Roberta Williams

Posted by Philip Jong.
First posted on 16 July 2006. Last updated on 13 March 2008.
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Roberta Williams
Roberta Williams is the co-founder of Sierra On-Line and the creator of King's Quest.
Roberta Williams
Roberta Williams
Roberta Williams
Roberta Williams
Roberta Williams

No adventure game designer had ever achieved the level of success as Roberta Heuer Williams (Roberta Williams) had. Born in 1953, she and her husband Ken Williams co-founded On-Line Systems, which later became Sierra On-Line, when she was only 26. Mystery House, which she wrote in 1979, was the first graphic adventure game ever created for the PC. Her portfolio of games, spanning over nearly 20 years, had single-handedly heralded the arrival of the graphic adventure genre and the demise of interactive fiction.

Since her departure from Sierra On-Line in 1999, she has retired to a busy life of travel with her husband. Shy from being in the public eye nowadays, it is common knowledge that Williams has repeatedly turned down past requests for interviews. It is under such circumstances that we feel extremely privileged to be granted this brief opportunity to interview the iconic game designer. In this rare exclusive interview, Williams speaks of her game design philosophy, her career retrospect with Sierra On-Line, her view of the current state of adventure games, and what life holds for her in the future.

Check out our latest photos of Roberta and Ken Williams!

Your games, most notably Mystery House and King's Quest, have laid down the framework by which graphic adventure games are now defined. Many of today's games, while not necessarily labeling themselves as adventure, blend in game elements such as quests, puzzles, and storytelling that are characteristic of the genre you have created. What are the essential elements you consider that define an adventure game? What design framework, however arbitrary, do you follow when creating your games?

You must keep in mind that I have not created a new game in about 8 years, therefore, anything that I say about adventure games has to be taken in that context. I also have to say that I have not played any adventure games since then and really have no idea what today's adventure games are like. (Hard to believe, I'm sure, given who I am, but, unfortunately, oh, so true.)

In my day, when creating a new adventure game, my first thoughts, before even thinking about any 'framework' were: What is the story? Who are the characters, especially the main character? What is he/she trying to do, i.e. what is the quest? In what sort of 'world or land' is this game going to be played? In other words, I always thought first of the story, characters, and game world. I needed to understand those before I could even think about any game framework, 'engine,' or interface.

Once I had a good idea of the basic storyline, characters and world, I could think about how I wanted the game to play, to run, to appear. Things like 'how many colors' (a real issue in the early days) could I utilize, how much and what kind of animation, first-person perspective vs. third-person perspective, how to accomplish communication with the game and/or game characters, how much, if any, 'physical' puzzles vs. 'thinking' puzzles, what sorts of animation/game play would be required for more 'physical' puzzles, how 'big' the game could be (in disk/CD size) which translated to how many 'lands' within the game world or how many places or 'rooms' within those lands and the amount of characters and animation, music or sound effect issues, etc. Obviously, before deciding on any of these, I had to know the parameters of the particular machines on which the game would be expected to run. But, I would always take those particular parameters and 'push' them even more, which was easy for me as I didn't have to do the programming? (You wouldn't believe how many programmers would say to my husband, Ken, "she wants the game to do what?!!!!" Oftentimes, Ken had to run interference between me and the programmers. All of the artists, though, and the musicians and sound effects people loved me because I was able to get the programmers to program up some amazing tools that creative people could utilize and have fun with.)

Once I had figured out the 'framework' (now thought of in terms of the 'game engine') that I wanted for the game, the programmers came into the picture. Normally, they would essentially build the game engine around the type of game that I wanted it to be. They would do their best to fulfill my vision of the game. So, in those days, the game engine was built around my ideas, not the other way around, as, it seems in today's world, so many games are. If I were to ever create another game, I would do the same thing. I would never take an existing engine and try to make it fit my ideas. I would always think of how I would want the game to appear and to run and to accomplish the game play that I wanted, and then I would have the engine created. Expensive, yes, but, I think worth it for the freshness that the game would have. And, freshness is important. If a game is fresh, new, intriguing, challenging, and enchanting, it will sell, and sell well.

You became the first woman to achieve critical success as a game designer, developer, and publisher in an industry that, at the time, was dominated by men. What unjust criticisms or resentments had you or your games received during the earlier years of your career? It was because of you that other female game designers, such as Jane Jensen and Lori Ann Cole, could successfully break into the game industry. What changes over time did you witness in the attitude toward women by the game industry during your career at Sierra On-Line?

