Roberta and Ken Williams talk about their first video game in 25 years

Roberta Williams and Ken Williams at Game Developers Conference 2022.
Enlarge / Roberta Williams and Ken Williams at Game Developers Conference 2022.

Sam Mashkovech

SAN FRANCISCO—Legendary game programmer Ken Williams only needed a moment to chew on my question. He and equally famous game designer Roberta Williams had prepped for the question by recounting a premise of their time at Sierra On-Line, the video game company they founded that revolutionized PC gaming in the 1980s and 90s.

Sierra games, they said, stood out because they were built “with blinders on” from the rest of the games industry. Nobody worked in competing companies; no one played the competitors’ games. And after each Sierra game release, its individual sales record would determine the budget and scope of the lead designer’s next game.

I asked how those calculations worked for their new game announcement that came out of nowhere in March 2022, 3D colossal cave. This reimagining of the very first text-based adventure, the one Roberta eventually incorporated into her own classic 1980 game Mystery House, is about as detached from its heyday Sierra designs as it gets, mostly due to its shift to (optional) hand-controlled VR adventure. Does Sierra’s founding principle of budgets and production scope still apply if a lead designer’s “last game” was launched over 20 years ago?

Ken paused for a moment, then brought up an entirely different point. And he’s not necessarily blinding the video game industry’s modern take on the creators of classic games.

“I’ve seen where the old Sierras and others have come back and made kind of a less than perfect game,” Ken said. “And we don’t want to do that. We’d rather throw it in the trash than do something that’s not—”

Here Roberta interrupted, as she used to do in our conversation, saying, “It must be good.

“Must be good,” Ken agreed.

“We are both type A people”

Ken noted that this project is a far cry from the days when Sierra ran a business selling megaton games, and he was candid, “For us, it’s not really about the money. If the game sinks or nage, it’s not going to change our So it’s about, you know, honoring the legacy of the original creators.”

Before picking a classic game to recreate, the Williams weren’t necessarily aiming to return to commercial game design, even when the COVID-19 pandemic left many stale creators and artists looking for things to do. Ken and Roberta each started the pandemic working on their own books — his, Sierra’s Story Online; his, a historical fiction dive into mid-1800s Ireland, only to realize that global lockdowns hadn’t necessarily been lifted by the time they each finished their projects. “We’re both Type A people,” Roberta said. “We have to be busy with challenges and Do.”

Ken had finished his book while Roberta was finishing hers, and during this time of overlap, Roberta noticed Ken filling their home theater screen with game programming interfaces and instructional videos. “I finally questioned him” after watching this pattern repeat itself for a few days, Roberta said.

After talking about Ken’s decision to learn the Unity programming language, she waved at Ken. “Explain what your game design was,” she said.

Ken paused, then deadpan, “No.”

Rather than repeating Roberta’s brief explanation (“he wanted to retain his old programming skills”), Ken said his return to programming started with educational software. “If you’re a kid now and you don’t know how to program when you grow up, you’re going to be in big trouble,” Ken said. “We’re moving away from factory work. So I like the idea of ​​teaching kids to program because I’m a programmer. I think everyone should program.”

So he started working on a possible revival of the Sierra series. Dr Brain-“and [Roberta] said it was a dumb idea,” he joked. A back and forth filled with laughter ensued:

“No, I didn’t say that!”

“Well, you gave me that impression!”

Ken then confronted me saying, “She screwed it up.” Eager to regain my eye contact, Roberta looked at me and said, “No, I just said, ‘Is this fun?'”