The latest former Sierra design legends to make a welcome and long-overdue return to the genre are Lori and Corey Cole, the masterminds behind the unique adventure/RPG hybrid Quest for Glory series. The husband and wife team have recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption, which they refer to as the "spiritual successor" to their beloved franchise. Naturally, we were eager to learn all about the new game in our interview with Corey, but of course we couldn't resist taking an in-depth look back at his time at Sierra while we were at it.
Ingmar Böke: Hi Corey, it’s my pleasure to welcome you here at Adventure Gamers. Since Hero-U is the burning topic of the moment, let's begin there. Tell us everything there is to know about the story and concept of the game.
Corey Cole: That's a tall order! Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption is the first in a planned series of adventure games with role-playing features. They will have the same type of story, characters, and humor of our Quest for Glory series. Combat in Hero-U is turn-based, and much more puzzle-oriented than Quest for Glory combat. We have slightly more role-playing features in that the player will explore underground caverns and be able to upgrade the main character's equipment. Players will also get to choose from several "elective skills" as the game progresses.
Between the electives, different ways to fight or avoid combat, and the relationships Shawn develops with other characters – students, teachers, and administrators – there is a lot of variability to the game. Each player is likely to have a very different experience, but all of them follow and develop the main story and Shawn's character.
Ingmar: You've stated that the art we've seen of the game so far is not going to be the final look. What can we expect of the finished result in terms of the visuals?
Corey: We are using a mixture of top-down map-style graphics for movement with beautiful and detailed backgrounds to illustrate key scenes and as backdrops for conversations. The player will move around on the map grid, exploring, picking up objects, fighting enemies, and meeting schoolmates. In special locations, we switch to the background graphics. In combat and conversation, we overlay large animated images of Shawn and the other character on top of the map or background.
You can get a rough idea of the map-style graphics by looking at the free demo of MacGuffin's Curse. Brawsome, the developer of that game, is leading our programming effort, and we chose to work with them partially because the look of MacGuffin's Curse was close to our vision for Hero-U.
Hero-U Kickstarter video
Ingmar: Many people seem to be skeptical about how much "adventure" there will be in this game compared to the RPG elements. Can you give an idea of some of the classic adventure game puzzles you'll offer?
Corey: That might be telling. *smile* We have a strong mystery subplot in Rogue to Redemption. The player will find some hidden clues in the school and catacombs, and will learn more by talking to characters in the game. The player may discover secret messages written in code, and will have the option to decipher the codes himself, or to find additional clues that will help him solve them. There are locked doors to be opened with keys and/or lockpicking skill. Some of the characters will assign tasks to the player – quests, if you will. Some of them contradict each other, and the player will have to choose which to fulfil, perhaps angering some characters and pleasing others.
There is an entirely different category of puzzles relating to Shawn's skills. The player can pick up certain elective skills, and can improve any of them with study and practice. Many of the game's puzzles – particularly in combat, but also the adventure-style puzzles – have multiple solutions depending on clever use of those skills.
Ingmar: The game allows you to level up the skills of your character. Does that work just like in other RPGs or is there something different about this system in Hero-U?
Corey: Ah, but we've never been like other RPGs! *smile* There is no character level system in Hero-U, although the player will get rewarded on reaching new skill plateaus. Shawn's skills are learned and improved through study, taking "elective" classes, visiting the library, talking with other characters, and by using them to solve puzzles, fight, or avoid combat.
In Quest for Glory, the player improved the hero's skills strictly through practice. Hero-U is more varied, and we plan to cap skill improvement through practice to encourage the player to study as well as explore... Well, get Shawn to study; the player doesn't need to get bored by the details!
Ingmar: What’s the motivation behind the switch to turn-based combat?
Corey: We want every combat to feel like a puzzle. Quest for Glory combat made the game more immediate and exciting, but it could be frustrating to players with poor twitch skills. (Although actually, we used some tricks, such as making attacks more effective if you attacked less often. This was supposed to encourage use of defensive tactics.)
In Rogue to Redemption, the player will make frequent use of inventory items as well as direct combat abilities. Hero-U combats are designed to take advantage of the terrain and surroundings. The player gets Action Points which can be used to make a single powerful attack, to move around, or to mix defense and attacks. Too many enemies nearby? Duck into a corridor, or lay a trap to slow them down. Or blind them with flash powder while Shawn goes into stealth mode to escape or avoid the monsters.
