By John Williams
relationship with Sierra began back before it was Sierra. At the time it was
called "On-Line Systems." This was in May of 1980 and I was
living in Wheaton Illinois, about 50 miles outside Chicago.
I had graduated from high school in late 79. I was taking some classes at the
local junior college and was working a drugstore, but didn't know quite what to
do with myself. One day, I came home from work and there was a big box
waiting for me from UPS. Inside were a bunch of plastic bags filled with
some plastic disks and a single blue sheet. These were some of the first
copies of a game called "Mystery House." Along with the games,
there was a note from my brother Ken from California saying "Hey
John, Berta and I wrote this game. Can you take it around to the local
computer stores and see if you can get them to carry it? If you sell any, I'll
give you $4 per game you sell."
I had never seen a 5.25" floppy disk before, or even seen an Apple II, but
I looked up the local computer store in the phone book and drove my 72 Pinto
wagon over to the store anyway and walked inside. It was a Wednesday afternoon
I remember, and the place had two or three customers. I walked into the
store and showed the guy behind the counter what I had. He was non-commital,
but said he'd help me boot up the software, and together he and I sat at
the little computer with it's 48K of memory, black and white monitor and newly
released disk drive that could read/write something like 384K of
It took a minute to load up the DOS from the disk, and another to load up
the game, and after that, time just fell away for a while.
What we saw was a simple outline drawing of a big house.
Underneath it was a little text description and a prompt that told me
that we needed to tell the computer what to do using two work
commands such as "go porch" and "open door." We
were hooked, this retail clerk and I, and so were the customers who
quickly gravitated to the small screen to watch. That retail clerk
and I played the game for hours together, with regular
participation from store customers that came in and out.
I sold 12 copies of the game that day (one for roughly every customer that came
in the store.) The retailer bought 15 more from me to place in
stock. I made a little more than $100 in a few hours - more than I would
make in my regular job in a week.
I quickly hit up every other retailer in Chicago (maybe 15 to 20 stores
total back then) and found that wherever I placed games I
would quickly get calls back for replacement stock. Ken also sent me
another game he'd created called "Skeetshoot" and a graphics program
called "Paddle Graphics." Business was suddenly brisk.
My parttime job at the Osco drugstore was quickly a thing of the past,
and I filled my little Pinto hatchback with as many copies of the
game as I could carry. My "marketing plan" was
simple. Find out where the rock concerts were playing that I
wanted to see, then go to that town, sell games during the day and see the show
at night. I followed Fleetwood Mac, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty and Robin
Trower steadily south and by early summer had close to 50 stores
selling the Mystery House game. (This at a time when the Apple dealer
network was perhaps 500 dealers.)
I wasn't much of a business man then at 18. I was hard to get hold of
when I was out selling games and this was before email and cell phones, so
retailers quickly found better ways to get refills of the Mystery House game
when they needed them. (Turns out that a friend of Kens had started a
company to distribute games like Mystery House as well as more serious
offerings like Visicalc. He was getting all the business once I'd sold in
the original games.)
I didn't see selling software as as something I'd be doing all my life, so I
packed my bags and moved to California, where I spent the summer working in
auto repossession. It's not a good business, and before long my brother
Ken, now living in the foothills of Central California, called me again and
asked me if I could come up and work for him directly. There was a lot of
demand for Mystery House, and a few other products that the company had
created. They were just about to launch a new game called "Wizard
and the Princess." Maybe I could help him copy the floppy diskettes
and package the games.
I'll always remember my first trip to Oakhurst, CA. It was about a 6 hour
drive from SoCal. It was a much smaller town then, with a saw
mill in the center of town, a small grocery, gas station and not much
else. I got to town without Ken's phone number or his address, but
asked the clerk at this convenience store and got clear directions how to get
to the On-Line offices immediately. It was a 10x20 office on the
second floor of a building behind a print shop, and here I began working almost
We had 4 Apple II's with two disk drives each, and they were busy
each night from around 6PM at night until after 1AM each morning.
day three of these same machines were used by Ken, Roberta and a young
programmer Ken had hired to write games while a fourth tracked orders
accounting for the small operation.) As the demand grew, we hired
people pretty much off the streets to help package games. We also
that we were getting calls by the hundreds each day from people looking
"hints" for their adventure games, so we hired people to answer those
too, and others to help ship the games, because quickly we found that
shipping out hundreds - sometimes thousands - a week.
Somewhere along the way, Ken asked me if I could take a shot at working on the
packaging for a game, so I did, and before I knew it that became my
job. Along with documentations, warranty cards, catalogs, magazine
ads, etc. Perhaps one of the first "marketing" projects I
worked on was moving all the packaging to use our new logo with "Sierra
On-Line" replacing On-Line Systems. Also added to my duties,
sometime in early summer of 1981, was producing newsletters.
Our first newsletter, June 1981 is in your collection. My picture - from our
first anniversary party - is on page 12. You'll find me listed as
Associate Publisher on most issues.
(A quick note on this: You'll almost never find my name listed on a article in
any publication. I usually either ghost wrote or rewrote Ken's articles,
along with those from other designers and authors who would provide me with
rough outlines and let me do the real work. Also, if you flip to the back
of most of the magazines, you'll find the "Rumor Mill" from Johnnie
Magpie. That was me too.)
And thus started my career in marketing for Sierra On-Line, which is where I
spent the next 15 years.
A few other pieces of trivia about me, just to round out this letter. My
name is found in every Leisure Suit Larry adventure game that Al Lowe wrote.
I was the guy in the next stall who stunk up the bathroom in one of the Space
Quests, and the term "Lounge Lizards" from Leisure Suit Larry I was
actually stolen from the nick name I had for my sister-in-law, Denise. (Who
also worked at the company then.)
I can't tell you all the ways that Sierra affected my life in one letter
or even one book. I traveled the world thru winning annual sales goal
awards. I counted people like Al Lowe (LSL), Scott Murphy (Space Quest),
Jim Walls (Police Quest) as friends. I met my wife of 25 years at the
company (she was a secretary and receptionist there.)
Sierra Employee #2
Employed December 1980 to February 2000.