Ken Williams

Ken Williams
Co-Founder, Owner & C.E.O.

Educational Background:
Control Data Institute, Los Angeles, California (1973)

Key Accomplishments:
Built and ran Sierra On-Line for 20 years

Where Is He Now?
Talkspot, Ken’s Blog

Sierra Gamers Highlights
Ken Williams Q&A/Thanks Forum

Ken Williams

I felt we were running a “club” where our job was to build cool
product for people who had bought from us before

“It was tough for me to be in management at Sierra. All I could think about was how
much fun the developers were having. My hope post-acquisition was that I would
be able to stay on at Sierra and work on games. It was a huge disappointment
that it didn’t work out that way.”

“I miss Sierra….”

Sierra Game Credits (From Mobygames):

Production – gameography
Diablo II (Collector’s Edition) (2000), Blizzard Entertainment Inc.
The Realm (1997), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Hoyle Bridge (1996), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh (1996), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Hoyle Classic Card Games (1993), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Space Quest V: The Next Mutation (1993), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
The Dagger of Amon Ra (1992), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Jones in the Fast Lane (Enhanced CDROM version) (1992), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel (1992), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Quest for Glory I: So You Want To Be A Hero (1992), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Castle of Dr. Brain (1992), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Conquests of the Longbow: The Legend of Robin Hood (1991), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus (1991), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Hoyle Official Book of Games: Volume 3 (1991), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Jones in the Fast Lane (1991), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Leisure Suit Larry 1: In the Land of the Lounge Lizards (1991), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Leisure Suit Larry 5: Passionate Patti Does a Little Undercover Work (1991), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Mixed-Up Fairy Tales (1991), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Police Quest 3: The Kindred (1991), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Roberta Williams’ Mixed-Up Mother Goose (1991), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Space Quest I: Roger Wilco in the Sarien Encounter (1991), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers (1991), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Conquests of Camelot: The Search for the Grail (1990), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Hoyle Official Book of Games: Volume 2 (1990), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder! (1990), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Mixed-Up Mother Goose (1991), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Oil’s Well (1990), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire (1990), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Roberta Williams’ King’s Quest I: Quest for the Crown (1990), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Sorcerian (1990), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Codename: ICEMAN (1989), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
The Colonel’s Bequest (1989), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Firehawk (1990), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Hero’s Quest: So You Want To Be A Hero (1989), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Hoyle Official Book of Games: Volume 1 (1989), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Leisure Suit Larry III: Passionate Patti in Pursuit of the Pulsating Pectorals (1989), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Manhunter 2: San Francisco (1989), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella (1988), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Manhunter: New York (1988), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Police Quest 2: The Vengeance (1988), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Silpheed (1988), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
3-D Helicopter Simulator (1987), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Hi-Res Adventure #5: Time Zone (1982), On-Line Systems
Thanks – gameography
The Fast and the Furious (2006), Namco Bandai Games America Inc.
King’s Quest Collection (2006), Sierra Entertainment, Inc.
Police Quest: SWAT 2 (1998), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire (1998), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
King’s Quest: Collection Series (1997), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
The Realm (1997), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Leisure Suit Larry: Love for Sail! (1996), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Justice League Task Force (1995), Acclaim Entertainment, Inc.
Thexder 95 (1995), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Torin’s Passage (1995), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Alien Legacy (1994), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
The Incredible Toon Machine (1994), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
King’s Quest (Collector’s Edition) (1994), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Daryl F. Gates’ Police Quest: Open Season (1993), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Fates of Twinion (1993), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Leisure Suit Larry 6: Shape Up or Slip Out! (1993), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Shadow of Yserbius (1993), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Sid & Al’s Incredible Toons (1993), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Thexder (1987), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Programming/Engineering – gameography
Supercross 2000 (1999), Electronic Arts, Inc.
Mortal Kombat 4 (1998), Midway Games, Inc.
NHL 99 (1998), Electronic Arts, Inc.
Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards (1987), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel (1987), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
The Black Cauldron (1986), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter (1986), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne (1985), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Hi-Res Adventure #3: Cranston Manor (1982), On-Line Systems
Threshold (1981), On-Line Systems
Hi-Res Adventure #1: Mystery House (1980), On-Line Systems
Hi-Res Adventure #2: The Wizard and the Princess (1980), On-Line Systems
Design – gameography
Crazy Nick’s Picks: King Graham’s Board Game Challenge (1993), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human (1986), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Hi-Res Adventure #4: Ulysses and the Golden Fleece (1981), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Hi-Res Adventure #0: Mission Asteroid (1980), On-Line Systems
Hi-Res Adventure #2: The Wizard and the Princess (1980), On-Line Systems
Video/Cinematics – gameography
Police Quest 3: The Kindred (1991), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Creative Services – gameography
3-D Helicopter Simulator (1987), Sierra On-Line, Inc.
Other – gameography
Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards (1987), Sierra On-Line, Inc.

