'I've got a reputation to protect': How the game design legend behind 'King's Quest' was lured out of retirement
One of the most revered American game designers is sitting in the lower level of a yacht somewhere off the coast of Canada, discussing how she was unexpectedly dragged back into the life she left behind. Roberta Williams, creator of the franchise "King's Quest," a breakthrough in interactive storytelling and one of the first major graphic-driven adventure games, has a reputation as being a bit enigmatic, perhaps a tad shy.
And at this moment, with her husband sitting beside her, she's calmly explaining how she wasn't going to let him sully the family name with a subpar game. The Williams brand, after all, is one of legend.
Roberta and Ken Williams, the founders of Sierra On-Line, helped mainstream the idea of narrative-driven games. Consider Roberta's games — "Mystery House," "Mixed-up Mother Goose," "Phantasmagoria" and eight core "King's Quest" titles among them — plus other works published by Sierra, some of which have aged better than others, including the "Space Quest," "Police Quest" and "Leisure Suit Larry" brands. Sierra in the ’80s and ’90s was a household name, to computer game players what Nintendo was to console users.
And now, Roberta and Ken are making a comeback.
They're readying their first new game in about 25 years. "Colossal Cave 3D Adventure" is still a ways away from release, but it will mark their return to an industry that they left amid professional heartbreak, lots of frustration and a multiyear noncompete agreement that led them away from the game business. As they became boating aficionados and minor celebrities in that world — Ken has authored a few books on the subject of long-distance sailing — their return to gaming seemed increasingly unlikely.
Ken has written that the noncompete clause was in force for five years. Today, he says it "may have been 10" but adds the length was irrelevant. "By the time it expired," he says, "we had gotten deeply into our cruising around the world and were not interested in going back into the business."
Money? Didn't need it. Fame? Already had it. And a passion for games? Replaced with another hobby.
But the story of how "Colossal Cave 3D Adventure" came to be is almost as improbable as the outlandish yarns in a Sierra game. It involves the collectible game circuit, a die-hard Sierra fan and a game designer who ultimately discovered she just can't quit the medium. Well, perhaps she could have, if early renditions of "Colossal Cave 3D Adventure" had been up to her standard.
"Colossal Cave," says Roberta, was in her mind a "cute little project" her husband was working on with a new friend. And then one day she stumbled upon on a video conference call with Unity, the company that makes the tools that power the game. And then there was another meeting. And then another one.
"I'm thinking in my mind, 'Oh my God.' This is like, 'Uh oh,'" Roberta says. She realized she had two options: Shut the project down, or get involved. "And if I get involved, it's not going to be what Ken was doing. So I got involved."
The comeback starts with a chance meeting
Ken Williams in late 2020 was not yet plotting a full return to the gaming industry, but he was promoting his recently released book, "Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings: The Rise and Fall of Sierra On-Line," which documents his perspective on the demise of the company he founded.
Astute readers will notice it begins long before the company's late-’90s disintegration after a major sale that left the Williamses sidelined. It began when Sierra first took venture capital money in the early ’80s, putting it on a path of answering to those who believed they were backing a technological powerhouse rather than a respected publisher of narrative-focused adventure games.
"Once we had accepted venture capital, it became like any other drug," Ken writes in the book. "No one stops after the first hit. ... We brought in a second round of venture capital. I don't remember why or how much, but it was more money at a significantly higher valuation. We sold a tiny portion of our company to bring in a great deal of money, allowing us even faster growth."
When Ken started working on what would become "Colossal Cave 3D Adventure," it was something of a return to an early pastime — learning newer technologies and experimenting with game making for the sake of game making. There was no board, no company. Ken was on a retirement circuit of speaking engagements at online events such as the Vintage Computer Federation East Festival, or VCFEast, to help promote his book, which he self-published and which he says sold approximately 30,000 copies in its first month. This is when he met an unlikely collaborator.
Marcus Mera is no game developer. He is a jeweler by trade and a collector of retro computer wares. He just happened to be presenting at VCFEast, where he was giving a talk on the original 1984 "King's Quest." For his part, Mera had no designs on working in the game industry. After all, he used computer software to craft rings, not interactive adventures. But that changed when he met a hero.
Ken and Roberta had left the company they founded, and in the two decades that followed the reasons for their absence had become the stuff of myth. Had they become so disillusioned from selling their company and the drama that followed that games were more or less dead to them?
Not necessarily. Turns out someone just needed to ask them back.
