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Adventure-Game Rock Stars Live in Conference

On August 24, 1990, CompuServe hosted an online discussion on adventure-game design which included Ron Gilbert, Noah Falstein, Bob Bates, Steve Meretzky, Mike Berlyn, Dave Lebling, Roberta Williams, Al Lowe, Corey and Lori Ann Cole, and Guruka Singh Khalsa. This is, needless to say, an incredible gathering of adventuring star power. In fact, I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard of its like in any other (virtual) place. Bob Bates, who has become a great friend of this blog in many ways, found the conference transcript buried away on some remote corner of his hard drive, and was kind enough to share it with me so that I could share it with you today.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably recognize all of the names I’ve just listed, with the likely exception only of Khalsa. But, just to anchor this thing in time a bit better, let me take a moment to describe where each of them was and what he or she was working on that August.

Ron Gilbert and Noah Falstein were at Lucasfilm Games (which was soon to be renamed LucasArts). Gilbert had already created the classic Maniac Mansion a few years before, and was about to see published his most beloved creation of all, one that would have as great an impact among his fellow designers as it would among gamers in general: The Secret of Monkey Island. Falstein had created Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for Lucasfilm in 1989. Their publisher had also recently released Brian Moriarty’s Loom, whose radically simplified interface, short length, and relatively easy puzzles were prompting much contemporaneous debate.

Bob Bates, Steve Meretzky, Mike Berlyn, and Dave Lebling had all written multiple games for the now-defunct Infocom during the previous decade. Bates had recently co-founded Legend Entertainment, where he was working on his own game Timequest and preparing to publish Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls, Meretzky’s first post-Infocom game and Legend’s first game ever, in a matter of weeks. Berlyn had been kicking around the industry since leaving Infocom in 1985, creating perhaps most notably Tass Times in Tonetown for Interplay; he was just finishing up a science-fiction epic called Altered Destiny for Accolade, and would shortly thereafter embark on the Les Manley games, a pair of Leisure Suit Larry clones, for the same publisher. Lebling was at something of a loose end after the shuttering of Infocom the previous year, unsure whether he even wanted to remain in the games industry; he would eventually decide that the answer to that question was no, and would never design another game.

Roberta Williams, Al Lowe, Corey and Lori Ann Cole, and Guruka Singh Khalsa were all working at Sierra. Williams was in the latter stages of making her latest King’s Quest, the first to use 256-color VGA graphics and a point-and-click interface, and the first to be earmarked for CD-ROM as a “talkie.” Al Lowe was, as usual, hard at work on the latest Leisure Suit Larry game, which also utilized Sierra’s newer, prettier, parser-less engine. The Coles were just finishing up Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire, which would become the last Sierra game in 16-color EGA and the last with a parser.

Khalsa is the only non-designer here, and, as already noted, the only name here with which longtime readers are unlikely to be familiar. He was another of those unsung heroes to be found behind the scenes at so many developers. At Sierra, he played a role that can perhaps best be compared to that played by the similarly indispensable Jon Palace at Infocom. As the “producer” of Sierra’s adventure games, he made sure the designers had the support they needed, acted as a buffer between them and the more business-oriented people, and gently pushed his charges to make their games just a little bit better in various ways. In keeping with his unsung status, he answers only one question here.

We find all of our participants grappling with the many tensions that marked their field in 1990: the urgent need to attract new players in the face of escalating development budgets; the looming presence of CD-ROM and other disruptive new technologies just over the horizon; the fate of text in this emerging multimedia age; the frustration of not always being able to do truly innovative or meaningful work, thanks to a buying public that largely just seemed to want more of the same old fantasy and comedy. It’s intriguing to see how the individual designers respond to these issues here, just as it is to see how those responses took concrete form in the games themselves. By no means is the group of one mind; there’s a spirited back-and-forth on many questions.

I’ve cleaned up the transcript that follows for readability’s sake, editing out heaps of extraneous comments, correcting spelling and grammar, and rejiggering the flow a bit to make everything more coherent. I’ve also added a few footnotes to clarify things or to insert quick comments of my own. Mostly, though, I’ve managed resist the urge to pontificate on any of what’s said here. You all already know my opinions on many of the topics that are raised. Today, I’m going to let the designers speak for themselves. I hope you’ll find their discussion as interesting and enjoyable as I do.


 

Let’s plunge right into the questions. Before I start, I’d like to thank Eeyore, Flying Gerbil, Steve Horton, Tsunami, Hercules, Mr. Adventure, and Randy Snow for submitting questions… and I apologize for mangling their questions with my editing. And now — drum roll! — on to the first question!

Imagine ourselves five years down the road, with all the technological developments that implies: CD-ROMs, faster machines, etc. Describe what, for you, the “ideal” adventure will look like. How will it be different from current adventures?

Roberta Williams: I think that “five years down the road” is actually just a year or two away. Meaning that a year or two from now, adventure games are going to have a very slick, sophisticated, professional look, feel, and sound to them, and that that’s the way they’re going to stay for a while — standardization, if you will. I mean, how can you improve on realistic images that look like paintings or photographs? How can you improve on CD-quality voices and music? How can you improve on real movement caught with a movie camera, or drawn by a professional animator? That’s the kind of adventure game that the public is going to start seeing within a year or two. Once adventure games reach a certain level of sophistication in look and feel, standardization will set in, which will actually be a boon for all concerned, both buyers and developers alike. After that, the improvements will primarily be in the performance on a particular machine, but the look will stay essentially the same for a while.

Dave Lebling: But if those wonderful pictures and hi-fi sound are driven by a clunky parser or a mythical “parser-less interface,” is this a big improvement? I think not. We can spend $2 million or $5 million developing a prettier version of Colossal Cave. Let’s improve the story and the interface! That doesn’t have to mean text adventures, but there’s more to adventure games than pictures.

Steve Meretzky: I think that in the future the scope of games won’t be limited by hardware but by the marketplace. Unless the market for adventure games expands, it won’t be economical to create super-large environments, even though the hardware is there to support them.

Mike Berlyn: Well, I think that technology can create products which drive the market and create end users — people who need or want to experience something they could experience only on a computer. In the future, I would like to explore “plot” as a structure, something which is currently impossible due to the state of the current technology. Plot cannot be a variable until storage increases and engines get smarter. I can easily see a plot that becomes a network of possibilities.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We hope as well that the improvements will be in story and design as well as flash: richer stories, more realistic character interaction, etc. Technology, beyond a certain point which we’ve already reached, really isn’t a big deal. Creativity, and an understanding of the differences between “interactive movies” and games is! The move to professional writers and game designers in the industry is helping.

Ron Gilbert: I think that plot has nothing to do with technology. They are almost unrelated. It’s not CD-ROM or VGA that is going to make the difference, it’s learning how to tell a story. Anyone who is any good can tell a great story in 160 X 200-resolution, 4-color graphics on two disks.

Roberta Williams: It’s not that I don’t think a good plot is important! Obviously it is.

Dave Lebling: I didn’t mean to accuse you of not caring about plot. You of all people know about that! I just think the emphasis on flash is a symptom of the fact that we know how to do flash. Just give us a bigger machine or CD-ROM, and, wham, flash! What we don’t know how to do is plot. I don’t think today’s plots feel more “real” than those of five or eight years ago. Will they be better in five years? I hope so, but I’m not sure. We can’t just blindly duplicate other media without concentrating on the interactivity and control that make ours special. If we work on improving control and the illusion that what we interact with is as rich as reality, then we can do something that none of those other media can touch.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We have never really used the computer as a medium in own right.

Steve Meretzky: You haven’t used it to contact the spirit world?1

Corey and Lorin Ann Cole: There are things that can be done on a computer that can’t be done with other mediums. Unfortunately, the trend seems to be away from the computer and towards scanned images and traditional film and animation techniques.2 If this trend continues, it may be a long time before we truly discover what can be done uniquely with the computer medium. One small example: the much-chastised saved game is a wonderful time- and mind-travel technique that can be a rich tool instead of an unfortunate necessity.

Bob Bates: I agree. You can’t ask a painter at the Art Institute of Chicago to paint you a different scene. You can’t ask a singer at the Met to sing you a different song. (Well, I guess you could, but they frown on requests.) The essence of a computer game is that the player controls the action. The point is to make beautiful music and art that helps the player’s sense of involvement in the game.

I have noticed that a lot of games coming out now are in 256 colors. Does this mean that 256-color VGA is going to be the standard? Has anyone thought about 256 colors in 640 X 480 yet? And how does anyone know who has what?

Bob Bates: The market research on who has what is abominable. As for us, we are releasing our titles with hi-res EGA, which gives us really good graphics on a relatively popular standard, as well as very nice text letters instead of the big clunky ones.

Steve Meretzky: I often get big clunky letters from my Aunt Matilda.

Guruka Singh Khalsa: We’ve been doing a bit of research on who has what hardware, and an amazing number of Sierra customers have VGA cards. Looks like around 60 percent right now. As for 640 X 480 in 256 colors: there’s no hardware standard for that resolution since it’s not an official VGA mode. You won’t see games in that resolution until the engines are more powerful — got to shove them pixels around! — and until it’s an official mode. All SVGA cards use somewhat different calls.

Dave Lebling: The emerging commercial standard is a 386 with VGA and 2 to 4 megs of memory, with a 40-meg hard drive. The home standard tends to lag the commercial one by a few years. But expect this soon, with Windows as the interface.

Does anyone have any plans to develop strictly for or take advantage of the Windows environment?

Dave Lebling: Windows is on the leading edge of the commercial-adoption wave. The newest Windows is the first one that’s really usable to write serious software. There are about 1 million copies of Windows out there. No one is going to put big bucks into it yet. But in a few years, yes, because porting will be easier, and there is a GUI already built, virtual memory, etc., etc. But not now.

With the coming parser-less interfaces and digitized sound, it seems as if text may eventually disappear completely from adventures. Once, of course, adventures were all text. What was gained and what was lost by this shift? Are adventures still a more “literate” form of computer game?

Bob Bates: Well, of course text has become a dirty word of sorts in the business. But I think the problem has always been the barrier the keyboard presents as an input device for those who can’t type. Plus the problems an inadequate or uncaring game designer can create for the player when he doesn’t consider alternate inputs as solutions to puzzles. I think there will always be words coming across the screen from the game. We hope we have solved this with our new interface, but it’s hard for people to judge that since our first game won’t be out for another month…

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Text will not disappear. Nor should it. We will see text games, parser-less games, and non-text games. And who cares about being “literate”; fun is what matters! I like words. Lori likes words. But words are no longer enough if one also likes to eat — and we do. We also like graphics and music and those other fun things too, so it’s not too big a loss.

Roberta Williams: It’s true that in books stories can be more developed, involving, and interesting than in movies. I believe that there is still room for interactive books. Hopefully there is a company out there who will forget about all the “video” stuff and just concentrate on good interactive stories in text, and, as such, will have more developed stories than the graphic adventure games. But as we progress adventure games in general are going to become more like interactive movies. The movie industry is a larger and more lucrative business than the book industry. For the most part, the adventure-game business will go along with that trend. Currently adventure games are the most literate of computer games, but that may change as more and more text will be lost in the coming years, to be replaced by speech, sound effects, and animation. But I do predict that some company out there will see a huge opportunity in bringing back well-written, high-quality interactive books. It will be for a smaller audience, but still well worth the effort.

Dave Lebling: I think you’re too  optimistic about “some company” putting out text products. We are moving from interactive books to interactive movies. I’m not optimistic about the commercial survival of text except in very small doses.3 Unlike in science fiction, you don’t have to follow a trend until it goes asymptotic. Text won’t go away, but its role will be reduced in commercial adventures. Graphics and sound are here to stay.

Al Lowe: With the coming of talkies, it seems as if all those wonderful dialog cards disappeared! You know, the ones that make silent movies so literate? It’s a visual medium! No one asks for silent movies; most Americans won’t even watch a black-and-white movie. Yes, text-only games are more “literate.” So?

Mike Berlyn: As far as the future of text is concerned, my money is on it sticking around. But I’m not sure it’s at all necessary in these kinds of games. The adventure I’m just finishing up has a little bit of text that reiterates what is obvious on the screen, and manages to add to the player’s inputs in other ways to a create fuller experience. But I still don’t think it’s necessary. I’ve done two completely text-less designs, though neither made it to the market.

Bob Bates: I don’t think it’s the loss of text as output that creates a problem for the designer; I think it’s text as input. It’s hard to design tough puzzles that can be solved just by pointing and clicking at things. And if there are no puzzles — tough puzzles — you’re just watching a movie on a very small screen. The days of the text-only adventure are over. Graphics are here to stay, and that’s not a bad thing, as long as they supplement the story instead of trying to replace it.

We’ve seen fantasy adventures, science-fiction adventures, mystery adventures, humorous adventures. Are there any new settings or themes for adventures? Is there any subject or theme that you’ve always wanted to put in an adventure but never had the chance?

Al Lowe: I’ve had ideas for a Wall Street setting for a game, but somehow I can’t get out of this Larry rut. I’d also like to do a very serious game — something without one cheap laugh, just to see if I could. Probably couldn’t, though. A serious romance would be good too.

Roberta Williams: There should be as many settings or themes for adventure games as there are for fictionalized books and movies. After all, an adventure game is really just an interactive story with puzzles and exploration woven into it. There are many themes that I personally would like to do, and hopefully will someday: an historical or series of historical adventure games; a horror game; an archaeological game of some sort; possibly a western. In between King’s Quests, of course.

Noah Falstein: I’ve always wanted to do a time-travel game with the following features: no manual save or load, it’s built automatically into the story line as a function of your time-travel device; the opportunity to play through a sequence with yourself in a later — and then earlier — time; and the ability to go back and change your changes, ad infinitum. Of course, the reason I’m mentioning all this is that I — and others here — have fried our brains trying to figure out how this could be accomplished. We’d rather see someone else do it right. Or die trying.

Ad infinitum? Won’t that take a lot of memory?

Noah Falstein: Recursion!

Dave Lebling: Gosh, my fantasy is your fantasy! I’ve always wanted to do a game based on Fritz Leiber’s Change War stories — you know, “tomorrow we go back and nuke ancient Rome!” Funny thing is, I’ve always run up against the same problem you ran up against.

Mike Berlyn: My fantasy is to finish a game that my wife Muffy and I were working on for the — sniff! — dead Infocom. It was a reality-based game that had a main character going through multiple/parallel lives, meeting people he’d met before but who were different this time through. In that way, the relationships would be different, the plot would be different, and their lives would interact differently.

Steve Meretzky: In my fantasy, I answer the door and Goldie Hawn is standing there wearing… oh, we’re talking adventure games now, aren’t we? A lot of the genres I was going to mention have already been mentioned. But one is historical interactive nonfiction. I know that Stu Galley has always wanted to do a game in which you play Paul Revere in April of 1775. And before I die I’m going to do a Titanic game.4 Also, in my ongoing effort to offend every man, woman, and child in the universe, someday I’d like to write an Interactive Bible, which would be an irreverent comedy, of course. Also, I’d like to see a collection of “short story” adventure games for all those ideas which aren’t big enough to be a whole game.5

Bible Quest: So You Want to Be a God?. I like it, I like it.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Ah, but someone will sue over the trademark…6

Bob Bates: The problem of course is marketing. The kinds of games we want to write aren’t always the kinds of games that will sell. This presents something of a quandary for those of us who like to eat.

This question was submitted by Tsunami, and I’ll let him ask in his own words: “Virtually every game I have played on my computer is at least partially tongue-in-cheek. What I am interested in is games with mature themes, or at least a more mature approach to their subjects. Games that, like good movies or plays, really scare a player, really make them feel a tragedy, or even make them angry. What are each of you doing to try to push games to this next level of human interaction?”

Steve Meretzky: Well, I think I already did that with A Mind Forever Voyaging, and it did worse commercially speaking than any other game I’ve ever done. As Bob just said, we have to eat. I’d much rather write a Mind Forever Voyaging than a Leather Goddesses of Phobos, but unless I become independently wealthy, or unless some rich benefactor wants to underwrite such projects, or unless the marketplace changes a lot, I don’t think I’ll be doing a game like A Mind Forever Voyaging in the near future. Sigh.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Computers are so stupid that even the smartest game tends to do silly things. So, it’s easier to write a silly game. And the development process on a humorous game tends to be more fun. Quest for Glory II: Trial By Fire is fundamentally a very serious game in terms of story line, but we kept lots of silly stuff in to break up the tension. I call it the “roller-coaster effect.” We want the player to get extremely intense about the game at points, but then have a chance to catch his or her breath with comic relief and plain fun.

Bob Bates: My games are usually fairly “mature,” but when 90 percent of what a player tries to do in a game is wrong, you have to keep him interested when he is not solving a puzzle. The easiest way to do this is with humor; you don’t want him mad at you, after all. But I agree that we all should strive to create emotions in the player like what we all felt when Floyd died in Planetfall.

Roberta Williams: I agree with the sentiment that most adventure games, at least up to now, have been not quite “serious” in their approach to the subject matter at hand. I think the reason for that, for the most part, is that professional writers or storytellers have not had their hands in the design of a game. It’s been mostly programmers who have been behind them. I’m not a professional writer either, but I’m trying to improve myself in that area. With The Colonel’s Bequest, I did attempt a new theme, a murder mystery, and tried to make it more mature in its subject matter — more “plot” oriented. I attempted to put in classic “scare” tactics and suspense. I tried to put in different levels of emotion, from repulsion to sadness to hilarity. Whether I accomplished those goals is up to the player experiencing the game. At least I tried!