I really think that the idea that women are somehow 'punished' or 'resented' in the computer industry is overblown. I never experienced any resentments or maltreatment by anybody in the computer industry about my gender. Never. In fact, it was the opposite; I always felt that the 'men' in the computer industry were happy to have me around. I never felt that it was a gender thing. I think that, perhaps, why you don't see a lot of women in the computer game industry (I don't know; maybe it's different today and there a lot of them) is because, at least in the old days, computer games and computers just weren't the focus of the average woman or girl. In other words, the women/girls themselves just weren't that interested. Now, you could say that that was because the games weren't designed with females in mind (which was probably true because the 'boys' were designing them...for themselves!), but, computers just weren't something that, at least in those days, the average woman was interested in. Even a lot of men in those days weren't all that interested in computers! Nowadays things are different; computers have become more friendly, understandable, and lots of years and thought have been put into developing software to convince all sorts of people that they want and need a computer in their daily lives. But, in those days, none of that was true. But, back to the 'female' thing: No, I never experienced any problem with being a female in a so-called male-dominated field. They were happy to have me. It was just really up to me to actually 'put' myself there. If more women want to be a part of the computer industry today, they just have to do more to put themselves there. Nobody, in reality, is keeping them my opinion, anyway.

Unquestionably, your most celebrated and seminal work has been King's Quest. The series has broken many new grounds in both game play and storytelling. What elements (such as plot development, character interaction, and puzzle play) of King's Quest are you most proud of? If there is to be a King's Quest IX, what may the game have been about?

As a young girl, I always had enjoyed the old fairy tales of yore. I read them and re-read them. Therefore, when thinking about designing a game, I naturally gravitated to what I liked and felt comfortable with. I felt comfortable with the idea of fairy tales, and so, put that passion into my game of King's Quest. The first King's Quest was really a compendium of many of the most common fairy tales, and, really was nothing but a big fairy tale that someone could directly experience in a very interactive way instead of in the old passive way of books, movies, or oral tales. I introduced Sir Graham as the main character or 'hero,' and then, when going on to develop King's Quest II, I decided to develop him and his future family as the main characters for this series set in Daventry. Even though Daventry, itself, wasn't always where the game play took place, it was always there as the 'home' of King Graham and his family. It was the hearth and heart of the King's Quest game world.

I am most proud of the development of the characters as personalities that game players could relate to and care about; the beauty of the game world as each new King's Quest was developed, and, in thinking of ways to introduce new game players to adventure gaming by developing the idea of the 'icon' based interface rather than the old 'parser' type of game communication where you had to think about how to type in sentences to the computer and then hope that, somehow, the game would respond to you. Basically, in a nutshell, a lot of thought was put into making the King's Quest world as beautiful as possible, as easy to navigate and communicate with as possible, and as engaging and entertaining as possible. Trying to come up with mind-bending puzzles and brain-twisting plots was never something that I strived for, although, I believe that many designers of games and/or adventure games make their games more complex than they need to be.

As to a King's Quest IX: Since I will never design a King's Quest 9, it would be unfair of me to comment on any one else's endeavors in that area. However, if there were ever to be a King's Quest 9, I wish it luck and hope that it could revive interest in adventure gaming as a whole and in the original King's Quest games in general.

Many of your games have fueled heated controversies in the media and among game fans, rightly or wrongly. Examples include the introduction of Rosella in King's Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella, the suggestive rape scene of Adrienne in Phantasmagoria, and the transition from 2D to 3D in King's Quest: Mask of Eternity. Which of your games do you feel has been most misunderstood? Why?

I guess that I'm not understanding as to why you would consider the introduction of Rosella in King's Quest IV as a controversy. To me, it seemed a natural, and, in fact, King's Quest IV was a much bigger hit than I, II, or III. I do feel that King's Quest IV was a pivotal game in bringing in more female players. However, in no way did King's Quest IV turn off male players. Not at all.

As to the 'rape' scene in Phantasmagoria: I do remember and understand the controversy. I think the controversy was from two areas: the fact that I was the writer and designer of that game and was known for family-friendly games and that the subject matter of Phantasmagoria was fairly graphic in many respects. As a creative person, it's always fun and interesting to branch out into other areas of creativity. Even though I dearly loved King's Quest and the other games that I had worked on, I felt like I wanted to do something a bit different, plus, I happen to find the horror genre interesting and wanted to experiment with it as an adventure game. I had always been intrigued by the emotional aspect of adventure gaming – the fact that people get so personally involved – and so, I wanted to see if that emotionality could be translated to horror as well. In fact, in order for horror to succeed the player needs to be passionate and committed. (That's true for books and movies as well.) The build-up of suspense is all emotion. Being 'scared' is gut wrenching. Even though it's always been important to me that players would be personally committed to all of my games, it was even more important for them to become very emotionally involved with Phantasmagoria in order to create the suspense and terror necessary for a successful horror story. I relished the idea of trying.

