The Mortgaging of Sierra Online
July 19, 2019 6:04 AM   Subscribe

The Digital Antiquarian on the overreach of the company behind King’s Quest, Quest for Glory, and Outpost. From the execrable “love theme” song Girl in the Tower that debuted with King’s Quest VI to misadventures on the Sega Genesis CD, Sierra’s fall was years in the making…
posted by adrianhon (19 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Sierra assigned a programmer from the Dynamix division to work with me. He had helped convert Willy Beamish to the Genesis CD, so he understood the system requirements well. However, he unintentionally sabotaged the project. In his early tests, my low-memory warning kicked in, so he disabled it. Six months later, struggling with all kinds of random problems (the hard-to-impossible kind to fix), I discovered that the memory check was disabled.

Oh my god, he got a critical warning and his solution was to turn off the warning.

Flames on the side of my face.
posted by tocts at 6:20 AM on July 19, 2019 [12 favorites]

Related: YouTube gaming enthusiast Metal Jesus recounts his days at Sierra. He also backs up Al Lowe's assessment of Sierra's collapse.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:10 AM on July 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

Oh my god, he got a critical warning and his solution was to turn off the warning.

"we'll build in the error handling later, it's not important right now" said everyone who never did build in the error handling later
posted by dis_integration at 9:41 AM on July 19, 2019 [16 favorites]

they fostered a sense of loyalty and even community which other game makers, not least their arch-rivals over at LucasArts, couldn’t touch

Oh come on now, Monkey Island alone had a better community presence and fan recognition than any rando King's Quest game or the like. Unless you're talking about the community of people rageposting about the time they died because they clicked on a puddle and had to go back to a save from three hours prior.
posted by FatherDagon at 11:53 AM on July 19, 2019

I still have " Girl in the Tower" in my music collection, I still sing it to the cats when it comes up on shuffle, and I regret nothing.
posted by Stacey at 12:37 PM on July 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

A coda to all this is that Ken & Roberta Williams have basically spent all their time on a boat for the past 15-20 years. I have a fairly unironic love for King's Quest 1-4, and never really paid much attention to their other output, so as far as I was concerned Sierra Online existed only to get Roberta Williams' games into my hands, which I was 100% on board with. If you had told me as a kid that the woman behind the adventures of King Graham was going to stop making games so she could sail around the world and see things for the rest of her life, I would have considered it for a moment before nodding just once in sober agreement.
posted by logicpunk at 12:52 PM on July 19, 2019 [8 favorites]

Apparently my friends and I are the only people who played the Laura Bow games. Those are actually the only Sierra games I ever played through, although I dabbled in some King's Quest.

I never understood, was I supposed to know who Roberta Williams was? At the time I thought she must have done something else that she was famous for. Her name was so prominent on the games.
posted by bongo_x at 1:34 PM on July 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

bongo_x I love the Laura Bow games! It was too easy to die in The Colonel's Bequest, but The Dagger of Amon Ra was perfect. I really liked that the ending would change slightly depending on how well you did. It seemed the height of sophistication to 7-year-old me.

The only Kings Quest game I really liked was The Princeless Bride, maybe because you got to play as a female character. (See also: Laura Bow.) They also made a semi-educational game called Pepper's Adventures in Time, which, again, featured a wisecracking girl protagonist thinking on her feet. I don't think it was possible to die in Pepper; you could definitely "lose" to the Evil British Redcoats -- but the game would automatically return you to the last decision point, so there was no need for fifty million just-in-case saves.
posted by basalganglia at 1:52 PM on July 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

You, your friends, and Noted Laura Bow Fan PushingUpRoses.
posted by tobascodagama at 1:58 PM on July 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

I loved the Quest of Glory games and looking at the catalog bought & enjoyed at least a few Dynamix games too. But as a casual gamer without access to the ubiquitous message boards and forums of today I remember being just plain befuddled by some of the other Sierra games I tried. "This is supposed to be fun, right? What am I doing wrong? Why isn't it fun?"
posted by mark k at 8:01 PM on July 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

"This is supposed to be fun, right? What am I doing wrong? Why isn't it fun?"

Oh god, that's how I felt about a bunch of the Kings Quest games. They were frustrating as hell. Particularly the timed portions—who does that? Ugh, I feel like yelling at a computer screen just thinking about it.

IIRC there was a 1-900 number you could call for tips, and I always had a suspicion the games were made deviously hard in order to drive calls to the tips line. This probably isn't the case, but it certainly felt like it at the time.

