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Ken and Roberta (2011) (filfre.net)
105 points by gwern 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 48 comments

When I was in 7th grade in the late 80s I sent Sierra a letter asking for something...perhaps a disk exchange or maybe it was just fan mail, I don't remember. But since I wasn't used to sending letters I completely forgot to put my return address on the letter and possibly not even on the envelope I sent it in. I did however include the name of my junior high school and several weeks later I was called to the principals office and told that they'd received some mail for me. I was stunned to find a letter from Sierra with whatever it was that I'd requested. They'd literally tracked down the address of my junior high to avoid disappointing one of their fans. Many of my most formative game playing experiences were with Sierra adventure games. It was really a different time.

I got stuck in the Mystery House forest back in 1981 or 1982, and wrote a short letter to them to get help. They wrote back a typewritten, personalized, and hand-signed response that thanked me for buying the game, told me how to get out (dropping things, moving forward/up, and paying attention to the exact text in the messages), and giving me a couple extra hints for the next challenges I'd hit.

Definitely a different time.

A different time indeed, I feel like I'm the last generation to embody those days in any way, shape or form culturally. Everything feels so foreign today, there was a definite cultural shift around 9/11 permanently, for the worst.

To continue this chain with my own letter writing story.. I was a little younger than you two since I was born in the very early 80s, but I sent a letter in the very late 80s or early 90s telling whatever address was in Interaction magazine that I was one day going to work at Sierra.

They wrote me back telling me they'd be waiting for me. Of course being a Xennial (Oregon Trail Generation), I never made it in time. But wow, would I love to be there today. Two moments in gaming history that I've witnessed that were outstanding for me, 1989's Hero's Quest and the launch of the 3dfx Voodoo 4MB in '96. It was thanks to King's Quest & Space Quest that I learned how to type and spell at an early age. As well, a little later on when I got my hands on them, thanks to Police Quest, Leisure Suit Larry and Hero's Quest.

I was a totally ignored child, I can't say how many days & nights playing those games, eating up bologna and Velveeta sandwiches that I made myself at a pretty tender age, and washed down with RC Cola. Pretty terrible mental image, I know. The isolation just made it all that much more impactful. It was the happiness & high point of my life and honestly, still is. Sometimes I still sit and think about the worlds that Sierra created to bring myself a bit of happiness.

Sierra, and especially Hero's Quest / QFG will live within me for the rest of my life and die with me as probably the most cherished memories, characters and stories in my heart. Tolkien and the rest could never have anything on the impact Sierra adventures had on me.

Breaking the chain, I was amazed at King's Quest V and Conquests of the Longbow when I was 8 or 9 and sent a letter out asking how they made it and how I could learn to make something like that, never got a response.

Perhaps they wanted happy customers, but not happy competitors :-)

I've heard someone suggest that Roberta Williams being at the head of Sierra was one of the reasons why Sierra had so many games designed by women. People usually have trouble naming even one prominent woman game designer, but Sierra had several - in addition to Roberta Williams, you had Jane Jensen, Lori Cole (with her husband Corey), and Christy Marx. The first three made some of the most famous adventure game series of all time - King's Quest, Gabriel Knight, and Quest for Glory. Christy Marx isn't as well known, but her Conquest of Camelot and Conquest of the Longbow games are held in pretty high regard by those who have played them (worth noting that Roberta Williams' The Colonel's Bequest is similarly lesser known but still highly regarded).

> Quest for Glory

I still prefer it's original name "Hero's Quest". Is a much more fitting title. The protagonist had not so much an interest in "glory" but was training to become a hero in order to save the town. I'm probably biased and sentimental.

(They had to change it due to a trademark claim. I think I still have the infringing floppies around somewhere.)

> Christy Marx isn't as well known, but her Conquest of Camelot and Conquest of the Longbow games are held in pretty high regard by those who have played them

You can find her photo (in archer costume with an actual bow) in the hintbook to Conquests of the Longbow. GOG version has it. She also talks about making of the game there.

Fun to read along with this recent article


which portrays early '90s Ken Williams as callous tool of the Man, in contrast to the the free-spirited hacker/entrepreneur version you get in the post's origin story. (I don't have any strong feelings or opinions about the accuracy of either portrayal)

Gates certainly sounds deplorable, but it’s interesting that one of the criticisms is:

”with Carey incinerating the killer—a cross-dressing man who is given about as much humanity and depth in this story as you'd expect”

despite this hit piece being little more than an exercise in denying Gates himself of any depth or humanity.