Ingmar: Will those who don’t like combat have the chance to avoid fighting and just focus on other aspects, or is combat crucial in this game?
Corey: Combat will definitely be avoidable. We originally planned to make some combats avoidable, and some mandatory. Based on adventure game player feedback, we've decided to make it possible to avoid all combat. The game will be longer, and there will be some very intricate puzzles tied to combat, so we expect most of our players will enjoy it. But trying to stay out of combat will involve puzzles almost as intricate.
Note that the combination of turn-based, tactical combat with the abstract top-down viewpoint of the game will make fighting in Hero-U feel totally different than in a shooter or 3D dungeon game. It really is a type of puzzle, and won't feel like Shawn is "killing" enemies, so we think even pacifists will find fighting fun.
Ingmar: Since Hero-U is meant to just be the start of a new franchise, what’s the overall plan for this series?
Corey: Step 1 is to get the first game – Rogue to Redemption – funded on Kickstarter. We can't emphasize enough how important it is for players to support the game early. If you decide to "wait and see", we might not be able to make the game at all. If we succeed in raising the minimum goal, we will have to keep the game features and extra background scenes to a minimum to complete it within the budget. So by supporting our Kickstarter campaign, you are both "voting for Hero-U" and allowing us to make the best possible game.
Buying a game is always a risk. If you wait until it ships and buy it, you won't be able to return it if you don't like the game. You will also send a message: You want your games to be spoon-fed to you, and you don't want to participate in their creation. By backing quality, story-driven adventure games early in the process, you allow the creators to make games that big publishers won't touch. It's an incredible time for gamers, but only if we use our power.
If the fund drive and release of the first game are successful, we will continue the series. The additional games will have the same setting and a few of the same characters, but each has its own unique feel. In game 2, you will play a female Wizard. All of the story and dialogue will change from the first game, but all of the plot threads tie together into a much bigger overall story. Combat will also be completely different, as the Wizard relies on spells rather than items and stealth. We'll have some traditional "fire dart" type spells as well as much more subtle ones. Some combat will be avoidable; we'll have to see whether we can make it entirely skippable for the Wizard.
Game 3 will feature a Warrior student, again a woman. She will be more direct in her approach, and will also be able to use her leadership abilities to work with others in combat.
Game 4 centers around a Paladin. The Paladin is similar to a D&D Cleric in having abilities that heal and protect. He will be able to avoid most, and possibly all, combat. The Paladin also has a difficult struggle to remain honourable at all times, often when circumstances might make it easier to do something less honourable.
We have an idea for a Game 5 that is somewhat different from the others. We aren't talking about it at this point, as we need to work through more of the design and decide on the best way to handle it.
Ingmar: Lori recently stated that Hero-U will be similar in tone to Quest for Glory IV: Shadows of Darkness – which happens to be one of my all-time favorites. Tell us about the similarities to a game that had a rather gothic vibe.
Corey: Much of Hero-U takes place within the Catacombs beneath the school. There Shawn will encounter the living dead, and discover clues to another evil presence. The school is based in a castle that was originally constructed by a cult similar to the Cult of Avoozl in Mordavia. Traces (and more than traces) of its presence remain to be found.
Ingmar: Even though there are obvious similarities between Quest for Glory and Hero-U, you've made it clear that you don't want to simply do the same thing again. What lessons have you learned over the years, and in what way is Hero-U an improvement on elements you used in Quest for Glory?
Corey: We went through five different combat systems in Quest for Glory, and none was quite right. Each of them clashed to some extent with the adventure game elements. This time we realize that we don't need to make a first-person twitch combat system, so we are focusing on tricks and tactics in a turn-based, puzzle-like combat system.
From playing World of WarCraft and other RPGs, we learned that it's important to have "upgrades" to Shawn's equipment. We will have a wider variety of clothing, armor, weapons, and other gear to supplement Shawn's skills.
Sierra's graphic adventure game system was extremely limited in memory, so we had restrictions on what we could do with game variables. We have much more memory and capabilities available under Unity on modern PCs, so we are making the social system more subtle. Instead of having Yes/No flags tracking what the player has done, many relationships will gradually improve or worsen, and we can gradually reveal plot points.
