An interview with Ken Williams

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    • #25618 Reply

      New Interview of Ken Williams from Sierra On-Line at Adventure Classic Gaming

      Adventure Classic Gaming

      March 28, 2006 – Adventure Classic Gaming (ACG) has posted an exclusive interview with Ken Williams. Williams is the founder of Sierra On-Line, the most successful game developer and publisher of adventure games and role-playing games in history. Since his retirement in 1998, he has kept a lower public profile. In this rare interview, Williams speaks about his past with Sierra On-Line, his trials and tribulations as a game developer and publisher, his life after retirement, his current projects, and what life holds for him in the near future. Here is an excerpt:

      ‘From the beginning, I recognized that Sierra was in a different industry than most. We were selling creativity. Customers would forgive any sin as long as they were surprised and entertained. I had a rule in the early days of Sierra that if someone had worked for another company within the computer game business, we didn’t want them. It was important to me that we do things our way, and our way alone.’

      Staff from Adventure Classic Gaming
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    • #25619 Reply

      Hi Ken,

      I read the interview, thank you very much for the insight. Sierra, like for many people, was an amazing time of my life. In 1991 , I started college and seperated from the Sierra world, only to find out upon graduation, things at Sierra have changed a lot from a games and corporate perspective.

      One statement that surprised me about the interview was that you were heavily influenced by Bill Gates. This surprised me quite a bit, since Sierra was very product-oriented and more consumer market oriented, while Microsoft isn’t as product and innovation oriented, but instead about marketing and corporate relationships. I parallel you (and Sierra) to Jobs (and Apple), in the sense both companies are very creative, highly focused on innovation and product development, and dedicated to consumer markets (vs business). Both companies have pushed technology, creativity, and usability to the limits in the respective industry. Regarding Walt Disney, at the time, compared to today, it was a very creative company, which makes sense.

      I did start my own software company creating higher-end web sties on a platform, and I’ve taken a lot of my learnings from yourself and Steve Jobs. So, thank you not for only the fun-times, but for the professional insight.


    • #25620 Reply


      Good luck with your company!

      As I mentioned in the interview, Sierra’s role models were Microsoft and Disney. Unfortunately, neither of these companies are what they once were. 

      Here’s some of what we tried to model from each:

      Microsoft (at the time, in the 80s)
      – Aggressive competitor
      – Pick a category, and build a long-term plan to ‘own’ the category
      – Technology and product driven
      – Culture of hard work and long hours
      – Serious about what they were doing
      – Focus on hiring smart, aggressive engineers
      – Engineers in senior management

      Disney (in the 70s/80s)
      – Ownership of intellectual property
      – Heavy investment in building (and owning) brand names
      – Internally created product
      – Hire creative people, but then manage team tightly. Rigid control of where the product is going.
      – Emhapsis on the company branding as a mark of quality, almost more so than an individual product. I remember taking our kids to DISNEY films. We knew it would be great, or it wouldn’t have the Disney brand.

      Ken W

    • #25621 Reply


      Thanks for your wishes. I do see your point how these companies were different then. I have printed out your learnings and put it in the wall in my home-office to act as a mindset more so then a ‘list of items’. These are all good points, and it will be important as we grow. The engineers in management is a great point.  Being in Chicago, you do not see that much, but it is a very important aspect of running a technology company.


    • #25622 Reply

      Where I work we are ate up with engineers as managers.  I would suggest looking for engineers with management training.

    • #25623 Reply


      mxCoder, 2006-03-31 12:42:20

      …I would suggest looking for engineers with management training….

      I’ve always thought that management skill is a little like art skill …. you got it, or you don’t. There are certainly engineers that will never be managers, and managers that should never try to manage engineers.

      If you can get a great engineer, with strong management skills — you’re going places!

      Actually – I don’t know that I was ever a great manager. I did well in two areas: I was a solid engineer and the teams couldn’t bull me about what could, or couldn’t be done, and often, I could immediately have a better sense of when the code would be complete than the programmer who was writing it. I was also a good leader. I was aggressive, competitive, and not standing still for anything. I’d rather be wrong than slow in acting. People followed me because they knew I was often right, and never boring.

      As to being a good manager: Overall, I’d give myself a C or D. I was slow firing sluggish or incompetent people. I never discovered how to motivate people who didn’t want to be motivated. But, what I did do well was to empower people to succeed or fail. I was highly intolerant of excuses. There were people who never seemed to get things done, but who were expert at having good excuses. I was very good at waving goodbye to these people. I was also intolerant of people who tried to hide behind paperwork. When I asked how a project was going, and someone said ‘let me ask’ or ‘let me check my notes’, I sought someone else who was on top of their project. Generally, I divided the world into people who were there to win, and those who were there for the paycheck. I suppose an A-List manager could manage the C players successfully. That wasn’t me. I did my best to ship those people off to other companies with better managers.

