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Playing Catch-Up: Sierra Founder Ken Williams

Playing Catch-Up: Sierra Founder Ken Williams

October 17, 2005 | By Simon Carless

October 17, 2005 | By Simon Carless
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Today’s Playing Catch-Up, a weekly column that dares to speak to notable video game industry figures about their celebrated pasts and promising futures, talks to Sierra On-Line founder and former CEO Ken Williams.

Williams and his wife [and King's Quest creator] Roberta founded On-Line Systems in 1980. Their first game, Mystery House, is considered to be the world's first graphic adventure, at a time when the genre was exclusively text-based. In 1982, the company was renamed to Sierra On-Line and moved to Oakhurst, California, and a legacy was born. Notable franchises developed under Williams' supervision include King's Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, Space Quest, Gabriel Knight, the Laura Bow series, and Phantasmagoria, among nearly countless others. Other accomplishments include 1991's graphical online service The Sierra Network (later the ImagiNation Network), one of the first of its kind to offer a visual world in those pre-world wide web days. The service was purchased in 1994 by AT&T, and sold to AOL two years later.

Williams sold Sierra to a subscription-based shopping company called CUC International in 1996 and, after a brief advisory role, left the company - and the industry - for good. We caught up with him via email, nine years after the fact, to play a brief round of Catch-Up.

"After 18 years running Sierra I was getting burnt out," he said, when questioned about his decision to sell. "All of the games were starting to look alike, and the enormous pressures of running a public company were getting to me. On the other hand, Sierra was a very cool company. The people were awesome, and we were pioneering some very cool technologies. I wanted to stay, and didn’t want to stay. It was a tough decision." CUC International's CEO, Walter Forbes was among Sierra's board members at the time. "I was surprised by him one day after a board meeting," recalled Williams, "when he asked if the company could be bought. CUC’s business had nothing to do with consumer software. Selling was the right decision for Sierra, its shareholders, and its employees, based on everything I knew at the time. Prior to the sale of the company, I negotiated many things into the deal which were supposed to stop Sierra from being screwed up by the acquisition. It’s a long story, but I created a structure post-acquisition that was meant to keep everything that made Sierra be Sierra unchanged."

Unfortunately, even early on, there were signs of trouble; broken promises and the like. "At the time, I passed it off as them having 'told me what I wanted to hear, to get the deal done.' Now, I understand that these were not honorable gentleman." The saga of CUC International's accountting issues and alleged money laundering is a long and complicated story. "Both Walter Forbes, CUC’s CEO, and Kirk Shelton, CUC’s President, have been indicted on criminal charges," said Williams. "Kirk has already been sentenced to 10 years of prison, and assessed a $3.27 billion dollar penalty. Walter’s criminal trial is still in progress. To this day, I have trouble believing they were crooks. Walter was on Sierra’s board for many years, and there was never any hint of it."

With the past behind them, Ken and Roberta Williams have been enjoying their retirement. "Roberta and I have an incredible life," he said. "We travel almost non-stop. Last summer we took our 62’ boat across the Atlantic." Their journey was documented in Williams' first book, 'Crossing an Ocean Under Power'. "We live about half the year in Seattle and half in Mexico. Much of the time, my biggest decisions revolve around 'do I use the 3 iron or the 5 wood?'" Williams also runs the free website builder,, purely as a hobby. "I actually lose money on it," he says, "because I don't want to charge anyone money. It seems to have exploded. About 4,500 websites have been built with it, and I’m adding 200+ per week, with the growth rate constantly rising. I need to find a way to slow it down, or I may find myself running a business again " which isn't going to happen. I like being a has-been."

"Of course I miss Sierra," he said, when directly asked. "Both Roberta and I miss it. If we had today’s technology to build games with, imagine what could be done! It is so frustrating to sit on the sidelines watching others have all the fun. It is also painful to see an industry that hasn’t really moved forward. Sierra certainly made our share of mistakes, but the one thing we always did right, was that we were never boring. We believed strongly in pushing the envelope, and trying new things. We were cool-driven, not 'me too'-driven."

Neither Williams nor his wife have played a game in over ten years. "We’ve only been in a software store a few times, and nothing inspired us," he said, claiming that the industry is "caught in a rut, and needs to move forward." "I wish Sierra still existed. We understood how to take risk, and make things happen. Here’s the problem as I see it: Production values have risen to a level that games are starting to cost $3 million to $10 million to produce. Double this amount to get the true cost to a company, by the time they promote and manufacture the product. At this level, companies can’t afford to take chances on defining new categories. You need to ship proven product into proven categories. Sierra didn’t play the game this way."

Williams' book, 'Crossing an Ocean Under Power', can be ordered directly from Williams at its official website, Additionally, Williams runs a message board for Sierra fans to gather and reminisce called the Sierra On-Line Fan Site, which can be found at

[Frank Cifaldi is a Las Vegas-based freelance author whose credits include work for Nintendo Official Magazine UK, Wired, and his own Lost Levels website.]

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