A Roberta Williams
By Petter Holmberg
(with reservation for errors)
Roberta Heuer Williams was born on February 16, 1953, daughter of John and Nova Heuer. As a child she was known to be very shy and timid, but what really stood out was her incredibly vivid imagination. She entertained her parents and younger brother by telling stories she had made up, and at night she would lie in her bed and make up what she referred to as "my movies", which could be all sorts of fairy-tale adventures.
Roberta met her future husband, the one year younger Ken Williams, in high school. She was dating a friend of his and two months after a double date where they had both met, Ken unexpectedly called her and asked her out. Roberta wasn't very impressed with him in the beginning. He was shy and insecure, like her, but also overly pushy at times. He asked her to go steady the first week. It took some time, but at one point Roberta suddenly realized that he was very intelligent and quite different from the other boys she had dated. Ken wanted them to have a permanent commitment and they got married when Roberta was only 19 years old. Within the year, she was pregnant with their first son, D.J. Williams.
Ken attended a trade school called Control Data Institute and then started working at a large number of computer companies in Los Angeles. They moved around to at least a dozen locations in the 70's, Ken jumping from one job to the other, constantly improving his salary and gaining experience as a programmer. Roberta stayed home and took care of their son. There was no time for making friends. They lived on their dream of making a lot of money and maybe, one day, being able to move from L.A. to a "log cabin in the woods" somewhere, where they could live happily and rise their children close to nature.
In 1979, Roberta gave birth to their second son, Chris. Ken had recently left a company called Informatics to become an independent consultant. While working on an income tax program on an IBM mainframe, he found a program labeled "Adventure". It was the legendary text adventure game Colossal Caves, the first adventure game ever made. It didn't entertain Ken for more than a short while, but he figured that Roberta, being such a lover of stories, would like it better. Roberta who wasn't interested in computers at all had to be persuaded to sit in front of the terminal he had brought home from work. But when she started playing it something incredible happened: She just couldn't stop! She became obsessed by the game and its challenges. She solved it in one month. Then, she went to a computer store in the San Fernando Valley and bought all of their adventure games. They were entertaining as well, but they never managed to fully satisfy Roberta. She began to feel that she could do a better job than the people who had made these adventure games!
Meanwhile, Ken's younger brother Larry had brought an Apple II microcomputer to the Williams' house. To begin with, Ken considered it a toy compared to the computers he was working with, but he soon realized its potential and made an elaborate plan to write a FORTRAN compiler for the machine. He managed to persuade Roberta to allow him to spend $2000 on an Apple II of his own. She wasn't happy about it, but in January 1980 he bought it. Ken hired five part-time programmers to help him write the compiler.
Roberta, who had become obsessed with the idea of creating an adventure game for herself sat down in front of the kitchen table and started writing down her ideas. She spent three weeks creating a story inspired by Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians and the parlor game Clue. She called the game Mystery House, as it was about a murder mystery in an old house. The game wasn't revolutionary in its puzzles and gameplay, but it had one aspect that made it different from any other adventure game. It would feature graphics! Roberta thought that it was unnecessary to tell the player what he/she was seeing, when the game could show a picture of it instead.
But she didn't know anything about computer programming, so she couldn't make the game herself. Realizing that Ken wasn't likely to take her ideas seriously, she made a tactical move. She took him to The Plank House, their favorite local steakhouse, bought him dinner, made sure he had consumed a glass of wine or two, and then presented her ideas to him. At first, Ken didn't think she was being serious, but he gave her five minutes to persuade him. But when he heard about her game plans and realized how passionate she was about the idea he gradually changed his mind. When Roberta had stopped talking, Ken had made up his mind. He accepted to help her make the game.
Abandoning the FORTRAN project, Ken started implementing Mystery House on the Apple II. Roberta created the text and graphics for the game and told Ken how she wanted it all to fit together. She did the quality assurance herself, and in about a month the game was completed. Copies of the game, sealed in ziplock bags, was distributed to the only four software stores in Los Angeles county by Ken and Roberta personally under the company name On-Line Systems, which was what Ken had called his independent business.
The release of Mystery House, on May 5, 1980, marked the beginning of one of the most successful game companies in history. Mystery House was the first adventure game ever with graphics. Sure, the graphics featured was static, monochrome line drawings, but people were going nuts about it. By the end of May they had made $11000 on the game. A month later they had made another $20000. By the end of July, Mystery House had earned them well over $60000! But this was just the beginning. They were already completing their second adventure game, Wizard and the Princess, which even had color graphics. Ken and Roberta now had the money they needed to get out of Simi Valley and head for the woods!
