Ken Williams (Englisch)
Gesprächspartner: Jan 'DasJan' Schneider
Vom: 12.05.2003


Ken Williams founded Sierra in 1979 and led the company for almost 20 years. Ken and his wife Roberta invented what we call graphic adventure today and Sierra created many of the best and most famous adventures of all time, like the Larry, King's Quest and Space Quest series. Today Ken administrates the forum SierraGamers, where people can meet, talk about Sierra and upload/download Sierra related files.

Sierra before

Adventure-Treff: "Hi Ken! Let's roll back the years. It's been nearly 25 years since you and Roberta decided to establish On-Line Systems (which was later renamed to the renowned "Sierra On-Line"). What was your motivation to take the risk and create a company in such a small sector like computer games?"

Ken Williams: "At the time, I was working as a programmer in Los Angeles. Roberta and I were just starting our family and didn't want to raise our kids in Los Angeles. Too much traffic. Too many taxes. Too much crime. Too much smog. Etc. We wanted to leave the big city, and raise our kids in a small town, but unfortunately, I was a "mainframe" programmer, and mainframes only existed in big towns. At the time, in the late 70's, personal computers were just being invented.

I recognized immediately that personal computers would someday represent a huge market, and started working on a project for the Apple II, in the hopes that it would sell, and we could move out of LA. I am not saying this well, but our focus was on finding a way to leave LA, not on starting a company. We just wanted a way to feed ourselves, while working outside of a big city. My work on main frames was in compiler development, so I decided to do a fortran compiler for the Apple II.

While working on the compiler, Roberta played a game (Adventure) on a mainframe computer, and thought it would be MUCH better if done on a personal computer WITH graphics. She twisted my arm to do the programming, which I did. She did the design and artwork. It was an immediate hit. I dropped the compiler and we moved to Yosemite (the mountains of central California)."

A-T: "What were your goals? I am assuming you didn't plan on building up one of the most successful companies in PC gaming over numerous years with hundreds of employees to boot..."

Ken: "We had simple goals: raise our kids in a small mountain community. If possible we wanted to earn $10,000 per year, so that we could eat and have a VERY modest home. It never occurred to us that Sierra would become a big company."

A-T: "How was the working atmosphere at Sierra over the years-- did it change? Was it more buddy-like or business-style?"

Ken: "In the beginning, there wasn't a sense of running a business. We didn't compete with other companies - we were co-explorers, discovering new territory. The industry was growing so fast that mistakes could be made without corporate collapse. I was really just a teenager at the time.

Over the years, business became VERY serious. By the time Sierra was sold, we were a public company, with fierce competition. It started as fun, and finished as serious business. If I had been the same person in 1996 (when the company was sold) as I was in 1979 (when we started), we wouldn't have lasted a week (without being crushed by our competitors)."

A-T: "You as a boss - something I would want?"

Ken: "Absolutely - if you want to work hard. I had no tolerance for anyone who didn't understand my goals. I thought of business as war. Sierra's employees were my soldiers and competitors were the enemy. If someone wanted to have fun at work, they should do so - but, not at Sierra. Go elsewhere. That said, winning IS fun. We had fun because we knew we were the best, and that no one could touch us.

I encouraged a creative environment, and didn't accept bureaucrats. I understood technology and programming - so I couldn't be "bulled". Out of 1,000 employees, 700 were in product development. Most of the 300 who weren't in product development were in manufacturing. My feeling was that Sierra would live or die on whether or not we could build awesome product. This was our differentiating factor. Developers were kings at Sierra, and most employees were developers."

A-T: "In the first years, you were often credited as a programmer while later you were (I guess) too busy reviewing games and leading the company to write code. What was more fun? Was it fun at all?"

Ken: "I loved product, and hated being a public company. I could get excited about great product, and customers. I couldn't get excited about managing a huge bureaucracy. The bigger we got, the farther I was from product. Actually, I stayed close to product long after I should have. At least 90% of my time was spent going from development group to development group looking at product. This wasn't easy.

Our developers were scattered to over 10 locations; Boston, Paris, Seattle, Oakhurst, Salt Lake City, Denver, San Francisco, etc. My life consisted of riding on airplanes and staying in hotels. The travel got too me after a while. Also, I didn't like not being able to focus on any one product for more than a few hours. At any moment in time we had 50 or so products in development. To support a company our size, we needed this many products. Personally I'd rather have spent all my time on one or two products, rather than dividing my time 50 different ways."