      -Ken W

    • #25624 Reply

      As I am now into similar positions, my mindset is more like yours, I am frustrated with people who do not execute and have mindsets for excuses and hiding behind their incompetencies. On the flipside, I do not have time to motivate or increase the value of these folks, even though I know they are smart. My perspective is to be successful, you should be  (not in any order):

      1) Smart
      2) Able to execute
      3) Creative

      So, that said, Ken, what would you have done to motivate the folks that are not performing? I am sure they have their reasons, but is it a manager’s responsibility to get those out, when time is already limited to keep  company’s  respect and position in the industry?

    • #25625 Reply

      Grin… You’re asking a guy who gives himself a C- in management these questions? And, who admits to having been unemployed for 10+ years???

      Motivating people, who are not naturally motivated is tough. I’ve seen morale problems sink entire organizations. Sierra rarely had this problem. We hired smart people, and smart people tend to hire smarter people.

      Here’s an example of what a bad manager I was….

      I had a rule, which I really did honor. I told everyone who worked for me that the poorest performer would be terminated each year. I’m not sure that’s even legal in today’s polically correct society. My feeling was that anyone who comes in within the bottom 10% of their class isn’t in the right job. I wasn’t doing them, or me, or Sierra’s shareholders, any favors by keeping them around. I also asked my people to prune the bottom 10% of their organizations each year.

      I heard many times that this was a system that was unfair and was bad for morale. But, you know what: the more profitable we were, and the more our games were at the top of the charts, the better morale was.

      There are some who believe motivation and good morale come from Friday afternoon beer busts, and company parties. I was never one to believe in these things. Good morale comes from kicking butt. Pick an enemy and beat the enemy. Set a goal, and exceed the goal. Say when you’ll get it done, and get it done sooner. For us the ultimate high was watching someone play the games and see the look in their eyes.

      Or, at least… that’s the system that worked at Sierra.

      -Ken W

    • #25626 Reply

      The games did kick butt and dominated sales…I think there was a time in early 1992 when Sierra had four or five of the top selling titles…If I recall 1992 was the year Sierra began issuing the VGA remakes. I never understood why the remakes got a bad rap from some people. Granted I first played most of the Sierra games a year or two before, and many people had played the originals longer before that. I guess it was just a matter of preference. There may be a few things I prefer about the originals, but overall I like the remakes too. I wish it had been more profitable, and Sierra had made a few more remakes…More than 15 years later, I still have some of the text phrases from Leisure Suit Larry 2 memorized…I always have wondered how that got past Q/A….

      Did that one give you any trouble when you first played it, Ken?


    • #25627 Reply

      There are some who believe motivation and good morale come from Friday afternoon beer busts, and company parties. I was never one to believe in these things. Good morale comes from kicking butt. Pick an enemy and beat the enemy. Set a goal, and exceed the goal. Say when you’ll get it done, and get it done sooner.

      I have worked in the software industry for 10 years now, and I can count the # of people that I  have worked with that share this type of attitude on one hand … is that not scary?

      I believe there were more workers with the potential ‘fight’ work ethic, but after months or years of being the minority within companies, they were forced to either become like the rest, continue to fight and be looked at as a troublemaker, or quit … sometimes quitting is not an option.

      If you get hired on to a big company and you share the work ethic that Ken has described here, be prepared for obstacles and roadblocks.  I hesitate to say things like this, but there almost appears to be the mindset of ‘keeping the norm’ so that you don’t ruffle any feathers.  If you are feather ruffler and like to see things get done efficiently, I would go so far as to suggest starting your own company rather than taking a job with a corporation; otherwise you may lead a frustrating life.

    • #25628 Reply

      I had a rule, which I really did honor. I told everyone who worked for me that the poorest performer would be terminated each year. I’m not sure that’s even legal in today’s polically correct society.

      What a great idea…unfortunately, executing this nowadays would probably be a nightmare.  I would assume that you could have new hires sign contracts accepting the fact that termination after a year of underachieving was a possibility given a strict system of guidelines (which would also be defined and described).  If they were leery of signing, that would be a red flag … if they were gung-ho and couldn’t wait to sign the papers … he/she was the one you wanted.