They bought a rustic, 3-bedroom wooden cabin on Mudge Ranch Road just outside Coarsegold, a small gold mining town in the Sierra Nevada foothills just south of Yosemite National Park, where Roberta's parents had an apple orchard. There was only one problem. People from all over the country were calling them, often in the middle of the night, desperately asking for clues to the game. Realizing that handing out their home phone number with the games, who now were spread out to tens of thousands of people from all over the country had made things go out of hand, they decided it was time to get an office.
The first real office of On-Line Systems was opened in December 1, 1980, and it was located on the top floor of a two-story building in Oakhurst, seven miles from Coarsegold. They started hiring people to help them out, and On-Line Systems was growing quicker and quicker.
During the early On-Line Systems years, On-Line Systems released a series of graphical adventure games, primarily for the Apple II, called the Hi-Res Adventures. Mystery House and Wizard and the Princess were the first two in the series. They were followed up by Mission: Asteroid, a science fiction game written by Roberta. Next, she took on a project of such epic proportions that many people thought it would be impossible to create. Time Zone, shipped in February 1982, was by far the biggest game ever created. Filling up six entire double-sided disks and featuring about 1400 locations in an adventure that spanned over 400 million years and seven continents, this epic time-travel adventure took over a year to produce.
An infamous On-Line Systems game, and the only pure text adventure game that Sierra ever produced, Softporn Adventure by Chuck Benton, was released in 1981. The game was controversial enough, but it was probably the cover of the box that got the most attention. The history behind the infamous Softporn cover is that Ken had the idea one day to create an ad photo for the game, featuring a waiter, an Apple II computer and some women posing topless in a hot tub. They borrowed the waiter from a local steakhouse, and the women posing on the picture were none other than the company bookkeeper, the wife of Ken's assistant, and the wife of Ken Williams! The photo was taken at the hot tub in Ken and Roberta's house. The ad was an immediate hit and it was even featured in Time and over the UPI wire. On-Line Systems recieved a bunch of hate mail for the picture, but the advertising was the most successful ever and Softporn became a bestseller.
In September 1982, Ken and Roberta attended the legendary AppleFest in San Francisco. There, they hosted a dinner for friends and industry representatives, featuring Apple creator Steve Wozniak as the guest of honor. The same night, they got an emergency call from Coarsegold, telling them that their house had just burnt down to the ground. Their children had fortunately been saved by a baby-sitter, and they had planned to move the next year anyway so it wasn't the huge tragedy it could have been. But many valued things had been lost in the fire, including a treasured original Apple I motherboard, a loss which Ken found very hard to get over...
But Sierra's success continued. The next project for Roberta was the one that would earn her the most recognition. IBM had contacted Sierra in 1982 and wanted them to develop a showcase game for their new top-secret home computer, nicknamed Peanut, currently in development. For this game, Roberta wanted features that was far beyond anything ever seen up to that point. This game would have nothing less than 16-color graphics with fluent animation! The idea was to make it feel like an animated cartoon where you were in complete control of the main character. The game was going to be about a valiant knight saving a country from disaster by recovering three stolen treasures. In reward the knight would become the new king of the country. The game was to be called King's Quest.
The King's Quest project was top-secret. Sierra was using prototype computers sent by IBM and the project was closely monitored by IBM officials. Meanwhile, Sierra was focusing on the cartridge-based computer game marker, which was exploding at the time. This would prove to be a mistake though, as that market collapsed soon thereafter. Left with piles of game cartridges that no one wanted to buy, Sierra was brought down to its knees because of this.
Fortunately, King's Quest saved the day, Released in the summer of 1983, it turned out to be a highly successful game, critically acclaimed by the computer press and loved by the players. It was released in many versions for different computers, which was lucky because IBM's home computer, the PCJr, was a disaster and never sold well.
Thriving on the success, Roberta Williams started working on a King's Quest sequel. King's Quest had been developed using a propriety engine called AGI (Adventure Game Interpreter) and it made it very easy to develop more games in the same style. A number of Sierra employees, new to the AGI technology, were set to work on the game so that they would learn how it worked. These people included Scott Murphy, Mark Crowe and Al Lowe, who would later become famous adventure game creators themselves. King's Quest II - Romancing the Throne was released in May 1985.
Sierra was still growing at an amazing speed and moved out to brand new offices, bigger and specially built for the company. Roberta started working on the third King's Quest game. But instead of continuing on the style of the two previous games, she put a twist on the story this time by creating a story that did not reveal its connection to its predecessors until the player had reached a certain point in the game. When it was released in 1986, many fans of the King's Quest series were outraged to see it featuring a young slave boy as the main character instead of Graham, the king of Daventry, which the players knew from the previous games in the series. Because there were no hintbooks available at the time, it took a few months before the majority of players had reached the point in the game where they realized that the game was indeed connected to the previous two. King's Quest III - To Heir is Human did not only feature a surprising plot, it was also the second biggest adventure game produced by Sierra, beaten only by Time Zone.
