Ken Williams (Sierra)

Supercross 2000 (1999) (Core Programming)
NHL 99 (1998) (Game Logic)
Mortal Kombat 4 (1997) (Zeus Hardware)
Cruis’n USA (1994) (Hardware)
Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards (1987) (Game Coding by)
Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel (1987) (Programming)
The Black Cauldron (1986) (Programming by)
Space Quest: Chapter I – The Sarien Encounter (1986) (Programming)
King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne (1985) (Game Logic)
Hi-Res Adventure #6: The Dark Crystal (1983) (Program development )
Mouskattack (1982) (Programmer)
Hi-Res Adventure #3: Cranston Manor (1981) (By)
Threshold (1981) (by)
Hi-Res Adventure #1: Mystery House (1980) (Written by)
Hi-Res Adventure #2: The Wizard and the Princess (1980) (Lead Programming)
Hi-Res Football (1980) (By)

What did you want to do when you were at school for a career, and what was your first job?

My family life was not perfect. I lived in a tough neighborhood and spent my days dreaming about someday getting rich.
What was your first experience with a computer?

The first computer I ever saw was around 1971 and was actually just a teletype that was connected to a larger computer during some sort of school field trip to a college (UCLA). It had a text based game called Star Wars on it and I was super-impressed. It was love at first sight!
Which was your first computer, was it your favorite computer and why?

My first computer was a TRS-80 from Radio Shack that had virtually no memory and only a cassette drive.

Was this the computer that you first programmed on?

No. I had worked programming mainframe IBM computers professionally.

What was your favourite game you was involved and worst and why?

I’ve never been a computer gamer. I liked our Leisure-Suit Larry and Space Quest games because they would make me laugh, but overall I’ve never played games.

When did you realise you wanted to get into game industry, and how did it happen?

I wanted to start a company to build compilers for personal computers when my wife talked me into programming an adventure game. She did the design and art and I did the coding. The game was an instant hit and we continued making games. I dropped my idea of doing compilers (although, we did release the first assembler for the 6502 computer, named LISA)
Which employees were some of the first who joined the company and are you still in touch?

I don’t remember the names of most of our earliest employees and haven’t kept in touch. My brother John was with us at the beginning, as was Jay Sullivan, an engineer from my past. Al Lowe who did the Leisure-Suit Larry games I still keep in touch with. But, that’s about it from the Sierra days.
Your early game On-Line Systems. Which included Mystery House, This was the first graphic adventure game ever created for the PC Is this true?

Yes. Somewhere I have a letter from Steve Wozniak saying how surprised he was to see color and graphics on the Apple II playing Mystery House.
Did you really hand packed by hand hundreds of copies of Mystery house in plastic clutch-bag fot the shipping?

Yes. Thousands of copies!

What achievements were you most proud of Sierra Online?

Years before anyone had heard of the internet we had multiplayer games going including flight simulators, childrens games, and more. Bill Gates personally tried to buy the technology from us as did AT&T.

What adventure game titles produced by Sierra On-Line game did you consider to be most innovative and why?

My wife’s games (Roberta Williams) were always the most innovative. She tried to pioneer something new with every game. Some of the pioneering had to do with the use of simulated 3-d in games, the use of music and sound, mouse control, animation, point and click user interface, use of live actors, etc. Each of her games tried to push the state of art in technology in some way.

During this time as a game developer and publisher, what hurdles from programming to selling the games in stores did you have?

We dealt with every problem imaginable, from running out of money, to shipping with bugs, to excess returns, to missing quarterly financial results as a public company, litigation, union organizing, products that were terrible, designers who wouldn’t work, coders who lost code. You name it, we failed at it. Luckily, our wins exceeded our fails, and we were a huge success. But it wasn’t all happy times.

During your time as CEO at Sierra in detail say what this use to involve?

I ran Sierra for nearly 20 years. By the time the company was sold we had 1,000 employees and operations in many locations (France, Japan, UK, many places in the US). Managing Sierra was a huge challenge. We were an unusual company in that I was biased towards product development and of our 1,000 employees most were in product development. People outside product development would complain that the engineers got too much attention from me, and it was true. I was laser-focused our products and the people who created them. My goal was to spend 99% of my time with developers. This meant constant travel. I joked that my “job” was to ride on airplanes and it was somewhat true. My average day was spent meeting with product development teams giving feedback on their products.

The company changed its name to Sierra On-Line in 1982. Why was it changed?

There was another company in Los Angeles that had the name “On Line Systems”, so we couldn’t have that name. We had moved the company (which at the time was just Roberta and I) to the Sierra mountains, so it seemed a good idea.

How did your roles change within the company in the early years of its expansion? Who were some of the earliest employees who joined the company?

As the company grew I became more and more corporate. In the early days the company was mostly fun and games. By the time we sold the company it was a “real company” with offices, an HR department, a Legal department, etc. That said, my goal was always to stay close to the product and the customers. I fought being a corporate bureaucrat and understood that what would drive the company’s growth was the time spent with the development groups and marketing groups, and customers, NOT the time spent with the accountants or lawyers. If the customers like the products and we are pioneering new cool stuff, we win.

