Saturday, May 28, 2022

The rise of Sierra Online wasn’t exactly a fairy tale

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My father was computer programmer for a large pharmaceutical company for much of his career. That was pretty cool, as he has brought home a lot of computer oddities and oddities to “try out” over the years. In the late spring of 1984, he brought us something new called IBM PCjr. It was IBM’s first foray into the personal computer market, an attempt to wrest some of that valuable market share from the apples and consumer products of the world.

What immediately caught my attention about the PCjr was that it came with a game called King’s Quest from a company called Sierra On-Line. Being a huge Dungeons & Dragons geek at the time, I was immediately drawn to this title. “Who is this king and what is his quest?” my hyperactive 13 year old mind wanted to know.

Once we launched the game, I was immediately mesmerized by the Kingdom of Daventry, and the game absorbed the majority of my free time that week. Homework? Forget it. Baseball practice? Do not arrive. Team A is on? Mr. T can bend – I play King’s Quest!

That Friday, I was pretty sure that I was close to the end of the quest given to me by King Edward, and I couldn’t wait 3 hours to be able to come home and find him. sacred treasure.

But alas, it was not. When I got home that day there was only an empty space on our dining room table where the PCjr was once seated. My dad had to put him back to work before the weekend and didn’t tell me. This obvious lack of parenting etiquette made me scream a curse that I certainly wouldn’t have shouted in our family dining room if someone else had come to the house.

Ever since I had received a Commodore 64 for the previous Christmas, I figured I could just make my dad feel guilty by buying myself the C64 version and continuing my quest there.

But no, there won’t be any more questing in Daventry for you, young boy! It turns out that many of the early Sierra adventure games were never ported to the C64 because, according to Wikipedia: “The limits of [the C64’s] the graphics system (three colors per 8×8 block) did not allow Sierra to achieve the desired level of graphics detail. Additionally, the computer’s 64KB memory was too small to accommodate the complex AGI engine. So I was never able to conclude the first of Sir Grahame’s adventures in its true original form.

Due to this technical disclaimer, the King’s Quest series and Sierra On-Line itself have become a sort of mysterious fascination for me. I always wanted to know what they were doing, or what games of their own (which I probably wasn’t going to play anyway) were coming out next.

Now with the release of the outstanding new book, Not all fairy tales have a happy ending, written by Sierra co-founder and longtime CEO Ken Williams, the mystery has disappeared and Sierra’s raison d’être as a company is now laid bare. The book itself is a part of memoir and business theory, as there are many industry-focused “interludes” dotted throughout the main story of the rise and fall. Williams’ writing is informative, straightforward, and humble, never coming across as boastful or arrogant while telling her literal rags to riches story.

The story is this: Teenagers, he and Roberta meet, have a whirlwind romance, and get married. The determined Ken is drawn to the magic of computers and becomes a programmer. Soon after, Roberta is drawn into the world of a first text-based adventure game, Adventure in the colossal cave. She has the idea of ​​adding graphics to a game of this ilk, Ken’s programming prowess makes it possible, and therefore the game Mystery house (and On-Line Systems, later renamed Sierra On-Line) were born.

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