Our top-down graphics also allow us to add some physical puzzles, such as the ones in MacGuffin's Curse, where the player moves boxes around to change the environment.
Having made five Quest for Glory games, Shannara, and others, we are very confident in our ability to write and design enjoyable adventure games.
Ingmar: You’re working with some very dedicated people from the adventure game world. Please introduce us to the team.
Corey: Eriq Chang is leading the art team. He has done a lot of work in graphic illustration – magazines, advertisements, and other games including the beautiful VGA fan-made version of Quest for Glory 2: Trial By Fire. He is used to leading a team and directing the overall style. The rest of our art team includes Eric Varnes and JP Selwood – who also worked on QG2 VGA – and Paul Bowers, who created much of the art in MacGuffin's Curse.
Our programming team is headed by Andrew Goulding, founder of Brawsome. Andrew designed the dog-pirate adventure game Jolly Rover, and contributed to the design of MacGuffin's Curse. He has also worked on more games than I have as a contract programmer. I'll probably help out on establishing the RPG skills layer and some of the individual game areas.
Our music and SFX director is Ryan Grogan, who has worked with Andrew on his previous games. He composed and orchestrated the inspiring theme music behind our Kickstarter video and is creating additional mood music and effects to enhance the game.
Michael Cole – our son – is a marketing expert. He's helping us set up and run the Kickstarter campaign, getting interviews, and designing the game so that it will appeal to JRPG and other gamers as well as to our traditional adventure game audience.
Lori and Corey Cole are the game designers. We've done this before. *smile* Besides Quest for Glory, I created a puzzle game with adventure game elements, Castle of Dr. Brain. We did another adventure game for Legend Entertainment – Shannara, based on the novels by Terry Brooks. Lori made an educational adventure, Mixed-Up Fairy Tales. We're both avid tabletop role-players (particularly Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition) from way back. I play bridge (Silver Life Master) and bowl (200 average) in my spare time. We've written some books, D&D modules, and other publications.
We created the "How to Be a Hero" site (no longer available), The School for Heroes, and the Hero-U web site, all devoted to the idea that we can all be Heroes, and that we should strive to do the kinds of things in real life that our fantasy adventurers do in games. We write an occasional blog with things about gaming, heroism, and success.
Ingmar: What's the idea behind The School for Heroes, and how does Hero-U adapt its principles?
Corey: We started the School to help publicize a text adventure we were going to make in 2008. We decided that we could not make an all-text game that would be fun to play, so we put that idea on the shelf. But we are using the ideas we came up with in 2008 and 2010 as the starting point for the new game.
We ran the School for Heroes by offering "assignments" to the "students". Lori and I graded and commented on them using the role-playing personas of professors at the school. We are using the characters we developed for that in the Hero-U game.
We also developed ideas for each of the classes that will be reflected in Hero-U. One is that Rogues need cleverness as much as agility. Warriors are natural leaders. Wizards love to discover new things, and Paladins like to help others. We have all of these characters in the school, and their attitudes will affect how Shawn relates to them.
Ingmar: Compared to the budget of the later Quest for Glory games, $400,000 for Hero-U seems to be quite small. I guess this means you'll have to work in a very, very efficient way.
Corey: Our first Sierra game, Hero's Quest (later renamed to Quest for Glory 1), cost about $250,000 to develop. At that time Sierra underpaid all of its developers, which saved money. Our team on Hero-U is working for just enough to pay our cost-of-living. If we achieve the minimum $400,000 goal, $70,000 each will go into game design, programming, and art. $40,000 is allocated to music and other audio. The rest of the Kickstarter money goes to fees, fulfilment of rewards for our backers, marketing, company overhead, and miscellaneous expenses.
Of course, if the Kickstarter takes off and we get a larger budget to work with, we can increase the budget for all of the development groups. This will get us better art, more time for programming and testing, and so on. It might also allow us to support additional platforms such as Linux and tablets.
Current art and programming tools are much better than what we had at Sierra, so our team can work more efficiently. This is allowing us to make a feature-rich game on a low budget.
Ingmar: What can you tell us about the pros and cons of Kickstarter based on your personal experiences so far?