Noah Falstein: I venture to predict that we all intend to push games this way, or want to but can’t afford it — or can’t convince a publisher to afford it. But I’ll toot the Lucasfilm horn a bit; imagine the Star Wars fanfare here. One way we’re trying to incorporate real stories into games is to use real storytellers. Next year, we have a game coming out by Hal Barwood, who’s been a successful screenwriter, director, and producer for years. His most well-known movies probably are the un-credited work he did on Close Encounters and Dragonslayer, which he co-wrote and produced. He’s also programmed his own Apple II games in 6502 assembly in his spare time. I’ve already learned a great deal about pacing, tension, character, and other “basic” techniques that come naturally — or seem to — to him. I highly recommend such collaborations to you all. I think we’ve got a game with a new level of story on the way.7

Mike Berlyn: I disagree with the idea that hiring professional storytellers from other media will solve our problems for us. Creating emotions is the goal here, if I understood the question. It isn’t whether we write humor or horror, it’s how well we do it. This poses a serious problem. Interactivity is the opposite of the thing that most… well, all storytellers, regardless of medium, require to create emotion. Emotion is created by manipulation. And it is impossible to manipulate emotions when you don’t know where the player has been and you don’t know where the player is going. In linear fiction, where you know what the “player” has just experienced; you can deliberately and continuously set them up. This is the essence of drama, humor, horror, etc. Doing this in games requires a whole different approach. Utilizing an experienced linear writer only tends to make games less game-ish, less interactive, and more linear. In a linear game like Loom, you’re not providing an interactive story or an adventure game. All you’re doing is making the player work to see a movie.

Dave Lebling: Well, emotion also comes from identification with the character in the story. You can’t easily identify in a serious way with a character who looks like a 16 X 16-pixel sprite.8 If he or she is silly-looking, he or she isn’t much more silly-looking than if he’s serious-looking: for example, Larry Laffer versus Indy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. So, you are at a disadvantage being serious in graphical games. Better graphics will improve that eventually. But even so, I think Bob hit the point perfectly: the player does a lot of silly things, even if there is no parser — running into rocks in the graphic games, for example — and you can’t stay serious. The other thing is that, in my experience, serious games don’t sell. Infocom’s more serious games sold poorly. Few others have tried, and most of those have sold poorly too.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: A really good game — or story — elicits emotions rather than creating them. A good design opens up the player’s imagination instead of forcing them along a path. A frustrated player is too busy being angry at the computer to experience the wonder and mystery of his or her character and the game’s world. By having fair puzzles and “open” stories, we allow players to emote and imagine.

Okay, now we turn from software to hardware. One of the most striking developments over the last few years has been the growing use of MS-DOS machines for game development. This has led some Amiga and Mac owners to complain that there aren’t any good adventures out for their machines, or that the games that are out for those platforms don’t make good use of their full graphics and sound capabilities. How can this problem be solved?

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Well, I just about went broke trying to develop Atari ST software a few years ago. This was what made it possible to pull up roots and come to Sierra to do games. But I think the real value of all the alternative platforms has been to force IBM and the clone-makers to play catch-up. Myself, I’m waiting for ubiquitous CD-ROM and telecom. I’d really like to be doing multiplayer games in a few years. In the meantime, the cold hard reality is that IBM clones is where the money is — and money is a good thing.

Roberta Williams: Ha! We at Sierra, probably the most guilty of developing our games on MS-DOS machines, are trying to rectify that problem. This past year, we have put teams of programmers on the more important non-MS-DOS platforms to implement our new game-development system in the best way possible for those machines. Emphasis is on the unique capabilities of each machine, and to truly be of high quality on each of them. Our new Amiga games have been shipping for several months now, and have been favorably received — and our Mac games are nearly ready.

Dave Lebling: Get an installed base of 10 million Macs or Amigas and you’ll see plenty of games for them. Probably even fewer are needed, since programmers have the hots for those platforms. But in reality what you need is companies like Sierra that can leverage their development system to move to different platforms. As Windows and 386-based machines become the IBM standard, the differences among the platforms become less significant, and using an object-oriented development system lets you port relatively easily, just like in the old days. Graphics will still be a problem, as the transforms from one machine to another will still be a pain.

Al Lowe: Money talks. When Mac games outsell MS-DOS games, you’ll see Mac-designed games ported to PCs. When Amiga games are hot, etc. In other words, as long as MS-DOS sales are 80 percent or more of the market, who can afford to do otherwise?

Mike Berlyn: I think we all want our games on as many systems as possible, but in reality the publishers are the ones who make the decisions.

When you design a game, do you decide how hard it’s going to be first, or does the difficulty level just evolve?

Ron Gilbert: I know that I have a general idea of how hard I want the game to be. Almost every game I have done has ended up being a little longer and harder than I would have liked.

Noah Falstein: I agree. I’ve often put in puzzles that I thought were easy, only to find in play-testing that the public disagreed. But since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade I firmly believe that one good way to go is to put in multiple solutions to any puzzles that are showstoppers, and to make the remaining ones pretty easy. I think that’s the best for the players.

Dave Lebling: I think alternate solution are a red herring because you can’t make them radically different in difficulty or the easier one will always be found first.

Noah Falstein: But if you provide incentives to replay the game, you can make both beginners happy, who will find the easy alternative, and experienced gamers happy, who will want to find every solution…

Dave Lebling: Yes, but what percentage of people replay any game? What percentage even finish?

Steve Meretzky: Games that are intended for beginners — e.g., Wishbringer — are designed to be really easy, and games intended for veterans — e.g., Spellbreaker — are designed to be ball-busters. But since of course you end up getting both types for any game, my own theory is to start out with easy puzzles, have some medium-tough puzzles in the mid-game, and then wrap it up with the real whoppers. (Don’t ask me what the Babel-fish puzzle was doing right near the beginning of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

Roberta Williams: Usually the decision of how difficult the game is going to be is made about the time that the design actually begins. And that decision is based on who the main player of the game is going to be. In other words, if it’s an adventure game for children, then obviously the game will be easier. If it’s for families, the game will be harder than for children, but easier than a game strictly for adults. If it’s a game with adults in mind, then the difficulty level lies with the designer as he or she weaves the various puzzles into the plot of the story. I think even then, though, the decision of how difficult it’s going to be is made around the start of the design. Speaking personally, I usually have a good sense of which puzzles are going to be more difficult and which ones are easier to solve. There have been a few times when I miscalculated a puzzle. For instance, in King’s Quest II I thought the bridle-and-snake puzzle was fairly straightforward, but no, it wasn’t. And in The Colonel’s Bequest I didn’t think that discovering the secret passage in the house would be as difficult for some people as it turned out to be.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We try to keep the puzzles on the easy side in the sense of being fair; hints are somewhere in the game. But sometimes the best-laid plans of designers and developers go out the window when programming push-time comes, to mix several metaphors. But we definitely plan difficulty level in advance. The Quest for Glory series was intended to be somewhat on the easy side as adventure games go because we were introducing the concept of role-playing at the same time.

Dave Lebling: I think it’s relatively easy to make a game really hard or really easy. What’s tough is the middle-ground game. They tend to slop over to one extreme or the other, sometimes both in different puzzles, and you get a mishmash.

Mike Berlyn: I tend to design games that have various levels of difficulty within themselves, and so can appeal to a broad range of players. Like Steve, I like to open with an easy one and then mix up the middle game, saving the toughest stuff for the endgame.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We made a real effort to graduate the puzzles in Quest for Glory I, easier ones in the early phases.

Al Lowe: Does anyone else feel we should lighten up on our difficulty level so as to attract a broader audience and broaden our base of players?

Mike Berlyn: Making games easier isn’t going to attract more players. What will is designing and implementing them better.

Roberta Williams: Perhaps a parser-less interface would help. But I still think that each game should be thought out in advance as to who the target audience is, and then go from there on difficulty level.

Bob Bates: I agree that what is needed is not easier puzzles. I think that players want tough but fair puzzles. Where’s the rush that comes from solving an easy puzzle? What will keep them coming back for more?

Dave Lebling: One person’s easy puzzle is another’s never-solved brain-buster. There need to be a range of games and a range of puzzles in each game. Even Wishbringer, Infocom’s “easiest” game, had huge numbers of people stuck on the “easiest” puzzles.

Adventure designs have recently been criticized for becoming shorter and/or easier. Do you agree with this criticism, and, if so, how do you change a design to make a product longer and/or harder? And are harder games commercially viable?

Dave Lebling: Games are already too easy and not easy enough, and other paradoxes. Meaning that the intentional puzzles are getting too easy, and the unintentional ones — caused by size limitations, laziness, lousy parsers, bugs, etc. — are still too hard. Harder games are commercially viable, but only if the unintentional difficulty is reduced. We aren’t real good at that yet.

Roberta Williams: It may be true, to a certain extent, that adventure games have become shorter and/or easier than in the past. Four to ten years ago, adventure games were primarily text-oriented, and, as such, could be more extensive in scope, size, and complexity. Since the introduction of graphics, animation, and sound — and, coming up, speech — it is much more difficult, if not impossible, to achieve the same sort of scope that the earlier adventure games were able to accomplish. The reason for this is mainly limitations of memory, disk space, time, and cost. We adventure-game developers increasingly have to worry about cramming in beautiful graphics, realistic animation, wonderful sound, and absorbing plots, along with as many places to explore as possible, alternate paths or choices, and interesting puzzles. There is just so much space to put all that in. Something has to give. Even CD technology will not totally solve that problem. Though there is a very large disk capacity with CD, there is still a relatively small memory capacity. Also, the way the adventure-game program needs to be arranged on the CD creates problems. And as usual, with the new CD capabilities, we adventure-game developers are sure to create the most beautiful graphics you’ve ever seen, the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard, etc., etc. And that uses up disk space, even on CD.

Mike Berlyn: Shorter? Yeah, I suppose some of the newer games, whose names will remain untyped, are easier, shorter, etc. But unfortunately, they aren’t cheaper to make. I hate to tell you how much Altered Destiny is going to cost before it’s done. Accolade and myself have over ten man-years in this puppy, and a cast of many is creating it. When I created Oo-Topos or Cyborg or even Suspended, the time and money for development were a fraction of what this baby will cost. In addition, games like King’s Quest IV are larger, give more bang for the buck, and outshine many of the older games.

Steve Meretzky: A few years ago, I totally agreed with the statement that adventure games were getting too short and easy. Then I did Zork Zero, which was massive and ultimately quite hard. A good percentage of the feedback distilled down to “Too big!” It just took too long to play, and it was too hard to keep straight everything you had to do to win the game. Plus, of course, it was a major, major effort to design and implement and debug such a huge game. So, I’ve now come to the conclusion that a nice, average, 50-to-100-room, 20-to-30-hours-of-play-time, medium-level-of-difficulty game is just about right.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: There is plenty of room left for easier games, especially since most “hard” games are hard only because they are full of unfair outguess-the-designer — or programmer or parser — puzzles. Nobody wants to play a game and feel lost and frustrated. Most of us get enough of that in our daily lives! We want smaller, richer games rather than large, empty ones, and we want to see puzzles that further the story rather than ones that are just thrown in to make the game “hard.”

Al Lowe: I’ve been trying for years to make ’em longer and harder!

Groan…

Al Lowe: But seriously, I have mixed emotions. I work hard on these things, and I hate to think that most people will never see the last half of them because they give up in defeat. On the other hand, gamers want meaty puzzles, and you don’t want to disappoint your proven audience. I think many games will become easier and easier, if only to attract more people to the medium. Of course, hard games will always be needed too, to satisfy the hardcore addicts. Geez, what a cop-out answer!

Bob Bates: You have to give the player his money’s worth, and if you can just waltz through a game, then all you have is an exercise in typing or clicking. The problem is that the definition of who the player is is changing. In trying to reach a mass market, some companies are getting away from our puzzle roots. The quandary here is that this works. The big bucks are in the mass market, and those people don’t want tough puzzles. The designers who stay behind and cater to the puzzle market may well be painting themselves into a niche.

Noah Falstein: Al and Bob have eloquently given the lead-in I was intending. But I’d like to go farther and say that we’re all painting ourselves into a corner if we keep catering to the 500,000 or so people that are regular players — and, more importantly, buyers — of adventure games. It’s like the saber-toothed tiger growing over-specialized. There are over 15 million IBM PC owners out there, and most of them have already given up on us because the games are too… geeky. Sorry, folks! Without mentioning that game that’s looming over this discussion, we’ve found that by making a very easy game, we’ve gotten more vehement, angry letters than ever before — as well as more raves from people who never played or enjoyed such games before. It seems to be financially worthwhile even now, and if more of us cater to this novice crowd, with better stories instead of harder puzzles, there will be a snowball effect. I think this is worth working towards, and I hope some of you will put part of your efforts into this. There’s always still some room for the “standard-audience” games. Interestingly enough, 60 to 100 rooms and 20 to 30 hours is precisely the niche we arrived at too! But let’s put out at least one more accessible game each year.

Dave Lebling: Most of the points I wanted to make have been made, and made well, but I’d like to add one more. What about those 20 million or more Nintendo owners out there? What kinds of games will hook them, if any? Have they written us off? I don’t think our fraction of the IBM market is quite as small as Noah’s figures make it look. Many of those IBM machines are not usable for games by policy, as they are in corporate settings. But all of the Nintendos are in home settings. Sure, they don’t have keyboards, but if there was a demand for our sort of game — a “puzzle” game, for want of a better word — there would be a keyboard-like interface or attachment, like the silly gun or the power glove. There isn’t. Why? Are we too geeky? Are puzzles and even the modicum of text that is left too much? We will have the opportunity to find out when the new game systems with keyboards start appearing in the US.

What do you all think about the idea of labeling difficulty levels and/or estimated playing time on the box, like Infocom used to do at one time?

Steve Meretzky: That was a pretty big failure. As was said earlier about puzzles, one person’s easy is another person’s hard.

Al Lowe: Heh, heh…

Steve Meretzky: For example, I found Suspended to be pretty easy, having a mind nearly as warped as Berlyn’s, but many people consider it one of Infocom’s hardest.

Bob Bates: The other Infocommies here can probably be more accurate, but my recollection is that labeling a game “advanced” scared off people, and labeling a game “easy” or “beginner” turned off lots of people too. So most of the games wound up being released as “standard,” until they dropped the scheme altogether. Still, I think some sort of indication on a very easy game, like the ones Noah was talking about, is in order. The customer has a right to know what he is purchasing.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: But Loom was rated as an easy game, and people who were stumped on a puzzle felt like this meant they were dumb or something.

Mike Berlyn: Good point! I’m not sure that labeling a product as being easy, medium, or difficult is a real solution. I know some games which were labeled “beginner” level were too tough for me. What we as designers need to do is write better, fairer, more rounded games that don’t stop players from exploring, that don’t close off avenues. It isn’t easy, but it’s sure my goal, and I like to think that others share this goal.

Okay, this is the last question. What is your favorite adventure game and why?

Noah Falstein: This will sound like an ad, but our audience constitutes a mass market. Ron Gilbert’s next game, The Secret of Monkey Island, is the funniest and most enjoyable adventure game I’ve ever played, including the others our company has done. I’ve laughed out loud reading and rereading the best scenes.

Steve Meretzky: Based simply on the games I’ve had the most fun playing, it’s a tie between Starcross — the first ever adventure game in my genre of choice, science fiction — and the vastly ignored and underrated Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It.

Roberta Williams: I hate to say it, but I don’t play many adventure games, including our own! I really love adventure games, though. It was this love of adventure gaming that brought me into this business. However, nowadays I’m so busy, what with working on games of my own, helping my husband run the company, taking care of the kids and the house, and doing other extracurricular activities, that I literally don’t have time to play adventure games — and we all know how much time it does take to play them! Of the adventure games that I’ve played and/or seen, I like the games that Lucasfilm produces; I have a lot of respect for them. And I also enjoy the Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry series that my company, Sierra, produces. Of my own games, I always seem to favor the game I’m currently working on since I’m most attached to it at that given moment. Right now, that would be King’s Quest V. But aside from that, I am particularly proud of The Colonel’s Bequest since it was a departure for me, and very interesting and complicated to do. I am also proud of Mixed-Up Mother Goose, especially the new version coming out. And looking way back, I still have fond memories of Time Zone, for any of you who may remember that one.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Of adventure games, we liked the original mainframe Zork and Space Quest III. But our favorite games are Dungeon Master and Rogue, the only games we keep going back to replay. As for our favorite of all two games we’ve done, we’re particularly proud of what we are doing with Quest for Glory II: Trial By Fire. We’re also proud of the first game, but we think Trial by Fire is going to be really great. Okay, end of commercial, at least as soon as I say, “Buy our game!” But seriously, we’re pleased with what we’ve done with the design.

Bob Bates: “You are standing outside a white house. There is a mailbox here.”

Mike Berlyn: This is my least favorite question in the world. (Well, okay, I could think up some I’d like less.) But it’s a toss-up between A Mind Forever Voyaging, Starcross, and the soon-to-be-forgotten masterpiece, Scott Adams’s Pirate Adventure. Yoho.

Dave Lebling: Hitchhiker’s Guide and Trinity. Both well thought-out, with great themes. But beyond those, the original Adventure. I just played it a little bit last night, and I still get a thrill from it. We owe a lot to Will Crowther and Don Woods, and I think that’s an appropriate sentiment to close with.


  1. One of my favorite things about this transcript is the way that Steve Meretzky and Al Lowe keep making these stupid jokes, and everybody just keeps ignoring them. I fancy I can almost hear the sighs… 

  2. It’s worth noting that the trend the Coles describe as “unfortunate” was exactly the direction in which Sierra, their employer, was moving in very aggressive fashion. The Coles thus found themselves blowing against the political winds in designing their games their way. Perhaps not coincidentally, they were also designing the best games coming out of Sierra during this period. 

  3. This was not what many participating in the conference probably wanted to hear, but it wins the prize of being the most prescient single statement of the evening. Note that Lebling not only predicted the complete commercial demise of text adventures, but he also predicted that they would survive as a hobbyist endeavor; the emphasis on the word “commercial” is original. 

