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Roberta Williams Speaks Out ...

By Randy Sluganski
March 1999

... about the recent Sierra layoffs, Mask of Eternity, Phantasmagoria, retirement (or not), Ken Williams and his new start-up, the changes in the adventure game genre, and what lies in her future.

Many adventure fans felt as though there was a death in the family when they heard the news of the Sierra layoffs. How did you feel, or had you been expecting it?

Actually, even more layoffs have happened since you sent me these questions. Sierra has been cut back to bare bones. Of course, I'm not happy as to what has happened to Sierra. Ken and I worked for almost 20 years to build the company. It was in extremely strong shape and was doing very well when we sold it in 1996. Look at it now. It's a travesty what has happened to Sierra.

As bad as I feel for Sierra--and I do--I can't stand around wringing my hands over it. What's done is done. Neither me or Ken at this point have any say over it; none whatsoever. We knew when we sold the company that our time was over, that other people besides us would be making decisions. It was a difficult decision to make, but we made it ... and now we have to live with it and go on. As you know, Ken has started a new company, WorldStream Communications (Talkspot.com), and we are both looking forward to seeing what it can do. WorldStream is now the future for us ... and that's where we are looking.

Do you think that there is any company around that can pickup the lantern, so to speak, and carry on the tradition of adventure gaming in Sierra's place?

I've heard that there are a lot of little companies working on adventure games (none of the "big" players, though). It sounds as if Sierra, Lucas Arts, etc., are not as interested in doing adventure games right now. Perhaps some new company will step into the void and bring adventure games back into the fore.

However--what with Jane Jensen's Gabriel Knight III coming out--and perhaps a new Leisure Suit Larry in the wings--maybe Sierra might find that adventure games aren't so bad and that they ought not to be so fast in leaving them behind.

Is it possible in today's marketing atmosphere for anyone else to recapture what you and Ken accomplished some twenty years ago, or has the gaming community changed so drastically so as to prohibit such creativity?

There will never be another Ken and Roberta Williams and what Sierra "used" to be. Those times will now be relegated to a nostalgic past. (But, we don't want to live in the past all of the time, though, do we?) It was fun while it lasted and was a great, creative time, but, let's face it, it cannot be repeated ... not in that same exact way, anyway.

However--that doesn't mean that there won't be some other person (or couple) who will do some great thing with a new company or series of products in the future. There are lots of creative entrepreneurs out there and someone will eventually fill the void; I'm confident of it. It's time now to look forward to the future and see where it will lead us.

Any chance that you and Ken might start a small "garage" company to produce and distribute your own games? I understand there is a lot of good talent not doing much at the moment!

Ken has started a "garage" company--WorldStream Communications. Sure, right now it's not a "game" company, but--he's looking at doing a lot of interesting things on the Internet--probably including some form of gaming in the future. As for me, I'm taking this year off; traveling, learning Spanish, building a vacation home in Mexico, relaxing, reading books, playing computer games, surfing the Internet, etc. Perhaps next year I'll get a hankering to get back into the "biz." If so, the place I will probably look will be at WorldStream Communications. Don't look, though, for either Ken or I to be publishing computer games or necessarily working on computer games as they were done in the past ... even with WorldStream. If we were to look at "games" or "entertainment" on computers again, it will probably be done in a different way than in the past, and those games/entertainment would definitely be based around the Internet.

You were and always will be the "Queen of Adventure Gaming;" how do you foresee your professional future? Ideally and realistically.

As I stated above, this year I'm taking off. Next year, who knows. I kind of got burned out and need some time away from doing computer games. I'm also hanging out and watching Ken's new company, WorldStream Communications. I've got some ideas for something for me to do; maybe next year ... although I won't promise at all!

Trust me, my future does not depend on Sierra. If I want to work or to write another adventure game or to work on some cool new form of interactive "storytelling" on the Internet ... I can do that. It's just a matter of me wanting to do it and to be ready to do it. For now, for this year ... I just want to hang out.

Any chance that you will ever work for another company developing your own line of games? Would you want to?

Not this year. After this year, who knows? If Sierra has a good project for me, I would probably be willing to look at that; if WorldStream Communications has a good project for me, ditto; and if another company comes up with a good project ... I would look there, too. Or--it's also possible that I might start up a project on my own.

Was there a time when you and Ken just could not believe all that you had accomplished, or did you expect from the beginning to be so successful?

When Ken and I began Sierra in 1980, we had no idea that Sierra would be as successful as it was, or that I would be so lucky as to work on so many fun and creative projects as I eventually did. We just started Sierra with the idea that we would work on games together in our "cabin" in the woods, but, as we all know, Sierra turned into something much bigger than that! One reason that I think Sierra was so successful was that Ken and I absolutely loved working on the games; our hearts were in it and the success of Sierra became more and more important to us.