"I just happened to be the guy who was there at the right time," says Mera, 47. "Probably ignorance is bliss. I didn't know they didn't want to do a game and people were begging them to come back. So that ignorance that I wasn't in the industry didn't scare me from saying, 'Hey Ken, wouldn't it be great if you made a comeback?' When he found out I was an artist, he said, 'Hey Marcus, I'll be in touch with you in a few days.' A few days later I get a message."
One problem: "I never made a game before in my life," Mera says. "I even told that to Ken. He said, 'Have you ever made a game before?' Nope. He said, 'That's OK, I'll teach you.' The whole time I'm nervous. I'm thinking I'm going to get fired. I have zero experience. I just kept the ball rolling and was up day and night. I put on 20 pounds. I was just sitting in front of my computer."
Ask Ken what it was about Mera that made him want to work with him — to do something he hadn't done in decades — and he's nonchalantly sanguine. Basically, he just liked the guy. "He's a good talker," Ken says.
"I mentioned I was working on a game and he mentioned he was an artist," Ken says. "So we partnered, and actually built a game together. I was perfectly happy with it. I liked the development budget because it was absolutely zero. But I showed it to Roberta and she said, 'Well, that looks like it was an absolutely zero game.' I didn't think it was bad."
Roberta interrupts. "He insists, to this day, it was fine," she says, stretching out the word "fine" for several seconds for comedic effect.
Mera wanted to seize the opportunity. He had, after all, just created a short game with Ken. Of course he wanted the world to see it. But even he knew it was missing a key ingredient. "Roberta's like, 'Marcus, I've been there, done that.' I'm like, 'Come on, Roberta, let's make a game!' She would be looking over Ken's shoulder and making comments, and Ken would say, 'You're either all in, or you're not in.' [I]t was not a quick process."
It was six months.
Mera knew the tide was starting to turn when he and Ken showed Roberta a scene for the game involving some dwarfs. Roberta had instant feedback on how the dwarfs should be redrawn. After updating the scene significantly — but not yet touching the dwarfs — Ken showed the moment to Roberta. She didn't miss a beat. "All I could hear was, 'Why hasn't the dwarf been changed?'"
"This was all Marcus' fault," Roberta says. "He kept saying to Ken, 'You need to get Roberta involved.' Ken would say to him to be careful what you wish for. Ken was kind of not wanting that to happen because he knew what would happen."
What would happen is that Roberta would want control of the game and its art, meaning much of what Mera created would be revamped or redone. Mera enjoys a close relationship with the Williamses and has pivoted to focus on his sales and marketing expertise. His passion for the game is indeed infectious, but he remembers he bristled when Roberta remade the game in her vision.
"It was brutal for me to go through that process of seeing my artwork get destroyed," Mera says. "But she wasn't wrong. I'm very happy she's back. It's her game, so I'm fine with it."
Early builds of the game shown to media did still include much of the original artwork. Roberta was not entirely pleased that I was shown what she considers a rough demo of the game, one that hadn't been fully made over with the team of 30 or so staffers she and Ken would go on to hire. "I spent a whole day in serious trouble because she was upset I was going to let you see it," Ken says. "She considers it in horrible shape."
"Because I know what's coming," Roberta says quickly. "The art you saw — we've had that art since March — and we are in the process of an art polish, enhancing it, better animation, more animation, more fun — all the fun, glitzy stuff that I love."
Since "Colossal Cave" is a remake of a mid-’70s text adventure game, Roberta is careful not to credit herself as the designer of the project, stressing her role as more of a modern interpreter. "I'm the transmuter," she says. "I like that word because nobody knows that word." And yet she also knows the reimagining will be associated with her and compared to her landmark works.
"I spent all those years working on games — my own games," Roberta says. "If I'm going to be involved, it has to be great. I've got a reputation to protect. Even though it's been 20 years or so, that doesn't mean I'm just gonna not pay attention and not do the best I can to make it great. That's what I'm doing. That's what Ken is doing now. We're all in. We've jumped in with both feet and arms."
Going full circle
To those of a certain age and disposition, the following words are as sacred as any Shakespeare: "You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully." That is the opening text of William Crowther's "Colossal Cave Adventure," credited as one of the earliest computer games and one that helped ignite the adventure game movement of the 1980s.