  4. Steve Meretzky’s perennial Titanic proposal, which he pitched to every publisher he ever worked with, became something of an industry in-joke. There’s just no market for such a game, insisted each of the various publishers. When James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic became the first ever to top $1 billion at the box office, and a modest little should-have-been-an-obscurity from another design team called Titanic: Adventure Out of Time rode those coattails to sales of 1 million copies, the accusations flew thick and fast from Meretzky’s quarter. But to no avail; he still hasn’t gotten to make his Titanic game. On the other hand, he’s nowhere near death, so there’s still time to fulfill his promise… 

  5. Meretzky had pitched both of these ideas as well to Infocom without success. In the longer term, however, he would get one of his wishes, at least after a fashion. “Short stories” have become the norm in modern interactive fiction, thanks largely to the Interactive Fiction Competition and its guideline that it should be possible to play an entrant to completion within two hours. 

  6. Legal threats from the makers of the board game HeroQuest had recently forced the Coles to change the name of their burgeoning series of adventure/CRPG hybrids from the perfect Hero’s Quest to the rather less perfect Quest for Glory. Obviously the fresh wound still smarted. 

  7. After some delays, the game Falstein is talking about here would be released in 1992 as Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. It would prove to be a very good adventure game, if not quite the medium-changer Falstein describes. 

  8. It’s interesting to see Lebling still using the rhetoric from Infocom’s iconic early advertising campaigns

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2018 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Dr. Brain

The line between entertainment and education at the Sierra of the early 1990s was much less clearly drawn among the design staff than it was in the company’s marketing materials. The exact same people who made the purely entertaining adventure games took up the task of making entries in Sierra’s new “Discovery Series” of educational games when that line made its debut in 1991.1 Discounting for obvious reasons only the early-education titles, the results of their efforts could be every bit as satisfying for adults as they were for children and adolescents. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that much of the very best work done at Sierra during this period was done for the Discovery Series. The fact that they were designing games for a theoretical audience of youngsters seemed to prompt some of the staff to show a bit more kindness and mercy, to think about issues of playability in ways they sometimes couldn’t be bothered to do when making their other games. It’s thus a real shame that the Discovery Series tends to be overlooked by even many of the most ardent Sierra fans of today, who shy away instinctively from the educational label which Sierra’s marketers placed upon it. More or less educational these games may very well be, but many or most of them are also a hell of a lot of fun, whether you happen to be young, old, or somewhere in-between.

The inception of the Discovery Series was marked by a meeting of all of Sierra’s creative staff, aimed at drumming up ideas for educational games. One of the sample ideas which Ken Williams himself presented there was for something he called Mathemagical Mansion, a game whose player would have to solve math problems to explore ever deeper into the house in question. Programmer and game designer Corey Cole, who had recently created the first two titles in the adventure-game series Quest for Glory alongside his wife Lori Ann Cole, left the meeting having already decided to take the idea and run with it. He planned to expand on Ken Williams’s base by adding the character of a “Dr. Brain,” whom the player would need to impress in order to get a job working in his research laboratory. And he also planned to broaden the base of puzzle topics to include science, technology, and even a dash of culture to go along with the math problems. In additions to the merits of the original idea itself, practical and even political considerations prompted him to go this way. He knew that no new Quest for Glory game was in the cards for 1991, and he knew that, should his proposal not be accepted, he’d likely finding himself working as a programmer on one of the educational proposals that had been. And, most importantly, he knew that Ken Williams would have a natural affinity for a proposal based on his own germ of an idea. His political calculus proved correct; after he showed a prototype demonstrating the basic interface and a few puzzles, Castle of Dr. Brain got the green light. His wife Lori, meanwhile, was similarly politically clever in proposing the early-education game Mixed-Up Fairy Tales, a pseudo-sequel to Roberta Williams’s Mixed-Up Mother Goose, and was also rewarded with a gig as lead designer on her own Discovery Series project.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole didn’t need to up their design standards for their latest projects in the way that some of their colleagues would for other Discovery Series titles; the two Quest for Glory games they had already made were, in this reviewer’s opinion anyway, the absolute best adventures to come out of Sierra to this point. So, they only needed to continue to hew to the high standard they had already set.

Nevertheless, Castle of Dr. Brain represented a leap into unexplored territory in more ways than one for Corey. Lori had taken the lead on many aspects of the Quest for Glory games. The overall arc of the planned four-game series, drawn up before any implementation began on the first game, had been largely her vision, as had been much of the detail of plot and character within the two games that had been produced to date. While Lori had thus played the “artistic” role, Corey had been the puzzle guy, nailing down the details of what the player had to do and where she had to do it. But now, for the first time, he wouldn’t have Lori’s talents to lean on; Castle of Dr. Brain was all his baby. He comforted himself with the knowledge that it was to be at bottom just a big box of puzzles — and if there was one thing he felt he knew, it was puzzles. His attitude toward the project thus gradually moved from trepidation to exhilaration. By the time the game was finished, he would finally feel, as he put it to me many years later, “like a real game designer.”

Which isn’t to say that Castle of Dr. Brain was an easy game to make. The label on the box says that it’s designed for children aged twelve and up, implying that some sort of rigorous pedagogic methodology had gone into that formulation. In later years, certainly, any software from a major publisher daring to bill itself as “educational” would likely be approved if not designed by genuine educators, by people familiar with current age-appropriate curricula and theories of learning and all the rest. But Sierra back in those days just winged it. “While they aren’t intended to be hardcore educational products,” explained the brand manager for the Discovery Series, “they’re more than just games. They have legitimate academic content” — whatever “legitimate academic content” meant. Corey talked to exactly no education professionals in the course of making his educational game, unless you count his wife, who had worked as a schoolteacher years ago. Subject matter as well as pedagogic technique were left entirely up to him. He had promised Ken Williams a game that would have some math in it along with lots of other vaguely defined “educational” things. He got to decide what those things would be for himself.

Instead of some mythical stereotype of late childhood found only inside pedagogic textbooks, Corey aimed his game at the twelve-year-old self he remembered. Perhaps, he mused, he was unusually well-equipped to speak to bright kids of the sort he had once been. He remembered when, back at university, someone had passed an essay he had written through a computerized text analyzer, and the program had said that he wrote on a seventh-grade reading level. “That’s great!” said the analyzer’s programmer by way of comforting a Corey Cole whose first reaction was embarrassment. “You’ve written this so any adult or high-school student can understand it. Most people think they need to sound clever or sophisticated, but all they accomplish is to make their work inaccessible.” One of the worst sins would-be writers of children’s and young-adult fiction can commit is to write down to their target audience; youngsters can smell such condescension a mile away. It seemed that Corey would, at the very least, be free of that sin.

A staple of games like this one: the sliding-block puzzle.

All of which was well and good, but it still left the matter of the actual puzzles to be sorted out. Corey had always loved books of puzzles and brainteasers, and had had this love in mind when he first pitched his idea for Castle of Dr. Brain. Maybe, he had thought, such books could even provide him with most of the puzzles he would need. Yet that proved not to be the case when the time came to roll up his sleeves and start making his game. Corey:

The puzzle books were useless. A book advertising “over 60 puzzles and brainteasers” typically had four formats, and 15 puzzles in each format. They might have cryptograms, crossword puzzles, and grid puzzles (“Who lives in the purple house? What’s their job, hobby, and favorite food?”). Most of these are weak in a computer game, and I wanted to have a dozen or more unique puzzles.

Corey wound up creating groupings of puzzles on the various subjects he chose, clustering them together in rooms of Dr. Brain’s castle. First came three math problems, then three puzzles dealing with time. And so on and so on, incorporating among others a word-puzzle room, a robotics-and-computers room, even an astronomy room — all adding up to 24 multifarious puzzles in all. The puzzle books may have proved a dead end, but some of the puzzles that made their way into the game are nevertheless variations on old favorites of one type or another, such as Mastermind, Hangman, and Knights and Knaves. Roughly half of the puzzles, though, are indeed completely original. Unsurprisingly, these are the ones that tend to make the most impact, to the point of being at least vaguely remembered by some old players of Castle of Dr. Brain literally decades after they last saw them.

The robot maze that’s shown above, for instance, is a marvel of elegant, minimalist design, played in real time to make it exciting for youngsters (and oldsters) raised on videogames. You need to collect cards from all of the red “A” symbols by running the little blue robot over them, while avoiding the swirling red-and-purple vortexes, which will swallow it up. Running over the green crosses, meanwhile, will toggle various vortexes off, thus making them safe to travel over, and on, thus making them decidedly unsafe. The robot will always move straight ahead, until it encounters an obstacle in the form of a wall, which will cause it to turn around and go back whence it came. But there is one exception to this rule, an exception that also happens to be the only way you can interact with the puzzle: you can click on any of the intersections marked with four red dots to cause the robot to turn right when it reaches that intersection; click again to turn off this “traffic signal.” And that’s it. From one verb is created a hugely intriguing possibility space.

But most beloved of all might just be the robot-programming puzzle. You need to retrieve certain items out of a locked cabinet by writing a program to move a robot arm through the correct sequence of steps. Besides being a brilliantly original and entertaining puzzle in its own right, it’s also a fine introduction to the joy of programming.

Writing a program to control a robot arm…

…and running it.

To make Castle of Dr. Brain accessible to as wide an audience as possible, Corey Cole implemented three difficulty levels, which the player can change at any time to adjust for those types of puzzles she’s better or worse at. The “expert” level of any given puzzle should offer an enjoyable challenge to almost any adult, while the “novice” level is good even for many children who are younger than the game’s stated minimum age of twelve. Yet Corey didn’t settle for this form of adjustable difficulty alone. He also came up with a mechanic for “puzzle coins” which ties into your final score in the game. You earn coins by completing puzzles, and can then trade them in for hints if a later puzzle has you stumped. Your final score will take a hit in doing so, but this only adds a bit of replayability to a game that’s really not all that long.

The puzzle design constitutes much of what makes the finished game great, but the puzzles aren’t quite the sum total of the experience. Being made using an engine designed first and foremost for adventure games, and by a company and a designer known first and foremost for same, Castle of Dr. Brain is an embodied experience rather than an exercise in purely abstract puzzling. The plot isn’t up to much — “solve puzzles to move through the castle until you meet Dr. Brain and he gives you a job” is all it consists of from beginning to end — but, hey, it’s there. The charming old coot himself even pops up from time to time to offer encouragement. A stronger line connecting Castle of Dr. Brain to the Quest for Glory adventure games in particular comes in the form of the plethora of optional gags and Easter eggs in every area of the castle. You can click on almost anything and get a reaction. From the front door on which you can pound instead of ringing the doorbell to the telephone you can pick up in the good doctor’s inner sanctum, the game is a riot of interactivity, just as any good adventure game should be, paying full attention to what designer Bob Bates calls the “else” of the “if, then, else” logic of adventure design. And Castle of Dr. Brain is full of the same horrid puns and general good nature which mark the Quest for Glory games. I don’t believe Corey Cole is capable of making a game that’s less than thoroughly likable.

Within the framework of adventure lent by the SCI engine, however, Castle of Dr. Brain and its sequel are unique among the Discovery Series — in fact, unique among Sierra’s adventures in general — for a certain spirit of formal innovation. Those other Discovery games mostly look and play like standard Sierra adventures of their time; it’s just that their puzzles and plots are aimed at an ostensibly younger audience. But, perhaps because Corey was himself an experienced SCI programmer, Castle of Dr. Brain dared to shake up the status quo. Replacing the third-person view and visible onscreen avatar of the typical Sierra adventure is a first-person viewpoint. And then, too, the protagonist here goes unnamed and uncharacterized; the protagonist, in other words, is meant to be you. There is much to be said for both third-person and first-person approaches to the graphical adventure, just as there is for both the richly characterized adventure-game protagonist and the “nameless, faceless adventurer” of Zork. For today, I will only say that the choices Corey made here — both departing from the norm at Sierra — strike me as eminently correct for the game he wanted to make and the audience he wanted to reach. To be constantly switching between a third-person “exploration mode” and a series of screen-filling set-piece puzzles would have felt jarring. And then, too, children love nothing better than to imagine themselves inside their entertainments.

So, Corey Cole had good reason to feel proud of the finished game. Proud he was — and is: he still describes Castle of Dr. Brain as the most satisfying single project of his career. And Sierra too had reason to be pleased after the game was released: it became by far the most commercially successful of all the Discovery Series. Corey estimates that it sold over 100,000 copies in its initial full-price form, then another 150,000 copies as a budget re-release. Those numbers were almost comparable to what might be expected from a new Space Quest or Leisure Suit Larry — flashier games with much bigger development budgets. Sierra’s accountants thus couldn’t help but see Castle of Dr. Brain as a bargain, a relatively cheap investment that had made them quite a lot of money.

With numbers like those, and with the series-loving Ken Williams running Sierra, a sequel was inevitable. Corey was ready and eager to helm that project, but he wasn’t given a fair chance to do so. After Castle of Dr. Brain was finished, he was moved back to the programmer’s role he had been able to avoid for a while by making it, assigned the task of porting Sierra’s SCI engine to the Sega Genesis videogame console. He was offered the “opportunity” to design the sequel strictly as a moonlighting project, if he was willing to give up the 1-percent royalty he had received on the first game in favor of a small lump-sum payment. Understandably, he turned down an offer that would have consumed his nights and weekends for many months to come for very little financial reward. The task of designing the sequel was instead handed to one Patrick Bridgemon, a technical writer who had been responsible for many Sierra manuals and hint books, but whose only experience to date working on the games proper had consisted of a polishing-up of the writing in the first Police Quest game for a recent point-and-click remake of same.

Given these circumstances, one would rather expect the game that became known as The Island of Dr. Brain to disappoint. And, indeed, the general critical consensus over the years has tended to paint it as something of a pale shadow of its illustrious predecessor. In this case, though, I find myself in disagreement with the consensus; I don’t think that The Island of Dr. Brain fares badly at all in comparison to its predecessor. Yes, some of the puzzles are cribbed directly from the previous game, and, yes, more old chestnuts do make an appearance; the game’s lowlight is definitely the supremely tedious (is there any other kind?) Tower of Hanoi puzzle. Yet there are also a number of completely original puzzles here which can stand proudly alongside the best puzzles from the earlier game. And, once again, the vast majority of the puzzles, whether original or cribbed, are great fun to solve.

A chemistry puzzle.

There’s a bit more to the plot this time around. Someone has knocked the good doctor over the head — with a pink-flamingo lawn ornament, no less! — and absconded with his most powerful and dangerous invention. In practice, however, the plot still doesn’t really matter all that much. Now duly hired as Dr. Brain’s assistant, you’ve been sent to your boss’s private island to retrieve a vital battery that’s necessary to stop the evil one’s dastardly plan. But you can’t just walk in and pick it up; you have to solve puzzles in order to make your way to the center of the island where the battery lies waiting. As security systems go, this one doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but there you go. The real point, of course, is the puzzles.

It should be amply clear by now that Bridgemon, doubtless responding to dictates from his managers, adopted a “don’t fix what isn’t broken” approach to the sequel. Still, he did manage to innovate modestly within the established framework. This time out, the puzzles and their solutions are all randomized to one degree or another, thus addressing the most obvious complaint customers who had spent $40 or more on the first game might have made: the fact that it just wasn’t very long at all. The Island of Dr. Brain even sets up a sort of meta-challenge for the truly hardcore. If you solve all 26 puzzles four times on each of the three difficulty levels (!), without using any of your hint coins, you earn the maximum of 1000 points, and are rewarded with a special picture. I can’t say that I can muster up that much dedication today, but it’s easy to imagine a patient youngster taking on the challenge, and thereby getting many, many hours out of the game.

Playing with polynominoes. Eat your heart out, Alexey Pajitnov.

Likewise, the sequel not only embraces its predecessor’s wide range of educational themes but actually expands upon it. Puzzles in The Island of Dr. Brain often deal with the expected: mathematics, spatial logic, computer programming (the logic-gates puzzle is every bit as good as Corey Cole’s programming puzzles from the previous game). At the same time, though, Bridgemon shows no fear of the humanities, despite the latter being a field of knowledge so much less obviously suited to puzzles. The Island of Dr. Brain finds clever ways to dive into foreign languages, musical notation, even masterpieces of literature and the visual arts. One of my favorite puzzles teaches you to identify the works of great artists, from Vincent van Gogh to Jackson Pollock, by their unique styles.

The sequel shipped with an “EncycloAlmanacTionaryOgraphy” in the box, a 104-page book full of information that’s sometimes useful for solving the puzzles but is more often there just to add depth to the topics the puzzles cover. As its name would imply, it’s a glorious mess, a big splat of completely unrelated data — a random cross-section of some tiny portion of all the sheer stuff the human race has learned and done and achieved over the centuries. I love it.

The Island of Dr. Brain didn’t do quite as well as its predecessor had commercially, but sold well enough that these two games would not mark the end of Dr. Thaddeus Egghead Brain’s puzzling career. The second game would be, however, the last of the series to be developed by Sierra in-house. Later entries were given to Bright Star Technology, a developer specializing in educational software which Sierra acquired in 1992 as part of Ken Williams’s general educational push. Those Dr. Brain games — there were five more of them in all, stretching all the way to 1999 — are slicker productions in many ways, but lack their predecessors’ gonzo spirit. They’re just well-made educational products — no more, no less.

Which only leads me to emphasize once again what a pleasure these first two Dr. Brain games still are to play. The EncycloAlmanacTionaryOgraphy nicely illustrates the overarching Dr. Brain take on education. In a world obsessed with specialists and specialties, these games dare to tell us that knowledge in general is a sumptuous banquet which is only made more exciting through variety. A person, they imply, should feel free to become a computer programmer and a poet, a geneticist and a musician. At the risk of offending the many hard-working pedagogues out there, I can’t help but think that much of the reason these particular educational games are so bracing is because of the lack of a formal disciplinarian to say, “No, you can’t follow up a mechanical-engineering problem with an art-appreciation exercise. The child will be confused by such an abrupt shift and will fail to internalize the lessons. Such disparate subject matters should be separated by a reasonable pause, and are best contained in separate software programs designed for the individual needs of disparate educational models….” blah, blah, blah. Just throw it all in there, I say, and let children (and adults) enjoy drinking from the fire hose. I often think that half the modern world’s dysfunction is due to the fact that we’ve all become so specialized — so segregated — that we don’t know how to talk to one another anymore. I believe that we desperately need more Renaissance people, more jacks of all trades, even if that means fewer masters of one. The Dr. Brain games, it would appear, agree with me.

