For the upcoming month of February, I decided to do something different: I decided to do a developer month, in which first I do a historical retrospective of a legendary retro developer and then review games of said developer for the reminder of the month.
And this month, I chose the company responsible for creating one of my favorite game genres, the Graphic Adventure. I’m speaking, of course, about Sierra.
Sierra begun its existence as On-Line Systems, funded in 1979 by Ken and Roberta Williams. Its initial objective was to create and develop software for the new Apple II computer. But then, Roberta Williams, a fan of text adventures, wanted to use the capabilities of the Apple II to bring graphics to text adventure games, which lead to her creating Mystery House in 1980, the first of the Hi-Res Adventure series, which also include: Mission Asteroid, Wizard and the Princess (also known as Adventure in Serenia), Cranston Manor, Ulysses and the Golden Fleece, Time Zone and The Dark Crystal (based on the Jim Henson’s fantasy movie).
Dawn of the Quests
In 1982, On-Line Systems changed its name to Sierra On-Line and created their iconic logo, which was based in Half Dome, a famous landmark in the Yosemite National Park in California.
In 1983, IBM contacted Sierra and proposed them to create a game for their new computer, the PCjr. IBM would fund the development, royalties and advertisement and Sierra would simply make the game. The Williams took full advantage of the PCjr’s capabilities and developed the Adventure Game Interpreter (AGI) engine, which would become the preferred engine of the first generation of the Quest series.
In the summer of 1984, Sierra and IBM released King’s Quest, the game that defined the graphic adventure genre. But due to the lack of success of the PCjr, the game didn’t originally sell well. But later that year, Tandy Corporation released the Tandy 1000 computer and Sierra decided to try their luck with this new superior computer (along with standard PCs and the Apple II) with an updated version of the game. Both were an immediate success that begun Sierra’s saga in computer game history.
Happy with their success, other designers at Sierra made use of the AGI engine to create their own game series:
- The Space Quest series by Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy;
- The Leisure Suit Larry series by Al Lowe;
- The Police Quest series by Jim Walls;
- And many other standalone games.
Revenge of the Remakes
In 1988, Sierra developed a new engine called Sierra’s Creative Interpreter (SCI) and its first version (SCI0) featured EGA 16-color graphics and a new text parser capable of more complex commands. King’s Quest IV, which was already made with the AGI engine, was remade and re-released with this new engine. Also later that year, Corey and Lori Ann Cole designed Quest for Glory (originally known as Hero’s Quest) and begun another famous Quest series.
In 1990, Sierra decided to remake King’s Quest I in this new engine and although it improved vastly in quality, it was poorly received and halted temporarily Sierra’s idea of remaking their classic library.
However, it was during this decade that Sierra would cement their position as a top computer developer with the release of King’s Quest V, the first Sierra title to sell more than 500,000 copies thanks to their improved SCI engine (SCI1), which featured VGA 256-color graphics and a new point-and-click mouse interface.
With this new engine, Sierra decided to remake some of their most famous classic titles and this time, they were all well received.
Top of the Mountain
In May 6, 1991, Sierra launched the world’s first game-only online environment, The Sierra Network. It would be later bought in 1994 by AT&T and renamed the ImagiNation Network and it would become instrumental in developing the first MMORPG titles.
Also during the 90s, Sierra would continue to improve their SCI engine and release Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, one of their most critically acclaimed titles. They would also release edutainment titles, like the Castle of Dr. Brain.
Sierra would fully embrace the CD-ROM and the new graphical and sound cards by adding better animation and voice-over in their games.
At the middle of the decade, Sierra would grow so much, that they were forced to create divisions within the company and publish games developed by other companies, like Dynamix and Coktel Vision.
In 1995, Sierra would release perhaps their most ambitious project at the time, Phantasmagoria, a FMV horror graphic adventure. Although receiving mixed reviews, Roberta Williams would later say in an interview that it was her personal favorite game.
The higher they get…
In 1996, CUC International would buy Sierra at approximately $1.5 billion. Ken Williams stepped down from CEO of Sierra and became vice-president of CUC. But unfortunately, both he and Roberta left the company a year later.
CUC would consolidate all their software companies (in which Sierra, Blizzard and others were a part of) into a single company called CUC Software Inc.
In 1997, CUC would merge with HFS Incorporated into the Cendant Corporation. A year later, they would divide Sierra into 4 sub-divisions: Sierra Attractions, Sierra Home, Sierra Sports and Sierra Studios.
Also in 1997, Sierra would release Diablo: Hellfire by Synergistic Software and in 1998, Half-Life by Valve.
…the harder they fall
But in March 1998, CUC was involved in a massive accounting fraud and Cendant was forced to sell Sierra to Havas S.A. and became part of Havas Interactive, which prompted a heavy reorganization in 1999, which led to several cutbacks and layoffs (including those of Al Lowe and Scott Murphy). The reorganization also led to some studios’ shutdown and the cancellation of several promising projects.
Sierra was forced to become more of a game publisher than developer, but it was still able to release Homeworld by Relic Entertainment in September 1999, which garnered critical acclaim.
In June 2000, Havas was merged with other companies into Vivendi Universal, which unfortunately led to more restructuring and layoffs.
In 2002, Sierra On-Line changed its name to Sierra Entertainment Inc. and along with High Voltage Software, released Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude without Al Lowe’s involvement. It received mixed to negative reviews by the critics and gamers alike.
But later that year, Sierra would fall back to the good graces of the gamers with the release of Homeworld 2. But that would be Sierra’s only good grace, because the mediocre quality of its titles at the time led to another restructuring and relocation by Vivendi.
It all came to an end when in 2007 Vivendi Games (of which Sierra was part of) would merge with Activision. But Activision wasn’t interested in funding Sierra and closed both Vivendi Games and Sierra for a possible sale.
The King’s Return
In August 7, 2014, Sierra’s website (which redirected to Activision’s website), was updated with a new logo and a message that said more was going to be revealed in Gamescon 2014. And precisely then and there, a new Sierra Entertainment was revealed as a new independent-style studio, focusing on releasing a new King’s Quest series along with other new titles as downloadable games through Steam, PlayStation Network and Xbox Live.
So, what did you think of my historical retrospective? Leave your comments below and stay tuned because I plan to post FOUR Sierra reviews during the entire month of February. And I’m going to start with the game that put them on the map.
Until then, keep on playing!
- Sierra Entertainment official website.
- Sierragamers – the official website of Ken and Roberta Williams.
- Al Lowe’s Humor Site.
- The Sierra Help Pages (in case you need help installing your Sierra titles in modern PCs). Might not work on some browsers.