The Sierra Adventure
This is the story of Sierra On-Line, the most remarkable and innovative computer game developer of the early Apple II and PC era of gaming. A developer renowned for such titles as King’s Quest, Space Quest, Gabriel Knight, Quest for Glory, and Leisure Suit Larry.
Chapter 1: The Perfect Storm
Chapter 2: First Steps
Interlude: The RPG Market
Chapter 3: Two Guys and Two Sequels
Interlude: Journey to the East
Chapter 4: Leisure Suits and Police Uniforms
Interlude: The Producers
Chapter 5: New Technology
Interlude: Music to the Ears
Chapter 6: Trying (Mostly) New Things
Chapter 7: A New Creative Direction
Interlude: Buying Power
Chapter 8: Old Favorites, New Tech
Chapter 9: Colorizing Old Movies
Chapter 10: A Bandit, a Detective, and a Detour
Interlude: The Hoyle Connection
Chapter 11: The Golden Era
Chapter 12: Continuing Success
Chapter 13: The Sierra Network
Interlude: The Buyout
Chapter 14: Changing Adventures
Interlude: A Larry Platform Game
Chapter 15: All Good Things…
Chapter 16: … Must Come to an End
Interlude: Theme Songs and Academy Awards
Chapter 17: Game Over
Epilogue 1: The Shoulders of Giants
Epilogue 2: Why Sierra Matters
From Chapter 8: Old Favorites New Tech
Sitting at his desk in the middle of the night, working overtime, Corey Cole was more than a little frustrated. He knew that game production would always have its problems, that it was never a smooth process, but with his and his wife Lori’s new game, Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire, the challenges seemed to keep coming.
After production had already started, newly hired creative director Bill Davis turned things upside down, completely revamping the entire game creation process to better cater to the upcoming VGA games planned. Gone were the days of everyone sitting together and working on portions of the game as they were needed. Everything now had to be completely designed and penciled out. Sketches were required of all artwork, and these were to be submitted through team leaders to the producer, who then handed them off to the programmers. The game was to be built using those placeholder sketches, which would later be replaced by final artwork, forcing the programmers to go over their work multiple times.
It was hell.
Tempers were short, and everybody was tense. The stress of the situation became so bad that the anger even made it into the game itself. In a subtle dig at the changes being made at Sierra, the second city the Hero would visit was named Raseir, a brutal dictatorship and anagram of Sierra. The leader of that oppressive regime, Khaveen, was named after Rick Cavin, Sierra’s general manager, while the major antagonist Ad Avis was named after Bill Davis.
It was the success of the first gamethat inspired the decision to put a sequel into production straight away. “We had originally planned the series to come out in bang, bang, bang, four consecutive years. For people to play all the way through from beginning to end. Ken had other ideas; he was going to have us do one game, then switch off to other stuff. But the success of Hero’s Quest took them by surprise. It sold a lot of copies,” Corey recalls.
Quest for Glory II followed a path similar to the first game by supplying the player with a number of quests to complete, along with two new cities and a vast wilderness to explore. This time, however, events demanded a more restrictive time frame, with certain essential puzzle elements occurring only on set days. This allowed for a more focused story, keeping to a slightly more linear path than the original, although players could still undertake secondary tasks and challenges at their own pace.
The Coles set to work to create a new adventure for the Hero in the desert land of Shapeir with a large portion of the team they had worked with on the first game still in place, including composer Mark Seibert.
Trial by Fire, although already planned as the subtitle for the game, would become a very apt description for the production.
After the game was designed and storyboarded, management called a meeting with the Coles and other designers to let them know that the new King’s Quest game, the fifth entry in Sierra’s flagship series, was running late and looked like it wouldn’t be ready for a Christmas 1990 release unless people working on other projects joined the team. Sierra made most of its sales during the holiday period so they needed a new King’s Quest product on store shelves.
Space Quest IV, by Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe, was also at the start of production and an offer was made to both teams. Corey remembers being told, “Either Quest for Glory II or Space Quest IV,we need to do in 16-color EGA [instead of 256-color VGA].” This meant that one of the two groups could continue working on their gameas an EGA title to finish in time for Christmas, while the other would be reassigned to King’s Quest V to speed up production, delaying their own game but allowing it to be released later with the new 256-color technology. “Mark and Scott said, ‘We’ll take the extra time.’ We became the one that chose to be the 16-color game.”
Even with all the animosity and structural changes, Trial by Fire was finally completed and released. But sales this time weren’t up to the higher expectations created by the first game. There were a number of factors cited, with a major one being the name change from Hero’s Quest to Quest for Glory.
