A Sierra Retrospective: Part 3 - From Atari to the Magic Kingdom

A Sierra Retrospective
A Sierra Retrospective

When you think of Sierra you might not necessarily think of the Atari 2600 or the Commodore 64, but both systems had a big impact on the fortunes of the company.

From the earliest years of its life, the Atari 2600 console was the biggest video game platform in America. By 1983, six years after its release, the revenue from game sales had skyrocketed and an ever-growing number of third-party developers had started producing games. Sierra, or Online Systems as it was then called, was one of those companies. The market quickly became oversaturated, and with few quality controls in place, a string of high-profile flops such as Atari’s infamous E.T. ensued.

On the personal computer front, the ongoing price war between Commodore and Texas Instruments (TI) hit new heights in 1982. Commodore reduced the price of their Commodore 64 computer to only $300, rocking the fledgling game industry. Customers suddenly wanted a full computer system, not just a game console, and could now get one for a similar price.

TI’s TI-99/4 personal computer was an early casualty of the price war and was discontinued in 1983. This, combined with oversaturation and the growing list of poor quality games, caused what is now referred to as the North American video game crash.

With TI pulling out of the game market, Ken Williams, CEO and founder of Sierra, bought their license to create computer games based on Disney characters. Acquiring the license allowed Williams to bypass the usual up-front licensing payment Disney required and only have to pay royalties to them on sales.

At that time, entire companies were folding with warehouses full of now worthless Atari, Vic-20 and Colleco cartridges. Sierra didn’t go under like so many of its competitors, but the business suffered a major financial crisis.

Al Lowe, creator of the Leisure Suit Larry games, remembers the time clearly. “One morning I went to work and there were 120 employees and that afternoon there were 40. So it was a tragic blow.”

When Lowe was let go like so many of his colleagues, Ken Williams made him a deal to keep him employed though he couldn’t afford to keep him on staff.

“A lot of those guys were given the same offer I was given, which was you’re not going to get a salary but I will pay you advances against future royalties,” Al says. “As you finish parts of the game, bring it in and we’ll give you more advances, just like a book author would do. You get an advance up front and additional checks as you go along and you finish it.”

While a lot of people didn’t take Williams up on the deal, Lowe did. He recalls, “I went home and worked my ass off. There were several other guys that did too.”

Ken had always envisioned Sierra as being a combination of Disney and Microsoft, so the Disney license was a natural fit at the time. Their initial contract allowed for four games based on major Disney characters.

Donald Duck's Playground

In 1984, Sierra released three educational games under license to Disney. While Donald Duck’s Playground would best be described as a skill-based game for children, and the Goofy Word Game was never released, both Mickey’s Space Adventure and Winnie the Pooh in the Hundred Acre Wood were adventure games in the style of Sierra’s earlier titles (games such as Cranston Manor and Timezone).

Al Lowe worked on the all the Disney games. He composed the soundtrack for Mickey’s Space Adventure and was the sole designer and programmer on both Winnie the Pooh in the Hundred Acre Wood and Donald Duck’s Playground.

Disney had no prior experience with computer games; the industry was barely a few years old, after all.

Not being sure how games fit into their structure, Disney assigned their educational department to act as liaison with Sierra. The department, whose usual work was in educational film strips and workbooks for schools, was not a good fit and struggled to understand what Sierra was creating.

“They had these two former elementary school teachers who had no clue what a computer was and they were assigned as our liaisons. Everything we did went through them,” Al says.

Both Mickey’s Space Adventure and the unreleased Goofy Word Game became bogged down in the interactions between the production team and their Disney liaisons. The team would show their updates for approval and would return with a new list of changes required.

Mickey's Space Adventure

As composer on Mickey’s Space Adventure, Lowe watched the process unfold. “They wouldn’t make improvements or have even good suggestions. They would just say, ‘do this differently or make this a different color.’ It was just so that they had some input into the development process. Basically, it wasted our time.”

It was during the production of Mickey’s Space Adventure that the production team encountered Disney’s protectiveness of their properties – in this case their most valuable asset, Mickey Mouse.

Sierra’s first producer, Guruka Singh Khalsa, recalls the original opening scene to the game: “In the opening scene Mickey comes in and he stops mid-screen, he turns his head and looks at the player, pauses and taps his foot before he goes to walk across the screen.”

It was here that one of the production team had inserted a joke, hoping to amuse his teammates. At that moment if you typed in ‘Look at Mickey’ the game would respond with a coarse joke at the character’s expense. Unfortunately, the joke was left in and got through QA (Quality Assurance) to the Disney representatives.

“The game goes through QA and we get a letter back on Disney letterhead which has a gold magic castle at the top and everything. It’s from the Disney lawyers. It says, basically, you may not use the following words in a Disney product,” before listing out in three columns all the profanities that couldn’t be used.

That wasn’t a problem for Roberta Williams, designer on Mickey’s Space Adventure and co-founder of Sierra with her husband Ken, who wasn’t impressed by the team’s oversight. “Roberta didn’t like that sort of thing in her games. Disney was really her inspiration in her early games,” Guruka says.

Continued on the next page...

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