So, in creating Phantasmagoria, I needed a character (Adrienne) who would be very empathetic to most people; most women would relate to her, and most men would want to protect her. However, she also had to become strong and to survive horrific circumstances. It's not easy, in fact, I would say downright impossible, to portray horrendous circumstances without terrible things happening. If I had tried to candy-coat the story or 'back off' a little, the story of Phantasmagoria wouldn't have worked and it would have been a terrible flop. As it was, it was the most successful game that we had developed up to that point (1994). It sold more than a million copies in less than a year, which, in those days, was phenomenal. I'm sure that nowadays, a game that 'only' sold a million copies in a year would be considered a monumental failure, but, in those days, a 'million-seller' was something that we all strived for; especially noteworthy when it's remembered that Phantasmagoria only ran on computers and not on any game machines. So, in answer to your question about the controversy of the 'rape scene': In my opinion, in order to make the story believable and to emotionally bring the player into the action, it was a necessary scene.

When discussing the transition from 2D to 3D for King's Quest VIII: Mask of Eternity, I can only say that we were on to the right idea of switching to 3D. However, the implementation was not exactly correct. In 20/20 hindsight, I would have omitted the RPG (role-playing) aspects and would have stuck with more traditional adventure game elements. I would have thought more in terms of physical puzzles that could be done better in 3D than in 2D, but, still, I wouldn't have changed the game so dramatically just because I was switching from 2D to 3D. But, what do they say about 20/20 hindsight?

If you are to pick only a single (I know it is hard) game that best represents your achievement and your career as a game designer, which game is it? Why?

If I could only pick one game, I would pick Phantasmagoria, as I enjoyed working on it immensely and it was so very challenging (and I love to be challenged!). However, in my heart, I will always love the King's Quest series and, especially, King's Quest, I since it was the game that really 'made' Sierra On-Line.

This is a cliché question, but in truth you are among the few game designers in existence who are truly qualified to answer it. Which of the following best describes the current state of the adventure genre—dead, dying, in hibernation, or in resurgence (you can only pick one)? What does it take for the genre to enjoy the popularity as it has once done in its yesteryears?

Actually, I'm not sure that I AM qualified to answer this question as I have not played or looked at any adventure games (or, really, any games) in almost 8 years...unbelievable as that may seem. So, keeping that in mind, you have to understand that my answer could be WAY off base! However, I have to say that my definition of an adventure game is really an interactive story set with puzzles and obstacles to solve and worlds to explore. I believe that the 'true' adventure game genre will never die any more than any type of storytelling would ever die. Sometimes, I think that something 'new' may come along for awhile and take away attention from longer, story-oriented genres, like movies took attention away from books for awhile, and TV took attention away from movies for awhile. Things like that. One thing that I always like to say is that, for awhile, it looked like book reading was dead (especially for young people), but Harry Potter proved that one wrong! And then there's the Da Vinci Code. I remember in the 60s and the 70s, TV watching was really big and movie going was less important than it had been in decades prior. But, in the 80s and 90s, movie going bounced back big time and TV sank a bit. These things go in phases, but a good story never dies. An adventure game is really 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. I do not think there is a need to try and make it 'multi-player' or any of those things. It just takes a good adventure game designer (someone who knows and understands how to write a game play 'script' in an interactive way), with a game company that will 'go out on a ledge' and support that designer and give them the desired tools to create such a game, and I think that, as in the 'olden' days of the 80s and 90s, adventure games would be as popular as ever, if not more so. I think that Ken is right when he says that there is too much of the same thing and not much creativity put into today's computer games because the game publishers and marketers are too afraid to go there, and so, are actually restricting creativity. There is no doubt in my mind that given the right designer with the proper amount of budget and support from a top game publisher, an adventure game of the highest standards would set the computer game world on fire. One day, it will happen.

Given the rarity which you speak to the public nowadays, what do you want to say to your countless number of fans and supporters as well as your past employees, colleagues, and collaborators? Lastly, what holds in the future for Roberta Williams?

I want to say to everyone who has ever played one of my games, who has supported Sierra On-Line in the past and still holds it in their hearts and memories, 'thank you, thank you, thank you!' The experience of creating my adventure games was, other than marrying my husband and bringing into the world my two sons, the most fulfilling, wonderful experience I could ever had. And, it couldn't have been done without all of you!! And, I want everyone to know that, even though I don't come out of my 'shell' much, I am still here and I am very, very appreciative of all of the support from everyone in the adventure gaming world. It couldn't have been done without all of you!!!

And, for the future Roberta Williams: Probably, designing a computer adventure game is in the past; I'm more into 'personal adventuring' nowadays. I'm thinking in terms of writing a book, but, not on computer games or anything like that. I'm looking at writing an historical novel set in Ireland and the United States of 150 years ago (has to do with my ancestors, kind of like an Irish 'Roots'). That is my passion right now. We'll see where that goes...

We are most grateful for this opportunity to interview you, Roberta. We look forward to hearing more about you and your future endeavors.

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