Ken and Roberta Williams, pioneers of the computer gaming industry, founded On-Line Systems in 1979. Ken’s programming and Roberta’s storytelling abilities enabled the couple to productively collaborate on game designs. The Apple II computer, which had more superior graphics display capabilities than its predecessors, made it possible to develop multimedia games. On-Line System’s first game, Mystery House (1980), is considered one of the first computer games to combine both text and graphics. Roberta continued to write and design fantasy and adventure games, while Ken assumed the role of CEO and company president. Titles that followed the achievement of Mystery House included The Wizard and the Princess (1980), Mission Asteroid (1981), and Time Zone (1982). The company expanded with a move to Oakhurst, California, and was renamed Sierra On-Line in 1982. That same year, Muppets creator Jim Henson approached Roberta to design a computer adventure game based on his upcoming film The Dark Crystal. The game version, released in 1983, garnered even more publicity for Sierra On-Line.
In 1984, Sierra On-Line produced King’s Quest: Quest for the Crown- the first game to feature interactive graphics and animation. Roberta’s game ideas translated into large sales numbers and substantial profits for Sierra On-Line, and she continued producing games with increasingly complex puzzles. Over the next few years, Roberta created three more sequels to the King’s Quest series (1985, 1986, and 1988), a computer game version of Disney’s The Black Cauldron (1986), and a children’s game called Mixed-Up Mother Goose (1987). Additional game designers (such as Al Lowe, Scott Murphy, Mark Crowe, and Corey and Lori Cole) contributed to Sierra On-Line’s roaring success in the 1980s, with the Space Quest series, Leisure Suit Larry series, and Quest for Glory series. Roberta persisted in the tradition of including the word “quest” in Sierra On-Line’s game titles with 1987’s The Colonel’s Bequest, a murder mystery featuring a female protagonist named Laura Bow.
Sierra On-Line went public in 1989 and traded on the NASDAQ. As profits soared and the offices expanded, Sierra On-Line acquired other game studios (like Dynamix, Inc. and Coktel Vision) which worked separately on product advancement but shared manufacturing and distribution resources. Technologies continued to develop and Sierra On-Line followed, launching an online multi-player gaming service called The Sierra Network. Sierra On-Line also operated telephone tip lines for their products. The 1990s resulted in more titles to the King’s Quest series (1990, 1992, and 1994), the Gabriel Knight series, another Laura Bow mystery called The Dagger of Amon Ra (1992), a horror-themed adventure titled Shivers (1995), and its largest undertaking in Phantasmagoria (1995).
In 1996, CUC International, a subscription-based consumer services company, offered to buy Sierra On-Line for approximately $1.5 billion. The deal went through in July 1996, with Ken stepping down as CEO and president of Sierra. As part of CUC, Sierra On-Line almost immediately underwent restructuring and rebranding. Ken and Roberta Williams left the company in 1997. (Shortly thereafter, CUC top executives were indicted for falsifying years of financial statements, and this massive accounting fraud caused the sell-off of its computer entertainment division.) Over the next few years, Sierra On-Line was bought and further reorganized by Vivendi Universal Games, resulting in employee layoffs and the shutdown of product creation. By 1999, Sierra On-Line had terminated new game development and was utilized solely as a publisher for independently-designed games. The company’s name was changed to Sierra Entertainment in 2002 and soon commenced new game creation again; though this time around, the original employees and designers of Sierra On-Line were not involved. Sierra Entertainment computer game releases were not well-received by the public, and further layoffs and restructuring occurred. In 2008, Vivendi Universal Games merged with video game publisher Activision. That same year, Sierra Entertainment was rendered defunct.
Though Sierra On-Line no longer operates, its impact on the gaming industry is well known and highly celebrated. Ken and Roberta Williams saw the potential for growth in the personal computer industry and jumped on the opportunity to develop entertaining computer games. They pioneered the use of graphics, animation, and interactivity between the player and the game in a time when computers were mainly used for text. Roberta is lauded for paving the way for women in the predominantly-male gaming industry. Sierra On-Line’s legacy has significantly influenced modern video games and how consumers play them.
Additional information on the history of Sierra On-Line can be found on Ken Williams’ website, http://www.sierragamers.com/.