Corey: Kickstarter requires an enormous amount of preparation and work to succeed. We spent two months planning the project, and now spend every day doing interviews, answering questions, and creating new content.
Our biggest concern is that people won't hear about and visit our project before it ends on Nov. 20. If people sit back and say, "Oh, I'll just buy the game when it comes out," there will be no game. Kickstarter does not provide *any* funds unless the minimum goal is reached. They also do not charge backers unless the project meets its goal, so it really is pretty low risk for fans to support a project.
Ingmar: I’m sure you had a very close look at other Kickstarter appeals when you planned your own campaign. Did you learn any lessons that helped you prepare?
Corey: We talked with Chris Pope, who helped orchestrate the SpaceVenture campaign, and with one of the developers who helped with the Leisure Suit Larry reboot. They gave us a lot of tips, most important of which is to keep your "star supporters" happy and active in answering questions about the game.
We also observed that most projects start out strong, drift slowly along for several weeks, then finish off with a flurry of support in the last few days. We're seeing the same thing on Hero-U, but it's still very stressful. We won't know until the end if we are going to achieve the project goal. And as I mentioned, Kickstarter is all or nothing. If we miss the goal by even $50, we will not get funded.
Ingmar: Obviously we wish you all the luck in the world with your campaign, but what if things don’t work out as planned? Would there be a future for Hero-U anyway?
Corey: No. If we can't get enough fan support to raise $400,000, we have no ready way to come up with the money to develop this game. Game development is tremendously difficult and stressful, and we are using the Kickstarter campaign to test whether players want the types of games we make. Each pledge is a vote saying, "Yes, I want to see you make this game."
Ingmar: Let’s go back in time now as I’m sure that many of our readers would love to hear some stories about Sierra. How did the two of you end up at the company, and what projects had you worked on prior to the original Hero's Quest?
Corey: I was working in the San Francisco area developing a desktop publishing application for the Atari ST. A friend who did animation work for Sierra, Carolly Hauksdottir, told us that she had been in a meeting, and Ken Williams decided the company should make a role-playing game. Carolly introduced us to Ken. He wasn't too impressed by our gaming background, but he got excited when I told him I knew how to program the Atari ST.
Sierra hired me as a systems programmer, and when they saw that I was doing well, they allowed Lori to present our proposed design for Hero's Quest. They signed a design contract – I think she got $1,000 or $1,500 a month in advances – and started the game about the time I finished the new Atari ST interpreter. The following month, the lead programmer quit the project because he didn't approve of having a Thief character in the game, and I took over as lead programmer.
Ingmar: The Quest for Glory series represents a combination of adventure and RPG elements that remains unique even to this day. How did you come up with the idea to mix these genres?
Corey: Sierra wanted us to make a role-playing game like Ultima, but all of Sierra's tools were designed to make adventure games. We decided to make an RPG that had the feel of a good tabletop D&D game, with emphasis on the characters, story, and puzzles rather than on exploring dungeons and fighting constantly. Basically, we made the type of game we would enjoy playing, and we made it work with the Sierra game engine and tools.
Ingmar: Let’s have a closer look at the actual Quest for Glory games now. What are your feelings about the first game when you look back, and what do you remember from its development?
Corey: Hero's Quest was a team effort. Kenn Nishiuye defined the art style and made it look good despite using 16-color EGA graphics. Mark Seibert and Chris Braymen made us some enduring music, despite the primitive sound cards people had back then.
Quest for Glory I: So You Want to Be a Hero
Bob Fischbach set up the first game scenes and wrote a lot of placeholder messages for looking at trees and rocks and such. Bob is actually responsible for the first puns in the game. We might have made a more serious game, but we decided Bob's jokes were fun and funny, so we continued with them. We also decided that the art limitations made a comedy game work better than a completely serious one.
We didn't like distracting the players by making them type in full commands, so we came up with the shortcut keys – For instance, "CTRL-A" typed in "Ask about" for the player.
We originally wanted to have a different race for each character class and allow the player to choose a female character, but we had to drop these ideas. Bob Heitman patiently explained the limitations of the system. In particular, everything the player can do has to be animated, and if you have six choices of race and gender, that means six times as much animation. That couldn't be done within the art budget or on the available disk space. Some players actually played directly from the 360KB floppy disks back then!