Ken’s Biography:

I was born in 10/30/1954 in Evansville Indiana.  I graduated High School a year early, and went straight into college at 16! After being a super-star in highschool, I did poorly in college. I was too young to be in college, and was spending too much time with my girlfriend (Roberta). I majored in Physics, and was carrying a C average. Roberta and I married on Nov 4th, 1972. I had been 18 for five days. During my third year of college, Roberta decided it was time to start a family, and that I needed a real job asap. Roberta had been supporting us while I went to school. I also worked various part-time jobs to help pay the bills. I was forced to drop out of college to go to programming school.

My favorite college course was a computer programming course. This was 1973, and mainframe computers were just becoming popular. Our college had one, and it was love at first site. I attended a nine month programming trade school, Control Data Institute, in Los Angeles, and graduated top of my class. It was obvious I had a knack for programming. From about 1973, when I finished CDI to 1979 when I started Sierra, I worked for about anyone who was doing anything with computers in Los Angeles. I had a series of full-time programming jobs, and rose quickly through the ranks – but, the more interesting story is the night-time work I did. In those days, software engineers were in extreme demand. I contracted for everyone; Warner Brothers, Groman Mortuaries (don’t ask), McDonnell Douglas, Bekins, Sterling Computers, even Fredericks of Hollywood! My last full-time job was for a company doing compiler development.

Roberta’s and my goal was to get out of Los Angeles, almost from when we first met. Sierra was started primarily because we “wanted to live in the woods”. Our goal in life was a quiet log cabin at Yosemite to raise our kids. Immediately after starting Sierra we moved to Yosemite, raised our family, and the company grew. We started with just us, and finished as a public company with 1,000 employees. I was Sierra’s Chairman and CEO throughout the 18 year period from 1979 to 1996. Although I was technically a bureaucrat, I delegated the paper shuffling to the greatest extent possible, and was VERY involved in building product. When the company was sold in 1996, we were the leader in consumer software, and had distribution in virtually every country in the world.

After retiring in 1998, I became quickly bored, and started a dot-com called Talkspot, to do entertainment broadcasting on the web. Our programming was awesome, and we were growing like weeds, but our business model didn’t make sense, and we couldn’t sell ads. Talkspot was transformed to a company which did paid broadcasting for companies trying to reach large audiences, and renamed WorldStream. We were doing such fun things as broadcasting trade shows for phone companies. It wasn’t the right business for me. I retired again, and the board brought in a new CEO.

The internet crash happened about a year later, and took WorldStream with it. Currently, I’m mostly just travelling, although I am working on a website generator – which is the code behind this website. I don’t get much time to code, so not too much is happening with this project, and I doubt much will ever happen with it. It’s a fun hobby….

Most of my days are spent playing golf and tinkering with my computer. Roberta and I are serious about boating, and are taking our boat across the Atlantic this summer. I’m starting to put a lot of effort into preparing for that. Lastly: we live mostly in Mexico (Cabo). We have a home in Seattle, which we spend too little time at, and a boat slip in France (near Monaco) which we’re thinking of selling. I speak french, and love france, but the recent political environement has dampened my enthusiasm for living there.

On Managing Creative People:

Generally though, our problem, was in managing creative people. They don’t like having tight schedules. Some groups, like the artists, don’t even relate to the concept. Telling an artist you need one pencil sketch every two hours just doesn’t work. Creative people hate budgeting their time.

I’m over generalizing, and being a bit unfair – but, in the big picture, what I’ve said is true. Imagine what it is like to tell Roberta Williams or Al Lowe, “I need your game design by the end of March”. They don’t think that way. They try, but creativity doesn’t happen on a schedule. Having a schedule sometimes slows things down.

I do believe that Sierra succeeded because we managed the balance between creative needs and schedule needs better than our competitors. We succeeded because we were awesome at building great software. But, we were far from perfect. 

The “Sierra Formula”:

Sierra is/was not represented by a building. A building is just a place to go to work. To get Sierra back is really simple. All you need is a group of creative people doing creative things – with a very high focus on quality and innovation.