      Reading back on all of this, I think it really shows the importance of the hiring process.  It really seems you could filter out 90+% of the people that would not be good for your company right up front.  Companies send workers through HR  … if you pass the HR interview, you meet with engineers.  This is actually the right idea; however I see one problem.  Do those engineers have stakes in the company?  If they don’t, what is the real incentive to take the hiring process this seriously.

      Let me explain … one could argue that everyone has a stake in the company because the company must profit or everyone will lose a job.  It is not that black and white.  Companies may continue to succeed because 25% within the company is doing all the work.  So, even if bad hires are made, the company will still stay afloat.

      One possible incentive could be for every year a new hire succeeds and remains part of the company, those responsible for the hire would get some sort of bonus.

      Of course, I am speaking business philosophy now.  Philosophy, work ethic, and business … 3 of my favorite subjects.

    • #25629 Reply

      Generally, I divided the world into people who were there to win, and those who were there for the paycheck.

      Last one … I promise!

      It is really great to get positive reinforcement for my beliefs from someone that has been such a success.  Ken, I would like to believe you would have hired me. 🙂

      Back to the topic at hand … this must be where the ‘profit-sharing’ concept arose ???  Companies realized that a large portion of there work force (i am speculating now) were ‘the paycheckers’.  The only way to alleviate this problem was to have them actually benefit from the companies success.  Duh, right?

      Here’s the thing though … if you are a ‘paychecker’, you are most probably not driven and motivated; otherwise you would be out there kicking butt.  If you are not driven, then you are probably not looking to get rich (make extra dough) … in other words you are satisfied, and no amount of profit sharing incentive has an affect on you.  In other words, profit sharing doesn’t work if someone does not want to work hard and would like to spend the times in their lives elsewhere.

      I always say ‘it revolves around the individual’ … if the person has that tiger mentality … then they will help you to succeed no matter how much profit sharing, other financial incentive, etc….it is part of who they are … it is a pride thing.

    • #25630 Reply

      While we’re on this topic (and I need to stop writing, or no work will ever get done!): Here’s something interesting I did to create ‘entrepreneurs’ within Sierra:

      I had a rule of 4 to 1. Each product had to carry a revenue projection that was four times its development cost. This concept was used both at the product, and the R&D division level.

      We were broken into product development subsidiaries, each consisting of 25 to 150 people. This were independent development groups, geographically dispersed, who felt like they were running their own businesses. Each one of these groups had their own general manager – Dynamix, Sierra, BrightStar, Coktel, Impressions, Headgate, Papyrus, etc.

      Each of the divisions were further broken down into project teams. Our teams were lead by two people; a designer and a producer. The producer was the ‘bureaucrat’. It was the producers job to manage the artists, programmers, sound people, etc. All the paper shuffling. The designer was charged with the soul of the game. They came up with the plot, approved the characters, approved the game play, etc.

      There was always a war between the designer and the persons on the team, in particular the producer. The producer wanted the project to come in on time and on budget. The designer wanted the game to be fun to play, and look great. No one is perfect. There are times when the designer approved something, only to decide later that it wasn’t working. This meant schedule slippage and cost overruns.

      I used my 4-to-1 rule to govern this. Designers were always thinking about their next game. Exceeding the revenue forecast on a game meant a bigger budget on the next game. Missing the forecast meant a smaller forecast. In other words, if someone turns in a 3 to 1 revenue to cost ratio, they may not get a next game, and if they do, they won’t like the development budget. Career-wise, the monkey was on the designers back to turn in a game that exceeded the 4 to 1 ratio, so that they could get a dream budget for their next project. Turn in a 5 to 1, and both your forecast and budget (for your next game) get bigger. Turn in a 3 to 1, and start writing resumes. A simple rule.

      Because all of the creative control was given to the designer, the producer wasn’t judged on the ratio. They were judged on their ability to manage as best they could, in a situation where an out-of-control designer could easily throw the project grossly over budget. I made the ultimate call on raising budgets, but generally tried to side with the designer. I would look them in the eye, and say ‘Are you sure this will get us to the 4 to 1 ratio. If not, your next game will be for someone else’ Not all designers made it to a second game, and some stepped down from front line titles to doing card games. Others went on to great success.

      Divisions grew or shrunk by their ability to hit the 4 to 1 ratio. Each division had anywhere from 1 to 20 products in development at a time. At my staff meetings, the ability to ‘get budget’ and the entire pecking order derived from the revenue to cost ratio. If you didn’t want your studio (division) to ‘go out of business’, you had to hit your numbers. I forgave almost anything except missing the numbers.

