The comeback of ‘King’s Quest’ creators Roberta and Ken Williams

Ken Williams wasn’t planning a full return to gaming by the end of 2020, but he did promote his recent book, Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Ends: The Rise and Fall of Sierra On-Line, which documents his perspective on the demise of company he founded.

Observant readers will note that it begins well before the company’s disintegration in the late ’90s following a major sale that sidelined the Williams. It began when Sierra first raised venture capital in the early ’80s and set it on course to respond to those who believed they were backing a technological powerhouse rather than a respected publisher of narrative adventure games.

“Once we accepted venture capital, it became like any other drug,” Ken writes in the book. “No one stops after the first hit. … We brought in a second round of venture capital. I can’t remember why or how much, but it was more money at a significantly better value. We sold a tiny portion of our business to raise a lot of money and allow us to grow even faster.”

When Ken started working on what would become Colossal Cave 3D Adventure, it was something of a return to an early pastime – learning newer technologies and experimenting with game development for game development’s sake. There was no board, no society. Ken has been retired speaking at online events like the Vintage Computer Federation East Festival or VCFEast to promote his book, which he self-published and says sold about 30,000 copies in its first month. In the process, he met an unlikely collaborator.

Marcus Mera is not a game developer. He is a jeweler and collector of retro computer goods by trade. He happened to be presenting at VCFEast, where he was giving a talk on the original 1984 King’s Quest. For his part, Mera had no intentions of working in the gaming industry. After all, he used computer software to make rings, not interactive adventures. But that changed when he met a hero.

Ken and Roberta had left the company they had founded, and over the next two decades the reasons for their absence had become the stuff of myth. Were they so disillusioned with the sale of their company and the drama that followed that games were pretty much dead to them?

Not necessarily. Turns out someone just had to ask her back.

“I happened to be the guy who was there at the right time,” says Mera, 47. “Probably ignorance is bliss. Little did I know they didn’t want to make a game and people were begging them to come back. So this ignorance that I wasn’t in the industry didn’t deter me from saying, “Hey Ken, wouldn’t it be great if you made a comeback?” When he found out I was an artist, he said: ‘Hey Marcus, I’ll get back to you in a few days.’ A few days later I get a message.”

Glowing mushrooms in a scene from Colossal Cave 3D Adventure."

A scene from Colossal Cave 3D Adventure, the new game by Roberta and Ken Williams.

(Cygnus Entertainment)

One problem: “I’ve never made a game in my life,” says Mera. “I even told Ken that. He said, ‘Have you ever played a game?’ nope He said, “That’s okay, I’ll teach you.” I’m nervous all the time. I think I’ll be fired. I have zero experience. I just kept the ball rolling and was up day and night. I gained 20 kilos. I just sat in front of my computer.”

Ask Ken what it was about Mera that made him want to work with him — to do something he hasn’t done in decades — and he’s nonchalantly confident. Basically, he just liked the guy. “He’s a good speaker,” says Ken.

“I mentioned that I was working on a game and he mentioned that he was an artist,” says Ken. “So we got together and actually made a game together. I was perfectly happy with it. I liked the development budget because it was absolutely zero. But I showed it to Roberta and she said, ‘Well, that looks like it was an absolutely zero game.’ I didn’t think it was bad.”

Roberta interrupts. “He still insists to this day that it was okay,” she says, stretching out the word “okay” for several seconds for comedic effect.

Mera wanted to seize the opportunity. After all, he had just made a short game with Ken. Of course he wanted the world to see it. But even he knew he was missing a key ingredient. “Roberta says, ‘Marcus, I was there, I did that.’ I say, ‘Come on Roberta, let’s play a game!’ She would look over Ken’s shoulder and make comments, and Ken would say, ‘You’re either all in or you’re not in.’ [I]It wasn’t a quick process.”

It’s been six months.

Mera knew the tide was about to turn when he and Ken showed Roberta a scene for the game with some midgets. Roberta had immediate feedback on how the dwarves should be redrawn. After significantly updating the scene — but still not touching the midgets — Ken showed Roberta the moment. She didn’t miss a beat. “All I could hear was, ‘Why wasn’t the dwarf changed?'”

A man and a woman sit on some rocks and look at an old laptop, behind a lake and trees.

Ken and Roberta Williams, seen in an undated promotional photo, have shunned the games industry for more than two decades after leaving the company they founded, Sierra On-Line.

(John Storey)

“It was all Marcus’ fault,” says Roberta. “He kept saying to Ken, ‘You have to include Roberta.’ Ken would tell him to be careful what you wish for. Ken kind of didn’t want that because he knew what was going to happen.”

What would happen is that Roberta would want control of the game and its art, which means a lot of what Mera created will be reworked or remade. Mera enjoys a close relationship with the Williamses and has focused on his sales and marketing skills. His passion for the game is indeed contagious, but he recalls being furious when Roberta redesigned the game in her vision.

“It was brutal for me to go through this process of destroying my artwork,” says Mera. “But she wasn’t wrong. I’m very glad she’s back. It’s their game, so I’m okay with that.”

Early builds of the game shown to the media still retained much of the original graphics. Roberta wasn’t entirely pleased that I was shown what she believes to be a rough demo of the game, one that hadn’t yet been fully reworked with the team of about 30 staff that she and Ken would later hire. “I spent a whole day in serious trouble because she was upset that I wanted to show you,” says Ken. “She thinks it’s in a terrible state.”

“Because I know what’s coming,” says Roberta quickly. “The art you’ve seen – we’ve had this art since March – and we’re in the process of polishing the art, improving it, better animation, more animation, more fun – all the fun, glittery stuff that I love. ”

Since “Colossal Cave” is a remake of a mid-’70s text-adventure game, Roberta is careful not to call herself the designer of the project, but rather emphasizes her role as a modern interpreter. “I am the Transmuter,” she says. “I like that word because nobody knows that word.” And yet she also knows that the reinterpretation will be associated with her and compared to her seminal works.

“I’ve spent all these years working on games – my own games,” says Roberta. “If I want to be there, it has to be great. I have a reputation to protect. Even though it’s been around 20 years, that doesn’t mean I’m just not paying attention and not doing my best to make it great. That’s what I do. Ken is doing that now. We’re all in. We jumped in with both feet and arms.” The comeback of ‘King’s Quest’ creators Roberta and Ken Williams

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