Sierra On-Line and Roberta Williams were now among the biggest names in the game industry. They were even contacted by Disney to make a series of licensed games. Robert was involved in the development of The Black Cauldron, an adventure game based on the animated Disney movie with the same name. She was also asked to do an educational game called Mickey's Space Adventure, which would teach kids about the solar system. Disney representatives were very determined that the game should be scientifically accurate. However, Disney felt that this could not be taken as far as giving Mickey and Pluto real space suits, as Disney felt that this would make the characters hard to recognize. Instead, they had to settle for glass bubbles around their heads. Robert felt that there was too little to do if she could not have aliens on some of the planets for Mickey and Pluto to interact with. Disney refused to allow this at first, but after several discussions they decided that it was ok, as long as the aliens and alien buildings Roberta wanted to add were designed in a way that made them look like they would have evolved naturally based on the conditions on the planets where they were located... Needless to say, this wasn't one of Robert's best games.
Roberta now turned in a new direction again. Feeling that there should be good games for children in the age of her son Chris too, she set out to make one. Mixed-up Mother Goose was a children's game with a simplified interface where your task was to find a number of mixed-up pieces of traditional nursery rhymes and return them to their correct owner. The game received great critical acclaim.
Returning to the King's Quest series, which had become Sierra's biggest cash-cow, Roberta set out to redefine adventure gaming once again. Sierra was developing a new game engine called SCI (Sierra's Creative Interpreter) which doubled the resolution of the graphics, supported the first music cards compatible with the IBM PC architecture and featured mouse support. The first game to be produced in the new engine was King's Quest IV. Roberta did a daring decision with this game. As the first significant computer game ever, it was going to give the player control of a female character. The idea had already come to her while designing King's Quest III, so she made the ending scene of that game deliberately suggesting that the next game could feature a female protagonist. Some Sierra employees and a lot of industry people believed that this was the wrong move, but market research performed by Sierra seemed to point out that male players didn't care very much about the sex of the main character in the game, and most female players actually claimed to prefer playing a female character. So Roberta decided to make Princess Rosella the main character in the game. Fearing that the game required too much computing power for the average customer, Sierra developed the game in two parallel versions, one using the old AGI system and one using SCI. The SCI version was highly superior though, especially because it featured music written by Hollywood composer William Goldstein, composed on the Roland MT-32 synthesizer. King's Quest IV - The Perils of Rosella was the first computer game ever to support music cards. It sold better than any previous Sierra game.
In 1990, Sierra celebrated their tenth anniversary by re-releasing the first chapter in their five most popular game series in new, enhanced versions. King's Quest was the first of the games to be remade, and the only one to be released in the 16-color SCI engine. Although largely credited for the game, Roberta actually played a small part in the development of this game, which was given to Josh Mandel to design. Instead, Roberta concentrated on the upcoming King's Quest V. Once again a big leap in technology, King's Quest V was to be Sierra's first adventure game written in their new interpreter SCI1. VGA graphics and the ability to play digital sound samples were two significant enhancements of this system, but the most important one was that it dropped the parser interface altogether. Roberta felt that graphical adventure games could be made a lot easier to play if the user could have a graphical interface instead of writing text commands.
King's Quest V - Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder changed the graphical adventure game in a major way. Although criticized by old adventure game fans who claimed the removal of the parser interface "dumbed down" the game, this new interface prevailed and became the new standard for adventure games. The gameplay of King's Quest V had some flaws, but with its hand-drawn 256-color graphics King's Quest V looked far better than any competing game on the market. It was the first Sierra game to sell more than 500,000 copies and it won several awards.
Constantly thriving to lead the way in utilizing the latest technology, Sierra decided to produce the first game ever on CD-ROM, supporting the Microsoft Windows multimedia features. This game was to be Mixed-Up Mother Goose, in an enhanced version with 256 colors and real speech instead of text. The voices in the game were performed by Sierra employees, including Roberta Williams herself. Due to little or no acting experience the end result didn't sound very professional, but it did the job. The game was a technological nightmare to complete, but its release in 1990 earned it the Best Early Education Award from the Software Publishers Association. Sierra went on to release an enhanced multimedia version of King's Quest V on CD too.