Incidentally, Hero's Quest came close to being cancelled. Ken Williams looked at the game and said, "This is a role-playing game? I don't get it. Will it appeal to either adventure gamers or role-playing gamers?" But our Producer, Guruka Singh Khalsa, stood up for the game and said "I love it!" Then Ken's son, Chris Williams, played some of it and said, "This game is awesome!" Next thing you know, Ken was saying, "This game is awesome; I love it!" Hero's Quest went on to become one of Sierra's fastest-selling games on initial release. Including the VGA version, it sold over 250,000 copies in the first few years.
Ingmar: Same question about part 2: Please share some anecdotes from the creation of Trial by Fire.
Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire
Corey: The title was all too appropriate to the development process. We had just gotten everything figured out after completing our first game, when Sierra changed all the rules. Stories had to be completely defined and storyboarded up front. All art was to be hand-drawn and scanned in, rather than drawn on the computer. All team communication was to follow the chain of command: A programmer with a question for an artist had to ask me, I would ask Ken, and he would get the answer from the artist. Frequently this led to miscommunication and misunderstanding.
The process was designed to improve art standards of the new 256-color VGA games. But we were the guinea pigs – Trial By Fire was Sierra's last 16-color EGA game, but was developed using processes intended for 256-color graphics. It was a stressful process, and the budget climbed dramatically from the first game due to having to do some tasks two or three times. In hindsight, I wish Sierra had delayed the game six months or a year so we could have used VGA graphics and kept it up to date.
That's why we had fun spoofing Sierra in the game. The evil city, Raseir, is an anagram of Sierra. The main villain, Ad Avis, was named after the new Creative Director, Bill Davis. We also used other people and rules as inspirations for design elements.
Pre-game, we did a lot of research into the 1001 Arabian Nights so that we could get some of that flavour into the game.
Ingmar: What comes to mind when you look back at Quest for Glory III: Wages of War and its development?
Quest for Glory III: Wages of War
Corey: We skipped a year between QfG2 and QfG3 because Lori and I switched over to educational games. I designed Castle of Dr. Brain and led the programming teams for all three educational projects. The others were Lori's Mixed-Up Fairy Tales and Gano Haine's and Jane Jensen's EcoQuest. That was their first game at Sierra; they worked as writers before that.
I helped Lori design the main story of Quest for Glory 3, but then Sierra assigned me to port their SCI engine to the Sega Genesis CD. Unfortunately, a shortcut taken by another programmer hid a major problem which eventually forced us to cancel that project. In the meantime, Lori was both directing QfG3 and her point-and-click redesign of QfG1.
I finally got on QfG3 near the end of the project. I wrote some text messages and dialogue, edited Lori's work, and playtested the game. But Lori did 90%+ of the design work.
As for the game setting, that was suggested by one of our co-workers. Having spent a year without a Quest for Glory, we wanted to give players something less intense than we planned for Shadows of Darkness, so the idea of setting a game in Africa sounded perfect. Lori loves creating characters and filling out their stories, so the chance to work with Rakeesh and Uhura again was a great opportunity. I think that QfG3 is one of the best in terms of telling a story.
Ingmar: Quest for Glory 4 is my personal favorite of the series, so I’m particularly interested in hearing your thoughts and memories about Shadows of Darkness.
Corey: After QfG3, I quit my job as a full-time Sierra employee and came back as a game designer on contract. So QfG2 and QfG4 are the games where I had the most design influence, and QfG4 was the first (other than Dr. Brain) where I worked full-time on design with no programming responsibilities.
Quest for Glory IV: Shadows of Darkness
We steeped ourselves in old horror movies and books about Vampires and Werewolves. Aubrey Hodges created a memorable soundtrack that really added to the game. Lori came up with a very detailed back story about Katrina and other characters in the game. I took some ideas from some old occult books. For example, the name "Avoozl" came from a spider god in Anton LaVey's "The Satanic Rituals." Other elements came from Dracula and other Gothic fiction.
Dr. Cranium is of course a nod to Castle of Dr. Brain. It made sense to have a mad scientist (think Dr. Frankenstein) in Mordavia, and it gave me a chance to slip in some more puzzles. We were also inspired by parodies such as Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein. Baba Yaga made her return, as we knew she would when we designed QfG1. Mordavia is closer to her natural home.