A-T: "What was your favorite Sierra game/series of all time?"

Ken: "Leisure-Suit Larry! I liked the humor - and that we were breaking down barriers by bringing mature content to computers. I also loved Phantasmagoria - because of the blending of live action and interactivity. And, mostly because it really was spooky."

A-T: "On your website, you offer a Powerpoint presentation for download which gives a very interesting insight in your company philosophy. In it, you describe yourself as pioneers. What do you think were the most important milestones Sierra first reached with their games?"

Ken: "I could spend the next month answering this question. We pioneered: direct marketing for software products, budget software, cd-rom games, color packaging, live action, music cards in computers, 3d cards, graphic adventure games, graphic word processors, multi-player games, etc etc etc. Everything for me at Sierra was about innovating. Our games are cooler when taken in context than when you look at them now. We tried to do things that people didn't expect. After we did them, everyone else did them, in some cases better. But everyone always knew that Sierra was a leader, and that if you wanted to see where the industry was heading you looked at us."

A-T: "The presentation states, "think entertainment, not games". What do you mean by that?"

Ken: "I used to say that Napster was the best entertainment product ever made. You need to flow backwards from thinking about how to entertain the audience, not from how do we do the next "doom clone". I had trouble getting my staff to think outside the box, but we always came closer than the competition. Napster is something that people do at their computers every day (or, least it was something they DID do everyday). I wanted our people to think in terms of "find a way to entertain a person in front of their computer" - not just to design another adventure game.

Innovation doesn't come from market research. I hated market research driven product development. For instance: Surveys that would show that "action shooters" are hot. This means everyone rushes an action shooter into development. I would instead look to see what was hot at the movies, in books, on TV. The question shouldn't be "what computer games do you like?" But instead - "What do you do to have fun?" Then you think about how it could be better with interactivity, and suddenly you have a product."

A-T: "You also say, "empower the designer, then shoot them if it doesn't sell". Why so rigorous?"

Ken: "Great product is not designed by committees. 99% of the staff on every game thinks they are a better game designer than the game designer. Sometimes they are. This is irrelevant. Great novels are not team efforts. Great songs are not team efforts. Great entertainment happens when there is a clear vision for a product - not when there are creative battles, and the product that ships is a result of compromise."

A-T: "In many games, you have a guest appearance as yourself (e.g. in many LSL games) or as someone else (e.g. Mr. Cannon in PQ3). Were these the designers' ideas as a means of teasing you, or did you command them to include you somehow?"

Ken: "It was their ideas. I liked it because it helped our customers feel a personal attachment to Sierra. I believe that if you have positive emotions about a company you are more likely to buy their product. I never encouraged anyone to include me in a game, and usually never found out about it until post-shipment."

A-T: "How important did you consider direct contact with gamers to be? Was there any contact at all?"

Ken: "It wasn't as critical for me as it was for my designers. Although, I didn't care as much that they hung out with gamers, as I did that they were passionate about what they were doing. For instance, if someone was designing a civil war game, I wanted to know that they had been "living" the civil war all their lives. I use the expression "when their eyes light up". I can tell when someone is really passionate about something, versus when they are doing it because it's good for their career. The right person is a fanatic about what they are doing and would do it even if it would wreck their career. If you are doing a Nascar game, you need to be a racing nut. If you do a bass fishing game, it should be because you live to fish. If you are doing a card game, you should live to play cards. It's a simple rule, but a critical one."

A-T: "Maybe the most controversial design element of Sierra's adventure games was the possibility of dying. Why all these (often unpredictable) deaths?"

Ken: "In some cases it was poor design, in some cases it was the natural thing that the designer thought would happen if someone did it in "real life". I'm a perfectionist. Sierra never shipped a game I felt was perfect. This bugged my staff, because it was tough to get complements from me. Oh well. My goal was never a happy staff - it was a perfect game. We got as close as we did because I, and more importantly the Sierra culture, was to find the perfect game.

