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the ken williams interview </TT> <DD>Ken Williams is the CEO of Sierra On-Line, the largest computer entertainment company in the business. Sierra has produced the prolific King’s Quest, Space Quest, and Leisure Suit Larry series, as well as being behind such recent hits as Phantasmagoria.
verbosity: A lot of people may not be quite sure about the duties of the CEO of a computer-gaming company. Could you briefly describe what you job entails? <DD>ken williams: I’m not sure how typical I am of other CEOs…most of my time is spent looking at product. Sierra has roughly 70+ games in development at any point in time. It is a full time job to review and comment on this much product. I have successfully been able to shovel most of the drudgery of running a large company off onto others so that I can focus on product.
<DD>We have a process at Sierra where every three months Jerry Bowerman (our head of R&D) and myself try to visit every division to see every product in the company. Believe it or not, this requires a FULL MONTH on the road! We spend from 8 a.m. ’til at least 9 p.m. every night going through product. Our goals include checking to see if the product looks like it will finish on time, and on budget, but what we are really looking for is to do anything we can to support the developers as they try to build “Sierra quality” product. It isn’t staying on budget that causes a hit–it’s having the greatest game.
<DD>Many products have been nuked during these quarterly visits. For example, Outpost II. When Jerry and I saw the project about six months ago, it looked wrong. I don’t know how to describe it better than that. It just didn’t look fun. When we shot the project there were some VERY unhappy campers. A couple of months later the project started over. Jerry and I just visited the team and were blown away. Outpost II will be one of the biggest hits this company has ever shipped.
<DD>To me, everything is about being able to build awesome product. Everything else is just garbage you have to do in business. Anything that allows us to built better product, or take better care of our customers, is good. </DD> v: In recent years, your company, Sierra, has been constantly setting benchmarks in the gaming industry. Each new product seems to push the envelope of technology. Do you feel it’s your duty to push along the hardware industry with your games, or is it a naturally proportional situation? <DD>kw: Any game which does not push the state of the art leaves an opportunity for a competitor’s game to look better. We are caught in a funny kind of Catch 22. Games which push the state of the art run horribly on the average computer. On the other hand, games which don’t push the state of the art tend not to sell. I have been recently excited by the fact that some recent megahits have not been very impressive technologically-speaking or graphically (such as Duke3d or Warcraft). These games are selling because they play good. I’d much rather focus on producing an awesome game than worrying about whether or not we’re showing what great art we can do–or, that we know how to program for a DVD drive. </DD> v: In a recent article published in InterAction, you said, of the upcoming King’s Quest VIII: The Mask of Eternity that, “It will be almost two years before computers will be powerful enough to run this game…” Do you think that the increase in realism is worth the sacrifice of users of high-end 486s and low-end Pentiums? <DD>kw: Our current plan to is ship KQ8 optimized for 3D hardware acceleration, but also to include a way to drop to lo-res on machines without the hardware. I think the minimum, even in lo-res, will be a Pentium-90. KQ8 is going to be our showpiece for a whole new generation of technology. Not all users will be able to run it–and only those with hardware acceleration will be able to see it the right way.
<DD>My guess (and my goal) is that anyone who sees KQ8 will immediately buy a hardware accelerator just to play it.</DD> v: You have expressed (and exhibited) a desire for Sierra to support Windows 95 as fully as possible. Can we expect Sierra to make the move to solely developing for Win95 in the near future? <DD>kw: Sierra is developing 100% of our products for Win95. Sierra’s customers tend to be on the cutting edge. Over 90% of our current product registrations are from Win95 customers. Unfortunately, though, this is domestically. Europe is lagging. For the U.S., we develop for Win95 and then have to produce a DOS or Win3.1 port of the game for the European market.</DD> v: One of your hottest new games, Lighthouse has been referred to in print media as the “Myst-cutter.” Is Sierra looking now to hop on a bandwagon or improve on a concept with this sort of theory? <DD>kw: Lighthouse has elements in common with Myst as well as reflecting Sierra’s 17-year history of producing adventure games. I wouldn’t say we’re jumping onto a bandwagon as much as saying that we’re producing a really cool game that is within a huge genre.
<DD>In many ways, Lighthouse is the beginning of a whole new generation of games. Many (most) of the puzzles are mechanically-based, not logic-based. There are these “Jules Vern-esque” style contraptions which you learn to drive and manipulate. Half the fun is learning to drive flying machines, submarines, and even trains. Myst was simply a puzzle game…</DD> v: What is your opinion of the “DOOM-fever” which has been sweeping the industry in the last few years? I notice that Sierra is one of the few companies not to join in so far with the craze by releasing an obligatory first-person action game. <DD>kw: I thought people would get burned out on DOOM a year ago. Now that Sierra is finally jumping on the bandwagon (we’re working on several games in this genre), the bottom will almost certainly fall out of the market. I think we’re too late to the party–although we plan on coming at it from a fresh perspective. All of our games will include Internet play, and be based around worlds that survive and exist whether or not any particular user is signed in. </DD> v: Speaking of DOOM, what do you think of the general “shareware explosion” we’ve witnessed in the last few years? Do you think the route the guys at id and Apogee are taking is the future of the industry, and is it a major threat to major companies like Sierra? <DD>kw: The software industry needs something analogous to radio. No one buys an album without first hearing some of the tracks on the radio. $15 is too much for the average person to spend on an unknown quantity. For some reason, in our industry customers are asked many times to spend $50 on games they have never experienced. This is about to stop. I see the Internet as being the radio of the software industry. To succeed at retail there must be a “track” of the game which is broadcast over the Internet. If customers like what they hear/see/play they will rush to their retailer to buy the album/box. If not, then the album/box doesn’t get bought.