Here’s what I mean:

Sierra was special, because of our product development philosophy (and, our marketing strategy). Our philosophy is easy for anyone to replicate. You don’t need to buy buildings. If someone looks at the powerpoint presentation I did (available below), and my interview, and then perhaps talks to me for a few minutes, you have everything that made Sierra what it was (both the good and the bad).

I was famous inside the company for what I used to call “Kens Laws” .. I was boringly repetative. I made regular tours of each of the products in development, and almost everyone in every meeting knew what I was going to say before I said it. At times I used to say that anyone could have done the meetings, and just have pretended to be me – just as effectively.

I believe that sooner or later, some software entrepreneur will decide to follow the Sierra Formula. And, that this will be what rebuilds Sierra – even if it isn’t named Sierra, or even if Sierra nor I ever receive any acknowledgement that this was done.  Sierra was a “vision” for how to build and market product. It wasn’t a particular set of brands, or a particular set of developers. All anyone needs to do to rebuild Sierra is to read through this site (and, of course, have MILLIONS and MILLIONS of dollars to spend).

Actually, I’m not convinced that huge money really is needed. The internet as a means of distributing software is just emerging. There are new business models to be figured out. Also, the internet provides a forum for people with a common interest to come together. I bet any of us who wanted to put together a team of people, to build a game, who were willing to work for free, against a piece of the action, could do it in a week (assuming you have charisma and leadership skills). There are thousands of artists, programmers, sound guys, etc who want to build a game. All you need is a leader with a vision. I don’t do it, because I’ve “been there, done that” and want to do new things.

I could repeat here what I’ve said elsewhere about what I think a winning formula is, but that would be redundant. My only point is that people shouldn’t get hung up on trying to restart Sierra. (Assuming Sierra needs restarted. For all I know, they may be doing a billion dollars in revenue this year. I really haven’t talked to them in years). To build a company that is the Sierra that people remember, all you need is an entrepreneur with a vision. I’m convinced that dozens of entrepreneurs (maybe thousands) will read this site – and, that one of those will “get it” for what made Sierra unique, and we’ll have a new Sierra (even though it might be called “Cascade software” or something.

Electronic Arts, Microsoft, Disney:

For YEARS, I had a “Beat EA” campaign. The goal was to have Sierra’s stock price pass Electronic Arts’ stock price. At the time the campaign started, we were half their price. It took us several years, but we did pass them – and, paid off by “gifting” every employee of the company 10 shares of Sierra stock. 

I always had a ton of respect for Electronic Arts. I wanted our employees focused on studying everything they did, and rising to their level of excellence – specifically in the area of sales force execution. They also pioneered the concept of creating a sports franchise, and selling upgraded versions every year.

In addition to Electronic Arts, our role models were also Microsoft and Disney.

On the Sale of Sierra:

Sierra was a public company. We weren’t for sale, but were surprised by an offer to acquire us for approximately 90% over the price we were trading at. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but I think we were trading for around $25 per share, and were offered $48 per share.  As CEO, I had a “fiscal duty” to shareholders to take the deal.

After the company moved in 1993, our revenue exploded. I forget the exact numbers, but our revenue tripled or more between 1993 and 1996. Much of this growth was attributable to some great management we were to bring into the company. In particular, I should mention Mike Brochu, who came in as CFO, but later rose to be President – and, Dennis Cloutier, who was our VP Sales and is an incredible talent. Another name I can’t forget is: Bill Moore, our VP Marketing. Bill had a consumer marketing background, with companies like Starbucks.

The short story on the sale is that we were a public company. I owned a lot of the company, but not all. My responsibility was to the shareholders, and to the employees. We were presented an offer that made financial sense for both of these contingencies, so I had to take it. I also thought it was the right long-term decision for the company.

At the time, I thought that it was a win-win for both shareholders and Sierra. The company that acquired Sierra also acquired Blizzard, and had plans to do other acquisitions. The goal was to create a major entertainment company, with even better distribution for Sierra products.  Unfortunately, the company that acquired Sierra turned out to have falsified its financials, and several members of its management team are facing very possible jail time.

The Sierra acquisition turned out to be a total disaster, both for shareholders (and option holders) and for employees – most of which lost their jobs. 