By the way: I always hated the word "adventure game". Phantasmagoria was a horror game. It worked when it scared you, and didn't when it felt like a "puzzle" or "adventure" game. Larry worked when you laughed. It was a "comedy" game. It didn't work when it felt like an "adventure" game. Decide the emotion you are going for; tears, laughter, fear, etc - and go for it. Do what makes the emotion, and blow off the rest. In some cases my own designers forgot the rule, and those were the weak parts of the games."

A-T: "How was the atmosphere between you and other companies--especially LucasArts? Did you see them as colleagues or enemies?"

Ken: "Colleagues at first - enemies towards the end. Actually, I'm being unfair. I thought of them as competitors, in the competitive sense. They were like other racers in a race. To win the race, they had to lose, but that's the way the sport is played. Luckily, there was usually a win-win environment. My goal was to grow the industry, not to beat our competitors.

By focusing on computer game companies, you start thinking you are in the computer game business. This means you are a small fish in a small pond - duking it out with other small fish. Not my style. I felt we were part of the broad entertainment industry. Our competition was the television, or the cinema, or a concert, or a good book. We needed to be more entertaining than a good movie. If not, we lose, the movie wins. Most of Sierra's growth came from expanding the industry, not from beating competitors."

Sierra after

A-T: "When you sold Sierra in 1996 you couldn't foresee what happened afterwards. Anyway, why did you give it up?"

Ken: "I hoped I was wrong, but I did "kind of foresee" that Sierra would have problems. I did everything in my power to build a company that could withstand any kind of problems. I actually don't know much about Sierra today. My sense is that it is no longer the industry leader that it was. This makes me unbelievably sad, and the problems were 100% avoidable.

To this day, no one from Sierra has ever called to ask my opinion about anything. I was flushed out in a day. This doesn't bother me. The people that acquired Sierra paid a lot of money for it, and have the right to run it their way. I'm just disappointed that they never called to ask my "formulas for success", and that because of this lots of people needlessly lost their jobs - including the 10's of thousands who might have been hired had they not botched things up. This must sound incredibly egotistical, but I do not have a big ego. I just think it shouldn't be that hard to figure out that we must have been doing something right during the 18 years that I ran Sierra."

A-T: "What was your job at the company after you sold it?"

Ken: "It's painful to have someone run your company. I have my way of doing things, and knew immediately that the new owners would have different ideas. In order to minimize the pain, I accepted willingly to be transferred to some other division of the acquiring company. This request was granted, and I spent my last year at Sierra not working for Sierra. I took a small group of Sierra people and moved to the other side of town, into a small office, and started a new website called "NetMarket". It was one of the first big online shopping sites, and was an immediate success."

A-T: "February 22nd, 1999. Sierra's offices in Oakhurst closed its doors. More than 100 employees were fired. It is very moving to read your letter to them as well as Josh Mandel's article on the topic. How did you receive the message and how did you feel the moment you got it?"

Ken: "I can't believe I don't remember how I heard, but I can't. It didn't surprise me. Some of the projects in Oakhurst were out of control (or, so went the rumours I had heard). Managing developers isn't easy, and Sierra's having developers scattered everywhere made it tougher. I knew there would be pressure to consolidate development. I had my reasons for sticking with small decentralized divisions, but no one ever asked what they were."

A-T: "How did the employees react?"

Ken: "It was much worse than can be imagined. Oakhurst was in the middle of nowhere. There were no other jobs than to work at Sierra. Most of the people who were laid off would be unemployed for years. Worse yet, when Sierra's corporate headquarters had been in Oakhurst, it had created a real estate boom. Property values were at a high when we hired people and relocated them to Oakhurst. When we moved corporate to Seattle, it caused the market to crash. No one could sell their houses to move to where there were jobs. The shut down of the Oakhurst facility was the nail in the coffin. People got hurt bad."

A-T: "Looking back, would you have done anything in your Sierra years differently?"

Ken: "We made LOTS of mistakes, but also did many things right. I wish I hadn't sold INN. We could have, and should have, afforded the losses. To this day, nothing has been done that I like as much. We would have kicked butt. The only thing I really don't like about the Sierra years is that they ended."

A-T: "Today, old Sierra boxes are immensely valuable collectibles. They are sold on eBay for more money than they were originally sold for, and some are even fraudulently replicated. Do you own all these original boxes?"