      In short – I gave creative freedom, along with creating entrepreneurs. There was certainly money that went with success (for the designers) but many creative people, especially the good ones, focus on building great product first, and then the money. The #1 thing they always wanted was more budget. This game them a way to get it, and pushed down to them the critical budget decisions. They knew their career was on the line with every dollar spent.

      -Ken W

    • #25631 Reply

      OK .. last thought on this topic….

      I re-read my response below, and decided that it was missing the context. The problem I was trying to solve is: ‘How do you make a big company into a small company’.

      At the end, Sierra had nearly 1,000 employees scatter across several states and countries.

      My #1 fear was that we would become a big company.

      A very smart guy who I had worked with on an early project with IBM, Don Estridge, an early PC pioneer, once said (or, at least I remember it as him), ‘If you want to compete with people who work in a garage, you start by building a garage’. He was referring to IBM’s competition with Apple at the time, and how Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were leading the PC wars, while IBM couldn’t move fast enough to compete.

      It was this concept of breaking large things into smaller pieces and shifting creative groups as far as I could get them from corporate crap — that made us fierce competitors.

      -Ken W

    • #25632 Reply

      Wow … awesome.  You need to start another company for the sake of teaching others how to manage if nothing else.  Talk about a great reality TV show.  Follow the lives of 4 individuals put in charge of their own division (each division is a team comprised of 25 individuals).  Each one is given a year and a budget and the goal is to hit the 4-1 mark set by you. 

      Seriously though … you should write a book.  I purchased a project management type book in the past, and I get better information from the few posts you make on the subject.

    • #25633 Reply

      Wow Ken,

      Thanks for all this. And, although you rate yourself as a C, I think that no matter what grade the person gives themselves, at the end, it’s the experiences and learnings
       they portray out that matters most. This includes you Mr. Williams! The lopping of bottom 10% still happens this day and age at GE and Siebel I know, not sure where else. It’s a good technique to remove the laggards, probably not the most fair, but some thing has to give.  The second point is, it’s a matter of factors in guaging performance. For me, the fact that Sierra was on top of the heap year after year, with the most amazing and state-of-the-art games, shows that there’s something great in upper management. Any top company that is able to year-after-year outdo themself shows something. I would have loved to see some of the financial statements from that time period… I can’t even find the public ones to see what was done!

      I don’t know if you know this, but when I graduated from college in 1996, I sent my resume to Sierra. I was hoping to work on one of the gaming franchises, but Sierra did call me back for an interview in the greeting cards division. Were you around for this development? I didn’t think it interested me or would be a career move I’d want to make.

    • #25634 Reply

      Hmmmm … the 4 – 1 seems very dangerous.  It would seem that for the first 1 – 2 years ( I am assuming a 2 year timeframe to get a product out the door) , revenue is 0 and cost is everything.  There was no way to guage the revenue side of the equation until the product was released.  Is this correct?

      What this meant is that a team could churn out a complete failure (0 – 1 ratio) and this would seem to have a big negative impact on the company.  Yes, the designer and his team would get thrown out the door, but again, they cost the company dearly.  Was this system able to thrive because there was always at least 2 teams that could turn out the 4-1 ratio which meant that with only 6 divisions, you were still in the black? or something like that.

      You really must’ve had a great deal of faith in everyone you dealt with, and this must’ve really motivated them (out of respect for you if nothing else).

    • #25635 Reply

      The government must run on a totally backward management style.  We have a program were we take in X number of engineers.  Each one goes through each department to get an idea of how we do business.  They take a couple of test and then, if they get their PE, then they become a manager.  There appears to be no test to their management skills.  Some are good and some are not. 
      One of the big problems is they form a click where they promote their friends up the management ladder.

    • #25636 Reply


      Unfortunately, this is the problem with most of the companies out there. Friends and colleagues go up the chain without merit or performance reasons. I call it, and pardon the term, the ‘strokefest theory’. It is very frustrating seeing non-qualified individuals become managers, undeservedly so. It all comes down from culture at the top. If it’s supported at the top, it will be downward.

      Another thing that we will implement is 360 degree evaluation. This is when managers and employees both review each other, and is taken into consideration. This works real well to weed out those managers who push blame and responsibility to employees. I think it’s a fairly new process, about 10 years maybe? I’m not sure, but it’s prevalent in many of the more successful organizations.

    • #25637 Reply

      360 degree evaluation … I guess one company I worked for executed the 180 degree evaluation 🙂 … coworkers at similar levels (ranks) to yourself evaluated each other … isn’t that convenient for those above you..