After Sierra was sold, my vision had been that the new owners would WANT Roberta and I to continue doing games. I was always jealous of our own developers. They got to build cool products, and I got to go to meetings. My vision post-sale was that I would be able to focus on doing product – and try to build one hit game per year.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it works in the real world. I hate to sound bitter (which I’m not) – but, when someone buys your company, they want to do things their way – not yours. I’m not making this up, and it isn’t something that was unique to Sierra. It is common, in business, that post acquisition, the prior regime gets flushed. Neither Roberta, Al or me were ever offered another game at Sierra. It just hasn’t happened.

Roberta and I thought briefly about calling Electronic Arts, but never have. Maybe someday. I think it might be too weird for us to ever do a game for a competitor. Theoretically, we could start a new game company, but probably not. It’s a lot of work to start a company, and we like the creative part, but not the “business” part. Nearly 20 years of running Sierra was plenty for me.

I did make a call to see if Sierra could be bought back, but have no idea how I would raise the $500 million or so it might take.  Actually, what I would most like to see occur is for some game company to make me “chairman” of a product committee, where I can spend my life working with the product teams. I don’t ever want the grief again of “trying to make quarterly revenue goals”. But, I do miss the creativity and innovation of building great product.  Sooner or later, Sierra will be managed by someone who thinks I could add value. (I hope…)

From 2009:

At the time we were acquired, the company wasn’t for sale. Walter Forbes had been on our board for a number of years, and blindsided me after a board meeting with the offer of acquisition.

In the weeks following his (Walter’s) proposal there were intense negotiations, and the deal almost fell apart several times. Price was certainly an issue, although the price was the simplest issue negotiated. We resolved the price almost immediately.

The huge issue was the management of the company post-acquisition. I needed to believe that the company would retain its independence after the acquisition and be able to continue producing great product. After intense negotiations, a structure was put in place that I believed would result in a major win for Sierra’s employees and customers.

Walter Forbes vision was to roll together  all of the larger software companies, creating one huge entertainment company. The acquisition of Davidson (Blizzard) and Sierra was really intended as just the beginning.

We agreed that the non-creative groups, such as manufacturing and distribution would be consolidated, but that the product groups would retain their independence. A complex structure was put in place that not only gave me clear command of Sierra, but also visibility and influence over all of the products across the consolidated company. This would allow me to focus on what I did best (product) while creating a distribution company that could deal with the operational issues.

The deal would not have closed were I not convinced that it was in the best interests of ALL of Sierra’s employees, customers and shareholders.

Almost immediately after the deal closed I realized that things were not going to be as we had planned, and not all of the problems were with the acquiring company. Sierra’s sales force was consolidated with Davidsons, and there were problems with the Davidson sales force selling Sierra products. They had been selling educational software which had a very different sales profile than computer games. There were also issues with a cultural difference between selling preschool software and Leisure-Suit Larry. Some of our biggest hits were offensive to some people at Davidson. It was an issue no one had expected.

Prior to the acquisition, the potential for these kinds of problems had been discussed. A structure was put in place to deal with them, and it was all ignored. A software board was to have been created, but it never had a single meeting. I do not know why. Also, Bob Davidson, who was running all sales for the consolidated company suddenly left the company. I felt that I, or someone from my senior management team, should have been installed to run the company, but CUC brought in a member of their senior management with no experience in software. I was frustrated and unhappy, and wound up leaving the software business entirely.

I have heard rumors that Bob Davidson’s departure was hastened by his asking tough questions at the board level. I was also on the board, and did see some things that perhaps with 20/20 hindsight should have been yellow flags. That said, the accountants who had studied the company (CUC) for years didn’t see the problems, so I can’t beat myself up too much for not seeing the problems during a few board meetings. Actually, it is still tough for me to see Walter Forbes as a criminal. He was a very visionary person, who I had tremendous respect for. It never would have occured to me to suspect him of criminal conduct. I do think all of the trial transcripts are available to the public, and someday I’d like to read them to form my own opinion about what happened. To this day, I still have trouble saying, absolutely, that he was a crook. I have accepted that he was, but it is so out of sync with the Walter Forbes that I knew that I’d someday like to see the evidence myself and form my own opinion.

It is a huge disappointment for me that Sierra died. Actually, Sierra didn’t die, it was murdered. We had tremendous momentum, and a system in place, that I thought would keep the company going forever. It shouldn’t have been possible that the company would be so poorly managed. It was a horrible turn of events, and should have been avoidable.

