “filming,” using his connections to get Sierra inside the LAPD’s headquarters and even into a popular “cop bar.” Gates himself also made it into the game proper: restored to his rightful status of chief of police, he looks on approvingly and proffers occasional bits of advice as you work through the case. The CD-ROM version tacked on some DARE propaganda and a video interview with Gates, giving him yet one more opportunity to respond to his critics.

Contrary to the expectations raised both by the previous games in the series and the reputation of Gates, the player doesn’t take the role of a uniformed cop at all, but rather that of a plain-clothes detective. Otherwise, though, the game is both predictable in theme and predictably dire. Really, what more could one expect from a first-time designer working in a culture that placed no particular priority on good design, making a game that no one there particularly wanted to be making?

So, the dialog rides its banality to new depths for a series already known for clunky writing, the voice acting is awful — apparently the budget didn’t stretch far enough to allow the sorts of good voice actors that had made such a difference in King’s Quest VI — and the puzzle design is nonsensical. The plot, which revolves around a series of brutal cop killings for maximum sensationalism, wobbles along on rails through its ever more gruesome crime scenes and red-herring suspects until the real killer suddenly appears out of the blue in response to pretty much nothing which you’ve done up to that point. And the worldview the whole thing reflects… oh, my. The previous Police Quest games had hardly been notable for their sociological subtlety — “These kinds of people are actually running around out there, even if we don’t want to think about it,” Jim Walls had said of its antagonists — but this fourth game takes its demonization of all that isn’t white, straight, and suburban to what would be a comical extreme if it wasn’t so hateful. A brutal street gang, the in-game police files helpfully tell us, is made up of “unwed mothers on public assistance,” and the cop killer turns out to be a transvestite; his “deviancy” constitutes the sum total of his motivation for killing, at least as far as we ever learn.

One of the grisly scenes with which Open Season is peppered, reflecting a black-and-white — in more ways than one! — worldview where the irredeemably bad, deviant people are always out to get the good, normal people. Lucky we have the likes of Daryl Gates to sort the one from the other, eh?

Visiting a rap record label, one of a number of places where Sierra’s pasty-white writers get to try out their urban lingo. It goes about as well as you might expect.

Sierra throws in a strip bar for the sake of gritty realism. Why is it that television (and now computer-game) cops always have to visit these places — strictly in order to pursue leads, of course.

But the actual game of Open Season is almost as irrelevant to any discussion of the project’s historical importance today as it was to Ken Williams at the time. This was a marketing exercise, pure and simple. Thus Daryl Gates spent much more time promoting the game than he ever had making it. Williams put on the full-court press in terms of promotion, publishing not one, not two, but three feature interviews with him in Sierra’s news magazine and booking further interviews with whoever would talk to him. The exchanges with scribes from the computing press, who had no training or motivation for asking tough questions, went about as predictably as the game’s plot. Gates dismissed the outrage over the Rodney King tape as “Monday morning quarterbacking,” and consciously or unconsciously evoked Richard Nixon’s silent majority in noting that the “good, ordinary, responsible, quiet citizens” — the same ones who saw the need to get tough on crime and prosecute a war on drugs — would undoubtedly enjoy the game. Meanwhile Sierra’s competitors weren’t quite sure what to make of it all. “Talk about hot properties,” wrote the editors of Origin Systems’s internal newsletter, seemingly uncertain whether to express anger or admiration for Sierra’s sheer chutzpah. “No confirmation yet as to whether the game will ship with its own special solid-steel joystick” — a dark reference to the batons with which Gates’s officers had beat Rodney King.

In the end, though, the game generated decidedly less controversy than Ken Williams had hoped for. The computer-gaming press just wasn’t politically engaged enough to do much more than shrug their shoulders at its implications. And by the time it was released it was November of 1993, and Gates was already becoming old news for the mainstream press. The president of the Los Angeles Urban League did provide an obligingly outraged quote, saying that Gates “embodies all that is bad in law enforcement—the problems of the macho, racist, brutal police experience that we’re working hard to put behind us. That anyone would hire him for a project like this proves that some companies will do anything for the almighty dollar.” But that was about as good as it got.

There’s certainly no reason to believe that Gates’s game sold any better than the run-of-the-mill Sierra adventure, or than any of the Police Quest games that had preceded it. If anything, the presence of Gates’s name on the box seems to have put off more fans than it attracted. Rather than a new beginning, Open Season proved the end of the line for Police Quest as an adventure series — albeit not for Sierra’s involvement with Gates himself. The product line was retooled in 1995 into Daryl F. Gates’ Police Quest: SWAT, a “tactical simulator” of police work that played suspiciously like any number of outright war simulators. In this form, it found a more receptive audience and continued for years. Tammy Dargan remained at the reinvented series’s head for much of its run. History hasn’t recorded whether her bleeding-heart liberal sympathies went into abeyance after her time with Gates or whether the series remained just a slightly distasteful job she had to do.

Gates, on the other hand, got dropped after the first SWAT game. His radio show had been cancelled after he had proved himself to be a stodgy bore on the air, without even the modicum of wit that marked the likes of a Rush Limbaugh. Having thus failed in his new career as a media provocateur, and deprived forevermore of his old position of authority, his time as a political lightning rod had just about run out. What then was the use of Sierra continuing to pay him?