Ken: "I'm not sure. I own many, but not all. I've thought about bidding on ebay to try to complete my set, but don't really know what I do, and don't, have. Also, we have a very small house in Seattle - threre's no room for anything. I'll never throw away the boxes, but also have no place to put them except in storage. As crazy as it sounds, I consider ebay my storage device. Because of the sale of the company, I don't really sweat money. I can always go buy the boxes when I finally have a place to put them."

A-T: "Do you pet them from time to time?"

Ken: "I'm much more into history than Roberta. I look at the boxes and get emotional. Most of my life is in those boxes."

A-T: "What do you think of the games Sierra is producing now? How is your contact to Sierra now? Are you at all interested in what they are doing?"

Ken: "I'm 100% disconnected. Every six months or so I'll wander into a computer store. I can't think of a product they've released since I sold the company. I assume they are still in business, but I'm not sure."

A-T: "Just recently, a new Space Quest game in production (not an adventure) was cancelled. From your point of view: will there ever be a new "Quest" game from Sierra? Or an adventure?"

Ken: "The adventure game needs to be re-invented to succeed. Doing more of the same with a new plot wouldn't cut it, beyond selling a few Sierra fans. My #1 skill at Sierra was in pushing people to innovate. There is too much copycatting in the industry today. No one has the courage to do something completely different. I don't think Sierra (or, anyone) will do an adventure game anytime soon. If they do something like what Sierra did, it will be at best a mediocre success. My guess is that companies no this, but no one wants to go out on a limb with something completely different."

A-T: "Did you ever toy with the idea to acquire the rights from some adventure series and continue them?"

Ken: "No. I did games for 20 years. I miss the Sierra days, but I'm also a bit burned out on it. I could see doing a game for some other publisher, but the idea of me running a game company again will never happen. If someday Larry Probst (EA) calls and says "Do you and Roberta want to do a game?" there will some late night discussions at my house. I have no idea how that discussion would end."

A-T: "The mountain that became the Sierra logo - did you climb it?"

Ken: "Not I - but almost everyone around me did. I'm a total coward when it comes to heights."

A-T: "Any funny anecdote from your Sierra days you want to share with us?"

Ken: "Thousands! Is R rated ok? Nah... just kidding (did you read Hackers?). I notice today that someone just wrote a book about Id Software. I had a very funny meeting with the Id guys once. I tried to buy the company back before they did Doom. They had done a pre-cursor to Doom that already showed their talent. I didn't realize they were just kids, and invited them to dinner at a VERY fancy French restaurant. We had only spoken on the phone. I showed in my coat/tie, and they showed up in a beat-up old van - and got out in totally ripped up jeans, t-shirts and flip-flops. The restaurant freaked out. We wouldn't have been seated except that I was a good customer at the restaurant, and they owed me a few favors. We totally disrupted the restaurant, and had a great time. At the end of the evening I thought we had a deal, but nothing ever came of it. Too bad.

OK - here's one more. In the VERY early days, Steve Wozniak once decided to play a trick on Roberta and I. He set up an ironing board in his office, and took a couple of floppy disks out of their lining. He was ironing two floppies on top of each other, and swore to me that he had found a new way to copy disks. I fell for it...."

Gaming in general

A-T: "Sierra was famous for all the adventures it produced over the years. What makes adventure games something special for you?"

Ken: "I always thought the future of storytelling was on the computer. I predicted that computer games would be bigger than films, and still believe there is huge potential with story-telling games - if done correctly. Watching a story from the inside is more exciting than from the outside. Phantasmagoria was a first step towards where I thought the future was. It's disappointing that we blew it with Phantasmagoria II and shot the category."

A-T: "I can't hear this question anymore, but I have to ask it: are adventures dead?"

Ken: "Asked, and answered - see above."

A-T: "But arguably they are not what they used to be. What do you think is needed to make them stronger again?"

Ken: "Imagine Super Mario quality animation, and the ability to interact with the world, but with realistic characters, and mature plots. But, a story game - not a action game, and not a puzzle game. Focus on characters and plot. That said, I would launch two different projects to reinvent the market, and my second idea might be the bigger one.