Being the CEO of Sierra

I used to have a quote on my wall, that I’ve unfortunately lost, and forgotten. It was from Walt Disney when someone asked him what he did. He responded something like: Well, I don’t draw the cartoons, I don’t write the scripts, I don’t act, direct or write music. My job is to just keep things moving (or, something like that – and, he said it about a million times better – maybe someone out there has the correct quote)

The Executive Producer title didn’t really mean anything. I forget if it was me, or someone else, who made it up. At some point, I think we stopped using it, because it was annoying to the teams, who were the ones doing all the real work on the games. It was never a really big issue, but I could tell that they didn’t like seeing someones name on the project who didn’t really work as part of the team.

My involvement was critical, but only indirectly so. I was the one who decided if a game got made, who would make it, how much money would be spent on developing the game, and how much would be spent to promote the game. Based on my understanding of Hollywood, this is not inconsistent with what a producer on a film might do.

I also played a role in defining the technology for products, and in monitoring the projects during development. Sierra had a seperate technology group, from the games groups. The technology group built the code that wasn’t game specific (mostly AGI, SCI and various animation tools) so that the programming groups that were assigned to a project could focus all their energy on making the game great, and not worry about what platform the game would run on. Once a project went into development (usually 1 to 2 years), I would meet with the team every 90 days to do a project review, and give them ideas for how to make the game better, or, more often, how to keep the project on time and on budget.


I do think a lot about doing a game, and Roberta and I have seriously considered it a few times – but, we’ve never done anything. I don’t know that we ever will. We’d like to, but we just don’t have time – and besides: there’s a lot of creative people out there who deserve a chance to do THEIR games. Maybe this board will help inspire them to get to work.

My current project can be seen at – it’s a turnkey solution for anyone who wants a website (with a focus on corporate intra/extra nets and groups/associations), and is the basis for this website. It’s early in development, but is working great. I’d encourage anyone who is considering wants a website to give it a try (for at least the next six months it’s FREE, and there’s no commitment whatsoever). If all you need is a simple single-page website, there are better solutions – but, if you need a complex site, with security, email verification, mailing lists, etc, my software has no peer.

Talkspot isn’t a game (and, isn’t as fun to develop as a game), but it fits my lifestyle better. A game requires a full time effort over multiple years, with a large team. We’re living mostly outside the US and travelling most of the time. Generally, I can develop TalkSpot at my own pace, and work alone. Roberta isn’t currently involved, but says she will start working with me soon.

Originally, Talkspot was born out of my asking myself what I could start that one of my sons could takeover. I had the idea and started building it, and then presented it to my sons, each of which yawned and promptly found real jobs. It’s been fun, so I’ve kept going.
On Adventure Games:

Roberta is absolutely convinced that the market is huge for adventure games, and that it is just a matter of someone making a good one. She says she will consider coming back to the industry when adventure games start selling again. 

I’m less optimistic. I do believe there’s room for an adventure game to succeed, but only if it does something new. The old style games are best left in the past. Someone needs to move the state of the art another generation forward. I don’t see any companies innovative enough to do so.


I was running out of ideas. Had I stayed with Sierra, I would have been thinking of some other directions to take the company. I’m not sure what this means, but it’s one of the reasons I liked online games .. no one at the time had done massively multiplayer games right when I was running Sierra. There must still be some uncharted territory, but I’m not sure what it is. My problem with playing games now is that they all look alike .. no one seems to be doing anything radically new.

Development versus Publishing:

I wanted Sierra’s games to be different than any other companies. I really didn’t see Sierra as “just another publisher”. Publishers go into the open market and bid for products. In that market, the high bidder wins (meaning the company willing to show the lowest profit). Sierra, to me, was a creative group (our #1 priority was development, not publishing). I’m having trouble explaining this – but, I saw us as a vertically integrated developer, not just someone who marketed other peoples products.

One of the major critiques of me, through the years, was that at Sierra developers were treated like gods, and everyone else as unnecessary overhead. This was a fair commentary. I felt we were in a product business, and that only product mattered. Good product sold, bad product didn’t. Customers are smarter than you think. You can’t turn crap into gold by spending millions on advertising. We ran almost no advertising, and spent almost no money on trade shows.

What we did spend was against existing customers, and really it was just “informational”, not hype. I’m anti-hype. I felt we were running a “club” where our job was to build cool product for people who had bought from us before (I did spend on direct mail, such as InterAction magazine). New people would “join the family” if our existing customers talked about our products. The idea of someone else building your product is a completely different kind of company than I ran.