Ken and Roberta Williams looking wholesome in 1993, their days in the hot tub behind them.

But then, Daryl Gates was never the most interesting person behind the games that bore his name. The hard-bitten old reactionary was always a predictable, easily known quantity, and therefore one with no real power to fascinate. Much more interesting was and is Ken Williams, this huge, mercurial personality who never designed a game himself but who lurked as an almost palpable presence in the background of every game Sierra ever released as an independent company. In short, Sierra was his baby, destined from the first to become his legacy more so than that of any member of his actual creative staff.

Said legacy is, like the man himself, a maze of contradictions resistant to easy judgments. Everything you can say about Ken Williams and Sierra, whether positive or negative, seems to come equipped with a “but” that points in the opposite direction. So, we can laud him for having the vision to say something like this, which accurately diagnosed the problem of an industry offering a nearly exclusive diet of games by and for young white men obsessed with Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings:

If you match the top-selling books, records, or films to the top-selling computer-entertainment titles, you’ll immediately notice differences. Where are the romance, horror, and non-fiction titles? Where’s military fiction? Where’s all the insider political stories? Music in computer games is infinitely better than what we had a few years back, but it doesn’t match what people are buying today. Where’s the country-western music? The rap? The reggae? The new age?

And yet Williams approached his self-assigned mission of broadening the market for computer games with a disconcerting mixture of crassness and sheer naivete. The former seemed somehow endemic to the man, no matter how hard he worked to conceal it behind high-flown rhetoric, while the latter signified a man who appeared never to have seriously thought about the nature of mass media before he started trying to make it for himself. “For a publisher to not publish a product which many customers want to buy is censorship,” he said at one point. No, it’s not, actually; it’s called curation, and is the right and perhaps the duty of every content publisher — not that there were lines of customers begging Sierra for a Daryl Gates-helmed Police Quest game anyway. With that game, Williams became, whatever else he was, a shameless wannabe exploiter of a bleeding wound at the heart of his nation — and he wasn’t even very good at it, as shown by the tepid reaction to his “controversial” game. His decision to make it reflects not just a moral failure but an intellectual misunderstanding of his audience so extreme as to border on the bizarre. Has anyone ever bought an adventure game strictly because it’s controversial?

So, if there’s a pattern to the history of Ken Williams and Sierra — and the two really are all but inseparable — it’s one of talking a good game, of being broadly right with the vision thing, but falling down in the details and execution. Another example from the horse’s mouth, describing the broad idea that supposedly led to Open Season:

The reason that I’m working with Chief Gates is that one of my goals has been to create a series of adventure games which accomplish reality through having been written by real experts. I have been calling this series of games the “Reality Role-Playing” series. I want to find the top cop, lawyer, airline pilot, fireman, race-car driver, politician, military hero, schoolteacher, white-water rafter, mountain climber, etc., and have them work with us on a simulation of their world. Chief Gates gives us the cop game. We are working with Emerson Fittipaldi to simulate racing, and expect to announce soon that Vincent Bugliosi, the lawyer who locked up Charles Manson, will be working with us to do a courtroom simulation. My goal is that products in the Reality Role-Playing series will be viewed as serious simulations of real-world events, not as games. If we do our jobs right, this will be the closest most of us will ever get to seeing the world through these people’s eyes.

The idea sounds magnificent, so much so that one can’t help but feel a twinge of regret that it never went any further than Open Season. Games excel at immersion, and their ability to let us walk a mile in someone else’s shoes — to become someone whose world we would otherwise never know — is still sadly underutilized.

I often — perhaps too often — use Sierra’s arch-rivals in adventure games LucasArts as my own baton with which to beat them, pointing out how much more thoughtful and polished the latter’s designs were. This remains true enough. Yet it’s also true that LucasArts had nothing like the ambition for adventure games which Ken Williams expresses here. LucasArts found what worked for them very early on — that thing being cartoon comedies — and rode that same horse relentlessly right up until the market for adventures in general went away. Tellingly, when they were asked to adapt Indiana Jones to an interactive medium, they responded not so much by adjusting their standard approach all that radically as by turning Indy himself into a cartoon character. Something tells me that Ken Williams would have taken a very different tack.

But then we get to the implementation of Williams’s ideas by Sierra in the form of Open Season, and the questions begin all over again. Was Daryl Gates truly, as one of the marketers’ puff pieces claimed, “the most knowledgeable authority on law enforcement alive?” Or was there some other motivation involved? I trust the answer is self-evident. (John Williams even admitted as much in another of the puff pieces: “[Ken] decided the whole controversy over Gates would ultimately help the game sell better.”) And then, why does the “reality role-playing” series have to focus only on those with prestige and power? If Williams truly does just want to share the lives of others with us and give us a shared basis for empathy and discussion, why not make a game about what it’s like to be a Rodney King?

