A Sierra Retrospective: Part 4 - Works of Art

A Sierra Retrospective
A Sierra Retrospective

From the earliest days of Mystery House’s black and white stick figures and line drawings to full-colour 3D presentations, Sierra always tried to stay at the forefront of graphics technology, innovating as they went.

In their early 16 colour games, the artwork would be drawn either by hand, then plotted into the computer using coordinates as if drawn on a piece of grid paper, or it would be drawn directly into the computer using a tablet device. These vector-based graphics were all coded within the game, a line would be drawn between two sets of coordinates, and a colour would fill the spaces between lines. It wasn’t an easy process but it worked well and saved a lot of disk space, which was always at a premium.

For Sierra, one of the biggest challenges in graphics came in the early 1990s when 256 colour VGA graphics cards reached the PC market.

The industry has come a long way since the humble beginnings of the first graphic adventure, Sierra's Mystery House

“Once VGA came in, we actually took a little different turn than most of the studios working at the time and realised that because you only had 256 colours, if you worked in a digital paint program like Deluxe Paint, everything looked very pixelated. It was very difficult to make anything look smooth or to imply colours,” says Bill Davis, Sierra’s first Creative Director.

Hiring Bill was a major coup for Sierra, bringing his highly-acclaimed talents and extensive experience as an artist, graphic designer and painter into the fold.

“When I came up there, they had a handful of artists, about five artists I think; most of them there were self-trained. I realised they had no production system; no one in the business did,” Bill claims. “In other words, they would just put some artists together with some programmers and they would start making a game. In many cases they would design as they went along, they would try different things and go from there. The first thing I realised we needed to do, because we were looking at really growing the company, was I had to hire a lot of people for what we wanted to do because we knew VGA was coming down the pipe and my plans for that were a lot different from what we’d been doing.”

It was at this point that Bill decided they could draw backgrounds and animations with traditional media and then scan that work into the game, giving a much more realistic and less pixelated look than their competitors.

“We started painting with traditional media and then had our programming team develop some amazing codecs to scan the artwork in. That also allowed us to key scenes for other people and send them overseas to places like Korea and have them paint them. So we could really up the production because we [alone] never would have been able to raise the quality of production that we wanted.”

A clear indication that the changes made to the design process for 256 colour games was successful was the recognition Sierra received from their competitors, as Bill Davis recalls.

Sierra’s first Creative Director, Bill Davis

“When we came out with King’s Quest V, the first VGA version of the game, we heard through the pipeline that LucasArts was furious, saying they’ll never be able to sustain that, they’re going to go bankrupt trying to build games of that kind of quality. So we were doing what we wanted to do, we were hitting nerves with the other companies and trying to surprise them. It was pretty competitive so you had to do that.”

Something else Bill looked at changing was the ever-evolving art styles of the games. He wanted to bring a consistent look to the games, so each series, while distinctive in itself, would have a unified approach, as Josh Mandel, Designer and Writer for Sierra, explains. “[Bill] had previously worked at NBC and had an Emmy and he was high up there. And he felt that Sierra games should have a definite graphic flavour through the series. He looked at King’s Quest and every King’s Quest looks different, and every Space Quest looks different. He really wanted to unify that and stop the chaos.”

“I’m a big believer, especially when you’re doing art styles, in suiting the style to the genre,” Bill says. “There was a lot of thinking in the beginning, especially with the newer games and resurfacing the older games, [about] kind of picking what style is really going to be the optimum style and have the most wow factor for these games when they come out. I don’t think they were doing that in the industry, they were just doing art.

“So I would do things, like, with Leisure Suit Larry, why don’t we do cubism? We could do it, it would be great and it would suit the kind of wacky world that Larry lived in. When we started doing the edutainment titles, games like Twisty History [working title for Pepper’s Adventures in Time], we had a game that was going back in time to be with Ben Franklin. I thought about Grant Wood, a great American artist who painted a lot of revolutionary scenes in America, so we styled it that way. So it was that kind of stuff.

Instead of ever-changing art styles within series, Bill Davis encouraged a more consistent internal approach. Leisure Suit Larry was given a fuller, more cartoony style to better suit its comic sensibilities when the 256 colour remake was released.

“I really get bored with – and I’d get bored with today if I was still at Sierra – this kind of game realism that goes on now that everybody copies. It’s in most of the shooters. Each game does it a little better but they all look the same. You don’t have to do that; they can all look completely different, so that’s what I always seek out,” Bill says. “That’s what I’d be trying to do at a company like Sierra – trying to apply the best look for each game.”

Another change Bill made was to introduce the role of Art Director to the process, giving one person oversight of the art for a game, something that was now required as the number of artists had grown enormously since their earlier games.

The Art Director’s job was very extensive and required a lot of preparation, as Marc Hudgins, who held that role on Quest for Glory IV, describes. “You’re basically given the design document, whatever shape it was in at the time the project was spun up. It was usually a list of what we used to call rooms – you know, screens – and a rough outline of the progression through the game.”

Marc goes on, saying: “Part of it is like, well, what are the environments here? What needs to be designed? What’s the tone of this? What’s the visual approach to take to this? What characters need to be designed? And then breaking out animation lists. I’d started out as an animator so that was always a big thing for me, a very animation-focussed approach. I think it was different because a lot of the previous Lead Artists were more illustrators who did the backgrounds. As an animator, my concern was making sure the backgrounds supported the animation and not the other way around. So I would try to compile as much as I could about every scene. What the animation needs were and stage that. And sketch out background designs that would accommodate the action that needed to be supported.”

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Nov 12, 2017

Interesting read! Lifelong fan of Sierra.  Fascinating insights on the art process.

Back in High School circa 1993 or so, I wrote Roberta a letter.  She wrote back! She was on a trip in India with her husband, Ken.  It was about getting into computer gaming.  Need to find that letter (it’s in storage somewhere.)

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