Where are they now? - Ken Williams


Ken Williams - Founder of Sierra On-Line

For today's "Where are they now?" I've decided to feature one of Al Lowe's colleagues at Sierra (considering Al Lowe featured last week). Today's individual is not just any colleague though, he happens to be the founder of one of my favourite game development studios, Sierra On-Line. I'm of course talking about Ken Williams who was Chairman and CEO of Sierra On-Line until 1996 when it was finally bought out by CUC International (and became an entirely different kind of Sierra with his departure). So where did Ken originally hail from anyway?

Ken Williams was born in Evansville, Indiana back in 1954. His father, a T.V. repairman, eventually moved to California and Ken ended up growing up in Pomona, California. Ken attended Pomona's campus of California Polytechnic and majored in Physics. He also met his future wife there, Roberta (Heuer) Williams, at the age of 16. They married just before his 18th birthday and eventually had two sons: D.J born in 1973 and Chris in 1979.

Since Roberta became a parent during college, Ken wanted to find a new job fast. He attended a 9 month programming trade school called Control Data Institute in Los Angeles and graduated top of his class. After graduation, Ken had several programming jobs after that but the turning point in his career was when he first purchased an Apple II. Ken originally wanted to write a Fortran compiler with some help from some part-time programmers but Roberta had other plans. She recently played a game called Adventure (aka Colossal Cave Adventure) by William Crowther and Don Woods and thought it would be a neat idea if you could make a similar game but with graphics - this game would be later known as Mystery House (1980), one of the first adventure games ever to include graphics. On-Line Systems was founded that same year and would be renamed Sierra On-Line in 1982.

Blue leaflet that was bundled with Mystery House

Ken would work on several games in different capacities for the many years he was at Sierra. Obviously during his early years with the company in the 1980s, he was still doing a lot of the programming on games such as King's Quest II, Space Quest I, The Black Cauldron, Police Quest and Leisure Suit Larry 1. He eventually did a lot of work as an Executive Producer especially during the late 80s and early 90s (when most of my favourite Sierra adventure games were made).

All good things must come to an end though and in 1996 Ken Williams retired when Sierra was sold off to CUC International. Sierra was never the same after Ken's departure but it managed to survive in one form or another until 2008 when Sierra as a brand name ceased to exist. Ownership of Sierra's IP is now held by Activision Blizzard.

Ken has been retired for well over a decade now and has spent a lot of his time sailing around the world with Roberta in their own yacht. He's written about their exploits via his blog and also in a couple of books. In 2003, he started the SierraGamers website which has a vast collection of information about the company including photos, Sierra alumni profiles and a forum. He also now runs a business called TalkSpot which develops custom websites.

In terms of game development though, has Ken been up to much and will he ever come out of retirement to do more games? It's hard to tell since information about him and his game designer wife, Roberta, is hard to come by - even on Ken's own SierraGamers site (since it doesn't look like he's updated or posted to it in a few years).

Chris, Roberta and Ken Williams

In 2011, Ken and Roberta helped their son Chris (who was a lead engineer at KingX Studios at the time) out in asking the SierraGamers community if anyone wanted to test a new Facebook game called Odd Manor. Since then, Ken has also been a Kickstarter backer and vocal supporter for games in development by Sierra alumni such as SpaceVenture, Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption and Precinct (which was unfortunately cancelled).

With respect to their opinions on future game development, while they were pretty dismissive of the idea earlier on in retirement, I did come across these couple of paragraphs on Ken's bio page at SierraGamers:

[Roberta] says she will consider coming back to the industry when adventure games start selling again.

I'm less optimistic. I do believe there's room for an adventure game to succeed, but only if it does something new.

If you ask me, there's a huge revival in adventure games at the moment, at least with respect to the indie scene, not to mention the Kickstarter projects by Sierra alumni. The only problem though is if Ken still believes that "the old style games are best left in the past" since that's pretty much what's been going on. How good would it be to see Ken and Roberta team up again to make a computer game though? In fact I'm pretty sure if they started a Kickstarter project they'd be even more successful than their peers thanks to the popularity of the King's Quest series. We can always hope.

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