I like the idea of where infocom was going. There were the inklings of an idea in their text games - which was to focus on artificial intelligence. If the same effort were coupled with todays computers - perhaps a game could be built that is a VERY accurate simulation. I like the idea of an environment with unpredictable characters. The problem with multi-player is that most people don't like multi-player environments. I think that through having truly smart NPCs, something that could be done that gives the best of both worlds; single and multi-player games. If I personally did a game, this is the area I would focus on. The problem is that games become puzzle games at some point. It's the player versus the traps left by the designer. I have a lot of ideas on how to build credible intelligent characters."

A-T: "Have you played recent adventure games? Which ones, and did you like them?"

Ken: "I haven't played a computer game since 1996! Actually, I was never much of a gamer. I play too-much online poker (real poker), and was always a fan of Leisure-Suit Larry - and, loved Phantasmagoria I - but, beyond that I've never been a gamer."

A-T: "Do you play Counterstrike? Other shooters?"

Ken: "None - not my genre. I actually passed on action games for years at Sierra, until Half-Life, and I only signed it because I liked the idea of blending a story-telling game with an action game. I saw it as new enough that it wasn't 'just another Doom clone'"

A-T: "You probably know about the independent adventure developer scene on the internet. There are many fans out there developing their own freeware adventures just for fun, and you can find the whole scope from professional quality to very simple games. Do you watch this scene?"

Ken: "Not closely. I like the idea though. I just hope that Sierra is a good sport about it and doesn't sue anyone. The idea of people banding together to build games is very exciting."

A-T: "LucasArts - in contrast to Sierra - closed down some of the projects based on their games. Would you do the same if you were still the head of Sierra? Do you understand LucasArts?"

Ken: "It's not an easy issue. I think I would have sized the people up, and put them into one of two categories: 1) People who didn't have a chance of ever getting a product out the door, or 2) People who should be on my team. If they fall into category 1 - it's obvious what to do - ignore them. To attack them makes you look like a bad guy. If they fall into category 2 - meet with them, and sign them up."

A-T: "One of the most professional projects is Tierra Entertainment, who did a 1:1 remake of KQ1 and an extremely extended version of KQ2, both with high quality music and voices. Did you and your wife play them? If so, what did you and your wife (who designed the original games) think?"

Ken: "Neither Roberta nor I played either game. I had thought they were exact remakes. I didn't realize they added voice. I'll mention it to Roberta. That will make her want to play them. We really have been VERY out of touch. We've been living between Seattle, Mexico and France, with golf and boating consuming most of our time."

A-T: "I'm sure you've played the LucasArts adventures. Now be honest: did you like them? What was your favorite?"

Ken: "I did play those, and thought they were at least as good as ours. I think we out-marketed LucasArts. My favourite was Loom. I thought it was an incredible product. I wanted to buy the rights from them to do a sequel, but never did."

A-T: "Some sites on the internet specialise on offering old commercial games, which are not sold anymore for free download. What do you think of these so-called abandon-warez?"

Ken: "I found one site that had all the old apple II games, and downloaded all of them, plus an emulator. I spent an evening playing through all the old games, but quickly lost interest. Old games don't look too good when compared to what is possible today. Most of these games are abandoned for a reason."

A-T: "Your favorite non-Sierra PC game of all time?"

Ken: "Microsoft Flight Simulator. If you had asked me on Sept 10, 2001 I would have said it was the best game ever produced."

A-T: "Console gaming or PC gaming?"

Ken: "Had I stayed at Sierra, I would have focused on multi-player (massively so) games, and consoles. The new game consoles are awesome."

Private life

A-T: "When is your birthday?"

Ken: "October 30, 1954"

A-T: "What is your original education? Did you study?"

Ken: "I majored in Physics in college, but only completed the first couple of years. Roberta and I were married five days after I turned 18. While I was in college, she got pregnant, and I had to get a job FAST. This meant dropping out of college to go to a trade school. I did a nine-month programming school, and got a job as a computer operator on a mainframe computer. I had a talent for computers and moved up rapidly."

A-T: "As a child, did you always want to be the boss of a multimillion-dollar company? What would you be doing now if Sierra had not become the success it was?"