Was it because Ken Williams was himself a racist and a bigot? That’s a major charge to level, and one that’s neither helpful nor warranted here — no, not even though he championed a distinctly racist and bigoted game, released under the banner of a thoroughly unpleasant man who had long made dog whistles to racism and bigotry his calling card. Despite all that, the story of Open Season‘s creation is more one of thoughtlessness than malice aforethought. It literally never occurred to Ken Williams that anyone living in South Los Angeles would ever think of buying a Sierra game; that territory was more foreign to him than that of Europe (where Sierra was in fact making an aggressive play at the time). Thus he felt free to exploit a community’s trauma with this distasteful product and this disingenuous narrative that it was created to engender “discussion.” For nothing actually to be found within Open Season is remotely conducive to civil discussion.

Williams stated just as he was beginning his courtship of Daryl Gates that, in a fast-moving industry, he had to choose whether to “lead, follow, or get out of the way. I don’t believe in following, and I’m not about to get out of the way. Therefore, if I am to lead then I have to know where I’m going.” And here we come to the big-picture thing again, the thing at which Williams tended to excel. His decision to work with Gates does indeed stand as a harbinger of where much of gaming was going. This time, though, it’s a sad harbinger rather than a happy one.

I believe that the last several centuries — and certainly the last several decades — have seen us all slowly learning to be kinder and more respectful to one another. It hasn’t been a linear progression by any means, and we still have one hell of a long way to go, but it’s hard to deny that it’s occurred. (Whatever the disappointments of the last several years, the fact remains that the United States elected a black man as president in 2008, and has finally accepted the right of gay people to marry even more recently. Both of these things were unthinkable in 1993.) In some cases, gaming has reflected this progress. But too often, large segments of gaming culture have chosen to side instead with the reactionaries and the bigots, as Sierra implicitly did here.

So, Ken Williams and Sierra somehow managed to encompass both the best and the worst of what seems destined to go down in history as the defining art form of the 21st century, and they did so long before that century began. Yes, that’s quite an achievement in its own right — but, as Open Season so painfully reminds us, not an unmixed one.

(Sources: the books Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing by Joe Domanick and Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces by Radley Balko; Computer Gaming World of August/September 1987, October 1987, and December 1993; Sierra’s news magazines of Summer 1991, Winter 1992, June 1993, Summer 1993, Holiday 1993, and Spring 1994; Electronic Games of October 1993; Origin Systems’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of February 26 1993. Online sources include an excellent and invaluable Vice article on Open Season and the information about the Rodney King beating and subsequent trial found on Famous American Trials. And my thanks go out yet again to Corey Cole, who took the time to answer some questions about this period of Sierra’s history from his perspective as a developer there.

The four Police Quest adventure games are available for digital purchase at GOG.com.)

 

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The Mortgaging of Sierra Online

The Sierra Online of the 1980s and very early 1990s excelled at customer relations perhaps more than anything else. Through the tours of their offices (which they offered to anyone who cared to make the trip to rural Oakhurst, California), the newsletter they published (which always opened with a folksy editorial from their founder and leader Ken Williams), and their habit of grouping their games into well-delineated series with predictable content, they fostered a sense of loyalty and even community which other game makers, not least their arch-rivals over at LucasArts, couldn’t touch — this even though the actual games of LucasArts tended to be much better in design terms. Here we see some of the entrants in a Leisure Suit Larry lookalike contest sponsored by Sierra. (Yes, two of the contestants do seem suspiciously young to have played a series officially targeted at those 18 and older.) Sadly, community-building exercise like these would become increasingly rare as the 1990s wore on and Sierra took on a different, more impersonal air. This article will chronicle the beginning of those changes.

“The computer-game industry has become the interactive-entertainment industry.”

— Ken Williams, 1992

Another even-numbered year, another King’s Quest game. Such had been the guiding rhythm of life at Sierra Online since 1986, and 1992 was to be no exception. Why should it be? Each of the last several King’s Quest installments had sold better than the one before, as the series had cultivated a reputation as the premier showcase of bleeding-edge computer entertainment. Once again, then, Sierra was prepared to pull out all the stops for King’s Quest VI, prepared to push its development budget to $1 million and beyond.

This time around, however, there were some new and worrisome tensions. Roberta Williams, Sierra’s star designer, whose name was inseparable from that of King’s Quest itself in the minds of the public, was getting a little tired of playing the Queen of Daventry for the nation’s schoolchildren. She had another, entirely different game she wanted to make, a sequel to her 1989 mystery starring the 1920s girl detective Laura Bow. So, a compromise was reached. Roberta would do Laura Bow in… The Dagger of Amon Ra and King’s Quest VI simultaneously by taking a sort of “executive designer” role on both projects, turning over the nitty-gritty details to assistant designers.

Thus for the all-important King’s Quest VI, Sierra brought over Jane Jensen, who was fresh off the task of co-designing the rather delightful educational adventure EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus with Gano Haine. Roberta Williams described her working relationship with her new partner in a contemporary interview, striking a tone that was perhaps a bit more condescending than it really needed to be in light of Jensen’s previous experience, and that was oddly disparaging toward Sierra’s other designers to boot:

I took on a co-designer for a couple of reasons: I wanted to train Jane because I didn’t want Sierra to be dependent on me. Someone else needs to know how to do a “proper” adventure game. We’re all doing a good job from a technology standpoint, but not on design. In my opinion, the best way to learn it properly is side by side. Overall, it was a positive experience, and it was very good for the series because Jane brought in some new ideas. She learned a lot, too, and can take what she’s learned to help create her new games.

