Introduction to
The Roberta Williams Anthology

by Ken Williams


This is the beginning of the game that so captured my wife, Roberta, that she could not sleep for days while exploring the caves beneath the well. The year was 1979. I was programming an income tax program on a mainframe computer that was 3,000 miles from my Los Angeles home. To access the computer, I had a teletype machine. It was really just a typewriter with a modem and a printer communicating at 100 BPS; but it allowed me to get my work done. Although the teletype was at home solely for work, that didn't stop me from exploring the mainframe for anything else interesting to do.

I will always remember the thrill of discovery when I saw something called Adventure and typed it just to see what would happen. Back typed the computer, "You are standing..." Within minutes I was calling over to Roberta to show her my discovery. No work got done that night.

I don't recall there being any directions to the game. It quickly became obvious that it wanted me to type one or two-word sentences, usually a verb and a noun. When we encountered a bird, FEED BIRD became obvious. Encountering a stream, how could we not ENTER STREAM?

"...The End." Uh oh! What now? Three weeks had passed in what seemed like three minutes. I searched every directory on the mainframe computer for another similar game, but with no luck. I did find some background information on the game, though. It had been programmed by a couple of hackers named Crowther and Woods at MIT. Why the game was programmed and whether they would ever program another was and continues to be a mystery.

Roberta and I were not alone in our fascination with this new style of game. In Florida, Scott and Alexis Adams, another couple, had not only been consumed by Adventure, but they decided to do something about it. They formed the company Adventure International with the goal of creating more adventure games.

Personal computers were just getting started. Most people think of the Apple ][ as the first personal computer, but, there were several other computers before the Apple. Radio Shack had a major success in 1979 with the TRS-80. At the time, computers didn't have floppy drives, so when Scott and Alexis set out to program their own games, they had to type the programs into the TRS-80's memory and then save them on an audio cassette tape. By late 1979, Scott had already programmed five new adventure games for the TRS-80.

All right!! I borrowed a TRS-80 from work and Roberta and I started enjoying Scott's work. Scott really didn't change the style of the game from what had been done in the original adventure. You still typed in two word sentences and the computer typed back your location. The plot had changed but the game was the same.

Roberta loved the games but wondered if they wouldn't be better if, instead of a textual description, there would be a picture. Instead of reading "You are standing in front of a house," why not just show a picture of the house? Anyone who knows Roberta will tell you that, once she sets her mind to something, it's sure to happen.

The Apple ][ was starting ot catch up to the TRS-80. I wanted my own personal computer to start programming a FORTRAN compiler. Roberta thought I should help her program her vision of an adventure game with graphics. Our gift to each other for Christmas 1979 was an Apple ][ computer. For only $2,000, I was able to buy 64k of memory, a floppy disk drive which held almost 85k (!) of data, and a monochrome monitor. Roberta then bought me dinner at a local steak place and proceeded to describe her game idea. There would be a haunted house. You would be trapped overnight with seven other people, one of whom would be a killer. Roberta wanted pictures of every room in the house and would write the story and draw the pictures, if I would write the program. As Roberta talked, she grew more and more excited. Her voice rose in volume. People around us in the restaurant started staring as she depicted for me how each of her characters would die. I was a bit embarrassed; she caught my attention.

For a television show recently, I got to play a little of the game she described that night, Mystery House. The pictures are black-and-white outlines resembling the drawings a six-year-old might make on a chalk board given only a few minutes while the teacher was out of the room. Game play was unchanged from the original Adventure; but, now you could see where you were. The picture even changed, based on what you typed. For instance, if you were looking at the front of the house and said OPEN DOOR, the picture would be completely redrawn with the front door now open. By typing GO DOOR, you would be trapped within the house and the fun would begin.

Driving from store to store, Roberta and I sold Mystery House ourselves. We even called Scott Adams and started selling his games, too, as well as our own. Covering the west coast was easy in those days. You could stop at every computer store west of the Rockies and only have to leave your car eight times.

