From King's Quest to Leisure Suit Larry: A Brief History of Sierra On-Line
If you had a home computer in the 1980s, you probably played at least one adventure game from Sierra On-Line. Here’s a brief history of the company - and the games - that helped define a generation of computer geeks.
In 1979, Roberta Williams’ husband, Ken, a programmer, bought an Apple II. When he wasn’t coding, she was playing early text-based computer games like Colossal Cave Adventure. These early games featured short bits of text to describe the environments the player encountered, and then used a simple verb-noun command system (i.e., “get rock”) to interact with the world. After playing through every game she could find, Roberta convinced Ken to help create Mystery House, a game she had written based on And Then There Were None, an Agatha Christie novel about ten people trapped inside a house with a killer.
But rather than make just another text adventure game, Roberta upped the ante by drawing simple digital pictures of 70 rooms inside the titular mansion. Now, when a player entered a new area, they saw a picture on the top half of the screen, with the normal description and command interface below. It sounds simple by today’s standards, but it was actually the first computer adventure game to have graphics.
The couple sold Mystery House in 1980 in Los Angeles computer stores and via mail order for $24.99. The packaging consisted of a Ziploc baggie containing a 5 1/4" floppy disk and a photocopied instruction manual. Surprisingly, the game became a blockbuster, selling 10,000 copies, a phenomenal amount at the time. So, under Ken's existing business name, On-Line Systems, the couple started creating more games for what they called the Hi-Res Adventure series.
Between 1980 and 1983, the company created six Hi-Res Adventures, including The Wizard and the Princess, the first computer game with color graphics, and their first licensed game based on Jim Henson’s film, The Dark Crystal. However, their most ambitious project was 1982’s Time Zone, consisting of 1,500 areas to explore, spanning over six double-sided floppy disks. Considering most games at the time didn’t even fill a single-sided floppy, Time Zone was a massive game; however, at $99, it wasn’t a massive success. The strong sales of the other Hi-Res games more than made up for it, though.
As their business grew, Ken and Roberta moved in 1982 from L.A. to Oakhurst, California, near Yosemite National Park. They also changed the company’s name to Sierra On-Line to reflect their new base of operations near the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
That same year, Sierra entered into a partnership with IBM, who wanted a game that would show off the capabilities of their forthcoming home computer. Inspired by her love of childhood fairy tales, Roberta wrote King’s Quest, which told the story of Sir Graham, a young knight who must go in search of three treasures that will save the kingdom of Daventry from destruction.
Although they could have used the same graphic-and-text formula of the Hi-Res series, Sierra went above and beyond and instead developed a semi-3-D graphic environment. Players moved the star of the game around the screen using the keyboard arrow keys, and then interacted with the environment with the same verb-noun commands used in text-based games.
Although the idea was revolutionary, it almost went by unnoticed. King’s Quest was written for the IBM PCjr, a computer that TIME called, “one of the biggest flops in the history of computing.” For a variety of reasons, including a high price, poor expandability, and an uncomfortable keyboard, it’s estimated that only 500,000 models were ever sold. And as the computer sunk, it threatened to take King’s Quest down with it. Thankfully, Sierra maintained the rights to the game and scrambled to port it to other systems, like Tandy, Apple II, Atari ST, Amiga, and Commodore, where it found a large and enthusiastic audience.
In all, there were seven sequels to King’s Quest, making it the longest-running and most-successful of Sierra’s game series.
After King’s Quest, Sierra created many “edutainment” games for kids, as well as a video game version of the new Disney animated fairy tale, The Black Cauldron. As they finished development on Black Cauldron, employees Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe wanted to get away from fantasy settings for a change, so they pitched the idea of a sci-fi spoof akin to The Hitchhiker's Guide to Galaxy. The collaboration of the self-dubbed “Two Guys From Andromeda” became 1986’s Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter.
Space Quest follows Roger Wilco, a janitor aboard an interstellar spaceship (his name is borrowed from the abbreviation of the radio communication, “Roger, Will Comply”). When Roger stumbles out of the broom closet where he’d been napping, he discovers he’s the only surviving member of the crew – the rest were killed by the evil aliens, the Sariens. Now it’s up to him to prevent the destruction of his home planet of Xenon at the hands of Sarien leader, Sludge Vohaul.
