I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

The Vanguard of Technology: Sierra

by Brian Correia
Feb. 5, 2015

Technology is getting bigger, more powerful, and more impressive by the minute – we get to walk on its cutting edge every time we take in a summer blockbuster or buy a new smartphone or attend a 2Pac concert in 2012, but what is it about videogames that makes them feel like they're especially at the vanguard of all this high definition magic? The next Avatar may surpass three dimensions, but that moment, for my money, won't feel as futuristic as the one where Mario, in all his newfound 64 bit glory, ran 360 degrees for the first time.

Here's a theory: videogames have evolved further than any other media. In thirty years, they've grown from text-based adventures of nerdy hobbyists to, well, just about anything you want them to be: social gathering spaces, time-killers, full-blown cinematic experiences... the list is damn near infinite, to be enjoyed in the comfort of your own home or, why not, on a whim in the palm of your head. Every year a new game pushes the boundaries of of universe expansion, of character development, and of gameplay itself. Many gamers would argue that a well-made video game provides an experience comparable or even superior to a good book or movie. There’s a full-fledged debate (the fire fueled in no small part by Roger Ebert’s famous and ludicrous claim that “videogames can never be art1.”)

Leisure Suit Larry may not be the best title to bring up if you’re going against Ebert on that one, but the videogame industry actually owes a lot to the developer of the franchise, Sierra Entertainment. Throughout the eighties and early nineties, Sierra Entertainment was among the leaders of the industry in the creation, promotion, and sales of PC videogames. Their specialty was the adventure game, a genre they rescued from a likely grave by, doy, adding pictures! That the addition of pictures seems like such an obvious thing now is a testament to the impact that Sierra games had.

Sierra Entertainment was founded in 1979 by husband and wife dork team Ken and Roberta Williams. Then, they called it “On-Line Systems.” Their first breakthrough was 1980’s Mystery House. Legend has it that Roberta fell in love with text-based adventure games like Will Crowther’s Colossal Cave Adventure and Infocom’s Zork in the late 70s, playing them on Teletype machines that printed out hard copy responses to her input2. Inspired by the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie, Williams set out on her Apple II computer to design a similar game. Ken programmed it. The revolutionary catch, though, was that their game included graphics. Rudimentary as they were, the graphics of Mystery House were a huge improvement on the nonexistent ones of its forebears, and On-Line Systems (eventually Sierra On-Line, and henceforth just known as Sierra) was born.

Then, in 1983, a little company called IBM (Ken’s former employer -- maybe you’ve heard of them?) contacted Sierra. They were about to launch their PCjr series of economical computers aimed at the home market (presumably to compete with the wildly successful Apple II). What IBM needed, they claimed, was a game to help sell these things. A game at which IBM was apparently willing to throw seven hundred thousand dollars! The Williams obliged, naturally, and hired a six person team to get to work.

What they came up with did not save the PCjr -- nothing could. In 1984, Time famously called the PCjr “one of the biggest flops in the history of computing.” It did, however, completely revolutionize the adventure game -- even the videogame -- as we know it. Sierra spent eighteen months and seven-hundred thousand dollars well and came up with what can only be rightfully called a masterpiece: King’s Quest. Pretty much everything about King’s Quest was groundbreaking: Sixteen colors! Third person point of view! Animated characters! Most groundbreaking of all, though, was Roberta’s elaborate design. She had created a believable, expansive fantasy world and populated it with memorable characters and challenging puzzles.

The PCjr flopped but King’s Quest was ported to other computers with great commercial success. It launched Sierra to the top of the PC gaming heap, and a flurry of other “Quest” games followed, including Space Quest, Police Quest, and Hero’s Quest, most of which ended up with their own sequels, and eventually their own franchises. Each Sierra game used the same engine they had developed for the first King’s Quest, but subtle innovations kept on coming on all fronts: graphics, music, story, etc.

At the height of their powers, Sierra produced these goofy video catalogs for their games. These things, as we say so often here at Network Awesome, have to be seen to be believed. For starters, there’s the old thrill of hearing antiquated technology being boasted about as the hot new thing, but that’s cheap. The real glory here is in the downright bizarre live action sequences. They’re cheap, they’re ramshackle, they’re rife with pop culture references (or, more often, ripoffs). These things look like they were filmed with one of those old VHS camcorders by whoever was sitting around the Sierra office, and they probably were. For a lot of us, though, it might be as close as we ever get to playing a late-80s era Sierra game. On that level, they’re a fascinating look into the weird, singular, and admittedly corny world of their games.

Throughout the 90s, Sierra ran into competition with companies like LucasFilm, who had developed their own groundbreaking adventure game engine. However, they continued to have a following, and mostly thanks to the creative force that is Roberta Williams, they continued to find success with games like the Gabriel Knight series and Phantasmagoria. Their importance in the history of gaming cannot be understated. If and when you unwrap that new Wii controller thing next year, remember where we used to be, and look at where we are now, and try to fathom the future! From text to this in thirty years. I hope I make that much progress.

Brian Correia is a budding computer scientist and aspiring writer from Boston, Massachusetts who couldn't decide which hip-hop lyric to put in his byline. The top three, in no particular order, were as follows: “cooler than a cucumber in a bowl of hot sauce,” “spiced out Calvin Coolidge loungin' with six duelers,” and “I got techniques drippin' out my buttcheeks.” He is on Twitter (@brianmcorreia) and Tumblr (brianmcorreia.tumblr.com) like the rest of the kids.