In 1992, a sequel to The Colonel's Bequest titled The Dagger of Amon Ra was released by Sierra. The game was largely the creation of Bruce Balfour though. Roberta Willaims only worked as creative consultant for the game. Instead, she was concentrating on the next game in the King's Quest series. Feeling that it was time to share the writing and directing job with others, she took on this project together with Jane Jensen and William D. Skirvin. Jane co-authored the story and William was the producer of the game, while they all shared the directing task. For King's Quest VI, Sierra went to Hollywood to find professional voice actors. In the leading role as Prince Alexander, they cast Robby Benson who was the voice of the Beast in Disney's animated blockbuster Beauty and the Beast. King's Quest VI - Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow is by many people considered to be the best game in the entire series.
Showing no signs of tiredness, Roberta now began work on her biggest productions ever. Together with Lorelei Shannon, she created King's Quest VII - The Princeless Bride, a game with a distinctly different visual style than its predecessors. Using the latest Sierra game development engine, called SCI-32, King's Quest VII used cell animation, just like traditional animated cartoons. The immense workload of producing the animations needed was given to four separate animation houses. The game, released on CD-ROM in 1994 was much more light-hearted and deliberately more Disney-like than any previous King's Quest games. It received some bad criticism for its simplified user interface and a few other properties, but it sold very well.
At the same time, Roberta was also working passionately at the biggest game production ever, the horror game Phantasmagoria. This was a project that took on Hollywood proportions with its 400-page script and video clips with real, professional actors instead of drawn graphics. Sierra had to build their own video studio for the game, featuring a 16x16 blue screen, the latest in digital recording equipment and the best Silicon Graphics computers available at the time. Parallels could be drawn to Time Zone over a decade earlier, but this time the scale of everything was much, much bigger. Phantasmagoria was released in 1995 on 7 CD's, making it the biggest computer game ever. It was very controversial too, featuring a lot of gruesome violence, including a rape scene that gathered a lot of attention from the press. While often mentioned by Roberta as her own favorite game, Phantasmagoria got a lot of complaints about the linear gameplay, the poor acting and boring video sequences. This didn't matter too much though, as the game sold in almost a million copies, better than any previous Sierra titles. A sequel to Phantasmagoria was later created by Lorelei Shannon, but it did not relate to the story of the first game at all and Roberta had nothing to do with the production of that game.
1995 also saw the release of yet another version of Mixed-Up Mother Goose, called Mixed-Up Mother Goose Deluxe. The game featured enhanced graphics and music, but was basically the same as the previous version.
In 1996, Sierra was sold out and moved its headquarters to Bellevue, Washington and Ken Williams left the post as chairman of the company. Roberta stayed with Sierra to develop King's Quest: Mask of Eternity together with Mark Seibert. The game that took over three years to develop. Once again, daring design decisions were made. Declining popularity of the adventure genre and the revolution of 3D accelerator cards resulted in the decision to make the eighth King's Quest game in real-time 3D. It went through several design phases, but what emerged was a game engine designed to support action and RPG elements as well as traditional adventure-game puzzles. Roberta thought that this game could potentially redefine the adventure game genre and appeal to a wider market.
After the release of King's Quest: Mask of Eternity, Roberta made the decision to take a year off from computer game creation. After 18 years of non-stop game production, she took a well-deserved rest and left the spotlight in favor of reading, traveling, learning Spanish etc. She has made very few public appearances since then, and has not worked on any new computer games for Sierra or anyone else. She has said that she might return to game production if she was asked to and the project seemed interesting. Sierra has not shown any interest to continue the King's Quest series or employ Roberta for any other project after King's Quest: Mask of Eternity though. However, Roberta continues to be a recognized name in the game industry. Her storytelling skills and daring experimentation in game design that has repeatedly revolutionized computer gaming has put her at a prominent place in the history of interactive entertainment and earned her the title "The Queen of Adventure Gaming".
If it wasn't for Roberta's decision to make her own adventure game back in 1980, Sierra would never have existed, and it's impossible to tell what the gaming industry would have looked like today if that had been the case. Being one of the few notable women in the computer game industry is something that has earned Roberta a lot of extra recognition. However, regarding Roberta's achievements as particularly remarkable just because she is a woman is not a fair judgment. The impact she has had on the gaming industry is nothing less than an outstanding achievement regardless if it had been done by a man or a woman. Many of her games featured never before seen technology and innovative, often controversial, new approaches. And almost every time, the criticism and doubt she received for this was eventually proven utterly wrong. In 1997, Sierra released a game collection entitled The Roberta Williams Anthology. It featured almost all of her games, including the old Apple II ones shipped with an emulator to run them on a modern PC.
If Roberta Williams will ever return to the gaming industry is unclear, but one thing is for sure: If she does, she will be welcomed with open arms!
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