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In May of 2003, I was interviewed by a German Gaming website. Normally I reject interviews, and this is the first interview I remember doing since the Sierra days.
I had a link on this site to the interview, but apparently the link is no longer good.
Ken Williams Interview
First of all: thanks for giving us the opportunity to ask you a few question, we really appreciate that.
Let’s roll back the years. It’s been nearly 25 years since you and Roberta decided to establish On-Line Systems (which was later renamed to the renowned “Sierra On-Line”). What was your motivation to take the risk and create a company in such a small sector like computer games?
*** At the time, I was working as a programmer in Los Angeles. Roberta and I were just starting our family and didn’t want to raise our kids in Los Angeles. Too much traffic. Too many taxes. Too much crime. Too much smog. Etc. We wanted to leave the big city, and raise our kids in a small town, but unfortunately, I was a “mainframe” programmer, and mainframes only existed in big towns. At the time, in the late 70’s, personal computers were just being invented. I recognized immediately that personal computers would someday represent a huge market, and started working on a project for the Apple II, in the hopes that it would sell, and we could move out of LA. I am not saying this well, but our focus was on finding a way to leave LA, not on starting a company. We just wanted a way to feed ourselves, while working outside of a big city. My work on main frames was in compiler development, so I decided to do a fortran compiler for the Apple II. While working on the compiler, Roberta played a game (Adventure) on a mainframe computer, and thought it would be MUCH better if done on a personal computer WITH graphics. She twisted my arm to do the programming, which I did. She did the design and artwork. It was an immediate hit. I dropped the compiler and we moved to Yosemite (the mountains of central California).
What were your goals? I am assuming you didn’t plan on building up one of the most successful companies in PC gaming over numerous years with hundreds of employees to boot…
*** We had simple goals: raise our kids in a small mountain community. If possible we wanted to earn $10,000 per year, so that we could eat and have a VERY modest home. It never occurred to us that Sierra would become a big company.
How was the working atmosphere at Sierra over the years– did it change? Was it more buddy-like or business-style?
*** In the beginning, there wasn’t a sense of running a business. We didn’t compete with other companies – we were co-explorers, discovering new territory. The industry was growing so fast that mistakes could be made without corporate collapse. I was really just a teenager at the time. Over the years, business became VERY serious. By the time Sierra was sold, we were a public company, with fierce competition. It started as fun, and finished as serious business. If I had been the same person in 1996 (when the company was sold) as I was in 1979 (when we started), we wouldn’t have lasted a week (without being crushed by our competitors).
You as a boss – something I would want?
*** Absolutely – if you want to work hard. I had no tolerance for anyone who didn’t understand my goals. I thought of business as war. Sierra’s employees were my soldiers and competitors were the enemy. If someone wanted to have fun at work, they should do so – but, not at Sierra. Go elsewhere. That said, winning IS fun. We had fun because we knew we were the best, and that no one could touch us. I encouraged a creative environment, and didn’t accept bureaucrats. I understood technology and programming – so I couldn’t be “bulled”. Out of 1,000 employees, 700 were in product development. Most of the 300 who weren’t in product development were in manufacturing. My feeling was that Sierra would live or die on whether or not we could build awesome product. This was our differentiating factor. Developers were kings at Sierra, and most employees were developers.
In the first years, you were often credited as a programmer while later you were (I guess) too busy reviewing games and leading the company to write code. What was more fun? Was it fun at all?
*** I loved product, and hated being a public company. I could get excited about great product, and customers. I couldn’t get excited about managing a huge bureaucracy. The bigger we got, the farther I was from product. Actually, I stayed close to product long after I should have. At least 90% of my time was spent going from development group to development group looking at product. This wasn’t easy. Our developers were scattered to over 10 locations; Boston, Paris, Seattle, Oakhurst, Salt Lake City, Denver, San Francisco, etc. My life consisted of riding on airplanes and staying in hotels. The travel got too me after a while. Also, I didn’t like not being able to focus on any one product for more than a few hours. At any moment in time we had 50 or so products in development. To support a company our size, we needed this many products. Personally I’d rather have spent all my time on one or two products, rather than dividing my time 50 different ways.
What was your favorite Sierra game/series of all time?
*** Leisure-Suit Larry! I liked the humor – and that we were breaking down barriers by bringing mature content to computers. I also loved Phantasmagoria – because of the blending of live action and interactivity. And, mostly because it really was spooky.
On your website, you offer a Powerpoint presentation for download which gives a very interesting insight in your company philosophy. In it, you describe yourself as pioneers. What do you think were the most important milestones Sierra first reached with their games?
*** I could spend the next month answering this question. We pioneered: direct marketing for software products, budget software, cd-rom games, color packaging, live action, music cards in computers, 3d cards, graphic adventure games, graphic word processors, multi-player games, etc etc etc Everything for me at Sierra was about innovating. Our games are cooler when taken in context than when you look at them now. We tried to do things that people didn’t expect. After we did them, everyone else did them, in some cases better. But everyone always knew that Sierra was a leader, and that if you wanted to see where the industry was heading you looked at us.
The presentation states, “think entertainment, not games”. What do you mean by that?
*** I used to say that Napster was the best entertainment product ever made. You need to flow backwards from thinking about how to entertain the audience, not from how do we do the next “doom clone”. I had trouble getting my staff to think outside the box, but we always came closer than the competition. Napster is something that people do at their computers every day (or, least it was something they DID do everyday). I wanted our people to think in terms of “find a way to entertain a person in front of their computer” – not just to design another adventure game. Innovation doesn’t come from market research. I hated market research driven product development. For instance: Surveys that would sh