First posted on 28 March 2006. Last updated on 26 July 2006.
|Ken Williams is the co-founder of Sierra On-Line and its Chief Executive Officer from 1979 to 1996.|
|This is the 62' trawler Sans Souci used in Ken Williams' Atlantic crossing.|
Any gamer familiar with the history of computer games should know of Ken Williams, for Williams was among the pioneers that launched the personal computer game industry. Born in 1954, he founded On-Line Systems, which later became Sierra On-Line, at only age 25. Over the next decades, his company dominated the computer game industry and became the most successful game developer and publisher in history. Many of the games from his company, such as the King's Quest, Police Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, Quest for Glory, Gabriel Knight, and Space Quest series, were among the best selling adventure games of all time. Since his retirement in 1998 (at only age 44), he had kept a lower public profile but remained in active contact with his fan base. We are extremely privileged to have this exclusive interview with the iconic figure of the computer game industry. In the interview, Williams speaks about his past with Sierra On-Line, his trials and tribulations as a game developer and publisher, his life after retirement, his current projects, and what life holds for him in the near future.
Check out our latest photos of Ken Williams as well as older photos of Ken and Roberta Williams!
- Before you and Roberta co-founded On-Line Systems in 1979, what did you do? What business and programming experiences did you have that prepared you to start a software game company?
- Prior to starting Sierra I was working in Los Angeles as a computer programmer. I was working a full-time job PLUS doing free-lance programming for several other companies. Most of my work was on large IBM mainframes. I specialized in large multi-user database applications (CICS and IMS/DC).
Roberta was by no means a computer geek, however, she was somewhat atypical, in that she did work as a computer operator and at one point as a computer programmer. Whereas I was a programmer because I love computers, she was a programmer out of economic necessity (that's the polite way of saying ‘we needed the money'.)
Many of my various jobs prior to starting Sierra were key in giving me the skills that made Sierra possible:
- I had strong skills in compiler development. This translated into Sierra focusing on building a programming language oriented towards building games.
- I had a background in building applications that were language and platform independent.
- One company I worked for was building a pre-cursor to modern spreadsheets, for modeling tax returns. I worked with the tax departments of some of the world's largest corporations. This gave me business and accounting skills beyond what one normally finds in a software engineer
- As a specialist in applications spanning thousands of remote computers, I was already thinking about telecommunications long before the internet. My love of anything multi-user resulted in our "The Sierra Network" project.
- The earliest games from On-Line Systems were from a series called HiRes Adventures. It included Mystery House, the first graphic adventure game ever created for the PC. These games were later released under the SierraVenture label. What were the early challenges you faced as an independent game developer and publisher, from programming to packaging to marketing the games in stores? What worries (if any) did you have with releasing Softporn Adventure, an adult-oriented game written by Chuck Benton, under the same label as kid friendly games written by Roberta?
- When Sierra started, it was a very different world from what we live in today. There was no internet. Floppy disks were just being invented. The little bit of software that was being sold was shipped on audio cassette. Most products didn't have packaging. There were no computer magazines beyond a few hand-typed newsletters.
This worked in our favor. At the time I was a 25 year old "kid" with no experience running a business. In today's competitive world, we wouldn't have survived six months. But at the time, we could get away with horrible packaging, selling products in zip-lock baggies, and no thought whatsoever given to things like brand image. We released Softporn, complete with Roberta's racy picture on the cover, without ever thinking about issues like branding or appropriateness. At the time, I don't think we had much more strategy than just to have fun.
- In 1982, the company changed its name to Sierra On-Line. What was the reason for the name change? How did your roles change within the company in the early years of its expansion? Who were some of the earliest employees who joined the company?
- My consulting business had been called "On-Line Systems" because of its focus on telecommunications. When Sierra became large enough to think about things like "getting incorporated" we discovered that there was already a large company who owned the name "On-Line Systems", so we needed a new name. The company was based at Yosemite (in the Sierra-Nevada mountains) at the time, so we decided on "Sierra On-Line".
