The On-Line Dorm – An excerpt from The Sierra Adventure: The Story of Sierra On-Line
As the author of The Sierra Adventure: The Story of Sierra On-Line, I have a confession to make. As much as I wanted to help tell the story about the history of Sierra, to share how the legendary company became what it became, to really get behind the scenes of my favorite games, a small (or maybe large) part of me really just wanted to talk to the people who made the beloved classics I grew up with.
Sierra created a family atmosphere by including the real-life people behind them within the games themselves. Ken Williams appears in most of the Leisure Suit Larry games. It's Roberta Williams narrating the King's Quest adventures, usually telling you how you died but also thanking you for playing her game. Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe appeared as characters in Space Quest III in a bit of brilliant meta-gaming. And through the magazine that became InterAction, the designers and other creative people at Sierra all became very familiar to its audience. In a way I felt like I knew these people already, and even years later I remained something of a fanboy knowing they were responsible for an important part of my formative years.
Shawn Mills and The Sierra Adventure: The Story of Sierra On-Line
So my confession is this: I probably enjoyed writing this book more than anyone who will read it. Don't get me wrong. I’m thrilled that the early response has been so positive, including from the many wonderful backers who supported the project on Kickstarter, and I sincerely hope that each reader will connect with the material in their own deeply personal way. But I will be forever grateful for the wonderful conversations I had with Ken Williams, Mark Seibert, Al Lowe, Christy Marx, Josh Mandel and many others who opened up to me about what it was really like to work at Sierra. Not just the fantasy image presented of a Disney-esque kingdom of fun, but also the hard work, the hard times and the insane amount of stress they were under.
The Sierra Adventure tells that story of Sierra On-Line, from its infancy in 1980 through to their end as a developer in 1999. There's lots of information about the games that long-time adventure fans in particular will love – the big series and little gems alike – as well as an exploration of the corporate side of things, the many technical innovations over the years, and a wealth of anecdotes from the people who worked there, candidly discussing both the camaraderie and the conflicts. I packed as much as I could into 361 pages!
Each Sunday for the next month, we’ll focus on various aspects of the book here at Adventure Gamers, beginning with the first of two excerpts taken directly from The Sierra Adventure itself. I hope you enjoy them, and if you do, you can purchase the book for yourself in hardcover, paperback, or eBook formats.
The On-Line Dorm
While the staff at On-Line Systems worked hard, they also partied hard. Alcohol, drugs and wild parties were common, with practical jokes always high on the agenda.
“There was a feel to the place then that was much like a big college dorm,” John Williams recalls. “Lots of working and studying, but also a lot of fooling around. It was just what happens when you put a lot of young people in a place together.”
Chuck Benton also remembers those days fondly: “It was a great party atmosphere; kind of amazing that everything got accomplished that did. I was still on a contractor basis but I lived out there for about six months at one point, and my wife came out with me. We ended up living with Larry Gain and Diane Siegal; she was one of the girls on the Softporn Adventure hot tub cover. We lived at their house. There was a lot of partying, lots of wild times.”
Chuck also spent a lot of time with Scott Murphy and his wife, recalling a close friendship at the time. “[Scott] hadn’t started authoring anything yet. I think he was working in customer support but he was married to a gal called Shelley. I hung out with the two of them an awful lot. They were my best friends in that time period. Scott certainly had a great sense of humor.”
According to Chuck, the partying, drugs and alcohol weren’t unique to On-Line Systems. “I wouldn’t even say it was just an industry thing. I think part of it was just the age I was. But it was when cocaine was all the rage and so on.”
Sometimes the fun crossed the boundary into work, especially when it came to the suit-and-tie professionals and sales people who would come to town with their tailored attire and expensive briefcases, trying to sell to On-Line Systems. Ken Williams would often have more than a bit of fun with them.
“One day, a guy selling something came to town and did a big presentation to Ken and then invited him and Roberta to dinner, where they made sure the guy drank too much,” John Williams says. “They poured him into the back of Ken’s big pickup and announced they were going to go create some mayhem, and drove around the mountain country roads, picked a house seemingly at random, and then broke into a garage.
“As I understand it, the sales guy was kind of panicked about it all, but we represented a big account, so he played along but was clearly terrified. Ken took some pink paint out of his truck and they all painted big pink polka dots all over the little green sports car they found in that garage, laughed like fools, and left.
“I don’t know if the salesperson ever found this out – to this day he probably thinks the head of a successful software company took him out to randomly participate in the breaking and entering and malicious destruction of a vehicle – but that car actually belonged to me. So not only did Ken and Berta prank this poor sales guy, but in the morning when I went to get in my little green sports car, I found it decorated with big silly polka dots. I had to drive it into town that way, and in a small town everyone knows you and knows everything.”
On another occasion, John had been on vacation in Thailand and was completely out of contact with everyone back at On-Line. “I was basically out of touch unless I wanted to call in, but intercontinental land lines were like $15 a minute then. Ken finalized the lease on a new building while I was out of town, and as the building was empty they told Ken he could move right in, so he moved the whole company but had them leave my desk and chair. So when I got back from vacation, the entire company (probably twenty-five to thirty people at that point) was gone, as was everything else down to the walls. No one had told me, so when I went to work there was my desk and chair but the rest of the office was empty. The phone lines hadn’t been moved completely yet, so I had to go to the local liquor store and ask around to find out where everyone was.”
Although there were lots of fun times, Chuck Benton also remembers being rocked once. “There was an earthquake at one point when we were out in a town called Coalinga, which was a reasonable way away. This was at the time that On-Line was sprinkled between a strip mall and some other buildings. I was out there and I was in a room with fifteen software guys, and all of a sudden everything started shaking and everybody in the office turned to look at me, the guy from New England who’d never been in an earthquake before. I remember looking at the plate glass window that looked like it was shimmering, like it was made out of a liquid. Nothing broke; everything ended up being okay.”
While they were fun times, they had to end, says Mark Crowe, who joined Sierra around the end of this era. “I think that had to happen; they had to grow up a little bit to be in that world. From the frontier days.”