The frustrating part about QfG4 is that the game ran late, the team became worn out, and Sierra decided to ship it with very inadequate testing. As a result, the first release was almost unplayable. Fortunately, they decided to re-release it the following year in a CD version with full voice acting. I got to produce the voice recording sessions. Working with people like Jeff Bennett and John Rhys-Davies, along with many other immensely talented voice actors and our voice director, Stu Rosen, was amazing. While we got the voices into the game, a programmer worked most of the year fixing the bugs. The CD version isn't completely clean, but it's much more playable than the floppy version.
Ingmar: It seems like the fifth game in the series created some very mixed reactions among players at the time. What's the history behind the development of Dragon Fire?
Corey: Sierra broke our contract after QfG4, so we had been away for a few years. We had made Shannara for Legend Entertainment in the meantime, then I worked on an online card and board game site. I was working for a company near San Francisco when a mail campaign by Quest for Glory fans convinced Sierra to make another game with us. Initially they were not willing to commit to the new game, so I could not afford to quit my job to work on it. So for the first year, Lori designed the game and worked with programmers and artists at Sierra.
Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire
I came back to Oakhurst and joined the programming team on a three-month contract – Sierra thought the game was almost finished. I looked at the work that had been done and saw a demo of the game engine. That was it – Nobody had even looked at Lori's 500-page game design, created tools for handling character dialogue, or for scripting the game events.
Sierra extended my contract and we got to serious work. We had a very nice voxel graphics engine that turned out to be unusable – When characters moved into the foreground and became large, the frame rate slowed to 1 or 2 fps. The lead programmer proceeded to write our own custom 3D engine, and the artists had to rework all of their artwork as polygons. Since voxels have no polygon restrictions, this meant they had to simplify all of the artwork and reduce detail so that the art could be rendered at a reasonable frame rate.
Two more years later, we finally had a game. The Chance Thomas music score is amazing. The scale of the game and number of events and design variables are greater than any of our previous games. We're proud of it, but realize we had to make a lot of compromises because the technology kept shifting under us.
Since I came onto the project late and was focused on programming tasks, the QfG5 design is mostly Lori's. She also had writers assigned to help for the first time. The original story and events were a collaboration between Lori and me after QfG4 closed down, but she added many details, characters, story lines, and events over the three-year development of the game.
Ingmar: Why did the name of the original game change from Hero's Quest to Quest for Glory?
Corey: Sierra did a U.S. trademark search on Hero’s Quest, but did not actually register their own trademark. While we were making the game, Games Workshop in England decided to license their Advanced Heroquest board game for video game development, and got a British trademark on the name Heroquest for video games. They also worked with Milton Bradley in the U.S. to distribute their board game.
When Sierra tried to sell Hero’s Quest in Europe, Games Workshop told them they were violating GW’s trademark in Great Britain. Sierra had to rename the game or lose all European distribution of the games since they all went through the British office.
Ingmar: How do you feel about the fan-made remakes of your games?
Corey: We're glad that people enjoyed our games enough to want to work in our worlds. The QfG2 VGA remake was a labor of love by a dedicated group of fans, and is true to what we were doing in the rest of the games. It looks great and plays well, with a number of improvements over the original version.
We understand there have also been some rather terrible attempts at extending the series. The Rock, Paper, Shotgun review of Quest for Glory 4-1/2 is hilarious; the game sounds awful.
In general, we would say to fans, "Play with our world if you want to get an idea of how and why we designed things. But then move on – Make your own worlds, create your own stories and characters." That's much more fulfilling than copying someone else's work.
Ingmar: Sierra was home to many popular adventure game designers. What was it like to work with these people?
Corey: For the most part, we didn't work with the other designers. We would see Mark, Scott, Al, Jim, Josh, Jane, and (rarely) Roberta occasionally when we walked by their areas, but there was almost no collaboration between designers. I learned a bit about King's Quest, Space Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, and Police Quest when I created the Atari ST interpreter, but after that we were on our own.
Everyone was friendly, but we didn't develop many relationships. We made friends with Ellen Guon and Gano Haine before Ellen went off to Origin Systems to work on Wing Commander expansions, and Gano moved on to Electronic Arts after a major Sierra layoff. When we bought our house, Josh moved into the one we had rented in town. Oakhurst is a small town and we saw other people occasionally, but we were mostly all too busy working to have social lives.