Ken: "I grew up in a very non-wealthy family. We were literally from the hills of Kentucky. My grandpa sold moonshine. I on the other hand, had white collar aspirations. From the time I was 10 or so, I told everyone I was going to retire at 30. I was willing to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but I wasn't willing to fail. As it turned out, I didn't need to work quite that much, but close. I literally worked six days a week, 10-12 hours per day, for over 20 years. The only time I didn't work was Saturday evenings, and Sundays. It wasn't a great way to raise kids, but it did work well for building a company."

A-T: "How did you meet Roberta?"

Ken: "We were kids at the time. I think I was 16 and on a date with another girl. Roberta was cuter than the girl I was with, so I traded up. The rest is history."

A-T: "You have two sons. Did they play Sierra games? What are their favorites?"

Ken: "My younger son, Chris is still in the business. He's addicted to Halo, and working for a company Dwango, that makes games for cell phones. Chris is super-creative and smart, and is fluent in Japanese. DJ, his older brother, is gifted at programming, but prefers food to computers. He is trained as a chef and has worked at some of the worlds greatest restaurants. I'm not sure what games he plays, if any."

A-T: "Are you still in contact to some of the designers from the old days, like Al Lowe, the two guys from Andromeda or the Coles?"

Ken: "Al Lowe and I hang out all the time, but he's the only one. He was just here in Mexico at my house for a week of golf (and, fun!)"

A-T: "Football or Baseball?"

Ken: "I love watching Basketball. We have front row seats for Sonics games, and go whenever we're in Seattle. We have equivalent seats for the Mariners, but I can't get used to the slow pace of baseball games. I would definitely go to football games, but Roberta doesn't like football - so, we don't go."

A-T: "What are you doing now? Retired or still working?"

Ken: "I'm a workaholic. I have a pet project going which is meaningless, but keeps me busy. You can see what I'm up to at I did it when I was trying to think of a small website to start, that would give me something to tinker with. Don't be surprised if I find a way to move it toward games someday. For now, it's a way to start building a mailing list, and to have something to do - but, longer-term, I might introduce some simple games, and then build from there. I honestly don't know why I'm doing it, or where I'm going with it."

A-T: "What are your plans for the future? Would you like to make adventures (or other games) again?"

Ken: "I hate to think I'll be a goof-off for the rest of my life, but it is possible. Roberta and I have a VERY good life. I'm currently working on taking my boat across the atlantic (seriously - a voyage of 4,000 miles). We've always wanted to do it, and now it looks like we're really going for it. Spooky, but fun. The ultimate adventure game."

A-T: "What times in your life do you like to remember most, and what times don't you like to remember?"

Ken: "It has been so long since the Sierra days (almost 6 years now) that I'm starting to forget them. It seems like a long time ago. All 20 years are starting to run together into a blur - an awesome blur, but a blur. Within the blur is the high points of my life, and the low points.

Being a public company was a nightmare. I'm a perfectionist, and a quality freak. The idea of shipping games to make a quarter runs completely counter to my wanted to hold games until they were "just right". There was always unbelievable pressure on me to compromise quality in order to hit revenue and profit goals. Sometimes I did - which I'm not very proud of. This is a sucker trap. Only great products sell. On the other hand, when we shipped a game and it went to the top of the charts, I was on top of the world."

A-T: "Did you finally learn French, and do you still wear that old Apple t-shirt?"

Ken: "Je parle français. Loin de parfaitement, mais je me débrouille bien. With respect to the shirt: I wish that I could still wear it. Unfortunately, I've grown (widened :{)"

A-T: "Was the Softporn cover your idea, and how long did it take to convince Roberta?"

Ken: "It was my idea, and not a lot of thought went into it. It was spur of the moment. I had the idea and just asked around the office "who wants to go to my house and take pictures?" I think the shoot was the same day as I had the idea. It says something about the company that no one I asked (Roberta included) said no. We were just kids, and kids like having fun."

A-T: "You and your wife not only created, but are perhaps the most important players in the history of what we call "graphic adventures"; your company produced many games that have touched myself, as well as numerous others out there. I think I don't only have to thank you immensely for giving us the opportunity to interview you, but also for bringing so many moments of joy to our homes. Thank you!"

Ken: "Thank you!!!!! Amazing questions - you really made me think."

