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

Ken Williams in late 2020 wasn’t planning a full return to the gaming industry yet, but he was promoting his recently released book, “Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings: The Rise and Fall of Sierra Online,” which documents your perspective. to the disappearance of the company he founded.

Astute readers will note that it begins well before the company’s breakup in the late 1990s after a major sale that sidelined the Williamses. It started when Sierra first took venture capital money in the early ’80s, putting it in the way of responding to those who believed they were backing a tech powerhouse rather than a respected publisher of narrative-focused 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 don’t remember why or how much, but it was more money at a significantly higher valuation. We sold a small part of our company to make a lot of money, which allowed us to grow even faster.”

When Ken started working on what would become “Colossal Cave 3D Adventure”, it was kind of a return to an early hobby: learning newer technologies and experimenting with making games for the sake of making games. There was no meeting, there was no company. Ken was on a retirement circuit of speaking engagements at online events like the Vintage Computer Federation East Festival, or VCF East, to help promote his book, which he self-published and which he says sold approximately 30,000 copies in its first month. It was then that he met an unlikely collaborator.

Marcus Mera is not a game developer. He is a jeweler by trade and a collector of retro computer items. He just so happened to be presenting at VCFEast, where he was giving a talk on the original “King’s Quest” from 1984. For his part, Mera had no plans to work in the video game industry. After all, he used computer software to create rings, not interactive adventures. But that changed when he met a hero.

Ken and Roberta had left the company they founded, and in the two decades that followed, the reasons for their absence had become a myth. Had they gotten so disillusioned with the sale of their company and the ensuing drama that gaming was more or less dead to them?

Not necessarily. Turns out someone needed to ask them again.

“Turns out I was the guy who was there at the right time,” says Mera, 47. “Ignorance is probably bliss. She didn’t know they didn’t want to make a game and people were begging them to come back. So the ignorance that I wasn’t in the industry didn’t scare me away from saying, ‘Hey, Ken, wouldn’t it be great if you came back?’ When she found out I was an artist, she was like, ‘Hi Marcus, I’ll get back to you in a few days.’ A few days later I get a message.”

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

(Cygnus Entertainment)

One problem: “I’ve never made a game before in my life,” says Mera. “I even said that to Ken. He said, ‘Have you ever made a game before?’ no. He said, ‘Okay, I’ll teach you.’ I am nervous all the time. I’m thinking they’re going to fire me. I have zero experience. I kept the ball rolling and was up day and night. I gained 20 pounds. I was sitting in front of my computer.”

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

“I mentioned that I was working on a game and he mentioned that he was an artist,” says Ken. “So we partnered up and actually built 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, it looks like it was absolutely zero game.’ I didn’t think it was bad.”

Robert interrupts. “He insists, to this day, he was fine,” he says, stretching out the word “fine” for several seconds for comedic effect.

Mera wanted to take the opportunity. After all, she had just created a short game with Ken. Of course she wanted the world to see it. But even he knew that she was missing a key ingredient. “Roberta says, ‘Marcus, I’ve been there, I’ve done that.’ I’m like, ‘Come on, Roberta, let’s make a game!’ She was looking over Ken’s shoulder and making comments, and Ken was like, ‘You either go all in or you don’t go.’ [I]It wasn’t a quick process.”

It was six months.

Mera knew the tide was starting to turn when he and Ken showed Roberta a scene from the game involving some dwarfs. Roberta got instant feedback on how the dwarfs should be redrawn. After significantly updating the scene, but still not touching the dwarfs, Ken showed Roberta the moment. She didn’t miss a beat. “All I could hear was: ‘Why hasn’t the dwarf been changed?'”

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

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

(John Floor)

“This was all Marcus’ fault,” says Roberta. “I kept telling Ken, ‘You have to get Roberta involved.’ Ken would tell her to be careful what she wishes for. Ken didn’t want to know that would happen because he knew what would happen.”

What would happen is that Roberta would want to control the game and its art, meaning that much of what Mera created would be revamped or remade. Mera enjoys a close relationship with the Williamses and has focused on her experience in sales and marketing. Her passion for the game is really contagious, but she remembers that she got irritated when Roberta remade the game in her vision.

“It was brutal for me to go through that process of seeing my artwork get destroyed,” says Mera. But she was not wrong. I am very happy that she is back. It’s her game, so I’m fine with that.”

The first versions of the game that were shown to the media still included much of the original artwork. Roberta wasn’t all that happy about being shown what she considers to be a rough demo of the game, one that hadn’t been completely revamped with the 30 or so employee team that she and Ken would hire. “I spent a whole day in serious trouble because she was upset that she was going to let you see it,” says Ken. “She regards it in a horrible way.”

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

Since “Colossal Cave” is a remake of a mid-1970s text adventure game, Roberta is careful not to credit herself as the project’s designer, emphasizing her role as a more modern performer. “I am the transmuter,” she says. “I like that word because no one knows it.” And yet, she also knows that her reinvention will be associated with her and compared to her iconic works.

“I spent all those years working on games, my own games,” says Roberta. “If I’m going to be involved, it has to be great. I have a reputation to protect. Even though it’s been 20 years or so, that doesn’t mean I’m just not going to pay attention and try my best to make it great. That’s what I’m doing. That’s what Ken is doing now. We are all inside. We have jumped with both feet and arms.”


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