If we set aside the educational aspect and consider the Dr. Brain games purely as puzzle collections, they do suffer in some ways in comparison to The Fool’s Errand, the game I still consider the standard by which all other puzzlers should be measured. The Dr. Brain games were created at the dawn of the age of multimedia computing, when Sierra even more so than most companies was determined to put in every bit of digitized sound and color they could fit onto a reasonable number of floppy disks. Such rather garish presentations perhaps haven’t aged as well as The Fool’s Errand‘s austere, elegant black-and-white look. And the Dr. Brain games lack anything like The Fool’s Errand‘s dazzling structural complexity; structurally, they’re just a collection of standalone puzzles, to be solved one at a time until you solve the last one and win. But of course, all of these alleged negatives could equally be read as positives. Certainly the audiovisuals of Dr. Brain have plenty of goofy charm of their own, and you may very well have more room in your life for a casual series of discrete puzzles than for the all-consuming obsession that The Fool’s Errand can become once you’ve fallen down its rabbit hole.

Unlike many of the Sierra titles from their era, the Discovery Series has never been officially re-released as digital downloads — doubtless thanks once again to that dreaded “educational” tag. Yet they richly deserve to be remembered and, most of all, to be played. I’m therefore going to take the liberty of offering Castle of Dr. Brain and The Island of Dr. Brain for download here. As usual, I’ve included a configuration file that will make them as easy as possible to get running with the aid of DOSBox, whether you’re using a Windows, Macintosh, or Linux machine. Happy puzzling!

(My huge thanks go to Corey Cole, who took the time to correspond with me at length on this phase of his career. Be sure to check out Hero-U: From Rogue to Redemption, a new game in the spirit of the Quest for Glory series which Corey and Lori Ann Cole have created. As of this writing, its release is expected in a matter of weeks.

Other sources include the issues of Sierra’s official magazine from Fall 1991, Fall 1992, and Winter 1992.)


  1. The name “Discovery Series” wasn’t actually used until 1992. Before then, the earliest games in the series were sold simply as educational titles, without any further branding. 

 
 

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The Sierra Network

Ken Williams got the online religion early or late, depending on how you look at it. Despite running a company whose official name was Sierra On-Line — admittedly, the second part of the name was already being de-emphasized by the end of the 1980s, and would eventually be dropped entirely — he had paid no more attention than most of his peers to the rise of commercial online services like CompuServe. Sierra maintained a modest presence in such places, even agreed to the occasional online chat, but telecommunication was hardly central to their business strategy during the first eight years or so of their existence. All that began to change, however, when a new service called Prodigy made a splashy entrance in 1988.

Almost a decade after CompuServe’s consumer service had been born, Prodigy breezily declared themselves to be the “first consumer online service,” full stop. In so doing, they demonstrated a certain chutzpah in which they would never be lacking, and which would decidedly fail to endear them to most others in their industry. Yet underneath the bluster there was perhaps an honest aspirational vision. Backed by the unlikely partners of Sears and IBM, Prodigy desired to be, to coin a phrase, the online service for the rest of us. They became the first service after the Commodore 64-only QuantumLink to allow access only through a graphical front-end which they themselves provided to their customers. There would be no scrolling green text for their subscribers, but rather attractive screen layouts full of color and even pictures. Preferring to see themselves as the next step in traditional, top-down mass media — the natural successor or at least adjunct to newspapers, magazines, and television — they hewed to this philosophy to the complete exclusion of the user-driven initiatives that had done so much to build the other online services: things like chat, file libraries, and self-organizing communities of interest. (Incredibly, online chat, the killer app that had first gone up on CompuServe in the Dark Ages of 1980, wouldn’t arrive on Prodigy until 1994.)

In compensation, Prodigy planned to offer more content from Big Media than had ever been seen online before, alongside enough online shopping to make any brick-and-mortar mall stroller green with envy. Indeed, it was typical mall shoppers rather than typical computer hobbyists that they were really trying to reach. Rather than hosting chats with the likes of computer-game developers and NASA engineers, they curated question-and-answer forums with such mainstream celebrities as the fitness diva Jane Fonda and the famed sportscaster Howard Cosell. Further, they offered all of this at a flat rate, a first for the industry. The monthly subscription price of $10 — a price which would only buy you about two hours at best on any of the other services — was augmented by online advertising that took full advantage of the graphical front end. In this area as well, then, Prodigy became a pioneer, albeit of a perhaps more dubious stripe.

Prodigy went live on April 11, 1988. From the moment he first logged on later that year, Ken Williams was excited by what he saw there in a way he had never been by CompuServe or any of the other text-based services. He called Prodigy “a preview of the future” in his “President’s Corner” of Sierra’s corporate magazine.

I boot it up in the morning, and I’m greeted with a “front page” that gives headlines on the major news stories of the day. Beside each headline is a number to punch up the text of the feature, which is written in a professional journalistic style. After the front page, I can check the price of my company’s stock through Prodigy’s Dow Jones service. Because I’m a West Coaster and Wall Street opens before I get out of bed each morning, the stock price I see represents the price of my stock as it was within the last fifteen minutes (not what it was after closing last night).

I can also catch the up-to-date prices of other publicly-traded home-software companies or I can check to see if any of the top computer makers has made a big announcement. I also check the local weather, and occasionally the weather of a city I’m to travel to that day (Prodigy will give me a report for almost anywhere), and I always, always read the PC Industry Column by Stewart Alsop III.

If I have time during the morning (but usually at night), I’ll access one of the “interactive magazine” sections of Prodigy. Among the writers for Prodigy are Gene Siskel (of Siskel and Ebert’s At the Movies), Sylvia Porter (finances), Jane Fonda (fitness), Jolian Block (taxes), and a host of others. Each of these people contributes a column worth reading, and the columns are written when news happens, not just once a week or once a month.

It’s great to have this online magazine rack constantly available, but the best part of Prodigy is that you can write the writers. Recently I saw a Gene Siskel review of the movie Parents on Prodigy. As I enjoy such offbeat movies, and Gene appeared to have similar taste, I wrote him a quick note asking if he could recommend similar films. The next day when I booted up the service I had a short note waiting from Gene that contained the names of two other films I would like. Once, I didn’t like a Stewart Alsop column, and I got my aggressions out immediately by sending him a note of disagreement (no response from Stewart was given or expected). I consider this interactivity to be the major plus of this interactive-magazine format.

The reasons for Ken Williams’s immediate enthusiasm for Prodigy aren’t hard to divine in the context of his strategic vision for Sierra and his industry. As we saw in my last article, he was convinced that computers were simply too hard to use, and that the path to more universal acceptance of his company’s products lay in smoothing out the rough edges of being a computer gamer, in commodifying games like any other form of mass media. If this process entailed the loss of some of hacker culture’s old can-do spirit of empowered creativity, well, such was the price of progress; tellingly, and even as he rejected making games for the platform himself, Williams was a great admirer of Nintendo and their carefully-curated walled garden of cartridge-based videogames. Prodigy in the online space, like Nintendo in the console space, was moving in the direction he hoped to take Sierra in the computer-game space.

Yet the example of Prodigy was also more to Ken Williams than just an object marketing lesson from a related industry. It woke him up to the possibilities — the possibilities, that is, for Sierra themselves — in the online space. Williams, in short, wanted in on that action which he was coming to believe would do so much to shape the future not only of computers but of media in general.

In 1989, a new terminal program from an outside programmer reached Sierra by a somewhat circuitous route that wound through their close relationship with Radio Shack. They chose to revise it and publish it as one of their rare forays into application software. Sierra’s On-Line — yes, the name is a little too cute — was designed, in what was fast becoming the typical Sierra fashion, to make going online just that little bit easier for people who didn’t eat and breathe baud rates and transfer protocols. It shipped, for instance, with a script that would do all the work of getting you logged in and signed up with CompuServe for the first time for you, following up that helping hand with a guided tour of the service. (Ken Williams himself may have been most enamored with Prodigy, but that didn’t mean Sierra would ignore the only online service with more than half a million subscribers in 1989.) After that introduction, many tasks could be automated by clicking big, friendly onscreen buttons, sort of an attempt to bring the Prodigy experience to CompuServe. Previous terminal programs, ran Sierra’s marketing line, had been “too complex and intimidating for the average user to want to tackle; one look at a two- or three-inch thick manual, and most people decided they weren’t really all that interested in going online.” Sierra’s On-Line, by contrast, would make online life “available to a much wider audience than before. With a program this easy, convenient, and inexpensive, going online would be within the reach of anyone with a computer and a telephone.”

While there’s no indication that Sierra’s On-Line became a particularly big seller, much less revolutionized the online demographic in the way the company seemed to have hoped, it is illustrative of their thinking as the 1990s loomed. Ditto the “Sierra BBS” which they set up around the same time, sporting enough incoming telephone lines to let 32 people be online at once. Sierra claimed that over 35,000 people were visiting each month by the end of 1989, getting hints for the games and downloading demos, patches, and curiosities like a “3-D Animated Christmas Card” and a standalone version of “Astro Chicken,” an action game embedded in Space Quest III. And at the same time, Sierra became a great booster of Prodigy. In addition to setting up a big presence on the new service proper, they took to dropping signup kits directly into their game boxes, thus getting them into the hands of hundreds of thousands of gamers.

In a 1990 address, Steve Jobs, a visionary who gets lots of credit for the many things he got right but little blame for the equal number of things he got wrong, said that the 1990s would be “the decade of interpersonal computing.” When he said it, he was talking of small-scale connectivity via LANs, not the wide-scale connectivity that was already being enabled by services like CompuServe and Prodigy, much less the epoch-making invention that would be the World Wide Web. Ken Williams responded, rightly, that Jobs was “thinking too small. I agree that ‘interpersonal computing’ — the idea that the individual computer owner will soon find himself acting as part of a bigger connected computer community — is the next step in the evolution of personal computing. But I disagree with Jobs’s vision of the company office as the birthplace of this technology.”

Even as Jobs was articulating his narrow vision of interpersonal computing to an industry conference, Williams had put Sierra to work attempting to forward his own, more expansive view of computing’s future in a more direct fashion than even the Prodigy relationship entailed. On October 31, 1990, Sierra quietly announced that they had begun testing a new, self-standing online service of their own, one that would go far beyond the Sierra BBS. Ken Williams, from the press release:

Sierra is interested in extending our core product-development technology to have multiplayer capabilities. Our long-term goal is to have games, similar to those we now sell, which can be played simultaneously by large groups of people over a wide-area network. We have no plans currently to announce any particular product, any timetable for roll-out, or even any sense of what form a national roll-out might take — e.g., whether we would operate our own network or offer our product through some existing network. This announcement is only made to correct misinformation that may have been leaked by our testers. Whereas we are very excited about this test, it is much too early to speculate as to whether it might lead to some marketable product. We should know more by early next year, at which time we will be able to comment further.

And so, with slightly under 1000 volunteer testers located in the Los Angeles area, a modest slate of classic parlor games like chess and bridge, and heaps of caveats like those above, The Sierra Network was born.

The test “yielded amazing results,” reported another press release the following May: “Many of our testers had never touched a computer before, but were suddenly averaging 20 hours per week and more on TSN.” In choosing the testers, Sierra had deliberately reached out beyond the demographic that typically played computer games, even going so far as to loan computers to those of their non-techie guinea pigs that needed them. Ken Williams had been inspired by his mother, an avid bridge player, to make that game a special priority, as he did the people of her advanced age who tended most frequently to play it — i.e., the least likely of all people to use a computer under normal circumstances.

The influence of Prodigy could be seen all over The Sierra Network, from the graphical interface that was designed to be easy enough for that much-abused least-common denominator, the proverbial grandmother, to the plan for flat-rate pricing of about $12 per month. It’s thus somewhat ironic to note that Prodigy itself was in danger of crashing in flames at the same time that The Sierra Network was getting off the ground. The former service’s membership had soared by 1991 to 600,000, but, as might have been predicted had its administrators looked more closely at the experience of CompuServe and other predecessors, a big chunk of those subscribers were proving more interested in interacting with one another than they were in engaging with the curated content Prodigy and their corporate-media partners provided. This was throwing the financial model all out of whack. Prodigy responded by censoring forum discussions, by limiting email to 30 messages per month, and by raising the subscription price to $15 per month. Some of their subscribers organized a so-called “Cooperative Defense Committee” to fight back, precipitating an internecine conflict the likes of which has never quite been seen before or since. Members of the user resistance claimed Prodigy was reading their emails, and a rumor spread, never to be conclusively proved or disproved, that Prodigy’s software was snooping through the contents of subscribers’ hard drives — thus providing the service with another dubious first as the centerpiece of the first notable spyware scandal in the history of the computer industry. Although the civil war had little obvious effect on the service’s overall subscriber count, which only continued to grow in a bullish environment for the idea of interpersonal computing in general, it cost Prodigy something less tangible but equally precious. After the great PR debacle of 1991, Prodigy would never again enjoy the prestige and influence of their first moment in the sun. Their thunder would increasingly be stolen by America Online, a service launched with much the same aspirations toward mainstream, non-computer-geek Middle America, but one which would prove to be much better managed in the long run.

So, as Sierra charged ahead with their own online service they had object lessons, should they choose to heed them, that managing such a service — especially at flat-rate pricing — was more difficult and expensive than it might first appear to be. In addition to Prodigy, they could look to PlayNet, the service which seven years before had tried to offer at discount prices to owners of Commodore 64 computers a suite of simple board and card games not all that dissimilar from those of the nascent Sierra Network, only to go bust within a few years, largely because little PlayNet had been unable to negotiate the favorable terms with the big telecommunications firms that might have made their business viable. Sierra too, while a big wheel in the computer-game industry, was next to nothing in the eyes of the telecom giants. Yet they believed they could overcome the factors that had killed PlayNet and nearly done in even Prodigy by using their basic service almost as a loss leader for premium content in the form of bigger, meatier games. Ken Williams described The Sierra Network as the cable television of online services. Sure, you could pay a fairly small flat fee and just get the basic package, but to get the online equivalent of HBO you’d have to pay a premium. The folks at Dynamix were already testing an online version of their hit World War I dogfighting simulator Red Baron, and Sierra planned to make two new “theme parks,” called SierraLand and LarryLand, available to subscribers at additional cost by 1992.

On May 6, 1991, Sierra announced that The Sierra Network was officially a go, being spun off as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the parent company. They intended to make it available to most of California at the flat rate of $12 per month by the end of the month, and to the entire country at that rate within a year. In the meantime, subscribers outside of California could gain access for $5 per month plus $2 per hour, still far cheaper than most other online services of the day.

As one might expect, though, early paying members were heavily concentrated in California. Far from being a disadvantage, this situation was in some ways just the opposite. When wildfires burned more than a thousand homes to the ground in northern California, The Sierra Network’s subscribers put together an impromptu emergency-response center to keep everyone updated on the fires’ current course. During happier times, subscribers organized pot lucks and picnics in the non-virtual world. And, inevitably, romance soon sprouted from this fertile soil of friendship; the first Sierra Network marriage proposal took place as early as August 30, 1991.

But Sierra’s ambitions for the service had of course always extended well beyond California. On June 1, 1992, they rolled out, just as they had promised, nationwide flat-rate pricing: $13 per month, with a usage cap of 30 hours per month to head off the sorts of heavy users who had so nearly been the death of Prodigy. To date, the service had been growing at a reasonable if not breathtaking pace despite going virtually un-promoted outside of Sierra’s own magazine, surpassing 25,000 subscribers in the first year. If not enough to set CompuServe, Prodigy, or America Online shaking in their boots, it still wasn’t bad for a service that offered little beyond games and socializing; even a non-gaming something as basic as email had taken months to arrive. Now, with the nationwide roll-out underway in earnest, Sierra launched the biggest advertising blitz in their history to that point, encompassing glossy print and even television. To accommodate the expected surge in subscriptions, the parent company found their online subsidiary their own space, moving them into a building that had formerly been the home of a local Oakhurst steakhouse known as The Old Barn. (The place had been a popular stop for tourists to nearby Yosemite National Park; there was a bit of a problem with trail-weary hikers turning up, marching in through the front door, and asking for a menu without ever noticing the changed signage.)

Ken Williams’s cable-television-inspired “premium packages” also started to come online — and also just as promised — during 1992. For the extra price of $4 per month per package, subscribers could access SierraLand, an online amusement park complete with white-water rafting, mini-golf, a videogame arcade, and paintball; LarryLand, an online casino, a veritable Lost Wages straight out of Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards; and MedievaLand, whose centerpiece was The Shadow of Yserbius, a more limited but better-looking multiplayer CRPG than America Online’s Neverwinter Nights. The truly hardcore could get access to it all, plus unlimited online time, for the low, low price of $150 per month — still a bargain compared to what some people were shelling out just to chat on services like CompuServe.

Ken Williams’s greatest business hero was Walt Disney. He particularly admired Uncle Walt’s talent for turning his cartoon characters into indelible icons of international pop culture, and strove to do the same for the stars of Sierra’s games. In the early 1990s, Larry Laffer, whose gradual transformation from the skeevy pervert of the first Leisure Suit Larry game to lovable loser was by then complete, suddenly started turning up everywhere: on tee-shirts; on coffee mugs; as an opponent in the casual-game collection Hoyle Book of Games; as the proprietor of LarryLand on The Sierra Network; even as the ersatz software mogul behind The Laffer Utilities, a collection of otherwise businesslike MS-DOS add-ons. If Larry never quite became the mainstream icon Sierra wished, you certainly can’t fault them for lack of effort.

To their credit, Sierra had understood from the beginning that the socializing that took place around the games would be at least as important as the games themselves to their subscribers; in this sense at least, they were the polar opposite of Prodigy’s benighted management. “Where people meet people to have fun,” ran The Sierra Network’s early tagline, consciously placing the “people” part before the “fun” of the games. “Playing [offline board and card] games has very little to do with gaming,” wrote Ken Williams. “An evening playing bridge with friends has more to do with the quality of your relationship with your friends than with the actual card-playing.” Sierra worked hard to recreate this chummy atmosphere in an online context.