That's one way (of many, admittedly) that I think games have improved over the decades; the balance between playability and difficulty has gotten better. And maybe there's also an increased appreciation / respect for the player and their investment of limited leisure time, rather than simply assuming they have nothing better to do than play the same level over and over again until they master hitting the right buttons at exactly the right time, or go through the same area for hours clicking on random stuff to find an obscure clue or item. There's difficulty which is also fun, and difficulty which is merely annoying or a waste of time, and some of the Sierra games weren't exactly great about staying on the 'fun' side of the line, IMO.

Periodically when I hear people waxing nostalgic about Sierra's games, I want to point them to an emulator and tell them to fire one up. I have, and while they certainly stand up better than other media from the era (the Suck Fairy hasn't completely stolen their charm, although holy sexism Batman—KQ2's ending is pure cringe), there's no way I'm prepared to play through some of them today without constantly hitting up walkthru manuals. Admittedly I had a lot less going on in my life when I played them the first time, but it still says something about the game design.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:32 AM on July 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

I would have commented on this post sooner, but clicking on the first link sent me down a rabbit hole that I still haven't emerged from. I have been reading this dang website for like 24 hours straight right now. THANK YOU THANK YOU for pointing out this site to me.

I had an apple //c as a kid, and I think I only played like 3 sierra games -- space quest, the black cauldron (which ruled) and Kings Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella. I got it for my 11th(?) birthday and I loved it beyond belief. The fact that it was actually IMPOSSIBLE did not hamper my enjoyment in the least. I had no idea that it was badly designed! I didn't even know "badly designed" was a THING! I just thought that there were games I wasn't good enough to beat.

(total side note here)
Like I said, I played it on the apple //c. One of the things that later Sierra games had going for them was that they were somehow able to use a 16 color graphics mode that seemed completely different from the regular "hi-res" or "double hi res" graphics, the familiar 5 color vector-ish art that was the norm for most games at the time. I was so intruiged by those graphics that my 11-or 12-year old self wrote a letter to this apple // magazine called inCider asking how to access that graphics mode AND THEY ACTUALLY PRINTED IT IN THE MAGAZINE! of course I don't have it any more. I wish I could find it, I wonder if that magazine is on or something, because I can't remember the answer either, and now I MUST KNOW.
posted by capnsue at 3:18 PM on July 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

capnsue: There's a graphics mode on the Apple II's called "Double High-Resolution" which was used by some games and applications, but wasn't super common. That might have been it? I've heard it was something of a bear to program for. [Not an Apple II expert by any means.]
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:59 PM on July 20, 2019

Kadin2048, you know what, you're right - that's what it was called. I was mixing it up in my head with the commands HGR vs HGR2 in applesoft basic (HGR left you 4 lines of text at the bottom of the screen, HGR2 let you use the whole screen).

(at least now i know what to google for. and yikes it does seem an absolute beast to code!)
posted by capnsue at 7:17 PM on July 20, 2019

I had no idea that it was badly designed! I didn't even know "badly designed" was a THING! I just thought that there were games I wasn't good enough to beat.

That's basically how I explained computer problems to people for 25 who thought they were just "bad at computers". The computer is supposed to work for you, if you can't figure it out that's because it was designed poorly, not you. (Also similarly applies to clothing).
posted by bongo_x at 3:41 PM on July 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

King’s Quest VI was a mildly frustrating project for Sierra in at least one way. Everyone there agreed that this game, more so than any of the others they had made before, was crying out for CD-ROM, but too few consumers had CD-ROM drives in their computers in 1992 to make it worthwhile to ship the game first in that format. So, it initially shipped on nine floppy disks instead.

I seem to remember it being twelve floppy disks, but... yeah. I did not have a CD-ROM drive until 1997, and was extremely disappointed when Sierra stopped releasing games on floppy disk.

ImagiNation, a groundbreaking, genuinely visionary online service, oriented toward socializing and playing together, which stubbornly refused to turn a profit.

Being a kid with no credit card, I logged in to ImagiNation exclusively for the extremely-limited free content. It was awesome, but... not even a little profitable for Sierra. By the time I had any way to send Sierra money, they weren't around to take it.
posted by asperity at 12:34 PM on July 22, 2019

I was a Space Quest man myself and am sorta glad it is not being mentioned as a reason for the company's downfall
posted by jrishel at 12:58 PM on July 22, 2019

In more old Sierra history, game history YouTuber LGR looks at an ancient PCjr from Sierra recovered from a now-defunct Dallas area repair shop.
posted by NoxAeternum at 6:52 PM on July 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

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