There’s something of a consensus among fans today that the result of this collaboration is the best overall King’s Quest of them all. This strikes me as a fair judgment. While it’s not a great adventure game by any means, King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow isn’t an outright poor one either in terms of writing or design, and this is sufficient for it to clear the low bar of the previous games in the series. The plot is still reliant on fairy-tale clichés: a princess imprisoned in a tower, a prince who sets out to rescue her, a kingdom in turmoil around them. Yet the writing itself is more textured and coherent this time around, the implementation is far more complete (most conceivable actions yield custom messages of some sort in response), the puzzles are generally more reasonable, and it’s considerably more difficult than it was in the earlier games to wander into a walking-dead situation without knowing it. Evincing a spirit of mercy toward its players of a sort that Sierra wasn’t usually known for, it even has a branching point where you can choose from an easier or a harder pathway to the end of the game. And when you do get to the final scene, there are over a dozen possible variants of the ending movie, depending on the choices you’ve made along the way. Again, this degree of design ambition — as opposed to audiovisual ambition — was new to the series at the time.

The fans often credit this relative improvement completely to Jensen’s involvement. And this judgment as well, unkind though it is toward Roberta Williams, is not entirely unfounded, even if it should be tempered by the awareness that Jensen’s own later games for Sierra would all have significant design issues of their own. Many of the flaws that so constantly dogged Roberta’s games in particular were down to her insistence on working at a remove from the rest of the people making them. Her habit was to type up a design document on her computer at home, then give it to the development team with instructions to “call if you have any questions.” For all practical purposes, she had thus been working as an “executive designer” long before she officially took on that role with King’s Quest VI. This method of working tended to result in confusion and ultimately in far too much improvisation on the part of her teams. Combined with Sierra’s overarching disinterest in seeking substantive feedback from players during the development process, it was disastrous more often than not to the finished product. But when the time came for King’s Quest VI, Jane Jensen was able to alleviate at least some of the problems simply by being in the same room with the rest of the team every day. It may seem unbelievable that this alone was sufficient to deliver a King’s Quest that was so markedly better than any of the others — but, again, it just wasn’t a very high bar to clear.

For all that it represented a welcome uptick in terms of design, Sierra’s real priority for King’s Quest VI was, as always for the series, to make it look and sound better than any game before. They were especially proud of the opening movie, which they outsourced to a real Hollywood animation studio to create on cutting-edge graphics workstations. When it was delivered to Sierra’s offices, the ten-minute sequence filled a well-nigh incomprehensible 1.2 GB on disk. It would have to be cut down to two minutes and 6 MB for the floppy-disk-based release of the game. (It would grow again to six minutes and 60 MB for the later CD-ROM release.) A real showstopper in its day, it serves today to illustrate how Sierra’s ambitions to be a major media player were outrunning their aesthetic competencies; even the two-minute version manages to come off as muddled and overlong, poorly framed and poorly written. In its time, though, it doubtless served its purpose as a graphics-and-sound showcase, as did the game that followed it.

My favorite part of the much-vaunted King’s Quest VI introductory movie are the sailors that accompany Prince Alexander on his quest to rescue Princess Cassima. All sailors look like pirates, right?

A more amusing example of the company’s media naiveté is the saga of the King’s Quest VI theme song. Sierra head Ken Williams, who like many gaming executives of the period relished any and all linkages between games and movies, came up with the idea of including a pop song in the game that could become a hit on the radio, a “Glory of Love” or “I Will Always Love You” for his industry. Sierra’s in-house music man Mark Seibert duly delivered a hook-less dirge of a “love theme” with the distressingly literal title of “Girl in the Tower,” then hired an ersatz Michael Bolton and Celine Dion to over-emote it wildly. Then, Sierra proceeded to carpet-bomb the nation’s radio stations with CD singles of the song, whilst including an eight-page pamphlet in every copy of the game with the phone numbers for all of the major radio stations and a plea to call in and request it. Enough of Sierra’s loyal young fans did so that many a program director called Ken in turn to complain about his supremely artificial “grass-roots” marketing strategy. His song was terrible, they told him (correctly), and sometimes issued vague legal threats regarding obscure Federal Communications Commission laws he was supposedly violating. Finally, Ken agreed to pull the pamphlet from future King’s Quest VI boxes and accept that he wasn’t going to become a music as well as games impresario. Good Taste 1, Sierra 0. Rather hilariously, he was still grousing about the whole episode years later: “In my opinion, the radio stations were the criminals for ignoring their customers, something I believe no business should ever do. Oh, well… the song was great.”

The girl in the tower. Pray she doesn’t start singing…

While King’s Quest VI didn’t spawn a hit single, it did become a massive hit in its own right by the more modest sales standards of the computer-games industry. In fact, it became the first computer game in history to be certified gold by the Software Publishers Association — 100,000 copies sold — before it had even shipped, thanks to a huge number of pre-orders. Released in mid-October of 1992, it was by far the hottest game in the industry that Christmas, with Sierra struggling just to keep up with demand. Estimates of its total sales vary widely, but it seems likely that it sold 300,000 copies in all at a minimum, and quite possibly as many as 500,000 copies.