When Lucas arrived on the market, Sierra had already incensed of lot of things in Adventure game. What was your opinion on their production? How was the competition between the two companies? Were Sierra and Lucas enemies or friends?

We were a little of both. Mostly, I was just impressed. They were doing cool innovative things and I wished them well. By no means were they enemies, but that said they were definitely competition.

In 1991 Sierra Network later called The ImagiNation Network and its sale to AT&T in 1993 had positive and negative feedback. Would please say what was successful and failure with this time?

I never heard anything negative about TSN (The Sierra Network, later renamed to The ImagiNation Network). It was amazing beyond belief and I still haven’t seen a similar system anywhere nearly as well done. Ultimately it failed because AT&T, who had been meant to be a partner, was able to wrest control from Sierra and bog it down with corporate bureaucracy. AT&T wanted to convert TSN to run on the newly evolving Internet, which was a good idea. However, they underestimated the effort that would be required, and poorly managed the transition. There became an us versus them mentality between Sierra and AT&T with TSN caught in the middle. Had we worked together history would have been different and TSN would have been huge. TSN was my greatest success AND my greatest disappointment.

For the game Time Zone, On-Line System settled a hotline to help players. Was it the first time such a system be established?

I don’t know. It may have been…

In 1996 Sierra On-Line was sold to CUC International. Which eventually ended company. What were the factors that led you to make this difficult decision?

We were a public company at the time, meaning that much of the company’s ownership was in the hands of investors. I had a fiduciary responsibility to investors to sell the company if an attractive offer were made. One of our own board members offered to buy the company. The deal made sense for a lot of reasons in addition to the financial aspect. They were trying to aggregate several of our competitors into one mega-company and had their sites on Blizzard, Broderbund, Lucas, Davidson. The idea was to consolidate all of the above and build an unstoppable company.
During your time in the game industries, you mixed with people including Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, Nolan Bushnell. Who had most influenced you and your company?

Sierra had very specific role models. They were Disney and Microsoft. I liked Disney’s ownership of their brands and their ability to create characters that they owned and leverage them across multiple products. Also, Disney’s ability to build a reputation for quality with their customers. From Microsoft and Gates I took their hardball, work hard, business-focused approach to business.
What is in your opinion the differences between a Japanese game market and a Western one?

I haven’t been in the game industry in over 20 years. I’m not sure what today’s world is like. At the time, the two markets were very different, but mostly because of the platform. The PC compatible market didn’t really exist in Japan. There were machines that were semi-compatible, but with all the headache of translating games and then making them compatible, we never really made in money in Japan.

What is, in terms of budget, the most expensive game and project you worked on?

The largest budget would probably have been Phantasmagoria. We built a whole film studio! I forget the budget. That said, I don’t recall the budget. Was it $1 million? $5 million? I think it was closer to $5 million, but I really don’t remember.

Which are your best and worst memories in the industry? What is your highest regret of this time?

I wish I had known then all I known now. My best and worst memory would probably be TSN and the whole AT&T fiasco. Beyond that, the best memory is of the games we did, particularly some of the ones from Dynamix (Incredible Machine, Aces in the Pacific) and from Sierra, things like SWAT which moved adventure games into the simulation category.

How do you view today’s consoles? What about computers?

I don’t think about them and don’t really have an opinion. I saw Kings Quest running on a modern game machine a couple years ago and was blown away by the technology. It made me wish I was back in the business, but .. when I think about getting up and going to work everyday, and staying put instead of traveling, I go, “Nah…”
I enjoy many modern games, but feel the same for the smaller teams of the past. I feel some fun factor has gone in modern games and are more like movie productions; games can be bug ridden now as patches can be made. In the past we didn’t have updates and in-app purchases. What is your view of our industry?

I always said that Sierra was an interactive entertainment company, and that ultimately games would be a tiny percentage of the whole. Had I stayed in, I suspect we’d have been the ones to pioneer things like the Apple Watch or iPhone, or even Netflix. I was excited by anything network connected and streaming. I’m not sure exactly what we’d have done, but I suspect it would have been a much broader vision than just gaming.

Are you a gamer? If yes, can you give a game you particularly liked?

Not at all a gamer.

We heard that you often go to France. IF it is true where exactly?

I love France and speak French (poorly). We have rented a home in France many summers for over 30 years, usually in the Cap Ferrat/Eze/Monaco area, but often in the St Tropez/Ramatuelle area. We had a boat slip at Beaulieu-sur-mer for three years (near Monaco), and just cruised the south of France in 2014 (or, was it 2015?). We’ve already rented a home near Monaco for next summer.

Are you always sailing with the “Sans-souci”?

Yes. Although, it’s actually a power boat, not a sail boat. We have circumnavigated the world and I have published three books on world cruising. I am recognized more for our boating than for Sierra these days…
Would you like to add specific images to your interview?

Not really .. use any images you can find on the web… or my website .. or

Do you have a word for your fans?

Thank you! Sierra was an incredible experience and we couldn’t have done it without you