      As for 360, 180, 90 .. etc. evaluation … I am skeptical for political reasons.  Some people are just too plain sensitive to authority and too emotional.  They lose objectivity when their feelings are hurt are they are ‘rubbed the wrong way’.  The guy in charge of a team may be wonderful for the company as a whole, but because his style is aggressive and ‘take no hostages’, he receives negative evaluations.  This is just one problem I see.

      How do handle this situation?  Do you get rid of this guy?  If you keep him in his current position and with his current team, I would assume there would be productivity issues, right?  Or do you get rid of the team because people that give negative reviews because they are overly sensitive put the company’s future in jeopardy?

      All of this just seems too complicated and tricky… why not be responsible enough as a manager of a division to track each subordinates task list (deliverables, deadlines, hours spent working, deadlines met, etc…)  Keep the politics out.  If Joe Schmo had 8 deliverables in a 3 month span and he can show that he completed all 8 deliverables, the guy is good.  If Harry Henderson had 8 deliverables in a 3 month span and he can show that he only completed 1 with 7 excuses, he probably needs to be let go.

      Numbers don’t lie (8 deliverables, 240 hours, # of deliverables met, etc…).

    • #25638 Reply

      These are real, and real good issues. At the end, it also depends on who you hire. Someone who’s professional and cares about their career, reputation, and name will be respective to 360 degree vs some sort of corner rogue programmer or someone who ends up going into programming knowing they may change careers later.

      Also, these are not the only stats that are looked at, you have to look at the guy’s boss, employees, performance, and like you said, statistics. Very important as well.


    • #25639 Reply

      The qualities I saw in the management style of Sierra were in its relationship to its customers.
      1.  Sierra offered to exchange software disk with customers whos computer did not meet the advance 256 color specs for KQV.
      (although I could kick myself for doing it because I got a new computer not long after that)
      2.  Ken and Roberta wrote what felt like personal letters about the company in their promotion booklets.  They made .avi videos of how the business started and how they viewed their creation style.  This formed a bond between company and consumers.
      3.  They gave the ‘WOW’ factor in each new game they created.  I was amazed at the graphics of each game that came out.  In KQV when the weeping willow transformed to a princess all I could say was WOW!
      4.  They focused on and delivered quality.  At the time I had very little problems installing a Sierra game.  I knew what I was buying worked at the specs on the box.  No minimum and maximum standards.
      Ken, I give you an ‘A’ from the consumers standpoint.

    • #25640 Reply


      B, Patrick, 2006-04-02 15:51:43

      Hmmmm … the 4 – 1 seems very dangerous.  It would seem that for the first 1 – 2 years ( I am assuming a 2 year timeframe to get a product out the door) , revenue is 0 and cost is everything.  There was no way to guage the revenue side of the equation until the product was released.  Is this correct? ….


      You are right. 

      A critical part of the job, for myself, and for the studio head, was to make the decision as to when to override the designer on a project – or in some cases, to completely shut down a project. As I said, I generally liked to side with the designer. How far I let a designer go without pulling in the reigns had to do with their track record.

      For designers who had several hits in a row, I would go out on a limb more for them, than for a designer on their first or second project.

      Throughout a projects ‘life’ there were constantly revised revenue estimates coming in from marketing and sales. We always had a pretty good sense what the advance ‘buzz’ was on a product. If a product had a 10 million dollar revenue forecast one month, and then 5 million the next — this could dramatically affect the permitted R&D budget. A project that was looking fine could ship a dog of a demo, and see their project budget go from comfortable to something much tighter. In some cases, the designer would be upset about this — and, claim it was a self-fulfilling prophecy — and, sometimes they were right. I had to make a lot of decision calls, as to when to ‘stick with’ a designer even when it might seem that their budget and revenue forecast were out of sync.

      -Ken W

    • #25641 Reply

      Geez  – you woulda croaked when Online (pre-sierra – but all Ken and Roberta) was rampant with drugs and booze AND STILL FUNCTIONED, but we were a child of our times (early 80’s). Though there were casualties – self included – there were no excuses. You performed or else. A good – or for that matter – great manager evolves as his business does. Ken was what – 25 years old when things really started cooking. There wasn’t a hell of a lot of hoity toity when our software was going out in ziplock bags – but the keen business sense of things were clearly there… the ability to put the right person in the right place (foibles and all) – looking to have your suppliers BID for your business, the ability to let teams form rather spontaneously. There should be a time machine for entrepeneurs to go back and witness from the earliest days in Oakhurst. There’s an undeniable degree of luck, but after just plain guts – it was will to succeed.

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