But for all its immediate success, King’s Quest VI was a mildly frustrating project for Sierra in at least one way. Everyone there agreed that this game, more so than any of the others they had made before, was crying out for CD-ROM, but too few consumers had CD-ROM drives in their computers in 1992 to make it worthwhile to ship the game first in that format. So, it initially shipped on nine floppy disks instead. Once decompressed onto a player’s hard drive, it filled over 17 MB — this at a time when 40 MB was still a fairly typical hard-disk size even on brand-new computers. Sierra recommended that players delete the 6 MB opening movie from their hard disks after watching it a few times just to free up some space. With stopgap solutions like this in play, there was a developing sense that something had to give, and soon. Peter Spears, author of an official guide to the entire King’s Quest series, summed up the situation thusly:

King’s Quest VI represents a fin de siecle, the end of an era. It is a game that should have been — needed to be — first published on CD-ROM. For all of its strengths and gloss, it is ill-served being played from a hard drive. If only because of its prominence in the world of computer entertainment, King’s Quest VI is proof that the era of CD playing is upon us.

Why? It is because imagination has no limits, and current hardware does. There are other games proving this point today, but King’s Quest has always been the benchmark. It is the end of one era, and when it is released on CD near the beginning of next year, it should be the beginning of another. Kill your hard drives!

Sierra had been evangelizing for CD-ROM for some time by this point, just as they earlier had for the graphics cards and sound cards that had transformed MS-DOS computers from dull things suitable only for running boring business applications into the only game-playing computers that really mattered in the United States. But, as with those earlier technologies, consumer uptake of CD-ROM had been slower than Sierra, chomping at the bit to use it, would have liked.

Thankfully, then, 1993 was the year when CD-ROM, a technology which had been around for almost a decade by that point, finally broke through; this was the year when the hardware became cheap enough and the selection of software compelling enough to power a new wave of multimedia excitement which swept across the world of computing. As with those graphics cards and sound cards earlier on, Sierra’s relentless prodding doubtless played a significant role in this newfound consumer acceptance of CD-ROM. And not least among the prods was the CD-ROM version of King’s Quest VI, which boasted lusher graphics in many places and voices replacing text absolutely everywhere. The voice acting marked a welcome improvement over the talkie version of King’s Quest V, the only previous game in the series to get a release on CD-ROM. The fifth game had apparently been voiced by whoever happened to be hanging around the office that day, with results that were almost unlistenably atrocious. King’s Quest VI, on the other hand, got a professional cast, headed by Robby Benson, who had just played the Beast in the hit Disney cartoon of Beauty and the Beast, in the role of Prince Alexander, the protagonist. Although Sierra could all too often still seem like babes in the woods when it came to media aesthetics, they were slowly learning on at least some fronts.

In the meantime, they could look to the bottom line of CD-ROM uptake with satisfaction. They shipped just 13 percent of their products on CD-ROM in 1992; in 1993, that number rose to 36 percent. Already by the end of that year, they had initiated their first projects that were earmarked only for CD-ROM. The dam had burst; the floppy disk was soon to be a thing of the past as a delivery medium for games.

This ought to have been a moment of unabashed triumph for Sierra in more ways than one. Back in the mid-1980s, when the company had come within a whisker of being pulled under by the Great Home Computer Crash, Ken Williams had decided, against the conventional wisdom of the time, that the long-term future of consumer computing lay with the operating systems of Microsoft and the open hardware architecture inadvertently spawned by the original IBM PC. He’d stuck to his guns ever since; while Sierra did release some of their games for other computer platforms, they were always afterthoughts, mere ways to earn a little extra money while waiting for the real future to arrive. And now that future had indeed arrived; Ken Williams had been proved right. The monochrome cargo vans of 1985 had improbably become the multimedia sports cars of 1993, all whilst sticking to the same basic software and hardware architecture.

And yet Ken was feeling more doubtful than triumphant. While he remained convinced that CDs were the future of game delivery, he was no longer so convinced that MS-DOS was the only platform that mattered. On the contrary, he was deeply concerned by the fact that, while MS-DOS-based computers had evolved enormously in terms of graphics and sound and sheer processing power, they remained as cryptically hard to use as ever. Just installing and configuring one of his company’s latest games required considerable technical skill. His ambition, as he told anyone who would listen, was to build Sierra into a major purveyor of mainstream entertainment. Could he really do that on MS-DOS? Yes, Microsoft Windows was out there as well — in fact, it was exploding in popularity, to the point that it was already becoming hard to find productivity software that wasn’t Windows-based. But Windows had its own fair share of quirks, and wasn’t really designed for running high-performance games under any circumstances.

Even as MS-DOS and Windows thus struggled with issues of affordability, approachability, and user-friendliness in the context of games, new CD-based alternatives to traditional computers were appearing almost by the month. NEC and Sega were selling CD drives as add-ons for their TurboGrafx-16 and Genesis game consoles; Philips had something called CD-i; Commodore had CDTV; Trip Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts, had split away from his old company to found 3DO; even Tandy was pushing a free-standing CD-based platform called the VIS. All of these products were designed to be easy for ordinary consumers to operate in all the ways a personal computer wasn’t, and they were all designed to fit into the living room rather than the back office. In short, they looked and operated like mainstream consumer electronics, while personal computers most definitely still did not.