Even as the various components of The Sierra Network might point back to PlayNet, to Neverwinter Nights, or (in the case of the online Red Baron) to GEnie’s Air Warrior, Ken Williams’s animating vision of the service made it stand out from an online marketplace of increasingly indistinguishable offerings. In the eyes of most modern gamers, the single-player plot-heavy adventure games that are still Sierra’s most famous vintage stock-in-trade might seem to exist at the opposite end of a continuum from the shorter-form grab-and-go games that made up the majority of The Sierra Network’s offerings. Yet Williams didn’t see things that way at all at the time.

In my recent conversation with Judith Pintar, she mentioned how she came to see CompuServe as a sort of virtual space with a spatial architecture of its own, a maze of twisty little passages winding through chat rooms, discussion boards, and online games. While that may have been an idiosyncratic take on CompuServe — an outgrowth of her unique personality — it was one that Ken Williams wanted to make real for everybody on The Sierra Network. To an extent rivaled only by Habitat, the earlier but brief-lived online community Lucasfilm Games had created for QuantumLink, he strained to turn The Sierra Network into an embodied space not at all far removed from the virtual spaces inside his company’s adventure games. Just as much as Sierra’s offline adventure games, their online service was to be a form of “interactive multimedia.” The Sierra Network, Williams had long since declared, was nothing less than “my vehicle for experimenting with virtual reality.” His vision was perhaps summed-up best in a tossed-off line he offered even while the premium “theme parks” were still twinkles in their developers’ eyes: “Wouldn’t it be nice if you could play our games, but all the other characters you ran into were real people?”

The first step a new subscriber took on the service was to make an avatar using the “FaceMaker” program, choosing an age, a sex, a race, a hair style and color, a facial expression, and more; it all added up to an almost infinite range of possibility. Some subscribers tried to construct avatars that looked pretty much like they themselves did — or at least like idealized versions of themselves — but others used The Sierra Network as an opportunity to try out entirely different identities. Such practices, which became known among the subscribers as “masquerading,” weren’t discouraged by the service’s administrators. On the contrary: a single subscriber was allowed to have multiple avatars, and plenty took advantage of that, putting on different looks, personalities, and even genders to suit their mood of any given evening. “Being us, whoever we are, is tough work,” said Jeffrey Leibowitz, The Sierra Network’s director of marketing. “It’s nice sometimes to not be you.” Marketing considered adopting as a slogan “Be all that you can’t be,” a great riff on the United States Army’s longtime slogan of “Be all that you can be,” but it was sadly rejected in the end, probably out of fear of offending delicate patriotic sensibilities.

The Sierra Network wasn’t a collection of services that you used; it was rather a geography of places that you visited.

The sense of embodied physicality was perhaps the key thing that made The Sierra Network so precious to the many — and there are a surprising number of them — who remember it with such nostalgic fondness today. The terminology of a cyber-space is all over Sierra’s own way of talking about the service — sometimes, one senses, for calculated reasons, but other times for unconscious reasons, simply because that terminology seemed the best to use to describe an experience of this nature. So, you didn’t sign into SierraLand or LarryLand, you went there. And once there, you didn’t enter commands or even click buttons; you strolled the midway of the amusement park or the aisles of the casino, looking for something — or someone — that caught your interest. Even the simplest games on The Sierra Network were constructed with this eye toward embodied virtual space; when you played bridge, you saw the table along with your partner and your opponents sitting across it, just as if you were really there. What if online life writ large had eschewed the metaphors of print from the beginning for embodied virtual reality? The Sierra Network takes us as close as we’re likely to get to answering that counter-factual.

By 1992, a real buzz was growing up around online services in general. America Online had an IPO that spring which exceeded all expectations, attracting committed backing from such influential patrons as Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Ross Perot, an independent candidate for President of the United States who would manage to attract 18.9 percent of the vote that November, was making news with his proposals for an “electronic town hall,” where citizens across the nation could come together to discuss the issues of the day with the politicians who served them.

The Sierra Network fit right into this zeitgeist, attracting considerable mainstream attention of its own. Noted tech pundit John Dvorak called it nothing less than “the future of telecommunications.” The Washington Post‘s business section wrote about it using words that might have been cribbed directly from Sierra’s own press releases: “If TSN takes off, it could define a new medium — the merger of computer games and online information services into a form of entertainment never seen before. TSN could ultimately propel Sierra into the big leagues, pushing the company far beyond its current annual sales of about $50 million.” Alan Truscott, arguably the world’s foremost authority on the game of bridge, promoted The Sierra Network’s online version of his favorite pastime via his New York Times column on same: “Playing on Sierra is less impersonal than it sounds. From a list of those available, designated by first names or code names, you invite three others to play. Each player designs a face that may or may not be an accurate portrait of themselves, which shows on your computer screen. It is easy to discuss bidding methods, conduct a postmortem, or simply chat.” “It would be wrong to suppose,” he concluded, “that playing bridge in one’s home while linked by computer and telephone to three other players must be an unsocial activity.”

Playing bridge on The Sierra Network.

By some metrics, then, The Sierra Network was doing quite well. Doubtless thanks not least to all this positive press, total subscription revenues jumped from a paltry $266,000 in the first year all the way to $2.825 million in the second.  And yet one stubborn fact couldn’t be disguised by all the good news: Ken Williams’s pet online service just wasn’t making Sierra any money. In fact, it was costing them a bundle. Unusually for this company that saw themselves as a maker of “premium” products with premium prices to match, Sierra had priced their service far too aggressively to ever turn a profit even with the optional packages. They had misjudged the cost of maintaining the computing and networking infrastructure to run the service, misjudged the speed at which telecommunications costs in general would decrease, and misjudged their ability to negotiate with the telecom giants as a paltry $50-million-a-year company.

Nor was the news unadulteratedly positive even on the demand side. By the spring of 1993, Sierra Network membership was showing ominous signs of having already plateaued, or even of having started going in the other direction. Many of the most basic aspects of running an online service — things that companies like CompuServe had been doing for years with apparent ease — were a huge struggle for Sierra. Their service crashed with disconcerting regularity, and they could never seem to catch up to customers’ demands on their bandwidth; trying to connect to The Sierra Network for a casual game of backgammon could often be, as Sierra’s marketing director John Williams put it, like trying to get through to Microsoft’s customer support right after the release of a new version of MS-DOS. In addition to spotty reliability and connectivity, another big problem the service faced in trying to further build its membership rolls was the very fact that it was so exclusively games-focused. The typical pattern on CompuServe or America Online was for customers to sign up with plenty of sober, practical reasons in mind or at least on the tongue — online news, online stock-market quotes, etc. — and then get inadvertently hooked on chat and games. The Sierra Network couldn’t pull the same bait and switch, for the simple reason that it lacked the same bait. To sign up for The Sierra Network, you had to be willing to say up-front that this was strictly an entertainment expense — strictly an indulgence, if you will. For some reason, many potential subscribers — even the ones with gigantic cable-television bills — seemed to find that a hard admission to make.

In the fiscal year ending March 31, 1993, Sierra as a whole turned the wrong kind of corner after years of steady profitability, posting an ugly loss of $12.3 million. While the reasons for this stark downturn extended well beyond the money being spent on The Sierra Network — fodder for future articles on this site — the latter certainly wasn’t helping the situation any. The online service alone lost $5 million that year. To this point, it had cost its parent $7.5 million over and above the revenue it had managed to generate during the period of its existence — or about the cost of making ten single-player multimedia adventure games and then giving them all away for free. Sierra was in the confusing position of having collected a fair number of subscribers for their online service, yet not seeing those numbers translate into less red ink on the bottom line. The annual report for fiscal 1993 reflects the frustration this was causing inside the parent company. “There can be no assurance that costs will not become prohibitive and threaten the economic viability of the network,” it states. “Further, there can be no assurance the revenue growth rate will continue into the future or that The Sierra Network will ever become profitable.” Ken Williams had had high hopes for The Sierra Network — hopes, one might even say, that brought him as close as such a hard-nosed businessman could ever come to real idealism — but he had never been noted for his patience with money-losing ventures. “To obtain necessary funding of our marketing campaigns and new product-development efforts for The Sierra Network,” concludes the annual report, “we sought a strategic partner who could bring capital, a well-respected brand name, and a large customer base.” That partner was to be AT&T. “If you’re a young online service out to compete with the big boys,” wrote John Williams in Sierra’s magazine, “AT&T is the kind of friend you want to have.”

On July 28, 1993, the deal was consummated after months of talks. AT&T bought a 20-percent stake in The Sierra Network, while General Atlantic Partners, a venture-capital firm who had done much to broker the deal, bought another 20 percent. But of almost more import than the initial sale was the statement that the long-term plan was for AT&T “eventually to assume controlling interest.” Sierra, trying to dig themselves out of a financial hole, were gradually divesting from their grandest experiment.

Because it made little sense to continue to call an online service that would be run with decreasing input from Sierra proper The Sierra Network, it was rechristened The ImagiNation Network. In a letter to his subsidiary’s employees, Ken Williams said the things that bosses generally do under such circumstances, promising that “there will be no significant changes as a result of this partnership” — right before informing his charges of all the things that would be changing. For example, they would soon be moving out of The Old Barn and, indeed, out of Oakhurst entirely, with its “inadequate communications links and unreliable electric power.” Instead of continuing as a closed playground curated solely by Sierra, ImagiNation would become “open” to “developers of entertainment, information, and transaction software and services.” In keeping with this new spirit of openness, a bridge of sorts would be built between ImagiNation and Prodigy to allow the latter’s 2.2 million subscribers access to all the delights of SierraLand, LarryLand, and MedievaLand. Thus Ken Williams and his online service came full circle, back to the original motivator.

On November 15, 1994, AT&T bought all remaining ImagiNation shares from Sierra and General Atlantic Partners for $40 million. While the former was still under contract to provide technical support and even to build occasional additions and enhancements, their active role in steering the service ended here if not earlier. In their eyes it was now, depending on which Sierra insider was doing the looking, either a failed experiment or a worthwhile venture that had had to be set free in order to reach its full potential. Sadly, the verdict of history would lean toward holders of the first view.

There is, however, one fascinating might-have-been associated with this final stage of The Sierra Network story. Among the documents in the Sierra archive at the Strong Museum of Play is a letter to Ken Williams from Bill Gates of Microsoft. It’s dated May 5, 1993, and is written in response to the impending initial buy-in by AT&T, which was already an open secret in the tech sector by that date. Gates, it seems, had wanted in on The Sierra Network himself. He’s more than a little miffed that Williams chose AT&T over Microsoft.

I am really disappointed you didn’t talk with us further after we sent our first proposal for working together on your Network. We feel that working with us would have provided the best deal for your shareholders since we would have paid more than AT&T and would have provided more of an outlet for the creative work at Sierra. Some of the key differences between the AT&T and Microsoft proposals are:

A. We believe in the entertainment service. We would have put some of our best people onto scaling up the marketing and technology immediately. AT&T is simply hiring a new person in and seeing what happens while adding priorities relating to new platforms when the focus should be cementing over 200,000 subscribers.

B. All of our online efforts would have been focused on the one network, providing for synergy. AT&T has their Eastlink, Telescript, and other consumer-network efforts completely separated from TSN.

C. Microsoft is focused on online activities. If you had spent more time with Bob Allen and me, the difference would have become clear.

Just why Ken Williams spurned such an enthusiastic, deep-pocketed, and comparatively agile suitor in favor of the rather hidebound AT&T is unknown to me. Had he chosen another course, the latter-day history of his personal passion project would, at the very least, have been very different.

As it happened, though, the most interesting and innovative stage of the former Sierra Network’s history was already behind it by the time Bill Gates wrote his letter. SierraLand, LarryLand, and MedievaLand remained around for some time to come, descending gradually into a homey decrepitude, but AT&T struggled with little success to build anything new and compelling around them. On August 7, 1996, America Online bought the service from AT&T for an undisclosed amount. There its last remnants were gradually engulfed and devoured by its owner’s higher-profile offerings. And thus passed into history Ken Williams’s unique, perhaps impractical but certainly romantic vision for an embodied online community — for, one might even say, the online service as virtual world. It would be many years before our real world would see its like again.

(Sources: the book On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and Its Founders by Michael A. Banks; Sierra’s official magazines from Spring 1989, Fall 1989, Spring 1990, Summer 1990, Spring 1991, Summer 1991, Fall 1991, Spring 1992, Fall 1992, Winter 1992, June 1993, Summer 1993, and Holiday 1993; Computer Gaming World of November 1991 and December 1992; Electronic Games of December 1992; New York Times of April 12 1988, May 2 1993, July 18 1993, and August 19 1993; Washington Post of November 9 1992; San Francisco Chronicle of August 7 1996; Matt Barton’s YouTube interview with Susan Manley; press releases, annual reports, and other internal and external documents from the Sierra archive at the Strong Museum of Play.)

 
 

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Sierra at the Cusp of the Multimedia Age

By 1990, life for the programmers and artists who made adventure games for Sierra On-Line had settled down into a predictable pattern. Even-numbered years were King’s Quest years, when the company pulled out all the stops to deliver a new iteration of their flagship series that incorporated all the latest technologies — that looked and sounded better than anything they had ever done before. Odd-numbered years offered a chance to decompress, letting the creative teams apply the techniques that had been developed for King’s Quest to other games — games that were often more eclectic and, to this writer’s mind at least, more interesting — while the marketing people had more time to devise promotional strategies for same. Not coincidentally, Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards and Hero’s Quest: So You Want to Be a Hero, Sierra’s two most successful non-King’s Quest series debuts to date, had each been launched in an odd year. Sierra was making enough games by the dawn of the 1990s that even a King’s Quest year would see the release of plenty of other, non-King’s Quest games. But everyone knew where management’s priorities lay when it came time for Roberta Williams to start to think about King Graham and Daventry once again.

Thus there was never any doubt that King’s Quest V would dominate the agenda for 1990, just as there wasn’t that Ken and Roberta Williams would demand that it be an audiovisual showstopper. The Williamses and their fellow travelers were feeling their oats a bit, and by no means entirely without reason. Following the near-implosion of 1983 and 1984, Sierra had been steadily profitable for half a decade, their gross revenues growing throughout that time at a steady year-by-year clip. Unlike so many other computer-game makers, they hadn’t been damaged very much at all by the arrival of Nintendo and the resurgence of the once dead-and-buried console market; the existence of those events, so cataclysmic for so many of their peers, could never even have been guessed at from a glance at Sierra’s bottom line. While heretofore strident console haters like Trip Hawkins of Electronic Arts swallowed their pride and begged Nintendo for a license, Ken Williams stuck to his guns. Sierra published, as their press releases and annual reports never failed to proclaim, “premium-priced entertainment-software products for the high end of the consumer market” — i.e., for home computers. They hadn’t suffered the identity crisis of their peers, and their strong sense of exactly what kind of products they ought to be making was continuing to pay off.

Which isn’t to say that their business wasn’t evolving in other ways. As Sierra accelerated into a decade which they and many others believed would be marked by a merging of the interactive entertainments coming out of Northern California with the non-interactive entertainments coming out of Southern California, they took on more and more of a studio mentality, in which the programmers who wrote the code for the games would just be one part of a creative whole, no more important — indeed, quite possibly less important — than the artists who illustrated them or the composers who scored them. And nowhere was this new philosophy of game production more in evidence than in the hiring of Bill Davis as “creative director” in July of 1989.

Bill Davis, looking tragically hip in his photo shoot for Sierra’s corporate magazine.

Davis came to Sierra with no experience at all in interactive media, but with a long resume as a television director and animator that included clients like McDonald’s, Burger King, Toyota, NBC, The Children’s Television Workshop, and MacMillan and Co. His work had appeared on Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and The Tonight Show, and a short film he had made on his own time had recently been shown at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival. He was brought in explicitly to “Hollywoodize” Sierra — even if a good part of what that term encompassed in Ken Williams’s view might simply have been seen as smart, effective project management by someone else. Davis:

At Sierra, projects are getting so large, and we are getting so many projects, [that] we are concerned about losing quality. We are going to take some of the techniques that have been used in the film industry to manage gigantic feature projects and apply them here. I think we’ll gain in efficiency along the way also. It will enable many more people to work on a project, finish that project quickly, and not lose quality.

With a storyboard you are able to visualize an entire project at the beginning and locate the pitfalls, the problem areas, ahead of time, before anyone sits down at a computer to work on anything. We won’t have to trash large sections of a game that have been developed because they don’t work with another part of the game. We should be able to prevent those types of things from happening.

The conceptual core of Davis’s approach — and the one that smacked most of Hollywood — was indeed storyboarding, a technique which traditional animators had been using since time immemorial. According to an article published in Sierra’s magazine, “a storyboard might be likened to a comic strip of the whole game on paper, laid out on a large bulletin board. The game designer, the art designer, the lead programmer, and the music director meet in front of the storyboard to familiarize all concerned with all facets of the project. It is here that any problems — technical or otherwise — are brought up and worked out between these four.”

The obvious disadvantage in relying so heavily on this technique drawn from a linear form of media in a game-development context is the simple reality that games are not a linear form of media. Setting aside claimed gains in efficiency which I have no reason to doubt, I fancy I can spot some unforeseen ramifications of the approach in some of the games which would be created using it, with their tendencies to trap the player in unwinnable states if she approaches things in the “wrong” order. Bob Bates of Legend Entertainment once said to me that Sierra games seemed to him to be global “state machines,” as opposed to the more granularly simulated, object-focused games of Infocom and Legend. While this comparison doesn’t hold up on a technical level — the object-oriented language Sierra used to program their SCI engine is actually remarkably similar in conception to Infocom’s ZIL — I believe there’s something to be said for it on a philosophical level.

Nevertheless, Sierra had made their bed with Davis’s storyboard-driven methodology. The veteran game developers working there, who had previously enjoyed virtual free rein to make games using whatever methodology they wished, were now expected to lie in it. With less or more grumbling, they all did so.

