Classic Computer Magazine Archive ANTIC VOL. 2, NO. 8 / NOVEMBER 1983


Computer Fantasy Comes True
by ROBERT DEWITT Managing Editor

California state route 49 is a special road. From north to south it connects the towns along the veins of gold that caused the rush of 1849. At its southern end you find Coarsegold, still (or again) a bustling western town with a country feeling. Coarsegold is experiencing a new "rush" today, as bright young programmers and other creative hopefuls gravitate there to Join Sierra On-Line - a software development company, no less.

Sierra On-Line is in Coarsegold mainly because of the dreams of Roberta Williams, the diminutive wife of the company's president and founder, Ken Williams. She loves these mountains, and saw the nascent software industry as the steed to carry her there, far from the congestion of the Los Angeles basin where she grew up. She designed a computer adventure game, called Mystery House, which her husband programmed, and it became the first in a line of SierraVision products that now numbers about fifty. All those titles aren't hers, of course, but several are, among them Atari titles such as Wizard and the Princess and Dark Crystal (based on the movie by Jim Henson).

Sierra On-Line has flourished in Coarsegold since moving there in 1980. It now employs 110 people and expects to gross 520 million in 1983 from the sale of products for the ATARI, Apple and IBM computers. ANTIC became interested in Roberta especially because she is a woman succeeding in a man's world. Programmer she is not, nor does she try to be. By her own description, she is a "story-teller," a writer who happens to put her stories in game form; she even resists being called a game designer. The fantastic success of Sierra On-Line parallels the fairy tale aspects of Roberta's own life - that of a dreamy loner drifting towards a conventional future, then rescued by a computer wizard and whisked off to a castle in the far-off mountains. The Williams have two sons, Kenneth Eric and Christopher.

ANTIC: I know that you and your husband were originally from Los Angeles and got involved in software through distribution of some of Scott Adams' products. Then you sold off your distribution business to what became Softsel.

WILLIAMS: Yes. We sold it to a good friend because we needed the money to start On-Line.

A: Did your intention to move to a place like this have anything to do with your decision to stop working in distribution?

W: I think so. In the back of my mind, when I was writing Mystery House, I kept thinking, "This is going to get me to the mountains." I knew that we could be anywhere in this business, as long as UPS is around!

A: Why did you want to go to the mountains? Are you a country girl?

W: Sort of. I grew up in the San Gabriel mountains, in a little town called LaVerne, on a couple of acres of land. Then I got married and we moved to the city, and had apartments and houses. But I never felt at home. I always felt like I wanted to go back.

A: When you were a young girl, were there interests, games or books you read that influenced what you're doing now? That you find coming out in your work?

W: Yes. I hate to say though, because it sounds so dumb: fairy tales. I read the Green Book, the Blue Book, the Brown Book, the Gold Book ...

A: Are they by different authors?

W: I don't even remember. Probably a lot of them are the same old fairy tales, just rewritten. I was also interested in anything that had to do with magic, or fantasy, like the Wizard of 0Z or Alice in Wonderland. I always read a lot and fantasized a lot. I was always a story-teller. I used to tell my friends and my cousins stories, and I used to get in trouble for it.

A: Well, it must be very pleasing to you now to be able to make your living by doing what you've always wanted to do.

W: I don't know what writers or movie producers or directors were like as kids, and I never went to college to learn any of this. But I've always done it, in one form or another. I was a loner as a kid; that's one reason I moved up here. I didn't have a lot of friends, so I had to create my own fantasies, because I didn't like who I was. Not at all.

A: What do you like about yourself now, more than before?

W: I feel that I've grown as a person. I can deal with people; I can talk to them without feeling shy. I know my own mind now; I'm not floundering around in a world in which I don't quite fit. I feel I can create a world to be how I want it to be; and not just in games. I feel that I can have a direct impact on what this industry becomes - and this company. I feel in control.

A: Are you really interested in influencing what this industry becomes?

W: Yes, a lot.

A: Why?

W: My goal is to create the ultimate story. I want to make people so involved that they will feel they're really there. This has never been done with movies, books, or games, but I think that ten to twenty years from now there will be "something" I can create that will provide the ultimate in experiencing a story. I don't know what it will be. But I like the fact that I can change the entertainment media. That excites me.