Biggest Mistake:

I had a major problem dealing with being a public company. As a public company, there are people who track and predict your quarterly revenues. A huge portion of our revenue came from new products. If a product shipped late, this could skew a huge amount of revenue from one quarter to the next one. Missing a quarterly profit goal meant the stock price would slide, demotivating employees.  The right answer is to finish products six months before release, like the film industry does. I never had that luxury. I did try to leave time in the schedule, but products always shipped later than we thought.

Time after time, we would let the street (financial community) know when we thought products would ship, we would spend 100’s of thousands of dollars on marketing, and the product wouldn’t be there. My biggest mistake was sometimes shipping a product I knew wasn’t ready. There were times I folded to the pressure, and shipped a product that I shouldn’t have.  This happened because of all the pressure from lots of directions:
The Street – we had our quarterly revenue goals to hit

Marketing – product slippage sometimes means the marketing runs months before the product is in the stores.  With a game called Outpost, we ran several different campaigns, some a year before the game shipped – because we kept thinking the game was months from shipping (for years)

Budget – late products are also over budget products. If the budget for a game is $2 million, and the team is burning $200,000 per month – a six month delay means an additional $1.2 million on the budget. This may exceed the original profit projection for the game.

Add all this together, and you see why I spent 20 years stressed out.

On those occasions where I shipped a product because of all this pressure — I paid for it later.  I used to always talk about customer acquisition costs. It was how I thought of our business. All customers I fit into one of three categories:

1) People that hadn’t bought from us
2) People that bought from us, and liked us
3) People that bought from us, and had a poor experience

For each game, I would think about what it costs, per unit sold, to reach each of these three offices. Reaching a new buyer might cost $4, an existing buyer $2, and bringing someone back into the family who had bought from us, and had a poor experience, $20. In other words, you can’t make money no matter what you do, attempting to sell products to people who don’t like you.  Obviously, we made a lot more people happy than unhappy – but, I can’t say that our record was perfect. If I had it to do over again, I would not have shipped some products until later, and some I would have never shipped.

Censorship / Violence in Games:

There is no doubt in my mind that people learn from the games they play. It’s tough for me to believe that anyone argues against this.  Sierra didn’t make violent games because I didn’t like them. I did ultimately approve Half-Life, but it was a tough decision, and not one that I would make today (post Columbine).  I saw the lawsuit. I am anti-censorship, but I have very different feelings about what is appropriate for a mature adult, and what is appropriate for a 10, or 13, year old child.

Theoretically, if the rating system is working, games can be published with mature, or violent, content and their distribution restricted to adults. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work. Store clerks don’t check IDs, and many parents don’t care what games their kids play.  I am VERY opposed to censorship. However, I have come to the point where there needs to be some common-sense legislation. The tricky part is who decides what is appropriate, and who defines what is appropriate. 

For instance, It seems clear to me that films such as Shindlers List, or Saving Private Ryan should exist, yet these are just as violent as most computer games. I spent much of my life arguing that telling stories on a computer is just as important as telling them through film, and that the same rules of content, and breadth of content, should apply.  There are important distinctions between violent films, and a game in which the player runs (or drives) from place to place killing everyone in sight. In a film, there is a greater level of abstraction between the viewer and the characters in the film. Great films do make you identify with the characters, but not nearly to the level of a computer game. A great computer game makes the player a character within the game. Done correctly, a computer game becomes a simulation. It’s like a story-based version of Microsoft Flight Simulator.

Just as film works best when there is a “suspension of disbelief”, games work best when you literally become the protagonist in the game. Games are MUCH stronger than film, in that deep down, when watching a film, you know that ultimately the film is going to end the way that it ends. Nothing you can do is going to change the outcome. This is not true with a game. Games can be realistic simulations of synthetic worlds.  Films can, and do, change opinions. Computer games have even more power to do so. If you take a kid, particularly one whose value system is already a little out of whack, and then place them into a simulator (computer game) wherein they are given a gun, and told to shoot everyone in site, and then they are rewarded by both the computer simulation, and their fellow gamers, based on their success as a killer, and then send that kid out into the real world where they are perhaps teased by those around them, you have a VERY dangerous situation.

I do not intend to say that a normal kid can be turned into a killer by a computer game. Most of our value system comes from our parents and our peers. If 99% of what a kid sees/hears is sending the right message, then a violent computer game (or song, or book, or film) is not going to change their lives. On the other hand, if a youth, who was borderline anyhow, finds themselves respected, as the hero in a violent computer simulation, it could easily be the straw that breaks the camels back.