King’s Quest V was absolutely stunning to look at in its day, and still looks quite lovely today.

The changes Davis had been hired to implement began to affect the developers immediately after his arrival, but the new process wouldn’t be tested out in its entirety until work began on King’s Quest V some months later. In addition to the new development process, that game would, as per usual for a King’s Quest, mark the beginning of a new technological generation of Sierra adventure games. King’s Quest IV back in 1988 had heralded the arrival of the new, more flexible SCI game engine, along with full orchestral soundtracks for those with the hardware to hear them. Those changes may have seemed big at the time, but they were as nothing compared to Sierra’s latest plans. King’s Quest V would replace its predecessor’s 16-color EGA graphics with 256-color VGA graphics, and would replace its text parser with an entirely mouse-driven point-and-click interface. True to their leader’s analog roots, Davis’s artists were now expected to paint all of the scenes for the game by hand on paper; their work was then digitized, giving the Sierra games of this era a distinctive painterly quality that remains lovely to look at. Whatever else you can say about it, King’s Quest V represented the most dramatic single visual leap forward which Sierra’s games ever had or ever would make — comparable to the leap which King’s Quest IV had made two years before in terms of audio.

In design terms, however, King’s Quest V was just the latest in a long string of lowlights. If anything, it was even worse than the series’s dubious norm. Whether because of Bill Davis’s rigid storyboarding methodology or because of Roberta Williams’s endemic carelessness as a designer, or perhaps both, it’s often described as the absolute nadir of the series in terms of dead ends and nonsensical puzzles. The cognitive dissonance that existed between the series’s designs and the way the games were marketed continued to be as perplexing as it was hilarious. As always, the latest King’s Quest was positioned with one leg in what we might call the pure gaming space, the other in the edutainment space. “Come into the world of King’s Quest V… and bring the family!” trumpeted Sierra’s advertising to accompany appropriately wholesome, family-friendly art. Perhaps the lesson it was meant to impart to the little ones — at least to those of them with serious aspirations of solving it — was that it’s a cruel old world out there, appearances can be deceptive, and you can never trust anyone — least of all an adventure game with Roberta Williams’s name on the box.

Adorable young King’s Quest fans (and one or two confused adults) dress up for a Sierra photo contest. Too bad the game secretly wants to lead them down some blind alley and never let them out again…

But none of that ultimately mattered to Sierra’s bottom line. Justifiably heralded as the beginning of a new era of Sierra adventure gaming upon its release just in time for the Christmas of 1990, King’s Quest V was sold and bought on the basis of its “vivid game scenes, lifelike animation, and breathtaking soundtrack.” Children continued to love the series for all these reasons, while parents continued to see it as a safe choice in a perilous gaming landscape. King’s Quest, in short, had long since become one of the handful of gaming brands that even those who didn’t play games at all might recognize. The Software Publishers Association honored it as the best adventure of 1990, and even Computer Gaming World, normally the most skeptical of the magazines, elected to contradict their lukewarm initial review, get with the program, and make it their adventure of the year as well. Sierra claimed that out of the gate King’s Quest V became the fastest-selling single computer game in the history of the industry. In its first three months on the market, it sold 160,000 copies; in its first fifteen months, more than 300,000 copies. And, even more encouragingly in terms of Sierra’s future prospects, the rapturous reception accorded to the potent combination of 256-color graphics with a point-and-click interface wasn’t confined to their most iconic series. Space Quest IV, the second game developed under the new methodology and technology, marketed more to the teen demographic than the tweens of King’s Quest, hit 100,000 units before its own first ninety days were up.

And there was yet more technological progress in the offing. Huge leap forward though they were, VGA and point-and-click only comprised two-thirds of the major advances Sierra was unveiling for those King’s Quest V buyers who had the right hardware. CD-ROM had been lurking out there for years now, offering almost inconceivable amounts of storage, a prospect which inspired both excitement and fear among computer-game developers and publishers; after all, what could you actually do with 650 MB worth of space? Sierra stormed into the 1990s determined to answer that question. The imagined multimedia future into which CD-ROM would lead the world had had much to do with their hiring of Bill Davis, a man who presumably knew how to make all the rich multimedia content that would be needed to fill all those megabytes.

Roberta Williams takes one of her star turns on the title screen to the CD-ROM version of Mixed-Up Mother Goose.

For their first foray into CD-ROM, Sierra chose Mixed-Up Mother Goose, a charming little educational game of scrambled nursery rhymes which Roberta Williams had first put together in the non-King’s Quest year of 1987. Sierra admitted frankly to choosing it for their first CD-ROM experiment because it was “a relatively small game,” “less expansive than a King’s Quest or Space Quest adventure.” But, having made that concession to practicality, they made few others. In addition to the expected redoing of all the graphics and the conversion to a point-and-click interface, professional actors were hired to voice every line of dialog. Intended as a showpiece and a proof of concept as much as a commercial product, Mixed-Up Mother Goose delivered in fine fashion on the former counts at least. At an industry conference, no less a personage than Bill Gates used it as the grand finale of his presentation on multimedia computing, calling it the “most compelling use of multimedia to date.” Sony chose to make it a pack-in product with their CD-ROM drives.

As befitted its series’s flagship status, King’s Quest V too had been earmarked for CD-ROM from the beginning. There were some early hopes of producing the CD release in tandem with the diskette-based release, but those fell by the wayside in the rush to get the latter done in time for Christmas. King’s Quest V instead shipped on CD in August of 1991, the first of Sierra’s full-fledged adventure games to do so. It featured the talents — admittedly, sometimes the somewhat dubious talents — of more than fifty voice actors. Ken Williams himself coined the term which the industry at large would soon be using to describe such CD-based re-releases of older games: “talkies,” a reference harking back to the period when silent films were being replaced by films with sound. Williams and many others believed that the changes the talkies would bring to the games industry would be every bit as disruptive as those they had brought to cinema all those years ago.

Indeed, Sierra felt that CD-ROM placed them on the cusp of nothing less than a technological and aesthetic media revolution. The company’s history to date had been marked by a slow move away from text: the illustrated text adventures of their earliest days had given way to the animated adventure games that were born with the first King’s Quest, and now the text parsers in those games had given way to a point-and-click interface. CD-ROM would mark the final step in that journey, offering up an immersive multimedia environment built entirely from pictures and animations, from sound and music. Sierra’s Oakhurst, California, campus already included a video-capture studio and a sound studio, and the company was investing heavily in custom hardware and software for merging the analog real world into the digital world of their games. Multimedia wasn’t just a buzzword for Sierra; it was the necessary future of their business.

Taping a scene for Police Quest 3 at Sierra’s in-house video-production facility.

But, as so many others had been doing for so long now, Sierra chafed at the excruciatingly slow progress of CD-ROM, the key to this future, into the homes of their customers. The fact was that building a CD-ROM-capable gaming computer was as expensive as it was confusing. Still, Sierra felt that their own recent history provided grounds for optimism: in the face of expense and confusion, they had succeeded in driving their customers toward sound cards at the tail end of the previous decade, so much so that by 1991 Sound Blaster and Ad Lib cards and their equivalents had found a home in most MS-DOS gamers’ computers. Sierra had accomplished this feat via a two-pronged strategy that addressed the issue from both the supply and demand side of the equation. On the supply side, they had published games — beginning, naturally, with a King’s Quest — which made spectacular use of sound, to such an extent that anyone without a sound card had to feel like she was missing out on a big chunk of the experience. And on the demand side, they had tried to ease their customers’ confusion by endorsing certain sound cards and even selling them directly at discount prices through their magazine.

Now, Sierra tried a similar strategy for CD-ROM. In the fall of 1991, they began selling a “multimedia upgrade kit” directly to their loyal customers for $795. It included a CD-ROM drive, a CD-friendly sound card, a copy of Microsoft Windows with the “multimedia extensions” included, and a selection of CD-based software published by Sierra and others. Yet Sierra’s CD-ROM push wouldn’t prove as immediately fruitful as had their sound-card push; at almost $800, one of these multimedia kits was a much harder sell than a $200 sound card. CD-ROM wouldn’t finally break out on a wide scale among computer owners until 1993, fully eight years after it had first been heralded as the next big revolution in computing. In the meantime, the vast majority of Sierra’s games would continue to ship on floppy disks; with the economics of the situation being what they were, only the more high-profile titles even saw a CD-based release.

While CD-ROM thus continued to wait in the wings where it had already stood for so long, the technological innovations of the disk-based King’s Quest V were more than impressive enough for most gamers. As was typical of a non-King’s Quest year, most of Sierra’s other established series — including Space Quest, Police Quest, and Leisure Suit Larry — got a new iteration in 1991. But the most interesting Sierra adventure game of the year was a one-off called Conquests of the Longbow: The Legend of Robin Hood.

Christy Marx with her husband Peter Ledger, who worked on her games as an illustrator.

Christy Marx, the creator of that game, had a resume which seemed perfectly attuned to the new philosophy of game development which Bill Davis had inculcated at Sierra. Like Davis, she had a background in traditional cartoons and animation, having worked through most of the 1980s as a writer on the Saturday-morning-television beat: penning episodes of G.I. Joe, Dino Riders, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and even creating her own cartoon series, Jem and the Holograms, which ran for 65 episodes between 1985 and 1988. In the midst of it all, she had also found time to create her own limited-run comic-book series, Sisterhood of Steel.

Conquests of the Longbow was actually the second game which Marx wrote and designed for Sierra. It followed the Arthurian Conquests of Camelot: The Search for the Grail, released as one of Sierra’s last parser-based games in 1990. (The pair together must vie with The Colonel’s Bequest for most tortured use ever of Sierra’s “Quest” trademark.) Conquests of Camelot is unusually earnest for a vintage Sierra adventure, rich in setting and character, but it’s clear that Marx struggled to master the interactive dimension of her new medium. Certainly the game resoundingly fails to put its best foot forward. The first area most players will visit after leaving Arthur’s castle hits you first with two of the all-time worst examples of the hideous action sequences, disliked by virtually everyone, which Sierra was always shoehorning into their adventure games, then follows them up with a long string of riddles. As you might expect after a beginning like that, it doesn’t take much longer for a maze to rear its ugly head, thus completing the adventure-game trifecta of lazy design.

Conquests of the Longbow draws from a slightly later period in the mythical history of England than does Conquests of Camelot, taking place during the time of King Richard the Lionheart’s captivity in Austria (an era and a story which will ring familiar to anyone who has played Cinemaware’s Defender of the Crown). It’s by no means immune to the problems typical of Sierra adventure games of its vintage: its version of Sherwood Forest is pointlessly large and empty; the linear plot — surely exhaustively storyboarded beforehand — leaves you flailing about for triggers to advance the timeline; at least one or two of the puzzles are far too obscure for their own good. Yet by way of compensation it offers an embarrassment of other riches, including an authentic Medieval board game that’s very engaging in its own right and a real chance to sculpt the Robin Hood you envision — whether you prefer to make him a short-tempered killer or clever trickster or something else entirely. There are even multiple endings, based on the decisions you made throughout the game, that feel organic rather than contrived.

Even more so than that of any of Sierra’s established series, Marx’s sensibility benefits hugely from the step up to VGA graphics. Her writing, so much subtler than the Sierra norm, combines with the fine work of Sierra’s talented art team and some lovely music to create an experience that drips with the atmosphere of Merry Olde England. Marx had, she said, “adored” Robin Hood since she was a small girl, and that passion comes through almost strong enough to make even a design curmudgeon like me forgive her her sins. At any rate, Conquests of the Longbow certainly strikes this reviewer as more engaging than yet more madcap antics of Roger Wilco or Larry Laffer.

And in commercial terms as well, Christy Marx’s second game was surprisingly successful even in the face of such competition. The issue of Sierra’s official magazine dating from the spring of 1992 has it as the company’s biggest current seller, edging out Police Quest 3, Leisure Suit Larry 5, and King’s Quest V. Its commercial performance was undoubtedly helped greatly by a fortuitous coincidence: the second biggest cinematic blockbuster of 1991 was a movie called Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

Despite her second game’s success, Marx left Sierra after its completion to return to writing for non-interactive media — a pity, as it seemed she was just starting to get the hang of writing and designing with interactivity in mind. If her trajectory had continued, her next game might have been amazing.

Important as adventure games still were for Sierra during this period, they were no longer the virtual sum total of the company’s offerings, as they had been for a period during the latter 1980s. For all that Ken Williams had entered the new decade determined to make Sierra’s name synonymous with interactive storytelling in the multimedia age, he was determined to diversify as well. By way of accomplishing that goal, Sierra announced on March 27, 1990, the acquisition of Dynamix, a small but well-respected Oregon-based development house that had been founded in 1984 and had since delivered an eclectic mix of original games and ports to various publishers. Of late, they had focused on the crazily disparate genres of 3D vehicle simulations and cinematic adventure games. With Sierra’s in-house developers having the latter category well in-hand, it was the former which most excited Ken Williams — even though he personally was something of a simulation hater. (“Are there any planes, tanks, or automobiles this industry hasn’t done fifty times already?” he had asked almost plaintively just before the Dynamix opportunity presented itself.) Dynamix soon showed him how wise he had been to go with his market research over his personal preferences by gifting Sierra with Red Baron, a superb World War I dog-fighting simulation that became their biggest non-adventure hit since the pre-King’s Quest years, even in the midst of an unexpected glut of similarly-themed games from other publishers.

With Dynamix delivering the goods for the hardcore joystick jockeys, Williams pushed his in-house teams to branch out from adventure games and produce what we today would call “casual” games, targeted at traditionally non-gaming demographics. In fairly short succession, Sierra churned out three separate volumes of Hoyle Book of Games, collections of classic card and board games named after Edmond Hoyle, the eighteenth century’s foremost authority on such matters. The release of special versions of these titles that were designed to run nicely on the black-and-white laptop computers of the day revealed exactly what sorts of customers Sierra was hoping to appeal to.

Another vaguely casual product was something called Jones in the Fast Lane, a computerized board game with a strong resemblance to the old family classic Careers that had first come to Sierra as an unsolicited outside submission. It could be played alone, but that was rather missing the point; it really wanted to be played with up to three others during a high-tech family board-game night. Fun in short doses, but a little too shallow and random to be given the status of classic alongside its likely inspiration, it nevertheless found two great patrons in Ken Williams and Bill Davis, the latter of whom personally shepherded the project to completion. In a measure of the priority it was given as a potential new direction, it became Sierra’s second-ever CD-ROM product, beating even the CD-based King’s Quest V to market. But it never sold all that well despite a big promotional push, and Sierra would never again make anything quite like it.

While casual games had dominated the non-adventure agenda for 1990, education was the big watchword of 1991. Throughout Sierra’s history, their interest in this market had ebbed and flowed. Sometimes they had gone after it enthusiastically, as when they had signed big licensing deals with Disney and Jim Henson of Muppets fame in the mid-1980s; other times, not so much, although, as releases like Mixed-Up Mother Goose and the pseudo-educational gloss that was often placed on King’s Quest show, they never entirely abandoned the market. Now the educational tide was flowing back in again, with Ken Williams having decided that the audiovisual potential of the latest computers would make such products much more appealing to parents and educators. Thus the new “Sierra Discovery Series.” Corey and Lori Ann Cole, the husband-and-wife team behind the successful Quest for Glory adventure series, agreed to take a year off from that series to each design an educational product. The former made the middle- and high-school-focused Castle of Dr. Brain, the latter the elementary-school-focused Mixed-Up Fairy Tales. And other “educational adventures” were in the works for a 1992 release.

Sierra’s pitch for this latest educational initiative was designed to address the permanent existential angst/guilt of modern parents: the fear that their children watched too much television. Educational adventures offered a healthier alternative that wouldn’t be any more taxing on the parents and that would be even more appealing to the children themselves.

Why do children spend so many hours watching TV? This is a question you often hear from concerned parents and teachers. The answer is simple: because the world of TV is one of color, fun, and adventure. It’s an escape from the child’s everyday world. Who wouldn’t want that? But many people are concerned about the passive nature of TV watching. It just isn’t that stimulating for children’s minds.

What if there were something else the child could be doing? Something with equal color and sound and fantasy, but this time the child could jump right through the screen and into the action? Better yet, what if the child could actually learn something while having fun? If you have a personal computer in your home, you already have the first ingredient for enriching your child’s everyday life.

What harried parent could refuse a pitch like that?

While the individual products did more or less well, Ken Williams must have been at least somewhat gratified when he glanced at that aforementioned sales chart for the spring of 1992. Yes, the top four items on the list were all conventional Sierra adventure games — but, tellingly, none of the remaining six titles were.

In all of these initiatives, Williams was chasing a vision of computer gaming’s future which stood in marked contrast to that of many of Sierra’s peers. Even as they hunkered down in the face of the ongoing Nintendo storm to focus on the games and the gamers that had gotten them this far, Sierra chased a broader, more inclusive vision of interactive entertainment — chased a near-future with something for everyone in the stereotypical suburban family. In the Sierra household of Williams’s dreams, 14-year-old Johnny would play Castle of Dr. Brain at school and Space Quest at home; nine-year-old Mary would play Mixed-Up Fairy Tales at school and King’s Quest at home; Dad would play Hoyle on his laptop on business trips; Mom and Dad together would put in some quality time with Leisure Suit Larry in the evenings after the kids were in bed; and the whole family would gather in the living room on a Sunday afternoon for a game of Jones in the Fast Lane.

In keeping with this vision, Sierra’s design staff too was shockingly diverse by the standards of their industry. At one point in 1991, four different women were designing games for Sierra; I’m hard pressed to come up with another developer that was employing even one female designer. Ken Williams wasn’t particularly idealistic, and he certainly was no social activist; he was merely a businessman who believed that he needed to expand the appeal of his products in order to grow his business. Nor did his version of inclusivity extend overly far; his insistence that Sierra’s white-bread games were premium entertainment products, with prices to match, ensured that. Nevertheless, Sierra stood out from the pack of other publishers who were all tripping over each other as they chased after the same group of 12-to-35-year-old single white males.