But even if one assumed that platforms like these were the future of consumer multimedia, as Ken Williams was sorely tempted to do, which one or two would win out to become the standard? The situation was oddly similar to that which had faced software makers like Sierra back in the early 1980s, when the personal-computer marketplace had been fragmented into more than a dozen incompatible platforms. Yet the comparison only went so far: development costs for the multimedia software of the early 1990s were vastly higher, and so the stakes were that much higher as well.

Nevertheless, Ken Williams decided that the only surefire survival strategy for Sierra was to become a presence on most if not all of the new platforms. Just as MS-DOS had finally, undeniably won the day in the field of personal computers, Sierra would ironically abandon their strict allegiance to computers in general. Instead, they would now pledge their fealty to CDs in the abstract. For Ken had grander ambitions than just being a major player on the biggest computing platform; he wanted to be a major player in entertainment, full stop. “Sierra is an entertainment company, not a software company,” he said over and over.

So, at no inconsiderable expense, Ken instituted projects to port the SCI engine that ran Sierra’s adventure games to most of the other extant platforms that used CDs as their delivery medium. In doing so, however, he once again ran into a problem that Sierra and other game developers of the early 1980s, struggling to port their wares to the many incompatible platforms of that period, had become all too familiar with: the fact that every platform had such different strengths and weaknesses in terms of interface, graphics, sound, memory, and processing potential. Just because a platform of the early 1990s could accept software distributed on CD didn’t mean it could satisfactorily run all of the same games as an up-to-date personal computer with a CD-ROM drive installed. Corey Cole, who along with his wife Lori Ann Cole made up Sierra’s most competent pair of game designers at the time, but who was nevertheless pulled away from his design role to program a port of the SCI engine to the Sega Genesis with CD drive:

The Genesis CD system was essentially identical to the Genesis except for the addition of the CD. It had inadequate memory for huge games such as the ones Sierra made, and it could only display 64 colors at a time from a 512 color palette. Sierra games at the time used 256 colors at a time from a 262,144 color palette. So the trick became how to make Sierra games look good in a much smaller color space.

Genesis CD did supply some tricks that could be used to fake an expanded color space, and I set out to use those. The problem was that the techniques I used required a lot of memory, and the memory space on the Genesis was much smaller than we expected on PCs at the time. One of the first things I did was to put a memory check in the main SCI processing loop that would warn me if we came close to running out of memory. I knew it would be close.

Sierra assigned a programmer from the Dynamix division to work with me. He had helped convert Willy Beamish to the Genesis CD, so he understood the system requirements well. However, he unintentionally sabotaged the project. In his early tests, my low-memory warning kicked in, so he disabled it. Six months later, struggling with all kinds of random problems (the hard-to-impossible kind to fix), I discovered that the memory check was disabled. When I turned it back on, I learned that the random bugs were all caused by insufficient memory. Basically, Sierra games were too big to fit on the Genesis CD, and there was very little we could do to shoehorn them in. With the project now behind schedule, and the only apparent solution being a complete rewrite of SCI to use a smaller memory footprint, Sierra management cancelled the project.

While Corey Cole spun his wheels in this fashion, Lori Ann Cole was forced to design most of Quest for Glory III alone, at significant cost to this latest iteration in what had been Sierra’s most creative and compelling adventure series up to that point.

The push to move their games to consoles also cost Sierra in the more literal sense of dollars and cents, and in the end they got absolutely no return for their investment. Some of the porting projects, like the one on which Corey worked, were abandoned when the target hardware proved itself not up to the task of running games designed for cutting-edge personal computers. Others were rendered moot when the entire would-be consumer-electronics category of multimedia set-top boxes for the living room — a category that included CD-i, CDTV, 3DO, and VIS — flopped one and all. (Radio Shack employees joked that the VIS acronym stood for “Virtually Impossible to Sell.”) In the end, King’s Quest VI never came out in any versions except those for personal computers. Ken Williams’s dream of conquering the living room, like that of conquering the radio waves, would never come to fruition.

The money Sierra wasted on the fruitless porting projects were far from the only financial challenge they faced at the dawn of the CD era in gaming. For all that everyone at the company had chafed against the restrictions of floppy disks, those same restrictions had, by capping the amount of audiovisual assets one could practically include in a game, acted as a restraint on escalating development budgets. With CD-ROM, all bets were off in terms of how big a game could become. Sierra felt themselves to be in a zero-sum competition with the rest of their industry to deliver ever more impressive, ever more “cinematic” games that utilized the new storage medium to its full potential. The problem, of course, was that such games cost vastly more money to make.

It was a classic chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. Ken Williams was convinced that games had the potential to appeal to a broader demographic and thus sell in far greater numbers than ever before in this new age of CD-ROM. Yet to reach that market he first had to pay for the development of these stunning new games. Therein lay the rub. If this year’s games cost less to make but also come with a much lower sales cap than next year’s games, the old financial model — that of using the revenue generated by this year’s games to pay for next year’s — doesn’t work anymore. Yet to scale back one’s ambitions for next year’s games means to potentially miss out on the greatest gold rush in the history of computer gaming to date.

