Top 10 Game Publishers of All Time - #2 Sierra

Coming in at #2 for top publisher is Sierra.

Sierra was founded in 1979 as On-Line Systems in California by Ken and Roberta Williams (of King’s Quest fame). Roberta was apparently an avid text adventure fan but she saw potential for the introduction of graphical adventure games. Ken and Roberta worked on their first game called Mystery House for three months and released in 1980. It was the first adventure game to have graphics and it sold approximately 15,000 copies for a total of $167,000 of earnings (not bad in the 1980s). Sierra became known as Sierra On-Line in 1982.

Sierra continued to develop graphic adventure games well into the late 90s which is when the entire genre started to decline. From the late 90s until it ceased to exist around 2008.

Sierra will always be remembered by me as a pioneer in the graphic adventure game genre. Sierra games can basically be split up into two groups, its Quest adventure games of the 80s and 90s which they developed, and then the more recent games where it primarily acted as a publisher in the 90s and 2000s.

The earliest Sierra game I ever played was most likely Space Quest II which was released in 1987 (although Police Quest I would’ve been a close contender, considering it was released the same year). The game was based on the primitive Adventure Game Interpreter (AGI) engine which was actually used to develop the famous King’s Quest I (1984). Basically you typed in commands at the bottom of the screen like “look at broom” or “open door” while you navigated your character across the screen using the arrow keys. Space Quest II, like a lot of Sierra’s adventure games, was infamously difficult and unforgiving. For example, at one point in the game you could be kissed by an alien (that actually looks like it’s from the movie Alien). You actually can continue to play the game after the encounter only to be shocked later in the game when a baby alien bursts out of your chest! As you can see, dying was quite common in Sierra adventure games and also the ability to get stuck later on in the game due to past action or inaction. In fact, it became a joke in Lucasarts’s 1990 adventure, the Secret of Monkey Island when falling of a cliff. A box appears telling the player Guybrush has died with buttons to Restore, Restart or Quit (a common message box in Sierra adventure games). However, being a Lucasarts adventure, Guybrush miraculously bounces back up and explains that he was saved by a rubber tree. Nice to see a bit of friendly rivalry between the two graphic adventure giants of the day!

Other Sierra adventure games I’ve played through the years included:
  • Leisure Suit Larry (1987) – every teenage boy’s wet dream
  • Police Quest I (1987) – the only game series I know of where you can “die” from not checking your tyres or running a red light.
  • Police Quest II (1988) – Unlike its predecessor, Police Quest II had a more well developed (and very 80s) soundtrack
  • Quest for Glory (1989) – One of my favourite games of all time. An awesome adventure/RPG hybrid
  • Space Quest III (1989) – SQIII had substantially better graphics than the previous two games and a soundtrack made by a professional live musician
  • King’s Quest V (1990) – the first King’s Quest game I played and the first games I played on CD
  • Quest for Glory II (1990) – Quest for Glory’s sequel had an Arabian Nights theme and also introduced the concept “honour” which would result in a fourth class being introduced to the series: the paladin
  • Rise of the Dragon (1990) – developed by Dynamix, this cyberpunk adventure wasn’t a “Quest” adventure game per se but it was fun. A lot of the visuals and backdrops remind me of the movie Fifth Element.
  • Police Quest III (1991) – First Police Quest to have VGA graphics and even had Jan Hammer (of Miami Vice fame) working on the soundtrack.
  • Space Quest I VGA (1991) – I actually played the VGA version of Space Quest instead of the original EGA version. It was probably much easier than the original too.
  • Space Quest IV (1991) – This Space Quest was a lot of fun as you got to time travel between different Space Quest games! I fondly remember it parodying games of the time such as Sim Sim (Maxis’s SimCity) and Boom! (Lucasarts’s Loom).
  • King’s Quest VI (1992) – Will be forever remembered for the cheesy duet “Girl in the Tower”, similar to many duets found in Disney cartoons.
  • Quest for Glory III (1992) – the third Quest for Glory was set in an African/Egyptian fantasy setting
  • Police Quest IV (1993) – the first of the Police Quests to not have Sonny Bonds as the protagonist. Also used photo captured images to create the sprites and backgrounds.
  • Gabriel Knight (1993) – This supernatural thriller is one of the best adventure games to be released by Sierra. It was fun to cruise around New Orleans too.
  • Quest for Glory IV (1993) – This was to be the last Quest for Glory game although Sierra caved in to the demands of fans and made a sequel.
  • Space Quest V (1993) – one of my favourite Space Quests – mainly because it takes a lot of material from Star Trek
  • Space Quest VI (1995) – the first Space Quest to be in high-resolution colour. Sadly, also the last official Space Quest
  • Quest for Glory V (1999) – the final Quest for Glory game and you actually got multiple romantic choices (a precursor to the romantic options in Bioware RPGs perhaps?)
  • Gabriel Knight 3 (1999) – The last Sierra adventure game I played. Actually had a couple of really difficult puzzles!

Sierra also developed other games on the side and in later years was mainly involved in publishing. Here is a list of their non-Quest games that I played:

  • Silpheed (1988) – I never actually got that far in this game. Still remember the game’s theme song to this day though…
  • Jones in the Fast Lane (1990) – Basically Sierra’s take on the board game, Game of Life. It even had four player hot-seat!
  • Oil’s Well (1990) – a game similar to Pacman where you had to collect points by directing a pipe underground, although you had to watch out for bugs!
  • Betrayal at Krondor (1993) – an RPG co-developed with fantasy author Raymond E. Feist
  • Lords of Magic (1997)
  • Half-Life (1998) – Revolutionary adventure FPS that introduced the world to Gordon Freeman
  • Half-Life: Opposing Force (1999) – Half-Life expansion where you played Commander Shep… I mean Adrian Shephard.
  • Team Fortress Classic (1999) – don’t be fooled by the name. This is not the original Team Fortress!
  • Arcanum (2001) – Buggy Troika RPG but much respect for the amazing Steampunk fantasy world they created
  • Half-Life: Blue Shift (2001) – Expansion to Half-Life where you got to play as Barney the security guard!
  • Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom (2002) – Fondly remembered for the extremely bad voice acting.
  • SWAT 4 (2005) – a really fun co-op police FPS. Definitely a LAN favourite!

In terms of the future for Sierra franchises, it’s up to Activision as they apparently now own the I.P. Nothing seems to be happening on the Police Quest front and the creators of Quest for Glory are now retired. There are many Space Quest fan games but nothing official seems to be in the pipeline. Jane Jensen is still in the business of making games, having released Gray Matter recently, although it’s not Gabriel Knight.

So the only two series with a future at the moment are Leisure Suit Larry and King’s Quest. Leisure Suit Larry IP is currently owned by Replay Games and apparently they’re asking Al Lowe for input on any future releases – which is a good thing as Al wasn’t too happy what was done in recent Leisure Suit Larry games. The biggest news though is Telltale rebooting the King’s Quest series. If King’s Quest is successful, who knows, maybe it will open the doors to rebooting other classic “Quest” games as well!


  1. Sierra will always be remembered by me as a pioneer in the graphic adventure game genre. Sierra games can basically be split up into two groups, its Quest adventure games of the 80s and 90s which they developed. free guardianship


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