Ingmar: I've heard some interesting anecdotes about working with Ken Williams from other former Sierra designers. Could you tell us what it was like to work for him from your perspective?
Corey: As I suggested when talking about Hero's Quest almost being cancelled, working with Ken was a challenge. He would make snap decisions, and sometimes change them almost as quickly. He somehow managed to keep Sierra running profitably and making good games even when the industry had troubles.
Others at Sierra quickly taught me two versions of "the rule of three". One was based on Robert Heinlein's dictum, "That which I tell you three times is true." If Ken demanded a difficult change, you noted it and went on with your work. If he told you a second time, you agreed with him and made sure to remember it. But if he told you a third time, that meant it was an immediate priority, and you should drop everything else to get it done. Usually when Ken told you to do something three times, it really was a brilliant and important demand.
The other version involved what we called an "Amiga demo". Periodically someone who had done a cool graphics trick or other feature would call everyone over by saying, "Amiga demo!" The first of these, naturally, occurred on a Commodore Amiga, but after that the term became generic.
Well, Ken would sometimes not look at your work for two or three weeks at a time, and at other times might come by two or three times in a day. You always had to show him something new so that he knew you were working and not goofing off.
The thing is, if he came by twice in the same day, you had to show him TWO new things and impress him both times. So people in the know made sure never to show Ken more than one new feature at a time. You always had to keep one or two in reserve for the next inspection.
Programmers frequently tear their code apart when making a big change. Knowing that Ken could drop by for an Amiga demo any time of day or night, we made sure that we always had a working, demoable version saved. It was probably a very good technique for incremental development as well as an important survival mechanism at Sierra.
Ingmar: What are your memories about your departure from Sierra?
Corey: It was a little bitter. Lori and I left a few months apart. We had planned Quest for Glory V for a late Summer launch, and we had vacation plans for Thanksgiving week. The game had to be done before then or we would miss out on a lot of Christmas sales. Well, the general manager decided in June or July that we needed to rewrite parts of the game, re-record some of the voice actors, and make other major changes to the game. All of that of course had to go through a major testing cycle so that we wouldn't repeat the QfG4 debacle of releasing an unplayable game.
August went by, then September, and October, and the game still wasn't ready. I delayed my trip by two days, but then insisted on making it to the bridge tournament and taking Michael to see Disney World. Lori cancelled her vacation entirely.
The GM was angry, thought I had betrayed the project, and cancelled my contract. Two weeks later, when they shipped the game, he laid off all of the other contract workers. So I would have been there two more weeks if I had cancelled my plans. They kept Lori on contract a few more months until the new Sierra ownership closed Yosemite Entertainment entirely.
Ingmar: How did your collaboration with Legend Entertainment happen?
Corey: When Sierra broke our contract after Quest for Glory IV, I first went to work for Bob Heitman (who had also been my manager in the first years at Sierra) on an online board and card game service. I did the bridge game, including tournaments, convention cards, and a very primitive pass at card-playing robots.
The project was originally under contract to a major publisher, but they acquired another more complete game site and cancelled our project. Bob was able to keep the rights to our system and made a deal with Legacy Software (no relation to Legend Entertainment), so we continued work on it. We ran the site for about a year as "Passport2" (Passport2 Bridge, Passport2 Chess, and so on). This was a client-server, not Web-based, system. We ran our own servers.
Unfortunately, Legacy overextended themselves developing very expensive educational games, and the company shut down. We knew Bob Bates of Legend from meetings at the Game Developers Conference, and we all liked and respected each other. As is all-too-typical in the game industry, Bob asked us to submit some design ideas, and liked them, but... Legend got a license to do a game based on Terry Brooks's Shannara novels.
Next thing we knew, Lori and I had a contract with Legend to design and develop Shannara. We hired Bob Heitman, Doug Herring, and other Sierra alumni, along with our friend Jim Katic, and took over Bob's office space in Oakhurst. Doug worked with artists around the world to make a beautiful Legend-style adventure game... onto which we added some RPG elements because that's the way we roll.