Ken Williams didn’t keep his vision to himself. Quite the contrary: on the theory that a rising tide lifts all boats, he pushed the other publishers to broaden their own views of who constituted a potential customer. He railed ceaselessly against what he saw as the needless complications of being an MS-DOS gamer: of needing to know a dozen technical terms just to read the minimum specifications printed on a box and thereby know whether your computer could run any given game; of needing to know how to swap expansion cards in and out and configure their IRQ settings; of needing to know how to get around in MS-DOS itself, how to configure extended and expanded memory and set up a custom startup script for almost every new game you purchased. He believed — correctly, it seems to me — that all of these technical complexities restricted the market for computer games to the sorts of personalities who reveled in them, preventing entire potential genres of computer entertainment from ever being explored. As head of the Software Publishers Association Standards Committee, he pushed his colleagues to adopt a standard nomenclature for listing system requirements, and pushed them to adopt a voluntary Hollywood-style standard for rating game content as well before one was imposed on them from outside the industry; he succeeded in the former task, but, for the time being anyway, failed at the latter. He was thrilled when a consortium led by Microsoft published, after much lobbying from him among many others, a standard set of minimum specifications for a so-called “Multimedia Personal Computer. ” The idea behind it was that a customer could purchase a system with the MPC logo on the box and then know that she could purchase any piece of software sporting the same logo in the assurance that it would work on her computer — no muss, no fuss, no parsing of fine-print technical specifications.

Sierra’s most obvious ally in their mission to broaden the demographic for home-computer software was Broderbund. The two companies bore many similarities. Both had been formed way back in the dark ages of 1980 — Broderbund under the alternate spelling of “Brøderbund” — and both remained at bottom family businesses, run by the Williams family in the case of Sierra, by the Carlston family in the case of Broderbund. The Williamses and the Carlstons had been close friends in the early days of what Doug Carlston referred to as the “software brotherhood,” and a certain sense of kinship between these two rare survivors of that formative period had managed to carry through into this very different era of the early 1990s, as had a similar philosophy about the future of their industry. To if anything an even greater extent than Sierra, Broderbund was actually succeeding in the mission of putting their products into the hands of Middle America at large. Their Carmen Sandiego series constituted the most successful edutational products of their time, so popular that Broderbund was putting the final touches on a deal to bring it to television as a children’s quiz show. Their Print Shop posters and banners were an inescapable presence at pot lucks, weddings, and school dances from sea to shining sea. They distributed SimCity, a game which had recently caused a sensation in high-brow newspapers and magazines that normally had no interest in such things. And, if you insisted on a traditional videogame perfect for the traditional teenage-boy player, they had Prince of Persia, a massive platform- and world-spanning hit of the sort that other computer-game publishers — even the similarly-inclined Sierra — simply didn’t produce in those days.

Following the collapse of Mediagenic, Sierra and Broderbund vied for the title of second-biggest publisher of consumer software, trailing only Electronic Arts; this fact alone must stand as strong evidence for the assertion that their shared strategy of broader outreach was a wise one. It therefore sent a shock wave through the industry when on March 8, 1991, Sierra published a blandly written press release stating that the two companies intended to merge. Such a merger would create by far the biggest company in the industry — by far the biggest, most powerful company the industry had ever known.

Looked at strategically, the merger made a lot of sense for reasons beyond the sheer size of the behemoth it would create. Broderbund had never been strong in adventure games, and felt unequipped for the merger of Hollywood and Silicon Valley which everyone, not least Ken Williams, insisted was at the very least a big part of the inevitable future of computer gaming; Sierra, by contrast, had been the first name in graphic adventures for more than a decade, and had invested heavily in that anticipated future. Broderbund also lacked the expertise in high-performance simulations which Sierra had acquired through Dynamix; such hardcore products might not be the most important aspect of the future envisioned by the Williamses and the Carlstons, but all signs pointed to them remaining a solid profit center for a long, long time to come. For their part, Broderbund had managed to create, through careful product curation and brilliant marketing, no less than four of the sort of immediately recognizable Middle American brands which Sierra so coveted, in the form of the aforementioned Carmen Sandiego, The Print Shop, SimCity, and Prince of Persia; the only remotely comparable brand which Sierra possessed was King’s Quest. Broderbund, then, needed Sierra’s technology; Sierra needed Broderbund’s brands and branding expertise. It seemed a match made in heaven.

But then, just three weeks after the merger was announced, another press release stated quietly that it had fallen through. The two parties said that, while they still held one another “in the highest regard,” they just hadn’t been able to come to an agreement on the terms of the merger. The reasons aren’t hard to divine. For all the historical, strategic, and philosophical parallels between the two companies, internally they were very different places. Ken Williams may have changed his public image dramatically since the days when he had played the role of the software industry’s Hugh Hefner, peddling Softporn to the nation’s youth from his Jacuzzi, and Sierra too may not have been playing host to quite the same number of wild parties as in the early days, but it remained a free-wheeling place cast in the image of its hard-charging, gleefully profane boss. The Carlstons, meanwhile, were a religious family, the children of a theologian, clean-cut and clean-living, and the rest of their company had largely followed their example. Officially, the deal would have been an acquisition of Broderbund by Sierra, although both parties were careful to state that this was just to satisfy the financial folks — that it was really a merger of equal partners. Still, word filtered through the industry grapevine that Ken and Roberta Williams had acted like they “owned the place” when they dropped in on Broderbund for a visit, angering the staff there. The Carlstons, who to their immense credit always walked the walk more than they talked the talk of Christian morality, valued their employees like extensions of their own family, and grew deeply concerned when Ken Williams shifted the discussion to possible “redundancies.” Soon after, they apparently nixed the deal.

Had it gone off, the merger would have created a more dominant entity than our own timeline’s consumer-software industry has ever produced. As such, it provides an intriguing ground for what-if speculations — even if, what with absolute power corrupting so absolutely, it was probably better for the industry as a whole that it never happened.

Even as it was, though, Sierra had little room to complain about the state of their business in the first couple of years of the 1990s. Their gross revenues increased by $6 million for the fiscal year ending on March 31, 1991, topping $35 million. The following fiscal year, they increased even more, to $43 million, with the company remaining healthily profitable throughout the period despite major ongoing investments in research and development. By any standard, they were on an admirable upward trajectory, having made more money than the last every year since fiscal 1985, having been profitable since fiscal 1987. Once CD-ROM dropped — it had to someday, right? — who knew how high they could soar.

But CD-ROM wasn’t the only aspect of home computing’s shiny future on which Sierra was banking. Ken Williams had gotten the online religion, and here too Sierra was jumping in with both feet. Next time, we’ll turn our attention to that great adventure.

(Source: Sierra’s corporate magazines from Fall 1989, Spring 1990, Summer 1990, Fall 1990, Spring 1991, Summer 1991, Fall 1991, Spring 1992; Computer Gaming World from March 1991, May 1991, and June 1991; press releases, annual reports, and other internal and external documents from the Sierra archive at the Strong Museum of Play. 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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So You Want to Be a Hero?

Lori Ann and Corey Cole

Lori Ann and Corey Cole

Rule #1 is “The Player Must have Fun.” It’s trivially easy for a game designer to “defeat” players. We have all the tools and all the power. The trick is to play on the same side as the players, to tell the story together, and to make them the stars.

That rule is probably the biggest differentiator that made our games special. We didn’t strive to make the toughest, hardest-to-solve puzzles. We focused on the characters, the stories, and making the player the star.

— Corey Cole

It feels thoroughly appropriate that Corey and Lori Ann Cole first met over a game of Dungeons & Dragons. The meeting in question took place at Westercon — the West Coast Science Fantasy Conference — in San Francisco in the summer of 1979. Corey was the Dungeon Master, leading a group of players through an original scenario of his own devising that he would later succeed in getting published as The Tower of Indomitable Circumstances. But on this occasion he found the pretty young woman who was sitting at his table even more interesting than Dungeons & Dragons. Undaunted by mere geography — Corey was programming computers for a living in Southern California while Lori taught school in Arizona — the two struck up a romantic relationship. Within a few years, they were married, settling eventually in San Jose.

They had much in common. As their mutual presence at a convention like Westercon will attest, both the current and the future Cole were lovers of science-fiction and fantasy literature and its frequent corollary, gaming, from well before their first meeting. Their earliest joint endeavor — besides, that is, the joint endeavor of romance — was The Spellbook, a newsletter for tabletop-RPG aficionados which they edited and self-published.

Corey also nurtured an abiding passion for computers that had long since turned into a career. After first learning to program in Fortran and COBOL while still in high school during the early 1970s, his subsequent experiences had constituted a veritable grand tour of some of the most significant developments of this formative decade of creative computing. He logged onto the ARPANET (predecessor of the modern Internet) from a terminal at his chosen alma mater, the University of California, Santa Barbara; played the original Adventure in the classic way, via a paper teletype machine; played games on the PLATO system, including the legendary proto-CRPGs Oubliette and DND that were hosted there. After graduating, he took a job with his father’s company, a manufacturer of computer terminals, traveling the country writing software for customers’ installations. By 1981, he had moved on to become a specialist in word-processing and typesetting software, all the while hacking code and playing games at home on his home-built CP/M computer and his Commodore PET.

When the Atari ST was introduced in 1985, offering an unprecedented amount of power for the price, Corey saw in it the potential to become the everyday computer of the future. He threw himself into this latest passion with abandon, becoming an active member of the influential Bay Area Atari Users Group, a contributor to the new ST magazine STart, and even the founder of a new company, Visionary Systems; the particular vision in question was that of translating his professional programming experience into desktop-publishing software for the ST.

Interestingly, Corey’s passion for computers and computer games was largely not shared by Lori. Like many dedicated players of tabletop RPGs, she always felt the computerized variety to be lacking in texture, story, and most of all freedom. She could enjoy games like Wizardry in bursts with friends, but ultimately found them far too constraining to sustain her interest. And she felt equally frustrated by the limitations of both the parser-driven text adventures of Infocom and the graphical adventures of Sierra. Her disinterest in the status quo of computer gaming would soon prove an ironic asset, prompting her to push her own and Corey’s games in a different and very worthwhile direction.

By early 1988, it was becoming clear that the Atari ST was doomed to remain a niche platform in North America, and thus that Corey’s plan to get rich selling desktop-publishing software for it wasn’t likely to pan out. Meanwhile his chronic asthma was making it increasingly difficult to live in the crowded urban environs of San Jose. The Coles were at one of life’s proverbial crossroads, unsure what to do next.

Then one day they got a call from Carolly Hauksdottir, an old friend from science-fiction fandom — she wrote and sang filk songs with them — who happened to be working now as an artist for Sierra On-Line down in the rural paradise of Oakhurst, California. It seemed she had just come out of a meeting with Sierra’s management in which Ken Williams had stated emphatically that they needed to get back into the CRPG market. Since their brief association with Richard Garriott, which had led to their releasing Ultima II and re-releasing Ultima I, Sierra’s presence in CRPGs had amounted to a single game called Wrath of Denethenor, a middling effort for the Apple II and Commodore 64 sold to them by an outside developer. As that meager record will attest, Ken had never heretofore made the genre much of a priority. But of late the market for CPRGs showed signs of exploding, as evidenced by the huge success of other publishers’ releases like The Bard’s Tale and Ultima IV.  To get themselves a piece of that action, Ken stated in his typical grandiose style that Sierra would need to hire “a published, award-winning, tournament-level Dungeon Master” and set him loose with their latest technology. Corey and Lori quickly reasoned that The Tower of Indomitable Circumstances had been published by the small tabletop publisher Judges Guild, as had their newsletter by themselves; that Corey had once won a tournament at Gen Con as a player; and that together they had once created and run a tournament scenario for a Doctor Who convention. Between the two of them, then, they were indeed “published, award-winning, tournament-level Dungeon Masters.” Right?

Well, perhaps they weren’t quite what Ken had in mind after all. When Corey called to offer their services, at any rate, he sounded decidedly skeptical. He was much more intrigued by another skill Corey mentioned in passing: his talent for programming the Atari ST. Sierra had exactly one programmer who knew anything about the ST, and was under the gun to get their new SCI engine ported over to that platform as quickly as possible. Ken wound up hiring Corey for this task, waving aside the initial reason for Corey’s call with the vague statement that “we’ll talk about game design later.”

What with Corey filling such an urgent need on another front, one can easily imagine Ken’s “later” never arriving at all. Corey, however, never stopped bringing up game design, and with it the talents of his wife that he thought would make her perfect for the role. While he thought that the SCI engine, despite its alleged universal applicability, could never be used to power a convincing hardcore CRPG of the Bard’s Tale/Ultima stripe, he did believe it could serve very well as the base for a hybrid game — part CRPG, part traditional Sierra adventure game. Such a hybrid would suit Lori just fine; her whole interest in the idea of designing computer games was “to bring storytelling and [the] interesting plot lines of books and tabletop role-playing into the hack-and-slash thrill of a computer game.” Given the technological constraints of the time, a hybrid actually seemed a far better vehicle for accomplishing that than a hardcore CRPG.

So, while Corey programmed in Sierra’s offices, Lori sat at home with their young son, sketching out a game. In fact, knowing that Sierra’s entire business model revolved around game series rather than one-offs, she sketched out a plan for four games, each taking place in a different milieu corresponding to one of the four points of the compass, one of the four seasons, and one of the four classical elements of Earth, Fire, Air, and Water. As was typical of CRPGs of this period, the player would be able to transfer the same character, evolving and growing in power all the while, into each successive game in the series.

With his established tabletop-RPG designer still not having turned up, Ken finally relented and brought Lori on to make her hybrid game. But the programmer with whom she was initially teamed was very religious, and refused to continue when he learned that the player would have the option of choosing a “thief” class. And so, after finishing up some of his porting projects, Corey joined her on what they were now calling called Hero’s Quest I: So You Want to Be a Hero. Painted in the broadest strokes, he became what he describes as the “left brain” to Lori’s “right brain” on the project, focusing on the details of systems and rules while Lori handled the broader aspects of plot and setting. Still, these generalized roles were by no means absolute. It was Corey, for instance, an incorrigible punster — so don’t incorrige him! — who contributed most of the horrid puns that abound throughout the finished game.

Less than hardcore though they envisioned their hybrid to be, Lori and Corey nevertheless wanted to do far more than simply graft a few statistics and a combat engine onto a typical Sierra adventure game. They would offer their player the choice of three classes, each with its own approach to solving problems: through combat and brute force in the case of the fighter, through spells in the case of the magic user, through finesse and trickery in the case of the thief. This meant that the Coles would in effect have to design Hero’s Quest three times, twining together an intricate tapestry of differing solutions to its problems. Considering this reality, one inevitably thinks of what Ron Gilbert said immediately after finishing Maniac Mansion, a game in which the player could select her own team of protagonists but one notably free of the additional complications engendered by Hero’s Quest‘s emergent CRPG mechanics: “I’m never doing that again!” The Coles, however, would not only do it again — in fact, four times more — but they would consistently do it well, succeeding at the tricky task of genre blending where designers as talented as Brian Moriarty had stumbled.

Instead of thinking in terms of “puzzles,” the Coles preferred to think in terms of “problems.” In Hero’s Quest, many of these problems can be treated like a traditional adventure-game puzzle and overcome using your own logic. But it’s often possible to power through the same problem using your character’s skills and abilities. This quality makes it blessedly difficult to get yourself well-and-truly, permanently stuck. Let’s say you need to get a fish from a fisherman in order to get past the bear who’s blocking your passage across a river. You might, in traditional adventure-game style, use another item you found somewhere to repair his leaky boat, thus causing him to give you a fish as a small token of his appreciation. But you might also, if your character’s intelligence score is high enough, be able to convince him to give you a fish through logical persuasion alone. Or you might bypass the whole question of the fish entirely if your character is strong and skilled enough to defeat the bear in combat. Moriarty’s Beyond Zork tries to accomplish a superficially similar blending of the hard-coded adventure game and the emergent CRPG, but does so far less flexibly, dividing its problems rather arbitrarily into those soluble by adventure-game means and those soluble by CRPG means. The result for the player is often confusion, as things that ought to work fail to do so simply because a problem fell into the wrong category. Hero’s Quest was the first to get the blending right.

Based on incremental skill and attribute improvements rather than employing the more monolithic level-based structure of Dungeons & Dragons, the core of the Hero’s Quest game system reached back to a system of tabletop rules the Coles had begun formulating years before setting to work on their first computer game. It has the advantage of offering nearly constant feedback, a nearly constant sense of progress even if you happen to be stuck on one of the more concrete problems in the game. Spend some time bashing monsters, and your character’s “weapons use” score along with his strength and agility will go up; practice throwing daggers on the game’s handy target range, and his “throwing” skill will increase a little with almost every toss. Although you choose a class for your character at the outset, there’s nothing preventing you from building up a magic user who’s also pretty handy with a sword, or a fighter who knows how to throw a spell or two. You’ll just have to sacrifice some points in the beginning to get a start in the non-core discipline, then keep on practicing.


If forced to choose one adjective to describe Hero’s Quest and the series it spawned as a whole, I would have to go with “generous” — not, as the regular readers among you can doubtless attest, an adjective I commonly apply to Sierra games in general. Hero’s Quest‘s generosity extends far beyond its lack of the sudden deaths, incomprehensible puzzles, hidden dead ends, and generalized player abuse that were so typical of Sierra designs. Departing from Sierra’s other series with their King Grahams, Rosellas, Roger Wilcos, and Larry Laffers, the Coles elected not to name or characterize their hero, preferring to let their players imagine and sculpt the character each of them wanted to play. Even within the framework of a given character class, alternate approaches and puzzle — er, problem — solutions abound, while the environment is fleshed-out to a degree unprecedented in a Sierra adventure game. Virtually every reasonable action, not to mention plenty of unreasonable ones, will give some sort of response, some acknowledgement of your cleverness, curiosity, or sense of humor. Almost any way you prefer to approach your role is viable. For instance, while it’s possible to leave behind a trail of monstrous carnage worthy of a Bard’s Tale game, it’s also possible to complete the entire game without taking a single life. The game is so responsive to your will that the few places where it does fall down a bit, such as in not allowing you to choose the sex of your character — resource constraints led the Coles to make the hero male-only — stand out more in contrast to how flexible the rest of this particular game is than they do in contrast to most other games of the period.

