A Sierra Retrospective: Part 1 - The Pioneers of Adventure

A Sierra Retrospective
A Sierra Retrospective

King’s Quest. Space Quest. Leisure Suit Larry. All seminal games in adventure game history. All created by the same company.

Dig deeper into the catalog and there are dozens more equally memorable titles. Quest for Glory. Police Quest. Gabriel Knight.

Delve further still and there are more hidden gems. Manhunter. Eco Quest. Laura Bow.

These games, and many more, were created out of the Oakhurst California studios of Sierra On-Line, in a hectic period between the release of King’s Quest in 1983 and the early ‘90s when the effects of the public float began to be felt.

It was a golden age for Sierra and adventure games.

The story of Sierra is unique to its era. The Apple II was released in 1977 and brought personal computing to the family home. With that, a new industry was born. Computer games.

At the forefront of these games was the adventure.

Mystery House, the first graphic adventure

Roberta Williams had been playing text adventures on her Apple II, but she felt something was missing. What the games needed were pictures. She convinced her husband Ken to help and between them they created Mystery House, the first graphic adventure game. It was a massive success and led to the founding of Sierra On-Line and a catalog of dozens of adventure games.

Along with Williams herself, who went on to create King’s Quest, Sierra also developed an enviable stable of talented designers, people such as Jane Jensen (Gabriel Knight), Al Lowe (Leisure Suit Larry) and Lori and Corey Cole (Quest for Glory). They employed the best musicians, writers and artists available to create their games. And they also worked with some of entertainment’s biggest names, like Disney and Jim Henson.

At a time when there weren’t established rules for how to make games, development was pioneered by Sierra and its contemporaries. Each new advance in technology pushed production in new directions and allowed for more expansive storytelling.

Ken and Roberta Williams

In 2014, Ken and Roberta were honored with the Gaming Industry Award: “With multiple highly successful franchises, Sierra was renowned for pushing the boundaries of writing, game design, animation, sound, music, and with the advent of CD-ROM, even acting. Today’s gaming storytellers stand on Sierra’s shoulders.”

Over the course of this ongoing retrospective article series, I’ll delve into a few specific areas of Sierra’s history. My hope is to shine light on some of the unique aspects of this company and share some stories about those times from the people who lived them.

One such person, although a lesser-known name among Sierra luminaries, is Guruka Singh Khalsa. Guruka was Sierra’s first producer, a creative and administrative role which also gave him broad oversight of the production for all the company’s games.

“There was this peak where the creative juices drove Sierra. It was very much about the soul of the game. A game that can touch you deeply and make you go wow,” Guruka claims.

Christy Marx, an accomplished author and TV writer, wrote and designed two adventure games for Sierra, Conquests of Camelot and Conquests of the Longbow. She agrees about the creativity of Sierra at the time.

“When I first got there, everything was open and free and the creativity flowed. We had a good time making games. We had fun. Nobody knew entirely what they were doing because games were so new, so we got to experiment.”

Christy Marx graces the cover of Sierra Magazine

Adventure games start with an idea. Sometimes that idea came from the designer, sometimes it came from elsewhere. For Christy, the idea for both her games came from the person who practically invented the graphic adventure genre, Roberta Williams.

“I believe it was Roberta who said they'd been thinking about a King Arthur game. I quickly said that we'd be happy to do that type of game, and we agreed upon that,” Christy says.

For Conquests of the Longbow, the process was more amusing. “I was in the earliest stages of thinking about a game based on Greek mythology using goddesses. I was aware that a number of Robin Hood movie projects had been announced, but when Roberta mentioned them to me I didn't pay attention. It didn't relate to what I was thinking about.”

“A day or so later after the first mention, Roberta said to me, ‘I had this dream last night that you were doing a Robin Hood game.’ I suddenly realized that what she was really doing was dropping hints that they wanted me to do a Robin Hood game.”

Josh Mandel had a different experience. As Director of Product Design, he and the other designers would meet with company owner Ken Williams and Creative Director Bill Davis weekly to discuss game proposals.

An imposing Josh Mandel

“Every week we would submit two game proposals. We learned to make these proposals very short because Ken didn’t have the patience. He would read a couple of paragraphs and if you hadn’t grabbed his interest by then you probably weren’t going to. Bill Davis wasn’t this way; he was thoughtful and would read through the proposals and work to understand them.”

It was out of one of these meetings that Josh developed the initial idea for Laura Bow 2: The Dagger of Amon Ra, a game which Bruce Balfour would go on to design and develop.

“My proposal was about a museum. I didn’t have a name for it but it was a museum with a display of a ceremonial Egyptian dagger that gets lost. Basically, the game, but summed up in a couple of paragraphs,” Josh explains.

Once an initial concept was approved and a designer assigned to develop it, a producer would be added to the mix. While the designer concentrated on the game design process, the producer’s job was to handle the production side of the equation, along with providing an oversight role for the creative side.

The producer and designer worked together in an almost symbiotic way. When the producer was assigned a rough budget by management, they would be required to break it down into the individual parts necessary to create the game. How many artists should be involved? How many programmers? What musicians would be needed?

But these positions couldn’t be defined until the designer had started to form their ideas together into a coherent design.

Continued on the next page...


Advie Advie
May 6, 2017

great job, thanks for the article.

hope there are more quoted references from ex-Sierra employees next part and anything from Mark Seibert years with Sierra I will be very delighted.

diego diego
May 7, 2017

Woohoo comments work again!!!

I don’t know much about early Sierra, I was a fan up from GK2 and 1995.

CaptainD CaptainD
May 8, 2017

Fascinating read, thanks!

May 26, 2017

Great read and memories! Actually I loved Code name: Iceman! Sure there were some issues but really enjoyed it, same with Freddy :-)

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