It's highly critical of Gates but that doesn't make it a 'hit piece' nor does it deny Gates depth or humanity. It just isn't very fond of his particular humanity.

If you are interested in what Ken and Roberta have been up to since 2004, check out Ken's blog [1]. In short, they have been travelling the world on their Nordhavn motorboats. Ken does a good job describing their travels and issues along the way, with many technical posts. Plus there are occasional references to Sierra.

[1] https://www.kensblog.com/

I'd highly recommend reading more of that blog. He's been publishing consistently for 7 years (!), tracking down obscure interviews and conducting a few of his own. I spent almost 2 hours this morning digging through his full history of Sierra.

Some interesting nuggets:

- Al Lowe basically invented beta testing at Sierra for Leisure Suit Larry. He wrote a program to capture user inputs that didn't work onto the floppy disk, which the beta testers then sent back to Sierra. They then updated the graphics, text, or parser to account for these confusing areas.

- Ken Williams was quite a visionary on several things, including the rise of IBM compatibles, MS-DOS, and the early internet / social networks.

- Lori Cole's vision for Quest for Glory, using a cardinal direction, a season, and an element as inspiration, was really fascinating to reflect on. (I have a soft spot for Quest for Glory IV's Eastern European mythology, which was very rare in the pre-Witcher days.)

- There was a failed merger between Sierra and Broderbund (Carmen Sandiego, Print Shop, Prince of Persia) in the early 90s that could well have changed the face of the industry.

Overall, was way better than the average internet rabbit hole!

My native tongue is french. I was very bad at english at school (my teachers were awfully bad too). I had never met anyone not speaking french (that was inconceivable for me at that time of my life). And then "King's Quest 3". I spent weeks and months struggling to end the game. And to understand the texts, too! My french-english dictionary became my dearest book. And after that experience, I highly praised foreign-language skills. (I could buy/read the RPG books directly in English, idem for fantasy literature such as LotR). Learning how Ken and Roberta started their business (and eventually changed my life) is a really nice moment. Thanks!...

I spent many many hours playing Sierra games as a kid. Really high quality gameplay that in some ways is hard to come by in modern games.

Meh, I wonder how much of it is rose colored glasses. There is one KQ (forgot which one) where you have to walk through a bunch of thorny bushes to get to a castle. Any touching of the plants = instant death. This was essentially an exercise in 'take a few steps, save game, repeat'. Where was the fun in that? There were many things like that, although I forgot most of them of course. Many of the mechanics just felt like 'hard for hard sakes', not 'hard for fun sakes' - of course with the idea that harder is more fun, but still.

Sierra was a big fan of 'cruel' game design. Fail to do something at the start properly? The game will let you continue but you can never win.


And yeah it sucked.

In that same vein, Lori and Corey Cole are working on a game right now: http://hero-u.com

Sierra was definitely a seal of quality for a time, like Blizzard, Disney or Nintendo-- anything they produced was going to be very well polished and even if it wasn't your thing, you could tell it was a solid product.

Adventure games died for a while, but there are some good ones that have come out since the 90s. The Shivah captured a lot of the humor of the genre but with a distinctly Jewish flavor, and I found The Cat Lady to be far more captivating than Gabriel Knight or Phantasmagoria.

Favorite? Mine was King's Quest IV.

King's Quest III and IV are my favorite in the KQ series. But overall I'd probably say the first Quest For Glory. It was such a great melding of Sierra adventure and RPG.

Couldn't agree more! I got into QFG1 at the time of Sierra's VGA point-and-click remake, and what a lasting impression.

The artwork, music, sense of humor, and character building - including being able to import your character and keep building your skill points through each successive game in the series - made it really special. Truly the golden years of graphical RPGs, IMO.

Both Manhunters. I've never seen anything quite like them. You'd watch a cryptic, low-tech surveillance-style scene play out, then travel to the scene and try to figure out who was who and what happened. Then on to the next scene to advance the plot.

I'm glad I'm not the only one who remembers those. For the longest time I thought only my brother and I had ever played them at all.