I doubt Crowther and Woods ever realized that they were creating a whole industry. Another company was born out of MIT at the same time, Infocom. While Roberta and I were expanding the definition of an adventure game to include graphics, Infocom was working on how you communicated with the game.

Instead of simple expressions like OPEN MAILBOX, you could suddenly type in more complex sentences, like OPEN THE MAILBOX AND LOOK INSIDE. TAKE EVERYTHING EXCEPT THE BLUE FEATHER. Infocom hit the big time with games like Zork, Suspended, and Wish Bringer. Thanks to their great game design, the intelligence of their text parser, and packaging innovation, they took the industry by storm. It is tough to believe now, but at one point in 1983, eight of the personal computer industry's hottest selling games were all-text adventures by Infocom.

Adventure Games had gone in two directions. Infocom had done so well with the all-text game that Scott Adams had not been able to compete and left the business. Gamers liked our graphics, but even we had to admit that Infocom had us beat in several areas. Our graphics used so much of the computer's memory that we simply could not do games with the kind of depth of Infocom's.

Then, IBM invented the PCjr. Infocom's success in 1983 and some dumb mistakes at our end (making video game cartridges) almost sent us the way of Scott and Alexis' company. Infocom and Sierra were in such deep financial trouble that both our companies were for sale to just about anyone who could cover our debts. Infocom was sold to ActiVision, but never turned around their lost momentum and ultimately went bankrupt. We, on the other hand, received some very important visitors from Florida: IBM.

"We're coming out with a new computer," the group from IBM said. "It is being designed for the home and will have graphic and sound capabilities unheard of in the industry. We are looking for a game which will show the world how great this computer is and which will show off its new features at their best. We are willing to fund the devlopment, feature the product in our television advertising, and pay royalties."

You can imagine how excited Roberta and I were. We were borrowing on our credit cards to make house payments, and here was a chance to creat the next major evolution of gaming with IBM's money. The catch was that it really had to break new ground. IBM wanted something truly revolutionary.

Roberta and I disagree who came up with the name King's Quest. However, there is no disagreement that everyone who saw her design was blown away. No one believed we could actually program her game. She was asking for a fully animated world with characters that could walk anywhere, even around trees; music (with multiple insturments) that could play at all times; and sound effects. IBM's new machine had a powerful 16-bit processor and an unheard-of 256k of memory. We would be able to perform miracles!

Over a year later, King's Quest started selling and was immediately the industry's hottest game. No other game series has been as steadily successful asKing's Quest; even now, almost ten years later. From 1984 through 1989, there were only minor changes in the technology underlying adventure games. Graphics got better and stories underlying the games improved dramatically. The musical scores also became a lot more professional. For King's Quest IV, Sierra even went to Hollywood to hire composer William Goldstein to perform the score. Many players reported being brought to tears by Bill's Soundtrack during King Graham's collapse at the opening of the game.

In 1989, ten years after playing Adventure, Roberta decided it was time to switch how one communicated with an adventure game. Too frequently players were wasting time trying to figure out what we called something rather than just enjoying the game. If there was a trunk in a room, we would try to recognize a player typing in LOOK IN THE TRUNK, OPEN THE CHEST, OPEN CASE, etc. But, invariably someone would become frustrated because the computer couldn't understand something they felt was completely rational, like LIFT THE LID OF THE BOX. Roberta wanted to find a way to make the players feel more a part of the story by allowing them to manipulate objects in the world directly. In real life, if you want to open a chest, you just reach over and open it. That became her goal. King's Quest V, released in 1990, was the first to show off the no-typing interface and became Sierra's first game to sell a half-million copies.