Hero's Quest's unabashedly positive message feels particularly bracing in this current Age of Irony of ours.

Hero’s Quest‘s message of positive empowerment feels particularly bracing in our current age antiheroes and murky morality.

Indeed, Hero’s Quest is such a design outlier from the other Sierra games of its era that I contacted the Coles with the explicit goal of coming to understand just how it could have come out so differently. Corey took me back all the way the mid-1970s, to one of his formative experiences as a computer programmer and game designer alike, when he wrote a simple player-versus-computer tic-tac-toe game for a time-shared system to which he had access. “Originally,” he says, “it played perfectly, always winning or drawing, and nobody played it for long. After I introduced random play errors by the computer, so that a lucky player could occasionally win, people got hooked on the game.” From this “ah-ha!” moment and a few others like it was born the Coles’ Rule #1 for game design: “The player must always have fun.” “We try to remember that rule,” says Corey, “every time we create a potentially frustrating puzzle.” The trick, as he describes it, is to make “the puzzles and challenges feel difficult, yet give the player a chance to succeed after reasonable effort.” Which leads us to Rule #2: “The player wants to win.” “We aren’t here to antagonize the players,” he says. “We work with them in a cooperative storytelling effort. If the player fails, everybody loses; we want to see everyone win.”

Although their professional credits in the realm of game design were all but nonexistent at the time they came to Sierra, the Coles were nevertheless used to thinking about games far more deeply than was the norm in Oakhurst. They were, for one thing, dedicated players of games, very much in tune with the experience of being a player, whether sitting behind a table or a computer. Ken Williams, by contrast, had no interest in tabletop games, and had sat down and played for himself exactly one computerized adventure game in his life (that game being, characteristically for Ken, the ribald original Softporn). While Roberta Williams had been inspired to create Mystery House by the original Adventure and some of the early Scott Adams games, her experience as a player never extended much beyond those primitive early text adventures; she was soon telling interviewers that she “didn’t have the time” to actually play games. Most of Sierra’s other design staff came to the role through the back door of being working artists, writers, or programmers, not through the obvious front door of loving games as a pursuit unto themselves. Corey states bluntly that “almost nobody there played [emphasis mine] games.” The isolation from the ordinary player’s experience that led to so many bad designs was actually encouraged by Ken Williams; he suggested that his staffers not look too much at what the competition was doing out of some misguided desire to preserve the “originality” of Sierra’s own games.

But the Coles were a little different than the majority of said staffers. Corey points out that they were both over thirty by the time they started at Sierra. They had, he notes, also “traveled a fair amount,” and “both the real-life experience and extensive tabletop-gaming experience gave [us] a more ‘mature’ attitude toward game development, especially that the designer is a partner to the player, not an antagonist to be overcome.” Given the wealth of experience with games and ideas about how games ought to be that they brought with them to Sierra, the Coles probably benefited as much from the laissez-faire approach to game-making engendered by Ken Williams as some of the others designers perhaps suffered from the same lack of direction. Certainly Ken’s personal guidance was only sporadic, and often inconsistent. Corey:

Once in a while, Ken Williams would wander through the development area — it might happen two or three times in a day, or more likely the visits might be three weeks apart. Everyone learned that it was essential to show Ken some really cool sequence or feature that he hadn’t seen before. You only showed him one such sequence because you needed to reserve two more in case he came back the same day.

Our first (and Sierra’s first) Producer, Guruka Singh Khalsa, taught us the “Ken Williams Rule” based on something Robert Heinlein wrote: “That which he tells you three times is true.” Ken constantly came up with half-baked ideas, some of them amazing, some terrible, and some impractical. If he said something once, you nodded in agreement. Twice, you sat up and listened. Anything he said three times was law and had to be done. While Ken mostly played a management role at Sierra, he also had some great creative ideas that really improved our games. Of course, it takes fifteen seconds to express an idea, and sometimes days or weeks to make it work. That’s why we ignored the half-baked, non-repeated suggestions.

The Coles had no affinity for any of Sierra’s extant games; they considered them “unfair and not much fun.” Yet the process of game development at Sierra was so unstructured that they had little sense of really reacting against them either.  As I mentioned earlier, Lori didn’t much care for any of the adventure games she had seen, from any company. She wouldn’t change her position until she played Lucasfilm Games’s The Secret of Monkey Island in 1990. After that experience, she became a great fan of the Lucasfilm adventures, enjoying them far more than the works of her fellow designers at Sierra. For now, though, rather than emulating existing computerized adventure or RPG games, the Coles strove to re-create the experience of sitting at a table with a great storytelling game master at its head.

Looking beyond issues of pure design, another sign of the Coles’ relatively broad experience in life and games can be seen in their choice of settings. Rather than settling for the generic “lazy Medieval” settings so typical of Dungeons & Dragons-derived computer games then and now, they planned their series as a hall of windows into some of the richest myths and legends of our own planet. The first game, which corresponded in Lori’s grand scheme for the series as a whole to the direction North, the season Spring, and the element Earth, is at first glance the most traditional of the series’s settings. This choice was very much a conscious one, planned to help the series attract an initial group of players and get some commercial traction; bullish as he was on series in general, Ken Williams wasn’t particularly noted for his patience with new ones that didn’t start pulling their own weight within a game or two. Look a little closer, though, and even the first game’s lush fantasy landscape, full of creatures that seem to have been lifted straight out of a Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, stands out as fairly unique. Inspired by an interest in German culture that had its roots in the year Corey had spent as a high-school exchange student in West Berlin back in 1971 and 1972, the Coles made their Medieval setting distinctly Germanic, as is highlighted by the name of the town around which the action centers: Spielburg. (Needless to say, the same name is also an example of the Coles’ love of puns and pop-culture in-joking.) Later games would roam still much further afield from the lazy-Medieval norm. The second, for instance, moves into an Arabian Nights milieu, while still later ones explore the myths and legends of Africa, Eastern Europe, and Greece. The Coles’ determination to inject a little world music into the cultural soundtracks of their mostly young players stands out as downright noble. Their series doubtless prompted more than a few blinkered teenage boys to begin to realize what a big old interesting world there really is out there.

Hero's Quest

Of course, neither the first Hero’s Quest nor any of the later ones in the series would be entirely faultless. Sierra suffered from the persistent delusion that their SCI engine was a truly universal hammer suitable for every sort of nail, leading them to incorporate action sequences into almost every one of their adventure games. These are almost invariably excruciating, afflicted with slow response times and imprecise, clumsy controls. Hero’s Quest, alas, isn’t an exception from this dubious norm. It has an action-oriented combat engine so unresponsive that no one I’ve ever talked to tries to do anything with it but just pound on the “attack” key until the monster is dead or it’s obviously time to run away. And then there are some move-exactly-right-or-you’re-dead sequences in the end game that are almost as frustrating as some of the ones found in Sierra’s other series. But still, far more important in the end are all the things Hero’s Quest does right, and more often than not in marked contrast to just about every other Sierra game of its era.

Hero’s Quest was slated into Sierra’s release schedule for Christmas 1989, part of a diverse lineup of holiday releases that also included the third Leisure Suit Larry game from the ever-prolific Al Lowe and something called The Colonel’s Bequest, a bit of a departure for Roberta Williams in the form of an Agatha Christie-style cozy murder mystery. With no new King’s Quest game on offer that year, Hero’s Quest, the only fantasy release among Sierra’s 1989 lineup, rather unexpectedly took up much of its slack. As pre-orders piled up to such an extent that Sierra projected needing to press 100,000 copies right off the bat just to meet the holiday demand, Corey struggled desperately with a sequence — the kobold cave, for those of you who have played the game already — that just wouldn’t come together. At last he brokered a deal to withhold only the disk that would contain that sequence from the duplicators. In a single feverish week, he rewrote it from scratch. The withheld disk was then duplicated in time to join the rest, and the game as a whole shipped on schedule, largely if not entirely bug-free. Even more impressively, it was, despite receiving absolutely no outside beta-testing — Sierra still had no way of seriously evaluating ordinary players’ reactions to a game before release — every bit as friendly, flexible, and soluble as the Coles had always envisioned it to be.

Hero's Quest

The game became the hit its pre-orders had indicated it would, its sales outpacing even the new Leisure Suit Larry and Roberta Williams’s new game by a comfortable margin that holiday season. The reviews were superlative; Questbusters‘s reviewer pronounced it “honestly the most fun I’ve had with any game in years,” and Computer Gaming World made it their “Adventure Game of the Year.” While it would be nice to attribute this success entirely to the public embracing its fine design sensibilities, which they had learned of via all the fine reviews, its sales numbers undoubtedly had much to do with its good fortune in being released during this year without a King’s Quest. Hero’s Quest was for many a harried parent and greedy child alike the closest analogue to Roberta Williams’s blockbuster series among the new releases on store shelves. The game sold over 130,000 copies in its first year on the market, about 200,000 copies in all in its original version, then another 100,000 copies when it was remade in 1992 using Sierra’s latest technology. Such numbers were, if not quite in the same tier as a King’s Quest, certainly nothing to sneeze at. In creative and commercial terms alike, the Coles’ series was off to a fine start.

At the instant of Hero’s Quest‘s release, Sierra was just embarking on a major transition in their approach to game-making. Ken Williams had decided it was time at last to make the huge leap from the EGA graphics standard, which could display just 16 colors onscreen from a palette of 64, to VGA, which could display 256 colors from a palette of 262,144. To help accomplish this transition, he had hired Bill Davis, a seasoned Hollywood animator, in the new role of Sierra’s “Creative Director” in July of 1989. Davis systematized Sierra’s heretofore laissez-faire approach to game development into a rigidly formulated Hollywood-style production pipeline. Under his scheme, the artists would now be isolated from the programmers and designers; inter-team communication would happen only through a bureaucratic paper trail.

The changes inevitably disrupted Sierra’s game-making operation, which of late had been churning out new adventure games at a rate of about half a dozen per year. Many of the company’s resources for 1990 were being poured into King’s Quest V, which was intended, as had been the norm for that series since the beginning, to be the big showpiece game demonstrating all the company’s latest goodies, including not only 256-color VGA graphics but also a new Lucasfilm Games-style point-and-click interface in lieu of the old text parser. King’s Quest V would of course be Sierra’s big title for Christmas. They had only two other adventure games on their schedule for 1990, both begun using the older technology and development methodology well before the end of 1989 and both planned for release in the first half of the new year. One, an Arthurian game by an established writer for television named Christy Marx, was called Conquests of Camelot: The Search for the Grail (thus winning the prize of being the most strained application of Sierra’s cherished “Quest” moniker ever). The other, a foray into Tom Clancy-style techno-thriller territory by Police Quest designer Jim Walls, was called Code-Name: ICEMAN. Though they had every reason to believe that King’s Quest V would become another major hit, Sierra was decidedly uncertain about the prospects of these other two games. They felt they needed at least one more game in an established series if they hoped to maintain the commercial momentum they’d been building up in recent years. Yet it wasn’t clear where that game was to come from; one side effect of the transition to VGA graphics was that art took much longer to create, and games thus took longer to make. Lori and Corey were called into a meeting and given two options. One, which Lori at least remembers management being strongly in favor of, was to make the second game in their series using Sierra’s older EGA- and parser-driven technology, getting it out in time to become King’s Quest V‘s running mate for the Christmas of 1990. The other was to be moved in some capacity to the King’s Quest V project, with the opportunity to return to Hero’s Quest only at some uncertain future date. They chose — or were pushed into — the former.

Despite using the older technology, their second game was, at Davis’s insistence, created using the newer production methodology. This meant among other things that the artists, now isolated from the rest of the developers, had to create the background scenes on paper; their pictures were then scanned in for use in the game. I’d like to reserve the full details of Sierra’s dramatically changed production methodology for another article, where I can give them their proper due. Suffice for today to say that, while necessary in many respects for a VGA game, the new processes struck everyone as a strange way to create a game using the sharply limited EGA color palette. By far the most obvious difference they made was that everything seemed to take much longer. Lori Ann Cole:

We got the worst of both worlds. We got a new [development] system that had never been tried before, and all the bugs that went with that. And we were doing it under the old-school technology where the colors weren’t as good and all that. We were under a new administration with a different way of treating people. We got time clocks; we had to punch in a number to get into the office so that we would work the set number of hours. We had all of a sudden gone from this free-form company to an authoritarian one: “This is the hours you have to work. Programmers will work over here and artists will work over there, and only their bosses can talk to one another; you can’t talk to the artist that’s doing the art.”

Some of the Coles’ frustrations with the new regime came out in the game they were making. Have a close look at the name of Raseir, an oppressed city — sort of an Arabian Nights version of Nineteen Eighty-Four — where the climax of the game occurs.

Scheduled for a late September release, exactly one year after the release of the first Hero’s Quest, the second game shipped two months behind schedule, coming out far too close to Christmas to have a prayer of fully capitalizing on the holiday rush. And then when it did finally ship, it didn’t even ship as Hero’s Quest II.

Quest for Glory II

In 1989, the same year that Sierra had released the first Hero’s Quest, the British division of the multi-national toys and games giant Milton Bradley had released HeroQuest, a sort of board-gameified version of Dungeons & Dragons. They managed to register their trademark on the name for Europe shortly before Sierra registered theirs for Europe and North America. After the board game turned into a big European success, Milton Bradley elected to bring it to North America the following year, whilst also entering into talks with some British developers about turning it into a computer game. Clearly something had to be done about the name conflict, and thanks to their having registered the trademark first Milton Bradley believed they had the upper hand. When the bigger company’s lawyers came calling, Sierra, unwilling to get entangled in an expensive lawsuit they probably couldn’t win anyway, signed a settlement that not only demanded they change the name of their series but also stated that they couldn’t even continue using the old name long enough to properly advertise that “Hero’s Quest has a new name!” Thus when Hero’s Quest and its nearly finished sequel were hastily rechristened Quest for Glory, the event was announced only via a single four-sentence press release.

So, a veritable perfect storm of circumstances had conspired to undermine the commercial prospects of the newly rechristened Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire. Sierra’s last parser-driven 16-color game, it was going head to head with the technological wonder that was King’s Quest V — another fantasy game to boot. Due to its late release, it lost the chance to pick up even many or most of the scraps King’s Quest V might have left it. And finally, the name change meant that the very idea of a Quest for Glory II struck most Sierra fans as a complete non sequitur; they had no idea what game it was allegedly a sequel to. Under the circumstances, it’s remarkable that Quest for Glory II performed as well as it did. It sold an estimated 110,000 to 120,000 copies — not quite the hit its predecessor had been, but not quite the flop one could so easily imagine the newer game becoming under the circumstances either. Sales were still strong enough that this eminently worthy series was allowed to continue.


As a finished game, Quest for Glory II betrays relatively little sign of its difficult gestation, even if there are perhaps just a few more rough edges in comparison to its predecessor. The most common complaint is that the much more intricate and linear plot this time out can lead to a fair amount of time spent waiting for the next plot event to fire, with few concrete goals to achieve in the meantime. This syndrome can especially afflict those players who’ve elected to transfer in an established character from the first game, and thus have little need for the grinding with which newbies are likely to occupy themselves. At the same time, though, the new emphasis on plot isn’t entirely unwelcome in light of the almost complete lack of same in the first game, while the setting this time out of a desert land drawn from the Arabian Nights is even more interesting than was that of the previous game. The leisurely pace can make Quest for Glory II feel like a sort of vacation simulator, a relaxing computerized holiday spent chatting with the locals, sampling the cuisine, enjoying belly dances and poetry readings, and shopping in the bazaars. (Indeed, your first challenge in the game is one all too familiar to every tourist in a new land: converting the money you brought with you from Spielburg into the local currency.) I’ve actually heard Quest for Glory II described by a fair number of players as their favorite in the entire series. If push comes to shove, I’d probably have to say that I slightly prefer the first game, but I wouldn’t want to be without either of them. Certainly Quest for Glory II is about as fine a swan song for the era of parser-driven Sierra graphical adventures as one could possibly hope for.

The combat system used in the Quest for Glory games would change constantly. The one found in the second game is a little more responsive and playable than its predecessor.

The combat system used in the Quest for Glory games would change constantly from game to game. The one found in the second game is a little more responsive and playable than its predecessor.

Had more adventure-game designers at Sierra and elsewhere followed the Coles’ lead, the history of the genre might have been played out quite differently. As it is, though, we’ll have to be content with the games we do have. I’d hugely encourage any of you who haven’t played the Quest for Glory games to give them a shot — preferably in order, transferring the same character from game to game, just as the Coles ideally intended it. Thanks to our friends at GOG.com, they’re available for purchase today in a painless one-click install for modern systems. They remain as funny, likable, and, yes, generous as ever.

We’ll be returning to the Coles in due course to tell the rest of their series’s story. Next time, though, we’ll turn our attention to the Apple Macintosh, a platform we’ve been neglecting a bit of late, to see how it was faring as the 1990s were fast approaching.

Hero's Quest

(Sources: Questbusters of December 1989; Computer Gaming World of September 1990 and April 1991; Sierra’s newsletters dated Autumn 1989, Spring 1990, Summer 1991, Spring 1992, and Autumn 1992; Antic of August 1986; STart of Summer 1986; Dragon of October 1991; press releases and annual reports found in the Sierra archive at the Strong Museum of Play. Online sources include Matt Chats 173 and 174; Lori Ann Cole’s interview with Adventure Classic Gaming; Lori and Corey’s appearance on the Space Venture podcast; and various entries on the Coles’ own blog. But my biggest resource at all has been the Coles themselves, who took the time to patiently answer my many nit-picky questions at length. Thank you, Corey and Lori! And finally, courtesy of Corey and Lori, a little bonus for the truly dedicated among you who have read this far: some pages from an issue of their newsletter The Spell Book, including Corey’s take on “Fantasy Gaming Via Computer” circa summer 1982.)

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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