A: Looking into your crystal ball, ten years down the line, what do you think might be one of the possible mediums for this ultimate kind of storytelling?

W: It would involve a combination of things. It would involve computers, of course, and video. Not computer graphics - video. It would be a game, a story and a movie, all in one. And maybe a book. Right now, with adventure games, you try to get people involved. What you can't do now with a movie or book is talk to it, direct it, or guide it in any way. But you can do that with an adventure game. So it would probably be some sort of movie that you can guide.

A: Do you think this kind of thing could have a dehumanizing or desocializing effect on people?

W: I don't see how. People can't just stop their lives to play games or be involved in stories forever. They have to work. You can't get away from everyday responsibilities. In a way, it might have good effects, because it takes people away from their problems. I don't see how it could hurt.

A: To what extent are you willing to introduce elements into your stores that display the evil or malice in the villain; the other side of the coin?

W: Well, so far my games have been pretty soft. They're not much worse than a Walt Disney movie. Disney movies have bad guys, but the good guys always win. And in my games, there's no gore or blood or anything like that, and the good guys win, or at least I hope they do. You make it hard for the players to win, but you really hope they do, and you give them some sort of positive feedback when they do. It's a classic story; you have to have the good guys vs. the bad guys. There's no way you can get away from that. And people get real satisfaction when they win. It tells them, "See, good always conquers evil."

A: You believe that personally?

W: Uh huh.

A: Are you religious?

W: No.

A: Do you think of yourself as spiritual?

W: No. Just realistic.

A: Do you see your games as a vehicle for expressing social or moral values?

W: Yeah, though I never really thought about it till now. Things I put in my games or stories do reflect, very much so, how I feel in general and how I would solve something, and what I think is right or wrong. I don't have people solving anything in a devious way, or... well, there have been a few instances... where you can break into a house, get something and take it out, but I've always felt very guilty when I do that. I know it bothers kids to do something they've been told by their parents not to do. Then, they'll ask their parents, "Hey, how come I can break into this house? That's not my house." So, you try to think that way. I do, even though I have done it a few times.

A: Do you see children as the primary audience for your games?

W: I don't write for any age group; I write for everybody. I guess they should be at least nine, or be able to read. They should have common sense and creativity. I really think that kids have more creativity than most grownups. It's not the creativity that stops kids; it's just not being able to understand things, but I don't think of any age group or sex. I think of what pleases me. If it makes me happy, then I'm not worried about it at all and I feel pleased with what I did.

A: To what extent do you need to understand computers, to do what you do?

W: I can look inside a computer and not understand a single thing. I don't know where to put the cards or what half the keys do, but I do understand the limitations of a computer. I understand what it can and cannot do. I don't know why; I've just always been able to. I conceive of a game and I know how far I can go with it. I can design it and show it to a programmer, and be told, "You can't do that." Then I'll say, "Yeah, I think we can. Let's think about this." So we sit down, and I always get my way. That's the thing with me - I always push to the limit. I think it's been an advantage not knowing how to program and being designer, because I'm not bogged down by the technicalities.

A: We usually ask our interviewees if they have any advice for young people who are hoping to get involved in software development and other computer occupations. Do you have anything to say about this in general, and do you have anything special to say to girls?.

W: I'm the kind of person who doesn't recommend that anyone get involved with anything they don't feel comfortable with. If you don't like programming, you shouldn't do it, because you won't enjoy or be good at it. However, it is true that the computer industry is the industry of the future. And there are many aspects of the industry besides programming. There's design, which is totally different from programming - totally different. There's marketing. And, of course, we have all the various departments - sales, legal, etc. - just like any other industry. Now, for girls, I would recommend that they at least try to program. Try to get to know the computer and to feel comfortable with it. If it doesn't work out, that's okay; at least you tried.

A: In your work you come up with the creative context of the game, which will then be programmed by other people. You call that writing, designing. Do you ever think, "Gosh, I wish that when I was in high school I had done this better or taken that course or tried this life experience?

W: If I had known what I know now, I would have definitely taken some writing courses.