The game was filled with humor, including sly references to famous sci-fi franchises, most of the puzzles had funny solutions, and even dying in the game was good for a laugh. Unfortunately, not everyone got the joke. For example, Sierra was sued by Toys R Us because a store in the game was called Droids R Us. Even the sharp dressed men of ZZ Top didn’t appreciate their pixelated likenesses as the house band at a saloon (the other band in the bar, the Blues Brothers, apparently didn’t mind). When Sierra remade Space Quest in 1991 with updated sound and graphics, they changed the store name to Droids B Us. However, despite the suit, ZZ Top was still in early versions of the remake, though they were later replaced with an alien band.
Space Quest became a huge hit, selling over 100,000 copies, and spawned five sequels. If you were one of the many who loved the series, you might be interested to know that The Two Guys have recently reunited and are working on another spoof sci-fi adventure game together.
Leisure Suit Larry
The comedy in Space Quest was clearly influenced by films like Blazing Saddles and Airplane!, but it never had any of the more adult humor that peppered those satires. That kind of crude-but-not-too-crude humor was reserved for 1987’s Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards. The game starred loveable loser Larry Laffer, and the whole point of the game – and its five official sequels – was to help Larry get lucky.
For many people at the time, the idea of a video game for grown-ups was quite novel. However, LSL was actually inspired by an earlier Sierra game from 1981 called Softporn Adventure. The text-only game put the player on a similar quest as Larry and featured much of the same bathroom humor and none-too-subtle double-entendres. In fact, some of Softporn’s jokes and scenarios were recycled for LSL by series creator Al Lowe.
Sierra released Leisure Suit Larry in 1987 without fanfare in an effort to avoid any bad publicity. Still, many retailers refused to carry the game because of its subject matter. But thanks to good word of mouth, the game sold over 250,000 copies in its first year, and was named one of the best games of 1988 by the Software Publishers Association. Sierra noticed a strange anomaly in its sales figures – they’d sold more hint books for the game than they had copies of the game. This led Larry to receive the unofficial title of the Most Pirated Game Ever.
Proving you can’t keep a good man down, Larry is making a comeback thanks to Kickstarter. Al Lowe has teamed up with Replay Games to bring you Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards Reloaded, a remake of the original game for PC, Mac, and tablets.
Police Quest debuted in 1987 and spawned two direct sequels. Created by former police officer Jim Walls, the game was a realistic crime drama with many puzzles that could only be solved if the player used proper police procedures. This reportedly led to the game’s use as a training tool in some police departments. The series later morphed into Daryl F. Gates’ Police Quest: SWAT after the former LAPD Chief signed on as a consultant, and moved away from puzzles to more action-oriented gameplay.
Author Jane Jensen cut her teeth on King’s Quest VI before taking the reins on Gabriel Knight. The game followed Knight, a demon hunter, investigating a series of murders in New Orleans with a paranormal element. The game won quite a few Best Of awards in 1994 and continued with two sequels in 1995 and 1999. Jensen has since started her own game studio and is very close to having a successful Kickstarter campaign to produce a new series of adventure games in the same vein as Gabriel Knight.
Roberta Williams ventured into Gothic horror with 1995’s Phantasmagoria. The game used real actors performing over computer generated backgrounds, and included video cutscenes, some of which featured controversial moments of graphic violence and an implied rape. As a result, many retailers refused to sell the game and it was actually banned in Australia. Despite this, it sold over 1 million copies, making it the best-selling Sierra game ever, and inspired a sequel, Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh. Roberta has also called it the game she is most proud of in her career.
Quest for Glory was a five-game series that added role-playing elements to the signature Sierra adventure game, to offer clever takes on the tropes of the fantasy genre. The series gave the player the choice to be any one of three characters, whose style of play would have an impact on the final outcome of the game.
End of an Era
After 15 years creating influential games, Sierra On-Line was purchased by CUC International in 1996 for a reported $1.6 billion. By 1999, they were no longer creating games, but simply published them for small, independent studios. For about the next decade, the company would be bought and sold many times before finally landing with Activision, which shuttered Sierra in 2008, bringing an end to a truly remarkable era in computer games.
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Did you have a favorite Sierra On-Line game back in the day?