It's a crucial work in Roberta's professional and creative life. She and Ken married young, when he had just turned 18 and she was a year older. The two were living in Los Angeles in the ’70s, the early days of computing, and Ken was doing contract programming work pretty much anywhere he could, including at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. Roberta had started working in programming herself, learning the trade from her husband. Ken had introduced her to "Colossal Cave Adventure," and the game consumed her.
"You could communicate with it by one or two words, and it would tell you a story. It had puzzles and obstacles, but it was mostly exploration," Roberta says.
"I was very addicted. I just had a baby, and I was practically ignoring him — 'Mommy's gotta play this game!' I spent a few weeks on it and had gotten the maximum points and I was so proud of that. I wanted to play more games like that. I remember thinking I had never been so attracted to something like that, where I was just drawn to it. I had to play it. I was taken with it. I surprised myself by how much I was taken with it. That's what caused me to sit down and design my first game, 'Mystery House,' and I talked Ken into programming it. It was a huge hit for mid-May of 1980. We thought we may have something."
It was initially Roberta's idea, she says, that Ken consume himself with remaking "Colossal Cave" as a personal project. "Ken was looking for something to do right at the beginning of the pandemic and all the lockdowns. For some reason 'Colossal Cave' popped into my head. I said, 'I wonder if we could do something like "Colossal Cave."' That started Ken. He found Don Woods, one of the original designers, and found out no one owns it. It was just a little project."
Roberta doesn't deny that Marcus and Ken needled her back into game design. At first, she was simply curious if she could still do it, noting it's a job for people in their 20s through 40s and not those in their late 60s. "There was maybe a month of questioning myself. 'What are you doing? You're learning Unity and Teams and Slack, and all this language?' But it all came back. For me, it's been a little bit, but you don't forget. I'm back in the swing, for good or ill."
So, the passion is back? "Yes. Yes, the passion is back."
She's eager to go deep on the design of the game. Yes, there's a cave and dwarfs and a dragon, among many other mystical elements and oddities, but the story of the game is vague. It hooks you by asking players just to move forward and see what's around every corner. She likens it to a Disneyland attraction such as the Haunted Mansion, where "you're just seeing all that's happening." An influence was the tabletop role-playing game "Dungeons & Dragons," as the initial text prompts of the early computer games lent an air of improvisation to the proceedings.
"I never really knew how great of a designed game this is until I got into it and worked on it," Roberta says, noting that the end objectives and overall narrative are mysterious. "My games were fairly linear in a sense. Some, like 'Laura Bow,' were less linear, but a lot of adventure games are linear — a story. You can explore within certain areas but you need to get back to the story. This is not that. It's not really a story, per se, which threw me when I first started thinking of transmuting it over to the modern era."
The game, in development for multiple gaming platforms, doesn't have a release date yet. The new company, Cygnus Entertainment, is run from the Williamses' boat and their residences in Seattle and Palm Desert, Calif. It will add detailed graphics to the vintage text adventure, as well as some personal Roberta touches. She wants to respect history, perhaps add a hint of humor and, most of all, keep it difficult. As fondly as many remember "King's Quest" games, they were, to be blunt, brutal. One will likely die multiple times in the opening scenes of the first game, either by walking into a moat and getting eaten by alligators or by pushing a rock only to have it fall and crush you. And watch out for that ogre.
"If today's whippersnappers don't have that kind of patience, that's just too bad," Roberta says in an exaggerated, ironic tone. "It's about time they learn."
There's evidence this is the right time for Roberta and Ken to make their comeback. Due for release Sept. 19, for instance, is "Return to Monkey Island," the resurrection of the signature LucasArts game from Ron Gilbert that further advanced storytelling in games by emphasizing exaggerated, comedic characters. And this summer alone has seen a slew of narrative-driven games, ranging from the Los Angeles-set musical adventure "We Are OFK" to the choice-driven horror game "The Quarry." If adventure games had been written off as irrelevant, replaced in the ’90s and 2000s by a glut of shooter-driven titles, the genre is thriving in 2022.
Which, of course, prompts the question. Are Roberta and Ken back for, well, good?
"I don't know," Roberta says. "It depends on how well this does. If it goes out there and, you know ..."
Roberta trails off and makes a noise that indicates the game was poorly received. "Then I think I'll say my final sayonara. 'Well, I tried.'"
If that happens, the game that started Roberta's career would effectively end it, but before I can make that connection it's clear Roberta is thinking of the future.
"If it's a hit," she says, her voice suddenly picking up, "then who knows."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.