Soon after the initial release of Hero’s Quest in 1989, Sierra had received a cease and desist from Milton Bradley. The British board game company owned a similar trademark for HeroQuest, a fantasy board game they also had plans to license as a computer game.
“It was pretty clear that they owned the trademark, and so we changed it,” says John Williams, who was in charge of marketing at the time. “Copyrights were harder to verify then. We didn’t have the internet and there were no central online repositories to search, so things like this did happen. In general, it wasn’t a big deal as long as we complied with the lawyer’s instructions to stop selling the product under a name they owned, and we did.”
One problem for Sierra was they didn’t just design their games. They also printed the boxes, duplicated the disks and created the packaging. They even shrink-wrapped the finished product. Every aspect of the game and packaging had to be reprinted as a result of the name change and sent to retailers as a second shipment, at a major cost to Sierra.
The original name was another in the line of Sierra’s well-known Quest titles. “We were basically playing off King’s Quest and we figured if we had a game called Hero’s Quest everybody would know, more or less, what kind of game it was,” Corey explains. “[In 1989] the film Glory came out about the Civil War and a lot of people said, ‘Quest for Glory, this must be about the Civil War.’ It’s not a bad title, but it’s got a different feel to it. It’s actually, in a sense, all about making yourself important and making yourself famous and so on. Whereas the original title is about helping other people and being a hero.”
One of the greatest advantages for the original Hero’s Quest when it came out in 1989 had been that no King’s Quest game was released that year. According to Corey, the plan was to alternate between Hero’s Quest and King’s Quest every year, allowing each series to have the Sierra fantasy market to itself. But King’s Quest V did end up coming out in time for Christmas 1990, which surely cut into Quest for Glory II’s sales as well.
“What we didn’t know is King’s Quest V would make it out with all the extra staff put on it and shipped about two weeks after us. We basically shipped simultaneously. Here we had two games both in the fantasy space, one of them state-of-the-art 256-color and with all of the marketing muscle of Sierra behind it,” Corey remembers. “Overnight, all the 16-color games died when the 256-color games came out. That meant we delivered an obsolete game from the minute it came out. That really hurt.”
It’s with hindsight that Corey looks back and reconsiders his opinion of the three men he blamed for making his life miserable during the production of Quest for Glory II: “At the time, we were totally stressed and we had our three archnemeses, Ken Williams, Rick Cavin and Bill Davis. [After leaving Sierra], Lori was president for several years of the Yosemite Western Artists group, and a few years ago Bill Davis joined the group and we discovered a few things. For one thing, we discovered that he is an enormously talented artist, which we didn’t get to see at Sierra because he was managing and spending much more time with spreadsheets than drawing anything.
“Second is that he’s a really good guy, and he really cared about making conditions better for his artists. Because if we thought the designers had problems, the artists were all massively underpaid. Some of them were making what they made in the late seventies and they were still being paid that in the early nineties. So it had not kept up with inflation. Generally, Bill made life better for the artists and he really cared about making the art quality of the games as good as possible and he succeeded in that. So, Bill Davis, archvillain, is actually a really good guy.
“Now we have Rick Cavin, who was the general manager, who we felt was a tyrant and expected everyone to adhere to his hours, which [meant] starting work at 7:00 a.m. In retrospect, Rick managed to keep the place operating through a lot of different dramas and changes. So we had our troubles with him, but he was actually a pretty good guy, too.”
Finally, Corey reflects back on Ken Williams himself: “Talking to him years later, we discovered that he really intensely cared about the games he was making. It wasn’t just about making money; he loved the games. . . . He thought it was really neat he could make a living making games and that this was just awesome, and when he merged [Sierra] into CUC International and later became Cendant Corporation, he did that to save the company. He said, ‘These games are important and I want them to keep going, and if we have more money, we’ll be able to make better games and keep the adventure games going.’ So, all three of them [were] actually good guys, just working in impossible circumstances. All these processes that we hated at the time, all had a reason. They all made sense, we just kind of felt like we were the guinea pigs on it.
“Working for Sierra was really a roller coaster ride. When it was good, it was really good. When you got into the creativity, you got into working with great people, it was just amazing,” Corey reflects. “Then when you had just these massive amounts of soul-numbing overtime and not getting enough sleep and coming in and trying to write code when you couldn’t remember what you did last night and stuff like that, those were the bad parts.
“I got stopped by a local sheriff at one point at one or two in the morning, telling me I had turned a corner without stopping for a stop sign. He was convinced I had to be a drunk driver out at that time of night, and I said, ‘Actually I’m just coming home from work,’ and he eventually let me go with just a warning. But I was constantly coming home between midnight and two in the morning.
“Good times, bad times.”