Just a shame the series ended on a cliffhanger. There was supposed to be a Manhunter: London, but it was unfortunately canceled.

The incredible machine!

I had forgotten this was a Sierra game! Another great one. Reminds me of this awesome game box: https://static.giantbomb.com/uploads/original/1/15693/139356...

King's Quest IV was good (it was the first one I played), but I think I prefer King's Quest VI. Things started to go downhill after that. However, the new King's Quest which got released on Steam is actually pretty good!

My intro to the series was Kings Quest VII, my sister and I loved it. It inspired is to buy the collection set with all the previous games. I think Kings Quest VIII was the death knell for that series. They attempted to make a 3D action game out of the series but it wasn't well executed and it meanwhile lost the charm.

I would've said Caesar III and/or Ground Control, but neither was developed by Sierra, only published. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Space Quest series!

I attribute most of my adulthood problem solving skills to figuring out how to get Larry laid.

Thanks for all the good games from Sierra Online!

I learned a foreign language English by playing text based adventure games such as those from Sierra! Got the English basics from school, but it was by playing text adventure games that my English got much better. In order to play the text based games in English I had to use a Swedish to English dictionary to understand the words. Remember Sierra games such as Police Quest, Kings quest, Magnetic scrolls, Lucas art games.

Links to Police quest http://www.sierragamers.com/Police-Quest-1 http://www.mobygames.com/game/dos/police-quest-in-pursuit-of...

Gotta love those Space Quest games! You haven't really lived until you've played Astro Chicken in a space diner.

SQIII was the greatest of all the games they made.

SQIII was great, but IV really was the peak of the series for me. The time travel to future installments (you went to Space Quest 12 I think?) was really well done, and it had a slightly more serious edge that all the others in the series lacked. I remember years later trying to play the cartoonish SQVI and thinking they'd turned it into a terrible caricature of itself, which is a mighty feat.

The time travel to future installments (you went to Space Quest 12 I think?) was really well done,

And traveling back to Space Quest 1 with EGA graphics.

There is also this scene where you have to free up memory on some machine by throwing applications in the thrash can (erm toilet) [1]. The first time I made the mistake to trash the SQIV icon, which throws you right back to DOS. Of course, I hadn't saved for a while.

[1] http://www.mobygames.com/game/dos/space-quest-iv-roger-wilco...

SQIII always felt a little short to me. SQV is probably my pick, but they're all great.

There's also some great Space Quest games made by the community, such as Space Quest 0, Space Quest 2 Remake, and Vohaul Strikes Back. Worth checking out for any SQ fan.

Sierra had a game called Police Quest that I played religiously. Ahead of its time. It was also edgy with sex, language, and violence.

Police Quest was huge for me. As a kid it was just risque and free form enough to capture my imagination. I always loved knocking over the motorcycles out in front of the biker bar. I re-bought the Police Quest series a few years back and this genre of games definitely didn't age very well, but still holds a place in my heart. Last time Sierra came up on HN, someone recommended the Sierra chapter in Steven Levy's "Hackers", definitely worth the read. All Sierra Games had a unique aesthetic and you could just tell that the people behind the games loved what they did for a living and had an amazing combination of tech and design skills.

Ahead of its time would be one way to describe it. I highly recommend this essay https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/a3n8ea/how-sierra-an... on the development and politics of Police Quest 4.

Just found a walkthrough of Police Quest IV. What a blast from the past!


Police Quest

It's not just Sierra I miss, it's RPG games that aren't mostly first-person shooters and smashers.

Maybe people of our generation will have their needs met with a new popular genre of games 'discovered' by a later generation? Maybe many of these games exist but I'm naively missing them since I'm not following the releases?

There's absolutely a glut of throwback adventure games on Steam nowadays. Take a look!

Good read. Such a fun era! Glad I was there to enjoy some of it.

IIRC the book "Hackers" by Steven Levy has a decent amount of background story/info on the Williams'.

EDIT: oh... duh - there's a link to the Levy book in the blog post!

Funny that just today I was searching for old D&D campaign settings and found that Birthright had a game called Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance, distributed by Sierra.

Ah, the nostalgia.

Nice throwback WordPress theme. Every website is so flat now, and sometimes much uglier than before (cbc.ca comes to mind)

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