I am not a psychologist, nor am I a politician. I have no idea what a law would look like that I could support. For me, the key issue is the goal of the game or movie. Creators must understand the power they have to shape opinions, and the responsibilty that comes with this. If they reward, or glamorize, indiscriminate killing, then they shouldn’t be surprised when this conduct is repeated on the streets.

Favorite Games:

To this day, my favorite games we did are still: Leisure-Suit Larry (Al Lowe is thinking about doing games again. I hope he does.  I want him to do games so that I can play them!), Space Quest and Phantasmagoria.  I miss Sierra….

The downside of being the boss:

The paperwork never bothered me. It’s not that bad. When you’re small, there isn’t that much, and when you get big, there are people (accountants and lawyers) who do everything for you.  Personally, the part I hated the most was dealing with employees. 99.9% of employees are awesome, 99.9% of the time – but there are always exceptions. People who don’t come to work with the right attitude drive me up the walls.

I don’t want to get into specifics, because it wouldn’t be appropriate, but I’ve been through major trauma dealing with employees.

Examples of things that weren’t that fun:

Union organizing. (The Machinists union wanted to organize our entire staff)

Sexual Harrassment lawsuits – some justified, some that weren’t. Our company had perhaps 50-100 people in a supervisory or management capacity. No matter how well you train them, bad things seem to occasionally happen.

Employees who were unskilled, that were hired well above what they had ever made previously, promoted, paid more – and, then file suit against you for back overtime pay.

Employees who are grumpy, non-competitive and seem to hate you no matter what you do.

Having to fire people who you genuinely like, but who can’t handle their jobs. Especially those with a family.
Not being able to fire people (for litigation risk reasons) who aren’t doing their job, or managers, who don’t understand the need to “prune” the workforce regularly, and government bureaucrats who disagree with the entire concept.

Employees who don’t understand how hard it is to make money. There are people who don’t seem to get it that running a company profitably isn’t easy.

Actually, I wish you hadn’t asked this question. There is no way I can answer it without sounding like a villain. The honest truth is that it can be tough dealing with employees under todays labor laws. I’m not saying that there haven’t been times when employees were mistreated by their employers. Today’s laws exist because of past, and recurring, abuses. I understand why the laws are in place, and that they are a necessary evil.

Generally it wasn’t the laws that bothered me most – it was employees who were “just putting in time”. My goal was to assemble an army of the worlds greatest developers, to build the worlds greatest games. Anyone who didn’t share that vision dragged down the whole effort. Customers can tell when they play a game if the team building it really cared about the game or not. One person who does mediocre work, or who isn’t giving the project their all, can ruin the entire effort. Even in customer support – one person who isn’t as friendly as they should be, could bury the whole company. My commitment was always to the thousands of people who would work for Sierra in the future, and to the millions of customers – not to any one employee.

Once again, let me state: these are the exceptions, not the rule. Most employees are wonderful people, who work HARD for the company, and are team players. I just wish it were unanimous. Headaches dealing with people, are for me, probably a bigger reason why I never want to work again, than because I am enjoying retirement.

On Fan Projects:

As part of the sale of Sierra I gave up all rights to all games, as did Roberta. Neither of us has the right to do anything with any Sierra product – even Kings Quest (which Roberta wrote).  When I ran Sierra, I loved these kinds of projects. I don’t know the people that are running Sierra now, so I don’t know how they feel about them.

Personally, Roberta and I wouldn’t get involved in one, but mostly because of creative issues. I always think that games should be designed by one person. If Roberta were involved in a project, she would want to have total control. It would have to be something that wasn’t connected to any Sierra game (or, they would sue us). With all that said, if she (or I) were to ever do a game again (which I doubt) it would be through some game company assigning us a development team.


My suspicion is that they know about these games, and either don’t want to alienate their own fans, or don’t want to spend the money with lawyers. That said, there is still a chance they will attack the games. You have to protect your trademarks and copyrights, or you can lose them. They may at some point get guidance from their lawyers that they have to attack, whether it makes business sense or not.

I love the idea of fans building games. Sierra could, if it wanted, grant some form of cheap license to the people building the games. Hopefully they’ll consider this.  Vivendi, who owns Sierra, just published the financials for the games business. Sales are WAY DOWN, and they’re losing money. People are being laid off. My guess is that they have much bigger problems to worry about than someone building fan games. I tried a few years ago to contact someone at Vivendi to see if I could help, but was told politely to butt out. The gentleman I spoke with didn’t last 60 days past our meeting, so perhaps the new management would talk to me. I’m not sure who to call…

On Starting A Game Company:

I definitely think it’s the right time to start a game company. The distribution model is changing.