Actually, our location had a lot to do with defining Sierra. From the beginning, I recognized that Sierra was in a different industry than most. We were selling creativity. Customers would forgive any sin as long as they were surprised and entertained. I had a rule in the early days of Sierra that if someone had worked for another company within the computer game business, we didn't want them. It was important to me that we do things our way, and our way alone. Sharing employees with other companies meant that roughly the same products could be bought from anybody. I wanted Sierra to produce products and technology that couldn't be found anywhere EXCEPT from Sierra. Even within Sierra I had rules about not allowing too many developers in one location. I wanted the independent thought that came from a small development group. My job was to span the different groups, and spread technology, when it made sense, but not do anything to hamper a group's creativity or the personality of the products. I still contend that the biggest problem facing the industry today is the lack of innovation and creativity. Marketers have gotten involved, and don't know what to do with any concept they haven't seen 50 times before. Sierra always tried to be the most innovative company in the industry.
Our first employees were, like me, very young. You have to remember that no one serious about a career in computers would go to work for a game company. It wasn't considered a profession in 1980. Most of our employees were 18 years old, with no formal training in software development. Very few of our artists had any art training. Keep in mind that graphic resolution was so low that most of the characters in our games only spanned 20 or 30 pixels of width, and were limited to six colors. No serious artist would WANT to work for us.
Obviously that changed with time. Over the 18 years I ran Sierra we went from hiring smart kids to professionals from Hollywood. Candidly, I'm not completely certain it was a huge step forward. Our games look pretty bad by today's standards, but viewed from a historical perspective, they were really great. We understood how to entertain and surprise the player.
- The creation of The Sierra Network (which later called The ImagiNation Network) in 1991 and its subsequent sale to AT&T in 1993 had critically impacted, both positively and negatively, on the company. What were the technological and business challenges during its early growth? In retrospect, how would you gauge the success and failure of this venture?
- When I think back on Sierra, it is TSN that I think about most. We should have been able to build it into a HUGE company, but wound up selling it and seeing it fail. We were years ahead of the Internet and had a product that I still marvel at. Even compared to today's offerings, over 10 years later, I'm proud of what we accomplished. Someday, someone should write a book on what happened at TSN, and how one of the greatest opportunities in history was so badly bungled. I'm really struggling to try to think how to respond to your question in anything under 300 pages!
To make a very long story short:
TSN started because I had a grandmother who was getting older, and was bored. I asked myself one day, "Is there anything I could do where she could pick up a bridge game, without leaving home? 24 hours a day, 7 days a week?" No one remembers now, but TSN's first name was "The Constant Companion". It was meant to be a product targeting seniors. I had several ulterior motives for targeting seniors.
1) I wanted a user interface that anyone could understand. I figured that if I gave my team the challenge of targeting 100% non computer literate people, they would build something that wasn't "geeky"
2) I needed LOTS of help. There was no internet at the time. I needed the help of the telecommunications companies to put the network in place. US Sprint came through with servers for me. NEC gave me dozens of free computers to distribute to seniors.
Quickly, TSN expanded beyond seniors, and added flight simulators, golf games, FRP games, casino games, etc. Anyone who has never seen TSN should try to find old screenshots on the web. We had hundreds of planes up dog-fighting at a time when the standard for modems was 2,400 baud! I don't understand how we did all that we accomplished.
I successfully raised 10s of millions of dollars to pursue the TSN vision. It was clear we were onto something huge. AT&T and Microsoft competed with each other for the right to partner with us. Bill Gates personally got involved and lobbied me to partner the project with Microsoft. With 20/20 hindsight, I now know that we should have continued alone, but that's not how it played out. We sold half of TSN to AT&T, and quickly mired the project in big-company bureaucracy. As all development ground to a halt, I tried to unbreak the logjam by selling ALL of the network to AT&T with the condition that Sierra could have a proprietary position to build the games that would run on the TSN (then renamed to ImagiNation) network. My thinking was that we could focus on what we did well; building games, and let AT&T focus on what they did well; running the network.
For a wide variety of reasons, this was also a disaster. I can only describe it as what happens when a child leaves home for the first time. There became an "us versus them" mentality between Sierra and ImagiNation (aka INN). They wanted their independence, and wanted to prove that they didn't need us. Our games weren't being approved by their staff, and they decided to "reinvent the wheel". A project was started to recode all the games to get away from Sierra's proprietary programming language.
