30 in 30: Sierra Online

Pioneers of the adventure game

Sierra On-Line was truly one of the pioneers in the golden age of video gaming. It was founded in the days where anyone could start a gaming company, making games in their spare time and distributing them to stores in zip-lock bags with photocopied inlays and a floppy disc.

Although many other talented people became involved with the company throughout its lifespan, at heart it was a two-person operation, run by husband and wife team Ken and Roberta Williams.


The first game released by the company was Hi-Res Adventure 1 - Mystery House, the first adventure game with graphics. Sierra released seven games in the Hi-Res Adventure series, including Cranston Manor, Time Zone (which came on six floppy discs) and the Dark Crystal.

Next up was the King's Quest series, a series of adventures with a wicked sense of humour that many old-school gamers still have a soft spot in their hearts for. The first game, subtitled Quest for the Crown, was released in 1984 and told the story of a young Sir Graham, the King's bravest knight, who is told if he can bring back three legendary treasures, he can be the next king. It was another innovation in the adventuring genre, adding animations to the graphics. To make Sir Graham do anything, you needed to tell him using simple commands - if it was a valid command, his figure would then perform the animation on screen.

Other notable games developed by the company included the original Leisure Suit Larry, Space Quest, Phantasmagoria, Police Quest and Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers.

In February 1996, CUC International made Ken and Roberta an offer they couldn't refuse of $1.5 billion for Sierra. The company was sold by July. Sadly, after Ken and Roberta sold Sierra, the company hit many stumbling blocks before, in 2008, Sierra finally breathed its last, and was closed down by current owners Activision Blizzard.


Founded: 1979
Location: Fresno, California (moved in 2003 to Bellevue, Washington)
Killer Quote: "An adventure game is nothing more than a good story set with engaging puzzles that fit seamlessly in with the story and the characters, and looks and sounds beautiful." - Roberta Williams


Ken Williams


Ken was born in 1954 and founded On-Line Systems (which became Sierra Online) when he was 25. He was Sierra's chairman and CEO between 1979 and 1996, as well as being heavily involved in actually creating the games, and listed in many of the credits as producer and/or programmer. He fully admits that he had no experience in running a business and if he had started the company the tougher market today, Sierra would likely not have succeeded. However, he's also said that if people do want to start a game developer today, they can still be a Sierra-style success story and the best way he recommends to do this is by utilising digital distribution.

Before co-founding his own company with Roberta, he worked in LA as a computer programmer for large multi-user database applications. His services were in much demand, as he worked at both a full-time job and as a freelance at evenings and weekends. The couple's plan was to get out of Los Angeles and buy a cabin in the woods, a dream which they achieved in August 1980, after developing only one game.

Roberta Williams


Roberta was a storyteller even as a kid, when she used to entertain her younger brother by telling him fantastical fairy tales. She wasn't interested in computers or games at all until Ken sat her down and showed her Adventure - otherwise known as Colossal Cave. She was hooked and immediately bought and played through all the other adventure games on the market, before deciding she could do better. Inspired in part by Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians and Cluedo, she wrote Mystery House.

Roberta came up with the ideas and wrote the stories for many of Sierra's games, along with producing and designing many of the titles and also, hilariously, posing for the cover of the soft porn text adventure called... Softporn. Although most people remember her for the King's Quest series, she has said in interviews that the game she is proudest of and considers the pinnacle of her career is the controversial Phantasmagoria.

Ken and Roberta were high school sweethearts and married when they were 19. They have two children.


Mystery House


Sierra's first game was released in 1980 for the Apple II and although is clearly getting on a bit, it's important to remember that it was the first adventure game to feature graphics - simple, monochrome graphics, but graphics all the same - and what a pivotal point this was for gaming.

Roberta wrote the script for the game after playing through Colossal Cave with Ken, and the pair worked on the game in their spare time for three months before it was ready for release (ah, those were the days). They sold the game in local shops and it was a surprise hit, selling around 15,000 copies and making the couple very rich.

In Mystery House, you're locked inside an imposing Victorian mansion along with seven other people, who soon all start dropping dead. It's clear there's a murderer in the house and it's up to you to figure out who it is before you become a victim too.

King's Quest V


Ten years later, in 1990, adventure game King's Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder was released, the first game in the series to abandon text input for point and clicking.

In King's Quest V, King Graham pops out of the castle to go on a pleasant stroll and comes back to find, confusingly, that his entire castle has vanished. It seems that an evil wizard called Mordack has enchanted the castle and engulfed it in a whirlwind that has snatched it away.

So begins the King's mission, along with the non-help from a talking owl called Cedric, to stop the nefarious wizard from feeding the members of the royal family to a cat, and so he journeys across the lands of Serenia to find Mordack's island, having many adventures and comic moments along the way.

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