<DD>I am not fond of printed advertisements for computer games. I just do not believe the excitement of a game can be conveyed on the printed page. Plus, I want to compete based on the quality of our games–not who can afford the best ad agency. If shareware succeeds the wa
(re: Old interview with Ken)
Wow! DVD programming was a possibility back then? I am curious as to whether the first person shooters that were alluded to had anything to do with Half Life. It’s perhaps a little hard to tell when this interview took place but I’m sure someone has already figured it out by looking at when Lighthouse was released and when KQ8 was supposed to be release. One last thing I found interesting about this interview was the interviewers move to distinguish the Internet and WWW as two separate things. It’s interesting because people today don’t often make such distinctions, the web is the internet in the modern world.
(re: re: Old interview with Ken) I’m not sure when this interview was done — I looked up the release date for Lighthouse, and it said 1996 … which seems wrong to me. Sierra was sold in 1996, and Lighthouse was an old product by the time we sold the company.
Personally, what most interested me about this interview, was that at the time, I thought multiplayer gaming was going to be the biggest category. As it turns out, it really isn’t that big a business. I would be very surprised if online multiplayer games account for 5% of total game sales revenues — and, this is 10 years after that interview was done.
I can only think of two possibilities: a) I was wrong, or, b) no one has shipped anything multiplayer that was interesting enough to spend money on (in mass quantities).
I think the answer is a little of both, but mostly: I was wrong. Most people prefer to play games alone – making them multiplayer adds too much complexity. People don’t like thinking that the gaming world is changing while they aren’t there.
All that said, I would still do mutliplayer games – at least until I shipped one I thought was as good as could be done within the genre. I think what made Sierra special was that we liked to do things that were different. We were willing to take risks, and do things that others weren’t doing. Sometimes we were right, and sometimes we were wrong — but, we were rarely boring. And, if you think about it .. the goal was to have fun, not to do brain surgery … so, let’s say we were wrong from time to time, but we and our customers had a good time — what’s wrong with that?
(re: Old interview with Ken)
Ken, what are you saying? You were a visionary. 5% of total gaming revenue? Massively Multiplayer, consistent world games are the current fad in 2004! EverQuest, PlanetSide, Star Wars Galaxies, Final Fantasy XI, Earth and Beyond, Dark Age of Camelot, The Sims Online – and soon, World of Warcraft and EverQuest 2 are going to push the boundaries even further.
You were dead on correct when you did this interview. EverQuest, one of the originals in the genre, has survived for over 6 years now on patches and expansion packs! 6 years has got to be some sort of record for longevity in the computer gaming business. These games sell off the shelf for the same amount as games have traditionally sold – $50 – and then a significant percentage of people continue paying monthly fees on top of that. Most people only stick with a game of this sort for a few months before moving on, but a large number also stick with the game for years.
True the games require a bit more infastructure, but when you have more than 400,000 active subscribers worldwide – which is the case with EverQuest as of August 2003, six years and five expansion packs after its initial release – and each member pays $12.95 a month – then you are bringing in over five million dollars of revenue every month just on that game. That is in addition to the 400,000 or more cardboard boxes that were initially sold for $50 each, bringing in the publisher approximately $15-$20 per box (for argument sake). Of course, the profit may not be as impressive once you consider development costs, advertising, etc etc, but in terms of sheer revenue… EverQuest is not unique in those numbers either. Star Wars Galaxies also boasts over 400,000 active subscribers, and Dark Age of Camelot recently passed the 200,000 mark. There is clearly consistent, steady profit to be made on these games, and the market is reflecting that fact.
Also, there is hardly a hit game anymore that doesn’t consist of some sort of multiplayer option. Some of my current favorites include Warcraft 3, Command and Conquer Generals, and Unreal Tournament 2003. Being a fan of storyline and having grown up on single player games, I still love the single player options. But the number of hours I spend playing these games multiplayer so vastly dwarfs the hours I’ve spent playing the single player that I hardly consider them “single player games” at all.
Ken, even your OWN success story, Half-Life, has spawned the biggest fan-produced, 100% multiplayer mod in history – Counter Strike. People hardly play Half-Life as a single player game anymore, but Counter Strike is likely the most popular game played at LAN Gaming Centers across the U.S. (lacking figures I can’t prove this – but I know it is the most popular game at MY Internet Cafe, and brings us the most revenue).
It is rare today to hear of a popular single player game. There are exceptions, like Max Payne, or the yet-to-be-released Doom 3. Multiplayer games are simply more engrossing, more challenging, and more dynamic. Its like the difference between playing Solitaire and Poker (if you like card games).
Anyway, I just was a little shocked to hear you call yourself wrong when you have clearly been vindicated more than anyone could have imagined at the time.
Bottom line, people PREFER multiplayer games and multiplayer games sell better than purely single player games. The Internet Age has turned the computer into a social gateway for many previously isolated geeks – and its more fun to mix social interaction into the mix then to sit in a dark room by yourself. That’s why I always played Sierra adventure games with a friend or two.
(re: Old interview with Ken)
I’d also like to point out that internet based games are going to increase dramatically in the near future, as more and more people get fast broadband connections, as well as computer which are able to handle them.