A: Do you think that might have spoiled your approach?

W: No, it would have made me much better. And I would have taken art and film, because my ultimate goal is to be a film director and producer. But I do the best I can with computer games.

A: You went to school during a period when drugs were used frequently. Did you ever use drugs?

W: No. I smoked cigarettes and I drank (laughter). I was close to starting, though. I started running around with the bad kids. You know, the kids who sat around outside school, and smoked cigarettes, and ditched classes, and went to continuation school. I was very rebellious, but I didn't get into drugs. But, I was very close. And then I met Ken. We were still teenagers and he was very straight, very responsible. He worked from the time he was twelve, and was really good at whatever he did. And I was this teenybopper, had no idea what I was going to do with my life, didn't want to go to college, and didn't want to do anything but party. He's really gotten me away from that kind of attitude. He pulled me out when I was ready to go downhill.

A: Do you think of your life as a fairy-tale?

W: Yes. Well, it has been especially over the last few years. How many people did you know in school who had no ambitions, didn't know what they wanted to do? I never did any homework. I managed to get through school with decent grades, but I never tried. I didn't want to go to college and I didn't want to join anything. I didn't want to participate. I was lazy, basically, very lazy and confused. Then I met Ken, and for the first six years of our marriage I just had kids and took care of the house, and then look what happened to me. I didn't even ask for it, it just came. All of a sudden you discover something that you know how to do, something you never realized before.

A: To a certain extent, the opportunity for you to express your talent has been kind of an artifact of your husband's prowess with computers and the growth of the computer industry itself. Without those two factors having come together in your life, do you think you would be involved in attempting creative work at this stage of your life?

W: No, not at all. When I was a kid, this was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a writer. I used to talk about it a lot. But my teenage years were very bad. When I was a teenager, I changed. Everything had to be "normal." Everything had to be rebellious. And I forgot, I forgot what I wanted. As a kid, I used to talk about being a movie director, or getting into film, or becoming a writer, and then I forgot about it for years and years and years. And then the adventure games brought it back. One night it just hit me and everything came back from when I was a kid.

A: This was before Sierra On-Line. You began to get the notion that you could write a story that could be played on the computer. This was before adventure games had really hit?

W: Yes. In fact, Colossal Cave made my life. At the time, Ken programmed a computer in LA, a big IBM. He used to bring home a terminal every night. The computer had games on it, and one of them was something called Colossal Cave. We played it at home, on the terminal. But, we didn't have a monitor; we used a printer.

A: And then you decided to write Mystery House. How did that come together? Did you say, "Gee I could do that?"

W: Yeah, that's what I said.

A: Do you think of your style and techniques as proprietary business information? Trade secrets?

W: No, I'm not into trade secrets. I'm not like that. But a lot of people in this industry are. Too many. They just won't tell you what they're doing. That's one reason I don't really know what they do. And I'd tell them - in fact, I have told them. But as far as programming techniques go, anybody can do it. It's nothing special. The specialness comes from the stories I make up, and nobody can do that but me. They can do it their way, but nobody can do it my way.

A: Frogger has been a phenomenal seller, on the top of the Softsel charts for a long time. What do you think it is about Frogger that makes it so popular?

W: It's cute. No "shoot-em-ups." It was one of the first cartoonish-type arcade games, as opposed to the shoot-em-ups. Like Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Popeye, and Congo Bongo. Frogger was one of the first of those cute ones, and that attracted women. I really think women have a lot to do with this.

A: What do you think of the ATARI as a machine? Obviously, you've been in the Apple world for a long time. Do you ever personally use the ATARI, or play your games on it?

W: I like the ATARI better as far as graphics. It's funny, though, that the graphics for adventure games don't look as good on the ATARI as they do on the Apple, but the ATARI graphics are much better than the Apple when it comes to arcade games. And the sound - there's no comparison. As a game machine, ATARI is just much, much better than the Apple.

A: Is there anything that we haven't talked about that comes to mind as being important to you at this time?

W: I want to continue doing what I'm doing and to keep our company going so that I can do what I do, and continue to be innovative. I hope that I don't run out of ideas. The toughest part of my job is to be better each time, and to come up with something new, and to continue challenging people.