Suffice it to say that lots of money was lost, and there is much I would do differently if I had it to over again...
- In the early 1990s, Sierra On-Line undertook a large number of acquisitions in an attempt to diversity its development lines, most notably Dynamix, Coktel Vision, Impressions, Papyrus, and others. In retrospect, were these acquisitions too rapid for the company? How had these acquisitions impacted on the financial health of Sierra On-Line that made itself a target later for acquisition by CUC International?
- Sierra did make several acquisitions (10 I think). We had a style of doing business that allowed us to make successful acquisitions, in cases where the same acquisition for any other company would have been a disaster. At the time of the sale, every acquisition was a success. Our "secret" was nothing more than really focusing on what we were buying, and not destroying it as a result of the acquisition. We were buying creative people with a targeted focus, typically on a vertical niche. We made a major effort not to screw up working formulas. We would integrate things like accounting and manufacturing – but, NEVER things like product design and development. Even in situations like Boston where we acquired Papyrus (Nascar) and Impressions (strategy games) we fought moving them into the same building because we wanted them to maintain their distinct corporate cultures.
Sierra became a target for acquisition because we were doing well, and were very visible. We had no interest in being acquired, and that's what made us interesting as an acquisition candidate.
- The sale of Sierra On-Line to CUC International in 1996 was a major turning point that heralded the eventual downfall of the company. What were the personal and business factors that led you to make this difficult decision? What were the initial reactions you recalled from your employees when you first announced your decision (in other words, was there a sense of betrayal felt by some employees)?
- Once again you've asked a question that really requires 300 pages for a proper answer.
Sierra was a public company. As its CEO I had an obligation to Sierra's shareholders to maximize the value of their investment. We received an offer that was nearly double the current price the stock was trading at. The decision was really out of my hands.
That said, there is no way I would let the sale occur if I did not believe that it was in the best interests of BOTH Sierra's shareholders and employees. Regardless of what fiduciary obligations I might have had, these were my friends who had fought long and hard on my behalf. I often thought of Sierra in a military context. Business is war. I do believe that it is possible to grow a market, and that Sierra DID grow the market, but there is also a strong element of competition. When someone walks into the store with $50 in hand, they are going to buy my product, or a competitor's product. That $50 is not going to magically transform into $100 just because we both make great games. Someone is going to win and someone is going to lose. It takes a ton of money to build a game, and if you don't sell enough copies to justify the costs, you have to send everyone home, and stop being a game company. Building games was serious business at Sierra. We worked around the clock and on weekends. I remember months and months of mandatory overtime. After 18 years of war, no general walks away from his or her troops.
Far more discussion went into how Sierra would be structured post acquisition than into the price. I wanted Sierra to survive for many generations to come, and would not accept a scenario that I didn't believe in. At dinner the first night after their proposal, CUC revealed their grand vision on how the business would operate. I felt that it was non-viable and rejected the proposal.
Ultimately, a structure was created that I believed in, and believed could make Sierra an even stronger company. Unfortunately, once the deal was done, I discovered I had no power to control things, and they got out of hand. I transferred out of the game division, primarily because I couldn't stomach watching my company ripped apart. No one can imagine how it felt to get calls from employees complaining about how things were running, and have to reassure them that all was well, and that they should get back to work. These were very painful times, and things weren't well... That said, the new management needed support to have any chance of succeeding. They didn't need me undermining them to their staff.
- Sierra On-Line was a pioneer in the computer game industry. It was the birthplace of the graphic adventure game genre. What achievements were you most proud of Sierra On-Line in its contributions to the game industry? What were the greatest regrets you had with Sierra On-Line?
- Most proud of: TSN, Our leading marketshare, the games themselves, the people, our ability to make money in a tough industry, our ability to succeed in multiple categories, our ability to succeed in multiple countries, our ability to innovate, our leadership in music, graphics, engineering, etc.
Greatest regrets: TSN, selling the company to CUC, not expanding into video games, not properly educating CUC on how to manage Sierra. There are so many mistakes that were made that were so simply avoided.