Ken: "Here's a bonus for you.... A couple of unknown things about Sierra:

Most people don't realize it, but Sierra's success is partially attributable to our being a VERY smart direct marketing company. Before starting Sierra I had worked for a couple of direct marketing companies. Here's a true, but silly fact: I worked for Fredericks of Hollywood, and a well-known mortuary (whose name I'd rather not mention) who pre-sold burials via direct marketing. Pay today, die tomorrow.

Even though both of these companies are blemishes on my resume, I did take away a strong appreciation for the power of direct mail. This was added to experience I had with direct sales from earlier in my career selling newspapers door to door. I set sales records. If you put me in front of a customer, I could close them. I understand how to make people buy things. From day one at Sierra, I kept a list of our customers. We had the best and biggest list in the industry. And, if you were on it, you got lots of mail from us. Our competitors always wondered how we beat them. Our products were good, but our sales were even better.

I had a governing rule for Sierra that said "It's much cheaper to sell a product to an existing customer than to a new customer." If you do great products, a certain number of customers find the product (or read a review) and buy it. Once they are "in the family" (a very familiar phrase to Sierra employees) all we have to do is tell them about new products AND NEVER BURN THEM. The cost to reacquire a customer after you burn them is off the top of the charts. I focused the vast majority of our marketing budget on direct communications to existing customers. Look at InterAction magazine to understand the real Sierra. We were a direct mail machine that sold through retail distribution."

Ken: "And lastly, here's another interesting little story that amazingly no one seems to know:

By the time Sierra was sold, it was mostly a non-game company. In about 1990 I made the decision to focus away from games. This came about as a result of a discussion with Bill Gates himself. It's a bit of a long story, but we had been talking about Sierra and Microsoft doing a project together when I got bold enough to ask Bill if he would ever consider buying Sierra (I had always had tremendous respect for Microsoft, and would have teamed up with them in a minute). His answer changed Sierra's future.

People at Sierra remember this meeting well, because I came back and changed the company dramatically. Bill said that he had just noted the bankruptcy of United Artists. His contention was that they were in a hit driven business, and that ultimately in a hit driven business you run into a time of no hits. Sierra lived and died with the best seller charts. Fortunately, the charts were very good to us, but Bill's contention was they had also been good to United Artists. Ultimately, you run out of hits and die. It might take a hundred years, as was the case with United Artists, but it always happens. My goal with Sierra was to create a company that would live forever. I didn't want to be a "hit machine".

I set a new goal for Sierra to exit the hit business, and reorganized the company around a new vision to be 1/3rd education, 1/3rd productivity and 1/3rd perennial products. The first two categories should be obvious, but the last needs some explaining. My goal was to find products that could be "rev'ed" each year, such as Microsoft's Flight Simulator, or Electronic Arts Madden Football. I wanted to find an array of products that could be done better each year. Flight (and other) Simulators fit this category, as did construction sets. Products like Caesar fit this definition. The Incredible Machine.

By the time the company was sold, I had about 80-90% of revenue that matched my vision. It's not clear that I would have continued in adventure games at all. My guess is that this vision won't make me popular with adventure gamers, but it was working. My focus was on building a company that would live forever. The new owners had different ideas and scrapped many products I considered key to this vision. I wish they had at least asked where I was trying to steer the company."


Again some of the pictures in the interview with commentary:

Booth - Sierra On-Line booth on the "7th West Coast Computer Faire" in 1982. (Source)

Sierra building - Sierra's offices in Oakhurst.

Roberta 1 - Roberta Williams with a beautiful T-Shirt in front of a very interesting looking chart.

Ken & Roberta - Ken und Roberta Williams show us their games. Long time ago.

Ken - Ken Williams today.

Al Lowe - Al Lowe, the designer of the Larry games, playing golf.

Softporn - The famous cover of the text adventure "Softporn". On the right: Roberta Williams herself!

Boat - Ken & Roberta's boat.

Roberta 2 - Roberta in the boat's kitchen.


Sierra Gamers - Ken Williams' Homepage

Vintage Sierra - Interesting stuff about many old Sierra adventures and more

Tierra Entertainment - Remakes of old Sierra games

SCI Studio - Rip things from Sierra games and produce games yourself with this tool - Everything about Sierra's Comedy-Sci-Fi-Series