Is there a defining moment in the history of Sierra--a moment or event you can point to and say "That is when we turned the corner, that is when we knew we had the respect of the industry?"

I don't know that there was really a "defining" moment. Sierra had ups and downs. At the very beginning we were very respected, then we were less respected, then respected again, and then not, and then again. One thing we've learned by being in the "biz" for so long is that all companies go through cycles of "respect." And the respect is almost wholly dependent upon the quality and popularity of the products you are producing at any given moment. Sometimes we were on top with great products; then we weren't; and then we were. It's almost impossible for any company, especially an entertainment company, to always be on top and totally "respected" all of the time. Eventually products don't sell as well as expected, and then you have to do better next time.

Considering that hindsight is 20/20, is there any one moment in the history of Sierra that you wish you could undo?

The answer is easy. The one biggest mistake that Ken and I made was to go into producing cartridge games for the Atari game machine, the Vic 20, ColecoVision, et al.--in the early 1980s. We did this at the expense of our personal computer games, especially our adventure games. The decision almost brought down the company. If it weren't for the sudden and phenomenal success of King's Quest I, Sierra wouldn't have made it. Needless to say, Sierra never went into producing cartridge games again (or Nintendo, Sony PlayStation, etc.).

The adventure game genre--you were personally responsible for helping to make it mainstream. Is it still mainstream, or has it become a niche genre?

It seems that it used to be mainstream, but now it's been pigeonholed into a smaller niche. I hope that someone comes up with the answer to take the adventure game back into the mainstream again.

Mask of Eternity has to be one of the most controversial games ever released (next to Phantasmagoria!). Either the critics love it (Just Adventure voted it best action/adventure game of the year) or they loathe it. There does not seem to be any middle ground. To what do you attribute this wide and at times emotional difference of opinions?

The question you asked above is the reason King's Quest: Mask of Eternity was different. The adventure game as we all know and love it is a dead animal, except for those of us who love and revere them. The problem is that those of us who love and revere them are becoming a smaller and smaller audience. If I had created King's Quest 8 exactly the same as the other prior seven, it might have gotten great reviews and kudos from its biggest fans, but it wouldn't have sold as many copies as it has ... I'm sure of that. The people who seem to hate Mask of Eternity are, ironically, King's Quest's biggest fans, and the people who seem to love it are those people who have never played an adventure game before, but who have played lots of other types of games ... especially more action games.

The idea was to bring a brand new audience into adventure game playing--those who would never even consider playing an adventure game. The idea was to show all of these "new" gamers that there is another type of game out there--the adventure game--and that it, too, can be cool. Rather than the hard-core adventure gamers out there being mad at me for "tinkering" with the adventure game, they should understand that, rather than just sitting around and doing the same old thing, I was trying to bring new blood into the genre ... thereby trying to keep it from dying. Times change, and tastes change ... they just do, and you've gotta do what you've gotta do to try and reach the biggest possible audience to keep a genre alive.

One final comment on this: Even though in reviews of "pure" adventure games--places where an adventure game is an adventure game, and never the twain shall meet with other types of genres--Grim Fandango seems to garner great reviews while Mask of Eternity is a dud, a traitor, and a terrible game ... Mask of Eternity has outsold Grim Fandango two to one. What does that prove? It proves that I was successful in bringing in new people to the adventure game marketplace, which is good for all concerned, but ... it also means that there will probably be some changes in the adventure game that today's big fans of adventure games will have to accept. The old-style adventure game that we all know and love will just not cut it in today's world.

Were the sales figures of MOE good enough to warrant a sequel either by yourself or Sierra?

That is a question that only Sierra can answer. I am not privy to sales numbers, and since there have been so many changes in management there, I cannot even begin to guess what decisions they will make. I'm not even sure they know yet!

The future of the Sierra adventure games--King's Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, et al.-- do the rights remain with Sierra, or are the individual artists free to do as they wish with their creations?

All of those rights belong to Sierra. Therefore, Sierra could, conceivably, develop any of those games with another person ... whether Al Lowe, myself, Jane Jensen, etc. ... like it or not. (I do want to state, though, that, from a company's perspective, that is the only way to go in order for the company to remain in control of its franchises; and for those of us who care about the economy, the stock market, etc., that's the way it should be. The other side of the coin, though, is that a company should do all it can to stay close to those creators assuming they have done a good job in the past and not necessarily blow them off or treat them badly. A good company should know where its bread is buttered and respond accordingly.)

Josh Mandel, in an exclusive article for Just Adventure, said that MOE is different than the previous King's Quest games in that it is commercial. Do you agree with that assessment? And if so, is it a situation your were forced into or a conscious decision on your part?