We were originally going to do a second game with Legend, but the company got into financial trouble because of a bad deal with Random House Publishing. Random House was used to delaying royalty payments to individual authors, but didn't realize that doing that to a game company with dozens of employees would put them out of business. They played the wrong kind of game and everybody lost.
That's when I went to Accolade for a year, then ended up coming back to Oakhurst to work on Quest for Glory V.
Ingmar: What have you been working on since your last adventure game in the '90s until you arrived back with Hero-U?
Corey: Lori and I did some free consulting work for a company called Explorati, then became employees. Explorati was making a unique shared world MMO, and we designed the first prototype haunted house sub-game for it. Lori also designed the Galleria shopping center experience. Unfortunately, the company went down with the World Trade Center buildings on 9/11/2001. Two of our major backers had their offices in the WTC and cancelled all external development, including our project.
By an extraordinary set of coincidences, I quickly managed to get a job developing an online poker site, JetSetPoker.com, down in Los Angeles. Michael was still in high school, so Lori and I shared time between L.A. and Oakhurst. I used a lot of the things I learned working on Passport2 Bridge, and we made a popular site with regular tournaments and real-money action.
That lasted until Congress passed the UIGEA, which greatly restricted online gambling. My company closed down. Other companies, such as Full Tilt Poker (which actually started as a spinoff of JetSet) and PokerStars later got into severe legal trouble by trying to stay in business after the law passed.
While we were in L.A., Lori started writing a book, "How to Be a Hero", with Mishell Baker, a Quest for Glory fan. They opened a web site to help market the book, and Lori turned it into an online school for real-life heroes. Mishell got married and no longer had time to work on the book, so that was never published. They finished a pretty good second draft, and maybe someday they'll complete the rewrites and publish the book.
Lori and I returned to Oakhurst and started a new site, The School for Heroes, this time in preparation for our planned text-only interactive fiction adventure. We were not satisfied with what we could do in that medium, so we kept running the school, but abandoned the game idea.
We kept food on the table with a series of consulting projects, including one last year for an adventure game that is currently on hold. That project took up enough of our time that we decided to close the school last October. Between that and giving up World of WarCraft (which we started playing in L.A.) we found ourselves with enough time this year to once again get serious about making a game.
Tim Schafer and Kickstarter came along to show us how to fund it, Oded Sharon and Chris Pope gave us lots of advice on running a successful Kickstarter campaign, and Andrew Goulding and Eriq Chang completed the puzzle by giving us a powerful, experienced development team that knows how to make a great game under a tight budget.
So here we are with Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption!
Ingmar: Again, thanks a lot for doing this interview, Corey – much appreciated! Before we close, we invite you to leave some parting words for potential Hero-U backers on Kickstarter. The stage is yours...
Corey: We're not sure if you realize how much power you have. When we left Sierra, the game industry became mired in an endless succession of first-person shooters. Adventure games died overnight because publishers didn't want to spend millions of dollars on games that would only sell a couple hundred thousand copies.
Gaming as we knew it died, except for a few decent MMOs. But now there are signs of life, and you're in charge.
By backing projects you care about, games that have quality and good design, you can help make smaller games possible. Big publishers have so much overhead, they're only interested in mass-market games that don't require any brains to play. They've abandoned the adventure gamer, and are providing only a watered-down husk of role-playing games.
Nobody has picked up the mantle we discarded in 1999, the idea of making an adventure game stronger by adding role-playing elements. It's a unique sub-genre that a lot of people found fun in the 1990s, and that most of you will still enjoy now.
But it's up to you whether these games even get made, and whether they have enough budget to rise to the level of quality of top-tier games. You can't sit back and wait to see what will happen. If you do, here's what will happen – Nobody will make hybrid adventure/RPGs. Very few people will make adventure games of any type. The people who started paying attention when Double Fine Adventure and Project: Eternity got their huge budgets will say, "Ah, I thought so. Those were flukes. Nobody really cares about those kind of games. Next shooter! Next endless sports game clone! More action, more special effects, less thought!"
You can stand up for the kind of games you want to play, or you can watch the adventure game renaissance die its second death. It's all up to you. Please support our new game, Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption on Kickstarter. And support other worthy games such as Shadowgate, ones with quality design that don't have $50 million advertising budgets. If you don't, the creative, thoughtful games will die out just as they did in 2000.