The first-ever true multimedia game to be shipped on CD-ROM was Sierra's adventure game Mixed-Up Mother Goose. We started development in 1988 but didn't ship until 1990. It is much trickier to develop for CD than we thought it would be. Although you have 600 megabytes of storage, many CD-ROM drives are as slow as a floppy disk drive. Our toughest challenge was the slow seek time of CD-ROM drives. When we wanted a character to speak, there would be an unpredictable delay of one-third to a full second while the CD-ROM "seeked" for the speech data. Our other big problem was trying to synchronize the lips of our animated characters with the speech coming off the CD. There was no way I wanted our products to ship looking like poorly dubbed movies.

Finally, in 1992 I solved the problem by the only other means left to me. A small Seattle-based educational software company named Bright Star had spent nearly a decade wrestling with lip syncing. Their chief techie, Elon Gasper, a genius ex-college professor specializing in linguistics, was building an early reading product called Alphabet Blocks. It featured a talking monkey, Bananas, and a jack-in-the-box named Jack. They look incredibly life-like when they talk. Elon's studies had demonstrated the increased compreension that comes from watching someone's lips while they talk (rather than just listening), and wanted to create a program that would both show and tell children the correct pronunciation for a word.

You may wonder why something as seemingly unimportant as the lips of a computer game character so consumed me. My goal for the adventure game is simple: to make you forget that you are playing a game. Any detail, no matter how small, that makes you remember that you are playing a game is unacceptable. I want the game to feel so real that you begin to believe that you are really a character in the story.

Producing CD-ROM based adventure games turned out to be a bigger project than we ever expected. Mystery House was designed, written, and illustrated by Roberta, while I programmed it in the evenings. In all, it took about three months. On the other hand, King's Quest VI lists around 50 names in the credits, some of whom have spent the last two years on Kings Quest VI.

To do the voices for King's Quest VI CD we went to Hollywood and used professional voice talent, like Robby Benson, to do the voice of Prince Alexander. Robby was the voice of Beast in Disney's Beauty and the Beast. The voice actors were shocked; an average film script contains only 100 pages of double-spaced dialog. Since there isn't really one set plot, our adventure game script consumed over 700 pages. It became a major project just to calm the angry actors down. How, they asked, could it be that their character would fall off a cliff in one scene and be back happily walking along the path for the next line of dialog?

Since our very first adventure, we have continually worked to improve the graphics in our games. Hardware has advanced from black-and-white, to 4-color CGA, to 16 color EGA, to the current 256 color VGA. As the number of colors, screen resolution, processor speed, and and system memory all increase, so does the effort required to create state-of-the-art game graphics.

Roberta was developing two different games at the same time: Kings Quest VII and Phantasmagoria. Each game had very different requirements. King's Quest VII had tons of cel animation à la Disney, and Phantasmagoria required us to build our own film production studio in Oakhurst, California (near Yosemite National Park). Both games had to support high resolution.

Lorelie Shannon, co-designer of King's Quest VII talked with Roberta during their work together on King's Quest VII and these were her thoughts about the game she was working on at the time: "King's Quest VII has very different animation. I would call it feature-film style, which is a different thing for King's Quest. It also features to protagonists, which is different and unique for the series. Both of them happen to be female, which I think is an interesting twist. I think having female protagonists added a softer, more whimsical approach to the game."

Roberta had been wanting to do a horror game for years, but they never panned out. "Horror has to scare you, and it's my opinion that up until a few years ago, the computer just wasn't capable of scaring you. Pixelated characters, tinny music, slow seek times - those don't exactly add up to nail-biting terror! I always just held off until CD-ROMs were faster, and we could use real actors. You need real people for a horror game. The protagonist has to be very real to the person watching the movie, reading the book, or playing the game. The player has to empathize with the character or it isn't going to work. You have to feel for them, to like the, to relate to them. If you don't sort of bond with them, you won't fear for them. If you don't fear for them, you won't get that feeling of horror."

The games herein are offered for their historical value and for your entertainment. As you advance through the saga, you will see the technology and the characters develop simultaneously. The earlier games utilized a "parser interface," while the new games offer the "point-and-click" interface. No matter what form the story assumes, the magic of Roberta's designs lies herein, and is ever present in the lives of those they touch.

And the rest is history.


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