- Among all the adventure game titles produced by Sierra On-Line under you, which game did you consider to be most innovative and why? Which game created most controversy in the media and for what? Which game was most expensive to produce? Which game was the best selling? Which game was most disappointing and why?
- My favorite project was Phantasmagoria. It was also one of our biggest hits, and sold nearly a million copies. I think the budget was around $3 million, which was enormous at the time. It received more than its fair share of controversy, which helped launch it into the stratosphere. As was also true with Leisure-Suit Larry. As a player, my favorites were Leisure-Suit Larry and Phantasmagoria.
Actually, this is a question that can be answered many ways. As a CEO, my favorite game was probably Hoyles Card games. It didn't cost much to build, and made a fortune. Dynamix had a string of products in this category; Pinball, Johnny Castaway, The Incredible Machine, and others. All BIG money makers.
As to our "best" games, that is a subjective decision. To civil war buffs, our civil war games were our best. To flight sim fans, our best game was Red Baron. We prided ourselves on being the best in lots of categories.
On the disappointment side, there were many games that were never as good as I thought they could be, such as Outpost. It should have been an awesome product, but we could never get it to be fun to play. There were a few products in this category.
- As the public face of Sierra On-Line, you were personally acquainted with many "movers and shakers" (as you described them) of the computer and game industries, including Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, Nolan Bushnell, John Carmack, and others. Among these individuals, who had most influenced you and your company? In retrospect, what business decisions, if any, did you most regret as a result of these influences?
- No doubt about it: There were two people that had a heavy influence on Sierra: Bill Gates and Walt Disney. These two companies were our role models. I read every book written on both companies. I did everything to try to understand how they thought, and how they did business.
- Despite your claim to have retired after you left Sierra On-Line, you had maintained to this day a number of personal projects and business ventures online, such as TalkSpot and SierraGamers. How successful or rewarding had these projects and ventures been for you?
- Another long story. Talkspot.com was started as a hobby. I wanted something to code, and it seemed like a simple idea. I like to give power to non-techies. Talkspot.com fit this theme. I wanted to see what would happen if I could give the power to build websites to regular people. It's something I do for fun, and don't know what will happen with. We're now approaching 10,000 websites, and bandwidth is growing 25% PER MONTH. I'm adding 200 websites a week, and its starting to grow faster and faster. It's getting a little scary!
Sierragamers.com was originally set up because I wanted "test data" for my website builder. The Sierra fans gave me a steady burst of traffic for my website. I thought it was a site that would become boring in weeks, but has now been going for five years! It's a very active site, in spite of my not giving it anywhere near the attention it deserves.
I should take the sierragamers.com website more seriously, but that isn't really my style. I really don't like to look backwards. I'm focused on where I'm going, not where I've been.
- Soon after your retirement, you and Roberta crossed the Atlantic on your 62' trawler Sans Souci. You chronicled this adventure in your wonderful book "Crossing An Ocean Under Power" published by LuLu. What inspired you to take on such an adventurous, and admittedly dangerous, journey? You described your book as a "Dummy's Guide to Crossing Oceans". Without giving too much away (we just have to buy your book to find out the details), what were some of the moments of sheer panic or mistakes you made that almost jeopardized the crossing?
- The whole trip was Roberta's idea. I have too much common sense to ever venture out of sight of land without her urging.
Highpoints of the trip:
- We swam in the middle of the ocean! There were times the water was as flat and clear as a giant swimming pool. We had whales swimming and playing within a few yards of the front of the boat.
- After the conclusion of the trip, of 18 boats, Roberta and I continued alone and took the boat alone for another five day run. That's something I never would have considered prior to the ocean crossing. Our skill and self-confidence as boaters rose incredibly.
- We survived!
As to problems, probably the worst was when the toilets stopped working. Being 2,000 miles offshore with no working plumbing isn't a pleasant thought. I would also list our approach to Gibraltar as a scary moment, because we had 50 knot winds, but it really wasn't a big deal. All I remember thinking was that I had confidence in the boat, and knew that we would get through it, and, that it would make for some awesome picture taking.