Josh is right in that it is "different." No doubt about that. As far as the term "commercial" is concerned, that really has no meaning for me. All of my games have been "commercial." They've never not been commercial. What does the word commercial mean? It means "having to do with commerce," and also, "designed for profit or mass appeal." Now, I ask you, what's wrong with that?! If a game doesn't sell, it's not going to stick around and there's certainly not going to be another one! When you design a computer game which takes a couple of years and a lot of money, you obviously want as many people as possible to see it. I have always approached each and every one of my games with the idea that I wanted as many people as possible to play them. Maybe some people see that as offensive; I don't.

I do want to let everyone know, though, that nobody loves adventure games more than I, and it has always been my goal to have as many people as possible experience this wonderful genre. However, it's important that people understand, Josh Mandel included, that things change and tastes change. The adventure game has to change also, albeit perhaps not exactly in the same way that I changed it in Mask of Eternity. If experiments are not done to find how to mainstream the genre or to make it more "commercial" for today's audience, it will die ... and then everybody loses. Those "purists" may have gotten their way to keep adventure games from evolving, but all they would have really succeeded in is helping to kill it.

What are your feelings on the recent resurgence of text adventures and the exciting advent of the SCRAMM system?

I have to admit I am not knowledgeable about the SCRAMM system (I have not been involved in games or gaming for at least 6 or 7 months) and have not seen any of the text adventures. Therefore, I don't feel qualified to answer this question. I suppose, though, that I should at least look into what this "SCRAMM" system is.

What are your opinions on why adventure games are more popular in European countries? There seems to be no shortage of new adventure releases in France (Cryo), Germany (The Real Neverending Story) and Japan (many adventure games are released for the Playstation in Japan that are never ported to America)?

I think that Americans are a little behind in this instance. Remember, console games have been popular in other countries longer than in the U.S. and we might be experiencing an interest in adventure games in those countries because they're beginning to be burned out on the "usual" console games. That should be good news for us adventure gamers in that Americans should soon begin to experience the console game burn-out, too, and be looking for other types of game genres.

The newsgroups and the magazines seem to believe that this is just a cycle that all game genres go through and believe that the adventure genre will be stronger than ever in a few years (the strong resurgence of RPGs being an example). Is this really just a phase, or are there other factors at work?

There are always cycles in entertainment. It's true in movies, music, dancing, fashion ... and it's true with computer games. As there are only 36 story plots ever written in the history of humanity, hence, the reason that we seem to see the "same" stories over and over with movies, books, etc., there are only a limited number of computer game "plots" or "genres." Obviously, then, we're going to see them over and over, albeit with some changes as technology changes and people's tastes change.

There have been rumblings on the Internet for years now that Phantasmagoria was an albatross for Sierra. Is there any validity to these rumors, and if not, then how did they get started?

What?! Phantasmagoria was the best-selling product Sierra ever had! It has sold approximately a million copies. None of the individual King's Quests--or any other "single" product Sierra ever sold--has done that well. (I have to admit that Phantas II did not do well, but Phantas I did extremely well.) What happened to Phantasmagoria is that Sierra made a mistake in coming out with Phantas II so soon after Phantas I, and then Phantas II just wasn't up to the quality of the first one. The other thing that went wrong with Phantas I is that after we sold Sierra, the "new" management didn't like the product (got squeamish, I guess) and essentially killed the product. No ... it was going great guns until the advent of Phantas II and the selling of the company.

Criticism--you have had more than your fair share of it. It seems the more successful Sierra became, the more you were criticized. Did you ever let any of this criticism influence or bother you in any way, or did you just figure it came with the territory?

I have been criticized?! Actually, I have been lauded, I have been criticized, I have been told that I am a genius, I have been told that my games only sold because of the support of my husband, Ken. Sure--in the early days when I began to hear criticism, I would be extremely hurt. But--over time, you become desensitized to it; you have to. Just as I don't let acclaim go to my head, I also don't let criticism go to my head. However ... I don't want people to think that I don't listen to what people have to say about my games, especially people who have taken the time to really play them and comment on them. It's important to know what they feel, both good and bad. I certainly wouldn't be good at my craft if I didn't pay attention to what people like and don't like. In fact, I care more what people think about my games than what they think about me. I don't matter ... my games do.

Do you have any last words of encouragement for your thousands and thousands of loyal fans and supporters?

I just want those people who have followed my work all these many years to know how much I appreciate them. I want to thank them for allowing me and my games to come into their lives; it's been a privilege for me. I would be nothing without them.

As far as any future products from me: As I have stated earlier, this year, no. Perhaps next year or the year after. I really have experienced burn-out. I need to get into the proverbial "mood" again. It might take awhile; but when it does happen ... watch out! here I come!