Then: In my day, Sierra and Electronic Arts had a “lock” on distribution. All software was sold through retail, and retailers wouldn’t buy from small companies.

Today: it is starting to be possible to build a company that depends on net-distribution only.

If I were 20 years younger, I’d do it again, and use the net for distribution.


I think it’s very possible for someone with no money to break into the business, if they are willing to work hard.

Build your own game. You don’t really need a publisher. Buying the development kit from Jeff Tunnel’s company, was a good first step (assuming you are a talented programmer). Jeff is awesome. I have to believe his garagegames engine is good enough to build a professional quality game.

Being broke means that you have to work evenings and weekends, while supporting yourself in some other way. Obviously, it would be best if a game company would hire you, but if not – then you have to find a way to build a game without their help.

You can fake the art yourself, or find a friend that is an artist. My guess is that there are artists and musicians everywhere to be found on the net, that also want to break into the business. The website has a want ads section for people looking for team members to do games. Form a small team, and start working on a game.

If you get something fun to play – you should be able to sell it. I just met up with a couple of ex-Sierra guys who are making a fortune selling games from their website ( Online distribution is happening.
On Becoming A Game Designer:

At Sierra, it really was a matter of being “in the right place in the right time”. If market research told us there was a market for a fishing product, and I happened to know someone who fished, you stood a good shot of getting your chance. I usually picked designers based on targeting a demographic for a product, and then looking around for someone who had the pulse of the target market. (a fancy way of saying I identifyed the niche in the market first, and then looked for a person who fit the niche).

Now that I’ve confused you, I’ll tell you what I would do if I were trying to break into the business today:

My sense is that distribution is in the process of changing. In the past 99% of PC product was sold through retail outlets. My guess is that this numbers has dropped significantly, and that 10% or more of PC product is being sold over the internet. Selling games over the internet requires not much more than the ability to build a great game. Artists and programmers can be found who are also trying to break into the business. Check out Garage Games (Jeff Tunnel – formerly from Dynamix). I’d try to assemble a team and build a product – then distribute it free on the web. If people like it you can sell them a sequel, (or more of the same game) or use it as your resume to get an interview at a game company. Nothing speaks louder than success.

In other words, don’t wait for someone to GIVE you a chance. Instead TAKE a chance. Prove yourself – and, perhaps you will make some serious money, or break into the industry, along the way.


The actual plot isn’t as important, as the niche it fits into, and the size of the niche. And, even this is secondary to “how it looks/feels when you see it on screen”. My brother John, who ran marketing for many years at Sierra, used to say that ‘it’s all about WOW value’ – if someone says WOW when they see the screen from 10 feet away, you have them sold. This is not completely true, but it’s close. You need to have three components: a story that intriques the user (characters/plot), WOW value (snazzy graphics, cool/new technology) and an underlying game mechanic that is fun (not sure how to describe this – but, there needs to be a game – it can’t just be pretty pictures).

Check out — it’s Jeff Tunnel’s website (one of the founders of Dynamix, a Sierra family company). Jeff’s company is devoted to empowering game developers. He has (or, had the last time I looked) a bulletin board just for people trying to put together a team to do a game. There were coders, designers, musicians, etc all looking for a chance to build a game.

The Sierra Buildings:

The “redwood building” was built for Sierra. I don’t remember it being as late as 1985, but it may have been. My guess would have been closer to 1982.

Soon after we moved in the company hit hard times, and almost bankrupted. The building was part of the problem. We had huge payments, and couldn’t afford the building. It’s a long story, but we had shifted to doing video game cartridges, and got caught with extra inventory when the market crashed. I even offered the owner of the building 10% (and more) of Sierra if he would give us temporary forgiveness on the rent, which he refused. He made the wrong choice. Anyway — within a couple of years, we turned it around and outgrew the building. 

We then bought 5 acres nearby and built our own building. It looked like an aircraft hangar. 40,000 square feet of metal building – half for manufacturing and half for offices. This is the building that CodeMasters took over when the Oakhurst location was shut down.

Here’s an amazing conclusion to the story: !!!! I just heard that the building was sold to the local phone company, Sierra Telephone. For some reason the phone company decided to enter the online games business and rehired several ex-Sierra people. In the rumor I heard, developers like Chris Iden and Bob Heitman are back in their old offices, with several other ex-Sierra developers, working for a company called Sierra, building online games.


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