- You had once said that 'Sierra had the fortune to be born at "just the right time."'. Notwithstanding the recent decreased commercial interest in adventure games, could Sierra have enjoyed the successes it had if you were to enter the game industry today? Aside from advancing technology and rising cost, what had been the most dramatic change you witnessed over the years facing a game developer or publisher?
- I could certainly be wrong, and almost certainly am, but it feels to me like the game industry is wide open, and that if I were interested in doing another company, I would have no problem succeeding. The industry seems to be stuck producing the same types of games over and over. Game publishing decisions are being made by marketing research and committees. No one seems to be saying "How do we entertain people in a way that no one has seen before?" Companies are competing based on "Who has the prettiest graphics?" instead of on "Who can build a game that is incredibly fun to play?"
This said... I'm never coming back. I think about it sometimes, but after 10 years of retirement, it would be impossible to start going to work again day after day. I've been spoiled.
As to the declining interest in adventure games – that touches on a battle I always had at Sierra. I never liked the word adventure game. It limited the design and narrowed creativity. Once you start limiting creativity, you've harmed the game. What I always wanted to accomplish was to put the player into another setting, and make it as believable as possible. We did what we could with the limits of the budgets we had in those days, the technology we had in those days, and the hardware we had. This is a whole new world. The focus should be to flow backwards from the story you are trying to tell, and how to make the player really feel a character in the story, and then build the technology to fit.
Unfortunately, too often, what happens is that the engine dictates an implementation, and marketing dictates a product category, and the team itself comes to the project with games they are told to imitate. The right idea is to pick a great story, and then think about the best, and most innovative way to tell the story – and, if anyone has seen it before, shoot it and start over. If there aren't any aspects to the game that are going to blow people away – don't build it. My brother John (marketing at Sierra) always said that games have to have "WOW-value." If you don't say "wow" when someone describes the game to you, or you see it from 10 feet away, there's no reason to market the game.
I don't think there is a declining interest in adventure games – there is a continuing interest in wanting to see something new. It should surprise no one that if you give customers the same thing over and over again that they lose interest in it. Sierra started doing fewer adventure games, because we had fewer ideas on how to break new ground. It has been a decade since I saw the stats, but adventure games had to have been only about 5% of our revenues when the company was sold. There is clearly a huge market for interactive story telling. That doesn't mean that the kinds of games that would succeed in today's world look much like (or, should look much like) Sierra's adventure games of 25 years ago. The times are changing. Change with them, or become obsolete. At Sierra, I used to say: "When you are #2 in a category you succeed by correctly judging the trends and jumping on the bandwagon. When you are #1 (as Sierra was), you have to pursue a completely different strategy. You have to ignore trends. Our job was to set trends. The world divides into leaders and followers. You can't be a leader by following trends. You have a responsibility to make things happen, to make new trends."
- What is one tidbit about you that your fans may not know about? What is one tidbit about the history of Sierra On-Line that we may not know about (hint: juicy gossip)?
- Read the book Hackers, by Steve Levy. There are TOO many tidbits there. Whenever anyone says they read the book, I need to look for the nearest place to hide. My guess is that I'm not the only person to have once been in their 20s, but I had the bad luck to have all my mistakes written down.
- What can we expect from Ken Williams in the next 5 years (yes, we asked you the same question back in 1996; Ken, no peeking at your old answer)?
- The honest answer is that I am retired. My primary focus is on boating around the world, and trimming a few strokes off my golf game. As a hobby I'll keep doing talkspot.com, but realistically, it's really only myself VERY part time, my son DJ and a great programmer (Brian) working on the project. It's something fun to do, but we don't have a large enough team to do things at much of a pace. We're doing cool things, but unless you have a very long attention span, you won't notice most of them. I think on a 5 to 10 year timeframe we can do some mind-blowingly cool stuff – but, not this week or maybe even this year.
My goal for the next year is to get my book back on track. I'm working on another book, this one mainstream, which I'm not ready to talk about yet. Hopefully five years from now I'll have it onto the market, and we can talk about that...
- Thank you so much for this exclusive interview, Ken. We look forward to hearing more about you and your endeavors in the future.