As if these pressures weren’t enough, Sierra was also facing the slow withering of what used to be another stable source of revenue: their back catalog. In 1991, titles released during earlier years accounted for fully 60 percent of their sales; in 1992, that number shrank to 48 percent, and would only keep falling from there. In this new multimedia age, driven by audiovisuals above all else, games that were more than a year or two old looked ancient. People weren’t buying them, and stores weren’t interested in stocking them. (Another chicken-or-the-egg situation…) This forced a strike-while-the-iron-is-hot mentality toward development, increasing that much more the perceived need to make every game look and sound spectacular, while also instilling a countervailing need to release it quickly, before it started to look outdated. Sierra had long been in the habit of amortizing their development costs for tax and other accounting purposes: i.e., mortgaging the cost of making each game against its future revenue. Now, as the size of these mortgages soared, this practice created still more pressure to release each game in the quarter to which the accountants had earmarked it. None of this was particularly conducive to the creation of good, satisfying games.

At first blush, one might be tempted to regard what came next as just more examples of the same types of problems that had always dogged Sierra’s output. Ken Williams had long failed to instill the culture and processes that consistently lead to good design, which had left well-designed games as the exception rather than the rule even during the company’s earlier history. Now, though, things reached a new nadir, as Sierra began to ship games that were not just poorly designed but blatantly unfinished. Undoubtedly the most heartbreaking victim of these pressures was Quest for Glory IV, Corey and Lori Ann Cole’s would-be magnum opus, which shipped on December 31, 1993 — the last day of the fiscal quarter to which it had been earmarked — in a truly woeful condition, so broken it wasn’t even possible to complete it. Another sorry example was Outpost, a sort of SimCity in space that was rendered unplayable by bugs. And an even worse one was Alien Legacy, an ambitious attempt to combine strategy with adventure gaming in a manner reminiscent of Cryo Interactive’s surprisingly effective adaptation of Dune. We’ll never know how well Sierra’s take on the concept would have worked because, once again, it shipped unfinished and essentially unplayable.

Each of these games had had real potential if they had only been allowed to realize it. One certainly didn’t need to be an expert in marketing or anything else to see how profoundly unwise it was in the long run to release them in such a state. While each of them met an arbitrary accounting deadline, thus presumably preventing some red ink in one quarter, Sierra sacrificed long-term profits on the altar of this short-term expediency: word quickly got around among gamers that the products were broken, and even many of those who were unfortunate enough to buy them before they got the word wound up returning them. That Sierra ignored such obvious considerations and shoved the games out the door anyway speaks to the pressures that come to bear as soon as a company goes public, as Sierra had done in 1988. Additionally, and perhaps more ominously, it speaks to an increasing disconnect between management and the people making the actual products.

Through it all, Ken Williams, who seemed almost frantic not to miss out on what he regarded as the inflection point for consumer software, was looking to expand his empire, looking to make Sierra known for much more than adventure games. In fact, he had already begun that process in early 1990, when Sierra acquired Dynamix, a development house notable for their 3D-graphics technology, for $1 million in cash and some stock shenanigans. That gambit had paid off handsomely; Dynamix’s World War II flight simulator Aces of the Pacific became Sierra’s second biggest hit of 1992, trailing only the King’s Quest VI juggernaut whilst — and this was important to Ken — appealing to a whole different demographic from their adventure games. In addition to their flight simulators, Dynamix also spawned a range of other demographically diverse hits over this period, from The Incredible Machine to Front Page Sports: Football.

With a success story like that in his back pocket, it was time for Ken to go shopping again. In July of 1992, Sierra acquired Bright Star Technology, a Bellevue, Washington-based specialist in educational software, for $1 million. Ken was convinced that educational software, a market that had grown only in fits and starts during earlier years, would become massive during the multimedia age, and he was greatly enamored with Bright Star’s founder, a real bright spark himself named Elon Gasper. “He thinks, therefore he is paid,” was Ken’s description of Gasper’s new role inside the growing Sierra. Bright Star also came complete with some innovative technology they had developed for syncing recorded voices to the mouths of onscreen characters — perhaps not the first problem one thinks of when contemplating a CD-ROM-based talkie of an adventure game, but one which quickly presents itself when the actual work begins. King’s Quest VI became the first Sierra game to make use of it; it was followed by many others.

Meanwhile Bright Star themselves would deliver a steady stream of slick, educator-approved learning software over the years to come. Less fortunately, the acquisition did lead to the sad demise of Sierra’a in-house “Discovery Series” of educational products, which had actually yielded some of their best designed and most creative games of any stripe during the very early 1990s. Now, the new acquisition would take over responsibility for a “second, more refined generation of educational products,” as Sierra’s annual report put it. But in addition to being more refined — more rigorously compliant with established school curricula and the latest pedagogical theories — they would also be just a little bit boring in contrast to the likes of The Castle of Dr. Brain. Such is the price of progress.

