‘Round the World and Back Again

“Around the world and back again

You made your favorite computer games in the 80’s and 90’s and then disappeared. Can Ken and Roberta Williams revolutionize the industry again?

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Twenty years ago, the creators of some of history’s most popular adventure games disappeared.

Ken and Roberta Williams were a young married couple when they started a small computer game company together in 1979. Her mom and pop company called Sierra Entertainment published games that defined the point-and-click adventure genre: king quest, space search, gabriel ritter, and Leisure Suit Larry, to name a few. These games were among the first to successfully immerse players in fantasy worlds filled with clever puzzles and engaging characters. Sierra was present at the birth of modern computer gaming, and the Williamses helped shape the path that the industry would take from the 1970’s to the present day.

But by the late ’90s, their Bellevue-based operation became entangled with predatory capitalists. Sierra was acquired by a company involved in financial fraud and its creative founders left. Barred from the industry under a restrictive non-compete clause, Ken and Roberta have spent the last two decades embarking on a real-life adventure of their own, circumnavigating the world on a series of small boats.

Now they are back. And they’ve brought a game that could revolutionize the industry yet again.

“It really touched me,” says Roberta, when reached via satellite on her boat, bobbing near the San Juan Islands 80 miles north of Seattle. She reflects on her work Colossal cave adventure, an early computer game she played in the late ’70s. “That really motivated me to start developing my own game,” she says.

Ken was a programmer doing some accounting work for a children’s hospital when he noticed that someone had installed some games on the hospital’s mainframe. He brought it home to show to his wife who was caring for their second child.

“He said, ‘While I’m at work you can play this game, it looks pretty interesting,'” recalls Roberta. The game was played without a screen; The user typed simple commands into a teletypewriter (a typewriter-like device) and a roll of paper printed out an answer.

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Roberta was immediately fascinated. Colossal cave adventure played like a story – it felt like a book about traveling on a great adventure, exploring dark caves and encountering magical creatures.

A bookworm all her life, Roberta was completely smitten, and when she finished it after getting the maximum score, she searched for similar books. There weren’t any, so she decided she had to make her own.

The early days

The rest, as they say, is history. Her company was then called On-Line Systems, and Roberta’s early games were essentially her opportunity to teach herself narrative computer game design, a practice that had only recently emerged. Mysterious House was a monochrome story inspired by Agatha Christie; Wizard and the Princess, a high-fantasy adventure with color graphics. After being rebranded as Sierra On-Line, the company released titles that quickly became iconic: The Black Cauldron, space searchand search for glory.

By the late ’80s, Sierra On-Line was profitable enough to attract greedy investors. Shareholders pushed for takeover; Ken and Roberta were reluctant but accepted a deal with a company called CUC International. Within a few years, the couple realized that the reorganization meant they were losing control of their company. The discovery of financial fraud at CUC caused further turmoil and the couple decided their involvement in the company had to be ended. They sold Sierra and went into early retirement — or at least what they thought was retirement.

“We were in our early 40s, sold Sierra pretty well and didn’t have to work,” says Roberta. “We were young and we thought, ‘What do we do now?'”

The answer was unexpected boating.

After spending her career dreaming up fantasy adventures, Roberta wanted to embark on a real-life quest. They bought a boat and did a few simple trips around the Pacific Northwest before embarking on something bigger: a voyage across the ocean with a group of fellow sailors. They spent a few years circumnavigating European ports, returning to Seattle, and then making their way to South America, Asia, and the Mediterranean, where they stayed for several years.

Two decades passed during which the couple lived almost entirely in camera. It was a happy life, says Roberta. Then the pandemic struck.

A new project

The lockdown coincided with Roberta feeling a familiar sense of boredom. She was looking for something new and one day her old favorite, Colossal cave adventurepopped up in her head.

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“I couldn’t shake the thought of it,” she says. “It was like that same lightbulb moment when I was about to write my first game.”

She sought out the game’s original designers, Will Crowther and Don Woods, with a suggestion: she wanted to adapt her classic game to modern consoles. They listened to her with pleasure and gave her their blessing.

A lot had changed in the years since Ken and Roberta had been away. They set to work re-acquainting themselves with current technology and were particularly intrigued by the possibilities of virtual reality.

As a consumer technology, VR is still in its infancy. Clumsy and cumbersome, the headsets are not exactly comfortable. Control schemes are inconsistent, graphics are rudimentary. Few titles have garnered widespread attention, and the technology has yet to be mainstreamed. Overall, VR remains tainted with a “nerds only” vibe – not unlike the home computer of the early ’80s.

Ken and Roberta hope their updated version will continue Colossal cave adventure could change that. They’re developing the game for multiple platforms, including Nintendo Switch and PC, but “it’s a perfect game for VR,” says Roberta. The confines of the environment – an underground network of chambers – fit well with the hardware’s current graphical limitations, and it’s easy to invoke appropriate feelings of claustrophobia.

Additionally, this customization is an opportunity to apply gameplay techniques that Roberta has honed over many years. As with Sierra’s most enduring games, the player interacts with the world through a cursor applying “verbs” to the scene. You point to an object and the cursor turns into an eye to indicate that you can “see”; or you switch to a hand to “use” it.

An opportunity to innovate…again

A demo playable at the PAX West game show in Seattle made good use of cursor verb mechanics. Many VR games get bogged down in overdoing dynamic, complex interactions. Yes, you can close your virtual fingers around a virtual can of soda, and that feels cool the first few times, but that’s it fun? A return to point-and-click could refocus VR game design away from technical gimmicks and back to what really matters, which is the fun of the player.

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Another Roberta innovation is an entirely new control scheme based on her twenty years at sea. Motion sickness and balance are common issues in VR gaming, and over the years Ken and Roberta have learned a thing or two about helping people develop their sea legs.

“I do a lot of yoga and I focus a lot on movement, balance and meditation,” she says. “I felt like I was really in tune with how the body works with your inner ear and your brain and all that, and I wasn’t so sure [existing games] were perfectly balanced with the needs of the actual human body.”

The result is indeed unique. Most VR games borrow control schemes from non-VR games; You move around in space by actuating a joystick with your left thumb and look around by actuating a joystick with your right thumb. In contrast, Roberta’s new scheme lets the player adjust the direction of their gaze by swinging their hand from side to side as if manipulating a steering wheel.

“I’ve been told over and over again that this isn’t the standard way of doing this or that,” says Roberta.

When playing other VR games, she says, “I was like, ‘Will anyone want to play an adventure game with this?’ Adventure games last a long time, I hope you will probably play this for weeks. … So I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s wrong with these games in terms of VR and the movement.”

It takes some getting used to, but not much. Steering with a gesture is completely natural, and indeed there were no motion sickness complaints during their demo at PAX. This means players can more easily immerse themselves in the game, solve puzzles, and map strange caves.

Roberta and Ken hope to release the game later this year, although no firm date has been set yet. Could the new Colossal cave adventure Peek into the future of gaming in the same way Mysterious House Make a trajectory in 1980? The Williamses did it once, maybe they’ll do it again.

“I felt like I was caught between an old world and a new world,” says Roberta of her return to game development after a 20-year journey around the world. “I feel like we’re coming full circle.”

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