Sierra’s third major acquisition of the 1990s was more complicated, more expensive, and more debatable than the first two had been. On October 29, 1993, they bought the French developer and publisher Coktel Vision for $4.6 million. Coktel had been around since 1985, unleashing upon European gamers such indelibly (stereotypically?) French creations as Emmanuelle: A Game of Eroticism, based on a popular series of erotic novels and films. But by the early 1990s, Coktel was doing the lion’s share of their business in educational software. In 1992, estimates were that 50 to 75 percent of the software found in French schools came from Coktel. The character known as Adi, the star of their educational line, is remembered to this day by a whole generation of French schoolchildren.

Sierra had cut a deal more than a year before the acquisition to begin distributing Coktel’s games in the United States, and had made a substantial Stateside success out of Gobliiins, a vaguely Lemmings-like puzzle game. That proof of concept, combined with Coktel’s educational line and distributional clout in Europe — Ken was eager to enter that sprawling market, where Sierra heretofore hadn’t had much of a footprint — convinced the founder to pull the trigger.

But this move would never quite pan out as he had hoped. Although the text and voices were duly translated, the cultural idiom of Adi just didn’t seem to make sense to American children. Meanwhile Coktel’s games, which mashed together disparate genres like adventure and simulation with the same eagerness with which they mashed together disparate presentation technologies like full-motion video and 3D graphics, encountered all the commercial challenges that French designs typically ran into in the United States. Certainly few Americans knew what to make of a game like Inca; it took place in the far future of an alternate history where the ancient Incan civilization had survived, conquered, and taken to the stars, where they continued to battle, Wing Commander-style, with interstellar Spanish galleons. (The phrase “what were they smoking?” unavoidably comes to mind…) Today, the games of Coktel are remembered by American players, if they’re remembered at all, mostly for the sheer bizarreness of premises like this one, married to puzzles that make the average King’s Quest game seem like a master class in good adventure design. Coktel’s European distribution network undoubtedly proved more useful to Sierra than the company’s actual games, but it’s doubtful whether even it was useful to the tune of $4.6 million.

Inca, one of the strangest games Sierra ever published — and not really in a good way.

Ken Williams was playing for keeps in a high-stakes game with all of these moves, as he continued to do as well with ImagiNation, a groundbreaking, genuinely visionary online service, oriented toward socializing and playing together, which stubbornly refused to turn a profit. All together, the latest moves constituted a major shift in strategy from the conservative, incrementalist approach that had marked his handling of Sierra since the company’s near-death experience of the mid-1980s. From 1987 — the year the recovering patient first managed to turn a profit again — through 1991, Sierra had sold more games and made more money each year. The first of those statements held true for 1992 as well, as sales increased from $43 million to within a whisker of $50 million. But profits fell off a cliff; Sierra lost almost $12.5 million that year alone. Sales increased impressively again in 1993, to $59.5 million. Yet, although the bottom line looked less ugly, it remained all too red thanks to all of the ongoing spending; the company lost another $4.5 million that year.

In short, Ken Williams was now mortgaging Sierra’s present against its future, in precisely the way he’d sworn he’d never do again during those dark days of 1984 and 1985. But he felt he had to make his play for the big time now or never; CD-ROM was a horse he just had to ride, hopefully all the way to the nerve center of Western pop culture. And so he did something else he’d sworn he would never do: he left Oakhurst, California. In September of 1993, Ken and Roberta and select members of Sierra’s management team moved to Bellevue, Washington, to set up a new “corporate headquarters” there; sales and marketing would gradually follow over the months to come. Ken had long been under pressure from his board to move to a major city, one where it would be easier to recruit a “first-rate management team” to lead Sierra into a bold new future. Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle that was close to Microsoft, Nintendo of America, and of course Sierra’s own new subsidiary of Bright Star, seemed as good a choice as any. Ken promised Sierra’s creative staff as well as their fans that nothing would really change: most of the games would still be made in the cozy confines of Oakhurst. And he spoke the truth —  at least in literal terms, at least for the time being.

Nevertheless, something had changed. The old dream of starting a software company in the woods, the one which had brought a much younger, much shaggier Ken and Roberta to Oakhurst in 1980, had in some very palpable sense run its course. Sierra had well and truly gone corporate; Ken and Roberta were back in the world they had so consciously elected to escape thirteen years before. Oh, well… the arrows of both revenue and profitability at Sierra were pointing in the right direction. One more year, Ken believed, and they ought to be in the black again, and in a stronger position in the marketplace than ever at that. Chalk the rest of it up as yet one more price of progress.

(Sources: the book Influential Game Designers: Jane Jensen by Anastasia Salter; Sierra’s newsletter InterAction of Spring 1992, Fall 1992, Winter 1992, June 1993, Summer 1993, Holiday 1993, Spring 1994, and Fall 1994; The One of April 1989; ACE of May 1989; Game Players PC Entertainment of Holiday 1992; Compute! of May 1993; Computer Gaming World of January 1992; press releases, annual reports, and other internal and external documents from the Sierra archive at the Strong Museum of Play. An online source was the Games Nostalgia article on King’s Quest VI. And my thanks go to Corey Cole, who took the time to answer some questions about this period of Sierra’s history from his perspective as a developer there.)

 

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